May
20
2020
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Directly, which taps experts to train chatbots, raises $11M, closes out Series B at $51M

Directly, a startup whose mission is to help build better customer service chatbots by using experts in specific areas to train them, has raised more funding as it opens up a new front to grow its business: APIs and a partner ecosystem that can now also tap into its expert network. Today Directly is announcing that it has added $11 million to close out its Series B at $51 million (it raised $20 million back in January of this year, and another $20 million as part of the Series B back in 2018).

The funding is coming from Triangle Peak Partners and Toba Capital, while its previous investors in the round included strategic backers Samsung NEXT and Microsoft’s M12 Ventures (who are both customers, alongside companies like Airbnb), as well as Industry Ventures, True Ventures, Costanoa Ventures and Northgate. (As we reported when covering the initial close, Directly’s valuation at that time was at $110 million post-money, and so this would likely put it at $120 million or higher, given how the business has expanded.)

While chatbots have now been around for years, a key focus in the tech world has been how to help them work better, after initial efforts saw so many disappointing results that it was fair to ask whether they were even worth the trouble.

Directly’s premise is that the most important part of getting a chatbot to work well is to make sure that it’s trained correctly, and its approach to that is very practical: find experts both to troubleshoot questions and provide answers.

As we’ve described before, its platform helps businesses identify and reach out to “experts” in the business or product in question, collect knowledge from them, and then fold that into a company’s AI to help train it and answer questions more accurately. It also looks at data input and output into those AI systems to figure out what is working, and what is not, and how to fix that, too.

The information is typically collected by way of question-and-answer sessions. Directly compensates experts both for submitting information as well as to pay out royalties when their knowledge has been put to use, “just as you would in traditional copyright licensing in music,” its co-founder Antony Brydon explained to me earlier this year.

It can take as little as 100 experts, but potentially many more, to train a system, depending on how much the information needs to be updated over time. (Directly’s work for Xbox, for example, used 1,000 experts but has to date answered millions of questions.)

Directly’s pitch to customers is that building a better chatbot can help deflect more questions from actual live agents (and subsequently cut operational costs for a business). It claims that customer contacts can be reduced by up to 80%, with customer satisfaction by up to 20%, as a result.

What’s interesting is that now Directly sees an opportunity in expanding that expert ecosystem to a wider group of partners, some of which might have previously been seen as competitors. (Not unlike Amazon’s AI powering a multitude of other businesses, some of which might also be in the market of selling the same services that Amazon does).

The partner ecosystem, as Directly calls it, use APIs to link into Directly’s platform. Meya, Percept.ai, and SmartAction — which themselves provide a range of customer service automation tools — are three of the first users.

“The team at Directly have quickly proven to be trusted and invaluable partners,” said Erik Kalviainen, CEO at Meya, in a statement. “As a result of our collaboration, Meya is now able to take advantage of a whole new set of capabilities that will enable us to deliver automated solutions both faster and with higher resolution rates, without customers needing to deploy significant internal resources. That’s a powerful advantage at a time when scale and efficiency are key to any successful customer support operation.”

The prospect of a bigger business funnel beyond even what Directly was pulling in itself is likely what attracted the most recent investment.

“Directly has established itself as a true leader in helping customers thrive during these turbulent economic times,” said Tyler Peterson, Partner at Triangle Peak Partners, in a statement. “There is little doubt that automation will play a tremendous role in the future of customer support, but Directly is realizing that potential today. Their platform enables businesses to strike just the right balance between automation and human support, helping them adopt AI-powered solutions in a way that is practical, accessible, and demonstrably effective.”

In January, Mike de la Cruz, who took over as CEO at the time of the funding announcement, said the company was gearing up for a larger Series C in 2021. It’s not clear how and if that will be impacted by the current state of the world. But in the meantime, as more organizations are looking for ways to connect with customers outside of channels that might require people to physically visit stores, or for employees to sit in call centres, it presents a huge opportunity for companies like this one.

“At its core, our business is about helping customer support leaders resolve customer issues with the right mix of automation and human support,” said de la Cruz in a statement. “It’s one thing to deliver a great product today, but we’re committed to ensuring that our customers have the solutions they need over the long term. That means constantly investing in our platform and expanding our capabilities, so that we can keep up with the rapid pace of technological change and an unpredictable economic landscape. These new partnerships and this latest expansion of our recent funding round have positioned us to do just that. We’re excited to be collaborating with our new partners, and very thankful to all of our investors for their support.”

May
11
2020
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Amazon releases Kendra to solve enterprise search with AI and machine learning

Enterprise search has always been a tough nut to crack. The Holy Grail has always been to operate like Google, but in-house. You enter a few keywords and you get back that nearly perfect response at the top of the list of the results. The irony of trying to do search locally has been a lack of content.

While Google has the universe of the World Wide Web to work with, enterprises have a much narrower set of responses. It would be easy to think that should make it easier to find the ideal response, but the fact is that it’s the opposite. The more data you have, the more likely you’ll find the correct document.

Amazon is trying to change the enterprise search game by putting it into a more modern machine learning-driven context to use today’s technology to help you find that perfect response just as you typically do on the web.

Today the company announced the general availability of Amazon Kendra, its cloud enterprise search product that the company announced last year at AWS re:Invent. It uses natural language processing to allow the user to simply ask a question, then searches across the repositories connected to the search engine to find a precise answer.

“Amazon Kendra reinvents enterprise search by allowing end-users to search across multiple silos of data using real questions (not just keywords) and leverages machine learning models under the hood to understand the content of documents and the relationships between them to deliver the precise answers they seek (instead of a random list of links),” the company described the new service in a statement.

AWS has tuned the search engine for specific industries including IT, healthcare and insurance. It promises energy, industrial, financial services, legal, media and entertainment, travel and hospitality, human resources, news, telecommunications, mining, food and beverage and automotive will be coming later this year.

This means any company in one of those industries should have a head start when it comes to searching because the system will understand the language specific to those verticals. You can drop your Kendra search box into an application or a website, and it has features like type ahead you would expect in a tool like this.

Enterprise search has been around for a long time, but perhaps by bringing AI and machine learning to bear on it, we can finally solve it once and for all.

May
08
2020
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Microsoft and AWS exchange poisoned pen blog posts in latest Pentagon JEDI contract spat

Microsoft and Amazon are at it again as the fight for the Defense Department JEDI contract continues. In a recent series of increasingly acerbic pronouncements, the two companies continue their ongoing spat over the $10 billion, decade-long JEDI contract spoils.

As you may recall (or not), last fall in a surprise move, the DoD selected Microsoft as the winning vendor in the JEDI winner-take-all cloud infrastructure sweepstakes. The presumed winner was always AWS, but when the answer finally came down, it was not them.

To make a very long story short, AWS took exception to the decision and went to court to fight it. Later it was granted a stay of JEDI activities between Microsoft and the DoD, which as you can imagine did not please Microsoft . Since then, the two companies have been battling in PR pronouncements and blog posts trying to get the upper hand in the war for public opinion.

That fight took a hard turn this week when the two companies really went at it in dueling blog posts after Amazon filed its latest protest.

First there was Microsoft with PR exec Frank Shaw taking exception to AWS’s machinations, claiming the company just wants a do-over:

This latest filing – filed with the DoD this time – is another example of Amazon trying to bog down JEDI in complaints, litigation and other delays designed to force a do-over to rescue its failed bid.

Amazon’s Drew Herdner countered in a blog post published this morning:

Recently, Microsoft has published multiple self-righteous and pontificating blog posts that amount to nothing more than misleading noise intended to distract those following the protest.

The bottom line is that Microsoft believes it won the contract fair and square with a more competitive bid, while Amazon believes it should have won on technical superiority, and that there was political interference from the president because he doesn’t like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post.

If you’ve been following this story from the beginning (as I have), you know it has taken a series of twists and turns. It’s had lawsuits, complaints, drama and intrigue. The president has inserted himself into it, too. There have been accusations of conflicts of interest. There have been investigations, lawsuits and more investigations.

Government procurement tends to be pretty bland, but from the start when the DoD chose to use the cutesy Star Wars-driven acronym for this project, it has been anything but. Now it’s come down to two of the world’s largest tech companies exchanging angry blog posts. Sooner or later this is going to end right?

May
07
2020
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VC’s largest funds make big bets on vertical B2B marketplaces

During the waning days of the first dot-com boom, some of the biggest names in venture capital invested in marketplaces and directories whose sole function was to consolidate information and foster transparency in industries that had remained opaque for decades.

The thesis was that thousands of small businesses were making specialized products consumed by larger businesses in huge industries, but the reach of smaller players was limited by their dependence on a sales structure built on conferences and personal interactions.

Companies making pharmaceuticals, chemicals, construction materials and medical supplies represented trillions in sales, but those huge aggregate numbers hide how fragmented these supply chains are — and how difficult it is for buyers to see the breadth of sellers available.

Now, similar to the way business models popularized by Kozmo.com and Webvan in decades past have since been reincarnated as Postmates and DoorDash, the B2B directory and marketplace rises from the investment graveyard.

The first sign of life for the directory model came with the success of GoodRX back in 2011. The company proved that when information about pricing in a previously opaque industry becomes available, it can unleash a torrent of new demand.

May
01
2020
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In spite of pandemic (or maybe because of it), cloud infrastructure revenue soars

It’s fair to say that even before the impact of COVID-19, companies had begun a steady march to the cloud. Maybe it wasn’t fast enough for AWS, as Andy Jassy made clear in his 2019 Re:invent keynote, but it was happening all the same and the steady revenue increases across the cloud infrastructure market bore that out.

As we look at the most recent quarter’s earnings reports for the main players in the market, it seems the pandemic and economic fall out has done little to slow that down. In fact, it may be contributing to its growth.

According to numbers supplied by Synergy Research, the cloud infrastructure market totaled $29 billion in revenue for Q12020.

Image Credit: Synergy Research

Synergy’s John Dinsdale, who has been watching this market for a long time, says that the pandemic could be contributing to some of that growth, at least modestly. In spite of the numbers, he doesn’t necessarily see these companies getting out of this unscathed either, but as companies shift operations from offices, it could be part of the reason for the increased demand we saw in the first quarter.

“For sure, the pandemic is causing some issues for cloud providers, but in uncertain times, the public cloud is providing flexibility and a safe haven for enterprises that are struggling to maintain normal operations. Cloud provider revenues continue to grow at truly impressive rates, with AWS and Azure in aggregate now having an annual revenue run rate of well over $60 billion,” Dinsdale said in a statement.

AWS led the way with a third of the market or more than $10 billion in quarterly revenue as it continues to hold a substantial lead in market share. Microsoft was in second, growing at a brisker 59% for 18% of the market. While Microsoft doesn’t break out its numbers, using Synergy’s numbers, that would work out to around $5.2 billion for Azure revenue. Meanwhile Google came in third with $2.78 billion.

If you’re keeping track of market share at home, it comes out to 32% for AWS, 18% for Microsoft and 8% for Google. This split has remained fairly steady, although Microsoft has managed to gain a few percentage points over the last several quarters as its overall growth rate outpaces Amazon.

Apr
30
2020
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AWS hits $10B for the quarter putting it on a $40B run rate

AWS, the cloud arm of Amazon, would be a pretty successful business on its own. Today, the company announced it has passed $10 billion for the quarter, putting the cloud business on an impressive run rate of more than $40 billion.

It was a bright spot for the company in an earnings report that saw it report net income of $2.5 billion, down $1 billion from a year ago.

Still, most companies would take that for the entire business, but AWS, which started off as kind of a side hustle for Amazon back in 2006, has grown into a powerful business all on its own. With a growth rate of 33%, it’s still growing briskly, even if it’s slowing down a bit as the law of large numbers begins to work against it.

Even though Microsoft has grown more quickly — in yesterday’s report Microsoft reported that Azure was growing at a 59% clip — AWS had such a big head start and controls a big chunk of the market share.

To give you a sense of how quickly this business has grown, Bloomberg’s Jon Erlichman tweeted the Q1 numbers for AWS since 2014, and it’s pretty amazing growth:

In 2014, it was a $4 billion a year business. Today it is 9.1x that and still going strong. The good news for everyone involved is that this is a huge market, and while nobody could ever characterize the pandemic and it’s economic fall-out as good news for anyone, the fact is that it is forcing companies to move to the cloud faster than they might have wanted to go.

That should bode well for all the cloud infrastructures vendors, even as the economy shrinks, the kinds of services these vendors offer should be in more demand than ever, and that means these numbers could just keep growing for some time.

Apr
22
2020
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AWS launches Amazon AppFlow, its new SaaS integration service

AWS today launched Amazon AppFlow, a new integration service that makes it easier for developers to transfer data between AWS and SaaS applications like Google Analytics, Marketo, Salesforce, ServiceNow, Slack, Snowflake and Zendesk. Like similar services, including Microsoft Azure’s Power Automate, for example, developers can trigger these flows based on specific events, at pre-set times or on-demand.

Unlike some of its competitors, though, AWS is positioning this service more as a data transfer service than a way to automate workflows and while the data flow can be bi-directional, AWS’s announcement focuses mostly on moving data from SaaS applications to other AWS services for further analysis. For this, AppFlow also includes a number of tools for transforming the data as it moves through the service.

“Developers spend huge amounts of time writing custom integrations so they can pass data between SaaS applications and AWS services so that it can be analysed; these can be expensive and can often take months to complete,” said AWS principal advocate Martin Beeby in today’s announcement. “If data requirements change, then costly and complicated modifications have to be made to the integrations. Companies that don’t have the luxury of engineering resources might find themselves manually importing and exporting data from applications, which is time-consuming, risks data leakage, and has the potential to introduce human error.”

Every flow (which AWS defines as a call to a source application to transfer data to a destination) costs $0.001 per run, though, in typical AWS fashion, there’s also cost associated with data processing (starting at 0.02 per GB).

“Our customers tell us that they love having the ability to store, process, and analyze their data in AWS. They also use a variety of third-party SaaS applications, and they tell us that it can be difficult to manage the flow of data between AWS and these applications,” said Kurt Kufeld, Vice President, AWS. “Amazon AppFlow provides an intuitive and easy way for customers to combine data from AWS and SaaS applications without moving it across the public Internet. With Amazon AppFlow, our customers bring together and manage petabytes, even exabytes, of data spread across all of their applications – all without having to develop custom connectors or manage underlying API and network connectivity.”

At this point, the number of supported services remains comparatively low, with only 14 possible sources and four destinations (Amazon Redshift and S3, as well as Salesforce and Snowflake). Sometimes, depending on the source you select, the only possible destination is Amazon’s S3 storage service.

Over time, the number of integrations will surely increase, but for now, it feels like there’s still quite a bit more work to do for the AppFlow team to expand the list of supported services.

AWS has long left this market to competitors, even though it has tools like AWS Step Functions for building serverless workflows across AWS services and EventBridge for connections applications. Interestingly, EventBridge currently supports a far wider range of third-party sources, but as the name implies, its focus is more on triggering events in AWS than moving data between applications.

Apr
15
2020
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DoD Inspector General report finds everything was basically hunky-dory with JEDI cloud contract bid

While controversy has dogged the $10 billion, decade-long JEDI contract since its earliest days, a report by the DoD’s Inspector General’s Office concluded today that, while there were some funky bits and potential conflicts, overall the contract procurement process was fair and legal and  the president did not unduly influence the process in spite of public comments.

There were a number of issues along the way about whether the single contractor award was fair or reasonable, about whether there were was White House influence on the decision, and whether the president wanted to prevent Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post, from getting the contract.

There were questions about whether certain personnel, who had been or were about to be Amazon employees, had undue influence on the contents of the RFP or if former Secretary of Defense showed favor to Amazon, which ultimately did not even win the contract, and that one of Mattis’ under secretaries, in fact, owned stock in Microsoft .

It’s worth noting that the report states clearly that it is not looking at the merits of this contract award or whether the correct company won on technical acumen. It was looking at all of these controversial parts that came up throughout the process. As the report stated:

“In this report, we do not draw a conclusion regarding whether the DoD appropriately awarded the JEDI Cloud contract to Microsoft rather than Amazon Web Services. We did not assess the merits of the contractors’ proposals or DoD’s technical or price evaluations; rather we reviewed the source selection process and determined that it was in compliance with applicable statutes, policies, and the evaluation process described in the Request for Proposals.”

Although the report indicates that the White House would not cooperate with the investigation into potential bias, the investigators claim they had enough discussions with parties involved with the decision to conclude that there was no undue influence on the White House’s part:

“However, we believe the evidence we received showed that the DoD personnel who evaluated the contract proposals and awarded Microsoft the JEDI Cloud contract were not pressured regarding their decision on the award of the contract by any DoD leaders more senior to them, who may have communicated with the White House,” the report stated.

The report chose to blame the media instead, at least for partly giving the impression that the White House had influenced the process, stating:

“Yet, these media reports, and the reports of President Trump’s statements about Amazon, ongoing bid protests and “lobbying” by JEDI Cloud competitors, as well as inaccurate media reports about the JEDI Cloud procurement process, may have created the appearance or perception that the contract award process was not fair or unbiased.”

It’s worth noting that we reported that AWS president Andy Jassy made it clear in a press conference at AWS re:Invent in December that the company believed the president’s words had influenced the process.

“I think that we ended up with a situation where there was political interference. When you have a sitting president, who has shared openly his disdain for a company, and the leader of that company, it makes it really difficult for government agencies, including the DoD, to make objective decisions without fear of reprisal.”

As for other points of controversy, such as those previously referenced biases, all were found lacking by the Inspector General. While the earliest complaints from Oracle and others were that Deap Ubhi and Victor Gavin, two individuals involved in drafting the RFP, failed to disclose they were offered jobs by Amazon during that time.

The report concluded that while Ubhi violated ethics rules, his involvement wasn’t substantial enough to influence the RFP (which again, Amazon didn’t win). “However, we concluded that Mr. Ubhi’s brief early involvement in the JEDI Cloud Initiative was not substantial and did not provide any advantage to his prospective employer, Amazon…,” the report stated.

The report found Gavin did not violate any ethics rules in spite of taking a job with Amazon because he had disqualified himself from the process, nor did the report find that former Secretary Mattis had any ethical violations in its investigation.

One final note: Stacy Cummings, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Enablers, who worked for Mattis, owned some stock in Microsoft and did not disclose this. While the report found that was a violation of ethics guidelines, it ultimately concluded this did not unduly influence the award to Microsoft.

While the report is a substantial, 313 pages, it basically concludes that as far as the purview of the Inspector General is concerned, the process was basically conducted in a fair way. The court case, however involving Amazon’s protest of the award to Microsoft continues. And the project remains on hold until that is concluded.

Note: Microsoft and Amazon did not respond to requests from TechCrunch for comments before we published this article. If that changes, we will update accordingly.

Report on the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (Jedi) Cloud Procurement Dodig-2020-079 by TechCrunch on Scribd

Apr
03
2020
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Want to survive the downturn? Better build a platform

When you look at the most successful companies in the world, they are almost never just one simple service. Instead, they offer a platform with a range of services and an ability to connect to it to allow external partners and developers to extend the base functionality that the company provides.

Aspiring to be a platform and actually succeeding at building one are not the same. While every startup probably sees themselves as becoming a platform play eventually, the fact is it’s hard to build one. But if you can succeed and your set of services become an integral part of a given business workflow, your company could become bigger and more successful than even the most optimistic founder ever imagined.

Look at the biggest tech companies in the world, from Microsoft to Oracle to Facebook to Google and Amazon. All of them offer a rich complex platform of services. All of them provide a way for third parties to plug in and take advantage of them in some way, even if it’s by using the company’s sheer popularity to advertise.

Michael A. Cusumano, David B. Yoffie and Annabelle Gawer, who wrote the book The Business of Platforms, wrote an article recently in MIT Sloan Review on The Future of Platforms, saying that simply becoming a platform doesn’t guarantee success for a startup.

“Because, like all companies, platforms must ultimately perform better than their competitors. In addition, to survive long-term, platforms must also be politically and socially viable, or they risk being crushed by government regulation or social opposition, as well as potentially massive debt obligations,” they wrote.

In other words, it’s not cheap or easy to build a successful platform, but the rewards are vast. As Cusumano, Yoffie and Gawer point out their studies have found, “…Platform companies achieved their sales with half the number of employees [of successful non-platform companies]. Moreover, platform companies were twice as profitable, were growing twice as fast, and were more than twice as valuable as their conventional counterparts.”

From an enterprise perspective, look at a company like Salesforce . The company learned long ago that it couldn’t possibly build every permutation of customer requirements with a relatively small team of engineers (especially early on), so it started to build hooks into the platform it had built to allow customers and consultants to customize it to meet the needs of individual organizations.

Eventually Salesforce built APIs, then it built a whole set of development tools, and built a marketplace to share these add-ons. Some startups like FinancialForce, Vlocity and Veeva have built whole companies on top of Salesforce.

Rory O’Driscoll, a partner at Scale Venture Partners, speaking at a venture capitalist panel at BoxWorks in 2014, said that many startups aspire to be platforms, but it’s harder than it looks. “You don’t make a platform. Third-party developers only engage when you achieve a critical mass of users. You have to do something else and then become a platform. You don’t come fully formed as a platform,” he said at the time.

If you’re thinking, how you could possibly start a company like that in the middle of a massive economic crisis, consider that Microsoft launched in 1975 in the middle of recession. Google and Salesforce both launched in the late 1990s, just ahead of the dot-com crash, and Facebook launched in 2004, four years before the massive downturn in 2008. All went on to become tremendously successful companies

That success often requires massive spending and sales and marketing burn, but when it works, the rewards are enormous. Just don’t expect that it’s an easy path to success.

Mar
26
2020
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Tech giants should let startups defer cloud payments

Google, Amazon and Microsoft are the landlords. Amidst the coronavirus economic crisis, startups need a break from paying rent. They’re in a cash crunch. Revenue has stopped flowing in, capital markets like venture debt are hesitant and startups and small-to-medium sized businesses are at risk of either having to lay off huge numbers of employees and/or shut down.

Meanwhile, the tech giants are cash rich. Their success this decade means they’re able to weather the storm for a few months. Their customers cannot.

Cloud infrastructure costs area amongst many startups’ top expense besides payroll. The option to pay these cloud bills later could save some from going out of business or axing huge parts of their staff. Both would hurt the tech industry, the economy and the individuals laid off. But most worryingly for the giants, it could destroy their customer base.

The mass layoffs have already begun. Soon we’re sure to start hearing about sizable companies shutting down, upended by COVID-19. But there’s still an opportunity to stop a larger bloodbath from ensuing.

That’s why I have a proposal: cloud relief.

The platform giants should let startups and small businesses defer their cloud infrastructure payments for three to six months until they can pay them back in installments. Amazon AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, these companies’ additional infrastructure products, and other platform providers should let customers pause payment until the worst of the first wave of the COVID-19 economic disruption passes. Profitable SaaS providers like Salesforce could give customers an extension too.

There are plenty of altruistic reasons to do this. They have the resources to help businesses in need. We all need to support each other in these tough times. This could protect tons of families. Some of these startups are providing important services to the public and even discounting them, thereby ramping up their bills while decreasing revenue.

Then there are the PR reasons. After years of techlash and anti-trust scrutiny, here’s the chance for the giants to prove their size can be beneficial to the world. Recruiters could use it as a talking point. “We’re the company that helped save Silicon Valley.” There’s an explanation for them squirreling away so much cash: the rainy day has finally arrived.

But the capitalistic truth and the story they could sell to Wall Street is that it’s not good for our business if our customers go out of business. Look at what happened to infrastructure providers in the dot-com crash. When tons of startups vaporized, so did the profits for those selling them hosting and tools. Any government stimulus for businesses would be better spent by them paying employees than paying the cloud companies that aren’t in danger. Saving one future Netflix from shutting down could cover any short-term loss from helping 100 other businesses.

This isn’t a handout. These startups will still owe the money. They’d just be able to pay it a little later, spread out over their monthly bills for a year or so. Once mass shelter-in-place orders subside, businesses can operate at least a little closer to normal, investors can get less cautious and customers will have the cash they need to pay their dues. Plus interest, if necessary.

Meanwhile, they’ll be locked in and loyal customers for the foreseeable future. Cloud vendors could gate the deferment to only customers that have been with them for X amount of months or that have already spent Y amount on the platform. The vendors also could offer the deferment on the condition that customers add a year or more to their existing contracts. Founders will remember who gave them the benefit of the doubt.

cloud ice cream cone imagine

Consider it a marketing expense. Platforms often offer discounts or free trials to new customers. Now it’s existing customers that need a reprieve. Instead of airport ads, the giants could spend the money ensuring they’ll still have plenty of developers building atop them by the end of 2020.

Beyond deferred payment, platforms could just push the due date on all outstanding bills to three or six months from now. Alternatively, they could offer a deep discount such as 50% off for three months if they didn’t want to deal with accruing debt and then servicing it. Customers with multi-year contracts could offered the opportunity to downgrade or renegotiate their contracts without penalties. Any of these might require giving sales quota forgiveness to their account executives.

It would likely be far too complicated and risky to accept equity in lieu of cash, a cut of revenue going forward or to provide loans or credit lines to customers. The clearest and simplest solution is to let startups skip a few payments, then pay more every month later until they clear their debt. When asked for comment or about whether they’re considering payment deferment options, Microsoft declined, and Amazon and Google did not respond.

To be clear, administering payment deferment won’t be simple or free. There are sure to be holes that cloud economists can poke in this proposal, but my goal is to get the conversation started. It could require the giants to change their earnings guidance. Rewriting deals with significantly sized customers will take work on both ends, and there’s a chance of breach of contract disputes. Giants would face the threat of customers recklessly using cloud resources before shutting down or skipping town.

Most taxing would be determining and enforcing the criteria of who’s eligible. The vendors would need to lay out which customers are too big so they don’t accidentally give a cloud-intensive but healthy media company a deferment they don’t need. Businesses that get questionably excluded could make a stink in public. Executing on the plan will require staff when giants are stretched thin trying to handle logistics disruptions, misinformation and accelerating work-from-home usage.

Still, this is the moment when the fortunate need to lend a hand to the vulnerable. Not a hand out, but a hand up. Companies with billions in cash in their coffers could save those struggling to pay salaries. All the fundraisers and info centers and hackathons are great, but this is how the tech giants can live up to their lofty mission statements.

We all live in the cloud now. Don’t evict us. #CloudRelief

Thanks to Falon Fatemi, Corey Quinn, Ilya Fushman, Jason Kim, Ilya Sukhar and Michael Campbell for their ideas and feedback on this proposal.

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