• First Data Waves Its Flag in Silicon Valley

    first-data-logoSoon after Frank Bisignano joined the payment processing giant First Data as CEO two years ago, Bisignano — who was formerly co-chief operating officer of JPMorgan Chase — set his sights on beefing up the company’s corporate venture firm. Among his first steps: appointing Pete Donat, a longtime VP at First Data (and a VP at both Visa and MasterCard before that), to lead a four-person team that now assesses startups and alerts different unit heads within the 23,000-person company to technologies that might benefit them.

    “Frank really wanted to put extra emphasis on innovation in Silicon Valley,” says Donat, “so we hired a team out here, and we’ve been increasingly active over the last year.”

    “Active” is somewhat subjective. The team saw 300 companies last year and invested in six – not exactly the blistering pace one might expect from the company, which has been owned by KKR since 2007.

    Then again, First Data — which has struggled to find new areas of growth in recent years — is in the middle of a turnaround that involved a $3.5 billion private placement in the company last year, including more capital from KKR.

    Some of the capital freed by that investment is now streaming into startups that the company hopes will help it develop more products. Among them is Booker, a four-year-old, New York-based online booking platform that helps small businesses sell their services online. “It’s a really cool company with lots of great potential and synergies that fit with First Data and our merchant clients,” says Donat. (First Data participated in Booker’s $35 million Series C round last month.)

    That private placement should also help First Data when it comes to acquisitions, which are clearly of interest to the company. Over the last two-and-a-half years, First Data has acquired three startups: the cloud-based payment software developer Clover Network; Perka, a digital rewards-program designer; and the mobile-gift-card company Gyft. It also created Insightics, a business unit it developed with the analytics company Palantir Technologies to glean more insights into customer spending from its merchant customers’ credit-card records.

    As for startups looking to get on First Data’s radar, approaching as a partner seems to be the best course. Donat says his team finds most of its investment opportunities from people who “knock on our door and say, ‘I need one of your capabilities.’” When the team does “go outbound,” he continues, “we go out with a short shopping list and the likelihood of a us doing a deal goes up.”

    Asked if his group might adjust its pace to invest more actively, Donat says 2015 might see “slightly” more deals from the group, but that he doesn’t expect things to “change dramatically. Once we [back] a deal, we want to ensure that we’re supporting that company. We probably overinvest in the amount of time we spend, helping [founders use First Data] to grow their revenue.”

    Either way, Donat notes, First Data is “very committed” to its venture arm and “very committed to growing its presence in the Bay Area.”

    Indeed, he says that when he opened First Data’s office in Palo Alto in early 2013, there were three people in the office. Today, he says, between Gyft, Clover, Insightics, and a separate digital commerce unit, the office is home to more than 100 employees.

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