Moveworks snags $75M Series B to resolve help desk tickets with AI

Posted by on 14 November, 2019

This post was originally published on this site

Moveworks, a startup using AI to help resolve Help Desk tickets in an automated fashion, announced a $75 million Series B investment today.

The round was led by Iconiq Capital, Kleiner Perkins and Sapphire Ventures. Existing investors Lightspeed Venture Partners, Bain Capital Ventures, and Comerica Bank also participated. The round also included a personal investment from John W. Thompson, who is a partner at LightSpeed Venture Partners and chairman at Microsoft. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $105 million, according to the company.

That’s a lot of money for an early-stage company, but CEO and co-founder Bhavin Shah says his company is solving a common problem using AI. “Moveworks is a machine learning platform that uses natural language understanding to take tickets that are submitted by employees every day to their IT teams for stuff they need, and we understand [the content of the tickets], interpret them, and then we take the actions to resolve them [automatically],” Shah explained.

He said the company decided to focus on help desk tickets because they saw data when they were forming the company that suggested a common set of questions, and that would make it easier to interpret and resolve these issues. In fact, they are currently able to resolve 25-40% of all tickets autonomously.

He says this should lead to greater user satisfaction because some of their problems can be resolved immediately, even when IT personnel aren’t around to help. Instead of filing a ticket and waiting for an answer, Moveworks can provide the answer, at least part of the time, without human intervention.

Aditya Agrawal, a partner at Iconiq, says that the company really captured his attention. “Moveworks is not just transforming IT operations, they are building a more modern and enlightened way to work. They’ve built a platform that simplifies and streamlines every interaction between employees and IT, enabling both to focus on what matters,” he said in a statement.

The company was founded in 2016, and in the early days was only resolving 2% of the tickets autonomously, so it has seen major improvement. It already has 115 employees and dozens of customers (although Shah didn’t want to provide an exact number).

Posted Under: Tech News
Eigen nabs $37M to help banks and others parse huge documents using natural language and ‘small data’

Posted by on 14 November, 2019

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One of the bigger trends in enterprise software has been the emergence of startups building tools to make the benefits of artificial intelligence technology more accessible to non-tech companies. Today, one that has built a platform to apply power of machine learning and natural language processing to massive documents of unstructured data has closed a round of funding as it finds strong demand for its approach.

Eigen Technologies, a London-based startup whose machine learning engine helps banks and other businesses that need to extract information and insights from large and complex documents like contracts, is today announcing that it has raised $37 million in funding, a Series B that values the company at around $150 million – $180 million.

The round was led by Lakestar and Dawn Capital, with Temasek and Goldman Sachs Growth Equity (which co-led its Series A) also participating. Eigen has now raised $55 million in total.

Eigen today is working primarily in the financial sector — its offices are smack in the middle of The City, London’s financial center — but the plan is to use the funding to continue expanding the scope of the platform to cover other verticals such as insurance and healthcare, two other big areas that deal in large, wordy documentation that is often inconsistent in how its presented, full of essential fine print, and is typically a strain on an organisation’s resources to be handled correctly, and is often a disaster if it is not.

The focus up to now on banks and other financial businesses has had a lot of traction. It says its customer base now includes 25% of the world’s G-SIB institutions (that is, the world’s biggest banks), along with others who work closely with them like Allen & Overy and Deloitte. Since June 2018 (when it closed its Series A round), Eigen has seen recurring revenues grow sixfold with headcount — mostly data scientists and engineers — double. While Eigen doesn’t disclose specific financials, you can the growth direction that contributed to the company’s valuation.

The basic idea behind Eigen is that it focuses what co-founder and CEO Lewis Liu describes as “small data”. The company has devised a way to “teach” an AI to read a specific kind of document — say, a loan contract — by looking at a couple of examples and training on these. The whole process is relatively easy to do for a non-technical person: you figure out what you want to look for and analyse, find the examples using basic search in two or three documents, and create the template which can then be used across hundreds or thousands of the same kind of documents (in this case, a loan contract).

Eigen’s work is notable for two reasons. First, typically machine learning and training and AI requires hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of examples to “teach” a system before it can make decisions that you hope will mimic those of a human. Eigen requires a couple of examples (hence the “small data” approach).

Second, an industry like finance has many pieces of sensitive data (either because its personal data, or because it’s proprietary to a company and its business), and so there is an ongoing issue of working with AI companies that want to “anonymise” and ingest that data. Companies simply don’t want to do that. Eigen’s system essentially only works on what a company provides, and that stays with the company.

Eigen was founded in 2014 by Dr. Lewis Z. Liu (CEO) and Jonathan Feuer (a managing partner at CVC Capital technologies who is the company’s chairman), but its earliest origins go back 15 years earlier, when Liu — a first-generation immigrant who grew up in the US — was working as a “data entry monkey” (his words) at a tire manufacturing plant in New Jersey, where he lived, ahead of starting university at Harvard.

A natural computing whizz who found himself building his own games when his parents refused to buy him a games console, he figured out that the many pages of printouts that he was reading and re-entering into a different computing system could be sped up with a computer program linking up the two. “I put myself out of a job,” he joked.

His educational life epitomises the kind of lateral thinking that often produces the most interesting ideas. Liu went on to Harvard to study not computer science, but physics and art. Doing a double major required working on a thesis that merged the two disciplines together, and Liu built “electrodynamic equations that composed graphical structures on the fly” — basically generating art using algorithms — which he then turned into a “Turing test” to see if people could detect pixelated actual work with that of his program. Distil this, and Liu was still thinking about patterns in analog material that could be re-created using math.

Then came years at McKinsey in London (how he arrived on these shores) during the financial crisis where the results of people either intentionally or mistakenly overlooking crucial text-based data produced stark and catastrophic results. “I would say the problem that we eventually started to solve for at Eigen became for tangible,” Liu said.

Then came a physics PhD at Oxford where Liu worked on X-ray lasers that could be used to bring down the complexity and cost of making microchips, cancer treatments and other applications.

While Eigen doesn’t actually use lasers, some of the mathematical equations that Liu came up with for these have also become a part of Eigen’s approach.

“The whole idea [for my PhD] was, ‘how do we make this cheeper and more scalable?’” he said. “We built a new class of X-ray laser apparatus, and we realised the same equations could be used in pattern matching algorithms, specifically around sequential patterns. And out of that, and my existing corporate relationships, that’s how Eigen started.”

Five years on, Eigen has added a lot more into the platform beyond what came from Liu’s original ideas. There are more data scientists and engineers building the engine around the basic idea, and customising it to work with more sectors beyond finance. 

There are a number of AI companies building tools for non-technical business end-users, and one of the areas that comes close to what Eigen is doing is robotic process automation, or RPA. Liu notes that while this is an important area, it’s more about reading forms more readily and providing insights to those. The focus of Eigen in more on unstructured data, and the ability to parse it quickly and securely using just a few samples.

Liu points to companies like IBM (with Watson) as general competitors, while startups like Luminance is another taking a similar approach to Eigen by addressing the issue of parsing unstructured data in a specific sector (in its case, currently, the legal profession).

Stephen Nundy, a partner and the CTO of Lakestar, said that he first came into contact with Eigen when he was at Goldman Sachs, where he was a managing director overseeing technology, and the bank engaged it for work.

“To see what these guys can deliver, it’s to be applauded,” he said. “They’re just picking out names and addresses. We’re talking deep, semantic understanding. Other vendors are trying to be everything to everybody, but Eigen has found market fit in financial services use cases, and it stands up against the competition. You can see when a winner is breaking away from the pack and it’s a great signal for the future.”

Posted Under: Tech News
Messaging app Wire confirms $8.2M raise, responds to privacy concerns after moving holding company to the US

Posted by on 13 November, 2019

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Big changes are afoot for Wire, an enterprise-focused end-to-end encrypted messaging app and service that advertises itself as “the most secure collaboration platform”. In February, Wire quietly raised $8.2 million from Morpheus Ventures and others, we’ve confirmed — the first funding amount it has ever disclosed — and alongside that external financing, it moved its holding company in the same month to the US from Luxembourg, a switch that Wire’s CEO Morten Brogger described in an interview as “simple and pragmatic.”

He also said that Wire is planning to introduce a freemium tier to its existing consumer service — which itself has half a million users — while working on a larger round of funding to fuel more growth of its enterprise business — a key reason for moving to the US, he added: There is more money to be raised there.

“We knew we needed this funding and additional to support continued growth. We made the decision that at some point in time it will be easier to get funding in North America, where there’s six times the amount of venture capital,” he said.

While Wire has moved its holding company to the US, it is keeping the rest of its operations as is. Customers are licensed and serviced from Wire Switzerland; the software development team is in Berlin, Germany; and hosting remains in Europe.

The news of Wire’s US move and the basics of its February funding — sans value, date or backers — came out this week via a blog post that raises questions about whether a company that trades on the idea of data privacy should itself be more transparent about its activities.

The changes to Wire’s financing and legal structure had not been communicated to users until news started to leak out, which brings up questions not just about transparency, but about how secure Wire’s privacy policy will play out, given the company’s ownership now being on US soil.

It was an issue picked up and amplified by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden . Via Twitter, he described the move to the US as “not appropriate for a company claiming to provide a secure messenger — claims a large number of human rights defenders relied on.”

The key question is whether Wire’s shift to the US puts users’ data at risk — a question that Brogger claims is straightforward to answer: “We are in Switzerland, which has the best privacy laws in the world” — it’s subject to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation framework (GDPR) on top of its own local laws — “and Wire now belongs to a new group holding, but there no change in control.” 

In its blog post published in the wake of blowback from privacy advocates, Wire also claims it “stands by its mission to best protect communication data with state-of-the-art technology and practice” — listing several items in its defence:

  • All source code has been and will be available for inspection on GitHub (github.com/wireapp).
  • All communication through Wire is secured with end-to-end encryption — messages, conference calls, files. The decryption keys are only stored on user devices, not on our servers. It also gives companies the option to deploy their own instances of Wire in their own data centers.
  • Wire has started working on a federated protocol to connect on-premise installations and make messaging and collaboration more ubiquitous.
  • Wire believes that data protection is best achieved through state-of-the-art encryption and continues to innovate in that space with Messaging Layer Security (MLS).

But where data privacy and US law are concerned, it’s complicated. Snowden famously leaked scores of classified documents disclosing the extent of US government mass surveillance programs in 2013, including how data-harvesting was embedded in US-based messaging and technology platforms.

Six years on, the political and legal ramifications of that disclosure are still playing out — with a key judgement pending from Europe’s top court which could yet unseat the current data transfer arrangement between the EU and the US.

Privacy versus security

Wire launched at a time when interest in messaging apps was at a high watermark. The company made its debut in the middle of February 2014, and it was only one week later that Facebook acquired WhatsApp for the princely sum of $19 billion. We described Wire’s primary selling point at the time as a “reimagining of how a communications tool like Skype should operate had it been built today” rather than in in 2003.

That meant encryption and privacy protection, but also better audio tools and file compression and more. It was  a pitch that seemed especially compelling considering the background of the company. Skype co-founder Janus Friis and funds connected to him were the startup’s first backers (and they remain the largest shareholders); Wire was co-founded in by Skype alums Jonathan Christensen and Alan Duric (no longer with the company); and even new investor Morpheus has Skype roots.

Even with the Skype pedigree, the strategy faced a big challenge.

“The consumer messaging market is lost to the Facebooks of the world, which dominate it,” Brogger said today. “However, we made a clear insight, which is the core strength of Wire: security and privacy.”

That, combined with trend around the consumerization of IT that’s brought new tools to business users, is what led Wire to the enterprise market in 2017.

But fast forward to today, and it seems that even as security and privacy are two sides of the same coin, it may not be so simple when deciding what to optimise in terms of features and future development, which is part of the question now and what critics are concerned with.

“Wire was always for profit and planned to follow the typical venture backed route of raising rounds to accelerate growth,” one source familiar with the company told us. “However, it took time to find its niche (B2B, enterprise secure comms).

“It needed money to keep the operations going and growing. [But] the new CEO, who joined late 2017, didn’t really care about the free users, and the way I read it now, the transformation is complete: ‘If Wire works for you, fine, but we don’t really care about what you think about our ownership or funding structure as our corporate clients care about security, not about privacy.’”

And that is the message you get from Brogger, too, who describes individual consumers as “not part of our strategy”, but also not entirely removed from it, either, as the focus shifts to enterprises and their security needs.

Brogger said there are still half a million individuals on the platform, and they will come up with ways to continue to serve them under the same privacy policies and with the same kind of service as the enterprise users. “We want to give them all the same features with no limits,” he added. “We are looking to switch it into a freemium model.”

On the other side, “We are having a lot of inbound requests on how Wire can replace Skype for Business,” he said. “We are the only one who can do that with our level of security. It’s become a very interesting journey and we are super excited.”

Part of the company’s push into enterprise has also seen it make a number of hires. This has included bringing in two former Huddle C-suite execs, Brogger as CEO and Rasmus Holst as chief revenue officer — a bench that Wire expanded this week with three new hires from three other B2B businesses: a VP of EMEA sales from New Relic, a VP of finance from Contentful; and a VP of Americas sales from Xeebi.

Such growth comes with a price-tag attached to it, clearly. Which is why Wire is opening itself to more funding and more exposure in the US, but also more scrutiny and questions from those who counted on its services before the change.

Brogger said inbound interest has been strong and he expects the startup’s next round to close in the next two to three months.

Posted Under: Tech News
AWS, Salesforce join forces with Linux Foundation on Cloud Information Model

Posted by on 13 November, 2019

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Last year Adobe, SAP and Microsoft came together and formed the Open Data Initiative. Not to be outdone, this week AWS, Salesforce and Genesys in partnership with The Linux Foundation announced the Cloud Information Model.

The two competing data models have a lot in common. They are both about bringing together data and applying a common open model to it. The idea is to allow for data interoperability across products in the partnership without a lot of heavy lifting, a common problem for users of these big company’s software.

Jim Zemlin, executive director at The Linux Foundation says this project provides a neutral home for the Cloud Information model, where a community can work on the problem. “This allows for anyone across the community to collaborate and provide contributions under a central governance model. It paves the way for full community-wide engagement in data interoperability efforts and standards development, while rapidly increasing adoption rate of the community,” Zemlin explained in a statement.

Each of the companies in the initial partnership is using the model in different ways. AWS will use it conjunction with its AWS Lake Formation tool to help customers move, catalog, store and clean data from a variety of data sources, while Genesys customers can use its cloud and AI products to communicate across a variety of channels.

Patrick Stokes from Salesforce says his company is using the Cloud Information Model as the underlying data model for his company’s Customer 360 platform of products. “We’re super excited to announce that we’ve joined together with a few partners — AWS, Genesys and The Linux Foundation — to actually open source that data model,” Stokes told TechCrunch.

Of course, now we have two competing “open” data models, and it’s going to create some friction until the two competing projects find a way to come together. The fact is that many companies use tools from each of these companies, and if there continues to be these competing approaches, it’s going to defeat the purpose of creating these initiatives in the first place.

As Satya Nadella said in 2015, “It is incumbent upon us, especially those of us who are platform vendors to partner broadly to solve real pain points our customers have.” If that’s the case having competing models is not really achieving that.

Posted Under: Tech News
Freshworks raises $150M Series H on $3.5B valuation

Posted by on 13 November, 2019

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Freshworks, a company that makes a variety of business software tools from CRM to help desk software, announced a $150 million Series H investment today from Sequoia Capital, CapitalG (formerly Google Capital) and Accel on a hefty $3.5 billion valuation. The late-stage startup has raised almost $400 million, according to Crunchbase data.

The company has been building an enterprise SaaS platform to give customers a set of integrated business tools, but CEO and co-founder Girish Mathrubootham says they will be investing part of this money in R&D to keep building out the platform.

To that end, the company also announced a new unified data platform today called the “Customer-for-Life Cloud”  that runs across all of its it tools.  “We are actually investing in really bringing all of this together to create the “Customer-for-Life Cloud,” which is how you take marketing, sales, support and customer success — all of the aspects of a customer across the entire lifecycle journey and bring them to a common data model where a business that is using Freshworks can see the entire lifecycle of the customer,” Mathrubootham explained.

While Mathrubootham was not ready to commit to an IPO, he said that they are in the process of hiring a CFO and are looking ahead to one day becoming a public company. “We don’t have a definite timeline. We want to go public at the right time. We are making sure that as a company that we are ready with the right processes and teams and predictability in the business,” he said.

In addition, he says he will continue to look for good acquisition targets, and having this money in the bank will help the company fill in gaps in the product set should the right opportunity arise. “We don’t generally acquire revenue, but we are looking for good technology teams both in terms of talent, as well as technology that would help give us a jumpstart in terms of go-to-market.” It hasn’t been afraid to target small companies in the past, having acquired 12 already.

Freshworks, which launched in 2010,  has almost 2500 employees, a number that’s sure to go up with this new investment. It has 250,00 customers worldwide, including almost 40,000 paying customers. These including Bridgestone Tires, Honda, Hugo Boss, Toshiba and Cisco.

Posted Under: Tech News
Atlassian expands Jira Service Desk beyond IT teams

Posted by on 13 November, 2019

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Atlassian today announced a set of new templates and workflows for Jira Service Desk that were purpose-built for HR, legal and facilities teams. Service Desk started six years ago as a version of Jira that was mostly meant for IT departments. Atlassian, however, found that other teams inside the companies that adopted it started to use it as well, including various teams at Twitter and Airbnb, for example. With today’s update, it’s now making it easier for these teams, at least in legal, HR and facilities, to get started with Jira Service Desk without having to customize the product themselves.

“Over the last six years, one of the observations that we’ve made was that we need to provide really good services — the idea that we can provide great services to employees is really something that is really on the rise,” said Edwin Wong, the head of the company’s IT products. “I think in the past, maybe we were a bit more forgiving in terms of what employees expected from services departments. But today you’re just so used to great experiences in your consumer life and when you come to work, you expect the same.”

But lots of service teams, he argues, didn’t have the tools to provide this experience, yet they were looking for tools to streamline their workflows (think onboarding for HR teams, for example) and to move from manual processes to something more automated and modern. Jira was already flexible enough to allow them to do this, but the new set of templates now codifies these processes for them.

Wong stressed this isn’t just about tracking but also managing work across teams and providing them a more centralized hub for information. “One of the big challenges that we’ve seen from many of the customers that we’ve spoken to is the challenge of just figuring out where to go when you want something,” he said. “When I have a new employee, where do I go to ask for a new laptop? Is that the same process as telling my facilities teams that perhaps there is an issue with a bathroom?”

Atlassian is starting with these three templates because that’s where it saw the most immediate need. Over time, I’m sure we’ll see the company get into other verticals as well.

Posted Under: Tech News
Mirantis acquires Docker Enterprise

Posted by on 13 November, 2019

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Mirantis today announced that it has acquired Docker’s Enterprise business and team. Docker Enterprise was very much the heart of Docker’s product lineup, so this sale leaves Docker as a shell of its former, high-flying unicorn self. Docker itself, which installed a new CEO earlier this year, says it will continue to focus on tools that will advance developers’ workflows. Mirantis will keep the Docker Enterprise brand alive, though, which will surely not create any confusion.

With this deal, Mirantis is acquiring Docker Enterprise Technology Platform and all associated IP: Docker Enterprise Engine, Docker Trusted Registry, Docker Unified Control Plane and Docker CLI. It will also inherit all Docker Enterprise customers and contracts, as well as its strategic technology alliances and partner programs. Docker and Mirantis say they will both continue to work on the Docker platform’s open-source pieces.

The companies did not disclose the price of the acquisition, but it’s surely nowhere near Docker’s valuation during any of its last funding rounds. Indeed, it’s no secret that Docker’s fortunes changed quite a bit over the years, from leading the container revolution to becoming somewhat of an afterthought after Google open-sourced Kubernetes and the rest of the industry coalesced around it. It still had a healthy enterprise business, though, with plenty of large customers among the large enterprises. The company says about a third of Fortune 100 and a fifth of Global 500 companies use Docker Enterprise, which is a statistic most companies would love to be able to highlight — and which makes this sale a bit puzzling from Docker’s side, unless the company assumed that few of these customers were going to continue to bet on its technology.

Update: for reasons only known to Docker’s communications team, we weren’t told about this beforehand, but the company also today announced that it has raised a $35 million funding round from Benchmark. This doesn’t change the overall gist of the story below, but it does highlight the company’s new direction.

Here is what Docker itself had to say. “Docker is ushering in a new era with a return to our roots by focusing on advancing developers’ workflows when building, sharing and running modern applications. As part of this refocus, Mirantis announced it has acquired the Docker Enterprise platform business,” Docker said in a statement when asked about this change. “Moving forward, we will expand Docker Desktop and Docker Hub’s roles in the developer workflow for modern apps. Specifically, we are investing in expanding our cloud services to enable developers to quickly discover technologies for use when building applications, to easily share these apps with teammates and the community, and to run apps frictionlessly on any Kubernetes endpoint, whether locally or in the cloud.”

Mirantis itself, too, went through its ups and downs. While it started as a well-funded OpenStack distribution, today’s Mirantis focuses on offering a Kubernetes-centric on-premises cloud platform and application delivery. As the company’s CEO Adrian Ionel told me ahead of today’s announcement, today is possibly the most important day for the company.

So what will Mirantis do with Docker Enterprise? “Docker Enterprise is absolutely aligned and an accelerator of the direction that we were already on,” Ionel told me. “We were very much moving towards Kubernetes and containers aimed at multi-cloud and hybrid and edge use cases, with these goals to deliver a consistent experience to developers on any infrastructure anywhere — public clouds, hybrid clouds, multi-cloud and edge use cases — and make it very easy, on-demand, and remove any operational concerns or burdens for developers or infrastructure owners.”

Mirantis previously had about 450 employees. With this acquisition, it gains another 300 former Docker employees that it needs to integrate into its organization. Docker’s field marketing and sales teams will remain separate for some time, though, Ionel said, before they will be integrated. “Our most important goal is to create no disruptions for customers,” he noted. “So we’ll maintain an excellent customer experience, while at the same time bringing the teams together.”

This also means that for current Docker Enterprise customers, nothing will change in the near future. Mirantis says that it will accelerate the development of the product and merge its Kubernetes and lifecycle management technology into it. Over time, it will also offer a managed services solutions for Docker Enterprise.

While there is already some overlap between Mirantis’ and Docker Enterprise’s customer base, Mirantis will pick up about 700 new enterprise customers with this acquisition.

With this, Ionel argues, Mirantis is positioned to go up against large players like VMware and IBM/Red Hat. “We are the one real cloud-native player with meaningful scale to provide an alternative to them without lock-in into a legacy or existing technology stack.”

While this is clearly a day the Mirantis team is celebrating, it’s hard not to look at this as the end of an era for Docker, too. The company says it will share more about its future plans today, but didn’t make any spokespeople available ahead of this announcement.

Posted Under: Tech News
Work collaboration startup Notion Labs cozies up to Silicon Valley’s top accelerators

Posted by on 12 November, 2019

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Startups building work software for other startups have been a huge focus of investment in Silicon Valley as eager VCs hope to grab a piece of the next Slack. Notion Labs, a profitable work tools startup that recently hit a reported $800 million valuation, isn’t making it easy for VC firms to give them money, but they are partnering with some of them alongside top accelerators like Y Combinator in an effort to become another household name in work software.

Notion has north of 1 million users and has attracted thousands of young startups to its platform, which combines notes, wikis and databases into a versatile tool that can help small teams cut down on the number of enterprise software subscriptions they’re paying for. Notion charges startups $8 per employee (when billed annually) to use the service.

Over half of the startups from Y Combinator’s most recent batch are Notion customers, the company tells TechCrunch, and the startup seems intent to accelerate their adoption among small teams. They have approached and partnered with dozens of accelerators around the globe including Y Combinator, 500 Startups and TechStars to bring their portfolio startups onto Notion’s platform, offering admitted startups $1,000 in free services each.

The new program is part of the company’s efforts to embed their platform as an “operating system” for startups early-on and then scale as their customers do.

“I think we find ourselves in a really interesting spot where I think YC startups know about us and start with it,” COO Akshay Kothari says. “Our goal with the new program is getting to the point where if you’re a new company, you don’t even think about it, you just start with Notion.”

Notion COO Akshay Kothari

Kothari says their platform seems to work best for startups in the sub-50 and sub-100 employee range, but they do have larger customers like UK banking startup Monzo which has organized their 1,300+ employees around the platform. Notion itself is unsurprisingly a power user of its product, running everything but internal and external communications on its own software.

The company offers a couple pricing tiers depending on size, but individuals can also use the software for $5 per month, something that Kothari believes offers it advantages over other tools in driving adoption inside companies. “There are a lot of similarities between us and the early stages of Slack in terms of engineering and product design people loving it, tech and media loving it, but one unique thing about us is that you can use Notion alone. Slack alone would be a bit lonely.”

The company is pitching customers a vision of consolidated workplace services that are built so end-users can customize them to their needs. Notion’s pitch contrasts pretty heavily with the overarching enterprise SaaS trends which has seen a wealth of specialized software tools hitting the market.

Notion is working on tools to help it court larger enterprise customers as well, including offline access, better permission systems and an API that can help developers connect their services to the platform. Notion has been iterating its product rather quickly for a company that has 9 engineers and no PMs, but Kothari says that they don’t believe piling more money or doubling employees is going to be the key to scaling more quickly.

“We definitely want to create a large company, a company that could eventually go public or whatever is the right — you know it’s too early for a lot of that stuff. Our preference is to stay small,” he says. “[Notion] doesn’t have a board, it doesn’t have a whole lot of external voices, pretty much everyone in this office decides what we’re doing next.”

Notion has raised millions in funding from investors like First Round Capital, Ron and Ronny Conway, Elad Gill and most recently Daniel Gross. The Information‘s Amir Efrati reported earlier this year that Notion had raised a $10 million “angel round” at an $800 million valuation. The round was less about raising more cash than it was about closing convertible notes, Korthari tells TechCrunch, noting that Notion has been profitable for the last 12-18 months.

“I guess we were profitable before profitability became cool. I think profitability helps you to control destiny a lot better because you’re not out fundraising every year or 18 months,” Kothari says. “Interestingly now, I think it’s cool to be profitable again. When I joined Notion I would tell VCs or investors ‘Oh, we’re profitable,’ and they would be like ‘Oh, so you’re building a lifestyle company.’”

Kothari himself was an investor that dumped money into Notion founders Ivan Zhao and Simon Last’s idea to create a platform that would help non-engineers build software. That was 6 years ago after Kothari sold his previous startup to LinkedIn, he joined about a year ago as COO.

Some VCs may have been skeptical early-on, but the story of Notion over the past year has been VCs fighting to score a spot on their cap table. In January, The New York Times‘s Erin Griffith reported that VCs had “dug up Notion’s office address and sent its founders cookie dough, dog treats and physical letters” to court their interest. The unrequited VC yearning has earned Notion the reputation for being venture averse, something Kothari pushed back on a few times.

“So, again, for the record, we don’t hate venture capitalists.”

Posted Under: Tech News
Loop Returns picks up $10 million in Series A led by FirstMark Capital

Posted by on 12 November, 2019

This post was originally published on this site

Loop Returns, the startup that helps brands handle returns from online purchases, has today announced the close of a $10 million Series A funding round led by FirstMark Capital. Lerer Hippeau and Ridge Ventures also participated in the round.

Loop started when Jonathan Poma, a cofounder and COO and President, was working at an agency and consulting with a big Shopify brand on how to improve their system for returns and exchanges. After partnering with long-time friend Corbett Morgan Loop Returns was born.

Loop sits on top of Shopify to handle all of a brand’s returns. It first asks the customer if they’d like a different size in the item they bought, quickly managing an exchange. It then asks if the customer would prefer to exchange for a new item altogether, depositing the credit in that person’s account in real time so they can shop for something new immediately.

If an exchange isn’t in the cards, Loop will ask the customer if they’d prefer credit with this brand over a straight-up refund.

The goal, according to Poma and Morgan, is to turn the point of return into a moment where brands can create a life-loyal customer when handled quickly and properly.

The more we shop online, the more brands extend themselves financially, and returns are a big part of that. Returns account for 20 to 30 percent of ecommerce sales, which can become a terrible financial burden on a growing direct-to-consumer brand. And what’s more, the cost of acquiring those users in the first place also goes down the drain.

Loop Returns hopes to keep that customer in the fold by giving them post-purchase options that are more sticky and more lucrative for the brand than a refund.

The company thinks of it as Connection Infrastructure. Most brands already have a customer acquisition architecture, and Shopify and Amazon are ahead when it comes to the infrastructure around customer convenience. But the ties that bind customers to brands haven’t been optimized for the many D2C brands out there looking to make an impact.

“The big problem we’re trying to solve long term is connection infrastructure,” said Morgan. “Why does this brand matter? Why does it mean something to me? Why does the product matter? We want to enforce more mindfulness and meaning into buying.”

Of course, a more mindful shopper doesn’t yield as many returns. Poma and Morgan admit that the goal of their software is to minimize returns, the very reason for the software’s existence. After all, return volume is one of a handful of variables that help Loop Returns determine what it will charge its brand clients.

But the team is thinking about other layers of the connection infrastructure, with plans to launch a product in 2020 that also focuses on the connection point after purchase. Poma and Morgan believe, with an almost religious reverence, that the brands themselves will help lead shoppers and infrastructure providers to a better, more connected shopping experience.

“Brands are the torch bearers,” said Poma. “They will lead us to a more enlightened era of how we think about buying. Empowerment of the brand will lead us to a better consumerism.”

The cofounders stayed mum on any specific plans for the 2020 product, but did say they will use the funding to expand operations and further build out its current and future products.

Of course, Loop is playing in a crowded space. Not only are there other players thinking about post-purchase connection, but Shopify has itself built out tools to help with exchanges and returns, and even acquired Return Magic, a similar service, in the summer of 2018.

That said, Loop Returns believes that there is a long way to go as it builds the ‘connection infrastructure’ and that one clear path forward is actual personalization. With data from returns and exchanges, Loop Returns is relatively well positioned to take on personalization in a meaningful way.

For now, Loop Returns has more than 200 customers and has handled more than 2 million returns, working with brands like Brooklinen, AllBirds, PuraVida and more.

Posted Under: Tech News
Lawyers hate timekeeping. Ping raises $13M to fix it with AI

Posted by on 12 November, 2019

This post was originally published on this site

Counting billable time in six minute increments is the most annoying part of being a lawyer. It’s a distracting waste. It leads law firms to conservatively under-bill. And it leaves lawyers stuck manually filling out timesheets after a long day when they want to go home to their families.

Life is already short, as Ping CEO and co-founder Ryan Alshak knows too well. The former lawyer spent years caring for his mother as she battled a brain tumor before her passing. “One minute laughing with her was worth a million doing anything else” he tells me. “I became obsessed with the idea that we spend too much of our lives on things we have no need to do — especially at work.”

That’s motivated him as he’s built his startup Ping, which uses artificial intelligence to automatically track lawyers’ work and fill out timesheets for them. There’s a massive opportunity to eliminate a core cause of burnout, lift law firm revenue by around 10%, and give them fresh insights into labor allocation.

Ping co-founder and CEO Ryan Alshak. Image Credit: Margot Duane

That’s why today Ping is announcing a $13.2 million Series A led by Upfront Ventures, along with BoxGroup, First Round, Initialized, and Ulu Ventures. Adding to Ping’s quiet $3.7 million seed led by First Round last year, the startup will spend the cash to scale up enterprise distribution and become the new timekeeping standard.

I was a corporate litigator at Manatt Phelps down in LA and joke that I was voted the world’s worst timekeeper” Alshak tells me. “I could either get better at doing something I dreaded or I could try and build technology that did it for me.”

The promise of eliminating the hassle could make any lawyer who hears about Ping an advocate for the firm buying the startup’s software, like how Dropbox grew as workers demanded easier file sharing. “I’ve experienced first-hand the grind of filling out timesheets” writes Initialized partner and former attorney Alda Leu Dennis. “Ping takes away the drudgery of manual timekeeping and gives lawyers back all those precious hours.”

Traditionally, lawyers have to keep track of their time by themselves down to the tenth of an hour — reviewing documents for the Johnson case, preparing a motion to dismiss for the Lee case, a client phone call for Sriram case. There are timesheets built into legal software suites like MyCase, legal billing software like Timesolv, and one-off tools like Time Miner and iTimeKeep. They typically offer timers that lawyers can manually start and stop on different devices, with some providing tracking of scheduled appointments, call and text logging, and integration with billing systems.

Ping goes a big step further. It uses AI and machine learning to figure out whether an activity is billable, for which client, a description of the activity, and its codification beyond just how long it lasted. Instead of merely filling in the minutes, it completes all the logs automatically with entries like “Writing up a deposition – Jenkins Case – 18 minutes”. Then it presents the timesheet to the user for review before the send it to billing.

The big challenge now for Alshak and the team he’s assembled is to grow up. They need to go from cat-in-sunglasses logo Ping to mature wordmark Ping.  “We have to graduate from being a startup to being an enterprise software company” the CEO tells meThat means learning to sell to C-suites and IT teams, rather than just build solid product. In the relationship-driven world of law, that’s a very different skill set. Ping will have to convince clients it’s worth switching to not just for the time savings and revenue boost, but for deep data on how they could run a more efficient firm.

Along the way, Ping has to avoid any embarrassing data breaches or concerns about how its scanning technology could violate attorney-client privilege. If it can win this lucrative first business in legal, it could barge into the consulting and accounting verticals next to grow truly huge.

With eager customers, a massive market, a weak status quo, and a driven founder, Ping just needs to avoid getting in over its heads with all its new cash. Spent well, the startup could leap ahead of the less tech-savvy competition.

Alshak seems determined to get it right. “We have an opportunity to build a company that gives people back their most valuable resource — time — to spend more time with their loved ones because they spent less time working” he tells me. “My mom will live forever because she taught me the value of time. I am deeply motivated to build something that lasts . . . and do so in her name.”

Posted Under: Tech News
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