Monthly Archives: May 2021

SightCall raises $42M for its AR-based visual assistance platform

Posted by on 11 May, 2021

This post was originally published on this site

Long before Covid-19 precipitated “digital transformation” across the world of work, customer services and support was built to run online and virtually. Yet it too is undergoing an evolution supercharged by technology.

Today, a startup called SightCall, which has built an augmented reality platform to help field service teams, the companies they work for, and their customers carry out technical and mechanical maintenance or repairs more effectively, is announcing $42 million in funding, money that it plans to use to invest in its tech stack with more artificial intelligence tools and expanding its client base.

The core of its service, explained CEO and co-founder Thomas Cottereau, is AR technology (which comes embedded in their apps or the service apps its customers use, with integrations into other standard software used in customer service environments including Microsoft, SAP, Salesforce and ServiceNow). The augmented reality experience overlays additional information, pointers and other tools over the video stream.

This is used by, say, field service engineers coordinating with central offices when servicing equipment; or by manufacturers to provide better assistance to customers in emergencies or situations where something is not working but might be repaired quicker by the customers themselves rather than engineers that have to be called out; or indeed by call centers, aided by AI, to diagnose whatever the problem might be. It’s a big leap ahead for scenarios that previously relied on work orders, hastily drawn diagrams, instruction manuals, and voice-based descriptions to progress the work in question.

“We like to say that we break the barriers that exist between a field service organization and its customer,” Cottereau said.

The tech, meanwhile, is unique to SightCall, built over years and designed to be used by way of a basic smartphone, and over even a basic mobile network — essential in cases where reception is bad or the locations are remote. (More on how it works below.)

Originally founded in Paris, France before relocating to San Francisco, SightCall has already built up a sizable business across a pretty wide range of verticals, including insurance, telecoms, transportation, telehealth, manufacturing, utilities, and life sciences/medical devices.

SightCall has some 200 big-name enterprise customers on its books, including the likes of Kraft-Heinz, Allianz, GE Healthcare and Lincoln Motor Company, providing services on a B2B basis as well as for teams that are out in the field working for consumer customers, too. After seeing 100% year-over-year growth in annual recurring revenue in 2019 and 2020, SightCall’s CEO says it’s looking like it will hit that rate this year as well, with a goal of $100 million in annual recurring revenue.

The funding is being led by InfraVia, a European private equity firm, with Bpifrance also participating. The valuation of this round is not being disclosed, but I should point out that an investor told me that PitchBook’s estimate of $122 million post-money is not accurate (we’re still digging on this and will update as and when we learn more).

For some further context on this investment, InfraVia invests in a number of industrial businesses, alongside investments in tech companies building services related to them such as recent investments in Jobandtalent, so this is in part a strategic investment. SightCall has raised $67 million to date.

There has been an interesting wave of startups emerging in recent years building out the tech stack used by people working in the front lines and in the field, a shift after years of knowledge workers getting most of the attention from startups building a new generation of apps.

Workiz and Jobber are building platforms for small business tradespeople to book jobs and manage them once they’re on the books; BigChange helps manage bigger fleets; and Hover has built a platform for builders to be able to assess and estimate costs for work by using AI to analyze images captured by their or their would-be customers’ smartphone cameras.

And there is Streem, which I discovered is a close enough competitor to SightCall that they’ve acquired Adwords ads based on SightCall searches in Google. Just ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic breaking wide open, General Catalyst-backed Streem was acquired by Frontdoor to help with the latter’s efforts to build out its home services business, another sign of how all of this is leaping ahead.

What’s interesting in part about SightCall and sets it apart is its technology. Co-founded in 2007 by Cottereau and Antoine Vervoort (currently SVP of product and engineering), the two are both long-time telecoms industry vets who had both worked on the technical side of building next-generation networks.

SightCall first started life as a company called Weemo that built video chat services that could run on WebRTC-based frameworks, which emerged at a time when we were seeing a wider effort to bring more rich media services into mobile web and SMS apps. For consumers and to a large extent businesses, mobile phone apps that work ‘over the top’ (distributed not by your mobile network carrier but the companies that run your phone’s operating system, and thus partly controlled by them) really took the lead and continue to dominate the market for messaging and innovations in messaging.

After a time, Weemo pivoted and renamed itself as SightCall, focusing on packaging the tech that it built into whichever app (native or mobile web) where one of its enterprise customers wanted the tech to live.

The key to how it works comes by way of how SightCall was built, Cottereau explained. The company has spent ten years building and optimizing a network across data centers close to where its customers are, which interconnects with Tier 1 telecoms carriers and has a lot of latency in the system to ensure uptime. “We work with companies where this connectivity is mission critical,” he said. “The video solution has to work.”

As he describes it, the hybrid system SightCall has built incorporates its own IP that works both with telecoms hardware and software, resulting in a video service that provides 10 different ways for streaming video and a system that automatically chooses the best in a particular environment, based on where you are, so that even if mobile data or broadband reception don’t work, video streaming will. “Telecoms and software are still very separate worlds,” Cottereau said. “They still don’t speak the same language, and so that is part of our secret sauce, a global roaming mechanism.”

The tech that the startup has built to date not only has given it a firm grounding against others who might be looking to build in this space, but has led to strong traction with customers. The next steps will be to continue building out that technology to tap deeper into the automation that is being adopted across the industries that already use SightCall’s technology.

“SightCall pioneered the market for AR-powered visual assistance, and they’re in the best position to drive the digital transformation of remote service,” said Alban Wyniecki, partner at InfraVia Capital Partners, in a statement. “As a global leader, they can now expand their capabilities, making their interactions more intelligent and also bringing more automation to help humans work at their best.”

“SightCall’s $42M Series B marks the largest funding round yet in this sector, and SightCall emerges as the undisputed leader in capital, R&D resources and partnerships with leading technology companies enabling its solutions to be embedded into complex enterprise IT,” added Antoine Izsak of Bpifrance. “Businesses are looking for solutions like SightCall to enable customer-centricity at a greater scale while augmenting technicians with knowledge and expertise that unlocks efficiencies and drives continuous performance and profit.”

Cottereau said that the company has had a number of acquisition offers over the years — not a surprise when you consider the foundational technology it has built for how to architect video networks across different carriers and data centers that work even in the most unreliable of network environments.

“We want to stay independent, though,” he said. “I see a huge market here, and I want us to continue the story and lead it. Plus, I can see a way where we can stay independent and continue to work with everyone.”

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DataRobot expands platform and announces Zepl acquisition

Posted by on 11 May, 2021

This post was originally published on this site

DataRobot, the Boston-based automated machine learning startup, had a bushel of announcements this morning as it expanded its platform to give technical and non-technical users alike something new. It also announced it has acquired Zepl, giving it an advanced development environment where data scientists can bring their own code to DataRobot. The two companies did not share the acquisition price.

Nenshad Bardoliwalla, SVP of Product at DataRobot says that his company aspires to be the leader in this market and it believes the path to doing that is appealing to a broad spectrum of user requirements from those who have little data science understanding to those who can do their own machine learning coding in Python and R.

“While people love automation, they also want it to be [flexible]. They don’t want just automation, but then you can’t do anything with it. They also want the ability to turn the knobs and pull the levers,” Bardoliwalla explained.

To resolve that problem, rather than building a coding environment from scratch, it chose to buy Zepl and incorporate its coding notebook into the platform in a new tool called Composable ML. “With Composable ML and with the Zepl acquisition, we are now providing a really first class environment for people who want to code,” he said.

Zepl was founded in 2016 and raised $13 million along the way, according to Crunchbase data. The company didn’t want to reveal the number of employees or the purchase price, but the acquisition gives it advanced capabilities, especially a notebook environment to call its own to attract those more advanced users to the platform.The company plans to incorporate the Zepl functionality into the platform, while also leaving the stand-alone product in place.

Bardoliwalla said that they see the Zepl acquisition as an extension of the automated side of the house, where these tools can work in conjunction with one another with machines and humans working together to generate the best models. “This [generates an] organic mixture of the best of what a system can generate using DataRobot AutoML and the best of what human beings can do and kind of trying to compose those together into something really interesting […],” Bardoliwalla said.

The company is also introducing a no-code AI app builder that enables non-technical users to create apps from the data set with drag and drop components. In addition, it’s adding a tool to monitor the accuracy of the model over time. Sometimes, after a model is in production for a time, the accuracy can begin to break down as the data the model is based is no longer valid. This tool monitors the model data for accuracy and warns the team when it’s starting to fall out of compliance.

Finally the company is announcing a model bias monitoring tool to help root out model bias that could introduce racist, sexist or other assumptions into the model. To avoid this, the company has built a tool to identify when it sees this happening both in the model building phase and in production. It warns the team of potential bias, while providing them with suggestions to tweak the model to remove it.

DataRobot is based in Boston and was founded in 2012. It has raised over $750 million and has a valuation of over $2.8 billion, according to Pitchbook.

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Cycode raises $20M to secure DevOps pipelines

Posted by on 11 May, 2021

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Israeli security startup Cycode, which specializes in helping enterprises secure their DevOps pipelines and prevent code tampering, today announced that it has raised a $20 million Series A funding round led by Insight Partners. Seed investor YL Ventures also participated in this round, which brings the total funding in the company to $24.6 million.

Cycode’s focus was squarely on securing source code in its early days, but thanks to the advent of infrastructure as code (IaC), policies as code and similar processes, it has expanded its scope. In this context, it’s worth noting that Cycode’s tools are language and use case agnostic. To its tools, code is code.

“This ‘everything as code’ notion creates an opportunity because the code repositories, they become a single source of truth of what the operation should look like and how everything should function, Cycode CTO and co-founder Ronin Slavin told me. “So if we look at that and we understand it — the next phase is to verify this is indeed what’s happening, and then whenever something deviates from it, it’s probably something that you should look at and investigate.”

Cycode Dashboard. Image Credits: Cycode

The company’s service already provides the tools for managing code governance, leak detection, secret detection and access management. Recently it added its features for securing code that defines a business’ infrastructure; looking ahead, the team plans to add features like drift detection, integrity monitoring and alert prioritization.

“Cycode is here to protect the entire CI/CD pipeline — the development infrastructure — from end to end, from code to cloud,” Cycode CEO and co-founder Lior Levy told me.

“If we look at the landscape today, we can say that existing solutions in the market are kind of siloed, just like the DevOps stages used to be,” Levy explained. “They don’t really see the bigger picture, they don’t look at the pipeline from a holistic perspective. Essentially, this is causing them to generate thousands of alerts, which amplifies the problem even further, because not only don’t you get a holistic view, but also the noise level that comes from those thousands of alerts causes a lot of valuable time to get wasted on chasing down some irrelevant issues.”

What Cycode wants to do then is to break down these silos and integrate the relevant data from across a company’s CI/CD infrastructure, starting with the source code itself, which ideally allows the company to anticipate issues early on in the software life cycle. To do so, Cycode can pull in data from services like GitHub, GitLab, Bitbucket and Jenkins (among others) and scan it for security issues. Later this year, the company plans to integrate data from third-party security tools like Snyk and Checkmarx as well.

“The problem of protecting CI/CD tools like GitHub, Jenkins and AWS is a gap for virtually every enterprise,” said Jon Rosenbaum, principal at Insight Partners, who will join Cycode’s board of directors. “Cycode secures CI/CD pipelines in an elegant, developer-centric manner. This positions the company to be a leader within the new breed of application security companies — those that are rapidly expanding the market with solutions which secure every release without sacrificing velocity.”

The company plans to use the new funding to accelerate its R&D efforts, and expand its sales and marketing teams. Levy and Slavin expect that the company will grow to about 65 employees this year, spread between the development team in Israel and its sales and marketing operations in the U.S.

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Zencargo raises $42M to expand its digital-first freight forwarding platform internationally

Posted by on 10 May, 2021

This post was originally published on this site

While consumers and businesses continue to use their purchasing power to spin the wheels of the globalized economy, one of the companies that’s built a technology platform to help that economy operate more smoothly is announcing an investment to double down on growth.

Zencargo, which has built a digital platform to enable freight forwarding — the process by which companies organize and track the movements of items they are making and selling (and the components needed for those items) — has raised £30 million (about $42 million). Alex Hersham, the CEO who co-founded the company with Richard Fattal (CCO) and Jan Riethmayer, said that London-based Zencargo will be using the funding to open offices in The Netherlands, Hong Kong and the U.S.; to more than double its headcount to 350 from 150 today; and to begin to make moves into trade finance — a critical lever for facilitating the trading activities that are the bread and butter of Zencargo’s business.

The Series B is being led by Digital+ Partners, with HV Capital, which led its previous round, also participating. Zencargo is not disclosing its valuation but the company — which provides services to both to companies and distributors like Amazon to ship goods to its fulfillment centers; and brands like Vivienne Westwood, Swoon Furniture, and Soho Home — said that it is on track to make £100 million in revenues this year, and £200 million in 2022.

That is against the backdrop of some major world events that have both proven to be challenges as well as opportunities for the startup.

Brexit in the UK has created quite a mess for moving goods in and out of the country and into Europe (difficult but ultimately a net positive for Zencargo: it helps facilitate some aspects of that movement for its clients). Covid-19, meanwhile, has impacted economies (again: a difficult impact but also a positive, in that people are spending more money on goods for themselves and less on travel, leading to more demand for shipping those goods around the globe).

The Suez Canal blockage, on the other hand, also continues to loom (not great: Hersham said that Zencargo and others are still dealing with the fallout of those delays, although it’s highlighted the need for blended approaches when it comes to moving goods, with some items shipped slower by sea, and others faster by air or road). And there is the growing priority of how shipping impacts carbon footprints (an area of opportunity, interestingly: Zencargo can provide more efficient routing, and also services to consider how to carbon offset shipping activities).

The more general challenge that Zencargo is tackling goes hand in hand with our existence as consumers.

Many of us do not blink an eye when we go online or to a store to procure something, and we get whatever that happens to be right away.

But the simplicity of wanting and subsequently obtaining goods sits on top of a huge, and hugely complex, logistics operation. It might involve components, assembly, or growing and processing things, shipping from one place to another, passing through multiple distribution and shipping hubs, customs, retailers and finally delivery to your store, or directly to you — a logistics chain that, taking all the world’s goods into account, has been estimated to be worth up to $12 trillion annually. Freight forwarding is the process by which all of that logistics works as it should, and in itself accounts for hundreds of billions of dollars in spend, and potentially more than $1 trillion in costs when things go awry.

Traditionally, a lot of freight forwarding work has been done offline, a messy process involving paper and faxing, prone to mistakes, over- and under-supply based on sales and typically hard to scrutinize because of the lack of centralized information. Companies like Zencargo — along with others in the same space like Flexport — have built digitized platforms to manage all of this, tracking items by SKU data, matching shipments with real-time insights into sales and demand, and balancing different kinds of freight options to provide the right items at the right time. (Zencargo works across sea, air and land freight, with sea accounting for about half of all of its traffic, Hersham said.)

Zencargo’s services arguably will continue to see demand growing in line with the growth of the logistics industry, but the curve balls of the last several years, and in the last 12 months in particular, that have impacted the shipping business lay out an interesting road ahead for the startup in the future.

“The freight industry has struggled to keep pace with innovation. Archaic processes are still in place across the board, resulting in widespread inefficiencies,” said Patrick Beitel, Managing Director and Founding Partner at Digital+ Partners, in a statement. “Zencargo’s cutting edge technologies, plus deep industry experience and knowledge, are transforming the supply chain, and that marries up perfectly with Digital + Partners’ mission to back companies with best-in-class technology and exceptional management teams. We are honoured to join them on the next stage of their journey.”

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ServiceNow leaps into applications performance monitoring with Lightstep acquisition

Posted by on 10 May, 2021

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This morning ServiceNow announced that it was acquiring Lightstep, an applications performance monitoring startup that has raised over $70 million, according to Crunchbase data. The companies did not share the acquisition price.

ServiceNow wants to take advantage of Lightstep’s capabilities to enhance its IT operations offerings. With Lightstep, the company should be able to provide customers with a way to monitor the performance of applications with the goal of detecting problems before the grow into major issues that take down a website or application.

“With Lightstep, ServiceNow will transform how software solutions are delivered to customers. This will ultimately make it easier for customers to innovate quickly. Now they’ll be able to build and operate their software faster than ever before and take the new era of work head on with confidence,” Pablo Stern, SVP & GM for IT Workflow Products at ServiceNow said in a statement.

Ben Sigelman, founder and CEO at Lightstep sees the larger organization being a good landing spot for his company. “We’ve always believed that the value of observability should extend across the entire enterprise, providing greater clarity and confidence to every team involved in these modern, digital businesses. By joining ServiceNow, together we will realize that vision for our customers and help transform the world of work in the process […], Sigelman said in a statement.

Lightstep is part of the application performance monitoring market with companies like DataDog, New Relic and AppDynamics, which Cisco acquired in 2017 the week before it was scheduled to IPO for $3.7 billion. It seems to be an area that is catching the interest of larger enterprise vendors, who are picking off smaller startups in the space.

Last November, IBM bought Instana, an APM startup and then bought Turbonomic for $2 billion at the end of last month as a complementary technology. Being able to monitor apps and keep them up and running is crucial, not only from a business continuity perspective, but also from a brand loyalty one. Even if the app isn’t completely down, but is running slowly or generally malfunctioning in some way, it’s likely to annoy users and could ultimately cause users to jump to a competitor. This type of software gives customers the ability to observe and detect problems before they have an impact on large numbers of users.

Lightstep, which is based in San Jose California, was founded in 2015. It raised $70 million from investors like Altimeter Capital, Sequoia, Redpoint and Harrison Metal. Customers include GitHub, Spotify and Twilio. The deal is expected to close this quarter.

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Activist investor Starboard Value makes official bid for Box board seats in letter

Posted by on 10 May, 2021

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Last week activist investor Starboard delivered a public letter rebuking the company for what it perceives as under performance. Today the firm, which owns 8% of Box stock, making it the company’s largest stock holder, took it a step further with an official slate of four candidates it will be putting up at the next stockholder’s meeting.

While the company rehashed many of the same complaints as in last week’s letter, this week’s explicitly stated its intent to run its own slate of candidates for the Box board. “Therefore, in accordance with the Company’s governance deadlines and in order to preserve our rights as stockholders, we have delivered a formal notice to Box nominating four highly qualified director candidates (the “Nominees”) for election to the Board at the Annual Meeting,” Starboard wrote in a public letter to Box.

Box responded in a press release that the Board as currently constituted categorically rejects this attempt by Starboard to take over additional seats.

“The Box Board of Directors does not believe the changes to the Board proposed by Starboard are warranted or in the best interests of all stockholders. The Box Board has been consistently responsive to feedback from all of its stockholders, including suggestions from Starboard, and open-minded toward all value enhancing opportunities. Furthermore, Starboard’s statements do not accurately depict the progress Box has made,” the Board wrote in a statement this morning.

Box further points out that the company overhauled the Board last year with three new board members specifically receiving Starboard approval.

What is driving Starboard to take this action? Like any good activist investor it wants a higher stock price and is seeking for more growth from Box. Activist investors often come in and try to extract value by brute force when they perceive the company is under performing. The end game were they successful could involve removing Levie as CEO or more likely selling the company and grabbing its profit on the way out.

Box asserted that “Starboard’s statements do not accurately depict the progress Box has made,” highlighting some of its recent financial performance including “a $127 million increase in free cash flow in fiscal 2021.” The former private-market darling also argued that its fiscal 2021 “revenue growth rate plus free cash flow margin [came to more than] 26%,” which beat its own target of 25% and was “nearly double” what it managed in its fiscal 2020.

This is a good time for a ‘yes, but‘: Yes, but Box’s ability to improve its profitability does not change the fact that its growth rate has been in steady decline for years. And while a company’s growth rate can cover nearly any sin, slowing growth that has already slipped into the single digits doesn’t cut Box much slack. (For reference, in its most recent quarter, the fourth of its fiscal 2021, Box grew just 8% on a year-over-year basis.)

It’s worth noting that the company did promise “accelerated growth and higher operating margins in the years ahead” in its most recent earnings call, but the company’s recent $500 million investment from KKR particularly irked Starboard, which asserts that it was akin to ‘buying the vote.’

“[Box] made several poor capital allocation decisions, including its recent entry into a financing transaction that we believe serves no business purpose and was done in the face of a potential election contest with Starboard at the 2021 Annual Meeting of Stockholders.”

Now it’s becoming a battle over more board seats. Box is putting up Levie, Verisign CFO Dana Evan and Peter Leav, Chief Executive Officer of McAfee and former Chief Executive Officer of BMC.

Starboard nominees include Deborah S. Conrad, former executive at Intel; Peter A. Feld, Starboard’s head of research; John R. McCormack, former CEO of WebSense and Xavier D. Williams, a director of American Virtual Cloud Technologies.

The vote will take place at the Box stockholder’s meeting, which has traditionally been held in late June or early July. To this point, the company has not put out the exact date publicly.

Posted Under: Tech News
The Expensify EC-1

Posted by on 10 May, 2021

This post was originally published on this site

Let’s make it clear from the outset that this story is about an expense management SaaS business called Expensify. As you’d expect, yes, this is about the expense management market and how Expensify has grown, its technology and all of that. Normally, that would make us change the channel. But this is also a story about pirates; peer-to-peer hackers who asked, “Why not work from Thailand and dozens of countries across the globe?” and actually did it using P2P hacker culture as a model for consensus-driven decision-making — all with pre-Uber Travis Kalanick in a guest-starring role.

Most interestingly, this is a story about just not giving a damn about what anyone goddamn thinks, an approach to life and business that led to more than $100 million in annual revenue, and an IPO incoming on what looks to be a very quick timetable. Prodigious revenues, 10 million users and only 130 employees running the whole shebang — that’s a hell of an achievement in only 13 years.

If you’re going a bit “WTF,” well, we’d concur. Expensify is as contradictory as they come in the enterprise world. It’s managed to take what might well be the most boring part of the corporate business stack and turn it into something special. It doesn’t borrow its culture from other startups, it built its own tech stack from the ground up, and even hires in a completely radical way. Oh, and no one really has job titles either, because why the hell bother with hierarchy anyway? They’re pirates after all.

If expense management is about avoiding corporate plunder, then letting the pirates and hackers run the ship is probably the best approach. And now, Expensify is plundering the corporate spend world one travel ticket and business meal at a time just as the world is rebuilding in the wake of COVID-19.

TechCrunch’s writer and analyst for this EC-1 is Anna Heim. Heim is a tech journalist and former startup founder who has written for different tech publications since 2011. She recently joined Extra Crunch as a daily reporter, where she will be sharing insights on startups, particularly in SaaS. The lead editor of this package was Ram Iyer, the series editor was Danny Crichton, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto, and original illustrations were created by Nigel Sussman with art direction from Bryce Durbin.

Expensify had no say in the content of this analysis and did not get advance access to it. Heim has no financial ties to Expensify or other conflicts of interest to disclose.

The Expensify EC-1 will be a serialized sequence of five articles published over the course of the coming weeks. We interviewed the company in February and March, well before the company announced a confidential filing of its S-1 to the SEC. Let’s take a look:

  • Part 1: Origin storyHow a band of P2P hackers planted the seeds of a unique expense management giant” (2,400 words/10 minutes) — Explores the colorful history of the Expensify founders’ days with Travis Kalanick’s venture before Uber, a P2P content distribution startup called Red Swoosh, and how that experience would eventually influence what would one day become an expense management giant.
  • Parts 2-5: Upcoming shortly.

We’re always iterating on the EC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at danny@techcrunch.com.

Posted Under: Tech News
How a band of P2P hackers planted the seeds of a unique expense management giant

Posted by on 10 May, 2021

This post was originally published on this site

Individuality often has no place in the enterprise software space. In a market where a single contract can easily run into the millions, homogeneity is the herald of reliability and serves to reassure buyers of the worth of their potential purchase.

So it’s natural to think a company in the expense report management business would keep it simple and play it by the book. But one look at Expensify is enough to tell you that this is a company that never even looked for the book.

Expensify’s origin story is one of a scrappy group of developers who turned travel into a catalyst for ideas and stuck together through highs and lows, ending up building one of the most unexpectedly original companies in enterprise software today.

Right from its famous “workcations,” to its management structure and its decision-making policies, Expensify has it in its DNA to eschew so-called best practices for its own ideas — a philosophy rooted in its founder and early team’s P2P hacker background and do-it-yourself attitude. As a result, Expensify is atypical of startups in many ways, inside and out.

Founder and CEO David Barrett made it clear his company was different in our first call itself: “We hire in a super different way. We have a very unusual internal management structure. Our business model itself is very unusual. We don’t have any salespeople, for example. We’re an incredibly small company. We focus on the employees over the bosses. Our technology stack is completely different. Our approach toward product design is very different.”

That description would make some people call Expensify weird even by startup standards, but this essential difference has set it apart in a space dominated by giants such as SAP Concur and Coupa. And that’s ultimately been to its benefit: Expensify reached $100 million in annual recurring revenue in 2020, with hefty 25% EBITDA margins to boot. There were also rumors of the company planning to go public during our interviews for this EC-1, but they stopped speaking to us in March, and now we know why: Expensify confidentially filed to go public on May 3.

Expensify’s origin story is one of a scrappy group of developers who turned travel into a catalyst for ideas and stuck together through highs and lows, ending up building one of the most unexpectedly original companies in enterprise software today.

When David met Travis …

To truly understand Expensify, you first need to take a close look at a unique, short-lived, P2P file-sharing company called Red Swoosh, which was Travis Kalanick’s startup before he founded Uber. Framed by Kalanick as his “revenge business” after his previous P2P startup Scour was sued into oblivion for copyright infringement, Red Swoosh would be the precursor for Expensify’s future culture and ethos. In fact, many of Expensify’s initial team actually met at Red Swoosh, which was eventually acquired by Akamai Technologies in 2007 for $18.7 million.

Barrett, a self-proclaimed alpha geek and lifelong software engineer, was actually Red Swoosh’s last engineering manager, hired after the failure of his first project, iGlance.com, a P2P push-to-talk program that couldn’t compete against Skype. “While I was licking my wounds from that experience, I was approached by Travis Kalanick who was running a startup called Red Swoosh,” he recalled in an interview.

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Blind raises $37M to double down on workplace gossip and career advice

Posted by on 10 May, 2021

This post was originally published on this site

Blind has carved out a unique niche in the social-networking world. It’s an app of verified, pseudonymous employees talking to each other about what’s going on at their employers, trading notes on everything from layoffs, to promotions, to policies. Part LinkedIn, part Reddit, part Slack — it’s become widely popular among tech workers at Silicon Valley companies and even outside the tech industry, with 5 million verified users.

Workplaces have changed dramatically post-COVID-19, with remote work becoming more of a norm, and that has made Blind indispensable for many workers who feel increasingly alienated from their companies and their colleagues.

The company announced this morning a $37 million Series C funding round led by South Korean venture firm Mainstreet Investment along with Cisco Investments and Pavilion Capital, a subsidiary of Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek. The company had filed a Form D in late March for roughly $20.5 million, and the $37 million represents the final total fundraised.

We last did a deep dive in the company back in 2018, so what’s changed? Well, first, there’s the pandemic. Co-founder and general manager Kyum Kim says that Blind’s users are now coming to the app all throughout the day. “Usage used to peak during the commute times,” he said. “8-10 AM before COVID and then after work, 7 PM-10 PM was another timeframe that people used to use Blind a lot. But now, it has kind of flattened out [throughout the day].” The new peak is 2 PM, and according to Kim, users are logging in 30 times per month over about 13-15 days.

This gets to the first of two areas where Blind is experimenting with revenue generation. As remote work has taken hold, particularly at tech companies, internal messaging channels have become less valuable as sources for clear information from executive leadership. Blind believes it has a better pulse on how employees are feeling about policies and their employers, and is building tools around, for example, pulse surveys to give HR teams better insight than they might get from other services.

“People are just more honest on our platform versus these company-sponsored channels,” Kim said. We’re “probably the only platform where people are coming voluntarily, have visibility into their intentions, how they feel about their company’s policies.” Blind wants to protect the identities of its users, while also offering aggregate insights to companies.

To that end, last week the company brought on Young Yuk as chief product officer. Yuk had been an advisor to Blind for the past four years, while daylighting in senior product roles at Intuit, Yelp, and Glassdoor. Kim believes that Yuk’s experience across consumer and enterprise will fit the unique needs of Blind’s business, which combines a consumer social network with B2B products.

For its own users though, the second area of attention is perhaps the most interesting: recruiting. Blind users are obsessed with career paths and compensation, and Kim said that “80% of our search keywords on Blind are company names or company names attached to levels, locations, or teams.” People want to know how to move their careers forward, an area companies are notoriously bad about explaining, and so “people come to Blind to find information from these verified employees.”

Blind is building what it calls “Talent by Blind,” a platform for capturing this hiring intentionality and selling it to recruiters. The goal is to transfer people whose intentions might be, say, L5 engineer at a big tech company in Seattle to a separate platform that can be used as a top-of-funnel for company recruitment efforts. Blind says a couple of companies are currently using this platform.

“Talent by Blind” is a platform to help transfer potential recruits into the top of the recruiting funnel at companies. Image Credits: Blind

Ultimately, Blind’s path has been one of slow and steady growth. The company claims to be deliberate in that approach, noting that pseudonymous communities often falter when they grow too fast and norms aren’t established early. Unlike more notorious anonymous communities from years past like Secret or YikYak, the company says that its network tends to be quite safe, since employees verify their identities and know that they are speaking directly to their colleagues.

Blind’s team has expanded in recent years. Image Credits: Blind.

Revenue approaches remain experimental, but ultimately, the key is that it has the users that companies want to hear from: their own employees and potential future employees. We want to “maintain that integrity with users,” Kim said. “‘Ally to employees and advisor to companies’ is the phrase we are trying to go for.”

“It’s been eight years we have been doing this business, [and] we have been focused on the longness,” he said. “There’s a lot of optimism in the company.” He would know — he probably checked Blind.

Posted Under: Tech News
The human-focused startups of the hellfire

Posted by on 9 May, 2021

This post was originally published on this site

Disasters may not always be man-made, but they are always responded to by humans. There’s a whole panoply of skills and professions required today to respond to even the tiniest emergency, and that doesn’t even include the needs during pre-disaster planning and post-disaster recovery. It’s not a very remunerative industry for most and the mental health effects from stress can linger for decades, but the mission at the core of this work — to help people in the time of their greatest need — is what continues to attract many to partake in this never-ending battle anyway.

In the last three parts of this series on the future of technology and disaster response, I’ve focused on, well, technology, and specifically the sales cycle for new products, the sudden data deluge now that Internet of Things (IoT) is in full force, and the connectivity that allows that data to radiate all around. What we haven’t looked at enough so far is the human element: the people who actually respond to disasters as well as what challenges they face and how technology can help them.

So in this fourth and final part of the series, we’ll look at four areas where humans and technology intersect within disaster response and what future opportunities lie in this market: training and development, mental health, crowdsourced responses to disasters, and our doomsday future of hyper-complex emergencies.

Training in a hellfire

Most fields have linear approaches to training. To become a software engineer, students learn some computer science theory, add in some programming practice, and voilà (note: your mileage may vary). To become a medical doctor, aspiring physicians take an undergraduate curriculum teeming with biology and chemistry, head to medical school for two deadened years of core anatomy and other classes and then switch into clinical rotations, a residency, and maybe fellowships.

But how do you train someone to respond to emergencies?

From 911 call takers to EMTs and paramedics to emergency planning officials and the on-the-ground responders who are operating in the center of the storm as it were, there are large permutations in the skills required to do these jobs well. What’s necessary aren’t just specific hard skills like using call dispatch software or knowing how to upload video from a disaster site, but also critically-important softer skills as well: precisely communicating, having sangfroid, increasing agility, and balancing improvisation with consistency. The chaos element also can’t be overstated: every disaster is different, and these skills must be viscerally recombined and exercised under extreme pressure with frequently sparse information.

A whole range of what might be dubbed “edtech” products could serve these needs, and not just exclusively for emergency management.

Communications, for instance, isn’t just about team communications, but also communicating with many different constituencies. Aaron Clark-Ginsberg, a social scientist at RAND Corporation, said that “a lot of these skills are social skills — being able to work with different groups of people in culturally and socially appropriate ways.” He notes that the field of emergency management has heightened attention to these issues in recent years, and “the skillset we need is to work with those community structures” that already exist where a disaster strikes.

As we’ve seen in the tech industry the last few years, cross-cultural communication skills remain scarce. One can always learn this just through repeated experiences, but could we train people to develop empathy and understanding through software? Can we develop better and richer scenarios to train emergency responders — and all of us, really — on how to communicate effectively in widely diverging conditions? That’s a huge opportunity for a startup to tackle.

Emergency management is now a well-developed career path. “The history of the field is very fascinating, [it’s] been increasingly professionalized, with all these certifications,” Clark-Ginsberg said. That professionalization “standardizes emergency response so that you know what you are getting since they have all these certs, and you know what they know and what they don’t.” Certifications can indicate singular competence, but perhaps not holistic assessment, and it’s a market that offers opportunities for new startups to create better assessments.

Like many of us, responders get used to doing the same thing over and over again, and that can make training for new skills even more challenging. Michael Martin of emergency data management platform RapidSOS describes how 911 call takers get used to muscle memory, “so switching to a new system is very high-risk.” No matter how bad existing software interfaces are, changing them will very likely slow every single response down while increasing the risk of errors. That’s why the company offers “25,000 hours a year for training, support, integration.” There remains a huge and relatively fragmented market for training staff as well as transitioning them from one software stack to another.

Outside these somewhat narrow niches, there is a need for a massive renaissance in training in this whole area. My colleague Natasha Mascarenhas recently wrote an EC-1 on Duolingo, an app designed to gamify and entrance students interested in learning second languages. It’s a compelling product, and there is no comparative training system for engaging the full gamut of first responders.

Art delaCruz, COO and president of Team Rubicon, a non-profit which assembles teams of volunteer military veterans to respond to natural disasters, said that it’s an issue his organization is spending more time thinking about. “Part of resilience is education, and the ability to access information, and that is a gap that we continue to close on,” he said. “How do you present information that’s more simple than [a learning management system]?” He described the need for “knowledge bombs like flash cards” to regularly provide responders with new knowledge while testing existing ideas.

There’s also a need to scale up best practices rapidly across the world. Tom Cotter, director of emergency response and preparedness at Project Hope, a non-profit which empowers local healthcare workers in disaster-stricken and impoverished areas, said that in the context of COVID-19, “a lot of what was going to be needed [early on] was training — there were huge information gaps at the clinical level, how to communicate it at a community level.” The organization developed a curriculum with Brown University’s Watson Institute in the form of interactive PowerPoints that were ultimately used to train 100,000 healthcare workers on the new virus, according to Cotter.

When I look at the spectrum of edtech products existing today, one of the key peculiarities is just how narrow each seems to focus. There are apps for language learning and for learning math and developing literacy. There are flash card apps like Anki that are popular among medical students, and more interactive approaches like Labster for science experiments and Sketchy for learning anatomy.

Yet, for all the talk of boot camps in Silicon Valley, there is no edtech company that tries to completely transform a student in the way that a bona fide boot camp does. No startup wants to holistically develop their students, adding in hard skills while also advancing the ability to handle stress, the improvisation needed to confront rapidly-changing environments, and the skills needed to communicate with empathy.

Maybe that can’t be done with software. Maybe. Or perhaps, no founder has just had the ambition so far to go for broke — to really revolutionize how we think about training the next generation of emergency management professionals and everyone else in private industry who needs to handle stress or think on their feet just as much as frontline workers.

That’s the direction where Bryce Stirton, president and co-founder of public-safety company Responder Corp, has been thinking about. “Another area I am personally a fan of is the training space around VR,” he said. “It’s very difficult to synthesize these stressful environments,” in areas like firefighting, but new technologies have “the ability to pump the heart that you need to experience in training.” He concludes that “the VR world, it can have a large impact.”

Healing after disaster

When it comes to trauma, few fields face quite the challenge as emergency response. It’s work that almost by definition forces its personnel to confront some of the most harrowing scenes imaginable. Death and destruction are given, but what’s not always accounted for is the lack of agency in some of these contexts for first responders — the family that can’t be saved in time so a 911 call taker has to offer final solace, or the paramedics who don’t have the right equipment even as they are showing up on site.

Post-traumatic stress is perhaps the most well-known and common mental health condition facing first responders, although it is hardly the only one. How to ameliorate and potentially even cure these conditions represents a burgeoning area of investment and growth for a number of startups and investors.

Risk & Return, for instance, is a venture firm heavily focused on companies working on mental health as well as human performance more generally. In my profile of the firm a few weeks ago, managing director Jeff Eggers said that “We love that type of technology since it has that dual purpose: going to serve the first responder on the ground, but the community is also going to benefit.”

Two examples of companies from its portfolio are useful here to explore as examples of different pathways in this category. The first is Alto Neuroscience, which is a stealthy startup founded by Amit Etkin, a multidisciplinary neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Stanford, to create new clinical treatments to post-traumatic stress and other conditions based on brainwave data. Given its therapeutic focus, it’s probably years before testing and regulatory approvals come through, but this sort of research is on the cutting-edge of innovation here.

The second company is NeuroFlow, which is a software startup using apps to guide patients to better mental health outcomes. Through persistent polling, testing, and collaboration with practitioners, the company’s tools allow for more active monitoring of mental health — looking for emerging symptoms or relapses in even the most complicated cases. NeuroFlow is more on the clinical side, but there are obviously a wealth of wellness startups that have percolated in recent years as well like Headspace and Calm.

Outside of therapeutics and software though, there are entirely new frontiers around mental health in areas like psychedelics. That was one of the trends I called out as a top five area for investment in the 2020s earlier this year, and I stand by that. We’ve also covered a startup called Osmind which is a clinical platform for managing patients with a psychedelic focus.

Risk & Return itself hasn’t made an investment in psychedelics yet, but Bob Kerrey, the firm’s board chairman and the former co-chair of the 9/11 Commission as well as former governor and senator of Nebraska, said that “it’s difficult to do this if you are the government, but easier to do this in the private sector.”

Similar to edtech, mental health startups might get their start in the first responder community, but they are hardly limited to this population. Post-traumatic stress and other mental health conditions affect wide swaths of the world’s population, and solutions that work in one community can often translate more broadly to others. It’s a massive, massive market, and one that could potentially transform the lives of millions of people for the better.

Before moving on, there’s one other area of interest here, and that is creating impactful communities for healing. First responders and military veterans experience a mission and camaraderie in their service that they often lack once they are in new jobs or on convalescence. DelaCruz of Team Rubicon says that one of the goals of bringing veterans to help in disaster regions is that the veterans themselves “reconnect with identity and community — we have these incredible assets in these men and women who have served.” It’s not enough to just find a single treatment per patient — we oftentimes need to zoom out to the wider population to see how mental health ripples out.

Helping people find purpose may not be the easiest challenge to solve as a startup, but it’s certainly a major challenge for many, and an area fermenting with new approaches now that the the social networking wave has reached its nadir.

Crowdsourcing disaster response

Decentralization has been all the rage in tech in recent years — just mention the word blockchain in a TechCrunch article to get at least 50 PR emails about the latest NFT for a toilet stain. While there is obviously a lot of noise, one area where substance may pan out well is in disaster response.

If the COVID-19 pandemic showed anything, it was the power of the internet to aggregate as well as verify data, build dashboards, and deliver highly-effective visualizations of complex information for professionals and laypeople alike. Those products were developed by people all around the world often from the comfort of their own homes, and they demonstrate how crowds can quickly draft serious labor to help respond to crises as they crop up.

Jonathan Sury, project director at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, said that “COVID has really blown so much of what we think about out of the water.” With so many ways to collaborate online right now, “that’s what I would say is very exciting … and also practical and empowering.”

Clark-Ginsberg of RAND calls it the “next frontier of disaster management.” He argues that “if you can use technology to broaden the number of people who can participate in disaster management and respond to disasters,” then we might be reaching an entirely new paradigm for what effective disaster response will look like. “Formal structures [for professional frontline workers] have strengthened and that has saved lives and resources, but our ability to engage with everyday responders is still something to work on.”

Many of the tools that underpin these crowdsourced efforts don’t even focus on disasters. Sury pointed to Tableau and data visualization platform Flourish as examples of the kinds of tools that remote, lay first responders are using. There are now quite robust tools for tabular data, but we’re still relatively early in the development of tools for handling mapping data — obviously critical in the crisis context. Unfolded.ai, which I profiled earlier this year, is working on building scalable geospatial analytics in the browser. A lot more can be done here.

Oftentimes there are ways to coordinate the coordinators. Develop for Good, which I looked at late last year, is a non-profit designed to connect enterprising computer science students to software and data projects at non-profits and agencies that needed help during the pandemic. Sometimes these coordinators are non-profit orgs, and sometimes, just very active Twitter accounts. There’s a lot more experimentation possible on how to coordinate efforts in a decentralized way while still engaging with professional first responders and the public sector.

Speaking of decentralization, it’s even possible that blockchain could play a role in disaster and crisis response. Many of these opportunities rest on using blockchain for evidence collection or for identity. For example, earlier this week Leigh Cuen took a careful look at an at-home sexual assault evidence collection kit from Leda Health that uses the blockchain to establish a clear time for when a sample was collected.

There is a lot more potential to harness the power of crowdsourcing and decentralization, and many of these projects have applications far outside disaster management itself. These tools not only solve real problems — they provide real community to people who may not be related to the disaster itself, but are enthusiastic to do their part to help others.

The black swans of black swans

In terms of startups, the three markets I identified — better training, better mental health, and better crowdsourcing collaboration tools, particularly around data — collectively represent a very compelling set of markets that will not only be valuable for founders, but can rapidly improve lives.

In his book Normal Accidents, Charles Perrow talks about how an increasing level of complexity and coupledness in our modern technical systems all but guarantee disasters to occur. Add in a warming world as well as the intensity, frequency, and just plain unusualness of disasters arriving each year, and we are increasingly seeing entirely novel forms of emergencies we have never responded to before. Take most recently the ultra-frigid conditions in Texas that sapped power from its grid, leading to statewide blackouts for hours and days in some parts of the state.

Clark-Ginsberg said, “We are seeing these risks emerge that aren’t just typical wildfires — where we have a response structure that we can easily setup and manage the hazard, [we’re] very good at managing these typical disasters. There are more of these atypical disasters cropping up, and we have a very hard time setting up structures for this — the pandemic is a great example of that.”

He describes these challenges as “trans-boundary risk management,” disasters that cross bureaucratic lines, professions, societies, and means of action. “It takes a certain agility and the ability to move quickly and the ability to work in ways outside typical bureaucratic structures, and that is just challenging full stop,” he said.

The Future of Technology and Disaster Response

Even as we begin to have better point solutions to the individual problems that disasters and their responses require, we can’t be remiss in neglecting the more systematic challenges that these emergencies are bringing to the fore. We have to start thinking about bringing humans together faster and in more novel ways to be the most effective, while coupling them flexibly and with agility to the best tools that meet their needs in the moment. That’s probably not literally “a startup,” but more a way of thinking about what it means to construct a disaster response fresh given the information available.

Amanda Levin, a policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that “even if we mitigate, there are huge pressures and huge impacts today from a warming world … even if we stop emissions today, [they] will still persist.” As one of my interviewees in government service who asked to go unnamed noted about disaster response, “You always are coming up short somewhere.” The problems are only getting harder, and we humans need much better tools to match the man-made trials we created for ourselves. That’s the challenge — and opportunity — for a tough century ahead.

Posted Under: Tech News
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