Depop, the fashion resale app, has joined fellow British tech companies such as Arm Holdings and DeepMind in heading to a deep pool of investment outside its homeland.
London-based Depop’s acquisition by Brooklyn-based Etsy for $1.6bn (£1.1bn) last week came just days after Oxford-based WaveOptics, a maker of displays used in augmented-reality glasses, was bought up by the Santa Monica-headquartered owner of Snapchat for $500m.
Depop may not be of such strategic importance to the UK economy as the likes of Arm, or fellow chip-maker Imagination Technologies, both bought by foreign buyers. But its 30 million users – a number that has tripled in less than three years – are mostly under 26 and mark out the future direction of retail: more online, sustainable and social.
London crowed about securing the listing of Deliveroo, where the poor performance of the share price has reflected concerns about the welfare of its thousands of delivery drivers. Depop marked out a more hopeful future – but with it now in Etsy’s hands, British retailers have no obvious way of following the lead of John Lewis and then Marks & Spencer, which invested in Ocado, enabling both to buy their way into the fast-growing world of online grocery shopping.
Initially, Depop was a tale of triumph for the UK. Entrepreneur Simon Beckerman founded the company in Italy in 2011 but moved to London in 2015 after winning $8m in funding from Balderton Capital, the UK-based investment firm which has previously backed Betfair and the online lingerie specialist Figleaves.
The business now has offices as far afield as New York and Sydney, but is led from the UK, where it built its market from an aesthetic steeped in British fashion trends, from Burberry coats and chunky trainers fit for a Spice Girl to Y2K fashions born out of clubs in London and Manchester.
It taps into Generation Z’s obsession with “side hustles” – a way to earn money outside one’s day-to-day life. Trading in cast-offs is a rapidly expanding activity expected to grow 15-20% a year for the next five years, outgrowing fast fashion.
That growth is not only fuelling more established players such as eBay, but generating new entrants such as Vinted, Poshmark and The RealReal, which provide a challenge to traditional high street brands.
The resale market is becoming increasingly mainstream, with even the UK supermarket Asda trying out secondhand sections in stores, in partnership with Preloved Vintage Wholesale. Department store John Lewis, furnishings group Ikea and sports retailer Decathlon are all experimenting with resale businesses too.
Technology is enabling that growth, as parents sell baby clothes via Facebook and young people trade sought-after trainers from their own Instagram shops. Selfridges now has an outlet for vintage fashion specialist Vestiaire Collective, while handbag label Mulberry is refurbishing and reselling its used products online.
Etsy is to allow Depop to continue as a standalone business run by the existing team from London. That is some good news at least for jobs and knowhow in the UK, although with upstarts such as Vinted and Asos’s marketplace already on its tail, it’s not clear if Etsy will enable Depop to keep its edgy, underground feel.
The change in ownership also will not prevent young UK entrepreneurs developing, via Depop, skills in online selling, design and merchandising that could lay the foundations for new standalone businesses.
There is hope the UK can capitalise on their expertise to keep the resale sector on British shores, even if we can’t compete with the deep pockets of the US tech giants.
AMC cinemas become star of their own Wall Street drama
What do you do when legions of small investors are buying your company’s shares to use as a stick with which to beat Wall Street? The answer for AMC Entertainment – the world’s largest cinema company and owner of the Odeon chain in the UK – is to make sure they’re buying at least some of that stock from you.
AMC has become a focal point for amateur investors coordinating via Twitter and Reddit to buy shares in previously unpopular companies – called “meme stocks” – hoping to catch pantomime-villain hedge funds in a “short squeeze”.
AMC is trying to ride the tiger. In January, it escaped bankruptcy thanks to a $917m debt-and-equity cash-raising exercise. Now, instead of thinking about survival, it is capitalising on the surge in its stock price to issue more new shares at higher values that it could otherwise have achieved. It has even offered investors free popcorn.
Cash from new investors can be used to pay down some of the rescue debt and even to expand.
Last Tuesday, it sold stock for $230.5m to Mudrick Capital Management (a hedge fund, ironically), having previously raised $428m in mid-May, when the small-investor frenzy began lifting its share price. And on Thursday, it filed to sell 11.5 million more shares.
He is banking on vaccinations and a pent-up flurry of blockbuster movies to deliver a dramatic turnaround for a firm that looked like a total turkey just a few months ago.
Whether one sees the “meme stock” phenomenon epitomised by GameStop and AMC as an exercise in futility, borderline market manipulation, or a welcome piece of anti-Wall Street online activism, Aron seems to have found a solution that works for AMC. It may not be long before his own cinemas are showing the movie.
Exxon chief on short leash after shareholder uprising
ExxonMobil’s chief executive, Darren Woods, has has the dubious honour of overseeing probably the most calamitous period in the oil giant’s history since taking the reins a little over four years ago. Under his watch the company has lost a third of its market value, been ousted from the Dow Jones index, and reported its first annual loss since Exxon and Mobil merged in 1998.
But it is Woods’s handling of ExxonMobil’s first major shareholder rebellion that is likely to raise questions over his future at the helm of America’s biggest oil company. Engine No 1, the upstart hedge fund that toppled three senior business figures from the Exxon board last week, did not target Woods. But its boardroom coup has been seen by industry observers as a clear indictment of his leadership.
Engine No 1 put forward four alternative board members after accusing Exxon of failing to adapt to the climate crisis – and the company’s largest shareholders agreed. Investors may be willing to forgive Woods for inheriting a difficult situation before the Covid-19 oil slump, but his failure to set a future-proof vision for navigating the transition to low-carbon energy has become deeply worrying for its long-term institutional stakeholders, which include some of the biggest money managers in the world.
Woods survived the boardroom battle because a greater concern – over the short term – would be losing the chief executive at a time of major upheaval for the board, and when existential decisions for the company still hang in the balance. Shareholders voted in favour of his position on the board at the annual meeting, but the disruption has assured that this future will be far tougher than he expected.
Before next year’s meeting, Woods will need to prove that he is up to the challenge, and set out a clear future for one of the world’s biggest climate polluters in a net-zero-carbon world. The chief executive may be down, but he is not out. Yet.
The second sexual revolution began 30 years ago, on 23 September 1991, with the release of an educational videotape called The Lovers’ Guide. The revolution’s unlikely figureheads were a film producer who had been making how-to videos about gardening and pets and cooking, and a 56-year-old doctor, while their ally was an American former TV and theatre director who had become Britain’s chief film censor.
The producer was a man called Robert Page, who had been approached by Virgin – which had recently started making condoms – to make a sexual health film for men that explained how to use one. There were two difficulties with that. The first was that no erect penis had been shown on screen in Britain. The second was that Page had no interest in making a film about penises. The censor – James Ferman, the director of the British Board of Film Classification from 1975 to 1999 – took care of the first issue.
“I was talking to the great James Ferman,” Page says, talking from New York, where he now lives, “and he went, ‘There’s only one law, and it’s called obscenity and it’s that which will deprave and corrupt.’ He said, ‘I see nothing depraving or corrupting in a man pulling a condom on in this era. I think it’s downright sensible.’”
Page brought up the second issue. “I went, ‘You know all these how-to videos? There’s this area of life that we don’t talk about. You wouldn’t let me make one about sex, would you?’ He said, ‘What would you want to show?’ I went, ‘Men and women, with actual intercourse.’” Page wanted to show oral sex. He wanted to show genitals. He wanted to show the things that even films made for sex shops couldn’t show, and he wanted to show them in a film that would get an 18 certificate and be sold as a VHS tape on the high street.
Ferman laid down conditions. The film had to be fronted by a doctor. The script had to be approved by a reputable organisation. There was to be no lingering on the explicit shots. It was not, in short, to be a mucky film, regardless of what its viewers might use it for.
Page wanted Alex Comfort, the author of The Joy of Sex, to be the doctor, but Comfort’s publishers rejected the idea. Instead he turned to Andrew Stanway, another veteran “sexologist”, with a string of books to his name (Stanway did not respond to requests for an interview). “He was a quite tall, wide man, with huge hands,” says Simon Ludgate, who was hired as director. “He had greying, curly, fair hair, a pointy nose and beady eyes. He reminded me of a bad magician with a ‘look into my eyes’ hypnotic stare.”
It’s Stanway who gives the clinical narration – “The clearest sign of male sexual arousal is an erection. Tissue within the penis fills with blood, making it stiffen. As arousal increases, so does heart rate. Breathing quickens and the nostrils flare” – and he both co-wrote the script and helped recruit the film’s stars. Chief among them were Tony and Wendy Duffield, former patients of his, who went on to be the Brad and Angelina of the sex ed video market. They later appeared on Desmond Morris’s The Human Animal making love with tiny cameras inside them to show the processes at work.
The Duffields weren’t the real problem, though. “There were a couple of people, who were supposed to be a couple and weren’t,” Page says. “One of the guys, the one who stands up to masturbate – Marino – was an adult film professional. We didn’t know that, but the press knew right away. I can’t tell you how naive we were. We had no idea. We had never been in this world. We had done very wholesome stuff, so doing this was breaking new ground.”
The press did indeed know right away, and before the film came out the News of the World revealed the fact that The Lovers’ Guide featured porn stars. “It almost sank us,” Ludgate says. “Woolworths at that point said they weren’t going to stock it, and Woolworths at the time were massive. And then WH Smith said they weren’t going to.”
The shops relented in time for release, and The Lovers’ Guide arrived on the high street. Page and Ludgate are insistent that their motives were purely to help couples, though the film’s makers knew the first certified film to feature explicit sex, even with Stanway’s lugubrious voiceover, would fly out of the shops, and not just to people wanting to learn some new positions. And so Page spent more on The Lovers’ Guide – it was shot on film, not tape, with purpose-built sets – than anything he had ever made before.
He says now he thought it might rival the 250,000 copies of a Neighbours tie-in video he had made. In fact, it sold 200,000 copies in its first fortnight, going on to sell 1.3m in the UK alone, and hundreds of thousands more around the world. (“My greatest regret is not taking a percentage,” Ludgate says. “I still kick myself about that.”)
Looking at it now, in a world of Pornhub, YouPorn, PornMD and everything else, The Lovers’ Guide seems almost unbearably innocent. It is sex at its gentlest. Everything is shot in soft focus; candles are everywhere. (Page was insistent the film’s primary market be women, though the soft focus and candles spoke more to male ideas of female sexuality. Nevertheless, 55% of buyers were women.) Couples wander through fields, smiling happily, before retiring to bedrooms and bathrooms for soft and sensual lovemaking (with a voiceover). Nothing from it would now get anywhere near the front page of a porn aggregator site.
“Some of the sex scenes in The Lovers’ Guide were certainly erotic,” Ferman – who died in 2002 – would later say. “But eroticism was never, I think, the primary purpose of the scene. The primary function of the scene was to be helpful to couples in the audience who were trying to improve their own sex life.” He argued that what separated the finished film from pornography was context: “You weren’t looking at two bodies, two strangers on screen having it away. You were actually looking at people who told what sex meant to them, what their relationships meant, what they wanted to do, what they were trying to do. And they were real people. And ordinary people watching felt, ‘They are just like us, and if this is what they do, this is what we can do.’”
Page accepts that not all his audience had education in mind, but takes the view that he was smuggling greens into their meal. “We discussed this with Jim Ferman. They were buying it to get off on it, but actually they’d learn loads of things along the way. If it had been some medical thing with diagrams, who would have bought it?” (Curiously, Ludgate says that’s exactly what Stanway wanted – women with their legs in stirrups while he pointed out the clitoris.) “There were 10,000 or so letters,” Page continues, “saying, ‘We’ve been married x years, we started watching your programme and we were making love on the living room carpet before it had finished. Thank you for saving our marriage.’ And that was fantastic.”
What was crucial was that you could buy The Lovers’ Guide easily. There were only 80 or so licensed sex shops in the UK, selling R18 films – which were not, at that point, as explicit as The Lovers’ Guide. “My family moved to Cornwall in the 1990s,” says Clarissa Smith, editor of the academic journal Porn Studies, “and the nearest sex shops were in Plymouth or Bristol, but you could buy The Lovers’ Guide in WH Smith. The ease of access was definitely really important.”
While it wasn’t pornography, it was revolutionary. Politics has the concept of the Overton window – the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time – in which the centre of political gravity shifts left and right. One might think of sex, too, as having its own Overton window, and the 90s saw that window shift to allow portrayals of explicit sex, and an explosion in pornography.
There were simple, practical, legal reasons for that. From 1986, the Reagan and Bush administrations in the US had vigorously pursued obscenity prosecutions against pornographic film-makers. Bill Clinton came to power in 1993 promising to follow that agenda; in fact the Clinton administration had virtually no interest in prosecuting pornographers. In 1992, there were 42 prosecutions in the US in which federal obscenity offences were the lead charge; by 1998, there were only six. The result was a boom in porn production, and the rise of mega-studios such as Evil Empire and Vivid Entertainment.
That would have been irrelevant had porn remained the preserve of sex shops. But three things were happening at once. First, escalating traffic loads caused the first wave of free porn sites – often run by college students, and usually consisting of images stolen from professional porn – to fade from business, because they didn’t have the bandwidth to continue. Second, in summer 1994, a man sold a Sting CD to his friend over the internet, described by the New York Times as “the first retail transaction on the internet using a readily available version of a powerful data encryption software designed to guarantee privacy”. E-commerce was born. It wasn’t long before those who lived too far from sex shops, or who couldn’t bring themselves to walk into one, would be able to buy those Evil Empire and Vivid films without leaving their homes: they could visit a site such as Blissbox and have them delivered, in plain packaging, for the same cost as a Hollywood film, rather than the high prices charged by sex shops for something tamer. Third, a dancer and stripper called Danni Ashe noticed how many of her pictures were being traded on Usenet groups, and set up her own website, sparking a rush for porn producers to sell content directly via the internet.
At the same time, the culture was changing. Soft porn mags for women were launching, as was the hugely explicit Black Lace series of novels, also aimed at women, which sold more than 4m copies between its launch in 1993 and its closure in 2009. Margi Clarke’s TV show The Good Sex Guide launched in 1993, and got unheard-of ratings for a late-night show: 13 million viewers. And a new kind of male culture – in which it was assumed and accepted that viewing porn was nothing to be ashamed of – was emerging. Porn was in newsagents, in the “lad mags”, and it was on screen.
By the end of the 1990s, what was officially licensed lagged so far behind what was readily available to anyone with an internet connection and a credit card that change was inevitable. The driver of change, again, was James Ferman. He was convinced the only way to draw people away from violent pornography – his particular bete noire – was to grant R18 certificates to films depicting consensual penetration and allow them to be sold in licensed sex shops. The test case was a film called Makin’ Whoopee, to the outrage of the new home secretary, Jack Straw.
Straw summoned the BBFC’s vice-president, Lord Birkett, to his office and railed at him. “Do you really mean that you are going to allow oral sex and buggery and I don’t know what else?” Birkett later recalled Straw as saying. “That you are actually passing this? You are giving a certificate to it?”
In the face of Straw’s rage, the BBFC withdrew Makin’ Whoopee’s certification, and Straw changed the body’s leadership, with Ferman and Birkett departing. But in his final report for the BBFC, Ferman displayed prescience. “It may well be that in the 21st century, it simply becomes impossible to impose the kind of regulation which the board exists to provide,” he wrote. “After all, what is the point of cutting a gang-rape scene in a British version of a film if that film is accessible down a telephone line from outside British territorial waters? I am probably the last of the old-time regulators.” Ferman may have lost his job, but he won the fight with Straw – for another statutory body, the Video Appeals Committee, simply reversed the BBFC’s decision to back down, and seven porn films were licensed for sale in sex shops. Censorship of pornography had, to all intents and purposes, finished in the UK.
The Lovers’ Guide did not cause the collapse of censorship. It did not lead to YouPorn. That was the internet. But it was the starting point for a decade of change. “I think it was one of those moments in social history where there was a need for change, and we fulfilled the need,” Ludgate says. “I think there was a collective need for change, and curiosity. Since the 60s, the cult of the individual had grown and this was part of that process. It was something people wanted individually that changed a lot of attitudes towards sex. I think it was a massive, seismic shift in attitudes.”
And still it does its work. A few weeks after we talk, Page forwards an email he has just received. “Hi Robert. I just want to give you a VERY, VERY BIG THANK YOU AGAIN. I have bought your complete collection of The Lover’s GUIDE. Your work is impeccable. I began watching them, and all I can say is. You sir are AWESOME. What I have been learning from them is amazing, and I just really wanted to THANK YOU AGAIN!!!!!!!”
The trading arm of the Raspberry Pi Foundation has received a £33m investment – putting paid to rumours that the company was looking to float on the stock exchange as a means of funding growth.
The Raspberry Pi project came to the public’s attention back in 2011, and by the time the education-focused single-board computer entered mass production a year later demand was high – so high that its initial production run of 10,000 units sold out in seconds.
Earlier this year, a report claimed that Raspberry Pi was to float on the stock market with a £300m valuation – a suggestion co-founder Eben Upton gently dismissed as being a simple chat with unnamed advisors about “how we might fund the future growth of the business” that had been “over-interpreted” by the media.
Now the meat behind the sizzle has been revealed: a report in The Telegraph confirming the sale of stakes in the company to Lansdowne Partners and the Ezrah Charitable Trust – providing $45m (around £33m) in funding without needing to go public.
Lansdowne Partners’ presence in the list of investors is less surprising than Ezrah Charitable Trust. The latter was founded by former Goldman Sachs vice-president and Farallon Capital Management partner David Cohen in 2016 to focus “on the poorest of the poor, especially in Africa” – an indicator that it may be the work of the not-for-profit Raspberry Pi Foundation that was of interest.
According to executive director Kevin L Miller’s LinkedIn profile, Ezrah Charitable Trust remains “dedicated to serving people burdened by poverty by providing catalytic support to our high-impact implementing partners” – among which Raspberry Pi can now be counted.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t cash on the table while the charity works to improve access to computing for all. The foundation’s 2020 financials [PDF] showed a total group income of over £95.8m, nearly double the £49.5m it reported in 2019.
“The commercial and human impact [Raspberry Pi] has achieved in its first decade has been extraordinary,” Peter Davies, Lansdowne partner and head of developed markets strategy, claimed in a statement to press on the investment, “and we look forward to assisting the company to expand this even further in coming years as new capital is deployed.”
Neither Raspberry Pi nor Ezrah Charitable Trust responded to requests for comment in time for publication. ®
The British start-up plans to use the funds to expand after it announced the opening of a European HQ in Dublin last month.
TrueLayer has raised $130m in a funding round that saw participation from Stripe and gives the fintech start-up a post-money valuation of over $1bn.
The British company, which develops APIs to securely connect fintech platforms directly to banks, announced last month that it’s opening a European HQ in Dublin, hiring 25 people. TrueLayer has received authorisation from the Central Bank to operate in Ireland.
The round was led by Tiger Global Management, and comes after TrueLayer’s $70m Series D round in April of this year. The company has now raised about $272m in total.
Alex Cook, partner at Tiger Global Management, commented: “The shift to alternative payment methods is accelerating with the global growth of online commerce, and we believe TrueLayer will play a central role in making these payment methods more accessible.
“We’re excited to partner with Francesco, Luca and the TrueLayer team as they help customers increase conversion and continue to grow the network.”
Stripe, which last week announced its intention to grow its Dublin presence significantly, was already an investor in TrueLayer. The Irish-founded payments giant has invested numerous up-and-coming fintech ventures across the US and Europe, such as a renewed interest in Ramp in late August.
Speaking to the Irish Times, TrueLayer Ireland CEO and general manager for Europe Joe Morley said: “The fundraise allows us to commit even further to our markets in Europe…and allows us to start thinking about broader expansion.
“But our focus in the short to medium term is to make sure we win in Europe so we’re really doubling down on what we had already initiated with our last funding round.”
Morley formerly worked as an executive at Facebook and WhatsApp, and is joined by fellow Facebook alum Leigh-Anne Cotter as TrueLayer Ireland COO.
TrueLayer says that, during 2021, it has so far seen a 400pc increase in volume of payments and 800pc increase in total payment valuation through its APIs. It also claims to have “millions of customers” and more than 10,000 developers using its systems.
The company plans to use the fresh funding to expand into new markets and to increase the penetration of open banking services in regions in which it already operates.