Ula raises $20 million to expand its e-commerce marketplace in Indonesia

Tokopedia, Lazada, Shopee, and other firms created an e-commerce market in Indonesia in the past decade, making it possible for consumers to shop online in the island nation. But as is true in other Asian markets, most small retailers and mom-and-pop stores in the Southeast Asian country still face a myriad of challenges in sourcing inventory and working capital, and continue to rely on an age-old supply chain network.

Nipun Mehra, a former executive of Flipkart in India, and Derry Sakti, who oversaw consumer goods giant P&G’s operations in Indonesia, began to explore opportunities to address this in 2019.

“Much like India, much of the Indonesian retail market is unorganized. In the food and vegetable category, for instance, there are lots of farmers who sell to agents, who then sell to mandis (markets). From these mandis, the inventory goes to small wholesalers, and so on. There are lots of players in the chain,” said Mehra, whose previous stints include working at Sequoia Capital India, in an interview with TechCrunch.

Mehra and Sakti co-founded Ula in January of 2020. With Ula, they are trying to organize this sourcing and supply chain for small retailers so that there is a one-stop shop for everybody.

Despite the pandemic, Ula made inroads in the Indonesian market last year and today serves more than 20,000 stores. And naturally, investors have noticed.

From left to right: Derry Sakti, Nipun Mehra (screen), Riky Tenggara, Ganesh Rengaswamy (screen), Alan Wong, and Dan Bertoli. Photo credit: Ula

On Thursday, Ula announced it has raised $20 million in a Series A financing round. The round was led by existing investor Quona Capital and B Capital Group. Other existing investors including Sequoia Capital India and Lightspeed — that financed Ula’s $10.5 million Seed round in June last year — have also participated in the Series A.

“If you look at the whole retail value chain, especially for essential goods, FMCG, staple, and fresh produce, it’s significantly fragmented,” said Ganesh Rengaswamy, Managing Partner at Quona Capital, in an interview. “Whereas the market has moved on in terms of being able to more efficiently consolidate, demand and supply. Ula is trying to redo the retail distribution ecosystem with a significant technology overlay. It’s connecting some of the largest players in the supply side to the smallest retailers and consumers.”

Additionally, Ula is providing these micro retailers, who usually operate from small shops that are extensions of their homes, with working capital so that they don’t have to wait to be paid by their customers to buy the new batch of inventory. (It’s a serious challenge that micro-retailers face in Asian markets. These shops have strong bonds with their customers, so often they sell them items without getting paid upfront. Collecting this payment often takes longer than it should.)

“Frictionless payment and offering credit to retailers so that they can more efficiently manage their cashflow are critical components of modern digital commerce,” said Rengaswamy. For Quona, which has backed several e-commerce and fintech startups in Asia, Ula checks both the boxes.

Mehra said last year was largely about expanding the Ula team and building the technology stack. The startup now plans to deploy the capital to reach more small retailers and expand within the nation.

Indonesia will remain Ula’s focus market. The opportunity in the region itself is very large. The retail spend is expected to surpass $0.5 trillion over the next 4 years, said Kabir Narang, Founding General Partner at B Capital Group, in a statement. Traditional in-store retail accounts for nearly 80% of the total retail market, according to some estimates.

Ula currently operates in the FMCG and food and vegetable spaces, but it intends to broaden its offerings to include apparel and eventually electronics.

A few more things from my notes:

  • Like many other startups in Asia, Ula largely relies on feet-and-street sales people to spread the word out about its offerings and onboarding new shops. The key to growing, said Mehra, is to get a few retailers who are very happy with the services and see its value and then tell their friends about it. It’s a learning he credited to Indian business-to-business e-commerce platform Udaan co-founders Amod Malviya, Vaibhav Gupta and Sujeet Kumar, whom he worked at Flipkart back in the day. Udaan co-founders have backed Ula.
  • Electronics is a category that is very popular among B2C and B2B e-commerce platforms. Mehra said he has always known that the startup could expand to electronics, so it has chosen to focus on other categories first that test the supply chain network.
  • Indonesia comprises of more than 17,000 islands, but only a handful of islands including Java and Sumatra contributes most to the GDP.
  • I asked Quona’s Rengaswamy to draw parallels between e-commerce and payments markets of India and Indonesia. He said India has made more inroads with creating frictionless payments. But on the flip side, this has created potential for startups in Indonesia to solve additional challenges.

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Top VCs say they want to fund startups that solve retailers' biggest problem — e-commerce logistics

Summary List PlacementThe COVID-19 pandemic has forced all kinds of retailers to double down on e-commerce like never before. 
Even as restrictions on in-person retail have lifted across the US, many consumers are choosing to do more of their shopping online as they keep health and safety top of mind. 
eMarketer analysts have estimated that US online sales would reach $794.5 billion in 2020, a year-over-year increase of 32.4%.
But, businesses were met with some challenges while dealing with the huge influx of online shopping.
Some online retailers struggled to keep inventory in stock, particularly early on in the pandemic. Others began exploring new ways of getting goods into consumers’ hands as delivery networks filled up with packages. 
For venture capitalists looking to fund the next big thing in e-commerce, these bumps in the road spell opportunity.
Insider recently reached out to the top firms investing in e-commerce to get their take on where the sector is headed. Many said they were interested in funding startups that can solve problems for e-commerce businesses looking to scale.  
Read more: The 25 VC firms most active in funding e-commerce startups told us what they’re looking for in an investment — and shared the big bets they’re making for the future
“We believe that the best time to start a company is during times of uncertainty because both the cracks and innovation become more evident in a given sector,” Hans Tung, managing partner of GGV Capital, said. “If e-commerce is growing, then it’s only logical that new demand for infrastructure and analytics will be there.”
He said that the firm is interested in startups that provide “backend logistics, analytics, and operational services such as Flieber,” which helps online retailers manage their supply chain operations. 
He’s also keeping an eye on fintech startups, such as Affirm, that are changing how we pay for goods and services, to be trends in 2021.
Gautam Gupta, a partner at M13, said the firm is “looking for critical, not just nice to have, infrastructure that drives growth for independent sellers.”
He pointed to M13’s investment in Passport as an example, describing the startup as a “software-enabled international shipping carrier for DTC brands.”
“As US-based merchants look to expand their customer base overseas, Passport provides a full-service solution including logistics, duties and tax calculation, insurance and customer service,” he said. “As customers scale their international sales, Passport scales alongside the business.”
Adina Davis, an investor at BoxGroup, added that 2020 saw an “explosion of the Shopify ecosystem,” leading to investment opportunities. 
“We have been eager to make investments into companies that can serve as the infrastructure that supports e-commerce businesses in their growth,” she said. “This can span everything from innovative software solutions, to 3PL and warehousing solutions, to financing solutions, to innovations in the checkout experience, and more.”SEE ALSO: The top VCs funding e-commerce startups share what trends they’re excited to see more of in 2021
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