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Latin America’s Movile is quietly building a mobile empire

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Nathan Lustig

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Nathan Lustig is an entrepreneur and managing partner at Magma Partners, a seed-stage investment fund in Santiago, Chile.

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By 2020, Brazilian mobile giant, Movile, wants to improve the lives of more than one billion people through its apps. The company began its mission in 1998 selling gaming, news and SMS messaging services to mobile operators in Brazil. After receiving its first investment from South African-based global investor Naspers 10 years ago, Movile grew into one of the largest and most successful mobile companies in Latin America, with more than 150 million monthly active users of its apps and estimated revenues over $240 million.

Movile’s app, PlayKids, propelled the company to the global stage. A platform that offers educational products and content for children, PlayKids in 2014 reached more than 6 million downloads within a year of launching, and 5 million active users per month.

From there, Movile turned its attention to an unprecedented strategy of mergers and acquisitions in Latin America. The company’s expansion strategy included investments in more than 20 other mobile companies, such as iFood and Sympla, two of the most prominent players in Latin America’s mobile space today.

Here’s a look at how Movile went from local success story in Brazil to one of the largest mobile companies in Latin America — and its next steps for mobile success worldwide.

The PlayKids launching pad

By 2012, Movile was the largest mobile services company in Brazil. With more than 150 employees, the company established its core offerings in mobile payments, mobile commerce and other B2B mobile solutions. Movile’s teams successfully opened offices in Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and Venezuela, which they achieved through the acquisition of another mobile company with a similar business model, CycleLogic. But it wasn’t until the launch of PlayKids in 2013 that one of Movile’s creations landed in the hands of millions of users around the world.

By June 2014, PlayKids had users in more than 30 countries and was one of the top-grossing children’s apps of all time. The success of PlayKids allowed Movile to build key relationships with tech firms in Silicon Valley, including Apple and Google, for the distribution of the company’s apps, and Facebook for marketing them.

Also by this time, Movile had more than 700 employees working from 11 offices in six countries, and began the next chapter in their story: ramping up their investments in other mobile companies. Movile used this strategy not only to continue its expansion across the region, but also to fend off any foreign competition eyeing Latin America’s increasingly lucrative mobile market. By 2014-2015, Latin America was the fastest-growing smartphone market in the world with 109.5 million smartphone units sold in the region.

Becoming Latin America’s mobile powerhouse

2014 marked a big year for Movile. The company invested $1.6 million into online food delivery startup iFood in the past, but an additional $2.6 million investment in 2014 led to the purchase of an iFood competitor, Central Delivery. Movile’s investments in iFood and its buy-out of the competition took the iFood app from 25,000 orders per month to more than one million orders per month.

The insights and data that Movile gathered during its strategic venture capital investments in iFood were critical. During this time, Movile built the foundation for its investments that followed shortly after, and learned how to make them a success. With each new investment, Movile’s goal was simple: take a fast-moving startup and help it grow beyond what the founding team ever thought possible by infusing cash, human capital and any technical resources or expertise that the startup could possibly need.

Movile quickly solidified its M&A strategy, its processes and its position as a leader in Latin America’s mobile market. To continue financing its growth through acquisitions, Movile raised another $55 million from Innova Capital, Jorge Paulo Lemann and FINEP in its Series D round in 2014. This new round of financing led to even more acquisitions, including the acquisition of Rapiddo, ChefTime and FreshTime. It also allowed the company to make additional investments in LBS Local, the owners of Apontador, MapLink, Cinepapaya and TruckPad.

Bundling an empire

In 2015, after a handful of investments in food-related startups, Movile’s appetite for the food and delivery space continued to grow. Naspers and Innova Capital infused another $40 million (Series E) into Movile in 2016. Movile then boosted its iFood and Just EAT platforms with another $50 million. With access to all of Movile’s resources, iFood quickly rose as a leader in online food delivery in Latin America, with 6.2 million monthly orders and a growing presence in multiple countries, including Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and Argentina.

Movile’s venture capital model became so successful that iFood replicated the same model themselves. iFood took part in more than 10 mergers and acquisitions, including the acquisition of SpoonRocket, a San Francisco-based online food delivery service. iFood acquired SpoonRocket’s technology to help it expand its reach across Latin America.

In 2016, Movile’s Rappido app acquired on-demand courier service 99Motos, and then Movile made investments in Sympla (a DIY-ticketing platform for events), while raising another $40 million (Series F) from Naspers and Innova Capital. By 2017, Movile raised an additional $53 million (Series G) from Naspers and Innova Capital, bringing Naspers’ share of Movile to 70 percent.

On the road to one billion

With no shortage of cash, Movile now has plans to put more than half of its latest $53 million Naspers investment into Rapiddo Marketplace. Movile believes they can transform the Rapiddo Marketplace into a one-stop-shop for a variety of consumer transactions ranging from food delivery and event tickets to refilling mobile credit and hailing rides. Included in this ambitious plan is a payments platform similar to PayPal called Zoop, which handles all digital payments and makes the Rapiddo Marketplace a single platform that can integrate many — if not all — of Movile’s other applications.

Movile’s mission is no easy feat; however, if the company is to achieve its goal of touching the lives of one billion people through its apps, there may never be a better time. Movile’s all-in-one mobile platform concept is reminiscent of China’s Tencent, which established a number of successful paid services based on its applications. Tencent is currently worth half a trillion dollars and rising, with investments from Naspers and earnings of almost $22 billion last year.

Tencent allows merchants in China to sell their products and receive payments through WeChat, China’s largest mobile messaging app used by more than one billion people. Using an application with widespread adoption and popularity, Tencent is able to continuously add layers and layers of services, precisely what Movile plans to do now with its mobile companies in Latin America.

Movile believes it can be just as successful as Tencent because the Latin American mobile market strikes a number of similarities with Southeast Asian countries. On the other hand, skeptics believe that since Latin America lacks a WeChat-like application to unify the region, it will be difficult to achieve the same level of success. But if we’ve learned anything from Movile, it’s that if a path does not yet exist, Movile will simply build, acquire or bundle its way to make it happen.

Wavy, Movile’s latest endeavor, could achieve this. The business, which bundles Movile’s 400+ content partner companies, 100 million active user base and 40 Latin American mobile carrier businesses, is already one of the largest global players in this space based on sheer numbers alone. The Wavy portfolio incorporates a wide range of products, including educational content and apps, B2B messaging services such as chatbots, SMS, RCS and voice messaging, as well as partnerships with companies in the gaming, bots and apps space.

The race is on among global mobile platform providers and device manufacturers to become the first to offer a total mobile user experience. However, there are very few companies that will ever be able to replicate the range of products and services Movile has developed, making it one of the most remarkable mobile success stories of our time — and one that’s not over yet.

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