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Bulgaria gets its first unicorn as Payhawk raises an additional $100m

The fintech platform has aggressive expansion plans, and aims to be a catalyst for the local startup ecosystem as a whole

By Kit Gillet

The Bulgarian tech ecosystem celebrates a key milestone today, with fintech platform Payhawk announcing $100m in new funding, and in doing so becoming the eastern European country’s first unicorn.

With the startup viewing this latest raise as an extension to its $115m Series B round from November — rather than a new round in itself — it also makes it the largest-ever Series B round for a B2B company from eastern Europe, surpassing Romanian-founded SaaS giant UiPath’s 2018 Series B round, which brought in $153m.

UiPath listed on the New York Stock Exchange in April 2021 at a valuation of almost $36bn.

Emerging leader

It’s been a rapid rise for the Bulgaria-founded company, which only raised its Series A round in April 2021.

Founded in 2018, Payhawk is a B2B platform that provides financial departments a single place to manage the entire spending lifecycle, from company cards and expenses to bills and invoices. The startup claims it can save companies significant amounts of manual work and potential errors.

In recent years the company has emerged as the leading platform for large SMEs and enterprise customers, with clients across 30 countries and a range of industries, currencies and payment methods. It claims to have seen an 80% growth in business in just the last three months alone.

“Payhawk is more than just spend management software. It’s a one-stop-shop for finance teams to consolidate the previously disparate systems required to spend, track, process and budget corporate funds,” says Arsham Memarzadeh, a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, which led this latest round, along with Sprints Capital, Endeavor Catalyst, HubSpot Ventures and Jigsaw VC.

Existing investors including Greenoaks, QED Partners and Earlybird Digital East also participated.

Hristo Borisov, CEO and cofounder at Payhawk, tells Sifted that the goal is to empower finance teams and change the perception of them as gatekeepers rather than enablers of growth. “We believe that we can actually improve the whole communication within the company and really change even the positioning of a finance team within a company,” he says.

At the same time, Payhawk plans to become a catalyst for the Bulgarian startup ecosystem as a whole.

“This was a massive team effort of not just us but the whole ecosystem,” says Borisov. “Right now we have hundreds of companies being funded by venture capital. We have five, six funds in the country that are focused on the region. We have a lot of investors that are currently exploring Bulgaria and making investments.”

Booming Bulgaria

While now headquartered in London, three-quarters of Payhawk’s team remain in Bulgaria. The company plans to add 60 additional senior software engineers to its team in Sofia, as well as establish offices in Amsterdam and Paris in March, and in New York in September.

Ultimately it expects to triple its headcount by the end of the year, from 100 to more than 300.

Commenting on his company’s status as Europe’s newest unicorn, Borisov says that it’s a strong benchmark of where the Bulgarian ecosystem is as a whole. “Italy just announced its first unicorn last week [Scalapay]. Obviously the economy of Italy and Bulgaria are very different, but still, I think that’s a good example of how well the ecosystem works .”

Others see the potentially impact of this latest development, both to foreign perceptions of Bulgaria as a tech hub and also to local self-confidence.

“It’s great news for Bulgaria,” says Ivan Osmak, cofounder and CEO of Bulgarian-founded startup Gtmhub, which raised its own $120m Series C round in December 2021 and had been competing with Payhawk for the title of Bulgaria’s first unicorn.

There’s always been tech talent here, it’s probably one of the best in the world, and I can say that as I’m not even Bulgarian [Osmak is Croatian],” he adds. “This gives it a bit of self confidence, because all you need is someone to show that it can be done.”

Money flowing into Bulgaria

At the same time, Payhawk’s raise is part of a larger trend seen in recent years when it comes to Bulgarian tech.

“You could clearly see the trend: how you barely had exits of $20-30m [in Bulgaria a few years ago], and then suddenly you have companies raising $20m, $30m, $50m-plus rounds,” says Vassil Terziev, managing partner at Eleven Ventures, an early-stage VC fund focused on the southeast Europe region.

Terziev describes the Bulgarian tech ecosystem as the best kept secret in that part of the world.

“[Bulgarian] startups like Payhawk, Gtmhub and Hyperscience are charting the way for mega rounds. I’m pretty sure that in the next few years those things will only accelerate,” he adds.

At the same time, Terziev says that it doesn’t matter that Payhawk is now headquartered in London, since most of the team remain in Bulgaria, and money and talent will flow into that country.

“When you have hundreds of employees in Sofia, and all of them are on the cap table, what difference does it make?” he says. “You will pay plenty of taxes and have an impact with those funds in Bulgaria. The fact that we have the first Bulgarian-born unicorn to me is very big.”

Kit Gillet is Sifted’s eastern Europe correspondent. He tweets from @KitGillet

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