Apple will launch its online store in India next week

Apple will launch its online store in India on September 23, bringing a range of services directly to customers in the world’s second largest smartphone market for the first time in over 20 years since it began operations in the country.

The company, which currently relies on third-party online and offline retailers to sell its products in India, said its online store will offer AppleCare+, which extends the warranty on its hardware products by up to two years, as well as a trade-in program to let customers access discounts on purchase of new iPhones by returning previous models. These programs were previously not available in India. Customers will also be able to buy Macs with custom configuration

“We know our users are relying on technology to stay connected, engage in learning, and tap into their creativity, and by bringing the Apple Store online to India, we are offering our customers the very best of Apple at this important time,” said Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s senior vice president of Retail + People, in a statement.

TechCrunch reported in January that the iPhone-maker was planning to launch its online store in India in Q3 this year. A month later, Apple CEO Tim Cook confirmed the development, adding that Apple will also launch its first physical store in the country next year.

On its website, Apple says it also plans to offer financing options to customers in India, and students will receive additional discounts on Apple products and accessories. Starting next month, it will also let customers check out free online sessions on music and photography from professional creatives. And if they wish, they can engrave emoji or text on their AirPods in several Indian languages.

The launch of the online store will mark a new chapter in Apple’s business in India, where about 99% of the market is commanded by Android smartphones. The iPhone-maker has become visibly more aggressive in India in recent years. In July, the company’s contract manufacturing partner (Foxconn) began assembling the iPhone 11 in India. This was the first time the company was locally assembling a current-generation iPhone model in the country.

Assembling handsets in India enables smartphone vendors — including Apple — to avoid roughly 20% import duty that the Indian government levies on imported electronics products. Lowering the cost of its products is crucial for Apple in India, which already sells several of its services including Apple Music and TV+ at record-low price in the country.

The starting price of iPhone 11 Pro Max is $1,487 in India, compared to $1,099 in the U.S. The AirPods Pro, which sell at $249 in the U.S., was made available in India at $341 at the time of launch.

Apple will launch its online store in India next week

Apple will launch its online store in India on September 23, bringing a range of services directly to customers in the world’s second largest smartphone market for the first time in over 20 years since it began operations in the country.

The company, which currently relies on third-party online and offline retailers to sell its products in India, said its online store will offer AppleCare+, which extends the warranty on its hardware products by up to two years, as well as a trade-in program to let customers access discounts on purchase of new iPhones by returning previous models. These programs were previously not available in India. Customers will also be able to buy Macs with custom configuration

“We know our users are relying on technology to stay connected, engage in learning, and tap into their creativity, and by bringing the Apple Store online to India, we are offering our customers the very best of Apple at this important time,” said Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s senior vice president of Retail + People, in a statement.

TechCrunch reported in January that the iPhone-maker was planning to launch its online store in India in Q3 this year. A month later, Apple CEO Tim Cook confirmed the development, adding that Apple will also launch its first physical store in the country next year.

On its website, Apple says it also plans to offer financing options to customers in India, and students will receive additional discounts on Apple products and accessories. Starting next month, it will also let customers check out free online sessions on music and photography from professional creatives. And if they wish, they can engrave emoji or text on their AirPods in several Indian languages.

The launch of the online store will mark a new chapter in Apple’s business in India, where about 99% of the market is commanded by Android smartphones. The iPhone-maker has become visibly more aggressive in India in recent years. In July, the company’s contract manufacturing partner (Foxconn) began assembling the iPhone 11 in India. This was the first time the company was locally assembling a current-generation iPhone model in the country.

Assembling handsets in India enables smartphone vendors — including Apple — to avoid roughly 20% import duty that the Indian government levies on imported electronics products. Lowering the cost of its products is crucial for Apple in India, which already sells several of its services including Apple Music and TV+ at record-low price in the country.

The starting price of iPhone 11 Pro Max is $1,487 in India, compared to $1,099 in the U.S. The AirPods Pro, which sell at $249 in the U.S., was made available in India at $341 at the time of launch.

TikTok’s Chinese rival Kuaishou becomes a popular online bazaar

In China, short video apps aren’t just for mindless time killing. These services are becoming online bazaars where users can examine products, see how they are grown and made, and ask sellers questions during live sessions.

Kuaishou, the main rival of TikTok’s Chinese version (Douyin), announced that it accumulated 500 million e-commerce orders in August, a strong sign for the app’s monetization effort — and probably a conducive condition for its upcoming public listing.

On the heels of the announcement, Reuters reported that Kuaishou, a Tencent-backed company behind TikTok clone Zynn, is looking to raise up to $5 billion from an initial public offering in Hong Kong as early as January. The company declined to comment, but a source with knowledge of the matter confirmed the details with TechCrunch.

There are intricacies in the claim of “500 million orders.” It doesn’t exclude canceled orders or refunds, and Kuaishou won’t reveal what its actual sales were. The company also said the number made it China’s fourth-largest e-commerce player following Alibaba, JD.com and Pinduoduo.

It’s hard to verify the claim as there are no comparable figures from these firms during the period, but let’s work with what’s available. Pinduoduo previously said it logged over 7 billion orders in the first six months of 2019. That means it averaged 1.16 billion orders per month, more than doubling Kuaishou’s volume.

Kuaishou’s figure, however, does indicate that many users have bought or at least considered buying through its video platform.

The app, known for its celebration of vernacular and even mundane user content, boasts 300 million daily active users at the latest, which suggests on average its users made at least one order during the month. Many of the products sold were produce grown by its large base of rural users. The app gained ground in small towns and far-flung regions early on exactly because its content algorithms didn’t intend to favor the “glamorous”.

Over time, it gathered pace among Chinese urbanites who found themselves enjoying others’ candid filming of country life and happily ordering their farm products. The focus on bringing rural produce to urban areas also squares nicely with China’s push to invigorate its rural economy, and it’s not rare to see Kuaishou using terms like “poverty-alleviation” in its social media campaign.

Douyin, which leans towards polished videos from “influencers”, also enables its content creators to monetize — through both sharing ad revenue and hawking products. With a DAU twice as big as Kuaishou’s at 600 million, the app vows to bring 80 billion yuan ($11.8 billion) of income to creators in the coming year, the chief executive of ByteDance China, Kelly Zhang, said recently at Douyin’s creator conference.

UrbanKisaan is betting on vertical farming to bring pesticide-free vegetables to consumers and fight India’s water crisis

Severe droughts have drained rivers and reservoirs across parts of India, and more than half a billion people in the world’s second-most populous nation are estimated to run out of drinking water by 2030.

Signs of this are apparent in farms, which consume the vast majority of total water supplies. Farmers have been struggling in India to grow crops, as they are still heavily reliant on rainwater. Those with means have shifted to grow crops such as pearl millet, cow peas, bottle gourd and corn — essentially anything but rice — that use a fraction of the water. But most don’t have this luxury.

If that wasn’t enough, Indian cities are facing another challenge: The level of harmful chemicals used in vegetables has gone up significantly over the years.

A Hyderabad-headquartered startup, which is competing in the TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield this week, thinks it has found a way to address both of these challenges.

Across many of its centres in Hyderabad and Bangalore that look like spaceships from the inside, UrbanKisaan is growing crops, stacked one on top of another.

Vertical farming, a concept that has gained momentum in some Western markets, is still very new in India.

The model brings with it a range of benefits. Vihari Kanukollu, the co-founder and chief executive of UrbanKisaan, told TechCrunch in an interview that the startup does not use any soil or harmful chemicals to grow crops and uses 95% less water compared to traditional farms.

“We have built a hydroponic system that allows water to keep flowing and get recycled again and again,” he said. Despite using less water, UrbanKisaan says it produces 30% more crops. “We grow to at least 30-40 feet of height. And it has an infinite loop there,” he said.

Kanukollu, 26, said that unlike other vertical farming models, which only grow lettuce and basil, UrbanKisaan has devised technology to grow over 50 varieties of vegetables.

The bigger challenge for UrbanKisaan was just convincing businesses like restaurant chains to buy from it. “Despite us offering much healthier vegetables, businesses still prefer to go with traditionally grown crops and save a few bucks,” he said.

So to counter it, UrbanKisaan sells directly to consumers. Visitors can check in to centres of UrbanKisaan in Hyderabad and Bangalore and buy a range of vegetables.

The startup, backed by Y Combinator and recently by popular South Indian actress Samantha Akkineni, also sells kits for about $200 that anyone can buy and grow vegetables in their own home.

Kanukollu, who has a background in commerce, started to explore the idea about UrbanKisaan in 2018 after being frustrated with not being able to buy fresh, pesticide-free vegetables for his mother, he said.

Luckily for him, he found Sairam Palicherla, a scientist who has spent more than two decades studying farming. The duo spent the first year in research and engaging with farmers.

Today, UrbanKisaan has more than 30 farms. All of these farms turned profitable in their first month, said Kanukollu.

“We are currently growing at 110% average month on month in sales and our average bill value has gone up by 10 times in the last 6 months,” he said.

The startup is also working on reaching a point within the next three months to achieve $150,000 in monthly recurring revenue.

The startup has spent the last few quarters further improving its technology stack. Kanukollu said they have cut down on power consumption from the LED lights by 50% and reduced the cost of manufacturing by 60% per tube.

Kanukollu said the startup works with five farmers currently and is working out ways to find a viable model to bring it to every farmer.

It is also developing a centralized intelligence atop convolutional neural networks to achieve real-time detection to find more harvestable produce, and detect deficiencies in the farm.

UrbanKisaan, which has raised about $1.5 million to date, plans to expand to more metro cities in the country in the coming quarters.

SmartNews’ Kaisei Hamamoto on how the app deals with media polarization

Six years ago, SmartNews took on a major challenge. After launching in Japan in 2012, the news discovery app decided that its first international market would be the United States. During Disrupt, co-founder Kaisei Hamamoto talked about how SmartNews adapts its app for two very different markets. Hamamoto, who is also chief operating officer and chief engineer of the startup, which hit unicorn status last year, also dove into how the company deals with media polarization, especially in the United States.

At Disrupt, SmartNews announced a roster of major new features for the U.S. version of the app, including sections dedicated to voting information and articles related to local and national elections. Hamamoto said the SmartNews’ goal is to make the app a “one-stop solution for users’ participation in the election process.”

The media landscape has changed a lot since SmartNews was founded in 2012. In the U.S., SmartNews is tackling the same issues as many journalists are: increasing polarization, especially along political lines, and monetization (SmartNews currently has more than 3,000 publishing partners around the world and splits ad revenue with them). And, of course, it’s up against a host of new competitors, including Apple News and Google News.

While many Japanese startups focus on other Asian markets when expanding internationally, SmartNews decided to enter the United States because it is home to some of the most influential media companies in the world. On the engineering side, Hamamoto said the company also wanted to tap into the country’s AI and machine learning talent pool.

“The U.S. is not only an attractive market, but also an important development center” for SmartNews,” he said.

The Japanese and American versions of SmartNews share the same code base and its offices in both countries work closely together. While the company’s machine learning-based algorithms drive the bulk of news discovery and personalized recommendations, publishers are first screened by SmartNews’ content team before being added to its platform. The company’s vice president of content is Rich Jaroslovsky, a veteran journalist who wrote for publications like Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal.

While AI-based algorithms can perform tasks like filtering out obscene images, “it does not have the ability to evaluate how each publisher meets certain standards,” Hamamoto said. “We are doing everything we can to ensure that our users can read the news with trust every day thanks to efforts led by our team of journalism experts.”

Breaking readers out of information bubbles

In addition to their code base, the two versions of the app share some of the same features. For example, each has SmartNews’ COVID-19 channel, with continuous updates about the pandemic. In the States, this includes visualizations of confirmed cases by county or state, and information about local closing or reopening orders.

In terms of adapting the apps’ user experience, Hamamoto said Japanese readers prefer to have a lot of news displayed on one screen, so it uses a layout algorithm that deliberately increases the density of information presented in its Japanese app. But testing showed Americans prefer a simpler, cleaner layout with more white space.

But the differences go beyond the apps’ user interface. In 2016, members of the U.S. and Japanese team spent three weeks traveling across 13 states, including Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas, to talk to people they met through Craiglist postings or in diners and cafes. SmartNews’ leaders decided to do this after the Japan team realized that most of their U.S. trips were to their offices in New York and the Bay Area.

“We knew we couldn’t get a get a true sense of America by only visiting the East Coast and West Coast,” he said.

Hamamato said one of his biggest takeaways from the 2016 trip was that “we tend to categorize people into just two segments, our side or the other side, and we tend to think of the other side as the enemy, but in reality the world is not that simple.”

In a bid to tackle political polarization in American media, the company launched a “News from All Sides” feature last year, that displays articles about one topic from publications displayed on a slider from “most conservative” to “most liberal.” The U.S. app also has a stronger emphasis on local news. Based on users’ locations, this can be as specific as information from county or even city news outlets.

Hamamoto added that one of SmartNews’ guiding principles is a belief that “having a willingness to listen to other people and not easily label them will help solve the division of our society.”

SmartNews’ Kaisei Hamamoto on how the app deals with media polarization

Six years ago, SmartNews took on a major challenge. After launching in Japan in 2012, the news discovery app decided that its first international market would be the United States. During Disrupt, co-founder Kaisei Hamamoto talked about how SmartNews adapts its app for two very different markets. Hamamoto, who is also chief operating officer and chief engineer of the startup, which hit unicorn status last year, also dove into how the company deals with media polarization, especially in the United States.

At Disrupt, SmartNews announced a roster of major new features for the U.S. version of the app, including sections dedicated to voting information and articles related to local and national elections. Hamamoto said the SmartNews’ goal is to make the app a “one-stop solution for users’ participation in the election process.”

The media landscape has changed a lot since SmartNews was founded in 2012. In the U.S., SmartNews is tackling the same issues as many journalists are: increasing polarization, especially along political lines, and monetization (SmartNews currently has more than 3,000 publishing partners around the world and splits ad revenue with them). And, of course, it’s up against a host of new competitors, including Apple News and Google News.

While many Japanese startups focus on other Asian markets when expanding internationally, SmartNews decided to enter the United States because it is home to some of the most influential media companies in the world. On the engineering side, Hamamoto said the company also wanted to tap into the country’s AI and machine learning talent pool.

“The U.S. is not only an attractive market, but also an important development center” for SmartNews,” he said.

The Japanese and American versions of SmartNews share the same code base and its offices in both countries work closely together. While the company’s machine learning-based algorithms drive the bulk of news discovery and personalized recommendations, publishers are first screened by SmartNews’ content team before being added to its platform. The company’s vice president of content is Rich Jaroslovsky, a veteran journalist who wrote for publications like Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal.

While AI-based algorithms can perform tasks like filtering out obscene images, “it does not have the ability to evaluate how each publisher meets certain standards,” Hamamoto said. “We are doing everything we can to ensure that our users can read the news with trust every day thanks to efforts led by our team of journalism experts.”

Breaking readers out of information bubbles

In addition to their code base, the two versions of the app share some of the same features. For example, each has SmartNews’ COVID-19 channel, with continuous updates about the pandemic. In the States, this includes visualizations of confirmed cases by county or state, and information about local closing or reopening orders.

In terms of adapting the apps’ user experience, Hamamoto said Japanese readers prefer to have a lot of news displayed on one screen, so it uses a layout algorithm that deliberately increases the density of information presented in its Japanese app. But testing showed Americans prefer a simpler, cleaner layout with more white space.

But the differences go beyond the apps’ user interface. In 2016, members of the U.S. and Japanese team spent three weeks traveling across 13 states, including Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas, to talk to people they met through Craiglist postings or in diners and cafes. SmartNews’ leaders decided to do this after the Japan team realized that most of their U.S. trips were to their offices in New York and the Bay Area.

“We knew we couldn’t get a get a true sense of America by only visiting the East Coast and West Coast,” he said.

Hamamato said one of his biggest takeaways from the 2016 trip was that “we tend to categorize people into just two segments, our side or the other side, and we tend to think of the other side as the enemy, but in reality the world is not that simple.”

In a bid to tackle political polarization in American media, the company launched a “News from All Sides” feature last year, that displays articles about one topic from publications displayed on a slider from “most conservative” to “most liberal.” The U.S. app also has a stronger emphasis on local news. Based on users’ locations, this can be as specific as information from county or even city news outlets.

Hamamoto added that one of SmartNews’ guiding principles is a belief that “having a willingness to listen to other people and not easily label them will help solve the division of our society.”

Blume Ventures’ Karthik Reddy on Indian startup ecosystem, geo-political tension with China and coronavirus

Despite the coronavirus outbreak, which has slowed down deal-making across the world, dozens of startups in India have raised considerable amounts in recent months. Unacademy, which raised $110 million in February, closed a new round of $150 million this month.

These large check sizes, and the frequency at which they are being bandied out, were almost unheard of in India just 10 years ago. The list of problems these local startups were solving then was also quite smaller back in the day.

Karthik Reddy has seen this change very closely.

He co-founded venture capital firm Blume Ventures, where he also serves as a partner, 10 years ago. Blume Ventures is the largest Indian venture capital firm. In a wide-ranging interview at Disrupt 2020, Reddy talked about the state of the startup ecosystem in India, some of the challenges it is confronting today and what lies ahead for the market.

“Fifteen years is what you should consider the active VC build-out in India. For the first five to seven years, we were kind of faking it till we make it. We sold the idea that we can replicate what the U.S. and China have done,” he said.

The breakout moment in India happened when low-cost Android smartphones flooded the market. A handful of startups with consumer-facing services such as Flipkart, Paytm and Zomato emerged to serve the first tens of millions of smartphone users in the country.

“The Hail Mary moment there was Reliance Jio’s arrival in the market,” he said. India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, entered the telecommunications market in the second half of 2016 with the world’s cheapest mobile tariff.

Moreover, for several months, Ambani simply did not charge Jio subscribers anything for access to 4G data. So India at large, once conscious about each megabyte it spent on the internet, suddenly started consuming gigabytes of content everyday. “It democratized data and smartphones at a scale that we have not seen in countries other than China,” said Reddy.

Karthik Reddy is the co-founder of Blume Ventures, the largest Indian venture capital firm

As hundreds of millions of users in India arrived on the internet, scores of startups in the country started to solve more complex problems: Bangalore-based startup Meesho today is helping millions of women sell products digitally; Classplus, a Blume Ventures-backed startup, has built a Shopify-like platform for teachers and coaching centres to serve students directly.

As India grew into the world’s second largest internet consumer, it has also attracted American and Chinese technology groups, all of which are looking for their next billion users. Several major investment firms, including Silver Lake, Alibaba Group, Tencent, GGV Capital, Tiger Global, General Atlantic, KKR, Vista, and Owl Ventures have also arrived and become aggressive in their investments in recent years.

But the geo-political tension between India and China have slightly complicated matters. In April this year, India amended its foreign direct investment policy to China to seek approval from New Delhi for their future deals in the country. Chinese investors have ploughed billions of dollars into the Indian startup ecosystem in recent years.

It’s a sensitive topic, given the involvement of the government, that most VCs in India are not comfortable addressing it even off the record. But Reddy weighed in.

“If not an arm or limb, it cuts off a finger or two for your choices. You are a little handicapped,” he said. “But there’s a caveat to that. It’s limited to certain segments of the market. I don’t think China and Hong Kong investors, even though they were very familiar with Chinese VC success story, were really interested in India’s deep tech and cross-border tech,” he said.

Today those areas account for more than a third of the robust ecosystem in India, Reddy argued. “If you look at the entire ecosystem collectively, there’s a single-digit influence of Chinese capital. […] If you ask me personally, 40% of my portfolio is not even remotely affected by it,” he said.

But several large consumer-facing Indian startups, such as Paytm, Zomato and Udaan, do have Chinese investors on their cap tables. Reddy said they would be impacted as uncertainty looms over when — and if — India would offer any relaxation to its current stand.

He said he is hopeful that the government would provide some distinction to VC-managed fund money that is not necessarily Chinese just because it’s run by someone who originated there.

Reddy also spoke about why he thinks early-stage startups, despite the proliferation of VC firms in India focusing on young firms, continue to receive less attention. We also spoke about how the coronavirus is impacting his portfolio startups and the industry at large and what advice he has for startup founders to navigate the turbulence times. You can watch this and much more in the interview below.

Blume Ventures’ Karthik Reddy on Indian startup ecosystem, geo-political tension with China and coronavirus

Despite the coronavirus outbreak, which has slowed down deal-making across the world, dozens of startups in India have raised considerable amounts in recent months. Unacademy, which raised $110 million in February, closed a new round of $150 million this month.

These large check sizes, and the frequency at which they are being bandied out, were almost unheard of in India just 10 years ago. The list of problems these local startups were solving then was also quite smaller back in the day.

Karthik Reddy has seen this change very closely.

He co-founded venture capital firm Blume Ventures, where he also serves as a partner, 10 years ago. Blume Ventures is the largest Indian venture capital firm. In a wide-ranging interview at Disrupt 2020, Reddy talked about the state of the startup ecosystem in India, some of the challenges it is confronting today and what lies ahead for the market.

“Fifteen years is what you should consider the active VC build-out in India. For the first five to seven years, we were kind of faking it till we make it. We sold the idea that we can replicate what the U.S. and China have done,” he said.

The breakout moment in India happened when low-cost Android smartphones flooded the market. A handful of startups with consumer-facing services such as Flipkart, Paytm and Zomato emerged to serve the first tens of millions of smartphone users in the country.

“The Hail Mary moment there was Reliance Jio’s arrival in the market,” he said. India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, entered the telecommunications market in the second half of 2016 with the world’s cheapest mobile tariff.

Moreover, for several months, Ambani simply did not charge Jio subscribers anything for access to 4G data. So India at large, once conscious about each megabyte it spent on the internet, suddenly started consuming gigabytes of content everyday. “It democratized data and smartphones at a scale that we have not seen in countries other than China,” said Reddy.

Karthik Reddy is the co-founder of Blume Ventures, the largest Indian venture capital firm

As hundreds of millions of users in India arrived on the internet, scores of startups in the country started to solve more complex problems: Bangalore-based startup Meesho today is helping millions of women sell products digitally; Classplus, a Blume Ventures-backed startup, has built a Shopify-like platform for teachers and coaching centres to serve students directly.

As India grew into the world’s second largest internet consumer, it has also attracted American and Chinese technology groups, all of which are looking for their next billion users. Several major investment firms, including Silver Lake, Alibaba Group, Tencent, GGV Capital, Tiger Global, General Atlantic, KKR, Vista, and Owl Ventures have also arrived and become aggressive in their investments in recent years.

But the geo-political tension between India and China have slightly complicated matters. In April this year, India amended its foreign direct investment policy to China to seek approval from New Delhi for their future deals in the country. Chinese investors have ploughed billions of dollars into the Indian startup ecosystem in recent years.

It’s a sensitive topic, given the involvement of the government, that most VCs in India are not comfortable addressing it even off the record. But Reddy weighed in.

“If not an arm or limb, it cuts off a finger or two for your choices. You are a little handicapped,” he said. “But there’s a caveat to that. It’s limited to certain segments of the market. I don’t think China and Hong Kong investors, even though they were very familiar with Chinese VC success story, were really interested in India’s deep tech and cross-border tech,” he said.

Today those areas account for more than a third of the robust ecosystem in India, Reddy argued. “If you look at the entire ecosystem collectively, there’s a single-digit influence of Chinese capital. […] If you ask me personally, 40% of my portfolio is not even remotely affected by it,” he said.

But several large consumer-facing Indian startups, such as Paytm, Zomato and Udaan, do have Chinese investors on their cap tables. Reddy said they would be impacted as uncertainty looms over when — and if — India would offer any relaxation to its current stand.

He said he is hopeful that the government would provide some distinction to VC-managed fund money that is not necessarily Chinese just because it’s run by someone who originated there.

Reddy also spoke about why he thinks early-stage startups, despite the proliferation of VC firms in India focusing on young firms, continue to receive less attention. We also spoke about how the coronavirus is impacting his portfolio startups and the industry at large and what advice he has for startup founders to navigate the turbulence times. You can watch this and much more in the interview below.

Southeast Asia’s East Ventures on female VCs, foreign investment, consolidation

Melisa Irene‘s path to becoming a partner at one of Southeast Asia’s most esteemed venture capital firms is an unconventional one.

“I always consider myself to be quite lucky,” said Irene, who was promoted to be a partner at East Ventures in January 2019. At 25 years old, she was the Jakarta-based investment firm’s first female partner.

During TechCrunch Disrupt’s first online conference, I spoke to Irene about what she humbly described as a “lucky” career, her experience as a young, female investor, the rush of American and Chinese VC money into Southeast Asia, and what the COVID-19 pandemic means to East Ventures . A video recording of the conversation is at the bottom of the article.

Partner at 25

Irene admitted that timing played a big part in her ascension in the VC world. The development of Indonesia’s internet infrastructure came around relatively late — around 2010 — compared to more developed markets, but growth happened rapidly. In 2015, five years after East Ventures backed the Series A of Tokopedia, now an e-commerce leader in Southeast Asia, Irene joined the firm.

In those days, “I didn’t compete with a lot of investment bankers,” said Irene, who majored in accounting in university and began as an intern at East Ventures. “The capability that they looked for was how fast you can immerse in the ecosystem.”

Contrary to popular belief, the Southeast Asian investment ecosystem is “quite friendly” towards women. “People rejoice the promotion of female professionals in this industry. It’s not a rare circumstance to see females becoming a vice principal or principle in Southeast Asia,” the investor said.

The support goes beyond simply checking the gender-diversity box and reflects a real demand for more empathetic investors in the tech industry.

“Sometimes people like to talk as a business partner and sometimes as a friend. [Empathy] is something that can be seen as natural coming from females,” she added.

However, the investor cautioned that “the number of [female] decision-makers definitely needs to improve,” though she foresees the local ecosystem “is supportive of that.”

SEA gold rush

In recent years tech giants from both the U.S. and China have been clamoring to get into Southeast Asia, a region home to about 670 million people and a fledgling internet market. They often begin by financing local upstarts, which, beholden to the investment, will provide directional advice to their foreign corporate investors.

Indeed, the familiar names have all bet on the region’s rising stars. Alibaba invested in Tokopedia and its rival JD.com backed travel portal Traveloka, which is also in the East Ventures portfolio. Tencent, Google, Facebook and Paypal are all investors of Gojek, the Indonesian ride-hailing titan going neck and neck with SoftBank-funded Grab.

When offered big checks, startups must stay level-headed and think what’s best for them, Irene advised. “The thing is everyone has money. Companies need to decide which side to be on, what companies they want on board, and what companies are able to give them strategic advice.”

It’s not uncommon to see investors and founders clash over priorities. Some investors want a quick exit, while the entrepreneurial mentality is to build a business in the long run. “That’s why alignment is important,” asserted the investor.

The future of tech in SEA

As unicorns and “super apps” like Grab and Gojek emerge in Southeast Asia, concerns that incumbents can kill off competition grow. East Ventures has a unique insight into the region’s competitive dynamics as an early-stage investor that has seen some of its startups like Tokopedia and Traveloa grow into behemoths.

Irene believed as Southeast Asia’s internet ecosystem matures, there are actually a lot of opportunities for startups in “upcoming sectors.”

“If you look at the unicorns, you see a lot of younger and smaller companies supporting them,” she said. The point is that giants can’t accomplish everything by themselves, and some of the more niche functions can best be tackled by smaller players with specialized focuses.

On the other hand, the investor believed consolidation is possible — and should happen — in areas that can benefit from scale and network effects.

“People think of Indonesia as one country. We are not. We are the largest archipelago, which means there are very different infrastructures within different provinces. For example, it’s expensive to set up a bank branch in a small island… That means a lot of things need to come into a collective effort and one big ecosystem to offer the consumers with different kinds of offerings.”

Lastly, there’s the inevitable question of COVID-19. Like many investors, Irene saw a silver lining during the dark times.

“Before COVID, it was very difficult to assess the quality of companies. They all had a lot of money and the infrastructure was actually good… Now we suddenly can tell who makes good decisions, who makes it at what speed, and what is the outcome of those decisions. The way entrepreneurs respond to COVID can tell us a lot about their enterprises.”

Southeast Asia’s East Ventures on female VCs, foreign investment, consolidation

Melisa Irene‘s path to becoming a partner at one of Southeast Asia’s most esteemed venture capital firms is an unconventional one.

“I always consider myself to be quite lucky,” said Irene, who was promoted to be a partner at East Ventures in January 2019. At 25 years old, she was the Jakarta-based investment firm’s first female partner.

During TechCrunch Disrupt’s first online conference, I spoke to Irene about what she humbly described as a “lucky” career, her experience as a young, female investor, the rush of American and Chinese VC money into Southeast Asia, and what the COVID-19 pandemic means to East Ventures . A video recording of the conversation is at the bottom of the article.

Partner at 25

Irene admitted that timing played a big part in her ascension in the VC world. The development of Indonesia’s internet infrastructure came around relatively late — around 2010 — compared to more developed markets, but growth happened rapidly. In 2015, five years after East Ventures backed the Series A of Tokopedia, now an e-commerce leader in Southeast Asia, Irene joined the firm.

In those days, “I didn’t compete with a lot of investment bankers,” said Irene, who majored in accounting in university and began as an intern at East Ventures. “The capability that they looked for was how fast you can immerse in the ecosystem.”

Contrary to popular belief, the Southeast Asian investment ecosystem is “quite friendly” towards women. “People rejoice the promotion of female professionals in this industry. It’s not a rare circumstance to see females becoming a vice principal or principle in Southeast Asia,” the investor said.

The support goes beyond simply checking the gender-diversity box and reflects a real demand for more empathetic investors in the tech industry.

“Sometimes people like to talk as a business partner and sometimes as a friend. [Empathy] is something that can be seen as natural coming from females,” she added.

However, the investor cautioned that “the number of [female] decision-makers definitely needs to improve,” though she foresees the local ecosystem “is supportive of that.”

SEA gold rush

In recent years tech giants from both the U.S. and China have been clamoring to get into Southeast Asia, a region home to about 670 million people and a fledgling internet market. They often begin by financing local upstarts, which, beholden to the investment, will provide directional advice to their foreign corporate investors.

Indeed, the familiar names have all bet on the region’s rising stars. Alibaba invested in Tokopedia and its rival JD.com backed travel portal Traveloka, which is also in the East Ventures portfolio. Tencent, Google, Facebook and Paypal are all investors of Gojek, the Indonesian ride-hailing titan going neck and neck with SoftBank-funded Grab.

When offered big checks, startups must stay level-headed and think what’s best for them, Irene advised. “The thing is everyone has money. Companies need to decide which side to be on, what companies they want on board, and what companies are able to give them strategic advice.”

It’s not uncommon to see investors and founders clash over priorities. Some investors want a quick exit, while the entrepreneurial mentality is to build a business in the long run. “That’s why alignment is important,” asserted the investor.

The future of tech in SEA

As unicorns and “super apps” like Grab and Gojek emerge in Southeast Asia, concerns that incumbents can kill off competition grow. East Ventures has a unique insight into the region’s competitive dynamics as an early-stage investor that has seen some of its startups like Tokopedia and Traveloa grow into behemoths.

Irene believed as Southeast Asia’s internet ecosystem matures, there are actually a lot of opportunities for startups in “upcoming sectors.”

“If you look at the unicorns, you see a lot of younger and smaller companies supporting them,” she said. The point is that giants can’t accomplish everything by themselves, and some of the more niche functions can best be tackled by smaller players with specialized focuses.

On the other hand, the investor believed consolidation is possible — and should happen — in areas that can benefit from scale and network effects.

“People think of Indonesia as one country. We are not. We are the largest archipelago, which means there are very different infrastructures within different provinces. For example, it’s expensive to set up a bank branch in a small island… That means a lot of things need to come into a collective effort and one big ecosystem to offer the consumers with different kinds of offerings.”

Lastly, there’s the inevitable question of COVID-19. Like many investors, Irene saw a silver lining during the dark times.

“Before COVID, it was very difficult to assess the quality of companies. They all had a lot of money and the infrastructure was actually good… Now we suddenly can tell who makes good decisions, who makes it at what speed, and what is the outcome of those decisions. The way entrepreneurs respond to COVID can tell us a lot about their enterprises.”