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Today — April 2nd 2020Your RSS feeds

CIOs are dead tired of dumb tech. Pulse has $6.5M to help them help each other

By Danny Crichton

The technology that runs our companies these days is staggering in its complexity. We have moved from a monolith to a microservices world, from boxes to SaaS, and while that has added agility to the enterprise, it has come at the cost of a metric f-ton of services and software platforms required by every team in the building.

CIOs need a place to commiserate — and get better recommendations on what tech works well and what should be placed in the proverbial recycle bin. Meanwhile, salespeople and investors want to hear these decision-makers’ views on emerging products to identify rich veins to invest in.

At the core of Pulse is a community of vetted CIOs and other tech procurers, currently numbering more than 15,000. On top of this core group of users, Pulse has built a series of products to help exploit their collective wisdom, including several new products the company is announcing today.

In addition to new product launches, the company is announcing a $6.5 million Series A round from AV8 Ventures, which is exclusively backed by mega-insurer Allianz Group and launched last year with a debut $170 million fund. This round closed in December according to the company, and brings the startup’s total funding to $10.5 million.

Pulse’s existing product offerings assist product marketers and investment researchers who want to get a “pulse” on the marketplace for tech products by polling CIOs and testing out language around new features and initiatives.

“As an example, Microsoft will come to us and say, ‘Hey, we want to test our messaging and positioning before we sort of blow it up as a campaign. We’d like to do that very quickly through your community.’ And then we facilitate that through a series of questions through surveys and get back the insights to them very quickly,” co-founder and CEO Mayank Mehta explained.

“We think about this as truly becoming a Bloomberg terminal for marketers and investors,” he said. Researchers “can use this as a great way to get a real-time pulse on their buyers and understand how the market is moving, so they can make appropriate investments and ship strategies in real time.”

He said that the company worked with 50 customers last year and delivered some 150 reports. As for the CIOs themselves, “The community is open so long as you are a director level or above,” Mehta said.

In addition to this product for investors and market researchers, the company is also announcing the launch of Product IQ today, which takes the needs of a particular CIO user into account to offer them “personalized” product recommendations for their companies. Those recommendations are surfaced from the continuous data that CIOs are adding into the system through polls and opinion surveys.

“We’re trying to imagine and rethink how decision-making is done for technology executives, especially in a world like this where teams are changing so dramatically,” Mehta said.

Crowdsourced research platforms in the tech industry have become a popular area for VC investment in recent years. StackShare, which raised $5.2 million from e.Ventures, has focused on helping engineers learn from other engineers about the tech they have chosen for their infrastructure. Meanwhile, startups like Wonder and NewtonX, which raised $12 million from Two Sigma Ventures, have focused less on technical solutions and instead answer business questions such as market sizing or competitive landscape.

Pulse was founded in 2017 and is based in San Francisco, and previously raised a seed from True Ventures according to Crunchbase.

Collibra nabs another $112.5M at a $2.3B valuation for its big data management platform

By Ingrid Lunden

GDPR and other data protection and privacy regulations — as well as a significant (and growing) number of data breaches and exposées of companies’ privacy policies — have put a spotlight on not just on the vast troves of data that businesses and other organizations hold on us, but also how they handle it. Today, one of the companies helping them cope with that data trove in a better and legal way is announcing a huge round of funding to continue that work. Collibra, which provides tools to manage, warehouse, store and analyse data troves, is today announcing that it has raised $112.5 million in funding, at a post-money valuation of $2.3 billion.

The funding — a Series F from the looks of it — represents a big bump for the startup, which last year raised $100 million at a valuation of just over $1 billion. This latest round was co-led by ICONIQ Capital, Index Ventures, and Durable Capital Partners LIP, with previous investors CapitalG (Google’s growth fund), Battery Ventures, and Dawn Capital also participating.

Collibra, originally a spin-out from Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, Belgium, today works with some 450 enterprises and other large organizations — customers include Adobe, Verizon (which owns TechCrunch), insurers AXA, and a number of healthcare providers. Its products cover a range of services focused around company data, including tools to help customers comply with local data protection policies, store it securely, and to run analytics and more.

These are all tools that have long had a place in enterprise big data IT, but have become increasingly more used and in-demand both as data policies have expanded, and as the prospects of what can be discovered through big data analytics have become more advanced. With that growth, many companies have realised that they are not in a position to use and store their data in the best possible way, and that is where companies like Collibra step in.

“Most large organizations are in data chaos,” Felix Van de Maele, co-founder and CEO, previously told us. “We help them understand what data they have, where they store it and [understand] whether they are allowed to use it.”

As you would expect with a big IT trend, Collibra is not the only company chasing this opportunity. Competitors include Informatica, IBM, Talend, Egnyte, among a number of others, but the market position of Collibra, and its advanced technology, is what has continued to impress investors.

“Durable Capital Partners invests in innovative companies that have significant potential to shape growing industries and build larger companies,” said Henry Ellenbogen, founder and chief investment officer for Durable Capital Partners LP, in a statement (Ellenbogen is formerly an investment manager a T. Rowe Price, and this is his first investment in Collibra under Durable). “We believe Collibra is a leader in the Data Intelligence category, a space that could have a tremendous impact on global business operations and a space that we expect will continue to grow as data becomes an increasingly critical asset.”

“We have a high degree of conviction in Collibra and the importance of the company’s mission to help organizations benefit from their data,” added Matt Jacobson, general partner at ICONIQ Capital and Collibra board member, in his own statement. “There is an increasing urgency for enterprises to harness their data for strategic business decisions. Collibra empowers organizations to use their data to make critical business decisions, especially in uncertain business environments.”

Zoom freezes feature development to fix security and privacy issues

By Romain Dillet

Zoom has been widely criticized over the past couple of weeks for terrible security, a poorly designed screensharing feature, misleading dark pattern, fake end-to-end-encryption claims and an incomplete privacy policy. Despite that, the video conferencing service has attracted a ton of new users thanks to the coronavirus lockdowns around the world — the company reached 200 million daily active users last month.

Zoom, an enterprise product designed for boring corporate meetings, has become a mainstream product with all the risks that it involves.

That’s why the company’s CEO Eric S. Yuan has written a lengthy blog post to address some of the concerns around Zoom. He starts by sharing some metrics. Zoom has been used by 90,000 schools around 20 countries. Daily meetings participants jumped from 10 million in December to 200 million in March.

But some companies are starting to reconsider using Zoom for video conferences. For instance, SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company, has banned its employees from using the service.

For the next 90 days, Zoom is enacting a feature freeze, which means that the company isn’t going to ship any new feature until it is done fixing the current feature set. Zoom will also work with third-party experts and prepare a transparency report.

“For the past several weeks, supporting this influx of users has been a tremendous undertaking and our sole focus,” Yuan writes. “However, we recognize that we have fallen short of the community’s – and our own – privacy and security expectations. For that, I am deeply sorry, and I want to share what we are doing about it.”

As expected, Yuan says that mainstream adoption has led to unforeseen issues. “We did not design the product with the foresight that, in a matter of weeks, every person in the world would suddenly be working, studying, and socializing from home. We now have a much broader set of users who are utilizing our product in a myriad of unexpected ways, presenting us with challenges we did not anticipate when the platform was conceived,” he writes.

In addition to keeping up with the massive influx of customer support requests, Zoom has already shipped a few updates to solve some issues. The company released a new version of its iOS app to remove Facebook’s SDK as the company’s privacy policy never said that you consent to sharing data with Facebook. The company updated its privacy policy as well.

Zoom removed the attendee attention tracker feature, a controversial feature that lets hosts see if the Zoom window is currently in focus. The company has also shipped security updates after Patrick Wardle uncovered vulnerabilities.

Zoom wrote a dedicated K-12 privacy policy and changed some default settings for schools (waiting rooms are on by default, only teachers can share content, etc.).

The company is far from done. Don’t forget that it claimed that calls are end-to-end encrypted even though they’re not at all. More importantly, the fact that Zoom is fixing issues as quickly as it can isn’t enough. Something is wrong at Zoom — there’s a corporate culture issue that leads to all those missteps. It’ll take much longer than 90 days.

Proposed amendments to the Volcker Rule could be a lifeline for venture firms hit by market downturn

By Jonathan Shieber

In the wake of the financial crisis, Congress passed regulations limiting the types of investments that banks could make into private equity and venture capital funds. As cash strapped investors pull back on commitments to venture funds given the precipitous drop of public market stocks, loosening restrictions on the how banks invest cash could be a lifeline for venture funds.

That’s the position that the National Venture Capital Association is taking on the issue in comments sent to the chairs of the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and the Commodities Future Trading Commission.

The proposed revisions of the Volcker Rule would exclude qualifying venture capital funds from the covered fund definition.

“The loss of banking entities as limited partners in venture capital funds has had a disproportionate impact on cities and regions with emerging entrepreneurial ecosystems — areas outside of Silicon Valley and other traditional technology centers,” NVCA president and chief executive Bobby Franklin wrote. “The more challenging reality of venture fundraising in these areas of the country tends to require investment from a more diverse set of limited partners.”

Franklin cited the case of Renaissance Venture Capital, a Michigan-based regionally focused fund that estimated the Volcker Rule cost them $50 million in potential capital commitments resulting in the loss of a potential $800 million in capital invested in the state of Michigan.

“This narrative unfortunately repeats itself, as we have heard firsthand from investors about how the Volcker Rule has affected venture capital investment and entrepreneurial activity across the country,” wrote Franklin. “The majority of these concerns about the Volcker Rule have come from members located in regions with emerging ecosystems, including states like Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Virginia, to name a few.”

It’s not only small states that could be impacted by the decision to reverse course on banking investments into venture firms in these uncertain times.

There’s a growing concern among venture investors that — just like in 2008 — their limited partners might find that they’re over-allocated into venture investments given the decline in markets, which would force them to pull back on making commitments to new funds.

“Institutional LPs will run into the same issues they had in 2008. If you used to manage $10B and the market declines and you now manage $6B, the percentage allocated to private equity has now increased relative to the whole portfolio,” Hyde Park Ventures partner, Ira Weiss told a Forbes columnist in a March interview. “They’re really not going to look at new managers. If you’ve done really well as a manager, they will probably re-up but may reduce commitment amounts. This will bleed backwards into the venture market. This is happening at a time when Softbank has already had a lot of trouble and people had not really modulated for that yet, but now they will.”

Some of the largest investment funds have already closed on capital, insulating them from the worst hits. These include funds like New Enterprise Associates and General Catalyst . But newer funds are going to have a harder time raising. For them, giving banks the ability to invest in venture firms could be a big boon — and a confidence boost that the industry needs at a time when investors across the board are getting skittish.

“Fundraising for new funds in 2020 and 2021 might prove to be more difficult as asset managers think about rebalancing their portfolio and/or protecting their assets from the current volatility in the market,” Aaron Holiday told Forbes . “This means that VC investing could slow down in 12 – 24 months after the most recent wave of funds (i.e. 2018 and 2019 vintages) are fully deployed.”

Yesterday — April 1st 2020Your RSS feeds

A former chaos engineer offers 5 tips for handling online disasters remotely

By Walter Thompson
Kolton Andrus Contributor
Kolton is co-founder and CEO of Gremlin, the chaos engineering company helping the world build a more reliable internet.

I recently had a scheduled video conference call with a Fortune 100 company.

Everything on my end was ready to go; my presentation was prepared and well-practiced. I was set to talk to 30 business leaders who were ready to learn more about how they could become more resilient to major outages.

Unfortunately, their side hadn’t set up the proper permissions in Zoom to add new people to a trusted domain, so I wasn’t able to share my slides. We scrambled to find a workaround at the last minute while the assembled VPs and CTOs sat around waiting. I ended up emailing my presentation to their coordinator, calling in from my mobile and verbally indicating to the coordinator when the next slide needed to be brought up. Needless to say, it wasted a lot of time and wasn’t the most effective way to present.

At the end of the meeting, I said pointedly that if there was one thing they should walk away with, it’s that they had a vital need to run an online fire drill with their engineering team as soon as possible. Because if a team is used to working together in an office — with access to tools and proper permissions in place — it can be quite a shock to find out in the middle of a major outage that they can’t respond quickly and adequately. Issues like these can turn a brief outage into one that lasts for hours.

Quick context about me: I carried a pager for a decade at Amazon and Netflix, and what I can tell you is that when either of these services went down, a lot of people were unhappy. There were many nights where I had to spring out of bed at 2 a.m., rub the sleep from my eyes and work with my team to quickly identify the problem. I can also tell you that working remotely makes the entire process more complicated if teams are not accustomed to it.

There are many articles about best practices aimed at a general audience, but engineering teams have specific challenges as the ones responsible for keeping online services up and running. And while leading tech companies already have sophisticated IT teams and operations in place, what about financial institutions and hospitals and other industries where IT is a tool, but not a primary focus? It’s often the small things that can make all the difference when working remotely; things that seem obvious in the moment, but may have been overlooked.

So here are some tips for managing incidents remotely:

There were many nights where I had to spring out of bed at 2 a.m., rub the sleep from my eyes and work with my team to quickly identify the problem… working remotely makes the entire process more complicated if teams are not accustomed to it.

Okta launches Lifecycle Management Workflows to make building identity-centric processes easy

By Frederic Lardinois

Okta, the popular identity and access management service, today used its annual (and now virtual) user conference to launch Lifecycle Management Workflows, a new tool that helps IT teams build and manage IFTTT-like automated processes with the help of an easy to use graphical interface.

The new service is an extension of Okta’s existing automation tools. But the key here is that IT teams and developers can now easily build complex identity-centric workflows across a wide range of applications. With this, these teams can easily automate an onboarding process where setting up a new Okta account also immediately kicks off processes on third-party services like Box, Salesforce, ServiceNow and Slack to set up accounts there. The same goes for offboarding workflows and username creation. A lot of companies still do this manually, which is not just a hassle but also error-prone.

“Adopting more technology is incredibly beneficial for enterprises today, but complexity is a significant side effect of a changing technology ecosystem and workforce. There is no better example of the potential challenges it can create than with lifecycle management,” said Diya Jolly, Chief Product Officer at Okta. “Okta’s vision of enabling any organization to use any technology goes deeper than just access; it’s about improving how organizations use technology. Okta Lifecycle Management Workflows improves the efficiency and security of enterprises through its simple user experience and broad applicability, keeping organizations secure, and efficient without requiring the complexity of writing code.”

Okta, of course, had lifecycle management features before, but now it is also putting its acquisition of Azuqua to work and using that company’s graphical interface and technology for making it easier to create these automation processes. And while the focus right now is on processes like provisioning and de-provisioning accounts, the long-term plan is to expand Workflows with support for more identity processes.

As Okta also stresses, administrators can also manage very granular access across the supported third-party tools like assigning territories in Salesforce or access to specific group channels in Slack, for example. For temporary employees, admins can also set up automatic de-provisioning workflows that revoke access to some tools but maybe leave access to payroll services open for a while longer. There are also built-in tools for automatically managing conflicts when two people have the same name.

“Millions of people rely on Slack every day to make their working lives simpler, more pleasant, and more productive,” said Tamar Yehoshua, Chief Product Officer at Slack, one of the early adopters of this service. “Okta Lifecycle Management Workflows has significantly increased efficiency for us by automating the provisioning and de-provisioning of users from applications in our environment, without us ever having to write a line of code.”

This new feature is part of Okta’s new Platform Services, which the company also debuted today and which currently consists of core technologies like the Okta Identity Engine, Directories Integrations, Insights, Workflow and Devices. The core idea behind Platform Services is to give Okta users the flexibility to manage their unique identity use cases but also to give Okta itself a platform to innovate on. One other new product that sits on top of the platform is Okta Fastpass, for example, which allows for passwordless authentication on any device.

Xerox drops $34B HP takeover bid amid COVID-19 uncertainty

By Ron Miller

Xerox announced today that it would be dropping its hostile takeover bid of HP. The drama began last fall with a flurry of increasingly angry letters between the two companies, and confrontational actions from Xerox, including an attempt to take over the HP board that had rejected its takeover overtures.

All that came crashing to the ground today when Xerox officially announced it was backing down amid worldwide economic uncertainty related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company also indicated it was dropping its bid to take over the board.

“The current global health crisis and resulting macroeconomic and market turmoil caused by COVID-19 have created an environment that is not conducive to Xerox continuing to pursue an acquisition of HP Inc. (NYSE: HPQ) (‘HP’). Accordingly, we are withdrawing our tender offer to acquire HP and will no longer seek to nominate our slate of highly qualified candidates to HP’s Board of Directors,” the company said in a statement.

As for HP, it said it was strong financially and would continue to drive shareholder value, regardless of the outcome:

We remain firmly committed to driving value for HP shareholders. HP is a strong company with market leading positions across Personal Systems, Print, and 3D Printing & Digital Manufacturing. We have a healthy cash position and balance sheet that enable us to navigate unanticipated challenges such as the global pandemic now before us, while preserving strategic optionality for the future.

The bid never made a lot of sense. Xerox is a much smaller company, with a market cap of around $4 billion compared with HP with a market cap of almost $25 billion. It was truly a case of the canary trying to eat the cat.

Yet Xerox continued to insist today, even while admitting defeat, that it would have been better to combine the two companies, something HP never felt was realistic. HP questioned the ability of Xerox to come up with such a large sum of money, and, if it did, would it be financially stable enough to pull off a deal like this.

Yet even as recently as last month, Xerox increased the bid from $22 to $24 per share in an effort to entice shareholders to bite. It had previously threatened to bypass the board and go directly to shareholders before attempting to replace the board altogether.

HP didn’t like the hostility inherent in the bid or any of the subsequent moves Xerox made to try to force a deal. Last month, HP offered its investors billions in give-backs in an effort to convince them to reject the Xerox bid. As it turned out, the drama simply fizzled out in the middle of a worldwide crisis.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Tech giants should let startups defer cloud payments

By Josh Constine

Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are the landlords. Amidst the Coronavirus economic crisis, startups need a break from paying rent. They’re in a cash crunch. Revenue has stopped flowing in, capital markets like venture debt are hesitant, and startups and small-to-medium sized businessesf are at risk of either having to lay off huge numbers of employees and/or shut down.

Meanwhile, the tech giants are cash rich. Their success this decade means they’re able to weather the storm for a few months. Their customers cannot.

Cloud infrastructure costs area amongst many startups’ top expenses besides payroll. The option to pay these cloud bills later could save some from going out of business or axing huge parts of their staff. Both would hurt the tech industry, the economy, and the individuals laid off. But most worryingly for the giants, it could destroy their customer base.

The mass layoffs have already begun. Soon we’re sure to start hearing about sizable companies shutting down, upended by COVID-19. But there’s still an opportunity to stop a larger bloodbath from ensuing.

That’s why I have a proposal: cloud relief.

The platform giants should let startups and small businesses defer their cloud infrastructure payments for three to six months until they can pay them back in installments. Amazon AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, these companies’ additional infrastructure products, and other platform providers should let customers pause payment until the worst of the first wave of the COVID-19 economic disruption passes. Profitable SAAS providers like Salesforce could give customers an extension too.

There are plenty of altruistic reasons to do this. They have the resources to help businesses in need. We all need to support each other in these tough times. This could protect tons of families. Some of these startups are providing important services to the public and even discounting them, thereby ramping up their bills while decreasing revenue.

Then there are the PR reasons. After years of techlash and anti-trust scrutiny, here’s the chance for the giants to prove their size can be beneficial to the world. Recruiters could use it as a talking point. “We’re the company that helped save Silicon Valley.” There’s an explanation for them squirreling away so much cash: the rainy day has finally arrived.

But the capitalistic truth and the story they could sell to Wall Street is that it’s not good for our business if our customers go out of business. Look at what happened to infrastructure providers in the dotcom crash. When tons of startups vaporized, so did the profits for those selling them hosting and tools. Any government stimulus for businesses would be better spent by them paying employees than paying the cloud companies that aren’t in danger. Saving one future Netflix from shutting down could cover any short-term loss from helping 100 other businesses.

This isn’t a handout. These startups will still owe the money. They’d just be able to pay it a little later, spread out over their monthly bills for a year or so. Once mass shelter-in-place orders subside, businesses can operate at least a little closer to normal, and investors get less cautious, customers will have the cash they need to pay their dues. Plus interest if necessary.

Meanwhile, they’ll be locked in and loyal customers for the foreseeable future. Cloud vendors could gate the deferment to only customers that have been with them for X amount of months or that have already spent Y amount on the platform. The vendors could also offer the deferment on the condition that customers add a year or more to their existing contracts. Founders will remember who gave them the benefit of the doubt.

cloud ice cream cone imagine

Consider it a marketing expense. Platforms often offer discounts or free trials to new customers. Now it’s existing customers that need a reprieve. Instead of airport ads, the giants could spend the money ensuring they’ll still have plenty of developers building atop them by the end of 2020.

Beyond deferred payment, platforms could just push the due date on all outstanding bills to three or six months from now. Alternatively, they could offer a deep discount such as 50% off for three months if they didn’t want to deal with accruing debt and then servicing it. Customers with multi-year contracts could offered the opportunity to downgrade or renegotiate their contracts without penalties. Any of these might require giving sales quota forgiveness to their account executives.

It would likely be far too complicated and risky to accept equity in lieu of cash, a cut of revenue going forward, or to provide loans or credit lines to customers. The clearest and simplest solution is to let startups skip a few payments, then pay more every month later until they clear their debt. When asked for comment or about whether they’re considering payment deferment options, Microsoft declined, and Amazon and Google did not respond.

To be clear, administering payment deferment won’t be simple or free. There are sure to be holes that cloud economists can poke in this proposal, but my goal is to get the conversation startup. It could require the giants to change their earnings guidance. Rewriting deals with significantly sized customers will take work on both ends, and there’s a chance of breach of contract disputes. Giants would face the threat of customers recklessly using cloud resources before shutting down or skipping town.

Most taxing would be determining and enforcing the criteria of who’s eligible. The vendors would need to lay out which customers are too big so they don’t accidentally give a cloud-intensive but healthy media company a deferment they don’t need. Businesses that get questionably excluded could make a stink in public. Executing on the plan will require staff when giants are stretched thin trying to handle logistics disruptions, misinformation, and accelerating work-from-home usage.

Still, this is the moment when the fortunate need to lend a hand to the vulnerable. Not a hand out, but a hand up. Companies with billions in cash in their coffers could save those struggling to pay salaries. All the fundraisers and info centers and hackathons are great, but this is how the tech giants can live up to their lofty mission statements.

We all live in the cloud now. Don’t evict us. #CloudRelief

Thanks to Falon Fatemi, Corey Quinn, Ilya Fushman, Jason Kim, Ilya Sukhar, and Michael Campbell for their ideas and feedback on this proposal

Salesforce’s Benioff pledges no ‘significant’ layoffs for 90 days

By Ron Miller

In a Twitter thread on Tuesday, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, outlined an 8-step plan to keep people safe, find treatments and a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus, while working to find a way to get people back to work safely. He also asked that all CEOs take “a 90 day “no lay off” pledge” to help everyone get through the crisis.

6.Release workers who are ok.Develop plan for this with antibody titers to be on front line exposure positions.
7.Every ceo take a 90 day “no lay off” pledge.https://t.co/hwC6xme1QT everyone

Thanks @DavidAgus for editing!

Marc Benioff (@Benioff) March 25, 2020

The same day, he posted another tweet pledging to not make any “significant” layoffs for 90 days.” When TechCrunch asked Salesforce to comment on the difference between the two tweets, the company chose not to comment any further on the matter and let the tweets stand on their own.

Salesforce is pledging to its workforce Ohana not to conduct any significant lay offs over the next 90 days. We will continue to pay our hourly workers while our offices are closed. We encourage our Ohana to pay their own personal hourly workers like housekeepers & dog walkers.

— Marc Benioff (@Benioff) March 25, 2020

It sounds like Benioff’s second tweet, which also asked employees to consider paying their own hourly workers like housekeepers and dog walkers throughout the layoff period whether they were working or not, was designed to give the CEO some wiggle room for at least some layoffs.

Salesforce has almost 50,000 employees worldwide. Even if the company were to lay off just 1% of employees it would equal 500 people without jobs, though it’s not clear if that would count as “significant.” Perhaps more likely, the company might make some cuts to staff for performance or HR-related reasons, but not broad cuts, and thus make both of its CEO’s claims essentially true.

Salesforce is a wildly successful company. It celebrated its 20th anniversary last fall and has grown from pesky startup to a software behemoth with a projected revenue of over $20 billion for FY2021. It’s currently got almost $8 billion in cash-and-equivalents-on-hand. Certainly companies who use Salesforce’s products will continue to need them, even with the workforce at home.

While it could have an impact on that projection for FY2021 and its ability to land new customers this quarter, it seems like it has the money and revenue to ride out the situation for the short term without making any moves to reduce headcount at this critical time.

Microsoft acquires 5G specialist Affirmed Networks

By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft today announced that it has acquired Affirmed Networks, a company that specializes in fully virtualized, cloud-native networking solutions for telecom operators.

With its focus on 5G and edge computing, Affirmed looks like the ideal acquisition target for a large cloud provider looking to get deeper into the telco business. According to Crunchbase, Affirmed had raised a total of $155 million before this acquisition and the company’s over 100 enterprise customers include the likes of AT&T, Orange, Vodafone, Telus, Turkcell and STC.

“As we’ve seen with other technology transformations, we believe that software can play an important role in helping advance 5G and deliver new network solutions that offer step-change advancements in speed, cost and security,” writes Yousef Khalidi, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Azure Networking. “There is a significant opportunity for both incumbents and new players across the industry to innovate, collaborate and create new markets, serving the networking and edge computing needs of our mutual customers.”

With its customer base, Affirmed gives Microsoft another entry point into the telecom industry. Previously, the telcos would often build their own data centers and stuff it with costly proprietary hardware (and the software to manage it). But thanks to today’s virtualization technologies, the large cloud platforms are now able to offer the same capabilities and reliability without any of the cost. And unsurprisingly, a new technology like 5G with its promise of new and expanded markets makes for a good moment to push forward with these new technologies.

Google recently made some moves in this direction with its Anthos for Telecom and Global Mobile Edge Cloud, too. Chances are, we will see all of the large cloud providers continue to go after this market in the coming months.

In a somewhat odd move, only yesterday Affirmed announced a new CEO and President, Anand Krishnamurthy. It’s not often that we see these kinds of executive moves hours before a company announces its acquisition.

The announcement doesn’t feature a single hint at today’s news and includes all of the usual cliches we’ve come to expect from a press release that announces a new CEO. “We are thankful to Hassan for his vision and commitment in guiding the company through this extraordinary journey and positioning us for tremendous success in the future,” Krishnamurthy wrote at the time. “It is my honor to lead Affirmed as we continue to drive this incredible transformation in our industry.”

We asked Affirmed for some more background about this and will update this post once we hear more.

Kaizo raises $3M for its AI-based tools to improve customer service support teams

By Ingrid Lunden

CRM has for years been primarily a story of software to manage customer contacts, data to help agents do their jobs, and tools to manage incoming requests and outreach strategies. Now to add to that we’re starting to see a new theme: apps to help agents track how they work and to work better.

Today comes the latest startup in that category, a Dutch company called Kaizo, which uses AI and gamification to provide feedback on agents’ work, tips on what to do differently, and tools to set and work to goals — all of which can be used remotely, in the cloud. Today, it is announcing $3 million in a seed round of funding co-led by Gradient — Google’s AI venture fund — and French VC Partech. 

And along with the seed round, Kaizo (which rebranded last week from its former name, Ticketless) is announcing that Christoph Auer-Welsbach, a former partner at IBM Ventures, is joining the company as a co-founder, alongside founder Dominik Blattner. 

Although this is just a seed round, it’s coming after a period of strong growth for the company. Kaizo has already 500 companies including Truecaller, SimpleSurance, Miro, CreditRepairCloud, Justpark, Festicket and Nmbrs are using its software, covering “thousands” of customer support agents, which use a mixture of free and paid tools that integrate with established CRM software from the likes of Salesforce, Zendesk and more.

Customer service, and the idea of gamifying it to motivate employees, might feel like the last thing on people’s minds at the moment, but it is actually timely and relevant to our current state in responding to and living with the coronavirus.

People are spending much more time at home, and are turning to the internet and remote services to get what they need, and in many cases are finding that their best-laid plans are now in freefall. Both of these are driving a lot of traffic to sites and primarily customer support centers, which are getting overwhelmed with people reaching out for help.

And that’s before you consider how customer support teams might be impacted by coronavirus and the many mandates we’ve had to stay away from work, and the stresses they may be under.

“In our current social climate, customer support is an integral part of a company’s stability and growth that has embraced remote work to meet the demands of a globalized customer-base,” said Dominik Blattner, founder of Kaizo, in a statement. “With the rise of support teams utilizing a digital workplace, providing standards to measure an agent’s performance has never been more important. KPIs provide these standards, quantifying the success, achievement and contribution of each team member.”

On a more general level, Kaizo is also changing the conversation around how to improve one’s productivity. There has been a larger push for “quantified self” platforms, which has very much played out both in workplaces and in our personal lives, but a lot of services to track performance have focused on both managers and employees leaning in with a lot of input. That means if they don’t set aside the time to do that, the platforms never quite work the way they should.

This is where the AI element of Kaizo plays a key role, by taking on the need to proactively report into a system.

“This is how we’re distinct,” Auer-Welsbach said in an interview. “Normally KPIs are top-down. They are about people setting goals and then reporting they’ve done something. This is a bottom-up approach. We’re not trying to change employees’ behaviour. We plug into whatever environment they are using, and then our tool monitors. The employee doesn’t have to report or measure anything. We track clicks on the CRM, ticketing, and more, and we analyse all that.” He notes that Kaizo is looking at up to 50 datapoints in its analysis.

“We’re excited about Kaizo’s novel approach to applying AI to existing ticket data from platforms like Zendesk and Salesforce to optimize the customer support workflow,” said Darian Shirazi, General Partner at Gradient Ventures, in a statement. “Using machine learning, Kaizo understands which behaviors in customer service tickets lead to better outcomes for customers and then guides agents to replicate that using ongoing game mechanics. Customer support and service platforms today are failing to leverage data in the right way to make the life of agents easier and more effective. The demand Kaizo has seen since they launched on the Zendesk Marketplace shows agents have been waiting for such a solution for some time.”

Kaizo is not the only startup to have identified the area of building new services to improve the performance of customer support teams. Assembled earlier this month also raised $3.1 million led by Stripe for what it describes as the “operating system” for customer support.

Yaguara nabs $7.2M seed to help e-commerce companies understand customers better

By Ron Miller

Yaguara, a Denver-based startup that wants to help e-commerce companies understand their customers better to deliver more meaningful experiences, announced a $7.2 million seed investment today.

The round was led by Foundation Capital with participation from Gradient Ventures, Rainfall Ventures and Zelkova. It also had help from some e-commerce heavy hitters including Warby Parker, Harry’s and Allbirds.

Yaguara CEO Jonathan Smalley was working at an agency building specialized cloud tools for online businesses when he recognized there was a need to pull data together into a single place and help companies understand their customer’s behavior better.

“Yaguara is based on integrating data and having all their data in the right place. For us, it started with several dozen tools from performance marketing to your actual e-commerce data to your fulfillment and unit economic data — bringing that all into one place letting them see their data in real time.”

“Then our platform serves predictive and prescriptive insights and recommendations to individual users across your teams, so they can drive specific outcomes across the organization based on that unified data set,” Smalley explained.

Screenshot: Yaguara

They build that data set by connecting to a variety of popular tools to help understand what’s happening across the customer lifecycle, whether that’s customer acquisition through Facebook or Google ads or understanding shopping cart abandonment data or how often the customer has returned to buy again, all of which help build a better picture of the customer.

While this may sound like a customer data platform (CDP), Smalley says it’s actually more than that. While the CDP provides the pipeline to your data sources like Yaguara, it doesn’t stop there. He says it reduces the complexity of helping front-line marketing personnel access and query that data without having to know SQL or R or have a technical intermediary to understand the data.

While the company is young it already has 250 e-commerce customers using the platform. With the new infusion of cash, it should be able to bring in more employees, build more data connectors and continue working to build out the platform.

Spotinst rebrands as Spot and announces new cloud spend dashboard

By Ron Miller

Spotinst, the startup that helps companies find lower cost spot instances in the cloud, announced today that it was rebranding as Spot. It also announced a brand new cloud usage dashboard to help companies get a detailed view of their cloud spend.

Amiram Shachar, co-founder and CEO at Spot, says the new product is designed to give customers much greater insight and visibility into cloud usage and spending.

“With this new product we’re providing a more holistic platform that lets customers see all of their cloud spending in one place — all over their usage, all of their costs, what they are spending and doing across multiple clouds — and then what they can actually do [to deploy resources more efficiently],” Shachar told TechCrunch.

The visibility means that customers can see across cloud vendors and get a big picture view of how they are deploying cloud resources to optimize their usage, which could be useful for the financial side of the house and IT.

“We’re basically bifurcating all of our customers’ cloud infrastructure and telling them this is what you should run on spot instances, this is what you should run on reserved instances and this is why you should keep on on-demand instances,” he said.

The new product builds on the company’s core competency: helping customers deploy cheaper spot and reserved instances from cloud infrastructure vendors in an automated fashion.

Spot instances are a product where cloud vendors deploy their unused resources for much lower cost, while reserved instances provide a discounted rate for buying resources in advance for a set price. However, spot instances have a big catch: when the cloud vendor needs those resources, you get kicked off. Spot helps in this regard by safely moving the workload to another available spot instance automatically.

Spot was founded in 2015 and has raised over $52 million, according to Crunchbase. Shachar says the company is in the $30 million revenue range and this new product should help drive that higher.

Humio announces $20M Series B to advance unlimited logging tool

By Ron Miller

Humio, a startup that has built a modern unlimited logging solution, announced a $20 million Series B investment today.

Dell Technologies Capital led the round with participation from previous investor Accel. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $32 million, according to the company.

Humio co-founder and CEO Geeta Schmidt says the startup wanted to build a solution that would allow companies to log everything, while reducing the overall cost associated with doing that, a tough problem due to the resource and data volume involved. The company deals with customers who are processing multiple terabytes of data per day.

“We really wanted to build an infrastructure where it’s easy to log everything and answer anything in real time. So we built an index-free logging solution which allows you to ask […] ad hoc questions over large volumes of data,” Schmidt told TechCrunch.

They are able to ingest so much data by using streaming technology, says company EVP of sales Morten Gram. “We have this real time streaming engine that makes it possible for customers to monitor whatever they know they want to be looking at. So they can build dashboards and alerts for these [metrics] that will be running in real time,” Gram explained.

What’s more, because the solution enables companies to log everything, rather than pick and choose what to log, they can ask questions about things they might not know, such as an on-going security incident or a major outage, and trace the answer from the data in the logs as the incident is happening.

Perhaps more importantly, the company has come up with technology to reduce the cost associated with processing and storing such high volumes of data. “We have thought a lot about trying to do a lot more with a lot less resources. And so, for example, one of our customers, who moved from a competitor, has gone from 80 servers to 14 doing the same volumes of data,” she said.

Deepak Jeevankumer, managing director and lead investor at Dell Technologies Capital, says that his firm recognized that Humio was solving these issues in a creative and modern way.

“Humio’s team has created a new log analysis architecture for the microservices age. This can support real-time analysis at full-speed ingest, while decreasing cost of storage and analysis by at least an order of magnitude,” he explained. “In a short-period of time, Humio has won the confidence of many Fortune 500 customers who have shifted their log platforms to Humio from legacy, decade-old architectures that do not scale for the cloud world.”

The company’s customers include Netlify, Bloomberg, HP Aruba and Michigan State University. It offers on-prem, cloud and hosted SaaS products. Today, the company also announced it was introducing an unlimited ingest plan for hosted SaaS customers.

Espressive lands $30M Series B to build better help chatbots

By Ron Miller

Espressive, a four-year-old startup from former ServiceNow employees, is working to build a better chatbot to reduce calls to company help desks. Today, the company announced a $30 million Series B investment.

Insight Partners led the round with help from Series A lead investor General Catalyst along with Wing Venture Capital. Under the terms of today’s agreement, Insight founder and managing director Jeff Horing will be joining the Espressive Board. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $53 million, according to the company.

Company founder and CEO Pat Calhoun says that when he was at ServiceNow he observed that, in many companies, employees often got frustrated looking for answers to basic questions. That resulted in a call to a Help Desk requiring human intervention to answer the question.

He believed that there was a way to automate this with AI-driven chatbots, and he founded Espressive to develop a solution. “Our job is to help employees get immediate answers to their questions or solutions or resolutions to their issues, so that they can get back to work,” he said.

They do that by providing a very narrowly focused natural language processing (NLP) engine to understand the question and find answers quickly, while using machine learning to improve on those answers over time.

“We’re not trying to solve every problem that NLP can address. We’re going after a very specific set of use cases which is really around employee language, and as a result, we’ve really tuned our engine to have the highest accuracy possible in the industry,” Calhoun told TechCrunch.

He says what they’ve done to increase accuracy is combine the NLP with image recognition technology. “What we’ve done is we’ve built our NLP engine on top of some image recognition architecture that’s really designed for a high degree of accuracy and essentially breaks down the phrase to understand the true meaning behind the phrase,” he said.

The solution is designed to provide a single immediate answer. If, for some reason, it can’t understand a request, it will open a help ticket automatically and route it to a human to resolve, but they try to keep that to a minimum. He says that when they deploy their solution, they tune it to the individual customers’ buzzwords and terminology.

So far they have been able to reduce help desk calls by 40% to 60% across customers with around 85% employee participation, which shows that they are using the tool and it’s providing the answers they need. In fact, the product understands 750 million employee phrases out of the box.

The company was founded in 2016. It currently has 65 employees and 35 customers, but with the new funding, both of those numbers should increase.

TripActions reportedly lays off hundreds amid COVID-19 travel freeze

By Natasha Lomas

The coronavirus demand crunch has taken another bite: Palo Alto-based corporate travel-focused unicorn, TripActions, reportedly laid off hundreds of staff yesterday.

Per this post on Blind — written by someone with a verified TripActions email address — the company fired 350 people. Business Insider reported the same figure yesterday. While the Wall Street Journal said the layoffs amount to between one-quarter to one-fifth of the startup’s total staff, citing a person familiar with the situation.

In an email to CrunchBase News TripActions confirmed it has axed jobs in response to the COVID-19 global health crisis — saying it has “cut back on all non-essential spend”. Although it did not confirm exactly how many employees it has fired.

“[We] made the very difficult decision to reduce our global workforce in line with the current climate,” TripActions wrote in the statement. “We look forward to when the strength of the global economy and business travel inevitably return and we can hire back our colleagues to rejoin us in our mission to make business travel effortless for our customers and users.”

“This global health crisis is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes, and our hearts go out to everyone impacted around the world, including our own customers, partners, suppliers and employees,” it added. “The coronavirus has had [a] wide-reaching effect on the global economy. Every business has been impacted including TripActions. While we were fortunate to have recently raised funding and secured debt financing, we are taking appropriate steps in our business to ensure we are here for our customers and their travelers long into the future.”

Per the post on Blind, TripActions is providing one week of severance to sacked staff and medical cover until end of month. “With [the coronavirus pandemic] going on you think they would do better,” the OP wrote. The layoffs were made by Zoom call, they also said.

We’ve reached out to TripActions for comment.

Travel startups are facing an unprecedented nuclear winter as demand has fallen off a cliff globally — with little prospect of a substantial change to the freeze on most business travel in the coming months as rates of COVID-19 infections continue to grow exponentially outside China.

However TripActions is one of the highest valued and best financed of such startups — securing a $500M credit facility for a new corporate product only last month, when we noted Crunchbase had more than $480M in tracked equity funding for the company, including a $250M Series D TripActions raised in June from investors including a16z, Group 11, Lightspeed and Zeev Ventures.

Ahead of making the layoffs the company had already paused all hiring, per one former technical sourcer for the company writing on LinkedIn.

Control each other’s apps with new screensharing tool Screen

By Josh Constine

It’s like Google Docs for everything. Screen is a free interactive multiplayer screensharing app that gives everyone a cursor so they can navigate, draw on and even code within the apps of their co-workers while voice or video chatting. Screen makes it easy and fun to co-design content, pair program, code review or debug together, or get feedback from a teacher.

Jahanzeb Sherwani sold his last screensharing tool Screenhero to Slack, but it never performed as well crammed inside the messaging app. Five years later, he’s accelerated the launch of Screen to today and made it free to help all the teams stuck working from home amidst coronavirus shelter-in-place orders. 

Sherwani claims that Screen is “2x-5x faster than other screen sharing tools, and has between 30ms-50ms end-to-end latency. Most other screen sharing tools have between 100ms-150ms.” For being built by just a two-person team, Screen has a remarkable breadth of features that are all responsive and intuitive. Sherwani says the startup is making due with “no funding, 100% bootstrapped, and I’d like to keep it that way” so he can control his destiny rather than being prodded for an exit by investors.

A few things you can do with Screen:

  • Share your screen from desktop on Mac, Windows and Linux while chatting over audio or video calling in a little overlaid window, or join a call and watch from your browser or mobile
  • Use your cursor on someone else’s shared screen so you can control or type anything just like it was your computer
  • Overlay drawing on the screenshare so you can annotate things like “this is misspelled” or “move this there,” with doodles fading away after a few seconds unless your hold down your mouse or turn on caps lock
  • Post ephemeral text comments so you can collaborate even if you have to be quiet
  • Launch Screen meetings from Slack and schedule them with Google Calendar integration
  • Share invite links with anyone with no need to log in or be at the same company, just be careful who you let control your Screen

Normally Screen is free for joining meetings, $10 per month to host them and $20 per person per month for enterprise teams. But Sherwani writes that for now it’s free to host too “so you can stay healthy & productive during the coronavirus outbreak.” If you can afford to pay, you should, though, as “We’re trying this as an experiment in the hope that the number of paid users is sufficient to pay for our running costs to help us stay break-even.”

Sherwani’s new creation could become an acquisition target for video call giants like Zoom, but he might not be so willing to sell this time around. Founded in 2013, Screenhero was incredibly powerful for its time, offering some of the collaboration tools now in Screen. But after it was acquired by Slack after raising just $1.8 million, Screenhero never got the integration it deserved.

“We finally shipped interactive screen sharing almost three years later, but it wasn’t as performant as Screenhero, and was eventually removed in 2019,” Sherwani writes. “Given that it was used by a tiny fraction of Slack’s user-base, and had a high maintenance cost, this was the correct decision for Slack .” Still, he explains why a company like Screen is better off independent. “Embedding one complex piece of software in another imposes a lot more constraints, which makes it more expensive to build. It’s far easier to have a standalone app that just does one thing well.”

Screen actually does a lot of things well. I tried it with my wife, and the low latency and extensive flexibility made it downright delightful to try co-writing this article. It’s easy to imagine all sorts of social use cases springing up if teens get hold of Screen. The whole concept of screensharing is getting popularized by apps like Squad and Instagram’s new Co-Watching feature that launched today.

The new Co-Watching feature is like screensharing just for Instagram

Eventually, Screen wants to launch a virtual office feature so you can just instantly pull co-workers into meetings. That could make it feel a lot more like collaborating in the same room with someone, where you can start a conversation at any time. Screen could also democratize the remote work landscape by shifting meetings from top-down broadcasts by managers to jam sessions where everyone has a say.

Sherwani concludes, “When working together, everyone needs to have a seat at the table.”

GitLab offers key lessons in running an all-remote workforce in new e-book

By Ron Miller

As companies that used to having workers in the same building struggle to find ways to work from home, one company that has been remote from Day One is GitLab . It recently published a handbook to help other companies who are facing the work-from-home challenge for the first time.

Lest you think GitLab is a small organization, it’s not. It’s 1,200 employees strong, all of which work from home in a mind boggling 67 countries. And it’s doing well. In September, the company raised $268 million on a $2.75 billion valuation.

Given that it has found a way to make a decentralized company work, GitLab has decided to share the best practices they’ve built up over the years to help others just starting on this journey.

Among the key bits of advice in the 34-page report, perhaps the most important to note when you begin working apart is to document everything. GitLab has a reputation for hyper transparency, publishing everything from its 3-year business strategy to its projected IPO date for the world to see.

But it’s also about writing down policies and procedures and making them available to the remote workforce. When you’re not in the same building, you can’t simply walk up to someone’s cubicle and ask a question, so you need to be vigilant about documenting your processes in a handbook that is available online and searchable.

“By adopting a handbook-first approach, team members have ‘a single source of truth’ for answers. Even though documentation takes a little more time upfront, it prevents people from having to ask the same question repeatedly. Remote work is what led to the development of GitLab’s publicly viewable handbook,” the company wrote in the e-book.

That includes an on-boarding procedure because folks aren’t coming into a meeting with HR when they start at GitLab. It’s essential to have all the information new hires need in one place, and the company has worked hard to build on-boarding templates. They also offer remote GitLab 101 meetings to orient folks who need more face time to get going.

You would think when you work like this, meetings would be required, but GitLab suggests making meetings optional. That’s because people are spread across the world’s time zones, making it difficult to get everyone together at the same time. Instead, the company records meetings and brainstorms ideas, essentially virtual white-boarding in Google Docs.

Another key piece of advice is to align your values with a remote way of working. That means changing your management approach to fit the expectations of a remote workforce. “If your values are structured to encourage conventional colocated workplace norms (such as consensus gathering or recurring meetings with in-person teams), rewrite them. If values are inconsistent with the foundation of remote work, there’s bound to be disappointment and confusion. Values can set the right expectations and provide a clear direction for the company going forward,” the company wrote.

This is just scratching the surface of what’s in the handbook, but it’s a valuable resource for anyone who is trying to find a way to function in a remote work environment. Each company will have its own culture and way of dealing with this, of course, but when a company like GitLab, which was born remote, provides this level of advice, it pays to listen and take advantage of their many years of expertise.

Startups are helping cloud infrastructure customers avoid vendor lock-in

By Ron Miller

For much of the history of enterprise technology, companies tended to buy from a single vendor because it made managing the entire affair much easier while giving them a “single throat to choke” when something went wrong. On the flip side, it also put customers at the mercy of said vendor — and it wasn’t always pretty.

As we move deeper into the cloud model, many IT pros are looking for more flexibility than they had in the past, avoiding the vendor lock-in from the previous generation of enterprise tech, and what being beholden to a single vendor could mean for the bottom line and their own flexibility.

This is something that comes up frequently in discussions about moving workloads from one cloud to another, and is sometimes referred to as a multi-cloud approach. Customers are loath to leave their workloads in the hands of one vendor again and repeat the mistakes of the past. They are looking to have the same flexibility on the infrastructure side that they are getting in the SaaS world, where companies tend to purchase best-of-breed from multiple vendors.

That means, they want the freedom to move workloads between clouds, but that’s not always as easy a prospect as it might seem, and it’s an area where startups could help lead the way.

What’s the problem?

What’s stopping customers from just moving data and applications between clouds? It turns out that there is a complex interlinking of public cloud APIs that help the applications and data work in tandem. If you want to pull out of one public cloud, it’s not a simple matter of just migrating to the next one.

Ceros launches MarkUp, a design collaboration tool for live websites

By Anthony Ha

When designers need to collaborate with other teams, they can currently turn to products like InVision and Zeplin. But Ceros creative director Jack Dixon said there’s a “pretty interesting gap in the market” — once you move beyond prototypes and start working with websites that are either live or in staging, the process starts to become fragmented, relying on screenshots and email/phone/Google Docs.

That’s why the company (which focuses on powering interactive content “experiences”) is launching a new product called MarkUp. The product was created by a team led by Greg DiNardo and Alex Bullington, who joined Ceros last August through the acquisition of their polling and market research startup Arbit.

Dixon, DiNardo and Bullington gave me a quick demo, showing off how users can mark areas of interest on a website, leave comments and tasks, then mark revisions as completed.

It all looked pretty simple and straightforward, but DiNardo suggested that it’s a real technical challenge — even more than he and Bullington had expected — to provide those kinds of features on top of a live site.

He added that the product’s simplicity was very much by design: “I don’t think we’re going to add a million features … The goal is honestly simplicity, something that graphic designers can kind of live in.”

Eventually, MarkUp could be used not just to solicit design feedback across teams, but also from the public at-large.

Ceros says MarkUp will function separately from the core Ceros Studio platform, but it will be available for free to Studio customers. In fact, it’s already being used by designers at the Huffington Post, Cushman & Wakefield and Informa.

“As of today we want to remove any friction or barrier to entry, so it’s 100 percent free to Ceros customers,” Dixon said. “Getting the  involvement of the broadest community and user bas is going to be critical for this. What we’re learning is that some of the enterprise clients might pay for bigger, more grown-up features [like white labeling]. We can figure out how to monetize later.”

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