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
Salesforce Ventures invested $300M in Automattic while Salesforce was building a CMS

Posted by on 11 November, 2019

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In September, Salesforce Ventures, the venture of arm of Salesforce, announced a hefty $300 million investment in Automattic, the company behind WordPress, the ubiquitous content management system (CMS). At the same time, the company was putting the finishing touches on Salesforce CMS, an in-house project it released last week.

The question is, why did it choose to do both?

One reason could be that WordPress isn’t just well-liked; it’s also the world’s most popular content management system, running 34 percent of the world’s 10 billion websites — including this one — according to the company. With Automattic valued at $3 billion, that gives Salesforce Ventures a 10 percent stake.

Given the substantial investment, you wouldn’t have been irrational to at least consider the idea that Salesforce may have had its eye on this company as an acquisition target. In fact, at the time of the funding, Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg told TechCrunch’s Romain Dillet that there could be some partnerships and integrations with Salesforce in the future.

Now we have a Salesforce CMS, and a potential partnership with one of the world’s largest web content management (WCM) tools, and it’s possible that the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

Posted Under: Tech News
Alpaca nabs $6M for stocks API so anyone can build a Robinhood

Posted by on 8 November, 2019

This post was originally published on this site

Stock trading app Robinhood is valued at $7.6 billion, but it only operates in the U.S. Freshly funded fintech startup Alpaca does the dirty work so developers worldwide can launch their own competitors to that investing unicorn. Like the Stripe of stocks, Alpaca’s API handles the banking, security and regulatory complexity, allowing other startups to quickly build brokerage apps on top for free. It has already crossed $1 billion in transactions within a year of launch.

The potential to power the backend of a new generation of fintech apps has attracted a $6 million Series A round for Alpaca led by Spark Capital . Instead of charging developers, Alpaca earns its money through payment for order flow, interest on cash deposits and margin lending, much like Robinhood.

“I want to make sure that people even outside the U.S. have access” to a way of building wealth that’s historically only “available to rich people” Alpaca co-founder and CEO Yoshi Yokokawa tells me.

Alpaca co-founder and CEO Yoshi Yokokawa

Hailing from Japan, Yokokawa followed his friends into the investment banking industry, where he worked at Lehman Brothers until its collapse. After his grandmother got sick, he moved into day-trading for three years and realized “all the broker dealer business tools were pretty bad.” But when he heard of Robinhood in 2013 and saw it actually catering to users’ needs, he thought, “I need to be involved in this new transformation” of fintech.

Yokokawa ended up first building a business selling deep learning AI to banks and trading firms in the foreign exchange market. Watching clients struggle to quickly integrate new technology revealed the lack of available developer tools. By 2017, he was pivoting the business and applying for FINRA approval. Alpaca launched in late 2018, letting developers paste in code to let their users buy and sell securities.

Now international developers and small hedge funds are building atop the Alpaca API so they don’t have to reinvent the underlying infrastructure themselves right away. Alpaca works with clearing broker NTC, and then marks up margin trading while earning interest and payment for order flow. It also offers products like AlpacaForecast, with short-term predictions of stock prices, AlpacaRadar for detecting price swings and its MarketStore financial database server.

AlpacaForecast

The $6 million from Spark Capital, Social Leverage, Portag3, Fathom Capital and Zillionize adds to $5.8 million in previous funding from investors, including Y Combinator. The startup plans to spend the cash on hiring to handle partnerships with bigger businesses, supporting its developer community and ensuring compliance.

One major question is whether fintech businesses that start to grow atop Alpaca and drive its revenues will try to declare independence and later invest in their own technology stack. There’s the additional risk of a security breach that might scare away clients.

Alpaca’s top competitor, Interactive Brokers, offers trading APIs, but other services as well that distract it from fostering a robust developer community, Yokokawa tells me. Alpaca focuses on providing great documentation, open-source contribution and SDKs in different languages that make it more developer-friendly. It will also have to watch out for other fintech services startups like DriveWealth and well-funded Galileo.

There’s a big opportunity to capitalize on the race to integrate stock trading into other finance apps to drive stickiness because it’s a consistent, voluntary behavior rather than a chore or something only done a few times a year. Lender SoFi and point-of-sale system Square both recently became broker dealers as well, and Yokokawa predicts more and more apps will push into the space.

Why would we need so many stock trading apps? “Every single person is involved with money, so the market is huge. Instead of one-player takes all, there will be different players that can all do well,” Yokokawa tells me. “Like banks and investment banks co-exist, it will never be that Bank of America takes 80% of the pie. I think differentiation will be on customer acquisition, and operations management efficiency.”

The co-founder’s biggest concern is keeping up with all the new opportunities in financial services, from cash management and cryptocurrency that Robinhood already deals in, to security token offerings and fractional investing. Yokokawa says, “I need to make sure I’m on top of everything and that we’re executing with the right timing so we don’t lose.”

The CEO hopes that Alpaca will one day power broader access to the U.S. stock market back in Japan, noting that if a modern nation still lags behind in fintech, the rest of the world surely fares even worse. “I want to connect this asset class to as many people as possible on the earth.”

Posted Under: Tech News
How Microsoft is trying to become more innovative

Posted by on 7 November, 2019

This post was originally published on this site

Microsoft Research is a globally distributed playground for people interested in solving fundamental science problems.

These projects often focus on machine learning and artificial intelligence, and since Microsoft is on a mission to infuse all of its products with more AI smarts, it’s no surprise that it’s also seeking ways to integrate Microsoft Research’s innovations into the rest of the company.

Across the board, the company is trying to find ways to become more innovative, especially around its work in AI, and it’s putting processes in place to do so. Microsoft is unusually open about this process, too, and actually made it somewhat of a focus this week at Ignite, a yearly conference that typically focuses more on technical IT management topics.

At Ignite, Microsoft will for the first time present these projects externally at a dedicated keynote. That feels similar to what Google used to do with its ATAP group at its I/O events and is obviously meant to showcase the cutting-edge innovation that happens inside of Microsoft (outside of making Excel smarter).

To manage its AI innovation efforts, Microsoft created the Microsoft AI group led by VP Mitra Azizirad, who’s tasked with establishing thought leadership in this space internally and externally, and helping the company itself innovate faster (Microsoft’s AI for Good projects also fall under this group’s purview). I sat down with Azizirad to get a better idea of what her team is doing and how she approaches getting companies to innovate around AI and bring research projects out of the lab.

“We began to put together a narrative for the company of what it really means to be in an AI-driven world and what we look at from a differentiated perspective,” Azizirad said. “What we’ve done in this area is something that has resonated and landed well. And now we’re including AI, but we’re expanding beyond it to other paradigm shifts like human-machine interaction, future of computing and digital responsibility, as more than just a set of principles and practices but an area of innovation in and of itself.”

Currently, Microsoft is doing a very good job at talking and thinking about horizon one opportunities, as well as horizon three projects that are still years out, she said. “Horizon two, we need to get better at, and that’s what we’re doing.”

It’s worth stressing that Microsoft AI, which launched about two years ago, marks the first time there’s a business, marketing and product management team associated with Microsoft Research, so the team does get a lot of insights into upcoming technologies. Just in the last couple of years, Microsoft has published more than 6,000 research papers on AI, some of which clearly have a future in the company’s products.

Posted Under: Tech News
AWS announces new savings plans to reduce complexity of reserved instances

Posted by on 7 November, 2019

This post was originally published on this site

Reserved instances (RIs) have provided a mechanism for companies, who expect to use a certain level of AWS infrastructure resources, to get some cost certainty, but as AWS’s Jeff Barr points out they are on the complex side. To fix that, the company announced a new method called Savings Plans.

“Today we are launching Savings Plans, a new and flexible discount model that provides you with the same discounts as RIs, in exchange for a commitment to use a specific amount (measured in dollars per hour) of compute power over a one or three year period,” Barr wrote in a blog post announcing the new program.

Amazon charges customers in a couple of ways. First, there is an on-demand price, which is basically the equivalent of the rack rate at a hotel. You are going to pay more for this because you’re walking up and ordering it on the fly.

Most organizations know they are going to need a certain level of resources over a period of time, and in these cases, they can save some money by buying in bulk up front. This gives them cost certainty as an organization, and it helps Amazon because it knows it’s going to have a certain level of usage and can plan accordingly.

While Reserved Instances aren’t going away yet, it sounds like Amazon is trying to steer customers to the new savings plans. “We will continue to sell RIs, but Savings Plans are more flexible and I think many of you will prefer them,” Barr wrote.

The Savings Plans come in two flavors. Compute Savings Plans provide up to 66% savings and are similar to RIs in this regard. The aspect that customers should like is that the savings are broadly applicable across AWS products, and you can even move work loads between regions and maintain the same discounted rate.

The other is an EC2 Instance Savings Plan. With this one, also similarly to the reserved instance, you can save up to 72% over the on-demand price, but with this option you are limited to a single region.  It does offer a measure of flexibility though allowing you to select different sizes of the same instance type or even switch operating systems from Windows to Linux without affecting your discount with your region of choice.

You can sign up today through the AWS Cost Explorer.

Posted Under: Tech News
Salesforce announces new content management system

Posted by on 7 November, 2019

This post was originally published on this site

Salesforce has its fingers in a lot of parts of the customer experience, so why not content management? Today, the company announced a brand new tool called Salesforce Content Management System, which it says is designed from the ground up to deliver a quality customer experience across multiple channels.

The idea is to provide a way for customers to create, manage and deliver more meaningful content across multiple channels from within the Salesforce family of products. The company claims it doesn’t require any kind of deep technical knowledge to do it, meaning marketers and product people should be able to create and deliver content without the help of IT, once the system is properly set up.

Anna Rosenman, Salesforce’s VP of product marketing for Community Cloud, Commerce Cloud and Salesforce CMS says the company created the new CMS to answer a customer demand. “Our customers have been asking for a dedicated CMS. The systems that they’ve been relying on so far tend to be legacy tools that are hard to use and built for a single-channel or site,” she said.

Photo: Salesforce

While users can create more personalized content based on what they know about the customer based on Salesforce data, Rosenman says the key differentiator here is the ability to connect to third-party systems. “A hybrid CMS provides a native experience channel or touchpoint, but also gives you the flexibility to present content to any touchpoint built on a third-party system,” she explained.

Tony Byrne, founder and principal analyst at Real Story Group, who has followed the Web CMS space for two decades, says this isn’t the first time that Salesforce has tried content management. The previous iteration was called Salesforce Sites. “They made big promises around that platform, got some major customers on board and then dropped it,” Byrne said.

He says that because it’s a major challenge to build a sophisticated multi-channel CMS. “It’s easy to build a simple CMS. It’s much harder to build an extensible, enterprise platform,” he said. He added, “There’s a lot of work they still need to do to feed other platforms around things like connectors, simulation, tracking, very advanced asset management (e.g., compound assets), object-oriented storage, etc.”

But Rosenman says that the system’s built-in flexibility is designed to provide that, and even be used in conjunction with existing legacy tools if need be.

What’s interesting here is that Salesforce decided to build this tool, rather than buying a company and integrating it into the Salesforce family, an approach it has not been afraid to take in the past. In fact, the company pursues an aggressive acquisition strategy. This year alone it spent more than $15 billion to buy Tableau and another $1.35 billion to buy ClickSoftware.

In this case, in the tension between building and buying, it decided to build instead. Time will tell if that was a good decision or not.

Posted Under: Tech News
An early look at eFounders’ next batch of enterprise SaaS startups

Posted by on 7 November, 2019

This post was originally published on this site

European startup studio eFounders recently reached a portfolio valuation of $1 billion across 23 companies. And the company doesn’t want to stop there as it is currently launching three new companies and products.

While software-as-a-service companies are trendy, eFounders has been exploring this space for a few years now. The company regularly comes up with ideas for new companies that improve the way we work.

In exchange for financial and human resources, eFounders keeps a significant stake in its startups. Ideally, startups raise a seed round and take off on their own after a year or two.

And here’s what eFounders has been working on.

Cycle

Cycle is a product management platform. And if you think about product management, it encompasses many things under one title, such as writing specs, planning a roadmap, assigning tasks and defining cycles or sprints.

Many startups use multiple tools for all those tasks. And sometimes, the tools that they were using don’t scale well. Cycle will integrate with GitHub, Figma and Zendesk so that you can handle bugs, improvements and features more efficiently.

Finally, Cycle lets you generate product updates for your customers, create public roadmaps and collaborate with other people in your organization.

It has an Airtable vibe as you can create your own views and workflows depending on your needs. You can display data as a timeline, a todo list, a kanban view, a normal list, etc.

Folk

Talking about Airtable, Folk is easy to describe. What if Salesforce and Airtable had a baby? It would look more or less like Folk.

Folk lets you manage your contacts more efficiently and collaborate with teammates. You can import your address book from iCloud, Gmail, Outlook, Excel and CSV files. You can then sort your contacts into groups, add notes, reminders and tasks.

You can also create many views to go through your contacts. There’s a spreadsheet-like view, a kanban view, a calendar view and even a space view so that you can create table layouts for an event.

It’s also worth noting that eFounders CEO Thibaud Elziere is also going to be the CEO of Folk.

Once

Once is a new take on visual presentations. It lets you create stories using a drag-and-drop interface and generate a link to send your stories to your customers. Once supports everything you’d expect from an Instagram story, such as images, text, polls and sliders.

You can also embed tweets, YouTube videos or Goole Maps addresses in your stories. The best part is that users don’t need to download an app or follow a brand on Instagram. It works in your mobile browser.

Posted Under: Tech News
Cyber-skills platform Immersive Labs raises $40M in North America expansion

Posted by on 6 November, 2019

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Immersive Labs, a cybersecurity skills platform, has raised $40 million in its Series B, the company’s second round of funding this year following an $8 million Series A in January.

Summit Partners led the fundraise with Goldman Sachs participating, the Bristol, U.K.-based company confirmed.

Immersive, led by former GCHQ cybersecurity instructor James Hadley, helps corporate employees learn new security skills by using real, up-to-date threat intelligence in a “gamified” way. Its cybersecurity learning platform uses a variety of techniques and psychology to build up immersive and engaging cyber war games to help IT and security teams learn. The platform aims to help users better understand cybersecurity threats, like detecting and understanding phishing and malware reverse-engineering.

It’s a new take on cybersecurity education, which the company’s founder and chief executive Hadley said the ever-evolving threat landscape has made traditional classroom training “obsolete.”

“It creates knowledge gaps that increase risk, offer vulnerabilities and present opportunities for attackers,” said Hadley.

The company said it will use the round to expand further into the U.S. and Canadian markets from its North American headquarters in Boston, MA.

Since its founding in 2017, Immersive already has big customers to its name, including Bank of Montreal and Citigroup, on top of its U.K. customers, including BT, the National Health Service, and London’s Metropolitan Police.

Goldman Sachs, an investor and customer, said it was “impressed” by Immersive’s achievements so far.

“The platform is continually evolving as new features are developed to help address the gap in cyber skills that is impacting companies and governments across the globe,” said James Hayward, the bank’s executive director.

Immersive said it has 750% year-over-year growth in annual recurring revenues and over 100 employees across its offices.

Posted Under: Tech News
Neo4j introduces new cloud service to simplify building a graph database

Posted by on 6 November, 2019

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Neo4j, a popular graph database, is available as an open source product for anyone to download and use. Its enterprise product aimed at larger organizations is growing fast, but the company recognized there was a big market in between those two extremes, and today it introduced a new managed cloud service called Aura.

They wanted something in the product family for smaller companies, says Emil Eifrem, CEO and co-founder at Neo4j . Aura really gives these smaller players a much more manageable offering with flexible pricing options. “To get started with an enterprise project can run hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Whereas with Aura, you can get started for about 50 bucks a month, and that means that it opens it up to new segments of the market,” Eifrem told TechCrunch. As he points out, even a startup on a shoe-string budget can afford $50 a month.

Aura operates on a flexible pricing model, and offers the kind of value proposition you would expect from a cloud version of the product. The company deals with all of the management, security and updates for you. It will also scale as needed to meet your data requirements as you grow. The idea is to allow developers to concentrate on simply building applications and let Neo4j deal the database for you.

He says over time, he could see larger businesses, who don’t want to deal with the management side of developing a graph database application also using the cloud product. “Why would you want to operate your own database? You should probably focus on your core business and building applications to support that core business,” he said. But he recognizes change happens slowly in larger organizations, and not every business will be comfortable with a managed service. That’s why they are offering different options to meet different requirements.

Graph databases allow you to see connections between data. It is the underlying technology, for example, in a social networking app, that lets you the connection between people you know and people your friends know. It is also the technology on an e-commerce site that can offer recommendations based on what you bought before because people who buy a certain product are more likely to purchase other related products.

Posted Under: Tech News
Coveo raises $227M at $1B+ valuation for AI-based enterprise search and personalization

Posted by on 6 November, 2019

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Search and personalization services continue to be a major area of investment among enterprises, both to make their products and services more discoverable (and used) by customers, and to help their own workers get their jobs done, with the market estimated to be worth some $100 billion annually. Today, one of the big startups building services in this area raised a large round of growth funding to continue tapping that opportunity. Coveo, a Canadian company that builds search and personalisation services powered by artificial intelligence — used by its enterprise customers by way of clould-based, software-as-a-service — has closed a $227 million round, which CEO Louis Tetu tells me values the company at “well above” $1 billion, “Canadian or US dollars.”

The round is being led by Omers Capital Private Growth Equity Group, the investing arm of the Canadian pensions giant that makes large, later-stage bets (the company has been stepping up the pace of investments lately), with participation also from Evergreen Coast Capital, FSTQ, and IQ Ventures. Evergreen led the company’s last round of $100 million in April 2018, and in total the company has now raised just over $402 million with this round.

The $1 billion+ valuation appears to be a huge leap in the context of Coveo’s funding history: in that last round, it had a post-money valuation of about $370 million, according to PitchBook data.

Part of the reason for that is because of Coveo’s business trajectory, and part is due to the heat of the overall market.

Coveo’s round is coming about two weeks after another company that builds enterprise search solutions, Algolia, raised $110 million. The two aim at slightly different ends of the market, Tetu tells me, not directly competing in terms of target customers, and even services. “Algolia is in a different zip code,” he said. Good thing, too, if that’s the case: Salesforce — which is one of Coveo’s biggest partners and customers — was also a strategic investor in the Algolia round. Even if these two do not compete, there are plenty of others vying for the same end of the enterprise search and personalization continuum — they include Google, Microsoft, Elastic, IBM, Lucidworks, and many more. That, again, underscores the size of the market opportunity.

In terms of Coveo’s own business, the company works with some 500 customers today and says SaaS subscription revenues grew more than 55 percent year-over-year this year. Five hundred may sound like a small number, but it covers a lot of very large enterprises spanning web-facing businesses, commerce-based organizations, service-facing companies, and enterprise solutions.

In addition to Salesforce, it includes Visa, Tableau (also Salesforce now!), Honeywell, a Fortune 50 healthcare company (whose name is not getting disclosed), and what Tetu described to me as an Amazon competitor that does $21 billion in sales annually but doesn’t want to be named.

Coveo’s basic selling point is that the better discoverability and personalization that it provides helps its customers avoid as many call-center interactions (reducing operating expenditures), improving sales (boosting conversions and reducing cart abandonment), and help companies themselves just work faster.

“We believe that Coveo is the market leader in leveraging data and AI to personalize at scale,” said Mark Shulgan, Managing Director and Head of Growth Equity at Omers, in a statement. “Coveo fits our investment thesis precisely: an A-plus leadership team with deep expertise in enterprise SaaS, a Fortune 1000 customer base who deeply love the product, and a track record of high growth in a market worth over $100 billion. This makes Coveo a highly-coveted asset. We are glad to be partnering to scale this business.”

Alongside business development on its own steam, the company is going to be using this funding for acquisitions. Tetu notes that Coveo still has a lot of money in the bank from previous rounds.

“We are a real company with real positive economics,” he said. “This round is mostly to have dry powder to invest in a way that is commensurate in the AI space, and within commerce in particular.” To get the ball rolling on that, this past July, Coveo acquired Tooso, a specialist in AI-based digital commerce technology.

Posted Under: Tech News
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