This morning Airbase, a startup in the corporate spend space, announced that it is working with Amex on a pilot that will see its service offered to certain customers of the credit giant. The deal also included a “strategic investment,” which TechCrunch reads as a modestly sized check, given that the dollar figure was not disclosed.
Normally we don’t cover announcements that lack hard figures like investment totals, but the Airbase deal is worth our time because the startup was willing to share a host of its own growth metrics.
The corporate spend market is also a notable startup battleground, with Airbase competing with other well-known firms, including Brex (which most recently raised $300 million), Ramp ($200 million in its most recent round) and Divvy (sold to Bill.com for $2.5 billion). The move by Amex to invest in and work with one of the competing startup players in the corporate spend market could provide a tailwind to the selected player, perhaps helping it scale more rapidly than its rivals. So, from our perspective of startup tracking, the news matters.
TechCrunch spoke with Airbase CEO Thejo Kote about the deal, and his company’s recent progress. Per the executive, Airbase’s annual recurring revenue (ARR) grew threefold in 2021, with payment volume rising eightfold in the same time period. Those numbers are why the corporate spend category is so investor-attractive — the sheer work of helping companies manage their spend is huge business, and one that is seeing increasing segmentation as it matures. (TechCrunch’s Mary Ann Azevedo has more here.)
Kote, for example, said that “80%” of his company’s ARR now comes from “mid-market and early enterprise segments,” or customers with between 100 and 5,000 employees. Divvy, in contrast, has had an SMB focus, traditionally.
The Airbase-Amex deal will have a “crawl, walk, run” cadence, according to American Express Ventures’ managing director Margaret Lim. In an interview, she told TechCrunch that the first phase of the tie-up will include a “select” group of customers to start. From there, we presume, it will expand, provided that things commence smoothly.
Amex’s venture arm was loathe to detail much about its operations, including how it prices deals, so we aren’t clear precisely on how the new funds were valued in share-terms. Airbase’s last known price tag was set at $600 million on a post-money basis after the company raised $60 million last year, according to Crunchbase data. Given the short period of time from that deal to today, it doesn’t seem too likely that Airbase was dramatically repriced by the deal.
That Amex is partnering with Airbase is notable, but not a huge surprise: The corporate credit giant also works with Concur, for example, and what Airbase and its competitors are building has obvious market resonance. So much so that other startups are looking to replicate it elsewhere in the world, TechCrunch has reported — and Amex doesn’t want something big that could be considered a potential direct competitor to wind up owning the future.
We asked Lim about how Amex decides to build, versus buy. Or, more simply, why the company doesn’t simply create its own version of Airbase software instead of working with an external provider that has a competing corporate card product. According to the investor, innovation is speeding up, and with a goal of delivering the best set of products as possible in a “timely fashion” to its customers, partnering can be a way to reduce time to market.
As to why Amex chose Airbase over a competing startup, it appears to have come down to what we might describe as software quality. Lim said that before her team invests, it meets all players, centering its thinking around customer needs. From that perspective, the investment arm of American Express said that Airbase was a “no-brainer,” given what Lim described as an intuitive interface that makes a sophisticated toolset simple to use.
Translating a bit, it appears that Amex did its homework and decided that Airbase has the best software in the market for corporate spend work. That’s a compliment, but once again not a surprise.
The corporate spend category has long had two main camps, as TechCrunch has discussed. One portion of startups competing in the market for managing company’s cash outflows doesn’t charge for its cards, or any software provided. Instead, they make revenues off interchange fees, small slices of transaction value that card issuers collect from customer transactions. Ramp sits in this half of the divide.
The other portion of the market has collected interchange fees, and charged for their software offerings. Airbase started in this camp, which Brex joined the other quarter.
Airbase took the “we charge for software” concept a bit further last year, when it decided to offer a free tier of its service and remit essentially all interchange incomes to customers as a cash perk; this was the company effectively saying that it could eat on its software incomes alone, which is why we were happy when the startup disclosed its recent ARR growth.
Summing briefly, as Airbase has long had to build software that it could charge for — and this is our read of the market — it has likely had a larger focus on its codebase than some of its rivals. So to see Amex pick it over its rivals as a partner is not a massive shock to our collective systems.
Still, there are other major card providers in the market who could tie up with rivals, so don’t take the Amex news as a coronation. It’s more confirmation that what startups are building has the attention of major players, companies that want to put capital to work along with access to their customer base.