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Customer experience startup Clootrack raises $4M, helps brands see through their customers’ eyes

By Christine Hall

Getting inside the mind of customers is a challenge as behaviors and demands shift, but Clootrack believes it has cracked the code in helping brands figure out how to do that.

It announced $4 million in Series A funding, led by Inventus Capital India, and included existing investors Unicorn India Ventures, IAN Fund and Salamander Excubator Angel Fund, as well as individual investment from Jiffy.ai CEO Babu Sivadasan. In total, the company raised $4.6 million, co-founder Shameel Abdulla told TechCrunch.

Clootrack is a real-time customer experience analytics platform that helps brands understand why customers stay or churn. Shameel Abdulla and Subbakrishna Rao, who both come from IT backgrounds, founded the company in 2017 after meeting years prior at Jiffstore, Abdulla’s second company that was acquired in 2015.

Clootrack team. Image Credits: Clootrack

Business-to-consumer and consumer brands often use customer satisfaction metrics like Net Promoter Score to understand the customer experience, but Abdulla said current methods don’t provide the “why” of those experiences and are slow, expensive and error-prone.

“The number of channels has increased, which means customers are talking to you, expressing their feedback and what they think in multiple places,” he added. “Word of mouth has gone digital, and you basically have to master the art of selling online.”

Clootrack turns the customer experience data from all of those first-party and third-party touchpoints — website feedback, chat bots, etc. — into granular, qualitative insights that give brands a look at drivers of the experience in hours rather than months so that they can stay on top of fast-moving trends.

Abdulla points to data that show a customer’s biggest driver of brand switch is the experience they receive. And, that if brands can reduce churns by 5%, they could be looking at an increase in profits of between 25% and 95%.

Most of the new funding will go to product development so that all data aggregations are gathered from all possible touchpoints. His ultimate goal is to be “the single platform for B2C firms.”

The company is currently working with over 150 customers in the areas of retail, direct-to-consumer, banking, automotive, travel and mobile app-based services. It is growing nine times year over year in revenue. It is mainly operating in India, but Clootrack is also onboarding companies in the U.S. and Europe.

Parag Dhol, managing director of Inventus, said he has known Abdulla for over five years. He had looked at one of Abdulla’s companies for investment, but had decided against it due to his firm being a Series A investor.

Dhol said market research needs an overhaul in India, where this type of technology is lagging behind the U.S.

“Clootrack has a very complementary team with Shameel being a complete CEO in terms of being a sales guy and serial entrepreneur who has learned his lessons, and Subbu, who is good at technology,” he added. “As CMOs realize the value in their unstructured data inside of their own database of the customer reviews and move to real-time feedback, these guys could make a serious dent in the space.”

 

UK now expects compliance with children’s privacy design code

By Natasha Lomas

In the UK, a 12-month grace period for compliance with a design code aimed at protecting children online expires today — meaning app makers offering digital services in the market which are “likely” to be accessed by children (defined in this context as users under 18 years old) are expected to comply with a set of standards intended to safeguard kids from being tracked and profiled.

The age appropriate design code came into force on September 2 last year however the UK’s data protection watchdog, the ICO, allowed the maximum grace period for hitting compliance to give organizations time to adapt their services.

But from today it expects the standards of the code to be met.

Services where the code applies can include connected toys and games and edtech but also online retail and for-profit online services such as social media and video sharing platforms which have a strong pull for minors.

Among the code’s stipulations are that a level of ‘high privacy’ should be applied to settings by default if the user is (or is suspected to be) a child — including specific provisions that geolocation and profiling should be off by default (unless there’s a compelling justification for such privacy hostile defaults).

The code also instructs app makers to provide parental controls while also providing the child with age-appropriate information about such tools — warning against parental tracking tools that could be used to silently/invisibly monitor a child without them being made aware of the active tracking.

Another standard takes aim at dark pattern design — with a warning to app makers against using “nudge techniques” to push children to provide “unnecessary personal data or weaken or turn off their privacy protections”.

The full code contains 15 standards but is not itself baked into legislation — rather it’s a set of design recommendations the ICO wants app makers to follow.

The regulatory stick to make them do so is that the watchdog is explicitly linking compliance with its children’s privacy standards to passing muster with wider data protection requirements that are baked into UK law.

The risk for apps that ignore the standards is thus that they draw the attention of the watchdog — either through a complaint or proactive investigation — with the potential of a wider ICO audit delving into their whole approach to privacy and data protection.

“We will monitor conformance to this code through a series of proactive audits, will consider complaints, and take appropriate action to enforce the underlying data protection standards, subject to applicable law and in line with our Regulatory Action Policy,” the ICO writes in guidance on its website. “To ensure proportionate and effective regulation we will target our most significant powers, focusing on organisations and individuals suspected of repeated or wilful misconduct or serious failure to comply with the law.”

It goes on to warn it would view a lack of compliance with the kids’ privacy code as a potential black mark against (enforceable) UK data protection laws, adding: “If you do not follow this code, you may find it difficult to demonstrate that your processing is fair and complies with the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] or PECR [Privacy and Electronics Communications Regulation].”

Tn a blog post last week, Stephen Bonner, the ICO’s executive director of regulatory futures and innovation, also warned app makers: “We will be proactive in requiring social media platforms, video and music streaming sites and the gaming industry to tell us how their services are designed in line with the code. We will identify areas where we may need to provide support or, should the circumstances require, we have powers to investigate or audit organisations.”

“We have identified that currently, some of the biggest risks come from social media platforms, video and music streaming sites and video gaming platforms,” he went on. “In these sectors, children’s personal data is being used and shared, to bombard them with content and personalised service features. This may include inappropriate adverts; unsolicited messages and friend requests; and privacy-eroding nudges urging children to stay online. We’re concerned with a number of harms that could be created as a consequence of this data use, which are physical, emotional and psychological and financial.”

“Children’s rights must be respected and we expect organisations to prove that children’s best interests are a primary concern. The code gives clarity on how organisations can use children’s data in line with the law, and we want to see organisations committed to protecting children through the development of designs and services in accordance with the code,” Bonner added.

The ICO’s enforcement powers — at least on paper — are fairly extensive, with GDPR, for example, giving it the ability to fine infringers up to £17.5M or 4% of their annual worldwide turnover, whichever is higher.

The watchdog can also issue orders banning data processing or otherwise requiring changes to services it deems non-compliant. So apps that chose to flout the children’s design code risk setting themselves up for regulatory bumps or worse.

In recent months there have been signs some major platforms have been paying mind to the ICO’s compliance deadline — with Instagram, YouTube and TikTok all announcing changes to how they handle minors’ data and account settings ahead of the September 2 date.

In July, Instagram said it would default teens to private accounts — doing so for under 18s in certain countries which the platform confirmed to us includes the UK — among a number of other child-safety focused tweaks. Then in August, Google announced similar changes for accounts on its video charing platform, YouTube.

A few days later TikTok also said it would add more privacy protections for teens. Though it had also made earlier changes limiting privacy defaults for under 18s.

Apple also recently got itself into hot water with the digital rights community following the announcement of child safety-focused features — including a child sexual abuse material (CSAM) detection tool which scans photo uploads to iCloud; and an opt in parental safety feature that lets iCloud Family account users turn on alerts related to the viewing of explicit images by minors using its Messages app.

The unifying theme underpinning all these mainstream platform product tweaks is clearly ‘child protection’.

And while there’s been growing attention in the US to online child safety and the nefarious ways in which some apps exploit kids’ data — as well as a number of open probes in Europe (such as this Commission investigation of TikTok, acting on complaints) — the UK may be having an outsized impact here given its concerted push to pioneer age-focused design standards.

The code also combines with incoming UK legislate which is set to apply a ‘duty of care’ on platforms to take a rboad-brush safety-first stance toward users, also with a big focus on kids (and there it’s also being broadly targeted to cover all children; rather than just applying to kids under 13s as with the US’ COPPA, for example).

In the blog post ahead of the compliance deadline expiring, the ICO’s Bonner sought to take credit for what he described as “significant changes” made in recent months by platforms like Facebook, Google, Instagram and TikTok, writing: “As the first-of-its kind, it’s also having an influence globally. Members of the US Senate and Congress have called on major US tech and gaming companies to voluntarily adopt the standards in the ICO’s code for children in America.”

“The Data Protection Commission in Ireland is preparing to introduce the Children’s Fundamentals to protect children online, which links closely to the code and follows similar core principles,” he also noted.

And there are other examples in the EU: France’s data watchdog, the CNIL, looks to have been inspired by the ICO’s approach — issuing its own set of right child-protection focused recommendations this June (which also, for example, encourage app makers to add parental controls with the clear caveat that such tools must “respect the child’s privacy and best interests”).

The UK’s focus on online child safety is not just making waves overseas but sparking growth in a domestic compliance services industry.

Last month, for example, the ICO announced the first clutch of GDPR certification scheme criteria — including two schemes which focus on the age appropriate design code. Expect plenty more.

Bonner’s blog post also notes that the watchdog will formally set out its position on age assurance this autumn — so it will be providing further steerage to organizations which are in scope of the code on how to tackle that tricky piece, although it’s still not clear how hard a requirement the ICO will support, with Bonner suggesting it could be actually “verifying ages or age estimation”. Watch that space. Whatever the recommendations are, age assurance services are set to spring up with compliance-focused sales pitches.

Children’s safety online has been a huge focus for UK policymakers in recent years, although the wider (and long in train) Online Safety (neé Harms) Bill remains at the draft law stage.

An earlier attempt by UK lawmakers to bring in mandatory age checks to prevent kids from accessing adult content websites — dating back to 2017’s Digital Economy Act — was dropped in 2019 after widespread criticism that it would be both unworkable and a massive privacy risk for adult users of porn.

But the government did not drop its determination to find a way to regulate online services in the name of child safety. And online age verification checks look set to be — if not a blanket, hardened requirement for all digital services — increasingly brought in by the backdoor, through a sort of ‘recommended feature’ creep (as the ORG has warned). 

The current recommendation in the age appropriate design code is that app makers “take a risk-based approach to recognising the age of individual users and ensure you effectively apply the standards in this code to child users”, suggesting they: “Either establish age with a level of certainty that is appropriate to the risks to the rights and freedoms of children that arise from your data processing, or apply the standards in this code to all your users instead.” 

At the same time, the government’s broader push on online safety risks conflicting with some of the laudable aims of the ICO’s non-legally binding children’s privacy design code.

For instance, while the code includes the (welcome) suggestion that digital services gather as little information about children as possible, in an announcement earlier this summer UK lawmakers put out guidance for social media platforms and messaging services — ahead of the planned Online Safety legislation — that recommends they prevent children from being able to use end-to-end encryption.

That’s right; the government’s advice to data-mining platforms — which it suggests will help prepare them for requirements in the incoming legislation — is not to use ‘gold standard’ security and privacy (e2e encryption) for kids.

So the official UK government messaging to app makers appears to be that, in short order, the law will require commercial services to access more of kids’ information, not less — in the name of keeping them ‘safe’. Which is quite a contradiction vs the data minimization push on the design code.

The risk is that a tightening spotlight on kids privacy ends up being fuzzed and complicated by ill-thought through policies that push platforms to monitor kids to demonstrate ‘protection’ from a smorgasbord of online harms — be it adult content or pro-suicide postings, or cyber bullying and CSAM.

The law looks set to encourage platforms to ‘show their workings’ to prove compliance — which risks resulting in ever closer tracking of children’s activity, retention of data — and maybe risk profiling and age verification checks (that could even end up being applied to all users; think sledgehammer to crack a nut). In short, a privacy dystopia.

Such mixed messages and disjointed policymaking seem set to pile increasingly confusing — and even conflicting — requirements on digital services operating in the UK, making tech businesses legally responsible for divining clarity amid the policy mess — with the simultaneous risk of huge fines if they get the balance wrong.

Complying with the ICO’s design standards may therefore actually be the easy bit.

 

3 tips to align your values with your startup’s culture

By Ram Iyer
Mark McClain Contributor
Mark McClain is the founder and CEO of SailPoint, the leader in cloud enterprise security.

You’ve heard the phrase “leading by example,” but what about “leading with values”?

I’ve always led by example by using my values as my guide. Still, it wasn’t until I founded my first company that I fully understood the importance of embedding those values into the company, too.

Integrity, individuals, impact and innovation are the “4 I values” that drive my decisions and the actions of those at my company each day. These are not just words on a wall at our HQ or on a mousepad for our remote crew, but values that everyone in the company lives and breathes. Over the last two years, these four values became even more important and continued to guide me, my family and the leaders at our company.

As organizations map out their “return to the workplace” (NOT “return to work,” because we never stopped working) plans, we should not simply go back to how things were before. Instead, let’s all take a moment to redesign something that sets everyone up for success, with values as the compass. I think you’ll find this approach helps people not only survive, but thrive in the workplace.

Leading with values is, in my experience, the best leadership position to take, and there are three ways to accomplish this goal.

Leave behind old-school mentalities on workplace hierarchy

The tone of the company’s culture comes from the top. The culture you envision for your company will only come about if your employees believe in the practices that you are asking them to implement.

At some point in your career — probably right out of school, a few years in or somewhere in the middle — you experienced a company where treating lower-level employees with less respect is just “a part of the job.” Companies with this type of “paying your dues” mentality tend to work these lower-level employees like grunts until they burn out and leave.

Or they eventually crawl their way up into management-level positions, and the cycle perpetuates itself as they deride the newer crop of employees, eroding any semblance of a healthy culture.

This is not the way.

As a leader, if you want your work environment to indicate inclusivity, support, collaboration and have the essence of a team mentality, you must set the precedent right away. This means stripping away the hierarchy that accompanies work titles and making it clear that your company values contribution based on merit, regardless of position. You are one team, united in your purpose to deliver on your mission, based on your values. This level setting ensures that everyone has skin in the game, and no one has the leeway to treat people poorly.

Don’t get caught in an ivory tower mindset

Early on in my career, I began sharing an office when I could. Those office spaces were purposely not what anyone would consider cool or nice “digs” — not the furniture and certainly not the view. Even as CEO now, I’ve had someone on the team describe my current office as a closet. But it gets the job done.

Simple signals like this send a powerful message, and the signal must remain consistent. Don’t take a limo; rent a cheap car. Don’t fly first class; fly coach. These may seem like minor details, but one of the biggest pitfalls any CEO can encounter is falling victim to an ivory tower mindset — when you become so out of touch with the people you manage, your employees start to notice.

Make a cognizant effort to know your people. Implement a “management by walking around” strategy. Don’t sit in your office all day; get out on the floor among your people. Drop by their desks and ask them how their day is going. Eat lunch in the break room. Put in the effort to attend new hire onboarding.

Not physically back in the office? Drop into Slack channels and Zoom meetings. I once “Zoom bombed” a baby shower for one of our crew members just to hear all the well wishes, and it made my day and theirs. Overall, just be present and humanize your workspace. It pays off in spades.

Be thoughtful and consistent with workplace practices

The tone of the company’s culture comes from the top. The culture you envision for your company will only come about if your employees believe in the practices that you are asking them to implement. More importantly, you will not grow a solid culture if you don’t give these initiatives and practices 100% of your own effort.

For example, one new initiative we rolled out last year is a campaign we call “Free2Focus.” Twice a week, the SailPoint crew is asked to avoid booking meetings for a couple of hours during Free2Focus time. Not only does this address Zoom fatigue, it also gives our crew the chance to catch their breath whichever way suits them best — whether that’s taking a walk, helping with their children’s schooling or just turning off the camera for a bit.

If I want my team to show themselves some grace during the week, I’ve found that I need to apply the same practice. This means not setting up meetings during Free2Focus, not sending emails all hours of the day and night and not judging people for taking breaks when they need them. I trust my team to get the job done largely on their own time and own their own terms. I promise, your employees’ performance will be better because of it.

Being a CEO is more than building on a vision, a product or an idea. It’s about leading your people with values to accomplish mutual goals in a way that doesn’t zap them of their morale or dignity. It’s easy to get caught up in all the things that come with a job, but if you don’t put in the effort to immerse yourself and your values into the entire company, you’ll end up too big for your own good — and certainly too big for your company’s good.

It won’t happen overnight, but remember, the smallest things are often the ones that have the biggest impact. If you’re the leader, lead by example. It’s the only way to build teams that stand the test of time.

Apollo completes its $5B acquisition of Verizon Media, now known as Yahoo

By Brian Heater

Private equity firm Apollo Global Management this morning announced that it has completed its acquisition of Yahoo (formerly known as Verizon Media Group, itself formerly known as Oath) from Verizon. The deal is worth $5 billion, with $4.25 billion in cash, plus preferred interests of $750 million. Verizon will be retaining 10% of the newly rebranded company.

“This is a new era for Yahoo,” Yahoo CEO (and former VZM head) Guru Gowrappan said in a release tied to the news. “The close of the deal heralds an exciting time of renewed opportunity for us as a standalone entity. We anticipate that the coming months and years will bring fresh growth and innovation for Yahoo as a business and a brand, and we look forward to creating that future with our new partners.”

There have been reports that Gowrappan might not stay on as CEO of Yahoo for the long term now that the deal has closed; for now he’s still at the helm.

In addition to its titular Yahoo properties (Mail, Sports, Finance, et al.), the group includes us, TechCrunch; AOL; Engadget; and interactive media brand, RYOT. All told, the umbrella brand encompasses around 900 million monthly active users globally and is currently the third-largest internet property, per Apollo’s figures.

The deal puts to a close a years-long effort by Verizon to make a comprehensive move into online media, specifically around adtech, which ultimately proved to be too costly, mostly unprofitable and, finally, not core enough to the telco’s bigger growth strategy.

The news comes during a tumultuous time for online media, amid increasing industry-wide consolidation, many felt within Verizon Media. Verizon acquired AOL in 2015 for $4.4 billion, followed by buying Yahoo for $4.5 billion two years later, combining the two legacy media properties into a combined group named Oath. At the end of 2018, Oath wrote down $4.6 billion, following the merger.

It’s not clear how a new owner will steer that large ship differently, but one strategy — standard practice for PE firms — could involve Apollo selling off parts of the business or rationalizing it in other ways.

However, for its part, Apollo has promised to continue investing in the newly acquired proprieties, and it has secured all jobs at the time of handover for at least an initial period. The bigger firm of Apollo has a massive set of TMT, holdings so it will be interesting to see how and if it leverages that, too.

“We look forward to partnering with Yahoo’s talented employee base to build on the company’s strong momentum and position the new Yahoo for long-term success as a standalone consumer internet and digital media leader,” Apollo Partner Reed Rayman said in the release. “We couldn’t be more excited about this next chapter for Yahoo as we look to invest in growth across the business, including accelerating its customer-first offerings and commerce capabilities, expanding its reach and enhancing the daily user experience.”

Humane, a stealthy hardware and software startup co-founded by an ex-Apple designer and engineer, raises $100M

By Ingrid Lunden

A stealthy startup co-founded by a former senior designer from Apple and one of its ex-senior software engineers has picked up a significant round funding to build out its business. Humane, which has ambitions to build a new class of consumer devices and technologies that stem from “a genuine collaboration of design and engineering” that will represent “the next shift between humans and computing”, has raised $100 million.

This is a Series B, and it’s coming from some very high profile backers. Tiger Global Management is leading the round, with SoftBank Group, BOND, Forerunner Ventures and Qualcomm Ventures also participating. Other investors in this Series B include Sam Altman, Lachy Groom, Kindred Ventures, Marc Benioff’s TIME Ventures, Valia Ventures, NEXT VENTŪRES, Plexo Capital and the legal firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.

Humane has been around actually since 2017, but it closed/filed its Series A only last year: $30 million in September 2020 at a $150 million valuation, according to PitchBook. Previous to that, it had raised just under $12 million, with many of the investors in this current round backing Humane in those earlier fundraises, too.

Valuation with this Series B is not being disclosed, the company confirmed to me.

Given that Humane has not yet released any products, nor has said much at all about what it has up its sleeve; and given that hardware in general presents a lot of unique challenges and therefore is often seen as a risky bet (that old “hardware is hard” chestnut), you might be wondering how Humane, still in stealth, has attracted these backers.

Some of that attention possibly stems from the fact that the two co-founders, husband-and-wife team Imran Chaudhri and Bethany Bongiorno, are something of icons in their own right. Bongiorno, who is Humane’s CEO, had been the software engineering director at Apple. Chaudhri, who is Humane’s chairman and president, is Apple’s former director of design, where he worked for 20 years on some of its most seminal products — the iPhone, the iPad and the Mac. Both have dozens of patents credited to them from their time there, and they have picked up a few since then, too.

Those latest patents — plus the very extensive list of job openings listed on Humane’s otherwise quite sparse site — might be the closest clues we have for what the pair and their startup might be building.

One patent is for a “Wearable multimedia device and cloud computing platform with laser projection system”; another is for a “System and apparatus for fertility and hormonal cycle awareness.”

Meanwhile, the company currently has nearly 50 job openings listed, including engineers with camera and computer vision experience, hardware engineers, designers, and security experts, among many others. (One sign of where all that funding will be going.) There is already an impressive team of about 60 people the company, which is another detail that attracted investors.

“The caliber of individuals working at Humane is incredibly impressive,” said Chase Coleman, Partner, Tiger Global, in a statement. “These are people who have built and shipped transformative products to billions of people around the world. What they are building is groundbreaking with the potential to become a standard for computing going forward.”

I’ve asked for more details on the company’s product roadmap and ethos behind the company, and who its customers might potentially be: other firms for whom it designs products, or end users directly?

For now, Bongiorno and Chaudhri seem to hint that part of what has motivated them to start this business was to reimagine what role technology might play in the next wave of innovation. It’s a question that many ask, but not many try to actually invest in finding the answer. For that alone, it’s worth watching Humane (if Humane lets us, that is: it’s still very much in stealth) to see what it does next.

“Humane is a place where people can truly innovate through a genuine collaboration of design and engineering,” the co-founders said in a joint statement. “We are an experience company that creates products for the benefit of people, crafting technology that puts people first — a more personal technology that goes beyond what we know today. We’re all waiting for something new, something that goes beyond the information age that we have all been living with. At Humane, we’re building the devices and the platform for what we call the intelligence age. We are committed to building a different type of company, founded on our values of trust, truth and joy. With the support of our partners, we will continue to scale the team with individuals who not only share our passion for revolutionizing the way we interact with computing, but also for how we build.”

Update: After publishing, I got a little more from Humane about its plans. Its aim is to build “technology that improves the human experience and is born of good intentions; products that put us back in touch with ourselves, each other, and the world around us; and experiences that are built on trust, with interactions that feel magical and bring joy.” It’s not a whole lot to go on, but more generally it’s an approach that seems to want to step away from the cycle we’re on today, and be more mindful and thoughtful. If they can execute on this, while still building rather than wholesale rejecting technology, they might be on to something.

Web building platform Duda snaps up e-commerce cart tool Snipcart

By Christine Hall

Duda announced Wednesday that it acquired Canada-based Snipcart, a startup that enables businesses to add a shopping cart to their websites.

The acquisition is Palo Alto-based Duda’s first deal, and follows the website development platform’s $50 million Series D round in June that brings its total funding to $100 million to date. Duda co-founder and CEO Itai Sadan declined to comment on the acquisition amount.

Duda, which works with digital agencies and SaaS companies, has approximately 1 million published paying sites, and the acquisition was driven by the company seeing a boost in e-commerce websites as a result of the global pandemic, he told TechCrunch.

This was not just about a technology acquisition for Duda, but also a talented team, Sadan said. The entire Snipcart team of 12 is staying on, including CEO Francois Lanthier Nadeau; the companies will be fully integrated by 2022 and the first collaborative versions will come out.

When he met the Snipcart team, Sadan thought they were “super experienced and held the same values.”

“We share many of the same types of customers, many of which are API-first,” he added. “If our customers need more headless commerce, they can build their own front end using Snipcart. Their customers will benefit from us growing the team — we plan to double it in the next year and roll out more features at a faster pace.”

The global retail e-commerce market is estimated to grow by 50% to $6.3 trillion by 2024, according to Statista. Duda itself has experienced a year over year increase of 265% in e-commerce sites being built on its platform, which Sadan said was what made Snipcart an attractive acquisition to further accelerate and manage its growth that includes over 17,000 customers.

Together, the companies will offer new capabilities, like payment and membership tools inside of the Duda platform. Many of Duda’s customers come with inventory and don’t want to manage it on another e-commerce platform, so Snipcart will be that component for taking their inventory and making it shoppable on the web.

“Everyone is thinking about how to introduce transactions into their websites and web experiences, and that is what we were looking for in an e-commerce platform,” Sadan said.

 

UK-based Heroes raises $200M to buy up more Amazon merchants for its roll-up play

By Ingrid Lunden

Heroes, one of the new wave of startups aiming to build big e-commerce businesses by buying up smaller third-party merchants on Amazon’s Marketplace, has raised another big round of funding to double down on that strategy. The London startup has picked up $200 million, money that it will mainly be using to snap up more merchants. Existing brands in its portfolio cover categories like babies, pets, sports, personal health and home and garden categories — some of them, like PremiumCare dog chews, the Onco baby car mirror, gardening tool brand Davaon and wooden foot massager roller Theraflow, category best-sellers — and the plan is to continue building up all of these verticals.

Crayhill Capital Management, a fund based out of New York, is providing the funding, and Riccardo Bruni — who co-founded the company with twin brother Alessio and third brother Giancarlo — said that the bulk of it will be going toward making acquisitions, and is therefore coming in the form of debt.

Raising debt rather than equity at this point is pretty standard for companies like Heroes. Heroes itself is pretty young: it launched less than a year ago, in November 2020, with $65 million in funding, a round comprised of both equity and debt. Other investors in the startup include 360 Capital, Fuel Ventures and Upper 90.

Heroes is playing in what is rapidly becoming a very crowded field. Not only are there tens of thousands of businesses leveraging Amazon’s extensive fulfillment network to sell goods on the e-commerce giant’s marketplace, but some days it seems we are also rapidly approaching a state of nearly as many startups launching to consolidate these third-party sellers.

Many a roll-up play follows a similar playbook, which goes like this: Amazon provides the marketplace to sell goods to consumers, and the infrastructure to fulfill those orders, by way of Fulfillment By Amazon and its Prime service. Meanwhile, the roll-up business — in this case Heroes — buys up a number of the stronger companies leveraging FBA and the marketplace. Then, by consolidating them into a single tech platform that they have built, Heroes creates better economies of scale around better and more efficient supply chains, sharper machine learning and marketing and data analytics technology, and new growth strategies. 

What is notable about Heroes, though — apart from the fact that it’s the first roll-up player to come out of the U.K., and continues to be one of the bigger players in Europe — is that it doesn’t believe that the technology plays as important a role as having a solid relationship with the companies it’s targeting, key given that now the top marketplace sellers are likely being feted by a number of companies as acquisition targets.

“The tech is very important,” said Alessio in an interview. “It helps us build robust processes that tie all the systems together across multiple brands and marketplaces. But what we have is very different from a SaaS business. We are not building an app, and tech is not the core of what we do. From the acquisitions side, we believe that human interactions ultimately win. We don’t think tech can replace a strong acquisition process.”

Image Credits: Heroes

Heroes’ three founder-brothers (two of them, Riccardo and Alessio, pictured above) have worked across a number of investment, finance and operational roles (the CVs include Merrill Lynch, EQT Ventures, Perella Weinberg Partners, Lazada, Nomura and Liberty Global) and they say there have been strong signs so far of its strategy working: of the brands that it has acquired since launching in November, they claim business (sales) has grown five-fold.

Collectively, the roll-up startups are raising hundreds of millions of dollars to fuel these efforts. Other recent hopefuls that have announced funding this year include Suma Brands ($150 million); Elevate Brands ($250 million); Perch ($775 million); factory14 ($200 million); Thrasio (currently probably the biggest of them all in terms of reach and money raised and ambitions), HeydayThe Razor GroupBrandedSellerXBerlin Brands Group (X2), Benitago, Latin America’s Valoreo and Rainforest and Una Brands out of Asia. 

The picture that is emerging across many of these operations is that many of these companies, Heroes included, do not try to make their particular approaches particularly more distinctive than those of their competitors, simply because — with nearly 10 million third-party sellers today on Amazon globally — the opportunity is likely big enough for all of them, and more, not least because of current market dynamics.

“It’s no secret that we were inspired by Thrasio and others,” Riccardo said. “Combined with COVID-19, there has been a massive acceleration of e-commerce across the continent.” It was that, plus the realization that the three brothers had the right e-commerce, fundraising and investment skills between them, that made them see what was a ‘perfect storm’ to tackle the opportunity, he continued. “So that is why we jumped into it.”

In the case of Heroes, while the majority of the funding will be used for acquisitions, it’s also planning to double headcount from its current 70 employees before the end of this year with a focus on operational experts to help run their acquired businesses. 

6 tips for establishing your startup’s global supply chain

By Ram Iyer
Jeff Morin Contributor
Jeff Morin is the co-founder and CEO of Liteboxer, an at-home fitness company that creates immersive workouts.

Startups are hard work, but the complexities of global supply chains can make running hardware companies especially difficult. Instead of existing within a codebase behind a screen, the key components of your hardware product can be scattered around the world, subject to the volatility of the global economy.

I’ve spent most of my career establishing global supply chains, setting up manufacturing lines for 3D printers, electric bicycles and home fitness equipment on the ground in Mexico, Hungary, Taiwan and China. I’ve learned the hard way that Murphy’s law is a constant companion in the hardware business.

But after more than a decade of work on three different continents, there are a few lessons I’ve learned that will help you avoid unnecessary mistakes.

Expect cost fluctuations, especially in currency and shipping

Shipping physical products is quite different from “shipping” code — you have to pay a considerable amount of money to transport products around the world. Of course, shipping costs become a line item like any other as they get baked into the overall business plan. The issue is that those costs can change monthly — sometimes drastically.

At this time last year, a shipping container from China cost $3,300. Today, it’s almost $18,000 — a more than fivefold increase in 12 months. It’s safe to assume that most 2020 business plans did not account for such a cost increase for a key line item.

Shipping a buggy hardware product can be exponentially costlier than shipping buggy software. Recalls, angry customers, return shipping and other issues can become existential problems.

Similar issues also arise with currency exchange rates. Contract manufacturers often allow you to maintain cost agreements for any fluctuations below 5%, but the dollar has dropped much more than 5% against the yuan compared to a year ago, and hardware companies have been forced to renegotiate their manufacturing contracts.

As exchange rates become less favorable and shipping costs increase, you have two options: Operate with lower margins, or pass along the cost to the end customer. Neither choice is ideal, but both are better than going bankrupt.

The takeaway is that when you set up your business, you need to prepare for these possibilities. That means operating with enough margin to handle increased costs, or with the confidence that your end customer will be able to handle a higher price.

Overorder critical parts

Over the past year, many businesses have lost billions of dollars in market value because they didn’t order enough semiconductors. As the owner of a hardware company, you will encounter similar risks.

The supply for certain components, like computer chips, can be limited, and shortages can arise quickly if demand increases or supply chains get disrupted. It’s your job to analyze potential choke points in your supply chain and create redundancies around them.

Romanian marketing expert Robert Katai explains how to get the most out of your content

By Anna Heim

There’s a lot of advice out there on how to grab people’s attention, but there’s one aspect of marketing that Robert Katai thinks isn’t talked about as often: maintaining their attention. The solution, he says, is a combination of content strategy and positioning.

Based in Romania, Katai is known for his podcasts and speeches covering the gamut of content marketing. A product manager at online graphic design platform Creatopy, he also works with clients as a freelance content strategist, and it is in this capacity that he was recommended to TechCrunch via our growth marketer survey. (If you have growth marketers to recommend, please fill out the survey!)

Katai was recommended by multiple Romanian clients and contacts who vouched for his content strategy prowess, so we were curious to know more. Who is he? And is his advice applicable beyond borders?

The short answer is yes. In a freewheeling interview, Katai spoke about how content marketing should integrate with users’ daily lives, and how content can be repurposed across multiple formats. He also shared some insights on the booming Romanian startup ecosystem.

Editor’s note: The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

TC: How do you help your clients as a freelancer?

Robert Katai: One of the two things I’m doing is that I’m helping clients with creating their content strategy based on their objective. You can get web traffic, but you can also create a message and build the brand. You don’t have to start at the beginning; You can rebuild the brand later.

For instance, I’m working with a Romanian outsourcing company that started in 1993. They pioneered this industry in our city of Cluj-Napoca, but lately they started to realize that they should be more attractive from a sales as well as from an employee perspective. So I worked with them to perform an internal audit to see why employees love the company, why they leave, why they stay and what they want from the company.

Robert Katai

Image Credits: Robert Katai.

From there, I got to the idea that they needed to reshape their brand to not just have people notice them but to also maintain their attention. And here comes the content: I started an ambassador program, because there are people outside of the company who love it.

I also recommended they create an internal print magazine. It’s a very well-designed magazine that their 200 to 300 employees can take home and read. It’s not just about the job; it’s also about their hobbies, things to do in the city and some thought leadership articles that can inspire them to have a better life.

What’s the second way you are helping clients?

Apart from content strategy, I’m working with clients on their positioning for their audience, community and market, but also sometimes in terms of employer branding. Content can be a bridge between the two ways I am helping clients, because I’m using a lot of content marketing here and not focusing only on performance or growth marketing hacks. I’m helping them understand that if they want to establish a memorable, long-lasting brand in the market, they have to make content marketing part of their life.

If they want to reposition themselves in the industry, they need to say: Okay, these are the kinds of content we have to create for our goals; who will amplify the content, who will connect with us, and who will consume the content. Today, content creation is free — everybody can do it. The hard part is how you distribute and amplify that. And here’s how I can help the startups: Make a big piece of content and repurpose it in several small pieces; get it in front of people so that the brand is on their minds.


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How can brands achieve that top-of-mind status?

We all know that there are four kinds of content: Text, video, pictures and audio. These four formats never die. The platform can change, but the format will stay the same. A video can be an Instagram Reel, a documentary or something else, but it’s a video. The same goes for a photo. So the content strategy I’m working with is how brands can use that content ecosystem.

When I work with my clients — and also with Creatopy where I’m a product marketer — I recommend them to use content to build their brand and be visible to their users every day in their feeds. Every morning, when their customers are waking up and checking their phones, they don’t open a newspaper. They will open Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, and maybe then when they get out of the bathroom and make coffee, they will open YouTube and connect with Alexa.

I really believe that brands should create content that can just be in the mind of the user. Snackable content, Reels, TikTok … It doesn’t matter what we call it.

You also talked about repurposing content. Can you explain that?

Let’s take the interview you’ve done with Peep Laja. You could have recorded it as a video. And he covered several topics, so you could have several short videos — 30 seconds, three minutes, whatever. You can publish them daily on your site or social media channels with a comment that says, “Here’s the link to the full article.” But remember that on LinkedIn, that link will need to go into the comments section, not the post itself.

You can also have a longer video that you can publish on social media or on Wistia, asking people to give their email — so now you also have subscribers.

Then the second type of content you can create is audio. You already have it from the recording. You don’t have to publish the full 45-minute conversation, but you can have a five-minute audio clip, and again link to the articles.

Now we have video and audio, but what if you also designed quotes with his headshot and messaging? If it’s part of a series, you should also give it a name.

And it’s not just motivational; it’s educational, too, so you should take these quotes and create carousels for Instagram and LinkedIn. The first slide should grab attention — it can be a question. The second slide can be a link to the interview so that even if people don’t click it, it will be on their minds. Then you can have slides with insights.

The last slide will always be a call to action: Asking people to share, comment or save it for later — it’s the new currency on Instagram! And once you have your Instagram carousel, you create a PDF and publish it on LinkedIn.

So now you have five formats of content from one piece of content.

Wow, how much do we owe you?! Just kidding, we actually do some of that for the Equity podcast, for instance. Now, what other advice do you have for startups?

I’m a big advocate of documenting the process. Just imagine if Mark Zuckerberg had done that and you could read how he launched Facebook and so on. Noah Kagan is doing that right now. I think startup founders should do it, not just from the PR and marketing perspective, but for their audience. Even if your audience is not paying for your product right now, they are staying with you and giving your brand an essence in the industry.

Just think about what Salesforce is doing right now: They launched Salesforce+, which is like Netflix for B2B. It’s to get the attention of professionals and also maintain it, and I believe this is the currency of the big companies today: People’s attention.

Do you work with any startups in Romania? And do you have any impressions to share on the Romanian startup ecosystem?

Yes, I help a few Romanian startups with their content marketing and positioning. Sometimes other startups email me with questions, so I help them, too, but I don’t charge for email advice. I work with the ones that are looking for a long-term or project-based collaboration.

Startup founders here in Romania are curious, and very courageous to experiment even if it won’t necessarily work. And Romanian startups are very smart. For instance, Planable is doing a great job with content, social media and positioning. We also have social media analytics company Socialinsider, which this year launched virtual events, and TypingDNA, which wants to get rid of needing to log in with passwords and was founded by a former colleague.

I also found that the founders here work harder than their teams and don’t just leave others do the work — at least the ones I have met. We have several startup events in Romania: How to Web, and Techsylvania here in Transylvania.

I don’t like this name, but people say that Cluj-Napoca is the “Silicon Valley of Romania.” Lots of startups have been launched here, but the city that is getting more and more traction is Oradea, where the bet on education is paying off.

(If you are a tech startup founder or investor in Cluj or Oradea, fill in TechCrunch’s European Cities Survey 2021.)

Apple lowers commissions on in-app purchases for news publishers who participate in Apple News

By Sarah Perez

Apple today is launching a new program that will allow subscription news organizations that participate in the Apple News app and meet certain requirements to lower their commission rate to 15% on qualifying in-app purchases taking place inside their apps on the App Store. Typically, Apple’s model for subscription-based apps involves a standard 30% commission during their first year on the App Store, which then drops to 15% in year two. But the new Apple News Partner Program, announced today, will now make 15% the commission rate for participants starting on day one.

There are a few caveats to this condition, and they benefit Apple. To qualify, the news publisher must maintain a presence on Apple News and they have to provide their content in the Apple News Format (ANF). The latter is the JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) format that’s used to create articles for Apple News which are optimized for Mac, iPhone and other Apple mobile devices. Typically, this involves a bit of setup to translate news articles from a publisher’s website or from their CMS (content management system) to the supported JSON format. For WordPress and other popular CMS’s, there are also plugins available to make this process easier.

Meanwhile, for publishers headquartered outside one of the four existing Apple News markets — the U.S., U.K., Australia or Canada — they can instead satisfy the program’s obligations by providing Apple with an RSS feed.

On the App Store, the partner app qualifying for the 15% commission must be used to deliver “original, professionally authored” news content, and they must offer their auto-renewable subscriptions using Apple’s in-app purchase system.

Image Credits: Apple

While there is some initial work involved in establishing the publisher’s connection to Apple News, it’s worth noting that most major publishers already participate on Apple’s platform. That means they won’t have to do any additional work beyond what they’re already doing in order to transition over to the reduced commission for their apps. However, the program also serves as a way to push news organizations to continue to participate in the Apple News ecosystem, as it will make more financial sense to do so across their broader business.

That will likely be an area of contention for publishers, who would probably prefer that the reduced App Store commission didn’t come with strings attached.

Some publishers already worry that they’re giving up too much control over their business by tying themselves to the Apple News ecosystem. Last year, for example, The New York Times announced it would exit its partnership with Apple News, saying that Apple didn’t allow it to have as direct a relationship with readers as it wanted, and it would rather drive readers to its own app and website.

Apple, however, would argue that it doesn’t stand in the way of publishers’ businesses — it lets them paywall their content and keep 100% of the ad revenue from the ads they sell. (If they can’t sell it all or would prefer Apple to do so on their behalf, they then split the commission with Apple, keeping 70% of revenues instead.) In addition, for the company’s Apple News+ subscription service — where the subscription revenue split is much higher — it could be argued that it’s “found money.” That is, Apple markets the service to customers the publisher hadn’t been able to attract on its own anyway.

The launch of the new Apple News Partner program comes amid regulatory scrutiny over how Apple manages its App Store business and more recently, proposed legislation aiming to address alleged anticompetitive issues both in the U.S. and in major App Store markets, like South Korea.

Sensing this shift in the market, Apple had already been working to provide itself cover from antitrust complaints and lawsuits — like the one underway now with Epic Games — by adjusting its App Store commissions. Last year, it launched the App Store Small Business Program, which also lowered commissions on in-app purchases from 30% to 15% — but only for developers earning up to $1 million in revenues.

This program may have helped smaller publishers, but it was clear some major publishers still weren’t satisfied. After the reduced commissions for small businesses were announced in November, the publisher trade organization Digital Content Next (DCN) — a representative for the AP, The New York Times, NPR, ESPN, Vox, The Washington Post, Meredith, Bloomberg, NBCU, The Financial Times, and others — joined the advocacy group and lobbying organization the Coalition for App Fairness (CAF) the very next month.

These publishers, who had previously written to Apple CEO Tim Cook to demand lower commissions — had other complaints about the revenue share beyond just the size of the split. They also didn’t want to be required to use Apple’s services for in-app purchases for their subscriptions, saying this “Apple tax” forces them to raise their prices for consumers.

It remains to be seen how these publishers will now react to the launch of the Apple News Partner program.

While it gives them a way to lower their App Store fees, it doesn’t address their broader complaints against Apple’s platform and its rules. If anything, it ties the lower fees to a program that locks them in further to the Apple ecosystem.

Apple, in a gesture of goodwill, also said today it would recommit support to three leading media non-profits, Common Sense Media, the News Literacy Project, and Osservatorio Permanente Giovani-Editori. These non-profits offer nonpartisan, independent media literacy programs, which Apple views as key to its larger mission to empower people to become smart and active news readers. Apple also said it would later announce further media literacy projects from other organizations. The company would not disclose the size of its commitment from a financial standpoint however, or discuss how much it has sent such organizations in the past.

“Providing Apple News customers with access to trusted information from our publishing partners has been our priority from day one,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Services, in a statement. “For more than a decade, Apple has offered our customers many ways to access and enjoy news content across our products and services. We have hundreds of news apps from dozens of countries around the world available in the App Store, and created Apple News Format to offer publishers a tool to showcase their content and provide a great experience for millions of Apple News users,” he added.

More details about the program and the application form will be available at the News Partner Program website.

BreezoMeter, which powers air quality in Apple’s Weather app, launches Wildfire Tracker

By Danny Crichton

BreezoMeter has been on a mission to make environmental health hazards accessible to as many people as possible. Through its air quality index (AQI) calculations, the Israel-based company can now identify the quality of air down to a few meters in dozens of countries. A partnership with Apple to include its data into the iOS Weather app along with its own popular apps delivers those metrics to hundreds of millions of users, and an API product allows companies to tap into its dataset for their own purposes.

Right on the heels of a $30 million Series C round a few weeks ago, the company is radially expanding its product from air quality into the real-time detection of wildfire perimeters with its new product, Wildfire Tracker.

The new product will take advantage of the company’s fusion of sensor data, satellite imagery, and local eyewitness reports to be able to identify the edges of wildfires in real-time. “People expect accurate wildfire information just as they expect accurate weather or humidity data,” Ran Korber, CEO and co-founder, said. “It has an immediate effect on their life.” He added further that BreezoMeter wants to “try to connect the dots between climate tech and human health.”

Fire danger zones will be indicated with polygonal boundaries marked in red, and as always, air quality data will be viewable in these zones and in surrounding areas.

BreezoMeter’s air quality maps can show the spread of wildfire pollution easily. Image Credits: BreezoMeter.

Korber emphasized that getting these perimeters accurate across dozens of countries was no easy feat. Sensors can be sparse, particularly in the forests where wildfires ignite. Meanwhile, satellite data that focuses on thermal imaging can be fooled. “We’re looking for abnormalities … many of the times you have these false positives,” Korber said. He gave an example of a large solar panel array which can look very hot with thermal sensors but obviously isn’t a fire.

The identified fire perimeters will be available for free to consumers on BreezoMeter’s air quality map website, and will shortly come to the company’s apps as well. Later this year, these perimeters will be available from the company’s APIs for commercial customers. Korber hopes the API endpoints will give companies like car manufacturers the ability to forewarn drivers that they are approaching a conflagration.

The new feature is just a continuation of BreezoMeter’s long-time expansion of its product. “When we started, it was just air quality … and only forecasting air pollution in Israel,” Korber said. “Almost every year since then, we expanded the product portfolio to new environmental hazards.” He pointed to the addition of pollen in 2018 and the increasingly global nature of the app.

Wildfire detection is an, ahem, hot area these days for VC investors. For example, Cornea is a startup focused on helping firefighters identify and mitigate blazes, while Perimeter wants to help identify boundaries of wildfires and give explicit evacuation instructions complete with maps. As Silicon Valley’s home state of California and much of the world increasingly become a tinderbox for fires, expect more investment and products to enter this area.

Monad emerges from stealth with $17M to solve the cybersecurity big data problem

By Carly Page

Cloud security startup Monad, which offers a platform for extracting and connecting data from various security tools, has launched from stealth with $17 million in Series A funding led by Index Ventures. 

Monad was founded on the belief that enterprise cybersecurity is a growing data management challenge, as organizations try to understand and interpret the masses of information that’s siloed within disconnected logs and databases. Once an organization has extracted data from their security tools, Monad’s Security Data Platform enables them to centralize that data within a data warehouse of choice, and normalize and enrich the data so that security teams have the insights they need to secure their systems and data effectively.

“Security is fundamentally a big data problem,” said Christian Almenar, CEO and co-founder of Monad. “Customers are often unable to access their security data in the streamlined manner that DevOps and cloud engineering teams need to build their apps quickly while also addressing their most pressing security and compliance challenges. We founded Monad to solve this security data challenge and liberate customers’ security data from siloed tools to make it accessible via any data warehouse of choice.”

The startup’s Series A funding round, which was also backed by Sequoia Capital, brings its total amount of investment raised to  $19 million and comes 12 months after its Sequoia-led seed round. The funds will enable Monad to scale its development efforts for its security data cloud platform, the startup said.

Monad was founded in May 2020 by security veterans Christian Almenar and Jacolon Walker. Almenar previously co-founded serverless security startup Intrinsic which was acquired by VMware in 2019, while Walker served as CISO and security engineer at OpenDoor, Collective Health, and Palantir.

Using AI to reboot brand-client relationships

By Ram Iyer
Michael Gorman Contributor
Michael Gorman is SVP of Product, Business Development and Marketing at ShareThis, a data company focused on mapping comprehensive global consumer interest insights.

Marketing automation has usually focused on driving sales, mainly using past purchase or late funnel behavior (e.g., paid search) as a predictor of an imminent purchase. While effective at boosting sales numbers, this widely implemented strategy can result in a disservice to brands and industries that adopt it, as it promotes the perpetual devaluation of goods or services. Narrowing a brand’s focus only to aspects linked to conversions risks stripping the customer experience of key components that lay the groundwork for long-term success.

We live in a world rich with data, and insights are growing more vibrant every day. With this in mind, companies and advertisers can strategically weave together all the data they collect during the customer experience. This enables them to understand every inference available during customer interactions and learn what benefits the customer most at a given time.

But focusing exclusively on data collected from customers, brands risk falling subject to the law of diminishing returns. Even companies with meaningful consumer interactions or rich service offerings struggle to gain impactful contextual insights. Only by harnessing a broader dataset can we understand how people become customers in the first place, what makes them more or less likely to purchase again and how developments in society impact the growth or struggle a brand will experience.

Here’s a look at how we can achieve a more complete picture of current and future customers.

A critical component in re-imagining customer experience as a relationship is recognizing that brands often don’t focus enough on consumers’ wider needs and concerns.

Leverage AI to unlock new perspectives

Over the past several years, almost every industry has capitalized on the opportunity data-driven marketing presents, inching closer to the “holy grail” of real-time, direct and personalized engagements. Yet, the evolving toolset encouraged brands to focus on end-of-the-funnel initiatives, jeopardizing what really impacts a business’ longevity: relationships.

While past purchase or late-funnel behavior data does provide value and is useful in identifying habit changes or actual needs, it is relatively surface level and doesn’t offer insight into consumers’ future behavior or what led them to a specific purchase in the first place.

By incorporating AI, brands can successfully engage with their audiences in a more holistic, helpful and genuine way. Technologies to discern not just the content of language (e.g., the keywords) but its meaning as well, open up possibilities to better infer consumer interest and intentions. In turn, brands can tune consumer interactions to generate satisfaction and delight, and ultimately accrue stronger insights for future use.

Cybersecurity VC funding surges to a record $11.5B in 2021

By Carly Page

The pandemic completely upended the threat landscape as we know it. Ransomware accounted for an estimated 2.9 million attacks so far in 2021, and supply-chain attacks that targeted Kaseya and SolarWinds have increased fourfold over 2020, according to the European Union’s cybersecurity agency, ENISA, which recently warned that the more traditional cybersecurity protections are no longer effective in defending against these types of attacks.

This has created an unprecedented need for emerging technologies, attracting both organizations and investors to look closer at newer cybersecurity technologies.

“We are seeing a perfect storm of factors coming together to create the most aggressive threat landscape in history for commercial and government organizations around the world,” said Dave DeWalt, founder and managing director of NightDragon, which recently invested in multi-cloud security startup vArmour. “As an investor and advisor, I feel we have a responsibility to help these organizations better prepare themselves to mitigate this growing risk.”

According to Momentum Cyber’s latest cybersecurity market review out Wednesday, investors poured $11.5 billion in total venture capital financing into cybersecurity startups in the first half of 2021, up from $4.7 billion during the same period a year earlier.

More than 36 of the 430 total transactions surpassed the $100 million mark, according to Momentum, which includes the $543 million Series A raised by passwordless authentication company Transmit Security and the $525 million round closed by cloud-based security company Lacework.

“As an investor in the cyber market for over fifteen years, I can say that this market climate is unlike anything we’ve seen to date,” said Bob Ackerman, founder and managing director of AllegisCyber Capital, which recently led a $26.5 million investment in cybersecurity startup Panaseer. “It is encouraging to finally see CEOs, boards of directors, investors and more paying serious attention to this space and putting the resources and capital in place to fund the innovations that address the cybersecurity challenges of today and tomorrow.”

Unsurprisingly, M&A volume also saw a massive increase during the first six months of the year, with significant deals for companies in cloud security, security consulting, and risk and compliance. Total M&A volume reached a record-breaking $39.5 billion across 163 transactions, according to Momentum, more than four-times the $9.8 billion spent in the first half of 2020 across 93 transactions.

Nine M&A deals in 2021 so far have been valued at greater than $1 billion, including Proofpoint’s $12.3 billion acquisition by Thoma Bravo, Auth0’s $6.4 billion acquisition by Okta, and McAfee’s $4 billion acquisition by TG.

“Through the first half of 2021, we have witnessed unprecedented strategic activity with both M&A and financing volumes at all-time highs,” said Eric McAlpine and Michael Tedesco, managing partners at Momentum Cyber. “We fully expect this trend to continue through the rest of the year and into 2022.”

Read more on Extra Crunch:

ForgeRock files for IPO as identity and access management business grows

By Sean Michael Kerner

ForgeRock filed its form S-1 with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) this morning as the identity management provider takes the next step toward its IPO.

The company did not provide initial pricing for its shares, which will trade on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol FORG. The IPO is being led by Morgan Stanley and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., with the company being valued as high as $4 billion, according to Bloomberg, which is a significant uplift over the $730 million post-money value that PitchBook had for the company after its last round in 2020.

With the ever-increasing volume of cybersecurity attacks against organizations of all sizes, the need to secure and manage user identities is of growing importance. Based in San Francisco, ForgeRock has raised $233 million in funding across multiple rounds. The company’s last round was a $93.5 million Series E announced in April 2020, which was led by Riverwood Capital alongside Accenture Ventures. At that time, CEO Fran Rosch told TechCrunch that the round would be the last before an IPO, which was also what former CEO Mike Ellis told us after the startup’s $88 million Series D in September 2017.

While the timing of its IPO might have been unclear over the last few years, the company has been on a positive trajectory for growth. In its S-1, ForgeRock reported that as of June 30, its annual recurring revenue (ARR) was $155 million, representing 30% year-over-year growth. 

While revenue is growing, losses are narrowing as the company reported a $20 million net loss down from $36 million a year ago. There certainly is a whole lot of room to grow, as the company estimates that the total global addressable market for identity services to be worth $71 billion. 

Among the many competitors that ForgeRock faces is Okta, which went public in 2017 and has been growing in the years since. In March, Okta acquired cloud identity startup Auth0 for $6.5 billion in a deal that raised a few eyebrows. Another competitor is Ping Identity, which went public in 2019 and is also growing, reporting on August 4 that its ARR hit $279.6 million in its quarter ended June 30, for a 19% year-over-year gain. There have also been a few big exits in the space over the years, including Duo Security, which was acquired by Cisco for $2.35 billion in 2018.

“ForgeRock has a good access management tool and they continue to be a strong player in customer identity and access management (CIAM),” commented Michael Kelley, senior research director at Gartner.

Kelley noted that in 2020, ForgeRock converted most of its core access management services to a SaaS delivery model, which helped the company catch up with the rest of the market that already offered access management as SaaS. Also last year the company expanded into identity governance, introducing a brand new identity, governance and administration (IGA) product.

“I think one of the more interesting products that ForgeRock offers is ForgeRock Trees, which is a no-code/low-code orchestration tool for building complex authentication and authorization journeys for customers, which is particularly helpful in the CIAM market,” Kelly added.

ForgeRock was founded in 2010, but its roots go back even further to an open-source single sign-on project known as OpenSSO that was created by Sun Microsystems in 2005. When Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems in early 2010, a number of its open-source efforts were left to languish, which is what led a number of former Sun employees to start ForgeRock. 

Over the last decade, ForgeRock has expanded significantly beyond just providing a single sign-on to providing an identity platform that can handle consumer, enterprise and IoT use-cases. The company’s platform today handles identity and access management as well as identity governance.

The ability to scale is a key selling point that ForgeRock makes in the S-1, noting that its platform can handle over 60,000 user-based access transactions per second per customer. 

“As of June 30, 2021, we had four customers with 100 million or more licensed identities, the company stated in the S-1. “Our ability to serve mission-critical needs in complex environments for large customers enables us to grow our base of large customers and expand within each of them. “

 

Shelf.io closes huge $52.5M Series B after posting 4x ARR growth in the last year

By Alex Wilhelm

Covering public companies can be a bit of a drag. They grow some modest amount each year, and their constituent analysts pester them with questions about gross margin expansion and sales rep efficiency. It can be a little dull. Then there are startups, which grow much more quickly — and are more fun to talk about.

That’s the case with Shelf.io. The company announced an impressive set of metrics this morning, including that from July 2020 to July 2021, it grew its annual recurring revenue (ARR) 4x. Shelf also disclosed that it secured a $52.5 million Series B led by Tiger Global and Insight Partners.

That’s quick growth for a post-Series A startup. Crunchbase reckons that the company raised $8.2 million before its Series B, while PitchBook pegs the number at $6.5 million. Regardless, the company was efficiently expanding from a limited capital base before its latest fundraising event.

What does the company’s software do? Shelf plugs into a company’s information systems, learns from the data, and then helps employees respond to queries without forcing them to execute searches or otherwise hunt for information.

The company is starting with customer service as its target vertical. According to Shelf CEO Sedarius Perrotta, Shelf can absorb information from, say, Salesforce, SharePoint, legacy knowledge management platforms, and Zendesk. Then, after training models and staff, the company’s software can begin to provide support staff with answers to customer questions as they talk to customers in real time.

The company’s tech can also power responses to customer queries not aimed at a human agent and provide a searchable database of company knowledge to help workers more quickly solve customer issues.

Per Perrotta, Shelf is targeting the sales market next, with others to follow. How might Shelf fit into sales? According to the company, its software may be able to offer staff already-written proposals for similar-seeming deals and other related content. The gist is that at companies that have lots of workers doing similar tasks — clicking around in Salesforce, or answering support queries, say — Shelf can learn from the activity and get smarter in helping employees with their tasks. I presume that the software’s learning ability will improve over time, as well.

Shelf, around 100 people today, hopes to double in size by the end of the year, and then double again next year.

That’s where the new capital comes in. Hiring folks in the worlds of machine learning and data science is very expensive. And because the company wants to scale those hires quickly, it will need a large bank balance to lean on.

Quick ARR growth was not the only reason why Shelf was able to secure such an outsized Series B, at least when compared to how much capital it had raised before. Per Perrotta, Shelf has 130% net dollar retention and no churn to report, meaning its customers are both sticky and expand organically.

While Shelf is interesting today and has certainly found niches it can sell into in its current form, I am more curious about how far the company can take its machine learning system, called MerlinAI. If its tech can get sufficiently smart, its ability to prompt and help employees could reduce onboarding time and the overall cost of employee training. That would be a huge market.

This is the sort of deal that we expect to see Tiger in — an outsized investment compared to prior rounds into a high-growth company that has lots of market room. Whatever price Tiger just paid for the company’s stock, a few years of continued growth should de-risk the investment. By our read, Tiger is really just the market-leading bull on software market growth in the long term. Shelf fits into that thesis neatly.

India’s path to SaaS leadership is clear, but challenges remain

By Ram Iyer
Manav Garg Contributor
Manav Garg is CEO and founder of Eka Software Solutions and is founding partner of SaaSboomi and Together Fund.

Software as a service is one of the most important sectors in tech today. While its transformative potential was quite clear before the pandemic, the sudden pivot to distributed workforces caused interest in SaaS products to skyrocket as medium and large enterprises embraced digital and remote sales processes, significantly expanding their utility.

This phenomenon is global, but India in particular has the opportunity to take its SaaS momentum to the next level. The Indian SaaS industry is projected to generate revenue of $50 billion to $70 billion and win 4%-6% of the global SaaS market by 2030, creating as much as $1 trillion in value, according to a report by SaaSBOOMi and McKinsey.

The Indian SaaS industry is projected to generate revenue of $50 billion to $70 billion and win 4%-6% of the global SaaS market by 2030.

There are certain important long-term trends that are fueling this expansion.

The rise of Indian SaaS unicorns

The Indian SaaS community has seen a flurry of innovation and success. Entrepreneurs in India have founded about a thousand funded SaaS companies in the last few years, doubling the rate from five years ago and creating several unicorns in the process. Together, these companies generate $2 billion to $3 billion in total revenues and represent approximately 1% of the global SaaS market, according to SaaSBOOMi and McKinsey.

These firms are diverse in terms of the clients they serve and the problems they solve, but several garnered global attention during the pandemic by enabling flexibility for newly remote workers. Zoho helped streamline this pivot by providing sales teams with apps for collateral, videos and demos; Freshworks offered businesses a seamless customer experience platform, and Eka extended its cloud platform to unify workflows from procurement to payments for the CFO office.

Other SaaS firms stayed busy in other ways. Over the course of the pandemic, 10 new unicorns emerged: Postman, Zenoti, Innovacer, Highradius, Chargebee and Browserstack, Mindtickle, Byju, UpGrad and Unacademy. There were also several instances of substantial venture funding, including a $150 million deal for Postman, bringing the total amount raised by the Indian SaaS community in 2020 to around $1.5 billion, four times the investment in 2018.

India’s path to leadership

While the Indian SaaS community has made admirable progress in recent years, there are several key growth drivers that could lead to as much as $1 trillion in revenue by 2030. They include:

The global pivot to digital go-to-market

The number of enterprises that are comfortable with assessing products and making business decisions via Zoom is increasing rapidly. This embrace of digital go-to-market fundamentally levels the playing field for Indian companies in terms of access to customers and end markets.

When it comes to diversity in hiring, businesses are their own worst enemy

By Annie Siebert
Jonathan McBride Contributor
Jonathan McBride is the former global head of inclusion and diversity at BlackRock and previously served as director of the Presidential Personnel Office in the White House.
Rasheed Sabar Contributor
Rasheed Sabar is co-founder and co-CEO of Correlation One.

Over the past year, companies have continued to make ambitious pledges to address bias and systemic racism in the hiring process. But the track record of previous corporate diversity efforts is shaky at best. Is this time going to be different?

The answer will depend on whether companies are able to look inward to understand and dismantle the long-standing practices that too often keep skilled workers locked out of opportunities. That’s because when it comes to equity and inclusion in hiring, businesses are often standing in their own way.

It’s not that hiring managers and corporate executives don’t want to effect change. Rather, over the past year, well-meaning business and HR leaders invested in short-term, one-time solutions — like hosting events or donating to nonprofits. Make no mistake: Those aren’t necessarily bad ideas. But they’re not systemic and they’re not sustainable. It’s like saying where you’re going on vacation without building the roads you need to get there.

Today’s business leaders are using yesterday’s tactics in an attempt to address tomorrow’s problems.

This reliance on tried-and-true solutions is common across nearly every facet of society — hence the popular proverb that military generals “fight the last war, not the next one.” Today’s business leaders are using yesterday’s tactics in an attempt to address tomorrow’s problems. And if companies don’t take a more strategic, data-driven approach to diversity, we’re going to look back a year from now and find that despite the best of intentions, no more progress has been made.

What will it take to make good on our good intentions and put that systemic change into action? Research — and our own experience as corporate leaders — points to a few potential solutions.

First, stop thinking of the college degree as the best proxy for skills. A body of research indicates that the correlation between educational attainment and job performance is weaker than we might think — and that degree requirements systematically disenfranchise Black and Hispanic candidates.

Not only that, but screening based on a bachelor’s degree automatically leaves out 60% of American workers, including the more than 70 million people without four-year degrees who have the skills to succeed in higher-wage jobs (sometimes called STARs, for Skilled Through Alternative Routes).

Companies can take action right away to address this challenge. That could include new strategies that measure skills directly. IBM has long been a pioneer in this space through its commitment to skills-based hiring, which enables the company to make hiring decisions based on what candidates can do, not the pedigrees they’ve earned.

It could also include following the lead of companies like Capital One, which hires based on aptitude — and provide internal learning and development and on-the-job training opportunities to help new hires learn the skills they need to succeed on the job. The advantages of these approaches are obvious: Hiring based on skills rather than degrees opens up a much wider talent pool, increases value in terms of wages and can lead to more loyal employees and higher retention rates.

Second, recognize that when it comes to how you invest your budget and effort, training is at least as important as recruiting. As the pace of technological change accelerates and the need for digital talent grows, it’s become increasingly clear that talent poaching is an “expensive zero-sum game” that leaves companies scrambling — and paying a premium — for the same small pool of talent.

This challenge is even more acute in the context of diversity and inclusion. If Company X recruits a minority candidate who’s already had a successful career at Company Y, has that really contributed to building a more inclusive workforce in any meaningful way? The net number of workers in the industry is the same — you’re just playing musical chairs with the labor market. That may be appropriate for senior leadership roles, but it will never grow the top of the funnel if the same strategy is applied to entry-level or more junior positions.

The real way to move the needle isn’t simply to commit to hitting diversity numbers for your organization — which all too often incentivizes lateral hiring from competitors — but to provide jobs and career advancement opportunities to those who otherwise are unemployed or underemployed. Investing in training can support these efforts by both expanding the talent pool and giving companies a better return on their investment than traditional recruiting models.

Last but not least, facilitate better communication within the enterprise. No one sets out to build inequitable talent pipelines. But talent-acquisition professionals — like most professionals — have limited time and huge remits. As a result, especially in technology and data-oriented fields, there is a growing disconnect between HR departments that post jobs and the business departments that leverage the talent.

For understandable reasons, HR departments aren’t directly connected to the workflows for specific roles, which often leads to job descriptions that include laundry lists of requirements and look like “buzzword salad.” This ends up turning away the best and the most diverse talent, who often screen themselves out because they don’t meet every single requirement.

Building stronger connections between hiring managers and the rest of the enterprise can help create a clearer understanding of what skills are most important — and keep businesses from screening out qualified candidates before they even get a chance to prove themselves.

Systemic change is never easy. And that’s especially the case in a recovering economy and a tightening labor market, where businesses are under more pressure than ever to fill open roles. But inflection points like this one also create opportunities to think and act differently, rather than falling back on the status quo. From the C-suite to hiring managers and other frontline decision-makers, times of turmoil and transformation may be the best opportunity to translate aspiration into meaningful action.

That’s the challenge that stands before U.S. businesses now: investing in a more systemic approach to equity and inclusion so that we can build a world of work that reflects the values to which we all aspire.

Communication software startup Channels takes on event management with text workflow

By Christine Hall

Three University of Michigan students are building Channels Inc., a communication software tailored for physical workers, and already racking up some big customers in the event management industry.

Siddharth Kaul, 18, Elan Rosen, 20, and Ibrahim Mohammed, 20, started the company after finding some common ground in retail and events. The company’s customer list boasts names like Marriott Hotels, and it announced a $520,000 seed round, led by Sahra Growth Capital, to give it nearly $570,000 in total funding.

Kaul grew up going to a lot of events in Kuwait and Dubai, but started noticing there was a delay in things that should happen and many processes were being done on pen and paper.

“The technology that was available was inharmonious and made it hard for physical workers to fulfill tasks,” Kaul told TechCrunch. “We saw it happening in the event management space, forcing workers to coordinate across technologies.”

Legacy communication platforms like Slack are aggregating communications, but are better for remote workers; for physical workers, they rely more on text communication, he said. However, the disadvantage with texting is that you have to keep scrolling to get to the new message, and old communication is lost amid all of the replies.

They began developing a platform for small hotels to help them transition to digital and provide communication in a non-chronological order that is easier to access, enables discussion and can be searched. Users of the SaaS platform can build live personnel maps to see where employees are and what the event floor looks like, prioritize alerts and automate tasks while monitoring progress.

Marriott became a customer after one of its employees saw the Channels platform was being tested at an event. He saw employees pulling out their phones and asked the manager why they were doing that, and was told they were testing out the product and referred him to Kaul.

“What they thought was helpful was that it was communication, and though the employees were checking their phones, it was quick and they remained attentive,” Kaul said.

Channels provides a solid platform in terms of analytics and graphical representation, which is a major selling point for customers, leading to initial traction and revenue for the company that Rosen said he expects can occur at the convention level the company is striving for.

The new funding will be used to grow in development and bring additional engineering talent to the team. In addition, it will allow Kaul and Rosen to continue with their studies, while Mohammed will be doing more full-time work. They want to increase their recurring revenue in the Middle East while building up operations in the United States.

Jamal Al-Barrak, managing partner of Sahra Growth Capital, said Channels was on his firm’s radar ever since they won the 2020 Dubai X-Series competition it sponsors. As a result of winning the competition, he was able to see the founders on multiple occasions and hear their growth.

Sahra doesn’t typically invest in companies like Channels, but the firm started a “seed sourcing effort” to make investments of between $200,000 and $800,000 into early-stage companies, Al-Barrak said. Channels is one of the first investments with that effort.

“Channels is one of our first investments in this initiative and they look very promising so far even compared to our investments before we started this initiative,” Al-Barrak said. He liked the founders’ work ethic and their focus on the event industry, which he called, “historically outdated and bereft of technological innovation.”

“Sid, Elan and Ibrahim are some of the youngest yet brightest entrepreneurs I have come across to this day and I have invested in over 25 technology startups,” he said. “Additionally, I enjoyed that they had proof of concept with a prior customer base and revenue. I was most impressed by their vision past their current industry and bounds as they want to encapsulate communication for all physical workers, whether it is events, retail or more.”

 

Companies betting on data must value people as much as AI

By Ram Iyer
Asaf Cohen Contributor
Asaf Cohen is co-founder and CEO at Metrolink.ai, a data operations platform.

The Pareto principle, also known as the 80-20 rule, asserts that 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes, rendering the remainder way less impactful.

Those working with data may have heard a different rendition of the 80-20 rule: A data scientist spends 80% of their time at work cleaning up messy data as opposed to doing actual analysis or generating insights. Imagine a 30-minute drive expanded to two-and-a-half hours by traffic jams, and you’ll get the picture.

As tempting as it may be to think of a future where there is a machine learning model for every business process, we do not need to tread that far right now.

While most data scientists spend more than 20% of their time at work on actual analysis, they still have to waste countless hours turning a trove of messy data into a tidy dataset ready for analysis. This process can include removing duplicate data, making sure all entries are formatted correctly and doing other preparatory work.

On average, this workflow stage takes up about 45% of the total time, a recent Anaconda survey found. An earlier poll by CrowdFlower put the estimate at 60%, and many other surveys cite figures in this range.

None of this is to say data preparation is not important. “Garbage in, garbage out” is a well-known rule in computer science circles, and it applies to data science, too. In the best-case scenario, the script will just return an error, warning that it cannot calculate the average spending per client, because the entry for customer #1527 is formatted as text, not as a numeral. In the worst case, the company will act on insights that have little to do with reality.

The real question to ask here is whether re-formatting the data for customer #1527 is really the best way to use the time of a well-paid expert. The average data scientist is paid between $95,000 and $120,000 per year, according to various estimates. Having the employee on such pay focus on mind-numbing, non-expert tasks is a waste both of their time and the company’s money. Besides, real-world data has a lifespan, and if a dataset for a time-sensitive project takes too long to collect and process, it can be outdated before any analysis is done.

What’s more, companies’ quests for data often include wasting the time of non-data-focused personnel, with employees asked to help fetch or produce data instead of working on their regular responsibilities. More than half of the data being collected by companies is often not used at all, suggesting that the time of everyone involved in the collection has been wasted to produce nothing but operational delay and the associated losses.

The data that has been collected, on the other hand, is often only used by a designated data science team that is too overworked to go through everything that is available.

All for data, and data for all

The issues outlined here all play into the fact that save for the data pioneers like Google and Facebook, companies are still wrapping their heads around how to re-imagine themselves for the data-driven era. Data is pulled into huge databases and data scientists are left with a lot of cleaning to do, while others, whose time was wasted on helping fetch the data, do not benefit from it too often.

The truth is, we are still early when it comes to data transformation. The success of tech giants that put data at the core of their business models set off a spark that is only starting to take off. And even though the results are mixed for now, this is a sign that companies have yet to master thinking with data.

Data holds much value, and businesses are very much aware of it, as showcased by the appetite for AI experts in non-tech companies. Companies just have to do it right, and one of the key tasks in this respect is to start focusing on people as much as we do on AIs.

Data can enhance the operations of virtually any component within the organizational structure of any business. As tempting as it may be to think of a future where there is a machine learning model for every business process, we do not need to tread that far right now. The goal for any company looking to tap data today comes down to getting it from point A to point B. Point A is the part in the workflow where data is being collected, and point B is the person who needs this data for decision-making.

Importantly, point B does not have to be a data scientist. It could be a manager trying to figure out the optimal workflow design, an engineer looking for flaws in a manufacturing process or a UI designer doing A/B testing on a specific feature. All of these people must have the data they need at hand all the time, ready to be processed for insights.

People can thrive with data just as well as models, especially if the company invests in them and makes sure to equip them with basic analysis skills. In this approach, accessibility must be the name of the game.

Skeptics may claim that big data is nothing but an overused corporate buzzword, but advanced analytics capacities can enhance the bottom line for any company as long as it comes with a clear plan and appropriate expectations. The first step is to focus on making data accessible and easy to use and not on hauling in as much data as possible.

In other words, an all-around data culture is just as important for an enterprise as the data infrastructure.

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