It’s not unusual for a tech startup to raise $18 million. To do it all with angel financing is pretty much unheard of.
But that’s exactly what the founders of Ondot, a financial technology company that is launching today, have done. Its angel investors, who number about 60, include Sam Ginn, the founding CEO of AirTouch Cellular and former chairman of Vodafone, Richard Kovacevich, the former CEO and chairman of Wells Fargo, and Alvin Shoemaker, the former chairman of the board of First Boston.
Suffice it to say, they see big potential in the startup, which lets consumers use their smartphones to turn their credit or debit cards on or off, or even to limit the use of those cards to a certain geographical location or proximity to a smartphone. Ondot’s business model calls for banks to pay a monthly fee for each active user of its app, called CardControl.
As is often the case, the investors are backing the entrepreneur and the management team as much as--or more than--the would-be business or idea. "I knew [founder Varduvar Bharghavan] personally and I knew he was a brilliant engineer," says Ginn, who is Ondot's lead investor. Ginn met Bharghavan while he was advising Meru Networks, where Bharghavan was founder and CTO. "I know he works 16 hours a day, and there’s no way he won’t do that. He understands the drumbeat of a startup. He understands how important cash is, he understands how to motivate people, and how to manage in that early stage environment."
Ondot got its start, Ginn says, when some of Bharghavan’s personal information was stolen. Bharghavan called Ginn and said he was trying to come up with something that would help prevent identity theft, and he wanted the opportunity to run his idea by Ginn. Ginn agreed. A few months later, Bharghavan came to pitch him, and Ginn says, “I called some of my friends down here together and said let’s hear from this guy… We passed the hat, and we funded him.”
That gave Ondot about $4 million. Since then, the initial investors have re-upped and also brought on new angels. Ginn took a board seat, he says, because he’s been in angel deals where the early investors “got hammered” when the company needed to raise venture capital. “I need to protect the interests of the investors who are also my friends,” he says.
Both Ginn and Bharghavan anticipate that the $18 million should get the company to cash-flow breakeven.
The company’s app is not immediately available to the public. It has to be offered by a the issuer of a credit or debit card. Ondot started a pilot for debit card customers of McAllen, Texas-based LoneStar National Bank in May of 2013. In that trial, says Bharghavan, CardControl has cut fraud by 60 percent. It also encouraged consumers to use LoneStar’s debit card when they might otherwise have chosen cash.
Bharghavan, it seems, is quite happy choosing cash.