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Today — December 1st 2020Your RSS feeds

Salesforce buys Slack in a $27.7B megadeal

By Ron Miller

Salesforce, the CRM powerhouse that recently surpassed $20 billion in annual revenue, announced today it is wading deeper into enterprise social by acquiring Slack in a $27.7 billion megadeal.

Salesforce co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff didn’t mince words on his latest purchase. “This is a match made in heaven. Together, Salesforce and Slack will shape the future of enterprise software and transform the way everyone works in the all-digital, work-from-anywhere world,” Benioff said in a statement

Every worker at every company needs to communicate, something that Slack can ably empower. What’s more, it also facilitates external communication with customers and partners, something that should be quite useful for a company like Salesforce and its family of offerings.

Ultimately, Slack was ripe for the taking. Entering 2020 it had lost around 40% of its value since it went public. Consider that after its most recent earnings report, the company lost 16% of its value, and before the Salesforce deal leaked, the company was worth only a few dollars per share more than its direct listing reference price. Toss in net losses of $147.6 million during the two quarters ending July 31, 2020, Slack’s uninspiring public valuation and its winding path to profitability and it was a sitting target for a takeover like this one.

The new deal also puts Salesforce more on par — and in competition — with its arch rival and sometime friend Microsoft, whose Teams product has been directly challenging Slack in the market. Microsoft, which passed on buying Slack in the past for a fraction of what Salesforce is paying today, has made Teams a key priority in recent quarters, loathe to cede any portion of the enterprise software market to another company.

It’s worth noting that Salesforce was interested in Twitter in 2016, the same year that Microsoft was reportedly interested in Slack, but eventually walked away from that deal when shareholders objected, not wanting to deal with the controversial side of the social platform.

What really has set Slack apart from the pack, at least initially, was its ability to integrate with other enterprise software. When you combined that with bots, those intelligent digital helpers, the company could potentially provide Salesforce customers with a central place to work without changing focus because everything they needed to do can be done in Slack.

Today’s deal comes after Salesforce’s purchase of Quip in 2016 for $750 million. Quip brought a way of socially sharing documents to the SaaS giant, and when paired with the Slack acquisition gives Salesforce a much more robust social story to tell than its internal option Chatter, an early attempt at enterprise social that never really caught on.

Slack was founded in 2013, but its origins go back to an online multiplayer game company called Glitch that was founded in 2009. While the game was ultimately a failure, the startup developed an internal messaging system in the process of building that company that later evolved into Slack.

The company’s historic growth helped Slack raise over $1 billion while private, earning an impressive $7 billion valuation before going public last year. But while the Glitch-to-unicorn story appears simple, Slack has always faced entrenched competition from the likes of not only Microsoft, but also Cisco, Facebook, Google and even Asana and Monday.com.

For Slack, the path to the public markets was fraught with hype and outsized expectation. The company was famous, or as famous as an enterprise software company can be. At the time it felt like the its debut was the start of a long tenure as an indie company. Instead, that public life has been cut short by a huge check. Such is the dog-eat-dog world of tech.

Uber officially completes Postmates acquisition

By Darrell Etherington

Uber today announced the official completion of its Postmates acquisition deal, which it announced originally back in July. The all-stock deal, valued at around $2.65 billion at the time of its disclosure, sees Postmates join Uber, while continuing to operate as a separate service with its own branding and front-end – while some backend operations, including a shared pool of drivers, will merge.

Uber detailed some of its further thinking around the newly combined companies and what that will mean for the businesses they work with in a new blog post. The company posited the move as of benefit to the merchant population they work with, and alongside the official closure announced a new initiative to encourage and gather customer feedback on the merchant side.

They’re calling it a “regional listening exercise” to be run beginning next year, wherein they’ll work with local restaurant associations and chambers of commerce to hear concerns from local business owners in their own communities. This sounds similar in design to Uber’s prior efforts to focus on driver feedback from a couple of years ago in order to improve the way it works with that side of its double-sided marketplace.

Focusing on the needs of its merchant population is doubly important given the current global pandemic, which has seen Uber Eats emerge as even more of a key infrastructure component in the food service and grocery industries as people seek more delivery options in order to better comply with stay-at-home orders and other public safety recommendations.

Yesterday — November 30th 2020Your RSS feeds

Vista acquires Gainsight for $1.1B, adding to its growing enterprise arsenal

By Ron Miller

Vista Equity Partners hasn’t been shy about scooping up enterprise companies over the years, and today it added to a growing portfolio with its purchase of Gainsight. The company’s software helps clients with customer success, meaning it helps create a positive customer experience when they interact with your brand, making them more likely to come back and recommend you to others. Sources pegged the price tag at $1.1 billion.

As you might expect, both parties are putting a happy face on the deal, talking about how they can work together to grow Gainsight further. Certainly, other companies like Ping Identity seem to have benefited from joining forces with Vista. Being part of a well-capitalized firm allowed them to make some strategic investments along the way to eventually going public last year.

Gainsight and Vista are certainly hoping for a similar outcome in this case. Monti Saroya, co-head of the Vista Flagship Fund and senior managing director at the firm, sees a company with a lot of potential that could expand and grow with help from Vista’s consulting arm, which helps portfolio companies with different aspects of their business like sales, marketing and operations.

“We are excited to partner with the Gainsight team in its next phase of growth, helping the company to expand the category it has created and deliver even more solutions that drive retention and growth to businesses across the globe,” Saroya said in a statement.

Gainsight CEO Nick Mehta likes the idea of being part of Vista’s portfolio of enterprise companies, many of whom are using his company’s products.

“We’ve known Vista for years, since 24 of their portfolio companies use Gainsight. We’ve seen Gainsight clients like JAMF and Ping Identity partner with Vista and then go public. We believe we are just getting started with customer success, so we wanted the right partner for the long term and we’re excited to work with Vista on the next phase of our journey,” Mehta told TechCrunch.

Brent Leary, principle analyst at CRM Essentials, who covers the sales and marketing space, says that it appears that Vista is piecing together a sales and marketing platform that it could flip or go public in a few years.

“It’s not only the power that’s in the platform, it’s also the money. And Vista seems to be piecing together an engagement platform based on the acquisitions of Gainsight, Pipedrive and even last year’s Acquia purchase. Vista isn’t afraid to spend big money, if they can make even bigger money in a couple years if they can make these pieces fit together,” Leary told TechCrunch.

While Gainsight exits as a unicorn, the deal might not have been the outcome it was looking for. The company raised more than $187 million, according to PitchBook data, though its fundraising had slowed in recent years. Gainsight raised $50 million in April of 2017 at a post-money valuation of $515 million, again per PitchBook. In July of 2018 it added $25 million to its coffers, and the final entry was a small debt investment raised in 2019.

It could be that the startup saw its growth slow down, leaving it somewhere between ready for new venture investment and profitability. That’s a gap that PE shops like Vista look for, write a check, shake up a company and hopefully exit at an elevated price.

Gainsight hired a new chief revenue officer last month, notably. Per Forbes, the company was on track to reach “about” $100 million ARR by the end of 2020, giving it a revenue multiple of around 11x in the deal. That’s under current market norms, which could imply that Gainsight had either lower gross margins than comparable companies, or as previously noted, that its growth had slowed.

A $1.1 billion exit is never something to bemoan — and every startup wants to become a unicorn — but Gainsight and Mehta are well known, and we were hoping for the details only an S-1 could deliver. Perhaps one day with Vista’s help that could happen.

EveryAction acquires Mobilize, the Democratic volunteering platform

By Taylor Hatmaker

Nonprofit donor management platform EveryAction is buying Mobilize, a company that connects Democratic campaigns to volunteers and helps marshal activists toward progressive causes. Mobilize, formerly known as MobilizeAmerica, grew out of Higher Ground Labs, an incubator focused on leveraging tech for left-leaning political causes and campaigns.

With the acquisition, EveryAction can now extend Mobilize’s organizing tools to its existing base of more than 15,000 clients, which includes the Sierra Club and the Human Rights Campaign. EveryAction is a nonprofit-focused wing of NGP VAN, a company that provides much of the digital infrastructure for the Democratic Party. The terms of the Mobilize deal were not disclosed.

Mobilize, founded in early 2017, rode the wave of Trump-era activism on the left to become a ubiquitous tool helping progressive campaigns translate online interest and energy into action. The platform powered outreach for many candidates in 2020’s Democratic primary, including now President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign, who continued to use Mobilize into the general election.

After Trump’s surprise win in 2016 — and the surprising strategies that got the campaign there — Democrats turned to the startup scene to hone new tools. If the last four years served as a testing ground for Democratic political startup, 2020 sees them on the cusp of a new era altogether.

Earlier this year, Mobilize raised a $3.75 million Series A round led by progressive tech incubator Higher Ground Labs. Chris Sacca’s Lowercase Capital and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, a prominent Democratic donor, also participated in the Series A. Mobilize’s acquisition follows another recent exit connected to Higher Ground Labs: In August, Social Capital, founded by billionaire ex-Facebooker Chamath Palihapitiya, picked up text banking platform Hustle.

Within EveryAction, Mobilize will become its own unit led by Mobilize CEO and co-founder Alfred Johnson. The company’s existing team will move over into the new division under EveryAction’s umbrella. Mobilize co-founder and President Allen Kramer will also move over to EveryAction as deputy general manager of organizing.

“EveryAction is the leading software provider to nonprofits with clients like the National Audubon Society, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the United Nations Foundation,” Johnson told TechCrunch. “They are uniquely poised to bring our best-in-class offering for events and volunteer management to these very deserving organizations.”

Prior to the acquisition, EveryAction was already connected to Mobilize as an integration on its platform and Johnson called the news a “natural evolution” of that relationship. “Our two companies are extremely aligned in mission: to help cause-driven organizations build bigger movements by driving and deepening supporter engagement,” Johnson said. “Together, we can help more people do more good.”

Facebook buys Kustomer for $1B to expand into customer service tools

By Ingrid Lunden

Today Facebook made one of its biggest plays yet to build out the services it provides to businesses on its platform: It is acquiring Kustomer, a startup founded with the aim of disrupting the customer services industry with a new approach to providing agents with better data and a more unified picture of users by bringing together the many social media and other channels and longer history between them and the company in question.

Terms are not being disclosed, but we have confirmed with sources very close to the deal that it was for $1 billion. Reports of the deal (and alleged price) were published earlier today by the WSJ.

Kustomer — co-founded by CEO Brad Birnbaum and Jeremy Suriel (the two worked together across a range of other places, including Airtime and AOL and had sold a previous startup to Salesforce) — had raised around $174 million in private funding from investors that included Coatue, Tiger Global Management, Battery Ventures, Redpoint Ventures, Cisco Investments, Canaan Partners, Boldstart Ventures and Social Leverage. It was last valued at $710 million, according to estimates from PitchBook.

Facebook’s interest in Kustomer is very straightforward, while at the same time a very significant sign of what it hopes to do strategically.

The social network has been slowly building up a big business providing customer services to businesses on its platform, and the plan now is to double down on that with a platform that will do much more of that, potentially as a paid service.

There are some 175 million people using Facebook this way today, covering both those who use Facebook to engage with businesses that use Facebook as their primary online “identity” — in place of a website or mobile app of their own, companies today often simply have a Page on Facebook — and those businesses that provide conversation channels on Facebook-owned messaging apps like Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp as a complement to other ways (and sometimes the sole way) to contact them.

Considering that Facebook has upwards of 2 billion users, 175 million doesn’t sound like a lot.

But as the company starts to see more keen competition from the likes of Snapchat, TikTok and likely others over time, having a better product to sell businesses alongside their other services will give Facebook a better way of locking them into the Facebook ecosystem. It will also give the company a stronger shot at a newer revenue stream to complement advertising, which remains its biggest cash cow by a big margin.

Indeed, customer service is an interesting play for Facebook to be making. The company has been investing in and building a number of additional features for businesses on its messaging apps — most recently on WhatsApp, for example, it started to make it easier for businesses to let people shop and do more on the app. Within that customer service is a huge industry that stretches well beyond the Facebook walled garden.

Indeed, the specific term Kustomer and other CRM companies use to describe what they do is “omni-channel” customer relations. That is to say, it gives the Kustomer business users a complete picture of the many disparate places where “conversations” might be happening with customers — be it on apps, on social media, in websites, via chatbots, or email, etc. The logic is that this makes the agent more efficient and gives him/her a better picture of both how the business is faring across those channels, and more context about a specific user contacting the company from one of those channels, as well as a more complete picture of the customers themselves.

For Facebook, its “customer relations” profile up to now has been about users within its app walls. This gives it a much bigger opportunity to essentially control that bigger picture and bigger relationship, regardless of the platform being used.

Coincidentally, it was only earlier this month that I reported that Snap acquired Voca.ai, which makes customer support voice bots.

While we have no idea how Snap will use that tech — some have speculated it could be to build more voice commands and audio-based tech for its Spectacles — I wrote at the time that it would make a lot of sense to bring this into a bigger product portfolio providing more tools to businesses already using Snapchat to market themselves. This Kustomer acquisition feels very timely in that regard.

 

As Slack acquisition rumors swirl, a look at Salesforce’s six biggest deals

By Ron Miller

The rumors ignited last Thursday that Salesforce had interest in Slack. This morning, CNBC is reporting the deal is all but done and will be announced tomorrow. Chances are, this is going to a big number, but this won’t be Salesforce’s first big acquisition. We thought it would be useful in light of these rumors to look back at the company’s biggest deals.

Salesforce has already surpassed $20 billion in annual revenue, and the company has a history of making a lot of deals to fill in the road map and give it more market lift as it searches for ever more revenue.

The biggest deal by far so far was the $15.7 billion Tableau acquisition last year. The deal gave Salesforce a missing data visualization component and a company with a huge existing market to feed the revenue beast. In an interview in August with TechCrunch, Salesforce president and chief operating officer Bret Taylor (who came to the company in the $750 million Quip deal in 2016), sees Tableau as a key part of the company’s growing success:

“Tableau is so strategic, both from a revenue and also from a technology strategy perspective,” he said. That’s because as companies make the shift to digital, it becomes more important than ever to help them visualize and understand that data in order to understand their customers’ requirements better.”

Next on the Salesforce acquisition hit parade was the $6.5 billion Mulesoft acquisition in 2018. Mulesoft gave Salesforce access to something it didn’t have as an enterprise SaaS company — data locked in silos across the company, even in on-prem applications. The CRM giant could leverage Mulesoft to access data wherever it lived, and when you put the two mega deals together, you could see how you could visualize that data and also give more fuel to its Einstein intelligence layer.

In 2016, the company spent $2.8 billion on Demandware to make a big splash in e-Commerce, a component of the platform that has grown in importance during the pandemic when companies large and small have been forced to move their businesses online. The company was incorporated into the Salesforce behemoth and became known as Commerce Cloud.

In 2013, the company made its first billion dollar acquisition when it bought ExactTarget for $2.5 billion. This represented the first foray into what would become the Marketing Cloud. The purchase gave the company entree into the targeted email marketing business, which again would grow increasingly in importance in 2020 when communicating with customers became crucial during the pandemic.

Last year, just days after closing the Mulesoft acquisition, Salesforce opened its wallet one more time and paid $1.35 billion for ClickSoftware. This one was a nod to the company’s Service cloud, which encompasses both customer service and field service. This acquisition was about the latter, and giving the company access to a bigger body of field service customers.

The final billion deal (until we hear about Slack perhaps) is the $1.33 billion Vlocity acquisition earlier this year. This one was a gift for the core CRM product. Vlocity gave Salesforce several vertical businesses built on the Salesforce platform and was a natural fit for the company. Using Vlocity’s platform, Salesforce could (and did) continue to build on these vertical markets giving it more ammo to sell into specialized markets.

While we can’t know for sure if the Slack deal will happen, it sure feels like it will, and chances are this deal will be even larger than Tableau as the Salesforce acquisition machine keeps chugging along.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Kahoot drops $50M on Drops to add language learning to its gamified education stable

By Ingrid Lunden

After raising $215 million from SoftBank to double down on the surge of interest in online learning, Kahoot has made an acquisition to expand the scope of subjects that it covers. The popular startup, which lets people build and share educational games, has picked up Drops, a startup that helps people learn languages by way of short picture- and word-based games. The plan is to integrate more Kahoot features into Drops’ apps, and to bring some of Drops’ content into the main Kahoot platform.

Kahoot, which trades a part of its shares through Norway’s alternative exchange the Merkur Market and currently has a market cap of over $3 billion, said in an announcement that it would pay $31 million in cash, plus up to $19 million more in cash and shares, based on Drops meeting certain targets between now and 2022. The deal is expected to close this month.

Drops makes three main apps. First in an eponymous freemium app, with free and paid features, that helps adults learn new languages, currently some 42 in all, with a focus on vocabulary, built around five-minute, “snackable” sessions. A second app, Scripts, is aimed at learning to read, write and sign, and it covers four alphabets and four character-based writing systems. A third, Droplets, is aimed specifically at language learning for learners aged between eight and 17. Altogether Drops has clocked up 25 million users.

Notably, one reason it might be off TechCrunch’s (and the startup world’s) radar is that it appears to have been bootstrapped up to now. (We are confirming that detail and will update when/if we learn more.) But it’s had some notable accolades, getting named app of the year by Google in 2018, for one.

The startup was founded in Estonia and has 21 employees and has no “head office” as such, with the team spread across Estonia, US, UK, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Hungary, Ukraine and Russia. This could be one reason why it’s kept costs low: in 2019 it reported gross revenues of $7.5 million (€6.3 million), with cash conversion of 40%.

For some more context, Kahoot says that in the last 12 months, more than 1 billion participating players in over 200 countries attended over 200 million Kahoot! sessions. That figure includes both educational users of its free services, as well as enterprises, which pay to build and use games (for example related to professional development or business compliance) on the platform.

“We are thrilled to welcome Drops to the expanding Kahoot! family as we advance towards our vision to become the leading learning platform in the world,” said Eilert Hanoa, the CEO of Kahoot, in a statement. “Drops’ offerings and innovative learning model are a perfect match to Kahoot!’s mission of making learning awesome through a simple, game-based approach. Drops and language learning becomes the latest addition to our growing offering of learning apps for learners of all ages and abilities. We will continue to expand in new areas to make Kahoot! the ultimate learning destination, at home, school or work, and to make learning awesome!”

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a bonanza for educational apps, which are collectively seeing a huge rush of usage in the last year.

For students, educators and parents, they have become a way of connecting and teaching at a time when physical schools are either closed, or drastically curtailed in what they can do, in order to help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Businesses and other organizations, on the other hand, are leaning on e-learning as a way of keeping connected with staff, engaging them, and training them at a time when many are working from home.

It might seem ironic that at a time when travel has been drastically limited, if not completely halted altogether, for many of us, that language learning has seen an especially big boom.

Maybe it’s about making hay — that is, using the moment to get yourself ready for a time in the future when you might actually get to use your newly acquired foreign language skills. Or maybe it’s just another option for distracting or occupying ourselves in a more constructive way. Whatever might be the motivation or cause, the effect is that language learning is on the up.

Most recently, Duolingo — which incidentally also uses game-based concepts, where you enter a leaderboard for your learning and your daily sessions become winning streaks — raised $35 million on a $2.4 billion valuation, a huge jump for the company.

Kahoot cites figures that predict that digital language learning will be an $8 billion+ market by 2025 as describes Drops as “one of the fastest-growing language platforms in the world.”

“The entire Drops team has spent the last five years building a new way to learn language, and we’re just getting started,” said Daniel Farkas, co-founder and CEO, Drops, in a statement. “We’ve introduced millions of users across the globe to our playful, dynamic approach to language learning. Kahoot! is doing the same for all types of learning. We’re excited to work with such a mission-aligned company to introduce the Drops platform to game-loving learners everywhere.”

Vettery acquires Hired to create a ‘unified’ job search platform

By Anthony Ha

Two large job search and recruiting platforms are coming together, with Vettery acquiring Hired.

The news follows a report last week in The Information claiming that Hired had begun to sell off its assets and wind down the company. The report also stated that Hired CEO Mehul Patel “abruptly resigned” via Zoom in early October.

Today’s announcement simply says that Patel is moving on “to pursue new opportunities,” with Vettery CEO Josh Brenner becoming chief executive of the combined companies.

Brenner told me that the two platforms are largely complementary, with only a 5% overlap in their respective customer bases. Hired, he said, has built AI job-matching tools (as well as talent assessment and bias reduction features) that are particularly well-suited for software and engineering positions, while Vettery offers “a little bit more breadth in the verticals that we support.”

“The key is bringing scale to these marketplaces,” Brenner said. “We see this as a formidable competitor to any of the legacy hiring solutions.”

Hired and Vettery logos

Image Credits: Vettery

The plan, he added, is to create a single “unified solution” that brings together the best of both platforms. Vettery says this solution will offer job-matching AI that draws on combined data from 1.5 million interviews and more than 21,000 job placements.

Asked whether the combined site would operate under the Hired or Vettery brand name, Brenner said, “We believe there will be one brand in the future. Right now, we’re continuing to keep both brands while we do the research to figure out what the best approach is.”

Hired was founded in 2012 and raised more than $130 million in funding, according to Crunchbase. Vettery, meanwhile, launched in 2014 and was itself acquired two years ago by HR services firm Adecco Group.

The financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed.

Asked how many Hired employees would be joining Vettery, Brenner said it was too early in the transition to specify, but he added, “Not only does Hired have a great client base, they’ve also got an amazing team that we’ve admired as well and gotten to know over the last period of time … so we’re extremely hopeful that we can bring together as many of those talented people as possible.”

Walmart is buying JoyRun assets to add ‘peer-to-peer’ product delivery

By Brian Heater

The last time we wrote about JoyRun, it was raising $10 million. Today, the Bay Area startup has some very different news to share, as it becomes part of Walmart as Walmart has purchased select assets in a bid to enhance its supply chain. The mega-retailer announced today that it has acquired “select assets – including the talent, technology platform and IP” from the company, in a bid to incorporate its peer-to-peer food and drink delivery service into its own last-mile logistics.

Walmart EVP Srini Venkatesan notes that the app has amassed a network of 540 third-party merchant partners and north of 30,000 people who have delivered goods with the service since its launch half-a-decade ago. JoyRun’s service is a bit of twist on more standard delivery apps like Seamless and Uber Eats.

As we described it back in 2017, “The company’s app lets people find out who, nearby, is already heading out to a restaurant that they like, then tack on an order of their own.” It will be interesting to see how Walmart integrates this technology into its existing chain, though from the sound it, Walmart would essentially be relying on non-professionals to delivery goods like groceries.

The system would likely operate in a manner like Amazon Flex — a kind of Uber/Lyft gig economy-style approach to delivery.

“This acquisition allows us to further augment our team and ongoing efforts to explore even more ways to deliver for customers in the future,” Venkatesan adds. “For instance, Runners could complement our SPARK program and 3rd Party delivery providers. Our goal is to deliver as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Walmart expects the deal to close “in the coming weeks,” which will incorporate JoyRun into its Supply Chain Technology team. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Snap acquired Voisey, an app to create music tracks overlaying your own vocals

By Ingrid Lunden

Snapchat helped pioneer the use of lenses on faces in photos and videos to turn ordinary picture messages into fantastical creations where humans can look like, say, cats, and even cats can wear festival-chic flower crowns. Now it sounds like the company might be turning its attention… to sound.

The company appears to have acquired Voisey, a U.K. startup that features instrumentals that you overlay with your own voice to create short music tracks (and videos), and also lets musicians upload instrumentals that become the basis for those tracks. Users can apply audio filters (like auto-tune, automated harmonies and some funny twists like a Billie-Eilish-ish effect) to their voices; and they can browse and view other people’s Voisey tracks.

The results look something like this or this.

The deal was first reported by Business Insider, which noted Voisey had changed its company address in London to that of Snap’s. In addition to that, we have seen that filings in Companies House indicate that the the four people who co-founded the startup — Dag Langfoss-Håland, Pal Wagtskjold-Myran, Erlend Drevdal Hausken and Oliver Barnes — as well as the startup’s first two investors — Terry Steven Fisher and Jason Lee Brook — all resigned as directors of the company on October 21. At the same time, two employees at Snap — Atul Manilal Porwal on the legal team and international controller Amanda Louise Reid — were assigned directorship roles.

Snap’s London spokesperson Tanya Ridd said Snap declined to comment for this story. Voisey did not respond to our email.

Voisey had raised only $1.88 million to date (per PitchBook data), and it’s ranked at 143 in iOS in Music in the U.S. currently, according to AppAnnie stats. It’s not clear how much Snap would have paid for the startup, but the news comes on the heels of a Snap filing earlier this month that indicated that the U.K. entity, which is still loss-making, is poised to borrow up to $500 million, so there is possibly some cash for acquisitions reserved as part of that.

Voisey has been described in the past as a “TikTok for music creation”. And it does look a little like the popular video app, which like Voisey is also focused around user-generated content. Voisey has a distinctly stronger creator feel to it, and there has even been at least one singer discovered on the platform. The Billie Eilish-esque Olivia Knight, who goes by “poutyface,” signed with Island Records/Warner Chappell earlier this year.

On the other hand, TikTok — at least for now — is less about music creation and more about people creating other kinds of content — dancing, written messages, chitchat — set to music. We write “for now” because TikTok’s parent ByteDance has also quietly acquired assets for music creation, so maybe we should watch this space.

It’s not clear whether Snap would look to integrate some or all of Voisey’s features into its flagship app Snapchat to create new music services, or run Voisey as a separate app (with easy hooks into Snapchat), or a combination of the two. Based on experience it could be any of these.

Snap has been slowly building up its music cred, but up to now that has felt more like work to clone TikTok: last month, it launched Sounds on Snapchat, a feature to let people add tunes to their Stories, to make them, well, more like TikTok videos. That has come with a growing trove of licensing deals with big publishers.

Even before it launched that, Snap hadn’t ignored the power of sound completely. It has been offering voice filters, to give your videos a more comedic twist, for years already. But with music being one of the most engaging of formats on social media, Voisey could potentially give Snap, and Snapchat, a leg up in the feature race with a platform to build original content.

What’s interesting is the timing of this deal.

It was just last week that we revealed another voice-focused acquisition of Snap’s, the Israeli startup Voca.ai, which it acquired for $70 million (although a close source disputed that and said it’s $120 million…).

As with Voisey, no word on where Voca.ai tech will be used, but Voca.ai is an AI-based startup that lets companies create interactive voice-based chatbots for customer service interactions. That could see Snap expanding the kinds of services it provides to businesses, or expanding how people can interact using voice on its existing services, specifically its Spectacles, or both (or, again, something completely different).

Put together with the Voisey deal, it’s a sign of the company doing a lot more than just snapping pictures.

Onit acquires legal startup McCarthyFinch to inject AI into legal workflows

By Ron Miller

Onit, a workflow software company based in Houston, announced this week that it has acquired 2018 TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield alum McCarthyFinch. Onit intends to use the startup’s AI skills to beef up its legal workflow software offerings.

The companies did not share the purchase price.

After evaluating a number of companies in the space, Onit focused on McCarthyFinch, which gives it an artificial intelligence component the company’s legal workflow software had been lacking. “We evaluated about a dozen companies in the AI space and dug in deep on six of them. McCarthyFinch stood out from the pack. They had the strongest technology and the strongest team,” Eric M. Elfman, CEO and co-founder of Onit told TechCrunch.

The company intends to inject that AI into its existing Aptitude workflow platform. “Part of what really got me excited about McCarthyFinch was the very first conversation I had with their CEO, Nick Whitehouse. They considered themselves an AI platform, which complemented our approach and our workflow automation platform, Aptitude,” Elfman said.

McCarthyFinch CEO and co-founder Whitehouse says the startup was considering whether to raise more money or look at being acquired earlier this year when Onit made its interest known. At first, he wasn’t really interested in being acquired and was hoping to go the partner route, but over time that changed.

“I was very much on the partner track, and was probably quite dismissive to begin with because I was quite focused on that partner strategy. But as we talked, all egos aside, it just made sense [to move to acquisition talks],” Whitehouse said.

The talks heated up in May and the deal officially closed last week. With Onit headquartered in Houston and McCarthyFinch in New Zealand the negotiations and meetings all happened on Zoom. The two companies’ principals have never met in person. The plan is for McCarthyFinch to stay in place, even after the pandemic ends. Whitehouse expects to make a trip to Houston whenever it is safe to do so.

Whitehouse says his experience with Battlefield has had a huge influence on him. “Just the insights that we got through Battlefield, the coaching that we got, those things have stuck with me and they’ll stick with me for the rest of my life,” he said.

The company had 45 customers and 17 employees at the time of the acquisition. It raised US$5 million along the way. Now it becomes part of Onit as the journey continues.

FireEye acquires Respond Software for $186M, announces $400M investment

By Ron Miller

The security sector is ever frothy and acquisitive. Just last week Palo Alto Networks grabbed Expanse for $800 million. Today it was FireEye’s turn snagging Respond Software, a company that helps customers investigate and understand security incidents, while reducing the need for highly trained and scarce security analysts. The deal has closed, according to the company.

FireEye had its eye on Respond’s Analyst product, which it plans to fold into to its Mandiant Solutions platform. Like many companies today, FireEye is focused on using machine learning to help bolster its solutions and bring a level of automation to sorting through the data, finding real issues and weeding out false positives. The acquisition gives them a quick influx of machine learning-fueled software.

FireEye sees a product that can help add speed to its existing tooling.”With Mandiant’s position on the front lines, we know what to look for in an attack, and Respond’s cloud-based machine learning productizes our expertise to deliver faster outcomes and protect more customers,” Kevin Mandia, FireEye CEO said in a statement announcing the deal.

Mike Armistead, CEO at Respond, wrote in a company blog post that today’s acquisition marks the end of a 4-year journey for the startup, but it believes it has landed in a good home with FireEye. “We are proud to announce that after many months of discussion, we are becoming part of the Mandiant Solutions portfolio, a solution organization inside FireEye,” Armistead wrote.

While FireEye was at it, it also announced a $400 million investment from Blackstone Tactical Opportunities fund and ClearSky (an investor in Respond), giving the public company a new influx of cash to make additional moves like the acquisition it made today.

It didn’t come cheap. “Under the terms of its investment, Blackstone and ClearSky will purchase $400 million in shares of a newly designated 4.5% Series A Convertible Preferred Stock of FireEye (the “Series A Preferred”), with a purchase price of $1,000 per share. The Series A Preferred will be convertible into shares of FireEye’s common stock at a conversion price of $18.00 per share,” the company explained in a statement. The stock closed at $14.24 today.

Respond, which was founded in 2016, raised $32 million including a $12 million Series A in 2017 led by CRV and Foundation Capital and a $20 million Series B led by ClearSky last year, according to Crunchbase data.

BuzzFeed acquires HuffPost

By Anthony Ha

HuffPost has a new owner, with its current parent company Verizon Media reaching an agreement to sell the site to BuzzFeed.

The Wall Street Journal broke the news and described this as a stock deal. Verizon Media is also making an investment in BuzzFeed and becoming a minority shareholder in the digital media company.

The deal also includes an agreement to syndicate content between the two companies while collaborating on advertising and creating a joint innovation group to explore other monetization opportunities.

As BuzzFeed’s press release notes, this deal brings HuffPost full circle, since BuzzFeed co-founder and CEO Jonah Peretti was also one of the founders of what was originally known as The Huffington Post.

“I have vivid memories of growing HuffPost into a major news outlet in its early years, but BuzzFeed is making this acquisition because we believe in the future of HuffPost and the potential it has to continue to define the media landscape for years to come,” Peretti said in a statement. “With the addition of HuffPost, our media network will have more users, spending significantly more time with our content than any of our peers.”

AOL acquired The Huffington Post for $315 million nearly a decade ago, just a few months after it acquired TechCrunch.

The acquisition was seen a major move into the world of journalism and digital media, but there have been a series of corporate changes since then, with AOL subsequently acquired by VerizonVerizon also acquiring Yahoo then rebranding the combined organization first as Oath and then as Verizon Media (which still owns TechCrunch). Tim Armstrong, the executive behind the acquisition, left the company in 2018.

There have been on-and-of rumors of a HuffPost sale over the years. Last year, Verizon Media CEO Guru Gowrappan said that the company was “not selling HuffPost” because it was “so core to our content.”

BuzzFeed is also searching for a new editor-in-chief at HuffPost. The position has been empty since Lydia Polgreen departed in March.

Voyager Space Holdings to acquire multi-launch site startup The Launch Company

By Darrell Etherington

Voyager Space Holdings, one of the companies that has been on a bit of an acquisitive spree recently as it looks to put together a comprehensive and multi-vertical space technology offering, has announced that it intends to acquire The Launch Company, an Anchorage-based startup that is focused on “streamlining the launch process,” with the ultimate aim of building a launch site capable of playing host to multiple users for quick turnaround between launches from different providers.

Already, The Launch Company has worked with a number of companies in the new space sector, including Firefly, Relativity, and Virgin Orbit. It’s been involved in the DARPA launch challenge, which was designed to kickstart the development of mobile and responsive multi-vehicle launch capabilities. The company’s focus on flexible and responsive launch services is in high demand not only in the emerging commercial space industry, but also for deep-pocketed and consistent clients like the Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force.

Voyager has been focusing on assembling holdings that allow it to provide clients across the space industry with more vertical integration throughout the process of designing and launching a mission. They acquired Pioneer Technologies earlier this year, which is working with NASA on Artemis program elements, and also acquired Altius Space Machines, a satellite interface, servicing and design company last year.

IBM is acquiring APM startup Instana as it continues to expand hybrid cloud vision

By Ron Miller

As IBM transitions from software and services to a company fully focussed on hybrid cloud management, it announced  its intention to buy Instana, an applications performance management startup with a cloud native approach that fits firmly within that strategy.

The companies did not reveal the purchase price.

With Instana, IBM can build on its internal management tools, giving it a way to monitor containerized environments running Kubernetes. It hopes by adding the startup to the fold it can give customers a way to manage complex hybrid and multi-cloud environments.

“Our clients today are faced with managing a complex technology landscape filled with mission-critical applications and data that are running across a variety of hybrid cloud environments – from public clouds, private clouds and on-premises,” Rob Thomas, senior vice president for cloud and data platform said in a statement. He believes Instana will help ease that load, while using machine learning to provide deeper insights.

At the time of the company’s $30 million Series C in 2018, TechCrunch’s Frederic Lardinois described the company this way. “What really makes Instana stand out is its ability to automatically discover and monitor the ever-changing infrastructure that makes up a modern application, especially when it comes to running containerized microservices.” That would seem to be precisely the type of solution that IBM would be looking for.

As for Instana, the founders see a good fit for the two companies, especially in light of the Red Hat acquisition in 2018 that is core to IBM’s hybrid approach. “The combination of Instana’s next generation APM and Observability platform with IBM’s Hybrid Cloud and AI technologies excited me from the day IBM approached us with the idea of joining forces and combining our technologies,” CEO Mirko Novakovic wrote in a blog post announcing the deal.

Indeed, in a recent interview IBM CEO Arvind Krishna told CNBC’s Jon Fortt, that they are betting the farm on hybrid cloud management with Red Hat at the center. When you combine that with the decision to spin out the company’s managed infrastructure services business, this purchase shows that they intend to pursue every angle

“The Red Hat acquisition gave us the technology base on which to build a hybrid cloud technology platform based on open-source, and based on giving choice to our clients as they embark on this journey. With the success of that acquisition now giving us the fuel, we can then take the next step, and the larger step, of taking the managed infrastructure services out. So the rest of the company can be absolutely focused on hybrid cloud and artificial intelligence,” Krishna told CNBC.

Instana, which is based in Chicago with offices in Munich, was founded in 2015 in the early days of Kubernetes and the startup’s APM solution has evolved to focus more on the needs of monitoring in a cloud native environment. The company raised $57 million along the way with the most recent round being that Series C in 2018.

The deal per usual is subject to regulatory approvals, but the company believes it should close in the next few months.

Spacemaker, AI software for urban development, is acquired by Autodesk for $240M

By Steve O'Hear

Autodesk, the U.S. publicly listed software and services company that targets engineering and design industries, has acquired Norway’s Spacemaker, a startup that has developed AI-supported software for urban development.

The price of the acquisition is $240 million in a mostly all-cash deal. Spacemaker’s VC backers include European firms Atomico and Northzone, which co-led the company’s $25 million Series A round in 2019. Other investors on the cap table include Nordic real estate innovator NREP, Nordic property developer OBOS, U.K. real estate technology fund Round Hill Ventures and Norway’s Construct Venture.

Founded by Håvard Haukeland, Carl Christensen and Anders Kvale, and based in Oslo, Norway — but with a number of other outposts around the globe — the 115-person Spacemaker team develops and sells cloud-based software that utilises AI to help architects, urban designers and real estate developers make more informed design decisions. By having Spacemaker look over a designer’s shoulder, as CEO Haukeland likes to say, the software aims to augment the work of humans and not only speed up the urban development design and planning process but also improve outcomes, including around sustainability and quality of life for the people who will ultimately live in the resulting spaces.

To do this, the platform enables users to quickly “generate, optimize, and iterate on” design alternatives, taking into account design criteria and data like terrain, maps, wind, lighting, traffic and zoning, etc. Spacemaker then returns design alternatives optimized for the full potential of the site.

“It was never our plan in the beginning of 2020 to sell the company,” Haukeland told me on a call last week. “But when we started talking to Autodesk, who have reached out for a while, we realized they share our vision. And we understood that this can put our vision on steroids and we can really reach that vision much faster. And that’s what drives us, that’s what we want to do: We want to realize our vision and get our offering out in the world, at the hands of millions of architects and engineers and developers”.

During a call late Friday, Andrew Anagnost, CEO and president of Autodesk, said the acquisition of Spacemaker is in line with the company’s long-term strategy of using the power of the cloud, “cheap compute” and machine learning to evolve and change the way people design things.

“This is something strategically we’ve been working towards, both with the products we make internally with the capabilities we roll out that are more cutting edge, and also our initiative when we look at companies we’re interested in acquiring,” he said.

“We’ve been watching this space for a while; the application that Spacemaker has built we would characterize it, from our terminology, as ‘generative design’ for urban planning, meaning the machine generating options and option explorations for urban planning-type applications.

“Spacemaker really stands out in terms of applying cloud computing, artificial intelligence, data science, to really helping people explore multiple options and come up with better decisions”.

Image Credits: Spacemaker

Post-acquisition, the plan is to keep Spacemaker as an autonomous unit within Autodesk and (hopefully) not interfere too much with the formula and startup ethos that has seemingly been working, while also enabling the team to have the resources needed to continue on their mission.

“They want to let Spacemaker be Spacemaker; they’re not [just] acquiring our product, they’re acquiring the potential and the journey we’re on as a team,” says Haukeland. “They’re acquiring the mission we’re on, the way we work, the knowledge we have, [and] all our failed attempts along the way… so it’s much more than just swallowing the product”.

That knowledge and those “failed attempts” span not only the Spacemaker CEO’s own background as an architect, but the path to product-market-fit and the technology itself.

“Initially they targeted architects directly, but realised that they have relatively small budgets,” recalls Michiel Kotting, who led the startup’s Series A round on behalf of Northzone. “From Håvards experience in the industry they decided to pivot to serving [property] developers who then give the software to their in-house and external architects. They were surprised to see that they could get significant six-figure deals per project out of the gate”.

He also says the team was convinced early on that generative design is the future. “Rather than be software that can do what architects used to do on paper, the full power of modern day compute is put at the disposal of architects,” he told me. “The path to get there has been a bit like Deep Mind’s AlphaGo project — a myriad of different techniques, ML, AI, rules based optimisation etc. that jointly provide the most powerful result, rather than just ‘lets just throw the latest deep learning model at the project and see what sticks’ “.

“They were actually solving a problem, a problem that our customers were telling us that they wanted solved and liked the way they were solving it,” says Anagnost. “So it wasn’t just a great team with a great idea and some great technology, they actually solved the problem. And I think this is really important: You can play with technology all you like, but if you can’t find the intersection of either creating a whole new opportunity or market or solving an existing problem in a completely new and disruptive way, then you really haven’t created something useful. They’ve created something useful”.

“When we led Spacemaker’s Series A round less than two years ago, we saw a world-leading product and a company with the DNA to push the boundaries of what was possible in applying AI to architecture and property development,” says Atomico’s Ben Blume . “As the global leader in architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) software, and with products that set the standard across the industry, Autodesk’s acquisition validates our belief that world-class AI products are being built here in Europe”.

Image Credits: Spacemaker

In building out the product iteratively, Northzone’s Kotting says the Spacemaker team “honed the art of ‘human in the loop’ “. “The generative design calculates the possible solution space, and the architect can then navigate that space and figure out interesting starting points and see the impact of design choices. So you can design something that is both beautiful/fit for purpose and optimal”.

He also doesn’t think the team would have been able to do that if it wasn’t for a combination of architectural talent and “bleeding-edge” software designers. This is where founding the company in Norway may have been an advantage. “It might not be so obvious you’d find a lot of those in Norway, but some of the hard-core optimisation problems in oil and gas are very similar to the Spacemaker problem, so it is actually a very fertile country for that,” adds Kotting.

The challenge then wasn’t Norway’s talent pool but persuading the most talented people to work for a startup. This is where Spacemaker’s mission, and Nordic culture more generally, was also a strength.

Reflects Haukeland: “What we experienced in the early days is that when you’re trying to solve such a hard problem, [with] such an ambitious journey, you need incredibly talented people who are able to get a lot of autonomy and solve problems, because there are so many problems you need to solve. And I think what we experienced in Norway four years ago was that a lot of the really good people went into either oil and gas or, you know, consulting. And what we saw was that people really want to join a mission where they can have a positive impact, and they can use their capacity and their talent and their brains to solve difficult problems. We were lucky to get so much incredible talent to join us because of that”.

Anagnost also cites Spacemaker’s culture and its European vantage-point as a differentiator. “This is a European high technology company using cutting-edge algorithms and approaches in the cloud and they start it from an ethical framework that might not be as common as startups in other places,” he tells me. “So if you were to ask me what was differentiating here, I think the ethical framework they’re coming in with this is, ‘we’re going to use this data to enable this audience to do a better job of what they do every day. And we’re going to do it in such a way that we’re partnering with the customers, and we’re also creating better outcomes, not just for them but for the whole ecosystem of stakeholders… and one of the stakeholders is the environment of the area. That ethos from a technology company, probably, you know, rose up faster in the European market than it might have in some of the U.S. markets where it’s more about, ‘let’s plow through things,’ and not so much about what is my ethical foundation here and what I’m trying to accomplish?”

However, with Europe’s current infatuation with unicorns — and a growing track record of producing companies valued at $1 billion dollars (or a lot more) — one legitimate question that can be asked is did the Norwegian startup sell too early?

“I think that’s a very VC-oriented perspective, because what it’s really about is, are they selling out earlier on the return for the VCs?” argues the Autodesk CEO. “I think if you look at it through the lens of what the employees and the company is trying to accomplish, they’re going to be able to accomplish more working closely inside of Autodesk than they would have, even if they continue to accept dollars and have their valuation increase. Maybe the VCs might see a smaller return, [but] I don’t think the employees are going to see a bigger net return to their vision. And if you’ve talked to these people, they’re very passionate about what they do”.

“Even though for our taste this exit comes early in the journey, we share the enthusiasm for achieving maximum impact fast, and have seen in the process how important Autodesk believes the Spacemaker product is in their future,” says Kotting.

Meanwhile, Haukeland maintains that Spacemaker has only built “5% of what can be built” and says the industry as a whole is at the beginning of a huge transformation in the way people work. “When you go from designing something and checking how it works to asking your computer for help and having the computer advising you on your shoulder, it’s really changing the game. That is such a fundamental change that it’s more than just putting a product out there. It’s really a shift that’s going to be changing the industry over the years”.

“We’re going to continue to encourage them and drive them to build out that product,” says Anagnost, “but they’re also going to have other avenues to extend their technology and other places where they can link their technology to parts of the Autodesk ecosystem”.

Baidu to acquire Joyy’s Chinese live-streaming service YY for $3.6B

By Manish Singh

Baidu said on Monday it is acquiring Joyy’s live-streaming service YY Live in China for $3.6 billion in an all-cash deal as the Chinese internet giant makes a further push to diversify beyond its core search business.

The announcement, which Baidu shared on the sidelines of its quarterly earnings, is the Chinese firm’s biggest foray into the growing market of video streaming. It comes at a time when the company has been struggling to fight new comers such as ByteDance.

YY has amassed more than 4 million paying subscribers who watch influencers perform and sell a range of items on the video app. The streaming service last year bought a stake worth $1.45 billion in Bigo, a Singapore-based startup that operates streaming apps Bigo Live and Like in a push to expand outside of China.

YY today is only selling its China business to Baidu. The closing of the transaction is subject to certain conditions and is currently expected to occur in the first half of 2021, Baidu said.

“This transaction will catapult Baidu into a leading platform for live streaming and diversify our revenue source.” said Robin Li, co-founder and chief executive of Baidu, in a statement.

“YY Live stands to benefit from Baidu’s large traffic and thriving mobile ecosystem, while Baidu will receive immediate operational experience and knowhow for large-scale video-based social media development, as well as an enviable creator network that will further strengthen Baidu’s massive content provider network. Together with the team from YY Live, Baidu hopes to explore the next-generation livestreaming and video-based social media that can expand beyond entertainment into the diversified verticals on Baidu platform.”

More to follow…

 

The DOJ has approved Mastercard’s acquisition of Finicity

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Federal regulators have approved Mastercard’s acquisition of Salt Lake City-based startup Finicity, which provides open-banking APIs. The deal is expected to go for $825 million.

“We were notified that the Department of Justice completed its review of our planned acquisition of Finicity and has cleared it to move forward,” Mastercard wrote in a statement. “We are pleased to have reached this milestone.”

Finicity allows users to be able to decide how their financial information is shared and who can make money decisions on their behalf through open APIs. The buy will allow Mastercard to offer consumers and businesses more choice in these transactions, without requiring them to do heavy lifting themselves.

Finicity, according to Crunchbase, has raised nearly $80 million in known venture capital as a private company. When closed, it will be one of the largest fintech acquisitions at nearly $1 billion in 2020.

The DOJ approval comes just two weeks after the body filed an antitrust lawsuit challenging Visa’s proposed $5.3 billion buy of Plaid. Plaid, which empowers a large chunk of financial services through its data network, including Venmo and Acorns, is being accused of making Visa a monopoly in online debt services.

Plaid has denied these claims, saying that “Visa intends to defend the transaction vigorously.” The feds are also looking into Intuit’s $7 billion proposed buy of Credit Karma, which was first announced in February 2020.

The approval of the Mastercard-Finicity transaction could be a shot in the arm for fintech startup valuations. After both the Plaid and Credit Karma deals came under increasing regulatory scrutiny, it was an open questions whether big-dollar M&A was going to be an option for fintech unicorns.

If the path was closed due to regulatory concerns, fintech startups would have to either pursue earlier, smaller sales themselves, or wait for an eventual IPO. If that was the case, venture capitalists might shun putting as much capital to work in the sector. However, the Finicity approval makes it clear that not all fintech M&A worth $500 million or more is going to encounter oversight headaches. That should be welcome news for late-stage fintech valuations.

Snap acquired Voca.ai, which makes AI-based voice agents for call centers

By Ingrid Lunden

Snapchat is the quintessential consumer app: With an array of fun filters, it encourages people to send fun, disappearing messages to friends and has a large base of younger users. But could parent company Snap be eyeing up ways of leveraging its traction in the consumer world — with the app now seeing 249 million daily active users — with an entry into more services for business?

TechCrunch has learned and confirmed that Snap is acquiring a startup called Voca.ai, which builds AI-based voice assistants for customer support services, for $120 million: $70 million in cash plus $50 million in stock. Update: Another close source insists the price is just $70 million, calculating all the elements of the deal. We’re still digging on this…

“7 out of 10 customers still prefer speaking with an agent,” Voca notes on its site. “Voca offers natural, human-like conversations that will leave you wondering if you spoke with a virtual or human agent.” The platform serves as a kind of triage system, which handles simple inbound queries, and then hands over to agents seamlessly for more complex issues.

A spokesperson for Snap declined to comment for this article, and messages sent to Voca’s founders — Einav Itamar and Alan Bekker — have not been returned. But we have confirmed the price and deal with multiple sources close to the transaction.

Israeli publication Calcalist first reported on the transaction.

Voca.ai’s team of 40 will all be joining Snap, we have been told.

Voca.ai, founded in Israel with offices also in New York — had raised about $6 million — including a strategic round from American Express Ventures in October 2019. Other investors include lool ventures and Flint Capital.

It’s notable that the startup already has a substantial list of customers and says that it powers “millions of conversations.” Specifically in October last year, it noted that it was processing some 2 million calls/conversations per month in verticals that include banking, telecoms, insurance and legal services. Customers include Toshiba, Amdocs, FirstClass Capital and Boost Health Insurance, among others.

It’s not clear what Snap intends to do with Voca.ai, but the deal comes at a very interesting moment. All virtual services have seen a big boost of activity this year, with the pandemic — and the general public health push to reduce in-person contacts — driving more people to handle business online than ever before.

And that is driving companies building consumer-facing tech apps to diversify and market their platforms as a unique way to interface between businesses and customers. One key example of that has been Facebook, which has added more tools to Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram to make the apps more useful to businesses that want not just to market themselves to customers, but to use the apps to handle questions from them, and potentially sell things to them.

Although Snap may be interested in Voca.ai simply as a way to build better interactions with its own customers — it registered a 52% growth in revenues this past quarter (Q3), and $679 million in business is nothing to sniff at — it’s a natural and logical move for it to consider how it could build more business services into Snapchat, and diversify its own revenues along with that. 

In its home page for its business services, the company notes that “People use Snapchat to communicate with friends, build relationships, play and learn. Inspire action with full-screen, digital ads that boost awareness, drive conversions, and generate real results for businesses of all sizes.” It’s not a stretch to think that those business imperatives could also extend to “drive conversations.”

It’s worth also pointing out that Voca.ai’s platform is particularly relevant in the current market. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses got quickly overwhelmed with inbound customer requests — many coming online but through all channels — and they have subsequently been looking for cost-effective ways to handle those much higher, unexpected volumes of inbound calls and questions. Voca.ai is part of the wave of startups that are looking to provide that solution, by way of AI-based voice bots to complement existing customer service teams.

Snap has made a number of interesting deals to pick up IP in the area of artificial intelligence, but much of that has been in the area of computer vision, for example to create photo and video filters and other augmented reality applications. They have included the likes of Looksery, AI Factory and Cimagine, which happens to be another startup out of Israel.

Palo Alto Networks to acquire Expanse in deal worth $800M

By Ron Miller

Palo Alto Networks has been on buying binge for the last couple of years, and today it added to its haul, announcing a deal to acquire Expanse for $800 million in cash and equity awards. The deal breaks down to $670 million in cash and stock and another $130 million in equity awards to Expanse employees.

Expanse provides a service to help companies understand and protect their attack surface, where they could be most vulnerable to attack. It works by giving the security team a view of how the company’s security profile could look to an attacker trying to gain access.

The plan is to fold Expanse into Palo Alto’s Cortex Suite, an AI-driven set of tools designed to detect and prevent attacks in an automated way. Expanse should provide Palo Alto with a highly valuable set of data to help feed the AI models.

“By integrating Expanse’s attack surface management capabilities into Cortex after closing, we will be able to offer the first solution that combines the outside view of an organization’s attack surface with an inside view to proactively address all security threats,” Palo Alto Networks chairman and CEO Nikesh Arora said in a statement.

Expanse sees the acquisition as a way to accelerate the company road map using the resources of a larger company like Palo Alto, a typical argument from companies being acquired. “Joining forces with Palo Alto Networks will let us achieve our most important business goals years ahead of schedule. During the course of conversations with Palo Alto Networks leadership, we shared optimism that the right combination of technology and people can solve many cybersecurity challenges that to date have seemed intractable,” the startup’s founders wrote in a blog post announcing the deal.

The two co-founders, Dr. Tim Junio and Dr. Matt Kraning, will be joining Palo Alto under the terms of the deal, which is expected to close in Palo Alto’s fiscal second quarter, assuming it passes regulatory muster.

Expanse was founded in 2012 and has raised $130 million, according to Crunchbase data. Its most recent raise was a $70 million Series C last year, which was led by TPG.

Today’s acquisition is Palo Alto’s third in 2020 and the 10th since 2018. Palo Alto stock was up 2.15% in early trading.

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