Dec
17
2018
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The Mom Project, a job site for moms returning to work, nabs $8M from Initialized and more

If you are a mother who has taken a break from full-time employment to raise kids, you may have also experienced the challenge that is jumping back into the working world after your break.

You may find you need more time flexibility; you have been out of the job market for years and so your confidence is knocked; your skills are no longer as relevant as they were before; or you just want to rethink your career; plus many employers — whether they say it or not — seem less interested in you because of all of the above, and no level of burnishing your resume on LinkedIn will help. It can be tough (and I say that from first-hand experience).

Now, Chicago-based startup The Mom Project, a platform specifically built to help female knowledge workers find jobs after pausing to raise kids, has raised a little egg of its own to take on this challenge. It’s picked up a Series A of $8 million that it plans to use to bring its job marketplace to more cities — it’s currently in Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco — and to expand the kinds of services it offers to make the challenge of juggling work and parenthood easier.

The funding is being led by Grotech Ventures and Initialized Capital, with another new investor, Aspect Ventures, and previous backers Atlanta Seed Company, Engage Ventures, OCA Ventures, BBG Ventures, IrishAngels and Wintrust Financial also participating.

This brings the total raised by The Mom Project to $11 million, and with 75,000 registered moms and 1,000 companies, including Procter & Gamble, BP, Miller Coors and AT&T, the startup claims it’s now the largest platform of its kind in the U.S.

From selling diapers to changing diapers

Allison Robinson, the founder and CEO of The Mom Project, said she came up with the idea for the startup in 2016, when she was on maternity leave from a strategy role at Pampers.

“I started realising a lot about moms before I became one,” she says about her last role before striking out as an entrepreneur. “But what I hadn’t understood until I was on maternity leave myself was that your priorities can change after having a child.” (She’s pictured up above with her son.)

Citing a study she’d seen in the Harvard Business Review that estimated 43 percent of skilled women exit the workforce after having children, Robinson realised there was a gap in the market for those among them who had timed out from returning to their previous roles, but still wanted to make the leap back into working at some point.

And she has a point: Not only do people who decide they want to return to work face all of the usual issues of newly needing more time flexibility, wondering whether their skills are still current enough, general confidence and so on, but the average recruitment process, and job sites overall, do not really have ways to account for any of that very well.

And the gap exists on the employer side of the marketplace, too. Businesses — both large corporates very much in the public eye as well as smaller businesses that are not — are rethinking how they hire and keep good people in the overall competition for talent. (Just this week, the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics said that the number of unfilled positions in the information and communication technology sector rose by 24.3 percent compared to last year in the country, a shortage that’s reflected in other markets.)

Having a diverse workforce — including more women and women from different walks of life — is key not only to helping counteract that, but to contribute to better overall work culture. That’s a fact that many employers have realised independently or have simply been thrown into the spotlight unwittingly and now are trying to repair.

And yet, there haven’t been many opportunities for them to pursue more diverse hiring practices.

LinkedIn recently made a tiny move into exploring diversity in hiring by at least allowing recruiters to search their job candidate results by gender, but this is a far cry from actually addressing the specific predicaments that particular segments of the working population have, and how to help them connect better with employers who might be keen to bring more of them on through recruitment.

In fact, the idea of providing improved job search for knowledge workers in specific cases is actually a very interesting one that shows there is definitely still room for innovation in the world of recruitment: Handshake earlier this year raised $40 million for its own take on this, which is providing a better LinkedIn-style platform to connect minority university graduates with interesting job opportunities at companies keen to make their workforces more diverse.

“Companies have started to realize the value in building a diverse workforce, but we still have a long way to go in achieving equal representation and opportunities,” said Julia Taxin, a partner at Grotech and new Mom Project board member. “Allison and her team have built an incredible marketplace of diverse talent for companies and I look forward to working with The Mom Project to execute on their vision of helping to close the gender gap in the workplace.”

The Mom Project, Robinson said, is tackling the challenges at both ends of the spectrum.

On the employer side, she said there is a lot of educating going on, talking to HR people and getting them to understand the opportunity they could unlock by hiring more parents — which tend to be almost entirely all-women, but sometimes men, too.

“We want to provide more data to these companies,” she said, pointing out that it’s not just a matter of providing a job opportunity, but also giving parents options in areas like childcare, or flexible working schedules. “We want to show them ‘here is where you are doing well, and here is where you are not. Fixes don’t cost a lot of money, but a lot of companies are just not aware.”

“We’ve got 75,000 women on our platform, and currently around 1,000 companies posting jobs,” she said. “The goal is to have 75,000-plus jobs. We want to make sure that all the moms signing up on the platform are getting work.”

“The Mom Project is determined to create a future where women aren’t forced to choose between their families and their careers,” said Alda Leu Dennis, partner at Initialized Capital and new Mom Project board member, in a statement. “There is a huge pool of experienced talent, parents and non-parents, that is sometimes overlooked because companies haven’t created the kind of diverse, flexible workplace culture that attracts and retains them. Initialized wants to be part of making this cultural shift happen.”

On the parent side, not only is it also about making the platform known to people who are considering a return to work, but it’s also about some fundamental, but very important basics, such as giving would-be jobseekers the flexibility to go to interviews. Robinson said that one campaign it’s about to launch, in partnership with Urban Sitter, is to provide free childcare credits to Mom Project jobseekers so that they can get to their interview.

“Sometimes you have to go to an interview with 24 hours’ notice, and lining up a sitter can be stressful,” she said. “We want to alleviate that.”

Parents also know that this isn’t just an issue for the interview: Many towns and regions have what Robinson called “childcare deserts,” where there is a scarcity of affordable options to replace the parent on a more daily basis.

Contract work is king (and queen)

For now, Robinson said that the majority of jobs on the platform are focused on fixed-term employment — that is, not permanent, full-time work.

This is due to a number of reasons. For example, parents coming back to working after a break may be more inclined to ease in with shorter roles and less long-term commitment. And employers are still testing out how this demographic of workers will work out, so to speak. Equally, though, we have seen a huge swing in more general employment trends, where businesses are hiring fixed-term workers rather than full-time employees to account for seasonality and to give themselves more flexibility (not to mention less liability on the benefits front).

While Robinson said that the aim is definitely to bring more full-time job opportunities to the platform over time, this has nonetheless presented an interesting business opportunity to The Mom Project. The startup acts like Airbnb, Amazon and a number of other marketplaces, where it not only connects job-seekers and employers, but also then handles all the transactions around the job. When the job is fixed-term, the Mom Project essentially becomes like the job agency paying the employee, and that is how it makes a cut. And it also becomes the provider of benefits and more.

In other words, while there is an immediate opportunity for The Mom Project to compete against (or at least win some business from) the likes of LinkedIn to target the specific opportunity of providing jobs for women returning to work, there is a potentially and equally big one in becoming a one-stop employment shop to handle customers’ other needs as employers or workers, providing a range of other services, from payroll through to childcare listings and more.

Dec
11
2018
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TechSee nabs $16M for its customer support solution built on computer vision and AR

Chatbots and other AI-based tools have firmly found footing in the world of customer service, used either to augment or completely replace the role of a human responding to questions and complaints, or (sometimes, annoyingly, at the same time as the previous two functions) sell more products to users.

Today, an Israeli startup called TechSee is announcing $16 million in funding to help build out its own twist on that innovation: an AI-based video service, which uses computer vision, augmented reality and a customer’s own smartphone camera to provide tech support to customers, either alongside assistance from live agents, or as part of a standalone customer service “bot.”

Led by Scale Venture Partners — the storied investor that has been behind some of the bigger enterprise plays of the last several years (including Box, Chef, Cloudhealth, DataStax, Demandbase, DocuSign, ExactTarget, HubSpot, JFrog and fellow Israeli AI assistance startup WalkMe), the Series B also includes participation from Planven Investments, OurCrowd, Comdata Group and Salesforce Ventures. (Salesforce was actually announced as a backer in October.)

The funding will be used both to expand the company’s current business as well as move into new product areas like sales.

Eitan Cohen, the CEO and co-founder, said that the company today provides tools to some 15,000 customer service agents and counts companies like Samsung and Vodafone among its customers across verticals like financial services, tech, telecoms and insurance.

The potential opportunity is big: Cohen estimates there are about 2 million customer service agents in the U.S., and about 14 million globally.

TechSee is not disclosing its valuation. It has raised around $23 million to date.

While TechSee provides support for software and apps, its sweet spot up to now has been providing video-based assistance to customers calling with questions about the long tail of hardware out in the world, used for example in a broadband home Wi-Fi service.

In fact, Cohen said he came up with the idea for the service when his parents phoned him up to help them get their cable service back up, and he found himself challenged to do it without being able to see the set-top box to talk them through what to do.

So he thought about all the how-to videos that are on platforms like YouTube and decided there was an opportunity to harness that in a more organised way for the companies providing an increasing array of kit that may never get the vlogger treatment.

“We are trying to bring that YouTube experience for all hardware,” he said in an interview.

The thinking is that this will become a bigger opportunity over time as more services get digitised, the cost of components continues to come down and everything becomes “hardware.”

“Tech may become more of a commodity, but customer service does not,” he added. “Solutions like ours allow companies to provide low-cost technology without having to hire more people to solve issues [that might arise with it.]”

The product today is sold along two main trajectories: assisting customer reps; and providing unmanned video assistance to replace some of the easier and more common questions that get asked.

In cases where live video support is provided, the customer opts in for the service, similar to how she or he might for a support service that “takes over” the device in question to diagnose and try to fix an issue. Here, the camera for the service becomes a customer’s own phone.

Over time, that live assistance is used in two ways that are directly linked to TechSee’s artificial intelligence play. First, it helps to build up TechSee’s larger back catalogue of videos, where all identifying characteristics are removed with the focus solely on the device or problem in question. Second, the experience in the video is also used to build TechSee’s algorithms for future interactions. Cohen said there are now “millions” of media files — images and videos — in the company’s catalogue.

The effectiveness of its system so far has been pretty impressive. TechSee’s customers — the companies running the customer support — say they have on average seen a 40 percent increase in customer satisfaction (NPS scores), a 17 percent decrease in technician dispatches and between 20 and 30 percent increase in first-call resolutions, depending on the industry.

TechSee is not the only company that has built a video-based customer engagement platform: others include Stryng, CallVU and Vee24. And you could imagine companies like Amazon — which is already dabbling in providing advice to customers based on what its Echo Look can see — might be interested in providing such services to users across the millions of products that it sells, as well as provide that as a service to third parties.

According to Cohen, what TechSee has going for it compared to those startups, and also the potential entry of companies like Microsoft or Amazon into the mix, is a head start on raw data and a vision of how it will be used by the startup’s AI to build the business.

“We believe that anyone who wants to build this would have a challenge making it from scratch,” he said. “This is where we have strong content, millions of images, down to specific model numbers, where we can provide assistance and instructions on the spot.”

Salesforce’s interest in the company, he said, is a natural progression of where that data and customer relationship can take a business beyond responsive support into areas like quick warranty verification (for all those times people have neglected to do a product registration), snapping fender benders for insurance claims and of course upselling to other products and services.

“Salesforce sees the synergies between the sales cloud and the service cloud,” Cohen said.

“TechSee recognized the great potential for combining computer vision AI with augmented reality in customer engagement,” said Andy Vitus, partner at Scale Venture Partners, who joins the board with this round. “Electronic devices become more complex with every generation, making their adoption a perennial challenge. TechSee is solving a massive problem for brands with a technology solution that simplifies the customer experience via visual and interactive guidance.”

Nov
13
2018
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Sojern raises another $120M led by TCV to expand its travel marketing platform

Travel continues to be one of the biggest verticals online, projected to be worth over $1 trillion by 2022, and today a startup that helps travel-related businesses connect the dots between their products and would-be customers is raising a large round of funding to capitalise on that.

Sojern, a company that works with businesses in the travel industry — hotels, airlines, tourist agencies, booking portals and others — to build and run campaigns to find and market their services to people as they are planning travel, is today announcing that it has raised another $120 million in funding at a valuation of over $300 million.

Sojern started out life in 2007 putting ads on boarding passes, but today its reach covers a much wider terrain in the search for relevant and interested “eyeballs”. Typical media it targets marketing to today includes native advertising; display, mobile and video ads; and social media. But in an interview, CEO Mark Rabe said that the plan for the funding will be to expand to more “emerging” platforms, like connected TV (where it’s already active).

“Our plan is to continue expanding solutions for existing clients as well as accelerate into developing markets like local tourism and attractions,” he said. “Overall we want to keep proving our performance as a late-stage, high-growth company with expanding profit margins and cash flow.”

The round, a Series D, is being led by TCV (Technology Crossover Ventures), a key and potentially very strategic investor since TCV has a long history of backing large travel and marketing startups, including Airbnb, Expedia, HomeAway, TripAdvisor, SiteMinder, ExactTarget, Act-On and Ariba, some of which already work with Sojern, and some who well might work with it in the future.

Other investors are not being disclosed, but Sojern has previously had backing from Norwest Venture Partners, Trident, Treeptop and other VCs; and also has a list of strategic partners, with some holding equity stakes in the business, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and US Airways.

(As we’ve pointed out before, the relationship it has with some of these stems back to the founding of the company, and part of what airlines, for example, receive is a cut on the advertising revenues that appear on their boarding passes.)

Prior to this latest round, Sojern had raised some $42.5 million. Rabe said that the company is not disclosing its valuation with this round, but as a guide, he noted that the company has been profitable for the last 13 quarters and it crossed a $100 million run rate in 2017. Also of note: Sojern’s last valuation was $158 million after raising a round in 2013, according to PitchBook, so — at a very conservative estimate — its valuation post-money is around $280 million. (But my guess is that it is higher considering Sojern’s growth and profitability, and a source has confirmed that it is definitely above $300 million.)

“We’re going after a total addressable market that we believe is at least $100 billion,” he said, citing a combination of the dollars travel brands are spending in digital and programmatic advertising worth roughly $20 billion and what they’re paying to online intermediaries in the distribution markets worth $80 billion. “So far we’ve driven over $13 billion in bookings for our clients, and we aren’t slowing down anytime soon,” he added.

The company competes not just with other companies big in advertising like Google (which itself has made a very big play to do more specifically in the travel search vertical) but also other companies working in the big data-fuelled analytics space as it interests with the world of travel marketing, such as Adara.

Rabe believes Sojern is unique in the space. “We don’t see anyone out there delivering direct bookings in travel at this scale, and doing it successfully across the industry from the biggest enterprise brands all the way down to independent properties and local tourism providers,” he said.

“When we think about the competitive set, we’re looking at companies with proven business models demonstrating that they can deliver strong results at scale and retain clients over the long term. And what’s become clear is that today’s independent adtech and martech companies have to differentiate to provide value. Because Sojern has been focused on travel from the very beginning, we understand the challenges and complexities of the industry and offer more specialized solutions than a generalist player ever could.”

The predicament that it is addressing remains a messy one: from every segment of the market — from luxury down to budget travellers — we as consumers are spoiled for choice these days when it comes to thinking not just of where and how we might want to travel, but also how to find the best deals and options that match what we want to do. On the side of suppliers, they are all scrambling to connect with their would-be customers before someone else does.

Sojern says that its wider database and reach covers some 350 million travellers, making it one of the more accurate platforms to identifying and connecting with those users.

Interestingly, this could potentially one day get applied to more than just travel, but maybe not for Sojern.

“I get asked this question a lot,” Rabe said when I asked him about expanding to other areas. “But what people don’t often realize is that the travel and tourism industry is actually the largest industry in the world. Conservatively we believe our immediate total addressable market is $100 billion, and on top of that the overall industry is growing with digital continuing to pull share from offline transaction channels like phone and traditional travel agencies.”

That focus is also what attracted TCV, it seems.

“We have been watching Sojern’s rapid rise in the travel technology space for several years, and we were impressed with Sojern’s leadership position in the space and its unique, scalable model for influencing travelers worldwide,” said Woody Marshall of TCV in a statement.

“Sojern’s ability to both conceptualize a better marketing experience for travel organizations and their steady execution over the past decade, as well as their innovative business strategy, strong executive team, and inspiring company culture made them a natural fit for us.” Marshall is joining the board with this round.

Just as the market for travel services continues to boom, so do those startups that are best placed to meet that demand, collectively hundreds of millions of dollars in the last five years. Among the range of travel startups focusing specifically on helping connect intent to travel with ideas of where you can spend your money, other notable rounds have included TripActions raising $154 million earlier this month, CultureTrip raising $80 million earlier this year, and Airbnb raising $1 billion last year.

Updated with updated revenue figures and customer / investor names

Nov
02
2018
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Dynamic Yield, which builds Amazon-like personalisation for the rest of us, raises $38M

Amazon, one of the world’s largest companies, has transformed the face of commerce in part because it has managed at once to be “The Everything Store” but still with a route into its sea of products that, for most users, surfaces what they might most want to see (and importantly buy or consume). That kind of personalisation has become a goal not just for e-commerce companies, but for any organization running a digital business: users are constantly distracted, and when their attention is caught, they do not want to spend time figuring out what they most want.

Not every business is Amazon, though, so we are seeing a crop of startups emerging that are working on ways to help the rest of the digital world be just as optimised and personalised as Amazon. Now one of them, an Israeli startup called Dynamic Yield, has raised more money as it continues to expand its business, both to more platforms and to more geographies.

The startup’s Series D has now closed off at $38 million, with the inclusion of a $5 million strategic investment from Naver, Korea’s “Google” (it’s the country’s top search portal) that is also behind messaging apps Line and Snow. The plan is for Naver to help bring Dynamic Yield to Korea and Japan, by incorporating its tech into its own services and those of others that work with Naver.

(Personalisation and aggregators are strong magnets for users in Asia and thus big magnets for funding: ByteDance, which provides news aggregation among other services, was recently valued at $75 billion.)

Naver is not the only search engine that has caught sight of Dynamic Yield over the years. Previous investors include Baidu (“the Google of China”), and we’ve heard that when the startup was younger — it was founded in 2011 — Google had tried to acquire it (Dynamic Yield rejected the offer, and it’s been approached for acquisitions numerous times since then).

Other strategic investors include The New York Times and Deutsche Telekom, alongside other backers like Innovation Endeavors, Bessemer Venture Partners, Marker Capital and more.

Dynamic Yield has raised $85 million to date and is now valued at “hundreds of millions of dollars,” but less than $500 million, a source at the company said, after seeing a strong expansion of its services. 

Dynamic Yield says it works with more than 220 global brands, and its tech reaches 600 million unique users each month, across 10 billion page views and 600 billion “events” on those pages. It claims its AI-based personalisation technology can lift revenues (or other engagement metrics) by 10-15 percent. 

“It makes us an effective tool for surviving in a market where customer acquisition cost keeps getting more expensive,” co-founder and CEO Liad Agmon said in an interview.

Dynamic Yield doesn’t talk about many of its customers on the record — most don’t like to reveal to rivals who they work with, Agmon said.

But they include a number of big brands across e-commerce, travel, finance, media and other segments that use its tech not just to show more targeted products to prospective shoppers, but to help power advertising, recommend content and position the same information to different people in different ways depending on who is viewing it (for example with different headlines).

There are a lot of personalisation and A/B analytics companies in the market today — others include Adobe, Marketo (which is becoming a part of Adobe), Optimizely and many more. Indeed, I’d be very surprised if Amazon is not working on ways of productising its own personalisation tech in a way that is not intrinsically linked to its own marketplace (because some will never want to sell there, and because personalisation can be used for so much more than just e-commerce).

Dynamic Yield, however, claims that it has an edge over these because of how it works.

Agmon says that the tech sits on top of whichever CMS or other backend server that a site is using and is activated by way of a small amount of code. It uses machine learning to both “read” what is in a site, and matches that up against specific visitors and its own trove of experience.

Agmon added that when a business already has information about that visitor, that is the primary data that is used; otherwise it also incorporates other data sources like Acxiom and others — much the way that other marketing tech does — to form a stronger picture of your tastes.

It then runs this data through its own machine learning algorithms both to recommend content and to help a marketing manager figure out better customer segmentation overall. There is an “autopilot” version of the product where everything is automated based on Dynamic Yield’s algorithms; or options to use the data sources to set up specific marketing campaigns; or (as is common) a combination of the two.

Going forward, Agmon said the plan is to work across an increasing number of interfaces where customers are going today to discover and buy goods and services. Indeed, we’ve described how some of the newest e-commerce startups have eschewed any website or app of their own and work exclusively in third-party messaging apps to acquire customers and sell goods.

But it’s not just these new digital platforms that are becoming targets for personalisation startups like Dynamic Yield.

Agmon said that his company is also working with a major retailer that is using its tech at its in-person payment points. When — for example — a customer comes to order a latte, instead of generic upselling to the latest seasonal flavour, the person taking the order will now know if the customer ever orders a sweet injection, or if she/he is more of a savoury snack sort of person. The cashier will then know what to recommend to eat with that drink that is more likely to be purchased.

The mom-and-pop shop with its reputation for knowing the regulars and what they like might have found its dystopian (but useful) heir.

Nov
01
2018
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Retail-as-a-service provider Leap raises $3M and launches first store

The past decade in retail has been the golden age of direct-to-consumer (D2C) and digitally native vertical brands (DNVBs) that use the internet to communicate with customers, execute transactions, handle distribution and offer better economics.

But as small independent startups have scaled into unicorn territory and as countless brands have saturated digital channels, customer acquisition has gotten harder and costlier. Companies are now trying to meet customers with different purchase habits by developing physical stores. 

However, building an effective brick-and-mortar presence can be expensive and risky for DNVBs, requiring resources outside their core competencies. Chicago-based startup Leap is hoping to make it easier for digital brands to grow physical retail footprints without the typical risks of store development by taking care of the entire process for them.

Leap offers a full-service platform covering the complete life cycle of a brand’s brick-and-mortar launch.  In addition to owning the lease and the financial commitments that come with it, Leap covers everything from staffing, experiential design, tech integration and even day-to-day operations. 

(Photo by Alexander Scheuber/Getty Images)

Less than a year since its founding, Leap announced today the launch of its first store and the close of a $3 million seed round, led by Costanoa Ventures, with participation from Equal Ventures and Brand Foundry Ventures.

The debut store will act as the first Chicago location for Koio, the high-end D2C sneaker brand backed by headline-grabbing names like the Winklevoss twins, director Simon Kinberg and actor Miles Teller. 

Instead of paying a monthly lease fee, along with all the other variable costs associated with operating a physical store, companies like Koio pay Leap on a percent of sales basis, effectively minimizing risk and incentivizing performance. 

On top of minimizing development expense for brands, Leap believes its customer insights and intelligent logistics platform can help improve shopper engagement, increase customer traffic and drive brand lift. If the startup’s thesis proves true, brands can improve both sides of their brick-and-mortar unit economics by reducing customer acquisition costs and amplifying customer value.

At its core, Leap simplifies a DNVB’s physical retail operations into a single line item on its P&L, allowing the company to focus on brand building and supply chain rather than retail strategy, while also allowing them to scale faster. 

With the latest fundraise, the company hopes to build out its team and continue new location expansion.  Longer-term, Leap’s co-founders hope to build a vast network of sites that can help provide intelligence around new store development and shopper preference.

“We want to be the platform to help brands go to market in the offline space”, said co-founder Amish Tolia.  “We want to help brands build direct-to-consumer relationships in local neighborhoods across the country and enable them to focus on what they’re best at. Enable them to focus on product innovation, supply chain management, great marketing and brand building.”

A glimpse into the future retail

While Leap’s value proposition is straightforward, its business model points to a bigger trend in the world of retail.  

By opting to sell its software and brick-and-mortar services rather than creating its own brands, Leap effectively acts as a “retail-as-a-service” platform. The as-a-service strategy is already quietly growing in popularity in the retail space, with companies like b8ta, the Internet of Things gadget retailer, launching its hardware-oriented “Built by b8ta” platform earlier this year.

Though likely heavy in upfront capital costs, retail-as-a-service businesses don’t have the same constant concern around supply chain, manufacturing, consumer acquisition and marketing spend. And in certain pricing models based on a monthly fee or percent of square footage basis, platforms can see more stable revenues relative to pure retail startups.

From a brand perspective, DNVBs have been looking for ways to extend growth runways while minimizing the cost and uncertainty that deterred them from physical stores in the first place. The as-a-service model can make brick-and-mortar retail a much more scalable engine, possibly even cooling rising concern around bubbling consumer valuations.

As more of the young digitally born D2C giants resort to as-a-service companies to find marginal customers, we may see the rise of a new set of startups fighting to establish themselves as the platform on which brands operate.

If the last decade was defined by retail online, it’s possible that the next decade will be defined by retail-as-a-service.

And if you find yourself in Chicago, feel free to check out the Leap-enabled Koio Store at 924 W Armitage in Lincoln Park.

Oct
11
2018
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Zuora partners with Amazon Pay to expand subscription billing options

Zuora, the SaaS company helping organizations manage payments for subscription businesses, announced today that it had been selected as a Premier Partner in the Amazon Pay Global Partner Program. 

The “Premier Partner” distinction means businesses using Zuora’s billing platform can now easily integrate Amazon’s digital payment system as an option during checkout or recurring payment processes. 

The strategic rationale for Zuora is clear, as the partnership expands the company’s product offering to prospective and existing customers.  The ability to support a wide array of payment methodologies is a key value proposition for subscription businesses that enables them to service a larger customer base and provide a more seamless customer experience.

It also doesn’t hurt to have a deep-pocketed ally like Amazon in a fairly early-stage industry.  With omnipotent tech titans waging war over digital payment dominance, Amazon has reportedly doubled down on efforts to spread Amazon Pay usage, cutting into its own margins and offering incentives to retailers.

As adoption of Amazon Pay spreads, subscription businesses will be compelled to offer the service as an available payment option and Zuora should benefit from supporting early billing integration.

For Amazon Pay, teaming up with Zuora provides direct access to Zuora’s customer base, which caters to tens of millions of subscribers. 

With Zuora minimizing the complexity of adding additional payment options, which can often disrupt an otherwise unobtrusive subscription purchase experience, the partnership with Zuora should help spur Amazon Pay adoption and reduce potential friction.

“By extending the trust and convenience of the Amazon experience to Zuora, merchants around the world can now streamline the subscription checkout experience for their customers,” said Vice President of Amazon Pay, Patrick Gauthier.  “We are excited to be working with Zuora to accelerate the Amazon Pay integration process for their merchants and provide a fast, simple and secure payment solution that helps grow their business.”

The world subscribed

The collaboration with Amazon Pay represents another milestone for Zuora, which completed its IPO in April of this year and is now looking to further differentiate its offering from competing in-house systems or large incumbents in the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) space, such as Oracle or SAP.   

Going forward, Zuora hopes to play a central role in ushering a broader shift towards a subscription-based economy. 

Tien Tzuo, founder and CEO of Zuora, told TechCrunch he wants the company to help businesses first realize they should be in the subscription economy and then provide them with the resources necessary to flourish within it.

“Our vision is the world subscribed.”  said Tzuo. “We want to be the leading company that has the right technology platform to get companies to be successful in the subscription economy.”

The partnership will launch with publishers “The Seattle Times” and “The Telegraph”, with both now offering Amazon Pay as a payment method while running on the Zuora platform.

Oct
05
2018
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Salesforce acquires Rebel, maker of ‘interactive’ email services, to expand its Marketing Cloud

Salesforce’s Marketing and Commerce Cloud is the company’s smallest division today, so to help beef it up, the company is making an acquisition to add in more features. Salesforce has acquired Rebel, a startup that develops interactive email services for businesses to enhance their direct marketing services: recipients of interactive emails can write reviews, shop and take other actions without leaving the messages to do so.

In an announcement on Rebel’s site, the startup said it will be joining Salesforce’s Marketing Cloud operation, which will integrate Rebel’s API-based services into its platform.

“With Rebel’s Mail and API solutions, brands, including Dollar Shave Club, L’Oreal and HelloFresh, turn emails into an extension of their website or app – collecting data, removing friction from the conversion process, and enhancing the customer experience. Rebel will enhance the power of Salesforce Marketing Clod and fundamentally change the way people interact with email,” the founders note.

That makes it sound as if the company’s existing business will be wound down as part of the move, although Salesforce and Rebel are not specifically commenting on that yet, and so customers haven’t been informed yet one way or the other.

Terms of the deal have not been disclosed in the Rebel announcement. We have contacted both the startup and Salesforce for further comment and to ask about the price. To date, Rebel — co-founded originally as Rebelmail by Joe Teplow and Trever Faden — had raised only about $3 million, with investors including Lerer Hippeau, Sinai Ventures, David Tisch, Gary Vaynerchuk, and others, so if the deal size is equally small, Salesforce likely will not be disclosing it.

Salesforce has made a number of acquisitions to build and expand its marketing services to compete with Adobe and others. Perhaps most notable of these was buying ExactTarget, one of its biggest-ever acquisitions, for $2.5 billion in 2013. (And according to some, it even wanted to buy Adobe at one point.) Competition has been heating up between the two, with Adobe most recently snapping up Marketo for $4.75 billion.

But on the other hand, marketing is currently Saleforce’s smallest division. It pulled in $452 million in revenues last quarter, putting it behind revenues for Sales Cloud ($1 billion), Service Cloud ($892 million) and Salesforce Platform ($712 million). Adding in interactive email functionality isn’t likely to float Marketing and Commerce Cloud to the top of that list, but it does show that Salesforce is trying to improve its products with more functionality for would-be and current customers.

Those customers have a lot of options these days, though, in targeting their own customers with rich email services. Microsoft and Google have both started to add in a lot more features into their own email products, with Outlook and Gmail supporting things like in-email payments and more. There are ways of building such solutions through your current direct marketing providers, or now directly using other avenues.

What will be interesting to see is whether Rebel continues to integrate with the plethora of email service providers it currently works with, or if Salesforce will keep the functionality for itself. Today Rebel’s partners include Oracle, SendGrid, Adobe, IBM, SailThru and, yes, Salesforce.

We’ll update this post as we learn more.

Sep
10
2018
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Adobe looks to AI to lift customer experience business

For years, marketers have been trying to optimize the online shopping experience to better understand their customers and deliver more customized interactions that ultimately drive more sales. Artificial intelligence was supposed to accelerate that, and today Adobe announced enhancements to Adobe Target and Adobe Experience Manager that attempt to deliver at least partly on that promise.

Adobe has been trying to lift the enterprise side of its business for some time, and even though they are well on their way to becoming a $10 billion company, the potential for even more revenue from the enterprise side of the business remains tantalizing. They are counting on AI to help push that along.

Adobe’s Loni Stark says companies are looking for more sophisticated solutions around customization and optimization. Part of that involves using Adobe’s intelligence layer, which they call Sensei, to help marketers as they tweak these programs to drive better experiences.

For starters, the company wants to help users choose the best algorithms for any given set of tasks. Adobe is bringing AI in to assist with a tool it released last year called Auto-Target. “One of the challenges marketers face has been which algorithms do you use, and how do you map them to your personalization strategy. We are enabling Adobe Sensei to choose the best algorithm for them.” She says giving them a smart assistant to help choose should make this task much less daunting for marketers.

Adobe is also bringing some smarts to layout design with a new tool called Smart Layouts, first introduced in March at Adobe Summit. The idea here is to deliver the right layout at any given time to allow marketing teams to scale personalization and increase the likelihood of action, which in marketing speak means buying something.

Once again the company is letting AI guide the process to generate different layouts automatically for different segments, depending on visitor behavior at any given moment. That means a retailer should be able to deliver ever more granular pages based on what it knows about visitors as they move through the shopping process. The more customized the experience, the more likely the shopper turns into a buyer.

Adobe is also looking at new delivery channels, particularly voice, as devices like the Amazon Alexa become increasingly popular. As with the web, mobile, print and other delivery approaches, marketers need to be able apply basic tasks like A/B testing on different voices or workflows, and the company is building these into their tools.

All of these new features are part of Adobe’s ongoing attempt to streamline its marketing tools to make life easier for its customers. By using artificial intelligence to help guide the workflow, they hope to drive more revenue from the digital experience side of the house. While these tools should help, Adobe still makes the vast majority of its money from Creative Cloud. The Digital segment still lags at $586 million (up 18 percent YoY) out of total quarterly revenue of 2.20 billion in the most recent report in June.

The company spent a hefty $1.68 billion in May to snag Magento. They are due to report their next quarterly report on September 18th, and it will be interesting to see if the Magento acquisition and increasing use of artificial intelligence can help continue to grow this side of the business.

Aug
15
2018
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To fight the scourge of open offices, ROOM sells rooms

Noisy open offices don’t foster collaboration, they kill it, according to a Harvard study that found the less-private floor plan led to a 73 percent drop in face-to-face interaction between employees and a rise in emailing. The problem is plenty of young companies and big corporations have already bought into the open office fad. But a new startup called ROOM is building a prefabricated, self-assembled solution. It’s the IKEA of office phone booths.

The $3,495 ROOM One is a sound-proofed, ventilated, powered booth that can be built in new or existing offices to give employees a place to take a video call or get some uninterrupted time to focus on work. For comparison, ROOM co-founder Morten Meisner-Jensen says, “Most phone booths are $8,000 to $12,000. The cheapest competitor to us is $6,000 — almost twice as much.” Though booths start at $4,500 from TalkBox and $3,995 from Zenbooth, they tack on $1,250 and $1,650 for shipping, while ROOM ships for free. They’re all dividing the market of dividing offices.

The idea might seem simple, but the booths could save businesses a ton of money on lost productivity, recruitment and retention if it keeps employees from going crazy amidst sales call cacophony. Less than a year after launch, ROOM has hit a $10 million revenue run rate thanks to 200 clients ranging from startups to Salesforce, Nike, NASA and JP Morgan. That’s attracted a $2 million seed round from Slow Ventures that adds to angel funding from Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen. “I am really excited about it since it is probably the largest revenue-generating company Slow has seen at the time of our initial Seed stage investment,” says partner Kevin Colleran.

“It’s not called ROOM because we build rooms,” Meisner-Jensen tells me. “It’s called ROOM because we want to make room for people, make room for privacy and make room for a better work environment.”

Phone booths, not sweatboxes

You might be asking yourself, enterprising reader, why you couldn’t just go to Home Depot, buy some supplies and build your own in-office phone booth for way less than $3,500. Well, ROOM’s co-founders tried that. The result was… moist.

Meisner-Jensen has design experience from the Danish digital agency Revolt that he started before co-founding digital book service Mofibo and selling it to Storytel. “In my old job we had to go outside and take the call, and I’m from Copenhagen, so that’s a pretty cold experience half the year.” His co-founder Brian Chen started Y Combinator-backed smart suitcase company Bluesmart, where he was VP of operations. They figured they could attack the office layout issue with hammers and saws. I mean, they do look like superhero alter-egos.

Room co-founders (from left): Brian Chen and Morten Meisner-Jensen

“To combat the issues I myself would personally encounter with open offices, as well as colleagues, we tried to build a private ‘phone booth’ ourselves,” says Meisner-Jensen. “We didn’t quite understand the specifics of air ventilation or acoustics at the time, so the booth got quite warm — warm enough that we coined it ‘the sweatbox.’ ”

With ROOM, they got serious about the product. The 10-square-foot ROOM One booth ships flat and can be assembled in less than 30 minutes by two people with a hex wrench. All it needs is an outlet to power its light and ventilation fan. Each is built from 1088 recycled plastic bottles for noise cancelling, so you’re not supposed to hear anything from outside. The box is 100 percent recyclable, plus it can be torn down and rebuilt if your startup implodes and you’re being evicted from your office.

The ROOM One features a bar-height desk with outlets and a magnetic bulletin board behind it, though you’ll have to provide your own stool. It’s actually designed not to be so comfy that you end up napping inside, which doesn’t seem like it’d be a problem with this somewhat cramped spot. “To solve the problem with noise at scale you want to provide people with space to take a call but not camp out all day,” Meisner-Jensen notes.

Booths by Zenbooth, Cubicall and TalkBox (from left)

A place to get into flow

Couldn’t office managers just buy noise-cancelling headphones for everyone? “It feels claustrophobic to me,” he laughs, but then outlines why a new workplace trend requires more than headphones. “People are doing video calls and virtual meetings much, much more. You can’t have all these people walking by you and looking at your screen. [A booth is] also giving you your own space to do your own work, which I don’t think you’d get from a pair of Bose. I think it has to be a physical space.”

But with plenty of companies able to construct physical spaces, it will be a challenge for ROOM to convey the subtleties of its build quality that warrant its price. “The biggest risk for ROOM right now are copycats,” Meisner-Jensen admits. “Someone entering our space claiming to do what we’re doing better but cheaper.” Alternatively, ROOM could lock in customers by offering a range of office furniture products. The co-founder hinted at future products, saying ROOM is already receiving demand for bigger multi-person prefab conference rooms and creative room divider solutions.

The importance of privacy goes beyond improved productivity when workers are alone. If they’re exhausted from overstimulation in a chaotic open office, they’ll have less energy for purposeful collaboration when the time comes. The bustle could also make them reluctant to socialize in off-hours, which could lead them to burn out and change jobs faster. Tech companies in particular are in a constant war for talent, and ROOM Ones could be perceived as a bigger perk than free snacks or a ping-pong table that only makes the office louder.

“I don’t think the solution is to go back to a world of cubicles and corner offices,” Meisner-Jensen concludes. It could take another decade for office architects to correct the overenthusiasm for open offices despite the research suggesting their harm. For now, ROOM’s co-founder is concentrating on “solving the issue of noise at scale” by asking, “How do we make the current workspaces work in the best way possible?”

Aug
01
2018
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WhatsApp finally earns money by charging businesses for slow replies

Today WhatsApp launches its first revenue-generating enterprise product and the only way it currently makes money directly from its app. The WhatsApp Business API is launching to let businesses respond to messages from users for free for up to 24 hours, but will charge them a fixed rate by country per message sent after that.

Businesses will still only be able to message people who contacted them first, but the API will help them programatically send shipping confirmations, appointment reminders or event tickets. Clients also can use it to manually respond to customer service inquiries through their own tool or apps like Zendesk, MessageBird or Twilio. And small businesses that are one of the 3 million users of the WhatsApp For Business app can still use it to send late replies one-by-one for free.

After getting acquired by Facebook for $19 billion in 2014, it’s finally time for the 1.5 billion-user WhatsApp to pull its weight and contribute some revenue. If Facebook can pitch the WhatsApp Business API as a cheaper alternative to customer service call centers, the convenience of asynchronous chat could compel users to message companies instead of phoning.

Only charging for slow replies after 24 hours since a user’s last message is a genius way to create a growth feedback loop. If users get quick answers via WhatsApp, they’ll prefer it to other channels. Once businesses and their customers get addicted to it, WhatsApp could eventually charge for all replies or any that exceed a volume threshold, or cut down the free window. Meanwhile, businesses might be too optimistic about their response times and end up paying more often than they expect, especially when messages come in on weekends or holidays.

WhatsApp first announced it would eventually charge for enterprise service last September when it launched its free WhatsApp For Business app that now has 3 million users and remains free for all replies, even late ones.

Importantly, WhatsApp stresses that all messaging between users and businesses, even through the API, will be end-to-end encrypted. That contrasts with The Washington Post’s report that Facebook pushing to weaken encryption for WhatsApp For Business messages is partly what drove former CEO Jan Koum to quit WhatsApp and Facebook’s board in April. His co-founder, Brian Acton, had ditched Facebook back in September and donated $50 million to the foundation of encrypted messaging app Signal.

Today WhatsApp is also formally launching its new display ads product worldwide. But don’t worry, they won’t be crammed into your chat inbox like with Facebook Messenger. Instead, businesses will be able to buy ads on Facebook’s News Feed that launch WhatsApp conversations with them… thereby allowing them to use the new Business API to reply. TechCrunch scooped that this was coming last September, when code in Facebook’s ad manager revealed the click-to-WhatsApp ads option and the company confirmed the ads were in testing. Facebook launched similar click-to-Messenger ads back in 2015.

Finally, WhatsApp also tells TechCrunch it’s planning to run ads in its 450 million daily user Snapchat Stories clone called Status. “WhatsApp does not currently run ads in Status though this represents a future goal for us, starting in 2019. We will move slowly and carefully and provide more details before we place any Ads in Status,” a spokesperson told us. Given WhatsApp Status is more than twice the size of Snapchat, it could earn a ton on ads between Stories, especially if it’s willing to make some unskippable.

Together, the ads and API will replace the $1 per year subscription fee WhatsApp used to charge in some countries but dropped in 2016. With Facebook’s own revenue decelerating, triggering a 20 percent, $120 billion market cap drop in its share price, it needs to show it has new ways to make money — now more than ever.

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