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Why I make everyone in my company be the CEO for a day

By Ram Iyer
Ville Houttu Contributor
Ville Houttu is the founder and CEO of Vincit USA.

Leaders become great not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others.

It’s no secret that most tech companies tout their culture as “unique” or “open,” but when you take a closer look, it’s often merely surface level. Yes, you may be dog-friendly or offer unlimited beer on tap, but how are you helping your employees become the best versions of themselves? We’re at our best when our employees are at their best, so we do everything in our power to make that a reality.

We’re at our best when our employees are at their best, so we do everything in our power to make that a reality.

After successfully running Vincit in Finland and Switzerland, in 2016 we made the jump to the United States, setting up an office in California. Although we had moved over 5,000 miles to a new country, it was important that our two main KPIs remain the same: Employee happiness and customer satisfaction. We believe that happy employees make clients happy, and happy clients refer you to others. Therefore, it was essential that this positive and prosperous workplace environment followed us to the United States.

So beyond traditional benefits, like full medical coverage, 401k matching and standard office amenities, we tapped into our Finnish roots to build and provide our employees with an uninhibited, supportive workplace. We keep our company culture as transparent as possible and fully believe in the power of empowering our employees. We have no managers and no real role hierarchy. Employees do not have to go through an approval process on anything they are working on.

We encourage our employees to make a trip to Finland to visit our headquarters. Instead of “Lunch & Learn” meetings, we host “Fail & Learn” meetings where employees get to share something that didn’t work and what they learned from it. And once a month, we let an employee become the CEO for a day.

Unsurprisingly, the “CEO of the Day” program is one of our most popular initiatives. The program gives our employee the reins for 24 hours with an unlimited budget. The only requirement? The CEO must make one lasting decision that will help improve the working experience of Vincit employees. Whatever the CEO of the Day decides, the company sticks with. They can purchase something for the company, change a policy, update a tool we use … Really, anything that they come up with can be done.

Controversial WhatsApp policy change hit with consumer law complaint in Europe

By Natasha Lomas

Facebook has been accused of multiple breaches of European Union consumer protection law as a result of its attempts to force WhatsApp users to accept controversial changes to the messaging platforms’ terms of use — such as threatening users that the app would stop working if they did not accept the updated policies by May 15.

The consumer protection association umbrella group, the Beuc, said today that together with eight of its member organizations it’s filed a complaint with the European Commission and with the European network of consumer authorities.

“The complaint is first due to the persistent, recurrent and intrusive notifications pushing users to accept WhatsApp’s policy updates,” it wrote in a press release.

“The content of these notifications, their nature, timing and recurrence put an undue pressure on users and impair their freedom of choice. As such, they are a breach of the EU Directive on Unfair Commercial Practices.”

After earlier telling users that notifications about the need to accept the new policy would become persistent, interfering with their ability to use the service, WhatsApp later rowed back from its own draconian deadline.

However the app continues to bug users to accept the update — with no option not to do so (users can close the policy prompt but are unable to decline the new terms or stop the app continuing to pop-up a screen asking them to accept the update).

“In addition, the complaint highlights the opacity of the new terms and the fact that WhatsApp has failed to explain in plain and intelligible language the nature of the changes,” the Beuc went on. “It is basically impossible for consumers to get a clear understanding of what consequences WhatsApp’s changes entail for their privacy, particularly in relation to the transfer of their personal data to Facebook and other third parties. This ambiguity amounts to a breach of EU consumer law which obliges companies to use clear and transparent contract terms and commercial communications.”

The organization pointed out that WhatsApp’s policy updates remain under scrutiny by privacy regulations in Europe — which it argues is another factor that makes Facebook’s aggressive attempts to push the policy on users highly inappropriate.

And while this consumer-law focused complaint is separate to the privacy issues the Beuc also flags — which are being investigated by EU data protection authorities (DPAs) — it has called on those regulators to speed up their investigations, adding: “We urge the European network of consumer authorities and the network of data protection authorities to work in close cooperation on these issues.”

The Beuc has produced a report setting out its concerns about the WhatsApp ToS change in more detail — where it hits out at the “opacity” of the new policies, further asserting:

“WhatsApp remains very vague about the sections it has removed and the ones it has added. It is up to users to seek out this information by themselves. Ultimately, it is almost impossible for users to clearly understand what is new and what has been amended. The opacity of the new policies is in breach of Article 5 of the UCTD [Unfair Contract Terms Directive] and is also a misleading and unfair practice prohibited under Article 5 and 6 of the UCPD [Unfair Commercial Practices Directive].”

Reached for comment on the consumer complaint, a WhatsApp spokesperson told us:

“Beuc’s action is based on a misunderstanding of the purpose and effect of the update to our terms of service. Our recent update explains the options people have to message a business on WhatsApp and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data. The update does not expand our ability to share data with Facebook, and does not impact the privacy of your messages with friends or family, wherever they are in the world. We would welcome an opportunity to explain the update to Beuc and to clarify what it means for people.”

The Commission was also contacted for comment on the Beuc’s complaint — we’ll update this report if we get a response.

The complaint is just the latest pushback in Europe over the controversial terms change by Facebook-owned WhatsApp — which triggered a privacy warning from Italy back in January, followed by an urgency procedure in Germany in May when Hamburg’s DPA banned the company from processing additional WhatsApp user data.

Although, earlier this year, Facebook’s lead data regulator in the EU, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission, appeared to accept Facebook’s reassurances that the ToS changes do not affect users in the region.

German DPAs were less happy, though. And Hamburg invoked emergency powers allowed for in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in a bid to circumvent a mechanism in the regulation that (otherwise) funnels cross-border complaints and concerns via a lead regulator — typically where a data controller has their regional base (in Facebook/WhatsApp’s case that’s Ireland).

Such emergency procedures are time-limited to three months. But the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) confirmed today that its plenary meeting will discuss the Hamburg DPA’s request for it to make an urgent binding decision — which could see the Hamburg DPA’s intervention set on a more lasting footing, depending upon what the EDPB decides.

In the meanwhile, calls for Europe’s regulators to work together to better tackle the challenges posed by platform power are growing, with a number of regional competition authorities and privacy regulators actively taking steps to dial up their joint working — in a bid to ensure that expertise across distinct areas of law doesn’t stay siloed and, thereby, risk disjointed enforcement, with conflicting and contradictory outcomes for Internet users.

There seems to be a growing understanding on both sides of the Atlantic for a joined up approach to regulating platform power and ensuring powerful platforms don’t simply get let off the hook.

 

6 strategies for running more effective startup board meetings

By Annie Siebert
Sylvain Kalache Contributor
Sylvain Kalache is the co-founder of Holberton, an edtech company training digital talent in more than 10 countries. An entrepreneur and software engineer, he has worked in the tech industry for more than a decade. Part of the team that led SlideShare to be acquired by LinkedIn, he has written for CIO and VentureBeat.

For many companies in the United States, a board of directors is a fact of doing business. While sole proprietorships and LLCs are not obligated to have one, C and S corporations must. The board’s goal is to ensure the best is done for the company and its shareholders. While many entrepreneurs see board meetings as a chore, they can be a powerful tool if used well.

Communicate often

While board meetings usually happen quarterly, it’s good practice to keep the conversation going in between them. Sending a monthly email update to the board offers multiple advantages:

  • Shorter updates: Business professionals’ attention spans are shrinking. Shorter content is easier to digest, and therefore more likely to be read.
  • Timely feedback: A quarter can be a long time, especially for young startups or during challenging times. The monthly format allows the company to receive help or feedback from the board earlier. In business, speed of iteration is key!
  • Keep them posted: Keeping directors up to date will avoid lengthy updates during board meetings, ensuring focus remains on strategic conversations.

Reach out when in need

When meeting online, founders should pause often and regularly ask if there are questions — even if moments of silence feel awkward at times — to give directors a better opportunity to speak up.

Board members can also be solicited on an ad-hoc basis — founders should keep in mind that board members are here to help the company. If you have doubts about a project decision or want a second, informed opinion, reach out to a board member. This is especially true of directors who have expertise on a specific topic. A quick five-minute call can be a game changer.

Being a founder can be a lonely experience because it can be difficult to discuss sensitive matters with the team. Board members should sign nondisclosure agreements, allowing entrepreneurs to share confidential information and get a different perspective on things.

Discuss goals for the next fundraising event

Founders should make sure to regularly discuss business goals to ensure they reach their next round of funding. Because the industry landscape or economy evolved or the competition stepped up, investors may reconsider their expectations to further fund the company.

EU puts out final guidance on data transfers to third countries

By Natasha Lomas

The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) published its final recommendations yesterday setting on guidance for making transfers of personal data to third countries to comply with EU data protection rules in light of last summer’s landmark CJEU ruling (aka Schrems II).

The long and short of these recommendations — which are fairly long; running to 48 pages — is that some data transfers to third countries will simply not be possible to (legally) carry out. Despite the continued existence of legal mechanisms that can, in theory, be used to make such transfers (like Standard Contractual Clauses; a transfer tool that was recently updated by the Commission).

However it’s up to the data controller to assess the viability of each transfer, on a case by case basis, to determine whether data can legally flow in that particular case. (Which may mean, for example, a business making complex assessments about foreign government surveillance regimes and how they impinge upon its specific operations.)

Companies that routinely take EU users’ data outside the bloc for processing in third countries (like the US), which do not have data adequacy arrangements with the EU, face substantial cost and challenge in attaining compliance — in a best case scenario.

Those that can’t apply viable ‘special measures’ to ensure transferred data is safe are duty bound to suspend data flows — with the risk, should they fail to do that, of being ordered to by a data protection authority (which could also apply additional sanctions).

One alternative option could be for such a firm to store and process EU users’ data locally — within the EU. But clearly that won’t be viable for every company.

Law firms are likely to be very happy with this outcome since there will be increased demand for legal advice as companies grapple with how to structure their data flows and adapt to a post-Schrems II world.

In some EU jurisdictions (such as Germany) data protection agencies are now actively carrying out compliance checks — so orders to suspend transfers are bound to follow.

While the European Data Protection Supervisor is busy scrutinizing EU institutions’ own use of US cloud services giants to see whether high level arrangements with tech giants like AWS and Microsoft pass muster or not.

Last summer the CJEU struck down the EU-US Privacy Shield — only a few years after the flagship adequacy arrangement was inked. The same core legal issues did for its predecessor, ‘Safe Harbor‘, though that had stood for some fifteen years. And since the demise of Privacy Shield the Commission has repeatedly warned there will be no quick fix replacement this time; nothing short of major reform of US surveillance law is likely to be required.

US and EU lawmakers remain in negotiations over a replacement EU-US data flows deal but a viable outcome that can stand up to legal challenge as the prior two agreements could not, may well require years of work, not months.

And that means EU-US data flows are facing legal uncertainty for the foreseeable future.

The UK, meanwhile, has just squeezed a data adequacy agreement out of the Commission — despite some loudly enunciated post-Brexit plans for regulatory divergence in the area of data protection.

If the UK follows through in ripping up key tenets of its inherited EU legal framework there’s a high chance it will also lose adequacy status in the coming years — meaning it too could face crippling barriers to EU data flows. (But for now it seems to have dodged that bullet.)

Data flows to other third countries that also lack an EU adequacy agreement — such as China and India — face the same ongoing legal uncertainty.

The backstory to the EU international data flows issues originates with a complaint — in the wake of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about government mass surveillance programs, so more than seven years ago — made by the eponymous Max Schrems over what he argued were unsafe EU-US data flows.

Although his complaint was specifically targeted at Facebook’s business and called on the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) to use its enforcement powers and suspend Facebook’s EU-US data flows.

A regulatory dance of indecision followed which finally saw legal questions referred to Europe’s top court and — ultimately — the demise of the EU-US Privacy Shield. The CJEU ruling also put it beyond legal doubt that Member States’ DPAs must step in and act when they suspect data is flowing to a location where the information is at risk.

Following the Schrems II ruling, the DPC (finally) sent Facebook a preliminary order to suspend its EU-US data flows last fall. Facebook immediately challenged the order in the Irish courts — seeking to block the move. But that challenge failed. And Facebook’s EU-US data flows are now very much operating on borrowed time.

As one of the platform’s subject to Section 702 of the US’ FISA law, its options for applying ‘special measures’ to supplement its EU data transfers look, well, limited to say the least.

It can’t — for example — encrypt the data in a way that ensures it has no access to it (zero access encryption) since that’s not how Facebook’s advertising empire functions. And Schrems has previously suggested Facebook will have to federate its service — and store EU users’ information inside the EU — to fix its data transfer problem.

Safe to say, the costs and complexity of compliance for certain businesses like Facebook look massive.

But there will be compliance costs and complexity for thousands of businesses in the wake of the CJEU ruling.

Commenting on the EDPB’s adoption of final recommendations, chair Andrea Jelinek said: “The impact of Schrems II cannot be underestimated: Already international data flows are subject to much closer scrutiny from the supervisory authorities who are conducting investigations at their respective levels. The goal of the EDPB Recommendations is to guide exporters in lawfully transferring personal data to third countries while guaranteeing that the data transferred is afforded a level of protection essentially equivalent to that guaranteed within the European Economic Area.

“By clarifying some doubts expressed by stakeholders, and in particular the importance of examining the practices of public authorities in third countries, we want to make it easier for data exporters to know how to assess their transfers to third countries and to identify and implement effective supplementary measures where they are needed. The EDPB will continue considering the effects of the Schrems II ruling and the comments received from stakeholders in its future guidance.”

The EDPB put out earlier guidance on Schrems II compliance last year.

It said the main modifications between that earlier advice and its final recommendations include: “The emphasis on the importance of examining the practices of third country public authorities in the exporters’ legal assessment to determine whether the legislation and/or practices of the third country impinge — in practice — on the effectiveness of the Art. 46 GDPR transfer tool; the possibility that the exporter considers in its assessment the practical experience of the importer, among other elements and with certain caveats; and the clarification that the legislation of the third country of destination allowing its authorities to access the data transferred, even without the importer’s intervention, may also impinge on the effectiveness of the transfer tool”.

Commenting on the EDPB’s recommendations in a statement, law firm Linklaters dubbed the guidance “strict” — warning over the looming impact on businesses.

“There is little evidence of a pragmatic approach to these transfers and the EDPB seems entirely content if the conclusion is that the data must remain in the EU,” said Peter Church, a Counsel at the global law firm. “For example, before transferring personal data to third country (without adequate data protection laws) businesses must consider not only its law but how its law enforcement and national security agencies operate in practice. Given these activities are typically secretive and opaque, this type of analysis is likely to cost tens of thousands of euros and take time. It appears this analysis is needed even for relatively innocuous transfers.”

“It is not clear how SMEs can be expected to comply with these requirements,” he added. “Given we now operate in a globalised society the EDPB, like King Canute, should consider the practical limitations on its power. The guidance will not turn back the tides of data washing back and forth across the world, but many businesses will really struggle to comply with these new requirements.”

 

Transit Agencies Are Trying Everything to Lure You Back

By Aarian Marshall
Systems in Boston, Cleveland, Las Vegas, and the San Francisco Bay Area are offering reduced fares or free rides. Others are considering abolishing fares altogether.

Beamery raises $138M at an $800M valuation for its ‘operating system for recruitment’

By Ingrid Lunden

Online job listings were one of the first things to catch on in the first generation of the internet. But that has, ironically, also meant that some of the most-used digital recruitment services around today are also some of the least evolved in terms of tapping into all of the developments that tech has to offer, leaving the door open for some disruption. Today, one of the startups doing just that is announcing a big round of funding to double down on its growth so far.

Beamery, which has built what it describes as a “talent operating system” — a way to manage sourcing, hiring and retaining of people, plus analyzing the bigger talent picture for an organization, a “talent graph” as Beamery calls it, in an all-in-one, end-to-end service — has raised $138 million, money that it plans to use to continue building out more technology, as well as growing its business, which has been expanding quickly and saw 337% revenue growth year over year in Q4.

The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board (Ontario Teachers’), a prolific tech investor, is leading the round by way of its Teachers’ Innovation Platform (TIP). Other participants in this Series C includes several strategic backers who are also using Beamery: Accenture Ventures, EQT Ventures, Index Ventures, M12 (Microsoft’s venture arm) and Workday Ventures (the venture arm of the HR software giant).

Abakar Saidov, co-founder and CEO at London-based Beamery, told TechCrunch in an interview that it is not disclosing valuation, but sources in the know say it’s in the region of $800 million.

The round is coming on the heels of a very strong year for the company.

The “normal” way of doing things in the working world was massively upended with the rise of Covid-19 in early 2020, and within that, recruitment was among one of the most impacted areas. Not only were people applying and interviewing for jobs completely remotely, but in many cases they were getting hired, onboarded and engaged into new jobs without a single face-to-face interaction with a recruiter, manager or colleague.

And that’s before you consider the new set of constraints that HR teams were under in many places: variously, we saw hiring freezes, furloughs, layoffs and budget cuts (often more than one of these per business), and yet work still needed to get done.

All that really paved the way for platforms like Beamery’s — designed not only to be remote-friendly software-as-a-service running in the cloud, but to handle the whole recruiting and talent management process from a single place — to pick up new customers and prove its role as an updated, more user-friendly approach to the task of sourcing and placing talent.

“Traditional HR is very admin-heavy, and when you add in payroll and benefits, the systems that exist are very siloed,” said Saidov in the interview. “The innovation for us has been to move out of that construct and into something that is human, and has a human touch. From a data perspective, we’re creating the underlying system of record for all of the people touching a business. So when you build on top of that, everything looks like a consumer application.”

In the last 12 months, the company said that customers — which are in the area of large enterprises and include Covid vaccine maker AstraZeneca, Autodesk, Nasdaq, several major tech giants, and strategic investor Workday — filled 1 million roles through its platform, a figure that includes not just sourcing and placing candidates from outside of an organization’s walls, but also filling roles internally.

The work that Beamery is doing is definitely helping the business not just pull its weight — its last round was a much more modest $28 million, which was raised way back in 2018 — but grow and invest in new services.

The company said it had a year-on-year increase of 462% in jobs posted across its customer base. A year before that (which would have extended into pre-pandemic 2019), the number of candidates pipelined increased by a mere 46%, pointing to acceleration.

Beamery today already offers a pretty wide range different services.

They include tools to source candidates. This can be done organically by creating your own job boards to be found by anyone curious enough to look, and by leveraging other job boards on other platforms like LinkedIn, the Microsoft-owned professional networking platform that counts “Talent Solutions” — ie recruitment — as one of its primary business lines. (Recall Microsoft is one of Beamery’s backers.) It also provides tools to create and manage online recruitment events.

Beamery also offers tools to help people get the word out about a role, with a service akin to programmatic advertising (similar to ZipRecruiter) to populate other job boards, or run more targeted executive recruitment searches. It also provides a way for HR teams to create internal recruitment processes, and also run surveys with existing teams to get a better picture of the state of play.

And it has some analytics tools in place to measure how well recruitment drives, retention and other metrics are evolving to help plan what to do in the future.

The big question for me now is how and if Beamery will bring more into that universe. There have been some interesting startups emerging in the wider world of talent IT (if we could call it that) that could be interesting complements to what Beamery already has, or provide a roadmap for what it might try to build itself.

It includes much more extensive work on internal job boards (such as what Gloat has built); digging much deeper into building accurate pictures of who is at the company and what they do (see: ChartHop); or the many services that are building ways of sourcing and connecting with contractors, which are a huge, and growing, part of the talent equation for companies (see: Turing,  RemoteDeelPapaya GlobalLattice, Factorial, and many others).

Beamery already includes contractors alongside full- and part-time roles that can be filled using its platform, but when it comes to managing those contractors, that’s something that Beamery does not do itself, so that could be one area where it might grow, too.

“The key reason enterprises work with us it to consolidate a bunch of workflows,” Saidov said. “HR hates having different systems and everything becomes easier when things interoperate well.” Employing contractors typically involves three elements: sourcing, management and scheduling, so Beamery will likely approach how it grows in that area by determining which piece might be “super core” the centralization of more data, he added.

Another two likely areas he hinted are on Beamery’s roadmap are assessments — that is, providing tools to recruiters who want to measure the skills of applicants for jobs (another startup-heavy area today) — and tools to help recruiters do their jobs better, whether that involves more native communications tools in video and messaging, as well as Gong-like coaching to help them measure and improve screening and interviewing.

It might also consider developing a version for smaller businesses to use.

Questions investors are happy to see considered, it seems, as they invest in what looks like a winner in the bigger race. TIP’s other investments have included ComplyAdvantage, Epic Games, Graphcore, KRY and SpaceX, a long run in a wide field.

“Leading companies worldwide are prioritising recruitment and retention. They are turning to Beamery for a best-in-class talent solution that can be seamlessly integrated with their business,” said Maggie Fanari, MD for TIP in Emea. “Beamery’s best-in-class approach is already recognized by top-tier companies. I’m excited by the company’s vision of to use technology to support long-term talent growth and build better businesses. Beamery is the first company to bring predictive marketing and data science into recruitment. They are a truly innovative company, building a vision that can shape the future of work – the company fits all the criteria we look for in a TIP investment and more.”

10x, a UK fintech, raises $187M to build new services for old banks

By Ingrid Lunden

As so-called neobanks continue to gain more traction in the market with their more modern takes on banking and other financial services, a startup that’s building technology to help incumbent players better compete is announcing a big round of funding.

10x Future Technologies, a London-based fintech that helps larger, established banks build both next-generation services as well as tools to help their older services work more efficiently, has raised $187 million. We understand from sources close to the company that 10x’s valuation with this round is in the range of $700 million.

(The amount raised and valuation also roughly line up with the figures from Sky News, which reported earlier this month that 10x was raising new funding.)

10x will be using the funds both to expand into new geographies like North America, as well as to continue building more technology for its flagship platform. SuperCore, as that platform is called, is an all-in-one system built from scratch to run a wide range of banking services such as payments, core banking, mortgages, analytics, security and marketing, which 10x’s bank customers can integrate into their existing tech by way of APIs, or 10x can use to build those clients new services from the ground up.

This Series C round is full of heavy hitters that speak to the credibility 10x has picked up in its five years in the market.

Co-led by BlackRock and Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPP Investments), it also includes existing investors JPMorgan Chase, Nationwide, Ping An and Australia’s Westpac.

The latter four include strategic backers: Antony Jenkins, the founder and CEO of 10x who himself used to work at big banks (his last role was CEO of Barclays, and although he left under a cloud, his prominence and track record are likely reasons for the company’s clout), tells us that 10x is currently building services for Westpac and Nationwide.

10x has two other banks as customers that it is not disclosing yet, which will be leading to more soon, Jenkins added, since the industry is “at a transitional moment” right now. Some of 10x’s engagements are already live, with “volume going over the platform,” he said. Others have yet to launch.

The opportunity that 10x is targeting is big, but also elusive.

Neobanks and other new-generation fintech providers are slowly chipping away at incumbent banks’ stronghold on consumer and business banking. They are typically doing this not by becoming fully fledged banks themselves, but by stitching together suites of traditional and more modern banking services by way of APIs from other fintechs; machine learning algorithms to personalise services to customers; and modern interfaces to make the whole experience more user-friendly than what you might get from a traditional bank.

Incumbent banks want to compete against these new upstarts with rival products of their own, but in many cases they can’t: their infrastructure is too old, and oftentimes the company culture is even older.

This is where 10x comes in, providing the tools and advice to help them get new services up and running.

Jenkins notes that currently, a lot of the engagements 10x is seeing involve banks bolting on completely new services rather than building services to replace those they already offer. One fitting analogy here is that it’s a little like putting a modern extension on a very old house, rather than remodelling and modernizing the whole of the old house from the ground up.

But, it seems that we are now, five years into 10x’s life as a business, starting to see the first signs of banks willing to explore how to migrate their core data to more modern systems to make it more extensible and usable in a wider range of new services, and 10x believes it can be a partner in that back-end transformation, too.

“The legacy systems are where banks’ issues sit, because they are all architected around product, not customers,” he said. “But we believe that the industry is ready to contemplate the process of migration now.” The company is not yet working on any projects of this kind, he added, but it expects to in the next 12 months.

And even with other fintech startups, like FintechOS, also building services aimed at helping incumbent banks be more modern, that expectation spells opportunity for investors.

“We have been impressed with 10x’s strategy and ambition to play a key role at the heart transformations taking place in financial services, driven by technology innovation, consumer expectations and regulatory reform,” said William Abecassis, BlackRock’s head of Innovation Capital, in a statement. “We are excited to be investing in the business as it scales into new markets.”

Leon Pedersen, MD and head of Thematic Investing, CPP Investments added: “10x is very well placed to change how big banks are built and deliver for their customers. 10x presents an attractive opportunity for a long-term investor like CPP Investments as we believe they will benefit from their exposure to the structural growth trend of financial institutions investing in digital initiatives and renewing core technology infrastructure, allowing banks to introduce new offerings and products much faster than using legacy platforms.”

Edtech investors are flocking to SaaS guidance counselors

By Natasha Mascarenhas

ApplyBoard, a startup that helps international students find opportunities to study abroad, announced today that it has nearly doubled its valuation in a little over a year. The Ontario-based company is now worth around $3.2 billion after raising a $300 million Series D round led by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board.

Startups that help students navigate institutional bureaucracy so they can get more value out of their educational experience may become a growing focus for investors as consumer demand for virtual personalized learning increases.

ApplyBoard makes money from revenue-sharing agreements with colleges and universities. If a student attends a college after using their services, ApplyBoard receives a cut of the tuition. Meanwhile, the service, which helps students search and apply to schools, is free to use.

Co-founder and CEO Martin Basiri did not share specifics on revenue, but he confirmed that his company is growing its sales at a 400% year-over-year rate in 2021. For context, sales in 2019 hit $300 million, meaning that ApplyBoard is making at least $1.2 billion in sales this year.

These figures violate the prevailing edtech narrative from last year: Higher ed is dead! Students don’t want to attend college anymore. Bring back the gap year, but make it permanent!

Instead, this company is proving that the university tech stack is more lucrative than many assumed, especially if you look beyond content offerings and into back-end marketing support.

My take: Startups that help students navigate institutional bureaucracy so they can get more value out of their educational experience may become a growing focus for investors as consumer demand for virtual personalized learning increases.

“Students want a seamless and pain-free application process”

ApplyBoard’s recent fundraising efforts shed a light on its strategy to become, effectively, a tech-savvy guidance counselor for the approximately 200,000 students that it has served to date.

The company raised a $55 million extension round in September to bring on a partner, Education Testing Services (ETS) Strategy Capital, the venture arm of the world’s largest nonprofit education testing and assessment organization. ETS helps administer the TOEFL English-language proficiency test and the GRE graduate admissions test.

The synergies there led ApplyBoard to launch ApplyProof, a service that helps admissions and immigrant officers verify documents that international students need to apply to colleges around the world. Today’s financing event similarly brings in a strategic investor, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

“The demand remains high post-pandemic and we continue to see a strong, pent-up demand from students wishing to study abroad,” Basiri said. “Students want a seamless and pain-free application process and be able to have all the information they need to make an informed decision.”

The hidden benefits of adding a CTO to your board

By Ram Iyer
Abby Kearns Contributor
Abby Kearns, chief technology officer at Puppet, has more than 20 years of experience scaling growth for numerous Fortune 500 and startup companies.

The pandemic forced companies around the world to adjust to a “new normal,” which caused many leaders to pivot their business strategies and adopt new technologies to continue operations. In a time of chaos and change, there is no senior leader that can navigate this sort of change better than a CTO.

Not only do CTOs understand the ever-changing tech landscape, they also provide invaluable insights to help organizations go beyond traditional IT conversations and leverage technology to successfully scale businesses.

Boards are facing pressure to be strategic and thoughtful on how to evolve in the rapidly iterating world of technology, and a CTO is uniquely positioned to address specific challenges.

There are now more reasons than ever to consider adding a CTO to your board. As a CTO myself, I know how important and impactful it can be to have technical-minded leaders on a company’s board of directors. At a time when companies are accelerating their digital transformation, it’s critical to have diverse technical perspectives and people from varying backgrounds, as transformations are a mix of people, process and technology.

Drawing on my experience on Lightbend’s board of directors, here are five hidden benefits of making space at the table for a CTO.

A unique mind (and skill) set

Currently, most boards of directors are composed of former CEOs, CFOs and investors. While such executives bring vast experience, they have very specific expertise, and that frequently does not include technical proficiency. In order for a company to be successful, your board needs to have people with different backgrounds and expertise.

Inviting different perspectives forces companies out of the groupthink mentality and find new, creative solutions to their problems. Diverse perspectives aren’t just about the title –– racial ethnicity and gender diversity are clearly a play here as well.

Deep understanding of tech

For a product-led company, having a CTO who has been close to product development and innovation can bring deep insights and understanding to the boardroom. Boards are facing pressure to be strategic and thoughtful on how to evolve in the rapidly iterating world of technology, and a CTO is uniquely positioned to address specific challenges.

Box beats expectations, raises guidance as it looks for a comeback

By Ron Miller

Box executives have been dealing with activist investor Starboard Value over the last year, along with fighting through the pandemic like the rest of us. Today the company reported earnings for the first quarter of its fiscal 2022. Overall, it was a good quarter for the cloud content management company.

The firm reported revenue of $202.4 million up 10% compared to its year-ago result, numbers that beat Box projections of between $200 million to $201 million. Yahoo Finance reports the analyst consensus was $200.5 million, so the company also bested street expectations.

The company has faced strong headwinds the past year, in spite of a climate that has been generally favorable to cloud companies like Box. A report like this was badly needed by the company as it faces a board fight with Starboard over its direction and leadership.

Company co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie is hoping this report will mark the beginning of a positive trend. “I think you’ve got a better economic climate right now for IT investment. And then secondarily, I think the trends of hybrid work, and the sort of long term trends of digital transformation are very much supportive of our strategy,” he told TechCrunch in a post-earnings interview.

While Box acquired e-signature startup SignRequest in February, it won’t actually be incorporating that functionality into the platform until this summer. Levie said that what’s been driving the modest revenue growth is Box Shield, the company’s content security product and the platform tools, which enable customers to customize workflows and build applications on top of Box.

The company is also seeing success with large accounts. Levie says that he saw the number of customers spending more than $100,000 with it grow by nearly 50% compared to the year-ago quarter. One of Box’s growth strategies has been to expand the platform and then upsell additional platform services over time, and those numbers suggest that the effort is working.

While Levie was keeping his M&A cards close to the vest, he did say if the right opportunity came along to fuel additional growth through acquisition, he would definitely give strong consideration to further inorganic growth. “We’re going to continue to be very thoughtful on M&A. So we will only do M&A that we think is attractive in terms of price and the ability to accelerate our roadmap, or the ability to get into a part of a market that we’re not currently in,” Levie said.

A closer look at the financials

Box managed modest growth acceleration for the quarter, existing only if we consider the company’s results on a sequential basis. In simpler terms, Box’s newly reported 10% growth in the first quarter of its fiscal 2022 was better than the 8% growth it earned during the fourth quarter of its fiscal 2021, but worse than the 13% growth it managed in its year-ago Q1.

With Box, however, instead of judging it by normal rules, we’re hunting in its numbers each quarter for signs of promised acceleration. By that standard, Box met its own goals.

How did investors react? Shares of the company were mixed after-hours, including a sharp dip and recovery in the value of its equity. The street appears to be confused by the results, weighing the report and working out whether its moderately accelerating growth is sufficiently enticing to warrant holding onto its equity, or more perversely if its growth is not expansive enough to fend off external parties hunting for more dramatic changes at the firm.

Sticking to a high-level view of Box’s results, apart from its growth numbers Box has done a good job shaking fluff out of its operations. The company’s operating margins (GAAP and not) both improved, and cash generation also picked up.

Perhap most importantly, Box raised its guidance from “the range of $840 million to $848 million” to “$845 to $853 million.” Is that a lot? No. It’s +$5 million to both the lower and upper-bounds of its targets. But if you squint, the company’s Q4 to Q1 revenue acceleration, and upgraded guidance could be an early indicator of a return to form.

Levie admitted that 2020 was a tough year for Box. “Obviously, last year was a complicated year in terms of the macro environment, the pandemic, just lots of different variables to deal with…” he said. But the CEO continues to think that his organization is set up for future growth.

Will Box manage to perform well enough to keep activist shareholders content? Levie thinks if he can string together more quarters like this one, he can keep Starboard at bay. “I think when you look at the next three quarters, the ability to guide up on revenue, the ability to guide up on profitability. We think it’s a very very strong earnings report and we think it shows a lot of the momentum in the business that we have right now.”

Augmented reality NFT platform Anima gets backing from Coinbase

By Lucas Matney

Augmented reality and non-fungible tokens, need I say more? Yes? Oh, well NFTs have certainly had their moment in 2021, but the question of what they do or what can be done with them has certainly been getting voiced more frequently as the speculative gold rush begins to cool off and people start to think more about how digital goods can evolve in the future.

Anima, a small creative crypto startup built by the founders of photo/video app Ultravisual, which Flipboard acquired back in 2014, is looking to use AR to shift how NFT art and collectibles can be viewed and shared. Their latest venture is an effort to help artists bring their digital creations to a bigger digital stage and help find what the future of NFTs looks like in augmented reality.

The startup has put together a small $500K pre-seed round from Coinbase Ventures, Divergence Ventures, Flamingo DAO, Lyle Owerko and Andrew Unger.

“As NFTs move away from being a more speculative market where it’s all about returns on your purchases, I think that’s healthy and it’s good for us specifically because we want to make things that are more approachable,” co-founder Alex Herrity says.

Their broader vision is finding ways for digital objects to interact with the real world, something that’s been a pretty top-of-mind concern for the AR world over the last few years, though augmented reality development has cooled more recently as creators have sunk into a wait-and-see attitude toward new releases from Apple and Facebook. Both the AR and NFT spaces are incredibly early, something Anima’s co-founders were quick to admit, but they think both spaces have matured enough that the gimmicks are out in the open.

“There’s a context shift that happens when you see AR as a vehicle to have a tactile relationship with something that you collected or that you see is a lifestyle accessory versus the common thing now where it’s a little bit more of an experiential gimmick,” co-founder Neil Voss tells TechCrunch.

The team has worked with a couple artists already as they’ve made early experiments in bringing digital art objects into AR and they’re launching a marketplace late next month based on ConsenSys’s Palm platform, where they hope to showcase more of their future partnerships.

 

Poor onboarding is the enemy of good hiring

By Annie Siebert
Daniel Chait Contributor
Daniel Chait is co-founder and CEO of Greenhouse Software, a recruiting software company that automates and simplifies best practices for hiring talent, and co-author of "Talent Makers: How the Best Organizations Win Through Structured and Inclusive Hiring."

The world of hybrid work is here, and the usual 10-minute intro call, swag bag and first-day team lunch are just not enough to make your new employee feel welcome.

While many companies have found a way to interview and select candidates in a fully remote environment, fewer have spent time and resources on aligning the “pre-boarding” and onboarding process for the new hybrid world of work. Many employers still rely on old ways of welcoming new hires, despite our totally changed work environment.

It’s important to capitalize on candidates’ enthusiasm and eagerness from the moment the offer is signed, instead of when they log in on Day One.

In our experience at Greenhouse, where we help companies as diverse as BuzzFeed, HubSpot and Intercom hire talent across their organization, first impressions can make or break a candidate’s chances of staying at a company.

In fact, 69% of employees will stay for more than three years if their onboarding experience is good, while 20% will leave within 45 days if it’s bad. That difference is costly, as it takes, on average, around $4,129 and 42 days to fill a position.

Replacing someone can cost up to 50%-60% of their annual salary. At the same time, 58% of organizations said they were guilty of centering their onboarding processes on administrative and paperwork requirements alone.

Here is how we advise our clients to set up every new hire for success right from the start.

The company’s Day One comes long before the candidate’s Day One

Most of us can remember the excitement (and anxiety) of receiving and signing an offer for a new job. It’s important to capitalize on candidates’ enthusiasm and eagerness from the moment the offer is signed, instead of when they log in on Day One.

EU bodies’ use of US cloud services from AWS, Microsoft being probed by bloc’s privacy chief

By Natasha Lomas

Europe’s lead data protection regulator has opened two investigations into EU institutions’ use of cloud services from U.S. cloud giants, Amazon and Microsoft, under so called Cloud II contracts inked earlier between European bodies, institutions and agencies and AWS and Microsoft.

A separate investigation has also been opened into the European Commission’s use of Microsoft Office 365 to assess compliance with earlier recommendations, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) said today.

Wojciech Wiewiórowski is probing the EU’s use of U.S. cloud services as part of a wider compliance strategy announced last October following a landmark ruling by the Court of Justice (CJEU) — aka, Schrems II — which struck down the EU-US Privacy Shield data transfer agreement and cast doubt upon the viability of alternative data transfer mechanisms in cases where EU users’ personal data is flowing to third countries where it may be at risk from mass surveillance regimes.

In October, the EU’s chief privacy regulator asked the bloc’s institutions to report on their transfers of personal data to non-EU countries. This analysis confirmed that data is flowing to third countries, the EDPS said today. And that it’s flowing to the U.S. in particular — on account of EU bodies’ reliance on large cloud service providers (many of which are U.S.-based).

That’s hardly a surprise. But the next step could be very interesting as the EDPS wants to determine whether those historical contracts (which were signed before the Schrems II ruling) align with the CJEU judgement or not.

Indeed, the EDPS warned today that they may not — which could thus require EU bodies to find alternative cloud service providers in the future (most likely ones located within the EU, to avoid any legal uncertainty). So this investigation could be the start of a regulator-induced migration in the EU away from U.S. cloud giants.

Commenting in a statement, Wiewiórowski said: “Following the outcome of the reporting exercise by the EU institutions and bodies, we identified certain types of contracts that require particular attention and this is why we have decided to launch these two investigations. I am aware that the ‘Cloud II contracts’ were signed in early 2020 before the ‘Schrems II’ judgement and that both Amazon and Microsoft have announced new measures with the aim to align themselves with the judgement. Nevertheless, these announced measures may not be sufficient to ensure full compliance with EU data protection law and hence the need to investigate this properly.”

Amazon and Microsoft have been contacted with questions regarding any special measures they have applied to these Cloud II contracts with EU bodies.

The EDPS said it wants EU institutions to lead by example. And that looks important given how, despite a public warning from the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) last year — saying there would be no regulatory grace period for implementing the implications of the Schrems II judgement — there hasn’t been any major data transfer fireworks yet.

The most likely reason for that is a fair amount of head-in-the-sand reaction and/or superficial tweaks made to contracts in the hopes of meeting the legal bar (but which haven’t yet been tested by regulatory scrutiny).

Final guidance from the EDPB is also still pending, although the Board put out detailed advice last fall.

The CJEU ruling made it plain that EU law in this area cannot simply be ignored. So as the bloc’s data regulators start scrutinizing contracts that are taking data out of the EU some of these arrangement are, inevitably, going to be found wanting — and their associated data flows ordered to stop.

To wit: A long-running complaint against Facebook’s EU-US data transfers — filed by the eponymous Max Schrems, a long-time EU privacy campaigners and lawyer, all the way back in 2013 — is slowing winding toward just such a possibility.

Last fall, following the Schrems II ruling, the Irish regulator gave Facebook a preliminary order to stop moving Europeans’ data over the pond. Facebook sought to challenge that in the Irish courts but lost its attempt to block the proceeding earlier this month. So it could now face a suspension order within months.

How Facebook might respond is anyone’s guess but Schrems suggested to TechCrunch last summer that the company will ultimately need to federate its service, storing EU users’ data inside the EU.

The Schrems II ruling does generally look like it will be good news for EU-based cloud service providers which can position themselves to solve the legal uncertainty issue (even if they aren’t as competitively priced and/or scalable as the dominant US-based cloud giants).

Fixing U.S. surveillance law, meanwhile — so that it gets independent oversight and accessible redress mechanisms for non-citizens in order to no longer be considered a threat to EU people’s data, as the CJEU judges have repeatedly found — is certainly likely to take a lot longer than ‘months’. If indeed the US authorities can ever be convinced of the need to reform their approach.

Still, if EU regulators finally start taking action on Schrems II — by ordering high profile EU-US data transfers to stop — that might help concentrate US policymakers’ minds toward surveillance reform. Otherwise local storage may be the new future normal.

Facebook loses last-ditch attempt to derail DPC decision on its EU-US data flows

By Natasha Lomas

Facebook has failed in its bid to prevent its lead EU data protection regulator from pushing ahead with a decision on whether to order suspension of its EU-US data flows.

The Irish High Court has just issued a ruling dismissing the company’s challenge to the Irish Data Protection Commission’s (DPC) procedures.

The case has huge potential operational significance for Facebook which may be forced to store European users’ data locally if it’s ordered to stop taking their information to the U.S. for processing.

Last September Irish data watchdog made a preliminary order warning Facebook it may have to suspend EU-US data flows. Facebook responding by filing for a judicial review and obtaining a stay on the DPC’s procedure. That block is now being unblocked.

We understand the involved parties have been given a few days to read the High Court judgement ahead of another hearing on Thursday — when the court is expected to formally lift Facebook’s stay on the DPC’s investigation (and settle the matter of case costs).

The DPC declined to comment on today’s ruling in any detail — or on the timeline for making a decision on Facebook’s EU-US data flows — but deputy commissioner Graham Doyle told us it “welcomes today’s judgment”.

Its preliminary suspension order last fall followed a landmark judgement by Europe’s top court in the summer — when the CJEU struck down a flagship transatlantic agreement on data flows, on the grounds that US mass surveillance is incompatible with the EU’s data protection regime.

The fall-out from the CJEU’s invalidation of Privacy Shield (as well as an earlier ruling striking down its predecessor Safe Harbor) has been ongoing for years — as companies that rely on shifting EU users’ data to the US for processing have had to scramble to find valid legal alternatives.

While the CJEU did not outright ban data transfers out of the EU, it made it crystal clear that data protection agencies must step in and suspend international data flows if they suspect EU data is at risk. And EU to US data flows were signalled as at clear risk given the court simultaneously struck down Privacy Shield.

The problem for some businesses is therefore that there may simply not be a valid legal alternative. And that’s where things look particularly sticky for Facebook, since its service falls under NSA surveillance via Section 702 of the FISA (which is used to authorize mass surveillance programs like Prism).

Facebook lost 100% before Irish High Court: "I refuse all of the reliefs sought by [Facebook Ireland] and dismiss the claims made by it in the proceedings"

➡Judgment (Original) and first statement here: https://t.co/81C7pyCBTd

— Max Schrems 🇪🇺 (@maxschrems) May 14, 2021

So what happens now for Facebook, following the Irish High Court ruling?

As ever in this complex legal saga — which has been going on in various forms since an original 2013 complaint made by European privacy campaigner Max Schrems — there’s still some track left to run.

After this unblocking the DPC will have two enquiries in train: Both the original one, related to Schrems’ complaint, and an own volition enquiry it decided to open last year — when it said it was pausing investigation of Schrems’ original complaint.

Schrems, via his privacy not-for-profit noyb, filed for his own judicial review of the DPC’s proceedings. And the DPC quickly agreed to settle — agreeing in January that it would ‘swiftly’ finalize Schrems’ original complaint. So things were already moving.

The tl;dr of all that is this: The last of the bungs which have been used to delay regulatory action in Ireland over Facebook’s EU-US data flows are finally being extracted — and the DPC must decide on the complaint.

Or, to put it another way, the clock is ticking for Facebook’s EU-US data flows. So expect another wordy blog post from Nick Clegg very soon.

Schrems previously told TechCrunch he expects the DPC to issue a suspension order against Facebook within months — perhaps as soon as this summer (and failing that by fall).

In a statement reacting to the Court ruling today he reiterated that position, saying: “After eight years, the DPC is now required to stop Facebook’s EU-US data transfers, likely before summer. Now we simply have two procedures instead of one.”

When Ireland (finally) decides it won’t mark the end of the regulatory procedures, though.

A decision by the DPC on Facebook’s transfers would need to go to the other EU DPAs for review — and if there’s disagreement there (as seems highly likely, given what’s happened with draft DPC GDPR decisions) it will trigger a further delay (weeks to months) as the European Data Protection Board seeks consensus.

If a majority of EU DPAs can’t agree the Board may itself have to cast a deciding vote. So that could extend the timeline around any suspension order. But an end to the process is, at long last, in sight.

And, well, if a critical mass of domestic pressure is ever going to build for pro-privacy reform of U.S. surveillance laws now looks like a really good time…

“We now expect the DPC to issue a decision to stop Facebook’s data transfers before summer,” added Schrems. “This would require Facebook to store most data from Europe locally, to ensure that Facebook USA does not have access to European data. The other option would be for the US to change its surveillance laws.”

Facebook has been contacted for comment on the Irish High Court ruling.

Update: The company has now sent us this statement:

“Today’s ruling was about the process the IDPC followed. The larger issue of how data can move around the world remains of significant importance to thousands of European and American businesses that connect customers, friends, family and employees across the Atlantic. Like other companies, we have followed European rules and rely on Standard Contractual Clauses, and appropriate data safeguards, to provide a global service and connect people, businesses and charities. We look forward to defending our compliance to the IDPC, as their preliminary decision could be damaging not only to Facebook, but also to users and other businesses.”

Hundreds of SPACs waiting in the woods

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

The fully vaxxed and officially fully immune took over the podcast this week, with Natasha and Danny co-hosting the show while the inimitable Alex is out from Shot No. 2. Grace and Chris, as always, were behind the scenes making sure we sound pretty and don’t fall down too many punny board game rabbit holes after vacation.

Here’s the rundown of what we got into:

And that’s where we break! Follow the podcast on Twitter, be kind to your humans, and be the kindest to yourself. Back sooner than you can raise a $25 million pre-seed round for an audio app for Dogecoin lovers.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 AM PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

Where Are Those Shoes You Ordered? Check the Ocean Floor

By Aarian Marshall
More containers have fallen off ships in the past four months than are typically lost in a year. Blame heavy traffic and rolling waves.

How Google's Android Keyboard Keeps ‘Smart Replies’ Private

By Lily Hay Newman
The latest Gboard feature needs to know as much as possible about your digital life to work—but doesn't share that data with Google.
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