Pinecone lands $10M seed for purpose-built machine learning database

Posted by on 27 January, 2021

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Pinecone, a new startup from the folks who helped launch Amazon SageMaker, has built a vector database that generates data in a specialized format to help build machine learning applications faster, something that was previously only accessible to the largest organizations. Today the company came out of stealth with a new product and announced a $10 million seed investment led by Wing Venture Capital.

Company co-founder Edo Liberty says that he started the company because of this fundamental belief that the industry was being held back by the lack of wider access to this type of database. “The data that a machine learning model expects isn’t a JSON record, it’s a high dimensional vector that is either a list of features or what’s called an embedding that’s a numerical representation of the items or the objects in the world. This [format] is much more semantically rich and actionable for machine learning,” he explained.

He says that this is a concept that is widely understood by data scientists, and supported by research, but up until now only the biggest and technically superior companies like Google or Pinterest could take advantage of this difference. Liberty and his team created Pinecone to put that kind of technology in reach of any company.

The startup spent the last couple of years building the solution, which consists of three main components. The main piece is a vector engine to convert the data into this machine-learning ingestible format. Liberty says that this is the piece of technology that contains all the data structures and algorithms that allow them to index very large amounts of high dimensional vector data, and search through it in an efficient and accurate way.

The second is a cloud hosted system to apply all of that converted data to the machine learning model, while handling things like index lookups along with the pre- and post-processing — everything a data science team needs to run a machine learning project at scale with very large workloads and throughputs. Finally, there is a management layer to track all of this and manage data transfer between source locations.

One classic example Liberty uses is an eCommerce recommendation engine. While this has been a standard part of online selling for years, he believes using a vectorized data approach will result in much more accurate recommendations and he says the data science research data bears him out.

“It used to be that deploying [something like a recommendation engine] was actually incredibly complex, and […] if you have access to a production grade database, 90% of the difficulty and heavy lifting in creating those solutions goes away, and that’s why we’re building this. We believe it’s the new standard,” he said.

The company currently has 10 people including the founders, but the plan is to double or even triple that number, depending on how the year goes. As he builds his company as an immigrant founder — Liberty is from Israel — he says that diversity is top of mind. He adds that it’s something he worked hard on at his previous positions at Yahoo and Amazon as he was building his teams at those two organizations. One way he is doing that is in the recruitment process. “We have instructed our recruiters to be proactive [in finding more diverse applicants], making sure they don’t miss out on great candidates, and that they bring us a diverse set of candidates,” he said.

Looking ahead to post-pandemic, Liberty says he is a bit more traditional in terms of office versus home, and that he hopes to have more in-person interactions. “Maybe I’m old fashioned but I like offices and I like people and I like to see who I work with and hang out with them and laugh and enjoy each other’s company, and so I’m not jumping on the bandwagon of ‘let’s all be remote and work from home’.”

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SAP launches ‘RISE with SAP,’ a concierge service for digital transformation

Posted by on 27 January, 2021

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SAP today announced a new offering it calls ‘RISE with SAP,’ a solution that is meant to help the company’s customers go through their respective digital transformations and become what SAP calls ‘intelligent enterprises.’ RISE is a subscription service that combines a set of services and product offerings.

SAP’s head of product success Sven Denecken (and its COO for S/4Hana) described it as “the best concierge service you can get for your digital transformation” when I talked to him earlier this week. “We need to help our clients to embrace that change that they see currently,” he said. “Transformation is a journey. Every client wants to become that smarter, faster and that nimbler business, but they, of course, also see that they are faced with challenges today and in the future. This continuous transformation is what is happening to businesses. And we do know from working together with them, that actually they agree with those fundamentals. They want to be an intelligent enterprise. They want to adapt and change. But the key question is how to get there? And the key question they ask us is, please help us to get there.”

With RISE for SAP, businesses will get a single contact at SAP to help guide them through their journey, but also access to the SAP partner ecosystem.

The first step in this process, Denecken stressed, isn’t necessarily to bring in new technology, though that is also part of it, but to help businesses redesign and optimize their business processes and implement the best practices in their verticals — and then measure the outcome. “Business process redesign means that you analyze how your business processes perform. How can you get tailored recommendations? How can you benchmark against industry standards? And this helps you to set the tone and also to motivate your people — your IT, your business people — to adapt,” Denecken described. He also noted that in order for a digital transformation project to succeed, IT and business leaders and employees have to work together.

In part, that includes technology offerings and adopting robotic process automation (RPA), for example. As Denecken stressed, all of this builds on top of the work SAP has done with its customers over the years to define business processes and KPIs.

On the technical side, SAP is obviously offering its own services, including its Business Technology Platform, and cloud infrastructure, but it will also support customers on all of the large cloud providers. Also included in RISE is support for more than 2,200 APIs to integrate various on-premises, cloud and non-SAP systems, access to SAP’s low-code and no-code capabilities and, of course, its database and analytics offerings.

“Geopolitical tensions, environmental challenges and the ongoing pandemic are forcing businesses to deal with change faster than ever before,” said Christian Klein, SAP’s CEO, in today’s announcement. “Companies that can adapt their business processes quickly will thrive – and SAP can help them achieve this. This is what RISE with SAP is all about: It helps customers continuously unlock new ways of running businesses in the cloud to stay ahead of their industry.”

With this new offering, SAP is now providing its customers with a number of solutions that were previously available through its partner ecosystem. Denecken doesn’t see this as SAP competing with its own partners, though. Instead, he argues that this is very much a partner play and that this new solution will likely only bring more customers to its partners as well.

“Needless to say, this has been a negotiation with those partners,” he said. “Because yes, it’s sometimes topics that we now take over they [previously] did. But we are looking for scale here. The need in the market for digital transformation has just started. And this is where we see that this is definitely a big offering, together with partners. “

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Following acquisition, Episerver rebrands as Optimizely

Posted by on 27 January, 2021

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After acquiring Optimizely last fall, content management company Episerver is adopting the Optimizely name for the entire organization.

CEO Alex Atzberger told me that the company will be rolling out new branding in the next coming months, as well as renaming its entire product suite to reflect the Optimizely brand.

“We believe it’s no longer just about personalizing the experience or driving recommendations,” Atzberger said. “The brand and word Optimizely really signifies optimal performance. Companies today of any size, any scale [need to be] much more sophisticated in terms of how they digitally connect with their customers. It’s a never-ending story.”

At the same time, he emphasized that Episerver is making the change from “a position of strength,” with the combined company seeing double-digit revenue growth last year and going live with more than 250 new customers.

Asked whether adopting the Optimizely name was always part of the post-acquisition plan, Atzberger replied, “When we acquired Optimizely, we knew that we would be acquiring not just a great product, not just a great customer base, but also acquiring a very well-known brand. We had not yet decided on [rebranding], but it was certainly something that, for me, was part of the consideration.”

In addition to announcing the new company name, Episerver/Optimizely is also announcing a new platform that it’s calling Optimization-as-a-Service, which integrates aspects of Optimizely and Episerver products to offer web targeting, testing and recommendations. As Atzberger put it, this new platform allows customers to determine “who to show something to, what content to show and how to actually show this content.”

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Datastax acquires Kesque as it gets into data streaming

Posted by on 27 January, 2021

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Datastax, the company best known for commercializing the open-source Apache Cassandra database, is moving beyond databases. As the company announced today, it has acquired Kesque, a cloud messaging service.

The Kesque team built its service on top of the Apache Pulsar messaging and streaming project. Datastax has now taken that team’s knowledge in this area and, combined with its own expertise, is launching its own Pulsar-based streaming platform by the name of Datastax Luna Streaming, which is now generally available.

This move comes right as Datastax is also now, for the first time, announcing that it is cash-flow positive and profitable, as the company’s chief product officer, Ed Anuff, told me. “We are at over $150 million in [annual recurring revenue]. We are cash-flow positive and we are profitable,” he told me. This marks the first time the company is publically announcing this data. In addition, the company also today revealed that about 20 percent of its annual contract value is now for DataStax Astra, its managed multi-cloud Cassandra service and that the number of self-service Asta subscribers has more than doubled from Q3 to Q4.

The launch of Luna Streaming now gives the 10-year-old company a new area to expand into — and one that has some obvious adjacencies with its existing product portfolio.

“We looked at how a lot of developers are building on top of Cassandra,” Anuff, who joined Datastax after leaving Google Cloud last year, said. “What they’re doing is, they’re addressing what people call ‘data-in-motion’ use cases. They have huge amounts of data that are coming in, huge amounts of data that are going out — and they’re typically looking at doing something with streaming in conjunction with that. As we’ve gone in and asked, “What’s next for Datastax?,’ streaming is going to be a big part of that.”

Given Datastax’s open-source roots, it’s no surprise the team decided to build its service on another open-source project and acquire an open-source company to help it do so. Anuff noted that while there has been a lot of hype around streaming and Apache Kafka, a cloud-native solution like Pulsar seemed like the better solution for the company. Pulsar was originally developed at Yahoo! (which, full disclosure, belongs to the same Verizon Media Group family as TechCrunch) and even before acquiring Kesque, Datastax already used Pulsar to build its Astra platform. Other Pulsar users include Yahoo, Tencent, Nutanix and Splunk.

“What we saw was that when you go and look at doing streaming in a scale-out way, that Kafka isn’t the only approach. We looked at it, and we liked the Pulsar architecture, we like what’s going on, we like the community — and remember, we’re a company that grew up in the Apache open-source community — we said, ‘okay, we think that it’s got all the right underpinnings, let’s go and get involved in that,” Anuff said. And in the process of doing so, the team came across Kesque founder Chris Bartholomew and eventually decided to acquire his company.

The new Luna Streaming offering will be what Datastax calls a “subscription to success with Apache Pulsar.’ It will include a free, production-ready distribution of Pulsar and an optional, SLA-backed subscription tier with enterprise support.

Unsurprisingly, Datastax also plans to remain active in the Pulsar community. The team is already making code contributions, but Anuff also stressed that Datastax is helping out with scalability testing. “This is one of the things that we learned in our participation in the Apache Cassandra project,” Anuff said. “A lot of what these projects need is folks coming in doing testing, helping with deployments, supporting users. Our goal is to be a great participant in the community.”

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DriveNets nabs $208M at a $1B+ valuation for its cloud-based alternative to network routers

Posted by on 27 January, 2021

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People and businesses are relying on the internet to get things done more than ever before, an opportunity but also an infrastructure headache for service providers that need to scale quickly and reliably to meet that demand.

Today, a startup that has built a clever, software-based way for them to expand their networks without buying costly equipment is announcing a major round of funding on the back of its business booming.

DriveNets — which provides software-based routing solutions to service providers that run them as virtualized services over “white box” generic architecture — has closed $208 million in funding, a Series B that values the company at over $1 billion post-money.

The plan will be to use the funding to continue building out the business internationally and to tailor it to more use cases beyond carriers, including the wave of bigger companies that stream large amounts of media and have some control over their networks as a result.

Future deals are still under NDA, CEO Ido Susan said, but he described the opportunity as a clear one: “If you want to serve bandwidth with low latency, if you want to offer strong 5G capability or cloud gaming, you need to be close to your end customer.”

The Series B is being D1 Capital Partners. Previous backers Bessemer Venture Partners and Pitango (which co-led DriveNets’ previous, $110 million round when it emerged from stealth) also made a significant investment, and Atreides Management also participated. This latest round was made at more than double DriveNets’ valuation in 2019.

D1 has been an especially prolific investor in the last year, going big on businesses that are seeing a lot of attention as a result of pandemic conditions. They include e-commerce giants Warby Parker and Instacart, fintech TransferWise, gaming engine Unity, online car sales platform Cazoo, and transportation startup Bolt.

DriveNets’ big round is based both on bigger trends in the market, as well as its own strong record.

Before this round, DriveNets had already counted AT&T among its customers, a major vote of confidence for the company and its virtual network approach, but it seems that recent circumstances and the spike in internet activity have brought more providers to consider its approach.

“The internet was growing 30%-40% annually even before Covid-19,” said Susan. “But even five years ago, incumbent carriers were coming to us saying, said no one can build virtual networks. Now, it’s not a question of whether it works or not, but when you will adopt it.”

Recent momentum for the company’s sales, he said, is very good. “Everyone is working and studying from home so you need more capacity and bandwidth in the network,” he added. 

DriveNets’ core product is a more flexible and cost-effective replacement for the traditional network router that relies on virtualized architecture. Traditionally, routers have been sold as vertically-integrated hardware solutions, bringing together both software and hardware into one branded big box, with companies like Cisco and Juniper Networks dominating the space.

In their place, as Susan and co-founder Hillel Kobrinsky envisioned it, DriveNets provides a solution that is based around generic white boxes. It currently works with three providers for these boxes, Susan said.

These work in conjunction with a system it has developed called Network Cloud, which in turn runs a networking stack called the DriveNets Operating System. Service providers control their systems of white boxes and other servers through a virtualized service run over Docker containers, using open APIs to automate and configure various network services.

This allows for more flexibility in capacity among the white box servers, but they can also be easily added and removed as needed. Essentially, it’s a system that disaggregates the software from the hardware, to make expanding the hardware much easier, and controlling the software significantly more flexible to boot.

(Ironically, my conversation with Susan took place over Zoom with him in his home office, which also doubles as a DIY workshop. So with a full array of hardware equipment surrounding Susan, we talked about how software would come to dominate the world.)

It’s a disruptive concept that potentially steps on a lot of toes, but Adam Fisher, a partner with Bessemer, said that he’s confident it’s one that will continue to gain traction.

“We are extremely enthusiastic about the company,” he said. “Aside from Ido and Hillel as entrepreneurs, we really connected with their vision. Network routing is moving to software and cloud architecture. We’re talking not just about the small parts here but the hearts and lungs of the system. DriveNets is starting with the hardest parts. Once one customer becomes multiple customers, you just realise it’s the future.”

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Google’s BeyondCorp Enterprise security platform is now generally available

Posted by on 26 January, 2021

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Google today announced that BeyondCorp Enterprise, the zero trust security platform modeled after how Google itself keeps its network safe without relying on a VPN, is now generally available. BeyondCorp Enterprise builds out Google’s existing BeyondCorp Remote Access offering with additional enterprise features. Google describes it as “a zero trust solution that enables secure access with integrated threat and data protection.”

Over the course of the last few years, Google — and especially its Cloud unit — has evangelized the zero trust model and built a large partner network around this idea. Those partners include the likes of Check Point, Citrix, CrowdStrike, Symantec and VMWare.

As part of BeyondCorp Enterprise, businesses get an end-to-end zero trust solution that includes everything from DDoS protection and phishing-resistant authentication, to the new security features in the Chrome browser and the core continuous authorization features that protect every interaction between users and resources protected by BeyondCorp.

“The rapid move to the cloud and remote work are creating dynamic work environments that promise to drive new levels of productivity and innovation. But they have also opened the door to a host of new security concerns and sparked a significant increase in cyberattacks,” said Fermin Serna, chief information security officer at Citrix. “To defend against them, enterprises must take an intelligent approach to workspace security that protects employees without getting in the way of their experience following the zero trust model.”

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How Atlanta’s Calendly turned a scheduling nightmare into a $3B startup

Posted by on 26 January, 2021

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One big theme in tech right now is the rise of services to help us keep working through lockdowns, office closures, and other Covid-19 restrictions. The “future of work” — cloud services, communications, productivity apps — has become “the way we work now.” And companies that have identified ways to help with this are seeing a boom.

Today comes news from a startup that has been a part of that trend: Calendly, a popular cloud-based service that people use to set up and confirm meeting times with others, has closed an investment of $350 million from OpenView Venture Partners and Iconiq.

The funding round includes both primary and secondary money (slightly more of the latter than the former, from what I understand) and values the Atlanta-based startup at over $3 billion.

Not bad for a company that before now had raised just $550,000, including the life savings of the founder and CEO, Tope Awotona, to initially get off the ground.

Calendly is a freemium software-as-a-service, built around what is essentially a very simple piece of functionality.

It’s a platform that provides a quick way to manage open spaces in your calendar for people to book appointments with you in those spaces, which then also books out the time in calendars like Google’s or Microsoft Outlook — with a growing number of tools to enhance that experience, including the ability to pay for a service in the event that your appointment is not a business meeting but, say, a yoga class. Pricing ranges from free (one calendar/one user/one event) to premium ($8/month) and pro ($12/month) for more calendars, events, integrations and features, with bigger packages for enterprises also available.

Its growth, meanwhile, has to date been based mostly around a very organic strategy: Calendly invites become links to Calendly itself, so people who use it and like it can (and do) start to use it, too.

The wide range of its use cases, and the virality of that growth strategy, have been winners. Calendly is already profitable, and it has been for years. And more recently, it has seen a boost, specifically in the last twelve months, as new Calendly users have emerged, as a result of how we are living.

We may not be doing more traditional “business meetings” per week, but the number of meetings we now need to set up, has gone up.

All of the serendipitous and impromptu encounters we used to have around an office, or a neighborhood coffee shop, or the park? Those are now scheduled. Teachers and students meeting for a remote lesson? Those also need invitations for online meetings.

And so do sessions with therapists, virtual dinner parties, and even (where they can still happen) in-person meetings, which are often now happening with more timed precision and more record-keeping, to keep social distancing and potential contact tracing in better order.

Currently, some 10 million of us are using Calendly for all of this on a monthly basis, with that number growing 1,180% last year. The army of business users from companies like Twilio, Zoom, and UCSF has been joined by teachers, contractors, entrepreneurs, and freelancers, the company says.

The company last year made about $70 million annually in subscription revenues from its SaaS-based business model and seems confident that its aggregated revenues will not long from now get to $1 billion.

So while the secondary funding is going towards giving liquidity to existing investors and early employees, Awotona said the plan will be to use the primary capital to invest in the company’s business.

That will include building out its platform with more tools and integrations — it started with and still has a substantial R&D operation in Kiev, Ukraine — expanding its operations with more talent (it currently has around 200 employees and plans to double headcount), further business development and more.

Two notable moves on that front are also being announced with the funding: Jeff Diana is coming on as chief people officer with a mission to double the company’s employee base. And Patrick Moran — formerly of Quip and New Relic — is joing as Calendly’s first chief revenue officer. Notably, both are based in San Francisco — not Atlanta.

That focus for building in San Francisco is already a big change for Calendly. The startup, which is going on eight years old, has been somewhat off the radar for years.

That is in part due to the fact that it raised very little money up to now (just $550,000 from a handful of investors that include OpenView, Atlanta Ventures, IncWell and Greenspring Associates).

It’s also based in Atlanta, an increasingly notable city for technology startups and other companies but more often than not short on being credited for its heft in that department (SalesLoft, Amex-acquired Kabbage, OneTrust, Bakkt, and many others are based there, with others like Mailchimp also not too far away).

And perhaps most of all, proactively courting publicity did not appear to be part of Calendly’s growth playbook.

In fact, Calendly might have closed this big round quietly and continued to get on with business, were it not for a short Tweet last autumn that signaled the company raising money and shaping up to be a quiet giant.

“The company’s capital efficiency and what @TopeAwotona has built deserve way more credit than they get,” it read. “Perhaps this will start to change that recognition.”

After that short note on Twitter — flagged on TechCrunch’s internal message board — I made a guess at Awotona’s email, sent a note introducing myself, and waited to see if I would get a reply.

I eventually did get a response, in the form of a short note agreeing to chat, with a Calendly link (naturally) to choose a time.

(Thanks, unnamed TC writer, for never writing about Calendly when Tope originally pitched you years ago: you may have whet his appetite to respond to me.)

In that first chat over Zoom, Awotona was nothing short of wary.

After years of little or no attention, he was getting cold-contacted by me and it seems others, all of us suddenly interested in him and his company.

“It’s been the bane of my life,” he said to me with a laugh about the calls he’s been getting.

Part of me thinks it’s because it can be hard and distracting to balance responding to people, but it’s also because he works hard, and has always worked hard, so doesn’t understand what the new fuss is about.

A lot of those calls have been from would-be investors.

“It’s been exorbitant, the amount of interest Calendly has been getting, from backers of all shapes and sizes,” Blake Bartlett, a partner at OpenView, said to me in an interview.

From what I understand, it’s had inbound interest from a number of strategic tech companies, as well as a long list of financial investors. That process eventually whittled down to just two backers, OpenView and Iconiq.

From Lagos to fixing cash registers

Yet even putting the rumors of the funding to one side, Calendly and Awotona himself have been a remarkable story up to now, one that champions immigrants as well as startup grit.

Tope comes from Lagos, Nigeria, part of a large, middle class household. His mother had been the chief pharmacist for the Nigerian Central Bank, his father worked for Unilever.

The family may have been comfortable, but growing up in Lagos, a city riven by economic disparity and crime, brought its share of tragedies. When he was 12, Awotona’s father was murdered in front of him during a carjacking. The family moved to the U.S. some time after that, and since then his mother has also passed away.

A bright student who actually finished high school at 15, Awotona cut his teeth in the world of business first by studying it — his major at the University of Georgia was management information systems — and then working in it, with jobs after college including periods at IBM and EMC.

But it seems Awotona was also an entrepreneur at heart — if one that initially was not prepared for the steps he needed to take to get something off the ground.

He told me a story about what he describes as his “first foray into business” at age 18, which involved devising and patenting a new feature for cash registers, so that they could use optical character recognition recognize which bills and change were being used for, and dispense the right amount a customer might need in return after paying.

At the time, he was working at a pharmacy while studying and saw how often the change in the cash registers didn’t add up correctly, and his was his idea for how to fix it.

He cold-contacted the leading cash register company at the time, NCR, with his idea. NCR was interested, offering to send him up to Ohio, where it was headquartered then, to pitch the idea to the company directly, and maybe sell the patent in the process. Awotona, however, froze.

“I was blown away,” he said, but also too surprised at how quickly things escalated. He turned down the offer, and ultimately let his patent application lapse. (Computer-vision-based scanning systems and automatic dispensers are, of course, a basic part nowadays of self-checkout systems, for those times when people pay in cash.)

There were several other entrepreneurial attempts, none particularly successful and at times quite frustrating because of the grunt work involved just to speak to people, before his businesses themselves could even be considered.

Eventually, it was the grunt work that then started to catch Awotona’s attention.

“What led me to create a scheduling product” — Awotona said, clear not to describe it as a calendaring service — “was my personal need. At the time wasn’t looking to start a business. I just was trying to schedule a meeting, but it took way too many emails to get it done, and I became frustrated.

“I decided that I was going to look for scheduling products that existed on the market that I could sign up for,” he continued, “but the problem I was facing at the time was I was trying to arrange a meeting with, you know, 10 or 20 people. I was just looking for an easy way for us to easily share our availability and, you know, easily find a time that works for everybody.”

He said he couldn’t really see anything that worked the way he wanted — the products either needed you to commit to a subscription right away (Calendly is freemium) or were geared at specific verticals such as beauty salons. All that eventually led to a recognition, he said, “that there was a big opportunity to solve that problem.”

The building of the startup was partly done with engineers in Kiev — a drama in itself that pivoted at times on the political situation at times in Ukraine (you can read a great unfolding of that story here).

Awotona says that he admired the new guard of cloud-based services like Dropbox and decided that he wanted Calendly to be built using “the Dropbox approach” — something that could be adopted and adapted by different kinds of users and usages.

Simplicity in the frontend, strategy at the backend

On the surface, there is a simplicity to the company’s product: it’s basically about finding a time for two parties to meet. Awotona notes that behind the scenes the scheduling help Calendly provides is the key to what it might develop next.

For example, there are now tools to help people prepare for meetings — specifically features like being able to, say, pay for something that’s been scheduled on Calendly in order to register. A future focus could well be more tools for following up on those meetings, and more ways to help people plan recurring individual or group events.

One area where it seems Calendly does not want to dabble are those meetings themselves — that is, hosting meetings and videoconferencing itself.

“What you don’t want is to start a world war three with Zoom,” Awotona joked. (In addition to becoming the very verb-ified definition of video conferencing, Zoom is also a customer of Calendly’s.)

“We really see ourselves as a leading orchestration platform. What that means is that we really want to remain extensible and flexible. We want our users to bring their own best in class products,” he said. “We think about this in an agnostic way.”

But in a technology world that usually defaults back to the power of platforms, that position is not without its challenges.

“Calendly has a vision increasingly to be a central part of the meeting life cycle. What happens before, during and after the meeting. Historically, the obvious was before the meeting, but now it’s looking at integrations, automations and other things, so that it all magically happens. But moving into the rest of the lifecycle is a lot of opportunity but also many players,” admitted Bartlett, with others including older startups like X.ai and Doodle (owned by Swiss-based Tamedia) or newer entrants like Undock but also biggies like Google and Microsoft.

“It will be an interesting task to see where there are opportunities to partner or build or buy to build out its competitive position.”

You’ll notice that throughout this story I didn’t refer to Awotona’s position as a black founder — still very much a rarity among startups, and especially those valued at over $1 billion.

That is partly because in my conversations with him, it emerged that he saw it as just another detail. Still, it is one that is brought up a lot, he said, and so he understands it is important for others.

“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about being black or not black,” he said. “It doesn’t change how I approach or built Calendly. I’m not incredibly conscious of my race or color, except for the last few years through he growth of Calendly. I find that more people approach me as a black tech founder, and that there is young black people who are inspired by the story.”

That is something he hopes to build on in the near future, including in his home country.

Pending pandemic chaos, he has plans to try to visit Nigeria later this year and to get more involved in the ecosystem in that country, I’m guessing as a mentor if not more.

“I just know the country that produced me,” he said. “There are a million Topes in Nigeria. The difference for me was my parents. But I’m not a diamond in the rough, and I want to get involved in some way to help with that full potential.”

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SetSail nabs $26M Series A to rethink sales compensation

Posted by on 26 January, 2021

This post was originally published on this site

SetSail wants to upend the way sales people get compensated by paying them throughout the sales cycle, rather than a single commission after the sale closes. Today, the startup announced a $26 million Series A.

Insight Partners led the round with participation from existing investors Wing Venture Capital, Team8 and Operator Collective. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $37 million, according to the company.

SetSail connects to your CRM, email, calendar and other systems that have signals about the progress of a particular sale, and then using machine learning looks at points in the sales cycle where it would make sense to reward the sales person for the progress they are making.

As CEO and co-founder Haggai Levi told me at the time of the startup’s $7 million seed round in July, the single commission system discourages risk taking:

“If I’m closing the deal, I’m getting my commission. If I’m not closing the deal, I’m getting nothing. That means from a behavioral point of view, I would take the shortest path to win a deal, and I would take the minimum risk possible. So if there’s a competitive situation I will try to avoid that,” he said in July.

He said the idea of changing the way we think about compensation resonated with sales executives during the pandemic, especially as everyone’s role got altered and teams became distributed because of COVID, but he says while rethinking compensation was certainly a big factor so was SetSail’s ability to connect to all of the sales systems to help build these new approaches to pay.

“I think it’s even beyond just compensation. […] It’s also connecting to all of your data using an end-to-end platform that helps you understand what’s happening between you, your reps and your customers and allowing you to tie that back in using behavioral science to machine learning-based compensation,” he explained.

The company began 2020 with five customers, a reasonable start for an early stage startup, but it ended the year with more than 20 including Cisco, Dropbox and HubSpot. It now has over 5000 sales reps using the platform.

In spite of the growing number of users, Levi says they have no plans to aggregate data, leaving each customer’s data as distinct to build the compensation packages that make sense to them. “We try not to play kind of the data, aggregator role because we want to make sure that every customer’s data is encrypted and secured in a completely different container. The trade off between getting knowledge between customers versus receiving their data is is too high in our opinion,” he said.

The company now has 35 employees with five more hired who will be starting in the next several weeks and plans to reach 70 by the end of the year. They are thinking hard about how to hire a diverse workforce. For starters, Levi says that the company board has two female members. He says hiring in general is a challenge for every CEO, especially early on, and hiring a diverse group even more so, but he says it’s important to be thinking about this from the start because from a gender perspective at least, you are losing half the talent pool if you ignore it.

When the pandemic is over, he sees having at least some in-person office presence in spite of being spread out across San Francisco, New York and Tel Aviv, but it will be probably be a hybrid approach and not require as much office space as they might have rented prior to COVID.

Posted Under: Tech News
Vectorized announces $15.5M investment to build simpler streaming data tool

Posted by on 26 January, 2021

This post was originally published on this site

Streaming data is not new. Kafka has existed as an open source tool for a decade. Vectorized was founded on the premise that the existing tools were too complex and not designed for today’s streaming requirements. Today the company released its first product, Redpanda, an open source tool designed to make it easier for developers to build streaming data applications.

While it was at it, the startup announced a $15.5 million funding round, which is actually a combination of a previously unannounced $3 million seed round led by Lightspeed Venture Partners and a $12.5 million Series A, which was also from Lightspeed with help from Google Ventures.

Redpanda is an open source tool that is delivered as an “intelligent API” to help “turn data streams into products,” company founder and CEO Alexander Gallego explained. It’s built to be a Kafka replacement, while remaining Kafka-compatible to help deal with backwards compatibility.

At the same time, it takes a more modern approach. Gallego points out that teams building data streaming applications have been getting lost in the complexity and he recognized an opportunity to build a company to simplify that.

“People are drowning in complexity today managing Kafka, ZooKeeper (an open source configuration management tool) and the data lake,” he said, adding “We enable new things that couldn’t be done before for several reasons: one is performance, one is simplicity and the other one is this store procedures.”

He says that the key to developer adoption is making the product free through open source, and having Kafka compatibility so that developers don’t feel like they have to just dump existing projects and start from scratch. While the company is launching with an open source tool, it plans to use the funding to build a hosted version of Redpanda to put it within reach of more organizations. “This funding round in particular is to power our cloud,” he said.

Arif Janmohamed, a partner at Lightspeed Ventures who is leading the investment in Vectorized sees a company looking to improve upon an existing technology with a better approach. “With a simple, elegant solution that doesn’t require any changes to an existing application’s code, Vectorized delivers 10x better performance, a much simpler management paradigm, and new functionality that will unleash the next set of real-time applications for the next decade,” Janmohamed said.

The company has 22 employees today with plans to add another 8 in the first half of this year, mostly engineers to help build the hosted version. As a Latino founder, Gallego is acutely aware of the need for a diverse and inclusive workforce. “What I have found is that being a [Latino] CEO, it attracts more people that look like me, and so that’s been a big thing, and it’s made a difference [in attracting diverse candidates],” he said.

One concrete thing he has done is start a scholarship to encourage under represented groups to become developers. “I started a scholarship where we just give money and mentorship to communities of Latino, Black and female developers, or people that want to transition to software engineering,” he said. While he says he does it without strings attached, he does hope that some of these folks could become part of the tech industry eventually, and perhaps even work at his company.

Posted Under: Tech News
Jam collaborative software launches Jam Genies to give small startups access to experts

Posted by on 26 January, 2021

This post was originally published on this site

As the world moves towards remote work, the collaborative tools market continues to expand. Jam, a platform for editing and improving your company’s website, is adding to the trend by introducing a new arm to its product today called Jam Genies.

Jam Genies is a network of highly experienced product experts that Jam users can tap for guidance and advice around their specific issue or challenge.

Cofounder Dani Grant explained to TechCrunch that many small and early-stage companies don’t have the deep pockets to hire a consultant when they run into a challenge, as many charge exorbitant rates and they often have a minimum time requirement. It can be incredibly difficult to get bite-sized advice at a reasonable cost.

That’s where Jam Genies comes in.

Genies hail from a variety of ‘verticals’, such as investors, designers, brand people, and growth hackers. The list includes:

  • Brianne Kimmel – Angel investor and founder of Worklife VC. Investor in Webflow, Hopin & 40+ software companies building the future of work.
  • Erik Torenberg – Partner at Village Global, a fund backed by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and others. Founding team at Product Hunt.
  • Sahil Lavingia – Founder & CEO of Gumroad, first engineer at Pinterest, and angel investing $10 million a year via shl.vc.
  • Iheanyi Ekechukwu – Engineer turned angel investor, and scout investor for Kleiner Perkins.
  • Soleio – Facebook’s second product designer, former head of design at Dropbox, and advisor at Figma. Invests in design-focused founders at Combine.
  • Dara Oke – Product design lead at Netflix, formerly designed and built products at Microsoft, Twitter, and Intel.
  • Katie Suskin – Designed many products you know and love like Microsoft Calendar, OkCupid, Tia, and … Jam.
  • Julius Tarng – Helped scale design at Webflow and led design tooling at Facebook.
  • Abe Vizcarra – Currently leading brand at Fast, former Global Design Director at Snap Inc.
  • Tiffany Zhong – CEO, Zebra IQ. Recognized by Forbes as one of the Top 10 Gen Z Experts.
  • Nicole Obst – Former Head of Web Growth (B2C) at Dropbox and Head of Growth at Loom
  • James Sherrett – 9th employee at Slack, led the original marketing and sales of Slack.
  • Asher King Abramson – CEO at Got Users, a growth marketing platform widely used by startups around Silicon Valley.

Users on the Jam platform can choose a Genie and set an appointment through Calendly. The sessions last half an hour and cost a flat fee of $250, all of which goes to the Genie.

Jam raised $3.5 million in October, from firms like Union Square Ventures, Version One Ventures, BoxGroup, Village Global and a variety of angel investors, to fuel growth and further build out the product. Jam Genies is, in many respects, a growth initiative for the company to better acquaint early-stage startups with the platform.

The main Jam product lets groups of developers and designers work collaboratively on a website, leaving comments, discuss changes and create and assign tasks. The platform integrates with all the usual suspects, such as Jira, Trello, Github, Slack, Figma, and more.

Since its launch in October 2020, the company has signed up 4,000 customers for its private beta waitlist, with 14,000 Jam comments created on the platform. The introduction of Jam Genies could add momentum to this growth push.

Posted Under: Tech News
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