Jan
17
2020
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Zendesk launches Sell Marketplace to bring app store to CRM product

Zendesk acquired Base CRM in 2018 to give customers a CRM component to go with its core customer service software. After purchasing the company, it changed the name to Sell, and today the company announced the launch of the new Sell Marketplace.

Officially called The Zendesk Marketplace for Sell, it’s a place where companies can share components that extend the capabilities of the core Sell product. Companies like MailChimp, HubSpot and QuickBooks are available at launch.

App directory in Sell Marketplace. Screenshot: Zendesk

Matt Price, SVP and general manager at Zendesk, sees the marketplace as a way to extend Sell into a platform play, something he thinks could be a “game changer.” He likened it to the impact of app stores on mobile phones.

“It’s that platform that accelerated and really suddenly [transformed smart phones] from being just a product to [launching an] industry. And that’s what the marketplace is doing now, taking Sell from being a really great sales tool to being able to handle anything that you want to throw at it because it’s extensible through apps,” Price explained.

Price says that this ability to extend the product could manifest in several ways. For starters, customers can build private apps with a new application development framework. This enables them to customize Sell for their particular environment, such as connecting to an internal system or building functionality that’s unique to them.

In addition, ISVs can build custom apps, something Price points out they have been doing for some time on the Zendesk customer support side. “Interestingly Zendesk obviously has a very large community of independent developers, hundreds of them, who are [developing apps for] our support product, and now we have another product that they can support,” he said.

Finally, industry partners can add connections to their software. For instance, by installing Dropbox for Sell, it gives sales people a way to save documents to Dropbox and associate them with a deal in Sell.

Of course, what Zendesk is doing here with Sell Marketplace isn’t new. Salesforce introduced this kind of app store concept to the CRM world in 2006 when it launched AppExchange, but the Sell Marketplace still gives Sell users a way to extend the product to meet their unique needs, and that could prove to be a powerful addition.

Jan
02
2020
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The story of why Marc Benioff gifted the AppStore.com domain to Steve Jobs

In Marc Benioff’s book, Trailblazer, he tells the tale of how Steve Jobs planted the seeds of the idea that would become the first enterprise app store, and how Benioff eventually paid Jobs back with the gift of the AppStore.com domain.

While Salesforce did truly help blaze a trail when it launched as an enterprise cloud service in 1999, it took that a step further in 2006 when it became the first SaaS company to distribute related services in an online store.

In an interview last year around Salesforce’s 20th anniversary, company CTO and co-founder Parker Harris told me that the idea for the app store came out of a meeting with Steve Jobs three years before AppExchange would launch. Benioff, Harris and fellow co-founder Dave Moellenhoff took a trip to Cupertino in 2003 to meet with Jobs. At that meeting, the legendary CEO gave the trio some sage advice: to really grow and develop as a company, Salesforce needed to develop a cloud software ecosystem. While that’s something that’s a given for enterprise SaaS companies today, it was new to Benioff and his team in 2003.

As Benioff tells it in his book, he asked Jobs to elucidate on what he meant by an application ecosystem. Jobs replied that how he implemented the idea was up to him. It took some time for that concept to bake, however. Benioff wrote that the notion of an app store eventually came to him as an epiphany at dinner one night a few years after that meeting. He says that he sketched out that original idea on a napkin while sitting in a restaurant:

One evening over dinner in San Francisco, I was struck by an irresistibly simple idea. What if any developer from anywhere in the world could create their own applications for the Salesforce platform? And what if we offered to store these apps in an online directory that allowed any Salesforce user to download them?

Whether it happened like that or not, the app store idea would eventually come to fruition, but it wasn’t originally called the AppExchange, as it is today. Instead, Benioff says he liked the name AppStore.com so much that he had his lawyers register the domain the next day.

When Benioff talked to customers prior to the launch, while they liked the concept, they didn’t like the name he had come up with for his online store. He eventually relented and launched in 2006 with the name AppExchange.com instead. Force.com would follow in 2007, giving programmers a full-fledged development platform to create applications, and then distribute them in AppExchange.

Meanwhile, AppStore.com sat dormant until 2008, when Benioff was invited back to Cupertino for a big announcement around iPhone. As Benioff wrote, “At the climactic moment, [Jobs] said [five] words that nearly floored me: ‘I give you App Store.”

Benioff wrote that he and his executives actually gasped when they heard the name. Somehow, even after all that time had passed since that the original meeting, both companies had settled upon the same name. Except Salesforce had rejected it, leaving an opening for Benioff to give a gift to his mentor. He says that he went backstage after the keynote and signed over the domain to Jobs.

In the end, the idea of the web domain wasn’t even all that important to Jobs in the context of an app store concept. After all, he put the App Store on every phone, and it wouldn’t require a website to download apps. Perhaps that’s why today the domain points to the iTunes store, and launches iTunes (or gives you the option of opening it).

Even the App Store page on Apple.com uses the sub-domain “app-store” today, but it’s still a good story of how a conversation between Jobs and Benioff would eventually have a profound impact on how enterprise software was delivered, and how Benioff was able to give something back to Jobs for that advice.

Dec
06
2019
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Canva introduces video editing, has big plans for 2020

Canva, the design company with nearly $250 million in funding, has today announced a variety of new features, including a video editing tool.

The company has also announced Canva Apps, which allows developers and customers alike to build on top of Canva. Thus far, Dropbox, Google Drive, PhotoMosh and Instagram are already in the Canva Apps suite, with a total of 30 apps available at launch.

The video editing tool allows for easy editing with no previous experience required, and also offers video templates, access to a stock content library with videos, music, etc. and easy-to-use animation tools.

Meanwhile, Canva is taking the approach of winning customers when they’re young, with the launch of Canva for Education. It’s a totally free product that has launched in beta with Australian schools, integrating with GSuite and Google Classroom to allow students to build out projects, and teachers to mark them up and review them.

Canva has also announced the launch of Canva for Desktop.

As design becomes more important to the way every organization functions and operates, one of the only barriers to the growth of the category is the pace at which new designers can emerge and enter the workforce.

Canva has positioned itself as the non-designer’s design tool, making it easy to create something beautiful with little to no design experience. The launch of the video editing tool and Canva for Education strengthen that stance, not only creating more users for the platform itself but fostering an environment for the maturation of new designers to join the ecosystem as a whole.

Alongside the announcement, Canva CEO Melanie Perkins has announced that Canva will join the 1% pledge, dedicating 1% of equity, profit, time and resources to making the world a better place.

Here’s what she had to say about it, in a prepared statement:

Companies have a huge role to play in helping to shape the world we live in and we feel like the 1% Pledge is an incredible program which will help us to use our company’s time, resources, product and equity to do just that. We believe the old adage ‘do no evil’ is no longer enough today and hope to live up to our value to ‘Be a Force for Good’.

Interestingly, Canva’s position at the top of the design funnel hasn’t slowed growth. Indeed, Canva recently launched Canva for Enterprise to let all the folks in the organization outside of the design department step up to bat and create their own decks, presentations, materials, etc., all within the parameter’s of the design system and brand aesthetic.

A billion designs have been created on Canva in 2019, with 2 billion designs created since the launch of the platform.

Nov
26
2019
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Instagram founders join $30M raise for Loom work video messenger

Why are we all trapped in enterprise chat apps if we talk 6X faster than we type, and our brain processes visual info 60,000X faster than text? Thanks to Instagram, we’re not as camera-shy anymore. And everyone’s trying to remain in flow instead of being distracted by multi-tasking.

That’s why now is the time for Loom. It’s an enterprise collaboration video messaging service that lets you send quick clips of yourself so you can get your point across and get back to work. Talk through a problem, explain your solution, or narrate a screenshare. Some engineering hocus pocus sees videos start uploading before you finish recording so you can share instantly viewable links as soon as you’re done.

Loom video messaging on mobile

“What we felt was that more visual communication could be translated into the workplace and deliver disproportionate value” co-founder and CEO Joe Thomas tells me. He actually conducted our whole interview over Loom, responding to emailed questions with video clips.

Launched in 2016, Loom is finally hitting its growth spurt. It’s up from 1.1 million users and 18,000 companies in February to 1.8 million people at 50,000 businesses sharing 15 million minutes of Loom videos per month. Remote workers are especially keen on Loom since it gives them face-to-face time with colleagues without the annoyance of scheduling synchronous video calls. “80% of our professional power users had primarily said that they were communicating with people that they didn’t share office space with” Thomas notes.

A smart product, swift traction, and a shot at riding the consumerization of enterprise trend has secured Loom a $30 million Series B. The round that’s being announced later today was led by prestigious SAAS investor Sequoia and joined by Kleiner Perkins, Figma CEO Dylan Field, Front CEO Mathilde Collin, and Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger.

“At Instagram, one of the biggest things we did was focus on extreme performance and extreme ease of use and that meant optimizing every screen, doing really creative things about when we started uploading, optimizing everything from video codec to networking” Krieger says. “Since then I feel like some products have managed to try to capture some of that but few as much as Loom did. When I first used Loom I turned to Kevin who was my Instagram co-founder and said, ‘oh my god, how did they do that? This feels impossibly fast.’”


Systrom concurs about the similarities, saying “I’m most excited because I see how they’re tackling the problem of visual communication in the same way that we tried to tackle that at Instagram.” Loom is looking to double-down there, potentially adding the ability to Like and follow videos from your favorite productivity gurus or sharpest co-workers.

Loom is also prepping some of its most requested features. The startup is launching an iOS app next month with Android coming the first half of 2020, improving its video editor with blurring for hiding your bad hair day and stitching to connect multiple takes. New branding options will help external sales pitches and presentations look right. What I’m most excited for is transcription, which is also slated for the first half of next year through a partnership with another provider, so you can skim or search a Loom. Sometimes even watching at 2X speed is too slow.

But the point of raising a massive $30 million Series B just a year after Loom’s $11 million Kleiner-led Series A is to nail the enterprise product and sales process. To date, Loom has focused on a bottom-up distribution strategy similar to Dropbox. It tries to get so many individual employees to use Loom that it becomes a team’s default collaboration software. Now it needs to grow up so it can offer the security and permissions features IT managers demand. Loom for teams is rolling out in beta access this year before officially launching in early 2020.

Loom’s bid to become essential to the enterprise, though, is its team video library. This will let employees organize their Looms into folders of a knowledge base so they can explain something once on camera, and everyone else can watch whenever they need to learn that skill. No more redundant one-off messages begging for a team’s best employees to stop and re-teach something. The Loom dashboard offers analytics on who’s actually watching your videos. And integration directly into popular enterprise software suites will let recipients watch without stopping what they’re doing.

To build out these features Loom has already grown to a headcount of 45, though co-founder Shahed Khan is stepping back from company. For new leadership, it’s hired away former head of web growth at Dropbox Nicole Obst, head of design for Slack Joshua Goldenberg, and VP of commercial product strategy for Intercom Matt Hodges.


Still, the elephants in the room remain Slack and Microsoft Teams. Right now, they’re mainly focused on text messaging with some additional screensharing and video chat integrations. They’re not building Loom-style asynchronous video messaging…yet. “We want to be clear about the fact that we don’t think we’re in competition with Slack or Microsoft Teams at all. We are a complementary tool to chat” Thomas insists. But given the similar productivity and communication ethos, those incumbents could certainly opt to compete. Slack already has 12 million daily users it could provide with video tools.

Loom co-founder and CEO Joe Thomas

Hodges, Loom’s head of marketing, tells me “I agree Slack and Microsoft could choose to get into this territory, but what’s the opportunity cost for them in doing so? It’s the classic build vs. buy vs. integrate argument.” Slack bought screensharing tool Screenhero, but partners with Zoom and Google for video chat. Loom will focus on being easily integratable so it can plug into would-be competitors. And Hodges notes that “Delivering asynchronous video recording and sharing at scale is non-trivial. Loom holds a patent on its streaming, transcoding, and storage technology, which has proven to provide a competitive advantage to this day.”

The tea leaves point to video invading more and more of our communication, so I expect rival startups and features to Loom will crop up. Vidyard and Wistia’s Soapbox are already pushing into the space. As long as it has the head start, Loom needs to move as fast as it can. “It’s really hard to maintain focus to deliver on the core product experience that we set out to deliver versus spreading ourselves too thin. And this is absolutely critical” Thomas tells me.

One thing that could set Loom apart? A commitment to financial fundamentals. “When you grow really fast, you can sometimes lose sight of what is the core reason for a business entity to exist, which is to become profitable. . . Even in a really bold market where cash can be cheap, we’re trying to keep profitability at the top of our minds.”

Nov
19
2019
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SocialRank sells biz to Trufan, pivots to a mobile LinkedIn

What do you do when your startup idea doesn’t prove big enough? Run it as a scrawny but profitable lifestyle business? Or sell it to a competitor and take another swing at the fences? Social audience analytics startup SocialRank chose the latter and is going for glory.

Today, SocialRank announced it’s sold its business, brand, assets, and customers to influencer marketing campaign composer and distributor Trufan which will run it as a standalone product. But SocialRank’s team isn’t joining up. Instead, the full six-person staff is sticking together to work on a mobile-first professional social network called Upstream aiming to nip at LinkedIn.

SocialRank co-founder and CEO Alex Taub

Started in 2014 amidst a flurry of marketing analytics tools, SocialRank had raised $2.1 million from Rainfall Ventures and others before hitting profitability in 2017. But as the business plateaued, the team saw potential to use data science about people’s identity to get them better jobs.

“A few months ago we decided to start building a new product (what has become Upstream). And when we came to the conclusion to go all-in on Upstream, we knew we couldn’t run two businesses at the same time” SocialRank co-founder and CEO Alex Taub tells me. “We decided then to run a bit of a process. We ended up with a few offers but ultimately felt like Trufan was the best one to continue the business into the future.”

The move lets SocialRank avoid stranding its existing customers like the NFL, Netflix, and Samsung that rely on its audience segmentation software. Instead, they’ll continue to be supported by Trufan where Taub and fellow co-founder Michael Schonfeld will become advisors.

“While we built a sustainable business, we essentially knew that if we wanted to go real big, we would need to go to the drawing board” Taub explains.

SocialRank

Two-year-old Trufan has raised $1.8 million Canadian from Round13 Capital, local Toronto startup Clearbanc’s founders, and several NBA players. Trufan helps brands like Western Union and Kay Jewellers design marketing initiatives that engage their customer communities through social media. It’s raising an extra $400,000 USD in venture debt from Round13 to finance the acquisition, which should make Trufan cash-flow positive by the end of the year.

Why isn’t the SocialRank team going along for the ride? Taub said LinkedIn was leaving too much opportunity on the table. While it’s good for putting resumes online and searching for people, “All the social stuff are sort of bolt-ons that came after Facebook and Twitter arrived. People forget but LinkedIn is the oldest active social network out there”, Taub tells me, meaning it’s a bit outdated.

Trufan’s team

Rather than attack head-on, the newly forged Upstream plans to pick the Microsoft-owned professional network apart with better approaches to certain features. “I love the idea of ‘the unbundling of LinkedIn’, ala what’s been happening with Craigslist for the past few years” says Taub. “The first foundational piece we are building is a social professional network around giving and getting help. We’ll also be focused on the unbundling of the groups aspect of LinkedIn.”

Taub concludes that entrepreneurs can shackle themselves to impossible goals if they take too much venture capital for the wrong business. As we’ve seen with SoftBank, investors demand huge returns that can require pursuing risky and unsustainable expansion strategies.

“We realized that SocialRank had potential to be a few hundred million dollar in revenue business but venture growth wasn’t exactly the model for it” Taub says. “You need the potential of billions in revenue and a steep growth curve.” A professional network for the smartphone age has that kind of addressable market. And the team might feel better getting out of bed each day knowing they’re unlocking career paths for people instead of just getting them to click ads.

Nov
13
2019
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Messaging app Wire confirms $8.2M raise, responds to privacy concerns after moving holding company to the US

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

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

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

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

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

Specifically, the changes to Wire’s financing and legal structure were only communicated to users when news started to leak out, which brings up questions not just about transparency, but about the state of Wire’s privacy policy, given the company’s holding company now being on US soil.

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

“There was no change in control and [the move was] very tactical [because of fundraising],” Brogger said about the company’s decision not to communicate the move, adding that the company had never talked about funding in the past, either. “Our evaluation was that this was not necessary. Was it right or wrong? I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

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

Privacy versus security

Wire launched at a time when interest in messaging apps was at a high watermark. The company made its debut in the middle of February 2014, and it was only one week later that Facebook acquired WhatsApp for the princely sum of $19 billion.

We described Wire’s primary selling point at the time as a “reimagining of how a communications tool like Skype should operate had it been built today” rather than in in 2003. That meant encryption and privacy protection, but also better audio tools and file compression and more.

It was a pitch that seemed especially compelling considering the background of the company. Skype co-founder Janus Friis and funds connected to him were the startup’s first backers (and they remain the largest shareholders);Wire was co-founded in by Skype alums Jonathan Christensen and Alan Duric (former no longer with the company, latter is its CTO); and even new investor Morpheus has Skype roots.

Yet even with that Skype pedigree, the strategy faced a big challenge.

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

That, combined with trend around the consumerization of IT that’s brought new tools to business users, is what led Wire to the enterprise market in 2017 — a shift that’s seen it pick up a number of big names among its 700 enterprise customers, including Fortum, Aon, EY and SoftBank Robotics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nov
12
2019
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Lawyers hate timekeeping — Ping raises $13M to fix it with AI

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 the 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 they 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 a 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.”

Nov
04
2019
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CTO.ai’s developer shortcuts eliminate coding busywork

There’s too much hype about mythical “10X developers.” Everyone’s desperate to hire these “ninja rockstars.” In reality, it’s smarter to find ways of deleting annoying chores for the coders you already have. That’s where CTO.ai comes in.

Emerging from stealth today, CTO.ai lets developers build and borrow DevOps shortcuts. These automate long series of steps they usually have to do manually, thanks to integrations with GitHub, AWS, Slack and more. CTO.ai claims it can turn a days-long process like setting up a Kubernetes cluster into a 15-minute task even sales people can handle. The startup offers both a platform for engineering and sharing shortcuts, and a service where it can custom build shortcuts for big customers.

What’s remarkable about CTO.ai is that amidst a frothy funding environment, the 60-person team quietly bootstrapped its way to profitability over the past two years. Why take funding when revenue was up 400% in 18 months? But after a chance meeting aboard a plane connected its high school dropout founder Kyle Campbell with Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, CTO.ai just raised a $7.5 million seed round led by Slack Fund and Tiger Global.

“Building tools that streamline software development is really expensive for companies, especially when they need their developers focused on building features and shipping to customers,” Campbell tells me. The same way startups don’t build their own cloud infrastructure and just use AWS, or don’t build their own telecom APIs and just use Twilio, he wants CTO.ai to be the “easy button” for developer tools.

Teaching snakes to eat elephants

“I’ve been a software engineer since the age of 8,” Campbell recalls. In skate-punk attire with a snapback hat, the young man meeting me in a San Francisco Mission District cafe almost looked too chill to be a prolific coder. But that’s kind of the point. His startup makes being a developer more accessible.

After spending his 20s in software engineering groups in the Bay, Campbell started his own company, Retsly, that bridged developers to real estate listings. In 2014, it was acquired by property tech giant Zillow, where he worked for a few years.

That’s when he discovered the difficulty of building dev tools inside companies with other priorities. “It’s the equivalent of a snake swallowing an elephant,” he jokes. Yet given these tools determine how much time expensive engineers waste on tasks below their skill level, their absence can drag down big enterprises or keep startups from rising.

CTO.ai shrinks the elephant. For example, the busywork of creating a Kubernetes cluster such as having to the create EC2 instances, provision on those instances and then provision a master node gets slimmed down to just running a shortcut. Campbell writes that “tedious tasks like running reports can be reduced from 1,000 steps down to 10,” through standardization of workflows that turn confusing code essays into simple fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice questions.

The CTO.ai platform offers a wide range of pre-made shortcuts that clients can piggyback on, or they can make and publish their own through a flexible JavaScript environment for the rest of their team or the whole community to use. Companies that need extra help can pay for its DevOps-as-a-Service and reliability offerings to get shortcuts made to solve their biggest problems while keeping everything running smoothly.

5(2X) = 10X

Campbell envisions a new way to create a 10X engineer that doesn’t depend on widely mocked advice on how to spot and capture them like trophy animals. Instead, he believes one developer can make five others 2X more efficient by building them shortcuts. And it doesn’t require indulging bad workplace or collaboration habits.

With the new funding that also comes from Yaletown Partners, Pallasite Ventures, Panache Ventures and Jonathan Bixby, CTO.ai wants to build deeper integrations with Slack so developers can run more commands right from the messaging app. The less coding required for use, the broader the set of employees that can use the startup’s tools. CTO.ai may also build a self-service tier to augment its seats, plus a complexity model for enterprise pricing.

Now it’s time to ramp up community outreach to drive adoption. CTO.ai recently released a podcast that saw 15,000 downloads in its first three weeks, and it’s planning some conference appearances. It also sees virality through its shortcut author pages, which, like GitHub profiles, let developers show off their contributions and find their next gig.

One risk is that GitHub or another core developer infrastructure provider could try to barge directly into CTO.ai’s business. Google already has Cloud Composer, while GitHub launched Actions last year. Campbell says its defense comes through neutrally integrating with everyone, thereby turning potential competitors into partners.

The funding firepower could help CTO.ai build a lead. With every company embracing software, employers battling to keep developers happy and teams looking to get more of their staff working with code, the startup sits at the intersection of some lucrative trends of technological empowerment.

“I have a three-year-old at home and I think about what it will be like when he comes into creating things online,” Campbell concludes. “We want to create an amazing future for software developers, introducing automation so they can focus on what makes them such an important aspect. Devs are defining society!”

[Image Credit: Disney/Pixar via WallHere Goodfon]

Oct
22
2019
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Slack announces new features to help ease app integration pain

As Slack has grown in popularity, one of the company’s key differentiators has been the ability to integrate with other enterprise tools. But as customers use Slack as a central work hub, it has created its own set of problems. In particular, users have trouble understanding which apps they have access to and how to make best use of them. Slack announced several ways to ease those issues at its Spec developer conference today.

Andy Pflaum, director of Slack platform, points out there are 1,800 app integrations available out of the box in Slack, and developers have created 500,000 additional custom apps. That’s obviously far too many for any user to keep track of, so Slack has created a home page for apps. Called App Launcher, it acts a bit like the Mac Launchpad — a centralized place where you can see your installed apps.

Slack App launcher

Slack App Launcher (Image: Slack)

You access App Launcher from the Slack sidebar by clicking Apps. It opens App Launcher with the apps that make sense for you. When you select an app, Pflaum says it takes you to that app’s home screen where it will be ready to enter or display relevant information.

For example, if you selected Google Calendar, you would see your daily schedule along with meeting requests, which you can accept or reject. You also can launch meeting software directly from this page. All of this happens within Slack, without having to change focus. App Home will be available in beta in the next few months, according to Pflaum.

Another way Slack is helping ease the app burden is with a new concept called Actions from Anywhere. The company actually launched Actions last year, enabling users to take an action from a message like attaching a Slack message to a pull request in Jira, as an example. Pflaum said that people liked these actions so much they were requesting the ability to take actions from anywhere in Slack.

“At Spec, we are previewing this new kind of action — Actions from Anywhere — which gives users the ability to take an action from anywhere they are in Slack,” Pflaum said. To really take advantage of this capability, the company is adding a feature to select the five most recent actions from a quick-access menu. These actions fill in automatically based on your most recent activities, and could be a real time-saver for people working inside Slack all day.

Finally, the company is enabling developers to open an external window inside Slack, what they call Modal windows, which open when users have to fill out a form, take a survey, enter expenses or provide additional information outside the flow of Slack itself.

All of these and other announcements at Spec are part of the maturation process of Slack as it moves to solve some of the pain points of growing so quickly. When you grow past the point of understanding what a complex piece of software can do, it’s up to the vendor to provide ways to surface all of the benefits and features, and that’s what Slack is attempting to do with these new tools.

Oct
22
2019
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Aurora Insight emerges from stealth with $18M and a new take on measuring wireless spectrum

Aurora Insight, a startup that provides a “dynamic” global map of wireless connectivity that it built and monitors in real time using AI combined with data from sensors on satellites, vehicles, buildings, aircraft and other objects, is emerging from stealth today with the launch of its first publicly available product, a platform providing insights on wireless signal and quality covering a range of wireless spectrum bands, offered as a cloud-based, data-as-a-service product.

“Our objective is to map the entire planet, charting the radio waves used for communications,” said Brian Mengwasser, the co-founder and CEO. “It’s a daunting task.” He said that to do this the company first “built a bunker” to test the system before rolling it out at scale.

With it, Aurora Insight is also announcing that it has raised $18 million in funding — an aggregate amount that reaches back to its founding in 2016 and covers both a seed round and Series A — from an impressive list of investors. Led by Alsop Louie Partners and True Ventures, backers also include Tippet Venture Partners, Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, Promus Ventures, Alumni Ventures Group, ValueStream Ventures and Intellectus Partners.

The area of measuring wireless spectrum and figuring out where it might not be working well (in order to fix it) may sound like an arcane area, but it’s a fairly essential one.

Mobile technology — specifically, new devices and the use of wireless networks to connect people, objects and services — continues to be the defining activity of our time, with more than 5 billion mobile users on the planet (out of 7.5 billion people) today and the proportion continuing to grow. With that, we’re seeing a big spike in mobile internet usage, too, with more than 5 billion people, and 25.2 billion objects, expected to be using mobile data by 2025, according to the GSMA.

The catch to all this is that wireless spectrum — which enables the operation of mobile services — is inherently finite and somewhat flaky in how its reliability is subject to interference. That in turn is creating a need for a better way of measuring how it is working, and how to fix it when it is not.

“Wireless spectrum is one of the most critical and valuable parts of the communications ecosystem worldwide,” said Rohit Sharma, partner at True Ventures and Aurora Insight board member, in a statement. “To date, it’s been a massive challenge to accurately measure and dynamically monitor the wireless spectrum in a way that enables the best use of this scarce commodity. Aurora’s proprietary approach gives businesses a unique way to analyze, predict, and rapidly enable the next-generation of wireless-enabled applications.”

If you follow the world of wireless technology and telcos, you’ll know that wireless network testing and measurement is an established field — about as old as the existence of wireless networks themselves (which says something about the general reliability of wireless networks). Aurora aims to disrupt this on a number of levels.

Mengwasser — who co-founded the company with Jennifer Alvarez, the CTO who you can see presenting on the company here — tells me that a lot of the traditional testing and measurement has been geared at telecoms operators, who own the radio towers, and tend to focus on more narrow bands of spectrum and technologies.

The rise of 5G and other wireless technologies, however, has come with a completely new playing field and set of challenges from the industry.

Essentially, we are now in a market where there are a number of different technologies coexisting — alongside 5G we have earlier network technologies (4G, LTE, Wi-Fi); and a potential set of new technologies. And we have a new breed of companies building services that need to have close knowledge of how networks are working to make sure they remain up and reliable.

Mengwasser said Aurora is currently one of the few trying to tackle this opportunity by developing a network that is measuring multiples kinds of spectrum simultaneously, and aims to provide that information not just to telcos (some of which have been working with Aurora while still in stealth) but the others kinds of application and service developers that are building businesses based on those new networks.

“There is a pretty big difference between us and performance measurement, which typically operates from the back of a phone and tells you when have a phone in a particular location,” he said. “We care about more than this, more than just homes, but all smart devices. Eventually, everything will be connected to network, so we are aiming to provide intelligence on that.”

One example are drone operators that are building delivery networks: Aurora has been working with at least one while in stealth to help develop a service, Mengwasser said, although he declined to say which one. (He also, incidentally, specifically declined to say whether the company had talked with Amazon.)

5G is a particularly tricky area of mobile network spectrum and services to monitor and tackle, which is one reason why Aurora Insight has caught the attention of investors.

“The reality of massive MIMO beamforming, high frequencies, and dynamic access techniques employed by 5G networks means it’s both more difficult and more important to quantify the radio spectrum,” said Gilman Louie of Alsop Louie Partners, in a statement. “Having the accurate and near-real-time feedback on the radio spectrum that Aurora’s technology offers could be the difference between building a 5G network right the first time, or having to build it twice.” Louie is also sitting on the board of the startup.

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