Singapore’s SalesWhale raises $5.3M to bring AI to sales and marketing teams

SalesWhale, a Singapore-based startup that uses AI to help marketers and salespeople generate leads, has announced a Series A round worth $5.3 million.

The investment is led by Monk’s Hill Ventures — the Southeast Asia-focused firm that led SalesWhale’s seed round in 2017 — with participation from existing backers GREE Ventures, Wavemaker Partners and Y Combinator. That’s right, SalesWhale is one a select few Southeast Asian startups to have been through YC, it graduated back in summer 2016.

SalesWhale — which calls itself “a conversational email marketing platform” — uses AI-powered “bots” to handle email. In this case, its digital workforce is trained for sales leads. That means both covering the menial parts of arranging meetings and coordination, and the more proactive side of engaging old and new leads.

Back when we last wrote about the startup in 2017, it had just half a dozen staff. Fast-forward two years and that number has grown to 28, CEO Gabriel Lim explained in an interview. The company is going after more growth with this Series A money, and Lim expects headcount to jump past 70; SalesWhale is deliberating opening an office in California. That location would be primarily to encourage new business and increase communication and support for existing clients, most of whom are located in the U.S., according to Lim. Other hires will be tasked with increasing integration with third-party platforms, and particularly sales and enterprise services.

The past two years have also seen SalesWhale switch gears and go from targeting startups as customers, to working with mid-market and enterprise firms. SalesWhale’s “hundreds” of customers include recruiter Randstad, educational company General Assembly and enterprise service business Unit4. As it has added greater complexity to its service, so the income has jumped from an initial $39-$99 per seat all those years ago to more than $1,000 per month for enterprise customers.

SalesWhale’s founding team (left to right): Venus Wong, Ethan Lee and Gabriel Lim

While AI is a (genuine) threat to many human jobs, SalesWhale sits on the opposite side of that problem in that it actually helps human employees get more work done. That’s to say that SalesWhale’s service can get stuck into a pile (or spreadsheet) of leads that human staff don’t have time for, begin reaching out, qualifying leads and sending them on to living and breathing colleagues to take forward.

“A lot of potential leads aren’t touched” by existing human teams, Lim reflected.

But when SalesWhale reps do get involved, they are often not recognized as the bots they are.

“Customers are often so convinced they are chatting with a human — who is sending collateral, PDFs and arranging meetings — that they’ll say things like ‘I’d love to come by and visit someday,’ ” Lim joked in an interview.

“Indeed, a lot of times, sales team refer to [SalesWale-powered] sales assistant like they are a real human colleague,” he added.

China’s YY eyes overseas live streaming with $1.45B Bigo buyout

One of China’s top live streaming companies YY bought a stake and obtained the right to purchase a majority share in Bigo last June, and now the other shoe has dropped after YY fully acquired the Singapore-based startup behind live streaming app Bigo Live and short-video service Like.

That’s according to an announcement YY made on Monday, which disclosed it has bought out the remaining 68.3 percent of all the issued and outstanding shares of Bigo for a price tag of about $1.45 billion.

Bigo’s connection to YY is deep-rooted. Li Xueling, a veteran Chinese journalist who’s also known as David Li, founded YY in 2005 well before the heyday of mobile-based live streaming apps. With the intent to bring the China-tested business to overseas markets, Li started Bigo in 2016 to replicate YY’s lucrative revenue model where the platform operator takes a cut whenever viewers reward streamers with virtual gifts, which can be cashed out.

YY racked up $675 million in net revenues and a net income of around $100 million from the fourth quarter of 2018, its latest earnings report shows.

The Bigo buyout is set to be a huge boost to YY’s international ambitions as its home market has been divided up between YY itself, its spin-off Huya that focuses on esports streaming and Huya’s archrival Douyu. Curiously, both Douyu and Huya are backed by Tencent, the company best known for the WeChat messenger but is also China’s largest games publisher.

To bring the domestic rivalry into perspective, Nasdaq-listed YY recorded a monthly mobile user base of 90.4 million in the fourth quarter. Huya, which priced its U.S. initial public offering at $180 million last August, posted a monthly of 50.7 million users from the same period. Douyu hasn’t recently unveiled its size as the company is reportedly mulling to go public in the U.S., but third-party data analytics company QuestMobile put its MAU in December at 43 million.

“We are very excited to announce the completion of the acquisition of Bigo. It is an important milestone for YY group which demonstrated our confidence and commitment to the globalization strategy,” said Li of YY in a statement.

Huya and Douyu have also ventured beyond China for new growth with their respective overseas brands Nimo TV and Nonolive. In its Q4 earnings report, Huya singled out foreign markets as one area of focus in 2019 and its Nimo already enjoys having a powerful ally, Tencent, which signed an agreement last July to help it with gaming content and brand recognition.

nimo tv

Huya’s overseas brand Nimo TV

“In addition to our vigorous domestic growth, we have successfully leveraged our unique business model to enter new overseas markets,” said chief executive Dong Rongjie. “We believe we are delivering long-term value through strategic investments in overseas markets in 2019 and beyond.”

While anchoring in Southeast Asia, Bigo has debuted in over 100 countries worldwide and been in the top ten of Apple’s app store not just in neighboring countries like Vietnam and Cambodia but also in Paraguay, Yeman and Angola, according to data collected by app tracking service App Annie. Growth in India has been particularly strong this year as the country captured 32 percent of Bigo’s 11 million new Android users who downloaded the app via Google Play between January and February, according to data provided by SensorTower.

Li estimated in 2017 that Bigo was generating an annual revenue of $300 million at the time. Bigo claims 200 million registered users to date with MAUs reaching almost 37 million worldwide. Its popularity has, however, gone hand in hand with its reputation for hosting offensive content, but the startup has assured it deploys resources to closely screen content. Back in China, YY, Huya, Douyu and the likes are constantly grappling with the government’s tightening grip over online information, which puts the burden on media companies to keep a robust content monitoring team to not only rid illegal videos but also parse the country’s opaque definition of what’s considered “inappropriate”.

Update (March 5, 2019, 13:00pm): Added details on Bigo’s growth and Huya’s overseas expansion

Sequoia goes after early-stage with an accelerator program in India and Southeast Asia

Sequoia India is going deep into early-stage investing after it announced an accelerator program, Surge, which is focused on fledging startups in India and Southeast Asia, the two regions that it covers.

It’s been nearly six months since Sequoia India closed its newest $695 million fund — its fifth since its establishment 12 years ago — and with over 200 deals under its belt, it is going earlier than ever before. The Surge program is designed to work with a mix of companies; that could include founders with just an idea, to those at pre-launch or pre-seed, businesses with an existing product-market fit or even startups intending to pivot, Sequoia India managing director Shailendra Singh told TechCrunch.

“It’s a bold attempt to try to create a better program for seed to Series A,” Singh said in an interview. “We think founders are underserved. There is quality early-stage talent but we are trying to find a way to serve them better.”

Singh explained that the program is a result of extensive research. He said Sequoia India talked to startups, founders and investors, and that a series of Twitter polls he conducted last year show founders in India and Southeast Asia are too frequently under-capitalized, over-diluted and forced to spend too much time on the fundraising trail.

“We decided there is a better way,” Singh said.

So what is the Sequoia India solution?

Surge is aiming to recruit 10-20 companies per batch, with two cohorts running each year for four months each. Perhaps the most notable feature is that selected companies will receive a $1.5 million investment from Sequoia, with the option to raise more from the firm and other co-investors in a final “UpSurge” demo week that concludes the program. Participants will, however, need to pay a “program fee” although that is being waived for the first cohort.

On its website, the firm describes Surge as being designed to give founders an “unfair advantage, right out of the gate.”

That first program is scheduled to run in March and applications are open now, although Sequoia has already picked a small selection for the first program. While the focus is local startups, China-based startups looking at India and Southeast Asia and U.S. startups seeking an Asia will also be considered, the firm said.

Singh said equity will be negotiated on a company-by-company basis, but he anticipates that valuations will be will be in the range of “high single-digit to high-teens” pre-money. There’s no obligation for a Sequoia follow-on, and Singh stressed that a “curated” selection of investors will be invested to invest in the post-program round and even alongside the initial $1.5 million check.

Shailendra Singh, Sequoia India managing director

The program is quite unusual in being globally distributed. That’s to say that it is split into five ‘modules,’ each of which is hosted in a different city which taps into Sequoia’s global presence. That’ll include Singapore, China, India and Silicon Valley. Singh said each module will require founder presence for a week, when they will work together with Sequoia — including the firm’s AMP program — Surge mentors and others, before taking the learnings back to their company for the remainder of the month. The only exception is the final month, which will include an additional week for the demo segment.

Sequoia India has tapped its portfolio companies and other Sequoia investees to pull an initial list of mentors that include Nadiem Makarim (Go-Jek), Rajan Ananadan (Google), Byju Raveendran (Byju’s), Neeraj Arora (WhatsApp) and Kunal Shah (Freecharge and now Cred). Singh said more will be added after the public launch.

He added that Sequoia India is hiring dedicated Surge staff to work exclusively on the program. For now, the budget for the program will come from the India fund but, in the long term, Singh said a dedicated Surge fund could be created. That could be necessary given the potential costs from the program.

The focus is fairly vertical agnostic, Sequoia said, with a focus on the teams behind companies.

“The single biggest focus is on being founder-centric,” Singh told TechCrunch. “We want to assemble a group of founders who are quite special. We expect founders to learn a lot from each other.”

When I put it to Singh that Sequoia’s move into early stage puts it into competition with the very up-stream, seed investors that it works with to get Series A deal flow, he argued that Sequoia is already very present in that segment.

Pointing to a recent LinkedIn post — which reads like a precursor to today’s announcement — Singh said one-quarter of its deals have been with startups valued at $5 million or lower, with 64 percent at $10 million or lower.

“We’ve made seed investments and collaborated with other firms in the past. We’ve already spoken to a few friendly firms and they are excited to be involved,” Singh said.

Sequoia is well known for later-stage deals, but Sequoia’s Singh shared data showing that it is well invested in early-stage deals, too

That may well be true for some firms, but I can’t help but feel that others may be intimated at a deep-pocketed investor playing in their backyard. In such a case, there’s little more than you can do other than play along. That said, Singh seems genuinely keen to build links between Surge and other VCs at all levels.

“It’s not about us or them but what’s good for founders,” he explained, adding that Sequoia will “actively” work with firms to involve them in the program.

It’s definitely a fascinating move, and it is certainly one of Sequoia’s boldest strategies worldwide. It is too early to say if it will be replicated by Sequoia other global funds, but they will certainly be watching, as Singh himself admitted.

You can find more information about Surge here.

LemonBox brings US vitamins and health products to consumers in China

China is rising in many ways — the economy, consumer spending and technology — but still many of its population looks overseas, and particularly to the West, for cues on lifestyle and health. That’s a theme that’s being seized by LemonBox, a China-U.S. startup that lets Chinese consumers buy U.S. health products at affordable prices.

Indeed, the recent scare around Chinese vaccinations, which saw faulty inoculations given to babies and toddlers in a number of provinces, has only fueled demand for overseas health products which LemonBox founder Derek Weng discovered himself when his father was diagnosed as having high blood sugar levels. Weng, then working in the U.S. for Walmart, was able to look up and buy the right medicine pills for his father and bring them back to China himself. He realized, however, that others are not so fortunate.

After polling friends and family, he set up an experimental WeChat app in 2016 that dispensed health information such as articles and information. Within a year, it had racked up 30,000 subscribers and given him the confidence to jump into the business fully.

Today, LemonBox allows Chinese consumers to buy its own-branded daily vitamin packs from the U.S.. Further down the line, the goal is to expand into more specific verticals, including mother and baby, beauty and daily supplements, according to Weng, who believes that the timing is good.

“For the first time in China, people are taking a major interest in health and are working out, while society is becoming more developed,” he told TechCrunch in an interview. “We estimate that Chinese consumers are investing 30 percent of their income in health.”

The LemonBox daily pack of vitamins.

Since its full launch three weeks ago, LemonBox has pulled in 700 customers with 40 percent purchasing a three-month bundle package and the remainder a monthly order, Weng said. Typical basket size is around 300 RMB, or nearly $45.

To get the business off the ground, Weng needed expert support and his co-founder Hang Xu — who is also LemonBox’s “Chief Nutrition Scientist” — has spent 10 years in the field of nutrition science. Xu holds a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University, is a U.S.-registered dietitian and has published over 10 research papers. The startup’s third co-founder, Eddy Meng (CMO), is a graduate of Chinese app store startup Wandoujia which sold to Alibaba two years ago.

Right now, LemonBox has offices in the U.S. and China and it is squarely focused on e-commerce but Weng said the company is looking to introduce other kinds of health services. That could include consultations with dietary experts and specific offerings for patients leaving a hospital or in other long-term care situations, as well as potentially own-label products.

“We look at Stitch Fix for inspiration,” Weng said. “Right now, it leverages data to develop its own in-house private label products that improve on margin and the accuracy of recommendations. This kind of data and further services will be the next stage for us.”

LemonBox raised a seed round in March, which included participation from Y Combinator, and as part of Y Combinator’s current program, it’ll present to prospective investors at the program’s demo day. Already, though, Weng said there’s been interest from investors which the company is thinking over.

Interestingly, it was forth time lucky entering YC for Weng, who had before applied with previous startups unsuccessfully. This time it was entirely circumstantial. He applied to be in the audience for Y Combinator’s ‘Startup School’ event that took place in Beijing in May.

Unbeknownst to him, YC picked out a handful of attendees whose companies were of interest, and, after an interview that Weng didn’t realize was an audition, LemonBox was selected and fast-tracked into the organization’s latest program. In addition, YC joined the startup’s seed funding round which had initially closed in March.

That anecdotal evidence says much of YC’s effort to grab a larger slice of China’s startup ecosystem.

The organization has aggressively recruited companies from under-represented regions such as India, Southeast Asia and Africa, but China remains a tough spot. According to YC’s own data, fewer than 10 Chinese companies have passed through its corridors. That’s low considering that the organization counts over 1,400 graduates.

With events like the one in May, which helped snare LemonBox, and a new China-centric role for partner Eric Migicovsky, who founded Pebble, YC is trying harder than ever.