Naspers Plants a Flag in U.S., with New Venture Group

Naspers, the 101-year-old, internet and entertainment group, is finally planting a flag in the U.S., establishing a Naspers Ventures unit that will operate largely out of San Francisco.

The 30,000-person company, which is based in Cape Town, South Africa and tends to focus on less developed markets, including Latin America, Africa, India and even Russia, said its decision to come to the U.S., owes to a few factors.

The first is organizational. Though Naspers is one of the most active investors in the world – it committed $1.5 billion to companies last year, including Avito, an online classified ads company in Moscow — the company has created smaller operating companies around certain sectors where it has a wealth of bets. Some of those sectors and bets include e-commerce (Flipkart), online retail (Allegro), online classifieds (including and OLX), social networking (Tencent), and payments (PayU).

“We’ve gotten well-represented in those areas,” says Naspers CEO Bob van Dijk. “But we also realized that to prepare for our next phase of growth, we want to be focused on other, new consumer needs that are being transformed by tech.” And to do it via a dedicated ventures unit.

Indeed, this morning, Naspers Ventures is announcing it has led a $15 million Series B investment in the social learning network Brainly — a deal that represents the first ed tech investment for Naspers. (Seven-year-old Brainly was founded in Kraków, Poland and now has a second office in New York.)

Larry IIlg, a former eBay and Trulia executive who joined Naspers in late 2013 and is now CEO of Naspers Ventures, says another reason Naspers is coming to the U.S. is to help its many far-flung startups get a foothold here. “We’re looking to support existing companies that aren’t in the U.S. but that want to attract talent here and potentially bring their models here, as well,” he says.

Not last, adds Illg, Naspers thinks it can aid U.S. companies operating in what Illg views as underfunded sectors to “go global very quickly” thanks to Naspers’ existing infrastructure.

Naspers Ventures, which is putting together an office with up to 15 support staff, will be investing off Naspers’ balance sheet for now. In fact, the unit has already quietly made a handful of investments, including in LetGo, a mobile only classifieds site in which Naspers invested $100 million last fall.

LetGo was founded by Alec Oxenford, who’d previously founded OLX. Naspers initially acquired a majority stake in OLX in 2010; over time, it increased its position to 95 percent. OLX has since been entering new markets at a rapid clip in a bid to become the world’s largest consumer-to-consumer marketplace.

LetGo appears to be following a similar playbook. As TechCrunch reported yesterday, LetGo and Wallapop — both online classifieds companies that were started in Barcelona — are in advanced talks to merge operations in the U.S. to better compete with the likes of incumbents Craigslist and eBay, as well as with newer (well-funded) upstarts like OfferUp.