Category Archives: Tech News

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

Posted by on 25 March, 2020

This post was originally published on this site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TripActions reportedly lays off hundreds amid COVID-19 travel freeze

Posted by on 25 March, 2020

This post was originally published on this site

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve reached out to TripActions for comment.

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

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

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

Control each other’s apps with new screensharing tool Screen

Posted by on 24 March, 2020

This post was originally published on this site

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

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

Sherwani claims that Screen is “2x-5x faster than other screen sharing tools, and has between 30ms-50ms end-to-end latency. Most other screen sharing tools have between 100ms-150ms.”

For being built by just a two-person team, Screen has a remarkable breadth of features that are all responsive and intuitive.

A few things you can do with Screen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by on 24 March, 2020

This post was originally published on this site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Startups are helping cloud infrastructure customers avoid vendor lock-in

Posted by on 23 March, 2020

This post was originally published on this site

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

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

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

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

What’s the problem?

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

Ceros launches MarkUp, a design collaboration tool for live websites

Posted by on 23 March, 2020

This post was originally published on this site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Activist investor Starboard Value taking three Box board seats as involvement deepens

Posted by on 23 March, 2020

This post was originally published on this site

When activist investors Starboard Value took a 7.5% stake in Box last September, there was reasonable speculation that it would begin to try and push an agenda, as activist investors tend to do. While the firm has been quiet to this point, today Box announced that Starboard was adding three members to the 9 member Box board.

At the same time, two long-time Box investors and allies, Rory O’Driscoll from Scale Venture Partners and Josh Stein from DFJ, will be retiring from the board and not seeking re-election at the annual stockholder’s meeting in June.

O’Driscoll involvement with the company dates back a decade, and Stein has been with the company for 14 years and has been a big supporter from almost the beginning of the company.

For starters, Jack Lazar, whose credentials including being chief financial officer at GoPro and Atheros Communications, is joining the board immediately. A second new board member from a list to be agreed upon by Box and Starboard will also be joining immediately.

Finally, a third member will be selected by the newly constituted board in June, giving Starboard three friendly votes and the ability to push the Box agenda in a significant way.

At the time it announced it was taking a stake in Box, Starboard telegraphed that it could be doing something like this. Here’s what it had to say in its filing at the time:

“Depending on various factors including, without limitation, the Issuer’s financial position and investment strategy, the price levels of the Shares, conditions in the securities markets and general economic and industry conditions, the Reporting Persons may in the future take such actions with respect to their investment in the Issuer as they deem appropriate including, without limitation, engaging in communications with management and the Board of Directors of the Issuer, engaging in discussions with stockholders of the Issuer or other third parties about the Issuer and the [Starboard’s] investment, including potential business combinations or dispositions involving the Issuer or certain of its businesses, making recommendations or proposals to the Issuer concerning changes to the capitalization, ownership structure, board structure (including board composition), potential business combinations or dispositions involving the Issuer or certain of its businesses, or suggestions for improving the Issuer’s financial and/or operational performance, purchasing additional Shares, selling some or all of their Shares, engaging in short selling of or any hedging or similar transaction with respect to the Shares…”

Box CEO Aaron Levie appeared at TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise, the week this news about Starboard broke, and he was careful in how he discussed a possible relationship with the firm. “Well, I think in their statement actually they really just identified that they think there’s upside in the stock. It’s still very early in the conversations and process, but again we’re super collaborative in these types of situations. We want to work with all of our investors, and I think that’ll be the same here,” Levie told us at the time.

Now the company has no choice but to work more collaboratively with Starboard as it takes a much more meaningful role on the company board. What impact this will have in the long run is hard to say, but surely significant changes are likely on the way.

Box’s Aaron Levie says it will take creativity and focus to get through this crisis

Posted by on 22 March, 2020

This post was originally published on this site

The COVID-19 virus is touching every aspect of our lives and having a profound impact on individuals, businesses and society at large. Box’s Aaron Levie has built a successful business from dorm room to IPO and beyond. He spoke to TechCrunch today about the level of creativity and focus that it’s going to take to succeed in the current environment.

Levie pointed out that his company was a fledgling startup when the economic downturn hit in 2008, but he thinks this one could have a much greater impact on business than that one did.

“I think Silicon Valley is going to definitely experience this in a very, very significant way. We were building a company in 2008, and that was extremely hard, but I don’t think it is going to compare to how hard the coming year is going to be,” Levie said.

This morning on Twitter, Levie wrote that we are in uncharted territory, and everyone will have to work together to help navigate this crisis.

He believes the government will need to step in to help individuals and businesses alike. “Businesses, who have lots of employees, need to be supported, but fundamentally we need to make sure that we’re focused on all the workers that are out of work, hopefully just temporarily displaced, but we’re going to need a lot of government financial support to get through this,” he said.

For startups, he advised startups to firmly focus on their mission. “It’s about extreme focus right now. It’s about extreme discipline. It’s about making sure that you’re maintaining your culture during this time,” Levie said.

As for his own company, he’s looking a three areas: his employees, his customers and the community. He said his first priority is making sure his employees are safe and healthy and that the hourly workers who support the business normally are being taken care of as we move through this unprecedented situation.

Secondly, he’s making sure that he supports his customers. To that end the company has removed any license limits as customers deal with increased usage with employees working from home.

He has also joined forces with Cloudflare in an effort to provide small businesses with 90 days of free services to help ride out the situation, and he said they would revisit extending these programs if the situation continues.

Thirdly, he says every business who can has to look at ways to support the communities where they live to assist non-profit organizations who are helping in the response. “This is an event where business communities globally are going to have to put more of a concerted effort on this than any issue in modern history,” Levie said.

Levie is not alone in this thinking by any means. He points to other leaders such as Chuck Robbins, Marc Benioff and Tim Cook, all who have stepped up in recent days to offer help and support.

He has built his company from the ground up to one that’s on nearly an $800 million run rate, but like so many business leaders, he is dealing with a situation which, as he said, has no playbook. Like every other CEO, he’s trying to help keep his business thriving, while not losing sight of the needs of the people in his organization, his customers or his community. It’s not an easy balancing act for anyone right now.

AWS, IBM launch programs to encourage developers solving COVID-19 problems

Posted by on 20 March, 2020

This post was originally published on this site

As society comes to grips with the growing worldwide crisis related to the COVID-19 virus, many companies are stepping up in different ways. Today, two major tech companies — Amazon and IBM — each announced programs to encourage developers find solutions to a variety of problems related to the pandemic.

For starters, AWS, Amazon’s cloud arm, announced the AWS Diagnostic Development Initiative. It has set aside $20 million, which it will distribute in the form of AWS credits and technical support. The program is designed to assist and encourage teams working on COVID-19 diagnostic issues with the goal of developing better diagnostic tooling.

“In our Amazon Web Services (AWS) business, one area where we have heard an urgent need is in the research and development of diagnostics, which consist of rapid, accurate detection and testing of COVID-19. Better diagnostics will help accelerate treatment and containment, and in time, shorten the course of this epidemic,” Teresa Carlson wrote in the company’s Day One blog today.

The program aims to help customers who are working on building diagnostics solutions to bring products to market more quickly, and also encouraging teams to work together who are working on related problems.

The company also announced, it was forming an advisory group made up of scientists and health policy experts to assist companies involved with initiative.

Meanwhile IBM is refocusing its 2020 Call for Code Global Challenge developer contest on not only solving problem related to global climate change, which was this year’s original charter, but also solving issues around the growing virus crisis by building open source tooling.

“In a very short period of time, COVID-19 has revealed the limits of the systems we take for granted. The 2020 Call for Code Global Challenge will arm you with resources […] to build open source technology solutions that address three main COVID-19 areas: crisis communication during an emergency, ways to improve remote learning, and how to inspire cooperative local communities,” the company wrote in a blog post.

All of these areas are being taxed as more people are forced to stay in-doors as we to try and contain the virus. The company hopes to incentivize developers working on these issues to help solve some of these problems.

During a time of extreme social and economic upheaval when all aspects of society are being affected, businesses, academia and governments need to work together to solve a myriad of problems related to the virus. These are just a couple examples of that.

Google cancels I/O developer conference in light of COVID-19 crisis

Posted by on 20 March, 2020

This post was originally published on this site

Google announced on Twitter today that it was cancelling its annual I/O developer conference out of concern for the health and safety of all involved. It will not be holding any online conference in its place either.

“Out of concern for the health and safety of our developers, employees, and local communities — and in line with recent ‘shelter in place’ orders by the local Bay Area counties — we sadly will not be holding I/O in any capacity this year,” the company tweeted.

This is not a small deal, as Google uses this, and the Google Cloud Next conference, which it has also canceled, to let developers, customers, partners and other interested parties know about what new features, products and services they will be introducing in the coming year.

Without a major venue to announce these new tools, it will be harder for the company to get the word out about them or gain the power of human networking that these conferences provide. All of that is taking a backseat this year over concerns about the virus.

The company made clear that it does not intend to reschedule these events in person or in a virtual capacity at all this year, and will look for other ways to inform the community of changes, updates and new services in the coming months.

“Right now, the most important thing all of us can do is focus our attention on helping people with the new challenges we all face. Please know that we remain committed to finding other ways to share platform updates with you through our developer blogs and community forums,” the company wrote.

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