Billionaire Investor Peter Thiel Taps Into Brazil With New Furniture Startup

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(Forbes) October 2, 2012Joining a long list of Silicon Valley investors in South America, Peter Thiel and his early-stage global venture capital firm, Valar Ventures, announced its first investment in a Brazilian company Tuesday.

In a statement Tuesday morning, Valar said that it had backed Brazilian furniture designer and online retailer Oppa, leading a $13 million investment round in the São Paulo-based company. Launched in March 2012 by former McKinsey consultant Max Reichel, Oppa aims to provide quality and stylish Brazilian-made furniture at inexpensive prices.

“Successful entrepreneurs are able to find creative solutions to intractable problems,” said billionaire investor Thiel in a statement. “Through their innovative business model and creative supply chain management, Oppa is bringing beautifully designed and affordable furniture across Brazil.”

Valar’s investment in Oppa represents a growing trend of American-based venture capital firms looking toward Brazil for innovation and market opportunities. In July, Redpoint Ventures and e.ventures announced a joint $130 million fund to make early-stage investments in Brazilian companies. Other firms that have taken interest in Brazil include Silicon Valley firms Accel Partners and Sequoia Capital. Valar has previously invested in startups in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Citing the rise of a new, moneyed middle class and changes in the purchasing behavior of consumers for Brazilian-made goods, Harvard Business School grad Reichel said now is the time to invest in a more online-attuned Brazil. He estimated that about a quarter of all Brazilians have bought something online, while Internet analysts Nielsen estimated there are 82.4 million web users in Brazil as of then first quarter of 2012–up more than 32% from three years earlier.

Oppa, whose name comes from a Portuguese expression for surprise, is online only, eschewing brick and mortar stores to keep costs low and production efficient. The company works with in-house designers and some outside collaborators to create anything from chic sofas to desk lamps, which are then shipped off to eager consumers across the country.

“[In Brazil] you still have a lot of industries where you don’t yet have as much competition,” said CEO Reichel from São Paulo, noting that there is nothing like Ikea in the country of more than 195 million people. Tok&Stok, Oppa’s more traditional competitor in the furniture space, was recently bought by David Rubenstein’s Carlyle Group for a rumored $347 million.

Andrew McCormack, a partner at Valar Ventures, said that the firm wasn’t particularly looking for a furniture company when it first went to Brazil, but had become intrigued by the company’s branding and marketing potential. Valar, whose name derives from a J.R.R. Tolkien reference (as do many other Thiel entities), was interested in the potential for “vertically integrated e-commerce” said McCormack, comparing Oppa to successful American eyeglass retailer Warby Parker.

“The idea is not to challenge Amazon,” said McCormack, speaking of Oppa’s ability to design, manufacture and sell its own products. “You don’t sell something that’s commoditized and that other people manufacture. You will lose that battle every single time.”

Valar, which is funded solely by its president Peter Thiel according to McCormack, has an undisclosed commitment. According to a financial document filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Thiel owns 75% or more of the firm, whose New Zealand arm has assets totaling $36 million. Despite being based in San Francisco, the three-year old Valar only invests in companies outside the U.S.

Thiel ranked No. 328 on the recently released Forbes 400 list with an estimated net worth of $1.4 billion. He was a cofounder of PayPal, which was sold to eBay, and the first institutional investor in Facebook. He sits on social networking firm’s board but has sold most of his Facebook stake since the company went public in May.

On choosing Brazil as an investing locale, McComack noted that it was simply the easiest of the BRICs to manage from a political and legal aspect. With entrepreneur-friendly policies and leadership, Brazil just made more sense than India or Russia with its budding startup scene, said McCormack.

Reichel acknowledges that Brazil has its limitations–among them finding “top talent” to build up the company. Still, the North American-educated German transplant believes in the ability of the country’s startup ecosystem to scale.

“You always hear people saying [Brazil] seems like such an exotic place,” he said. “But it mirrors a lot of the U.S. style. You’ll find the same structures and the same investors, just on a smaller, more intimate stage.”