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Harvard-Trained Designer Creates China Business Software Unicorn

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(Bloomberg) -- A Harvard University-educated designer has turned his content marketing platform into a unicorn, helped by investors betting on enterprise software as the next big opportunity in China’s tech industry.

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Tezign, which connects designers with businesses, completed the first tranche of its Series D round led by Temasek Holdings Pte, boosting its valuation to more than $1 billion, the startup said. It received about $40 million from the Singaporean state investment firm and other backers.

Founded in 2015 by Fan Ling, who has a doctorate from Harvard, Tezign is a mash-up of online recruiter Upwork Inc. and Adobe Inc.’s marketing cloud: it matches creative talent with brands and marketers, and customers also use its platform to manage their digital content. The Shanghai-based outfit is among a crop of startups aspiring to be the next Oracle Corp. and Salesforce.com Inc. for China, a nascent $12 billion arena for enterprise software.

“There is a clear trend about the digital transformation of businesses in China,” Fan said in an interview. “Brands who used to rely on big tech companies for sales now want to build their own consumer database, and have power over content production and distribution. Every brand can operate like a mini version of Alibaba.”

Since Beijing began its campaign to rein in big tech nearly a year ago, investors have been turning away from the once red-hot consumer internet sector. Instead, they are plowing money into enterprise software and advanced technologies like chips and autonomous driving -- key initiatives in Xi Jinping’s drive to achieve technology self-sufficiency in China.

Tezign’s latest fundraising comes after it completed in March a $100 million Series C round led by Sequoia China and Temasek. Last month, digital signature startup Esign also hit unicorn status after raising 1.2 billion yuan ($188 million) from venture firms including Sequoia China and IDG Capital.

Tezign will use the proceeds to strengthen its sales network and technology capabilities, Fan said. The 40-year-old founder expects revenue to double to at least $40 million this year, adding he’s in no rush to make a profit.

The startup intends to increase its large-enterprise clients -- which currently include Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Unilever Plc -- to 1,000 in three years, up from 200, he said. The firm plans to generate 30% of revenue from outside China by the same period, as it ventures into markets like Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia.

Fan taught at the University of California at Berkeley and a Beijing college for seven years before starting Tezign with several students.

“When we first met with Dr. Fan back in 2015, Tezign was still pre-revenue and trying to find its product-market fit,” said Peter Cheng, whose Eminence Ventures invested in its Series A round. “But with his background, it’s obvious the founder-market fit was there.”

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