• Fallen VC Ifty Ahmed Claims Former Employer, Oak, Owes Him Tens of Millions of Dollars

    screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-8-44-17-amIn May of last year, Ifty Ahmed was accused by federal regulators of conning his former employer — the venture capital firm, Oak Investment Partners — out of $65 million. Now, Ahmed suggests, Oak is doing the conning, and he says the stakes are even higher.

    You might remember Ahmed’s sensational story. According to his former colleagues, Ahmed — who’d joined Oak in 2004 following short stints as a junior investor with both Goldman Sachs and Fidelity Ventures — began bilking the firm almost immediately. They say he doctored deal documents and faked invoices, among other ways he directed the Norwalk, Conn. firm’s monies into his own personal account.

    The alleged fraud was discovered almost by accident. One month earlier, Ahmed, who lived with his wife and children in Greenwich, Conn., was arrested and criminally charged with insider trading. The reason: Federal prosecutors in Boston said Ahmed had conspired with longtime friend Amit Kanodia to profit from the planned acquisition of Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. by India-based Apollo Tyres, making $1 million from the deal before it was publicly announced. (Kanodia’s wife was Apollo’s general counsel at the time.)

    In a civil lawsuit filed against Ahmed at the time (May 2015), the SEC identified at least nine companies in which Ahmed allegedly manipulated Oak investments for his personal gain, the most egregious of which appeared to be a Hong Kong-based online retailer. According to the SEC, in December 2014, Ahmed convinced his partners to write a $20 million check for a stake in the company when, in reality, it was buying a $2 million stake. Ahmed pocketed the rest, says the SEC.

    With his name in the headlines, Ahmed fled to India, where he was quickly arrested by local authorities for entering the country illegally on an expired passport. (He surrendered his U.S. and Indian passports to U.S. authorities when he was charged with insider training.) In the meantime, the SEC froze all his assets, including his brokerage accounts, his investments in Oak’s funds and various properties, such as a home in Greenwich, and two Park Avenue apartments in New York.

    Now Ahmed, who remains in India — he tells us he’s been prevented from returning to the U.S. by Indian authorities who’ve confiscated all of his documents — is trying to wage a battle of his own. To wit, earlier this month, he filed a motion in a U.S. District Court petitioning the SEC to include all of his “untainted assets currently held by Oak” and to direct them into a “joint untainted frozen bank account.”

    According to Ahmed’s legal filing, these assets include four direct forms of investment and investment-related economic interests associated with his employment with Oak, including carried interest in four funds (Oak Investment Partners X, XI, XII and XIII), in which he says he was significantly vested. Specifically, Ahmed says that when he was terminated from Oak on May 18, 2015, he was fully vested in his Fund X; 91 percent vested in Fund XI; 83 percent vested in the carry of Fund XII; and 54 percent vested in Fund XIII’s carry.

    “With very conservative assumptions, the total value of [Ahmed’s] carried interest across these funds is material and significant — easily in the $60 million range even with very conservative assumptions,” states his motion.

    More here.

  • Brit + Co Raises $20 Million, Shifting Gears in the Process

    Brit MorinBrit + Co, a nearly four-year-old, San Francisco-based lifestyle site dedicated to all things D.I.Y., has often been likened to a next-generation Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

    It’s looking like Udemy, an online educational marketplace taught by experts who are not university professors, may be as apt a comparison.

    Indeed, fueled with $20 million in new Series B funding – from Intel Capital, Liberty Media, and retail veteran Ron Johnson, among others — the company is now planning to shower almost as much effort on educating visitors as it does on entertaining them. We caught up with founder (and former Googler) Brit Morin yesterday to learn more about the company’s evolution. Our chat has been edited for length.

    People think of Brit + Co as a media company. What’s changing?

    For more than three years, we’ve really focused on building out the media arm for a couple of reasons. First, we wanted to do one thing at a time. We also really wanted to build the foundation of the brand and understand from our audience what type of commerce they’d want from us. Although women were into it from an aspirational and inspiration standpoint, they said, ‘I have no idea how to do this,’ and it opened our eyes. So we launched into online education last year and we’ve since sold 15,000 classes and kits [required as part of the classes].

    How many classes versus kits is that?

    We don’t break that out but we have 15 different classes right now, and we’ll have more like 60 to 70 by year end. Our community of makers are the ones teaching the classes. [Editor’s note: classes range from 20 minutes to 60 minutes in length and from $9.99 to $19.99 in price, not including the required kits.]

    How big is the media side of the company at this point?

    On the media side, we now have 12 million visitors every month. We have roughly 100 advertisers, with a 74 percent retention rate. And we’re doing millions in revenue, 99 percent of which is native advertising, meaning our content and videos somehow include the products of our sponsors, though our readers know it’s advertising. We’ll partner with Starbucks for example, and teach you how to make your own coffee ice cream.

    You also just acquired Snapguide, a free iOS app that lets users create and share step-by-step guides. Snapguide had raised $10 million from investors. Are you breaking out how much you paid? As important, what drove the deal?

    We aren’t disclosing price, but there are a number of cool things about Snapguide, including [the ways it helps a third aspect of the business, a year-old, Etsy-like marketplace where people can sell their homemade goods]. If you [as a participant of that marketplace] are creating your own step-by-step guide, you can use a photo or a video or a hybrid [thanks to Snapguide].

    You recently raised $20 million from investors, bringing your total funding to $27.6 million. Will you be in the market again any time soon?

    The way I approach is it: it’s great to be in a position where you don’t have to raise money, but we’re very opportunistic whether it be a great investor or [something else that provides] great option value for the company. We’re not opposed to raising money earlier.

  • Troubled Payday Lender Wonga Still Has a Chance, Insist Insiders

    wonga_2368090bIn the span of seven years, Wonga, a London-based online payday lender, managed to become one of the best known Internet brands in the U.K, with half the buses in London plastered with its ads, along with a good number of soccer players, through Wonga’s sponsorship of the English Premier League team Newcastle United.

    Then, late last week, the company disclosed that it was writing off some $350 million of debt – at a cost of roughly $56 million to the company — following a “voluntary agreement” between the company and the U.K.’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which took over regulation of the consumer finance sector last year. Wonga’s implicit admission: That despite the more than 8,000 pieces of information that its algorithm takes into account when assessing a potential borrower, the company had lent money to people (330,000 of them) it should have declined.

    Andy Haste, an executive chairman who was installed at Wonga in July to rehabilitate the company, said that going forward, the company is committed to lending only to those who can “reasonably afford” a loan. Haste – who was hired into Wonga after it was caught sending bogus letters from nonexistent law firms to customers in arrears – also added that he “agreed with the concerns expressed by the FCA and as a consequence of our discussions we have committed to taking these actions.”

    So when did things go south at Wonga and can the company — which has raised roughly $145 million from Balderton Capital, Accel Partners, Wellcome Trust, Oak Investment Partners, Greylock Partners, Dawn Capital, Meritech Capital Partners, and Index Ventures over the years — ever recover? Unsurprisingly, it depends on who you ask.

    Insiders generally paint a picture of a company that’s been the victim of a changing regulatory environment. When Wonga was launched, its business was lightly regulated by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), which was “not a banking oversight function that had a great deal of power or was intrusive,” observes one investor. Wonga suddenly faced a much more stringent set of checks and balances when the regulation of consumer credit was transferred last year from the OFT to the FCA.

    The FCA’s regulators have been overly harsh, too, insists another source, who suggests its cozy relationships with established players is primarily why the FCA almost immediately began poring over the fine print at Wonga. “Wonga’s business was always regulated,” says the insider. “From the first day, it was licensed; it had its own underwriting agents and was being reviewed by regulators. But becoming such a large brand so quickly was hurting the established banks, which are very influential in a country like the U.K.”

    Still, those who spoke with StrictlyVC also concede that Wonga made plenty of mistakes – not working earlier with financial services authorities, “running the business a lot looser than they should have,” and those threatening debt collection letters among them. (The latter proved an especially big embarrassment to the Church of England, which said it had unwittingly invested in Wonga through an investment fund; it ditched its stake in July.)

    The company’s once-renowned algorithm also appears to have failed the company – a lesson, possibly, to many newer lending companies that believe the sophisticated algorithms they’re developing are akin to impenetrable moats.

    As says one insider: “With algorithms, you always think you’re doing the right thing until the sh_t hits the fan. You ask the guys involved in Long Term Capital Management [the famous hedge fund that collapsed in the late ‘90s] whether they knew there was a ‘black swan’ in their algorithm; they didn’t.”

    The question now is whether Wonga stands any chance of surviving. Haste has said he believes Wonga, which serves 1 million customers, can succeed as a small company. Others close to the company aren’t so sure about its fate. Says one source: “Will Wonga be a big business again? I doubt it because of the damage to their brand reputation.”

    Say another: “If Wonga can afford to pay the penalty and stick around, they have a business to build. Consumers in the U.K. don’t have a lot of other good options. The banks are still doing a sh_tty job.”

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