Even after Microsoft wins, JEDI saga could drag on

The DoD JEDI contract saga came to a thrilling conclusion on Friday afternoon, appropriately enough, with one final plot twist. The presumptive favorite, Amazon did not win, stunning many, including likely the company itself. In the end, Microsoft took home the $10 billion prize.

This contract was filled with drama from the beginning, given the amount of money involved, the length of the contract, the winner-take-all nature of the deal — and the politics. We can’t forget the politics. This was Washington after all and Jeff Bezos does own the Washington Post.

Then there was Oracle’s fury throughout the procurement process. The president got involved in August. The current defense secretary recused himself on Wednesday, two days before the decision came down. It was all just so much drama, even the final decision itself, handed down late Friday afternoon, but it’s unclear if this is the end or just another twist in this ongoing tale.

Some perspective on $10 billion

Before we get too crazy about Microsoft getting a $10 billion, 10 year contract, consider that Amazon earned $9 billion last quarter alone in cloud revenue. Microsoft reported $33 billion last quarter in total revenue. It reported around $11 billion in cloud revenue. Synergy Research pegs the current cloud infrastructure market at well over $100 billion annually (and growing).

What we have here is a contract that’s worth a billion a year. What’s more, it’s possible it might not even be worth that much if the government uses one of its out clauses. The deal is actually initially guaranteed for just two years. Then there are a couple of three-year options, with a final two-year option at the end if gets that far.

The DOD recognized that with the unique nature of this contract, going with a single vendor, it wanted to keep its options open should the tech world shift suddenly under its feet. It didn’t want to be inextricably tied to one company for a decade if that company was suddenly disrupted by someone else. Given the shifting sands of technology, that part of the strategy was a wise one.

Where the value lies

If value of this deal was not the contract itself, it begs the question, why did everyone want it so badly? The $10 billion JEDI deal was simply a point of entree. If you could modernize the DoD’s infrastructure, the argument goes, chances are you could do the same for other areas of the government. It could open the door for Microsoft for a much more lucrative government cloud business.

But it’s not as though Microsoft didn’t already have a lucrative cloud business. In 2016, for example, the company signed a deal worth almost a billion dollars to help move the entire department to Windows 10. Amazon too, has had its share of government contracts, famously landing the $600 million to build the CIA’s private cloud.

But given all the attention to this deal, it always felt a little different from your standard government contract. Just the fact the DoD used a Star Wars reference for the project acronym drew more attention to the project from the start. Therefore, there was some prestige for the winner of this deal, and Microsoft gets bragging rights this morning, while Amazon is left to ponder what the heck happened. As for other companies like Oracle, who knows how they’re feeling about this outcome.

Hell hath no fury like Oracle scorned

Ah yes Oracle; this tale would not be complete without discussing the rage of Oracle throughout the JEDI RFP process. Even before the RFP process started, they were complaining about the procurement process. Co-CEO Safra Catz had dinner with the president to complain that contract process wasn’t fair (not fair!). Then it tried complaining to the Government Accountability Office. They found no issue with the process.

They went to court. The judge dismissed their claims that involved both the procurement process and that a former Amazon employee, who was hired by DoD, was involved in the process of creating the RFP. They claimed that the former employee was proof that the deal was tilted toward Amazon. The judge disagreed and dismissed their complaints.

What Oracle could never admit, was that it simply didn’t have the same cloud chops that Microsoft and Amazon, the two finalists, had. It couldn’t be that they were late to the cloud or had a fraction of the market share that Amazon and Microsoft had. It had to be the process or that someone was boxing them out.

What Microsoft brings to the table

Outside of the politics of this decision (which we will get to shortly), Microsoft brought some experience and tooling the table that certainly gave it some advantage in the selection process. Until we see the reasons for the selections, it’s hard to know exactly why DoD chose Microsoft, but we know a few things.

First of all there are the existing contracts with DoD, including the aforementioned Windows 10 contract and a five year $1.76 billion contract with DoD Intelligence to provide “innovative enterprise services” to the DoD.

Then there is Azure Stack, a portable private cloud stack that the military could stand up anywhere. It could have great utility for missions in the field when communicating with a cloud server could be problematic.

Fool if you think it’s over

So that’s that right? The decision has been made and it’s time to move on. Amazon will go home and lick its wounds. Microsoft gets bragging rights and we’re good. Actually, this might not be where it ends at all.

Amazon for instance could point to Jim Mattis’ book where he wrote that the president told the then Defense Secretary to “screw Bezos out of that $10 billion contract.” Mattis says he refused saying he would go by the book, but it certainly leaves the door open to a conflict question.

It’s also worth pointing out that Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post and the president isn’t exactly in love with that particular publication. In fact, this week, the White House canceled its subscription and encouraged other government agencies to do so as well.

Then there is the matter of current Defense Secretary Mark Espers suddenly recusing himself last Wednesday afternoon based on a minor point that one of his adult children works at IBM (in a non-cloud consulting job). He claimed he wanted to remove any hint of conflict of interest, but at this point in the process, it was down to Microsoft and Amazon. IBM wasn’t even involved.

If Amazon wanted to protest this decision, it seems it would have much more solid ground to do so than Oracle ever had.

The bottom line is a decision has been made, at least for now, but this process has been rife with controversy from the start, just by the design of the project, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Amazon take some protest action of its own. It seems oddly appropriate.


By Ron Miller

In latest $10B JEDI contract twist, Defense Secretary recuses himself

The JEDI drama never stops. The $10 billion, decade long cloud contract has produced a series of twists and turns since the project was announced in 2018. These include everything from court challenges to the president getting involved to accusations of bias and conflict of interest. It has had all this and more. Today, in the latest plot twist, the Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recused himself from the selection process because one of his kids works at a company that was involved earlier in the process.

Several reports name his son, Luke Esper, who has worked at IBM since February. The RFP closed in April and Esper is a Digital Strategy Consultant, according to his LinkedIn page, but given the persistent controversy around this deal, his dad apparently wanted to remove even a hint of impropriety in the selection and review process.

Chief Pentagon Spokesperson Jonathan Rath Hoffman issued an official DoD Cloud update earlier today:

“As you all know, soon after becoming Secretary of Defense in July, Secretary Esper initiated a review of the Department’s cloud computing plans and to the JEDI procurement program. As part of this review process he attended informational briefings to ensure he had a full understanding of the JEDI program and the universe of options available to DoD to meet its cloud computing needs. Although not legally required to, he has removed himself from participating in any decision making following the information meetings, due to his adult son’s employment with one of the original contract applicants. Out of an abundance of caution to avoid any concerns regarding his impartiality, Secretary Esper has delegated decision making concerning the JEDI Cloud program to Deputy Secretary Norquist. The JEDI procurement will continue to move to selection through the normal acquisition process run by career acquisition professionals.”

Perhaps the biggest beef around this contract, which was supposed to be decided in August, has been the winner-take-all nature of the deal. Only one company will eventually walk away a winner, and there was a persistent belief in some quarters that the deal was designed specifically with Amazon in mind. Oracle’s Co-CEO Safra Catz took that concern directly to the president in 2018.

The DoD has repeatedly denied there was any vendor in mind when it created the RFP, and internal Pentagon reviews, courts and a government watchdog agency repeatedly found the procurement process was fair, but the complaints continue. The president got involved in August when he named his then newly appointed defense secretary to look into the JEDI contract procurement process. Now Espers is withdrawing from leading that investigation, and it will be up to others including his Deputy Secretary to finally bring this project over the finish line.

Last April, the DoD named Microsoft and Amazon as the two finalists. It’s worth pointing out that both are leaders in Infrastructure as a Service marketshare with around 16% and 33% respectively.

It’s also worth noting that while $10 billion feels like a lot of money, it’s spread out over a 10-year period with lots of possible out clauses built into the deal. To put this deal size into perspective, a September report from Synergy Research found that worldwide combined infrastructure and software service spending in the cloud had already reached $150 billion, a number that is only expected to continue to rise over the next several years as more companies and government agencies like the DoD move more of their workloads to the cloud.

For complete TechCrunch JEDI coverage, see the Pentagon JEDI Contract.


By Ron Miller

Amazon migrates more than 100 consumer services from Oracle to AWS databases

AWS and Oracle love to take shots at each other, but as much as Amazon has knocked Oracle over the years, it was forced to admit that it was in fact a customer. Today in a company blog post, the company announced it was shedding Oracle for AWS databases, and had effectively turned off its final Oracle database.

The move involved 75 petabytes of internal data stored in nearly 7,500 Oracle databases, according to the company. “I am happy to report that this database migration effort is now complete. Amazon’s Consumer business just turned off its final Oracle database (some third-party applications are tightly bound to Oracle and were not migrated),” AWS’s Jeff Barr wrote in the company blog post announcing the migration.

Over the last several years, the company has been working to move off of Oracle databases, but it’s not an easy task to move projects on Amazon scale. Barr wrote there were lots of reasons the company wanted to make the move. “Over the years we realized that we were spending too much time managing and scaling thousands of legacy Oracle databases. Instead of focusing on high-value differentiated work, our database administrators (DBAs) spent a lot of time simply keeping the lights on while transaction rates climbed and the overall amount of stored data mounted,” he wrote.

More than 100 consumer services have been moved to AWS databases including customer-facing tools like Alexa, Amazon Prime and Twitch among others. It also moved internal tools like AdTech, its fulfillment system, external payments and ordering. These are not minor matters. They are the heart and soul of Amazon’s operations.

Each team moved the Oracle database to an AWS database service like Amazon DynamoDB, Amazon Aurora, Amazon Relational Database Service (RDS), and Amazon Redshift. Each group was allowed to choose the service they wanted, based on its individual needs and requirements.

 


By Ron Miller

India’s Darwinbox raises $15M to bring its HR tech platform to more Asian markets

An Indian SaaS startup, which is increasingly courting clients from outside of the country, just raised a significant amount of capital to expand its business.

Hyderabad-based Darwinbox, which operates a cloud-based human resource management platform, said on Thursday it has raised $15 million in a new financing round. The Series B round — which moves the firm’s total raise to $19.7 million — was led by Sequoia India and saw participation from existing investors Lightspeed India Partners, Endiya Partners, and 3one4 Capital.

More than 200 firms including giants such as adtech firm InMobi, fintech startup Paytm, drink conglomerate Bisleri, automobile maker Mahindra, Kotak group, and delivery firms Swiggy and Milkbasket use Darwinbox’s HR platform to serve half a million of their employees in 50 nations, Rohit Chennamaneni, cofounder of Darwinbox, told TechCrunch in an interview.

The startup, which competes with giants such as SAP and Oracle, said its platform enables high level of configurability, ease of use, and understands the needs of modern employees. “The employees today who have grown accustomed to using consumer-focused services such as Uber and Amazon are left disappointed in their experience with their own firm’s HR offerings,” said Gowthami Kanumuru, VP Marketing at Darwinbox, in an interview.

Darwinbox’s HR platform offers a range of features including the ability for firms to offer their employees insurance and early salary as loans. Its platform also features social networks for employees within a company to connect and talk, as well as an AI assistant that allows them to apply for a leave or set up meetings with quick voice commands from their phone.

“The AI system is not just looking for certain keywords. If an employee tells the system he or she is not feeling well today, it automatically applies a leave for them,” she said.

Darwinbox’s platform is built to handle onboarding new employees, keeping a tab on their performance, monitor attrition rate, and maintain an ongoing feedback loop. Or as Kanumuru puts it, the entire “hiring to retiring” cycle.

One of Darwinbox’s clients is L&T, which is tasked with setting up subway in many Indian cities. L&T is using geo-fencing feature of Darwin to log the attendance of employees. “They are not using biometric punch machine that is typically used by other firms. Instead, they just require their 1,200 employees to check-in from the workplace using their phones,” said Kanumuru.

darwinbox event

Additionally, Darwinbox is largely focusing on serving companies based in Asia as it believes Western companies’ solutions are not a great fit for people here, said Kanumuru. The startup began courting clients in Southeast Asian markets last year.

“Our growth is a huge validation for our vision,” she said. “Within six months of operations, we had the delivery giant Delhivery with over 23,000 employees use our platform.”

In a statement to TechCrunch, Dev Khare, a partner at Lightspeed Venture, said, “there is a new trend of SaaS companies targeting the India/SE Asia markets. This trend is gathering steam and is disproving the conventional wisdom that Asia-focused SaaS companies cannot get to be big companies. We firmly believe that Asia-focused SaaS companies can get to large impact value and become large and profitable. Darwinbox is one of these companies.”

Darwinbox’s Chennamaneni said the startup will use the fresh capital to expand its footprints in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian markets. Darwinbox will also expand its product offerings to address more of employees’ needs. The startup is also looking to make its platform enable tasks such as booking of flights and hotels.

Chennamaneni, an alum of Google and McKinsey, said Darwinbox aims to double the number of clients it has in the next six to nine months.


By Manish Singh

Amazon launches Amazon Care, a virtual and in-person healthcare offering for employees

Amazon has gone live with Amazon Care, a new pilot healthcare service offering that is initially available to its employees in and around the Seattle area. The Amazon Care offering includes both virtual and in-person care, with telemedicine via app, chat and remote video, as well as follow-up visits and prescription drug delivery in person directly at an employee’s home or office.

First reported by CNBC, Amazon Care grew out of an initiative announced in 2018 with J.P. Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway to make a big change in how they all collectively handle their employee healthcare needs. The companies announced at the time that they were eager to put together a solution that was “free from profit-making incentives and constraints,” which are of course at the heart of private insurance companies that serve corporate clients currently.

Other large companies, like Apple, offer their own on-premise and remotely accessible healthcare services as part of their employee compensation and benefits packages, so Amazon is hardly unique in seeking to scratch this itch. The difference, however, is that Amazon Care is much more external-facing than those offered by its peers in Silicon Valley, with a brand identity and presentation that strongly suggests the company is thinking about more than its own workforce when it comes to a future potential addressable market for Care.

Screen Shot 2019 09 24 at 4.02.46 PM

The Amazon Care logo.

Care’s website also provides a look at the app that Amazon developed for the telemedicine component, which shows the flow for choosing between text chat and video, as well as a summary of care provided through the service, with invoices, diagnosis and treatment plans all available for patient review.

Amazon lists Care as an option for a “first stop,” with the ability to handle things like colds, infections, minor injuries, preventative consultations, lab work, vaccinations, contraceptives and STI testing and general questions. Basically, it sounds like they cover off a lot of what you’d handle at your general practitioner, before being recommended on for any more specialist or advanced medical treatment or expertise.

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Rendered screenshots of the Amazon Care app for Amazon employees.

Current eligibility is limited to Amazon’s employees, who are enrolled in the company’s health insurance plan, and who are located in the pilot service geographical area. The service is currently available between 8 AM and 9 PM local time from Monday through Friday, and between 8 AM and 6 PM Saturday through Sunday.

Amazon acquired PillPack last year, an online pharmacy startup, for around $753 million, and that appears to be part of their core value proposition with Amazon Care, too, which features couriered prescribed medications and remotely communicated treatment plans.

Amazon may be limiting this pilot to employees at launch, but the highly-publicized nature of their approach, and the amount of product development that clearly went into developing the initial app, user experience and brand all indicate that it has the broader U.S. market in mind as a potential expansion opportunity down the line. Recent reports also suggest that it’s going to make a play in consumer health with new wearable fitness tracking devices, which could very nicely complement insurance and health care services offered at the enterprise and individual level. Perhaps not coincidentally, Walgreens, CVS and McKesson stock were all trading down today.


By Darrell Etherington

Oracle files new appeal over Pentagon’s $10B JEDI cloud contract RFP process

You really have to give Oracle a lot of points for persistence, especially where the $10 billion JEDI cloud contract procurement process is concerned. For more than a year, the company has been complaining  across every legal and government channel it can think of. In spite of every attempt to find some issue with the process, it has failed every time. That did not stop it today from filing a fresh appeal of last month’s federal court decision that found against the company.

Oracle refuses to go quietly into that good night, not when there are $10 billion federal dollars on the line, and today the company announced it was appealing Federal Claims Court Senior Judge Eric Bruggink’s decision. This time they are going back to that old chestnut that the single-award nature of the JEDI procurement process is illegal:

“The Court of Federal Claims opinion in the JEDI bid protest describes the JEDI procurement as unlawful, notwithstanding dismissal of the protest solely on the legal technicality of Oracle’s purported lack of standing. Federal procurement laws specifically bar single award procurements such as JEDI absent satisfying specific, mandatory requirements, and the Court in its opinion clearly found DoD did not satisfy these requirements. The opinion also acknowledges that the procurement suffers from many significant conflicts of interest. These conflicts violate the law and undermine the public trust. As a threshold matter, we believe that the determination of no standing is wrong as a matter of law, and the very analysis in the opinion compels a determination that the procurement was unlawful on several grounds,” Oracle’s General Counsel Dorian Daley said in a statement.

In December, Oracle sued the government for $10 billion, at the time focusing mostly on a perceived conflict of interest involving a former Amazon employee named Deap Ubhi. He worked for Amazon prior to joining the DOD, where he worked on a committee of people writing the RFP requirements, and then returned to Amazon later. The DOD investigated this issue twice, and found no evidence he violated federal conflict of interest of laws.

The court ultimately agreed with the DOD’s finding last month, ruling that Oracle had failed to provide evidence of a conflict, or that it had impact on the procurement process. Judge Bruggink wrote at the time:

We conclude as well that the contracting officer’s findings that an organizational conflict of interest does not exist and that individual conflicts of interest did not impact the procurement, were not arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law. Plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the administrative record is therefore denied.

The company started complaining and cajoling even before the JEDI RFP process started. The Washington Post reported that Oracle’s Safra Catz met with the president in April, 2018 to complain that the process was unfairly stacked in favor of Amazon, which happens to be the cloud market share leader by a significant margin, with more than double that of its next closest rival, Microsoft.

Later, the company filed an appeal with the Government Accountability Office, which found no issue with the RFP process. The DOD, which has insisted all along there was no conflict in the process, also did in an internal investigation and found no wrong-doing.

The president got involved last month when he ordered Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper to look into the idea that, once again, the process has favored Amazon. That investigation is ongoing. The DOD did name two finalists, Amazon and Microsoft, in April, but has yet to name the winner as the protests, court cases and investigations continue.

The controversy in part involves the nature of the contract itself. It is potentially a decade-long undertaking to build the cloud infrastructure for the DOD, involves the award of a single vendor (although there are several opt-out clauses throughout the term of the contract) and involves $10 billion and the potential for much more government work. That every tech company is salivating for that contract is hardly surprising, but Oracle alone continues to protest at every turn.

The winner was supposed to be announced this month, but with the Pentagon investigation in progress, and another court case underway, it could be some time before we hear who the winner is.


By Ron Miller

President throws latest wrench in $10B JEDI cloud contract selection process

The $10 billion, decade long JEDI cloud contract drama continues. It’s a process that has been dogged by complaints, regulatory oversight and court cases. Throughout the months long selection process, the Pentagon has repeatedly denied accusations that the contract was somehow written to make Amazon a favored vendor, but today the Washington Post reports President Trump has asked the newly appointed Defense Secretary, Mark T. Esper to examine the process because of concerns over that very matter.

The Defense Department called for bids last year for a $10 billion, decade long contract. From the beginning Oracle in particular complained that the process favored Amazon. Even before the RFP process began Oracle executive Safra Catz took her concerns directly to the president, but at that time he did not intervene. Later, the company filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office, which ruled that the procurement process was fair.

Finally, the company took the case to court alleging that a person involved in defining the selection process had a conflict of interest, due to being an employee at Amazon before joining the DoD. That case was dismissed last month.

In April, the DoD named Microsoft and Amazon as the two finalists, and the winner was finally expected to be named some time this month. It appeared that the we were close to the finish line, but now that the president has intervened at the 11th hour, it’s impossible to know what the outcome will be.

What we do know is that this is a pivotal project for the DoD, which is aimed at modernizing the U.S. military for the next decade and beyond. The fact is that the two finalists made perfect sense. They are the two market leaders, and each has tools, technologies and experience working with sensitive government contracts.

Amazon is the market leader with 33% marketshare. Microsoft is number two with 16%. Number three vendor, Google dropped out before the RFP process began. It is unclear at this point whether the president’s intervention will have any influence on the final decision, but the Washington Post reports it is an unusual departure from government procurement procedures.


By Ron Miller

Why AWS gains big storage efficiencies with E8 acquisition

AWS is already the clear market leader in the cloud infrastructure market, but it’s never been an organization that rests on its past successes. Whether it’s a flurry of new product announcements and enhancements every year, or making strategic acquisitions.

When it bought Israeli storage startup E8 yesterday, it might have felt like a minor move on its face, but AWS was looking, as it always does, to find an edge and reduce the costs of operations in its data centers. It was also very likely looking forward to the next phase of cloud computing. Reports have pegged the deal at between $50 and $60 million.

What E8 gives AWS for relatively cheap money is highly advanced storage capabilities, says Steve McDowell, senior storage analyst at Moor Research and Strategy. “E8 built a system that delivers extremely high-performance/low-latency flash (and Optane) in a shared-storage environment,” McDowell told TechCrunch.


By Ron Miller

Amazon acquires flash-based cloud storage startup E8 Storage

Amazon has acquired Isreali storage tech startup E8 Storage, as first reported to Reuters, CNBC and Globes and confirmed by TechCrunch. The acquisition will bring the team and technology from E8 in to Amazon’s existing Amazon Web Services center in Tel Aviv, per reports.

E8 Storage’s particular focus was on building storage hardware that employs flash-based memory to deliver faster performance than competing offerings, according to its own claims. How exactly AWS intends to use the company’s talent or assets isn’t yet known, but it clearly lines up with their primary business.

AWS acquisitions this year include TSO Logic, a Vancouver-based startup that optimizes data center workload operating efficiency, and Israel-based CloudEndure, which provides data recovery services in the event of a disaster.


By Darrell Etherington

Amazon adds Hindi to the Alexa Skills Kit

Users of Amazon’s voice assistant will soon be able to talk to Alexa in Hindi. Amazon announced today that it has added a Hindi voice model to its Alexa Skills Kit for developers. Alexa developers can also update their existing published skills in India for Hindi.

Amazon first revealed that it would add fluent Hindi to Alexa last month during its re: MARS machine learning and artificial intelligence conference. Before, Alexa was only able to understand a few Hinglish (a portmanteau of Hindi and English) commands. Rohit Prasad, vice president and head scientist for Alexa, told Indian news agency IANS that adding Hindi to Alexa posed a “contextual, cultural as well as content-related challenge” because of the wide variety of dialects, accents and slang used in India.

Along with English, Hindi is one of India’s official languages (Google Voice Assistant also offers Hindi support). According to Citi Research, Amazon holds about a 30 percent market share, about the same as its main competitor, Walmart-backed Flipkart.


By Catherine Shu

Judge dismisses Oracle lawsuit over $10B Pentagon JEDI cloud contract

Oracle has been complaining about the procurement process around the Pentagon’s $10 billion, decade-long JEDI cloud contract, even before the DoD opened requests for proposals last year. It went so far as to file a lawsuit in December, claiming a potential conflict of interest on the part of a procurement team member. Today, that case was dismissed in federal court.

In dismissing the case, Federal Claims Court Senior Judge Eric Bruggink ruled that the company had failed to prove a conflict in the procurement process, something the DOD’s own internal audits found in two separate investigations. Judge Bruggink ultimately agreed with the DoD’s findings.

“We conclude as well that the contracting officer’s findings that an organizational conflict of interest does not exist and that individual conflicts of interest did not impact the procurement, were not arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law. Plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the administrative record is therefore denied,” Judge Bruggink wrote in his order.

The company previously had filed a failed protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which also ruled that the procurement process was fair and didn’t favor any particular vendor. Oracle had claimed that the process was designed to favor cloud market leader AWS.

It’s worth noting that the employee in question was a former AWS employee. AWS joined the lawsuit as part of the legal process, stating at the time in the legal motion, “Oracle’s Complaint specifically alleges conflicts of interest involving AWS. Thus, AWS has direct and substantial economic interests at stake in this case, and its disposition clearly could impair those interests.”

Today’s ruling opens the door for the announcement of a winner of the $10 billion contract, as early as next month. The DoD previously announced that it had chosen Microsoft and Amazon as the two finalists for the winner-take-all bid.


By Ron Miller

A 23-year-old B2B company has shown how keen India is for tech IPOs

Away from the limelight of the press and the frenzy of fundraising, a tech startup in India has achieved a feat that few of its peers have managed: going public.

IndiaMART, the country’s largest online platform for selling products directly to businesses, raised nearly $70 million in a rare tech IPO for India this week.

The milestone for the 23-year-old firm is so uncommon for India’s otherwise burgeoning startup ecosystem that, beyond being over-subscribed 36 times, pent up demand for IndiaMART’s stock saw its share price pop 40% on its first day of trading on National Stock Exchange on Thursday — a momentum that it sustained on Friday.

The stock ended Friday at Rs 1326 ($19.3), compared to its issue price of Rs 973 ($14.2).

IndiaMART is the first business-to-business e-commerce firm to go public in India. Its IPO also marks the first listing for a firm following the May reelection of Narendra Modi as the nation’s Prime Minister and the months-long drought that led to it.

Accounting firm EY said it expects more companies from India to follow suit and file for IPO in the coming months.

“Now that national elections are over and favorable results secured, IPO activity is expected to gain momentum in H2 2019 (second half of the year). Companies that had filed their offer documents with the Indian stock markets regulator during H2 2018 and Q1 2019 may finally come to market in the months ahead,” it said in a statement (PDF).

IndiaMART’s origin

The fireworks of the IPO are just as impressive as IndiaMART’s journey.

The startup was founded in 1996 and for the first 13 years, it focused on exports to customers abroad, but it has since modernized its business following the wave of the internet.

“The thesis was, in 1996, there were no computers or internet in India. The information about India’s market to the West was very limited,” Dinesh Agarwal, co-founder and CEO of IndiaMART, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Until 2008, IndiaMART was fully bootstrapped and profitable with $10 million in revenue, Agarwal said. But things started to dramatically change in that year.

“The Indian rupee became very strong against the dollar, which dwindled the exports business. This is also when the stock market was collapsing in the West, which further hurt the exports demand,” he explained.

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Dinesh Agarwal, founder and CEO of IndiaMart.com, poses for a profile shot on July 29, 2015 in Noida, India.

By this time, millions of people in India were on the internet and, with tens of millions of people owning a feature phone, the conditions of the market had begun to shift towards digital.

“This is when we decided to pursue a completely different path. We started to focus on the domestic market,” Agarwal said.

Over the last 10 years, IndiaMART has become the largest e-commerce platform for businesses with about 60% market share, according to research firm KPMG. It handles 97,000 product categories — ranging from machine parts, medical equipment and textile products to cranes — and has amassed 83 million buyers and 5.5 million suppliers from thousands of towns and cities of India.

According to the most recent data published by the Indian government, there are about 50 to 60 million small and medium-sized businesses in India, but only around 10 million of them have any presence on the web. Some 97% of the top 50 companies listed on National Stock Exchange use IndiaMART’s services, Agarwal said.

That’s not to say that the transition to the current day was a straightforward process for the company. IndiaMART tried to capitalize on its early mover advantage with a stream of new services which ultimately didn’t reap the desired rewards.

In 2002, it launched a travel portal for businesses. A year later, it launched a business verification service. It also unveiled a payments platform called ABCPayments. None of these services worked and the firm quickly moved on.

Part of IndiaMART’s success story is its firm leadership and how cautiously it has raised and spent its money, Rajesh Sawhney, a serial angel investor who sits on IndiaMART’s board, told TechCrunch in an interview.

IndiaMART, which employs about 4,000 people, is operationally profitable as of the financial year that ended in March this year. It clocked some $82 million in revenue in the year. It has raised about $32 million to date from Intel Capital, Amadeus Capital Partners and Quona Capital. (Notably, Agarwal said that he rejected offers from VCs for a very long time.)

The firm makes most of its revenue from subscriptions it sells to sellers. A subscription gives a seller a range of benefits including getting featured on storefronts.

Where the industry stands

There are only a handful of internet companies in India that have gone public in the last decade. Online travel service MakeMyTrip went public in 2010. Software firm Intellect Design Arena and e-commerce store Koovs listed in 2014, then travel portal Yatra and e-commerce firm Infibeam followed two years later.

India has consistently attracted billions of dollars in funding in recent years and produced many unicorns. Those include Flipkart, which was acquired by Walmart last year for $16 billion, Paytm, which has raised more than $2 billion to date, Swiggy, which has bagged $1.5 billion to date, Zomato, which has raised $750 million, and relatively new entrant Byju’s — but few of them are nearing profitability and most likely do not see an IPO in their immediate future.

In that context, IndiaMART may set a benchmark for others to follow.

“The fact that we have a homegrown digital commerce business, serving both the urban and smaller cities, and having struggled and been around for so long building a very difficult business and finally going public in the local exchange is a phenomenal story,” Ganesh Rengaswamy, a partner at Quona Capital, told TechCrunch in an interview. “It keeps the story of India tech, to the Western world, going.”

Generally, it is agreed that there are too few IPOs in India and the industry can benefit from momentum and encouragement of high profile and successful public listings.

“There is a firm consensus that in India, markets will prefer only the IPOs of companies that are profitable. And investors in India might not value those companies. Both of these issues are being addressed by IndiaMART,” said Sawhney.

“We need 30 to 40 more IPOs. This will also mean that the stock market here has matured and understands the tech stocks and how it is different from other consumer stocks they usually handle. More tech companies going public would also pave the way for many to explore stock exchanges outside of India.

“Indian market is ready for more tech stocks. We just need to get more companies to go out there,” Sawhney added, although he did predict that it will take a few years before the vast majority of leading startups are ready for the public market.

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The Indian government, for its part, this week announced a number of incentives to uplift the “entrepreneurial spirit” in the nation.

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the government would ease foreign direct investment rules for certain sectors — including e-commerce, food delivery, grocery — and improve the digital payments ecosystem. Sitharaman, who is the first woman to hold this position in India, said the government would also launch a TV program to help startups connect with venture capitalists.

The path ahead for IndiaMART

IndiaMART has managed to build a sticky business that compels more than 55% of its customers to come back to the platform and make another transaction within 90 days, Agarwal — its CEO — said. With some 3,500 of its 4,000 employees classified as sales executives, the company is aggressive in its pursuit of new customers. Moving forward, that will remain one of its biggest focuses, according to Agarwal.

“Most of our time still goes into educating MSMEs on how to use the internet. That was a challenge 20 years ago and it remains a challenge today,” he told TechCrunch.

In recent years, IndiaMART has begun to expand its suite of offerings to its business customers in a bid to increase the value they get from its platform and thus increase their reliance on its service.

IndiaMART has built a customer relationship management (CRM) tool so that customers need not rely on spreadsheets or other third-party services.

“We will continue to explore more SaaS offerings and look into solving problems in accounting, invoice management and other areas,” said Agarwal.

The firm also recently started to offer payment facilitation between buyers and sellers through a PayPal -like escrow system.

“This will bridge the trust gap between the entities and improve an MSME’s ability to accept all kinds of payment options including the new age offerings.”

There’s an elephant in the room, however.

A bigger challenge that looms for IndiaMART is the growing interest of Amazon and Walmart in the business-to-business space. Several startups including Udaan — which has raised north of $280 million from DST Global and Lightspeed Venture Partners — have risen up in recent years and are increasingly expanding their operations. Agarwal did not seem much worried, however, telling TechCrunch that he believes that his prime competition is more focused on B2C and serving niche audiences. Besides he has $100 million in the bank himself.

Indeed, as Quona Capital’s Rengaswamy astutely noted, competition is not new for IndiaMART — the company has survived and thrived more than two decades of it.

“Alibaba came and gave up,” he noted.

An important — and unanswered question — that follows the successful IPO is how IndiaMART’s stock will fare over the coming months. A glance to the U.S. — where hyped companies like Uber, Lyft and others have seen prices taper off — shows clearly that early demand and sustained stock performance are not one and the same.

Nobody knows at this point, and the added complexity at play is that the concept of a tech IPO is so uncommon in India that there is no definitive answer to it… yet. But IndiaMART’s biggest achievement may be that it sets the pathway that many others will follow.


By Manish Singh

Amazon Restaurants in US is shutting down

Following November’s closure of Amazon’s restaurant delivery business in London, the company is now shutting down operations in the U.S. The service, which was launched back in fall 2015, was designed to give Prime members another perk — a way to order meals, not just products and groceries — through the e-commerce giant.

But the service has faced much competition, including from local rivals like Grubhub, Uber Eats, DoorDash and Deliveroo (which Amazon invested in) in London, among others. In some cases, they would even discount their services in order to win market share. Amazon, meanwhile, has largely failed to establish itself as a significant player in restaurant delivery in both market share and consumer mindshare. It’s not the first name people think of when they’re looking to order food for lunch or dinner, and the logistics of delivering hot meals in a timely fashion introduces a different set of concerns that go beyond Amazon’s core focus areas.

Related to the closure, Amazon will also shutter workplace lunch delivery service Daily Dish, according to GeekWire, which broke the news.

Amazon made the decision to exit restaurant deliveries to focus more on its growing grocery delivery business, we understand.

TechCrunch (among others, we’re guessing) was tipped off to the closure through a source at Amazon familiar with the business’s closing. Amazon confirmed the closure of Amazon Restaurants in the U.S., which ceases to operate June 24. It also hinted that layoffs were involved, as some people were finding new roles at Amazon while others were being assisted in finding new jobs outside the company.

“As of June 24th, we will be discontinuing the Amazon Restaurants business in the U.S.,” an Amazon spokesperson said. “A small fraction of Amazon employees are affected by this decision, and many of those affected have already found new roles at Amazon. Employees will be offered personalized support to find a new role within, or outside of, the company,” they added.

Amazon’s decision to exit restaurant meal delivery has had a positive impact on rivals’ stocks this morning, with a jump by Grubhub, which was up more than 5% on the news.


By Sarah Perez

AWS is now making Amazon Personalize available to all customers

Amazon Personalize, first announced during AWS re:Invent last November, is now available to all Amazon Web Services customers. The API enables developers to add custom machine learning models to their apps, including ones for personalized product recommendations, search results and direct marketing, even if they don’t have machine learning experience.

The API processes data using algorithms originally created for Amazon’s own retail business,  but the company says all data will be “kept completely private, owned entirely by the customer.” The service is now available to AWS users in three U.S. regions, East (Ohio), East (North Virginia) and West (Oregon), two Asia Pacific regions (Tokyo and Singapore) and Ireland in the European Union, with more regions to launch soon.

AWS customers who have already added Amazon Personalize to their apps include Yamaha Corporation of America, Subway, Zola and Segment. In Amazon’s press release, Yamaha Corporation of America Director of Information Technology Ishwar Bharbhari said Amazon Personalize “saves us up to 60% of the time needed to set up and tune the infrastructure and algorithms for our machine learning models when compared to building and configuring the environment on our own.”

Amazon Personalize’s pricing model charges five cents per GB of data uploaded to Amazon Personalize and 24 cents per training hour used to train a custom model with their data. Real-time recommendation requests are priced based on how many are uploaded, with discounts for larger orders.


By Catherine Shu

Salesforce is officially making Seattle its second headquarters with its Tableau acquisition

Here’s an interesting by-product the news today that Salesforce would be acquiring Tableau for $15.7 billion: the company is going to make Seattle, Washington (home of Tableau) the official second headquarters of San Francisco-based Salesforce, putting the company directly in the face of tech giants and Salesforce frenemies Microsoft and Amazon.

“An HQ2, if you will,” Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff quipped right after he dropped the news during the press and analyst call.

HQ2, of course, is a reference to Amazon and its year-long, massively publicised, often criticised, and ultimately botched search (it eventually cancelled plans to build an HQ in NYC, but kept Arlington) for its own second headquarters, which it also branded “HQ2.”

If real estate sends a message — and if you’ve ever seen Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, you know it does for this company — Salesforce is sending one here. And that message is: Hello, Microsoft and Amazon, we’re coming at you.

As we pointed out earlier today, there is a clear rivalry between Microsoft and Salesforce that first began to simmer in the area of CRM but has over time expanded to a wider array of products and services that cater to the needs of enterprise knowledge workers.

The most well-known of these was the tug-of-war between the two to acquire LinkedIn, a struggle that Microsoft ultimately won. Over the years, as both have continued to diversify their products to bring in a wider swathe of enterprise users, and across a wider range of use cases, that competition has become a little more pointed.

I’d argue that the competitive threat of Amazon is a little more remote. At the moment, in fact, the two work very closely: specifically in September last year, Amazon and Salesforce extended an already years-long deal to integrate AWS and Salesforce products to aid in enterprise “digital transformation” (one of Salesforce’s catch phrases).

Placing Salesforce physically closer to Amazon could even underscore how the two might work even closer together in the future — not least because cloud storage is now a notably missing jewel in Salesforce’s enterprise IT crown as it squares up to Microsoft, which has Azure. (And it’s not just a Seattle thing. Google, which has Google Cloud Platform, acquired Tableau competitor Looker last week.)

On the other hand, you have to wonder about the longer-term trajectory for Salesforce and its ambitions. The Tableau deal takes it firmly into a new area of business that up to now has been more of a side-gig: data and analytics. Coming from two different directions — infrastructure for AWS and customer management for Salesforce — enterprise data has been a remote battleground for both companies for years already, and it will be interesting to see how the two sides approach it.

Notably, this is not Salesforce’s first efforts to lay down roots in the city. It established an engineering office in the city in 2017 and as Benioff pointed out today, putting deeper roots into what he described as a “unique market with tremendous talent” will open up the company to tapping it even more.


By Ingrid Lunden