May
14
2019
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Beyond costs, what else can we do to make housing affordable?

This week on Extra Crunch, I am exploring innovations in inclusive housing, looking at how 200+ companies are creating more access and affordability. Yesterday, I focused on startups trying to lower the costs of housing, from property acquisition to management and operations.

Today, I want to focus on innovations that improve housing inclusion more generally, such as efforts to pair housing with transit, small business creation, and mental rehabilitation. These include social impact-focused interventions, interventions that increase income and mobility, and ecosystem-builders in housing innovation.

Nonprofits and social enterprises lead many of these innovations. Yet because these areas are perceived to be not as lucrative, fewer technologists and other professionals have entered them. New business models and technologies have the opportunity to scale many of these alternative institutions — and create tremendous social value. Social impact is increasingly important to millennials, with brands like Patagonia having created loyal fan bases through purpose-driven leadership.

While each of these sections could be their own market map, this overall market map serves as an initial guide to each of these spaces.

Social impact innovations

These innovations address:

May
13
2019
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Market map: the 200+ innovative startups transforming affordable housing

In this section of my exploration into innovation in inclusive housing, I am digging into the 200+ companies impacting the key phases of developing and managing housing.

Innovations have reduced costs in the most expensive phases of the housing development and management process. I explore innovations in each of these phases, including construction, land, regulatory, financing, and operational costs.

Reducing Construction Costs

This is one of the top three challenges developers face, exacerbated by rising building material costs and labor shortages.

May
13
2019
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Innovations in inclusive housing

Housing is big money. The industry has trillions under management and hundreds of billions under development.

And investors have noticed the potential. Opendoor raised nearly $1.3 billion to help homeowners buy and sell houses more quickly. Katerra raised $1.2 billion to optimize building development and construction, and Compass raised the same amount to help brokers sell real estate better. Even Amazon and Airbnb have entered the fray with high-profile investments.

Amidst this frenetic growth is the seed of the next wave of innovation in the sector. The housing industry — and its affordability problem — is only likely to balloon. By 2030, 84% of the population of developed countries will live in cities.

Yet innovation in housing lags compared to other industries. In construction, a major aspect of housing development, players spend less than 1% of their revenues on research and development. Technology companies, like the Amazons of the world, spend nearly 10% on average.

Innovations in older, highly regulated industries, like housing and real estate, are part of what Steve Case calls the “third wave” of technology. VCs like Case’s Revolution Fund and the SoftBank Vision Fund are investing billions into what they believe is the future.

These innovations are far from silver bullets, especially if they lack involvement from underrepresented communities, avoid policy and ignore distributive questions about who gets to benefit from more housing.

Yet there are hundreds of interventions reworking housing that cannot be ignored. To help entrepreneurs, investors and job seekers interested in creating better housing, I mapped these innovations in this package of articles.

To make sense of this broad field, I categorize innovations into two main groups, which I detail in two separate pieces on Extra Crunch. The first (Part 1) identifies the key phases of developing and managing housing. The second (Part 2) section identifies interventions that contribute to housing inclusion more generally, such as efforts to pair housing with transit, small business creation and mental rehabilitation.

Unfortunately, many of these tools don’t guarantee more affordability. Lowering acquisition costs, for instance, doesn’t mean that renters or homeowners will necessarily benefit from those savings. As a result, some tools likely need to be paired with others to ensure cost savings that benefit end users — and promote long-term affordability. I detail efforts here so that mission-driven advocates as well as startup founders can adopt them for their own efforts.


Topics We Explore

Today:

Coming Tomorrow:

  • Part 2. Other contributions to housing affordability
    • Social Impact Innovations
    • Landlord-Tenant Tools
    • Innovations that Increase Income
    • Innovations that Increase Transit Accessibility and Reduce Parking
    • Innovations that Improve the Ability to Regulate Housing
    • Organizations that Support the Housing Innovation Ecosystem
    • This Is Just the Beginning
    • I’m Personally Closely Watching the Following Initiatives
    • The Limitations of Technology
    • Move Fast and Protect People


Please feel free to let me know what else is exciting by adding a note to your LinkedIn invite here.

If you’re excited about this topic, feel free to subscribe to my future of inclusive housing newsletter by viewing a past issue here.

Apr
02
2019
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How to handle dark data compliance risk at your company

Slack and other consumer-grade productivity tools have been taking off in workplaces large and small — and data governance hasn’t caught up.

Whether it’s litigation, compliance with regulations like GDPR or concerns about data breaches, legal teams need to account for new types of employee communication. And that’s hard when work is happening across the latest messaging apps and SaaS products, which make data searchability and accessibility more complex.

Here’s a quick look at the problem, followed by our suggestions for best practices at your company.

Problems

The increasing frequency of reported data breaches and expanding jurisdiction of new privacy laws are prompting conversations about dark data and risks at companies of all sizes, even small startups. Data risk discussions necessarily include the risk of a data breach, as well as preservation of data. Just two weeks ago it was reported that Jared Kushner used WhatsApp for official communications and screenshots of those messages for preservation, which commentators say complies with record keeping laws but raises questions about potential admissibility as evidence.

Aug
11
2018
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Blind loyalty

There is a secret behind every open office in Silicon Valley — and it isn’t the drain on productivity.

Tech companies have been the vanguards for pushing corporate culture forward toward “radical transparency.” Mark Zuckerberg works in a fully transparent four-walled glass office surrounded by the rest of Facebook. Valve got rid of managers and titles so everyone can be their own boss. Startup founders host weekly town halls, Friday all-hands, and AMAs. Companies go to painstaking lengths to signal that they trust their employees – to show that this is your company.

But while your company might adopt an open floor plan and give out free snacks so you can feel closer to your coworkers, they likely don’t want you knowing how much they make, who is affected by the impending layoffs, or whether executives are making the right decisions.

The open office has never been more closed, and tech companies are no different than old corporate America in their authoritarian approach to controlling how their employees should think about issues that matter in the workplace. In fact, it may even be more insidious because it’s tucked away behind the veneer of a cheerful, open office.

This is what makes social network Blind so fascinating. Raw and unfiltered, Blind is the antithesis to HR’s utopic vision of a manageable and orderly corporate culture. Instead, it operates outside the walled gardens of IT with no rules and no official corporate supervision.

With Blind, users are completely anonymous, but are required to submit a verified work email to join a company channel. Inside, they are able to freely ask, discuss, prod, and complain without fear of retribution or judgment.

In short, it’s HR’s worst nightmare, and it’s wildly successful.

Building a compelling social product

Blind’s engagement numbers are staggering. It has over 2 million users, including 43K at Microsoft, 28K at Amazon, and 10K at Google. In South Korea, half of all employees at companies over 200 people are active monthly. The typical monthly active user logs in three to four times per day and spends 35 minutes using the app. At the height of the Susan Fowler scandal, Uber employees were spending almost 3 hours a day on Blind. All that, and the entire company is 38 people.

At the heart of Blind’s magic is something universal to every person who has ever been employed — the duality between our personal selves and our “work” selves, and the human drive to be both intimate and in control of our relationships. There is no place more difficult to navigate this duality than the workplace, where we want to feel loved and understood, but also respected.

Hierarchy, politics, and negative career impacts burden conversations about difficult topics, and so Blind tears these barriers down one employee at a time, affording a space for uninhibited dialogue. More importantly, Blind succeeds as a resource for questions not only company-related, but also around career, family, and life decisions.

Blind is in many ways an evolution of a long lineage of ideas in social networking. It’s unique achievement is the recombination of these different ideas to create a platform that is both a safe space for free and open conversation (via anonymity), along with a vetted, contextually relevant community (via workplace email authentication).

Let’s walk though each of these categories to understand Blind’s success.

Lack of Context (Anonymous + Individual/Personal) – Companies like Yik Yak, Secret, and Whisper pioneered the anonymous social network on the consumer side. However, they were beleaguered by cyberbullying, and served more as a digital exhaust pipe for teenage angst and trolling. Perhaps the most successful semi-anonymous social network today is Reddit, where legions of loyal community members cover every topic imaginable. However, what all of these anonymous communities lack is the critical element of shared context and circumstance.

Put another way, your fellow community members on Reddit may share your interest in ice fishing, but they likely will not understand who you are. As Blind cofounder Kyum Kim puts it, “it’s hard for someone to complain on Reddit about feeling poor while making $200K a year without fear of backlash, but on Blind, your coworkers are in the same income bracket, and likely similar education levels, neighborhoods, etc. They can empathize with your situation.” On Blind, there is a single community (your workplace) that spans multiple topics, and there’s a baseline, tacit understanding of each other’s life circumstances, allowing for deeper conversations.

Self-Promoting (Non-Anonymous + Individual/Personal) – LinkedIn and Quora are useful professional platforms, but because individuals and brands are the stars of these platforms, posturing and self-promotion can be quite frequent. When you ask a question on Quora, you are submitting your inquiry to a body of self-proclaimed experts. While many responses can be genuine, the ultimate currency that drives the platform is credibility and brand building, which inhibit authentic and vulnerable conversations from occurring.

Self-Censored (Non-Anonymous + Employee/Work) – On the enterprise side, Yammer, Jive, and recently Slack have attempted to upgrade the creaky company intranet into the enterprise social network. While these tools might make it easier to connect to your coworkers, the conversations happening on these platforms are no different than before – ultimately, these tools are designed to get work done, not for questioning, debating, or reflecting on how work should be. Conversations about sensitive subjects (e.g. how to deal with a bad manager) are unlikely to happen on a non-anonymous, corporate-sanctioned platform where that same bad manager might well be watching.

Finally, we have Blind. The platform strikes a balance between the freedom of anonymity and the context of a shared workplace. The result is a forum for surprisingly rich, relevant, and authentic conversations. While company channels are accessible only to insiders, a look at Blind’s public site (where you still need a verified work email, but you can chat with anyone outside your company) reveals a flavor for the types of conversations that are possible. An engineer at Amazon recently posted about how to deal with a mid-life crisis, with 42 responses of encouragement and advice. Another employee moving from India has a wife suffering from depression and is seeking help navigating the US healthcare system.

It turns out that where we work is a good proxy for who we are, and our coworkers have been an untapped community of wisdom.

Trust and safety

Catalin205 via Getty Images

Blind is by no means perfect. Like all online platforms and particularly anonymous ones, it invites its share of trolls. One look at the “Relationships” section on Blind’s public site and you’ll find questions about how to deal with one-night stands with coworkers and a poll asking guys how many girls they’ve slept with before marriage. While these questions could certainly have come from a genuine place, they are easy fodder for trolls, and the ensuing conversations can be alienating and provide an unnecessary megaphone for toxic bro culture.

Blind acknowledges that these issues exist, but claim that they happen less frequently inside company channels. Because users authenticate with their work emails, cofounders Sunguk and Kim believe that Blind users feel a greater sense of responsibility to each other because they are engaging a real community with shared context and goals.

The vast terrain of cyberspace might suffer from the tragedy of the commons and moral hazard, but within your workplace channel on Blind, your digital community maps onto a physical community – even though you are anonymous. This is evidenced by the successful self-policing on the platform, where 0.5% of all posts have been removed (higher than average for a social media platform), and all of these originated from user-generated flags.

A More Perfect Union

Blind’s success illuminates a reality that is often overlooked: corporations aren’t naturally democratic or transparent. While there are platforms to discuss our roles as individual working professionals (e.g. LinkedIn), there are very few places to gather and organize as employees of companies to collectively bargain for a better workplace.

This is by design. HR, the supposed watchdog of employee wellness, is neither elected nor truly representative, as they must balance the competing goals of being a third party resource for employees while also protecting the company against its employees.

Companies will always be incentivized to maintain an asymmetry of information. Friday all-hands and town halls are heavily scripted by companies. Rarely do we see anyone describing a healthy, transparent culture as a place where employees are freely conversing amongst themselves.

For companies with something to hide, the idea of a public square where conversations happen freely should be alarming. Blind has already been at the center of exposing two major scandals (e.g. the “nut rage” incident by a Korean Air executive and the news that Lyft was spying on its users.)

Blind picks up where labor unions left off and where HR has failed — to serve as a safeguard against corporate overreach, and to provide a protected space for employees to collaborate around solutions to improve the workplace.

A truly open office

For companies, Blind’s rise shouldn’t be seen as bad news. Blind can be a rich source of insight where HR software falls short. While employee engagement surveys have become popular in HR circles (and a crop of well-funded HR tech companies have consequently flooded the market), these practices suffer from the same issues of hosting a town hall. The company decides on the questions asked and interprets the answers given. With Blind, for the first time, HR and executives will have a pulse on employee sentiment that is both real-time and authentic. As Moon puts it, “no company is perfect, and if it was, Blind would not need to exist.”

In short, Blind understands more about your employees than anything in your HR stack.

Where does Blind go from here? Moon and Kyum believe they’re just getting started. Today, Blind is only available in the U.S. and South Korea, and it has been focused on tech companies. Their push into more traditional industries is showing some early signs of success with Johnson & Johnson, Dow Chemical, Barclays, and the US Navy coming online recently. There is still work to do in cleaning up different communities to ensure that conversations are inclusive and not alienating. And of course, Blind has to find a path to becoming a sustainable, revenue-generating company without compromising its integrity with users.

But one can only imagine the potential for Blind if it continues on its path upwards — the anonymous social network that understands who you are, the pulse survey that is authentic and real-time, and the first truly safe and open office made for employees, by employees.

Jul
11
2018
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Enterprise software investments may be tepid now, but they’re poised to engage

Have we reached “peak software”?

Just like the idea of “peak oil” — the hypothetical point at which global oil production could max out — you could say we’re approaching a saturation point for venture-capital investments in software companies.

Recent data from PitchBook shows that venture investing in software companies has plateaued: The amount of VC money invested in these companies — $32 billion last year — remained roughly constant over the last four years. The actual number of venture-backed software investments, mostly for business-focused companies, has actually declined, from 4,068 in 2014 to 2,980 last year.

But software is not, in fact, a declining industry. As I explore with my colleague Neeraj Agrawal in a recent report called Software 2018, released last month, a closer look at the PitchBook data shows that the fall-off in software deal volumes is primarily in the Bay Area, where an overheated market has boosted valuations and caused some investors to temporarily pull back. Investment in other U.S. regions, and globally, is actually going up. Investment in software companies based in Europe, Canada and Australia/New Zealand, for example, was $5.4 billion in 2017, up nearly 69 percent from the previous year.

Perhaps more important, a number of broader, global mega trends continue to fuel software innovation today, promising more new companies and more new jobs. These trends include everything from the rise of artificial intelligence, which is pushing software into new fields like autonomous driving, to the recent corporate tax cuts in the U.S., which could free up hundreds of billions of dollars for big corporations to buy up software startups.

Mary Meeker just released her annual, consumer-focused Internet Trends report in May. But here are some of the key trends we see shaping the global, mostly business-focused software market this year:

(Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

SoftBank: Not just for consumer companies anymore

SoftBank’s new, $100 billion Vision Fund has had a huge impact on the technology industry already, given the Japanese firm’s ability to essentially play kingmaker in a given technology market by making a huge investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in one company. This, obviously, makes it extremely difficult for competitors to keep up in terms of building market share. And if a company declines SoftBank’s money, there’s the potentially lethal possibility that SoftBank could fund a competitor, essentially snuffing out the first company.

What’s less noticed, however, is that SoftBank is investing in many business-focused software companies, not just big consumer names like Uber, FlipKart and SoFi. Softbank recently put $2.25 billion into GM’s Cruise business unit for autonomous driving and $250 million into secondary storage vendor Cohesity, for example, and has backed other B2B players such as construction/building-software outfit Katerra; real-estate software company Compass; and workplace chat app Slack.

With these investments and others, SoftBank is accelerating the pace of growth in many key software markets and likely also dampening these companies’ IPO prospects, since companies receiving several hundred million dollars from the Japanese company face less of a financial need to go public. SoftBank is essentially taking the place of an IPO.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

More software means less hardware, more robots

The continuing march of software innovation isn’t great for everyone — losers in this picture could include hardware vendors and people with jobs that can be automated by smart, software-powered robots. (Yes, even lawyers and doctors could be affected — it’s not just truck drivers.)

The implications of artificial intelligence on the job market, and the auto industry, have been widely discussed. Less noticed, though, are the shifting growth rates in cloud-based IT gear versus traditional IT hardware, the technology that powers large corporations and other organizations. IDC predicts that by 2020, corporate spending on cloud-infrastructure software will finally exceed spending on non-cloud IT infrastructure — meaning all those boxes inside corporate data centers from vendors like Dell, IBM, Cisco, H-P etc. Many of those companies are trying to figure out their cloud services approach to stay relevant. 

Lower taxes = more software M&A

Not everyone loves the Trump administration’s policies, but if you’re a software CEO, you might be a fan of the administration’s new tax bill. That’s because the 2017 bill could be a boon for software-industry M&A. Two key components of the new law — the reduced rate charged to companies to repatriate cash from overseas and the lowering of the corporate tax rate to 21 percent from 35 percent — could leave many big tech acquirers with new war chests, analysts believe.

According to investment bank Qatalyst Partners, both changes could leave a group of the largest traditional tech-company acquirers with an additional $400 billion to spend, if they repatriate money from overseas. This would be enough to buy 50 leading software companies today, according to Qatalyst. We have already seen some of this with the recent acquisitions of GitHub by Microsoft ($7.5 billion) and Adaptive Insight by Workday ($1.55 billion) and Q1 deals like MuleSoft by Salesforce ($6.5 billion) and CallidusCloud by SAP ($2.4 billion).

The traditional tech acquirers could be more receptive to acquisitions than ever these days, given that the easy, low-cost cloud business model has allowed a range of young tech upstarts to attack many parts of their businesses from all angles. Often, the easiest solution is for the big tech companies to buy the upstarts.

Niche is nice for software

As software transforms big, well-known corporate markets — like data center software, and technology for functions like human resources, sales and marketing — it is also making inroads into much more narrow industries and corporate functions. The low cost of the cloud makes it easy for every industry, from physical therapy to prison management to mortgage lending, to grow its own, customized software, usually deployed for tasks like operations and customer management. Often there are multiple firms vying for customers (and investor dollars) today in these specialized fields.

Similarly, software is fueling extremely specialized companies to serve business needs inside companies today. These include companies as varied as DocuSign, which has built a multi-billion dollar public company focusing exclusively on document signing, and Carta, which sells technology to help companies manage their financial cap tables.

Mary Meeker is right that consumer internet trends like the rise of online wallets, subscription services for certain goods and increasing oversight of social media by regulators will have big economic implications in the years to come. But we humbly offer that business software is a pretty big economic driver too — you just have to work a little harder to figure out the implications for businesses and the markets.

Apr
17
2018
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Enterprise AI will make the leap — who will reap the benefits?

This year, artificial intelligence will further elevate the enterprise by transforming the way we work, securing digital assets, increasing collaboration and ushering in a new era of AI-powered innovation. Enterprise AI is rapidly moving beyond hype and into reality, and is primed to become one of the most consequential technological segments. Although startups have already realized AI’s power in redefining industries, enterprise executives are still in the process of understanding how it will transform their business and reshape their teams across all departments.

Throughout the past year, early adopting businesses of all sizes and industries began to reap benefits. AI applications with AI-powered capabilities introduced opportunities to change the way the enterprise engaged customers, segmented markets, assessed sales leads and engaged influencers. Enterprises are on the edge of taking this a step further because of the amount of knowledge and tools leveraging the potential of AI within their entire organization.

“New breakthroughs in AI, enabled by new hardware architectures, will create new intelligent business models for enterprises,” says Nigel Toon, co-founder and CEO at U.K.-based Graphcore. “Companies that can build an initial knowledge model and launch an initial intelligent service or product, then use this first product to capture new data and improve the knowledge model on a continuing basis, will quickly create clear class-leading products and services that competitors will struggle to keep up with.”

The category is evolving, and large companies are finding distinct ways to innovate. They can uniquely tap into decades of industry experience to develop horizontal AI, built for specific industries like healthcare, financial services, automotive, retail and more. These implementations, though, require deep industry expertise and industry-specific design, training, monitoring, security and implementation to meet the high-stakes IT requirements of global organizations.

“In 2018, AI is entering the enterprise. I believe we will see many enterprises adopt AI technology, but the (few) leaders will be those that can align AI with their strategic business goals,” says Ronny Fehling, associate director of Gamma Artificial Intelligence at BCG.

2018: AI will start separating the winners from the losers

Early industry successes (and failures) proved AI’s inevitability, but also the reality that wide-scale adoption would come through incremental progress only. This year, we’ll see AI move from influencing product or business functions to an organization-wide AI strategy. Expect the winners to move fast and remain nimble to keep implementing off-the-shelf and proprietary AI.

The companies that win the AI talent war will gain exponential advantages, given the category’s rapid growth.

Hans-Christian Boos, CEO and founder of Germany-based Arago, adds: “2018 will be a make or break year for enterprise and the established economy in general. I believe AI is the only viable path for innovation, new business models and digital disruption in companies from the industrial era. General AI can enable these enterprises to finally make use of the only advantage they have in the battle against new business models and giants from the Silicon Valley, or rather giants from the new age of knowledge based business models.”

The AI talent challenge

A boon in enterprise AI will also mean a further shortage of talent. Industries like telecommunications, financial services and manufacturing will feel the talent squeeze the most. The companies that win the AI talent war will gain exponential advantages, given the category’s rapid growth.

Hence, enterprises will try to attract talent by offering a powerful vision, a track record of product success, a bench of early client implementations and the potential to impact the masses. It’s about developing high-functioning and reliable solutions that become a new foundation for clients.

Developers and data scientists, however, are only the beginning. Winning enterprises must adopt their organizational structures that attract a new generation of product managers, sales, marketing, communications and other delivery teams that understand AI. This requires an informed, passionate and forward-thinking group of professionals that will help customers understand the future of work and customer engagement powered by AI.

AI adoption and employee training

Digital transformation, powered in large part by new AI capabilities, requires enterprises to understand how to extract data and utilize data-driven intelligence. Data is one of the greatest assets and essentials in maximizing the value in an AI application, yet data is often underutilized and misunderstood. Executives must establish teams and hold individuals across departments accountable for the successful and ongoing implementation of digital tools that extract full value from available internal and external data.

This transformation into an AI-native organization requires it to hire, train and re-skill all levels of employees, and provide the resources for individuals to adopt AI-powered disciplines that enhance their performance. Most workforce, from top to bottom, should be encouraged to rethink and evolve their role by incorporating new digital tools, often enabled by AI itself.

Expect AI and other digital technologies to become more prevalent in all business disciplines, not only at the application layer, as Vishal Chatrath, co-founder and CEO of U.K.-based Prowler.io emphasises. “Decision-making in enterprise is dominated by expert-systems that are born obsolete. The AI tools available till now that rely on deep-neural nets which are great for classification problems (identifying cats, dogs, words etc.) are not really fit for purpose for decision-making in large, complex and dynamic environments, because they are very data inefficient (needs millions of data points) and effectively act like black-boxes. 2018 will see Enterprise AI move beyond classification to decision-making.”

What’s next

However, the spotlight will shine on data governance as businesses adjust entire departments and workflows around data. In turn, data management and integrity will be an essential component of success as consumers and enterprises gain greater awareness about how companies use customers’ data. This opens a large field of opportunities, but also will require transparency in how companies are using, sharing and building applications on top of customer data to ensure trust.

“Every single industry will be enhanced with AI in the coming years. In the last years there was a lot of foundation work on gathering standardized data and now we can start to use some of the advanced AI techniques to bring huge efficiency and quality gains to enterprise companies,” says Rasmus Rothe, co-founder and CTO of Germany-based research lab and venture builder Merantix. “Enterprises should therefore thoroughly analyze their business units to understand how AI can help them to improve. Partnering with external AI experts instead of trying to build everything yourself is often more capital efficient and also leads to better results.”

The shift toward AI-native enterprises is in a defining phase. The pie of the AI-enabled market will continue to grow and everyone has an opportunity to take a slice. Enterprises need to quickly leverage their assets and extract the value of their data as AI algorithms themselves will become the most valuable part when data has become a commodity. The question is, who will move first, and who will have the biggest appetite.

Apr
08
2018
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In a Slack world, Microsoft bets on Teams and Yammer

The growth of Windows has slowed as Microsoft’s mobile platform goals have faded and the PC market matured. As a result, Microsoft has had to seek new revenue outside of its operating system.

In 2017, as part of that effort to grow, Microsoft announced a new subscription product called Microsoft 365, bringing together Windows, the company’s cloud-centered productivity suite Office 365 and enterprise tooling into a single package.

The introduction of Microsoft 365 presaged the company’s re-organization which, to quote CNBC, “rebuilt the company around the cloud instead of Windows.” This seems reasonable; if Windows isn’t going to return to growth, other services have to keep adding top line revenue. Microsoft’s evolution to a cloud-powered, services-focused company is therefore set to continue.

In the pursuit of new, non-Windows top line, Microsoft wagered that it could expand its “commercial cloud” revenue to a $20 billion run rate by the end of its fiscal 2018. It beat the goal, reaching the $20 billion mark far ahead of the calendar-equivalent date of mid-Summer of this year.

One of those products, Teams, is a component to Office 365 and part of what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella called a “growth opportunity” that is “a lot bigger than anything [his company has] achieved.”

Today we’re going to explore Microsoft’s current actions in one part of the cloud productivity space through the lens of Teams.

Microsoft Teams

Microsoft’s Teams product is a communications tool often compared to Slack . TechCrunch, for example, recently called the software service “Microsoft’s Slack competitor.” ComputerWorld, in a news item earlier this year, wrote that “Microsoft turn[ed] up [the] heat on Slack” when it announced new Teams features.

It goes on and on, allowing us to comfortably hold up Microsoft Teams as Redmond’s answer to Slack, a company famous for its quick growth, impressive mind share and its independent status from any major tech company. That last fact remains true despite rumored acquisition interest from Microsoft itself, along with pretty much every big company in the sector you can name.

To see Microsoft invest in its own tool that competes with Slack isn’t surprising. There is a large market for the product, and Redmond is loath to let any rival service cut in on its productivity revenue.

Therefore, if there is a hot productivity tool in the market and Microsoft isn’t going to buy it, it might as well build one of its own. Unsurprisingly, the company has been hard at work doing just that.

Joining a big company when you are a comparatively small company can be arduous.

News that Teams could release a free version made headlines. Teams also picked up guest access in February, its introduction of Cortana integration made it into mainstream tech publications and this week Microsoft announced new “retention policies” for Teams.

All that and Microsoft bought Teams a friend this year in the form of Chalkup, a collaboration company focused on the education world.

In short, Teams is adding new features while building its org chart and expanding access. All good things, certainly. However, it was not too long ago Microsoft spent quite a lot of money to buy a different, distinct collaboration tool. What happened to it?

Yammer

Microsoft bought Yammer in 2012 for $1.2 billion, building out what TechCrunch called, at the time, its “Social Enterprise Strategy.” And while the Yammer-Microsoft deal was “great news” for the company and its investors, it also marked the beginning of the “tough part” for the newly acquired startup.

Joining a big company when you are a comparatively small company can be arduous. And if you do so when the larger company is undergoing a massive change in leadership (Microsoft hired a new CEO two years after the Yammer deal) and a business model change-up (Microsoft bought Nokia in 2014, also two years after the Yammer deal, before closing that strategic idea out years later), it’s probably even harder to integrate.

Externally, that difficulty showed. Following the Microsoft deal, Yammer search volume grew before stagnating and later slipping. The product was eventually switched on for free for Office 365 customers in early 2016, four years after it was purchased. Office 365 itself launched a half-decade before, making the moment a bit long in the works.

But all that is the past, and, notably, Microsoft is putting more emphasis on Yammer today than it has in recent years. That may feel odd, given what we just went over concerning Teams.

To dig into that, Crunchbase News got Microsoft’s Seth Patton on the phone, who explained the company’s thinking. According to the 15-year company veteran who now works on Office 365, Microsoft has two separate views for Teams and Yammer. Teams is built for what Patton calls inner-loop communication: stuff for teams, smaller companies and the like; Yammer, in contrast, is better for outer-loop communication: less tactical decisions and more company-wide communications.

The split between Slack and Teams products and the Yammers and Convos of the world isn’t hokum or mere corporate-speak. I’ve worked in newsrooms that used the mix of tools to allow for simple direct messaging between individuals (Slack) and team-wide threaded communications (Yammer). It takes a little getting used to, but it can flow well if you need that level of inter-party discussion.

Even more interesting than the fact that Yammer is not dead is that Microsoft is actively investing in it. According to Patton, Microsoft’s chiefs “doubled down” on Yammer while Teams was being brought into the market in late 2016. This gave Yammer about a year of redoubled investment and attention.

Taking all that together, Microsoft is investing in two communications products at the same time, both of which are baked into its productivity suite. So why the huge push now?

Slack: Software’s favorite rocket ship

You are no doubt familiar with Slack’s growth arc. It’s been a nearly chronic narrative in tech for the past few years. And I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. (I’m as guilty as anyone else.)

But, in case you have a life, here are some highlights: Slack reached ARR of $50 million in December of 2015. In October of 2016, Slack hit the $100 million ARR mark. Then the company bested $200 million last September. That’s darn quick, and investors took notice, showering the company with cash and ever-rising valuations.

One way to get acquired, after all, is to stick out by worrying the biggest companies in the market through growth.

Fueling Slack’s continued growth is a push into the realm of bigger companies. The firm launched Slack Enterprise Grid last January, bringing enterprise-grade management tools to Slack’s product. With Enterprise Grid, Slack can keep going after bigger accounts. (To that point, IBM has more than 200,000 active users on Slack that use Enterprise Grid.)

That quick growth has made Slack an acquisition target. One way to get acquired, after all, is to stick out by worrying the biggest companies in the market through growth. It’s just hard as heck to do, as incumbent revenue numbers are so large that, well, you have to grow fast to become interesting.

An even bigger scrap

As we know, Slack has rebuffed acquisition offers. As a result, we’re seeing Microsoft, the dominant player in the world of productivity, attempt to slow down Slack in an effort to not lose future users and future dollars. Hell, even Google is in on the race. Its Slack competitor launched for early users in February. Facebook is also tinkering around the edges. It’s fun to watch.

But productivity is Microsoft’s cash cow. For Google, it’s a big side project, but nothing compared to its advertising revenue. That puts Microsoft and Slack more up against one another in the enterprise chat fight.

(In mid-March, Microsoft announced that 200,000 organizations now use Teams, up from 125,000 in September of 2017. That’s 60 percent growth in a half-year or so — a quick growth pace, too.)

What we’ll learn over the next few years is if Microsoft’s enormous enterprise channel can be leveraged enough to slow Slack’s growth, or if Slack’s momentum can actually capture a piece of the productivity market and hold onto it.

It’s a startup against a platform company, a classic enough battle. But with big tech bigger, richer and more powerful than ever, it’s a more relevant business case than we might think at first blush. More when one draws blood or Slack goes public.

Mar
23
2018
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Storytelling for B2B startups: Avoiding ‘buzzword bingo’ to make your wonky enterprise company worth talking about

If there’s one thing I learned from my time as both a journalist at The Wall Street Journal and Forbes and, now, advising a global venture capital firm on communications, it’s that storytelling can make or break a company.

This is especially true the more complicated and arcane a company’s technology is. Stories about online-dating and burrito-delivery apps are easily understood by most people. But if a company specializes in making technology for hybrid-cloud data centers, or parsing specialized IT alerts and cybersecurity warnings, the storytelling task becomes much harder — but, I would argue, even more important.

Sure, a wonky company will still be able to talk easily to its customers and chat up nerdy CIOs at trade shows. But what happens when they raise a Series C or D round of financing and actually need to reach a broader audience — like really big, potential business partners, potential acquirers, public investors or high-level business reporters? Often, they’re stuck.

It can be painful to watch. When I was a reporter, I was amazed at the buzzwords thrown at me by some technology companies trying to get me to write about them. For fun, my colleagues and I would put some of these terms into online “buzzword bingo” websites just to see what indecipherable company descriptions they would spit out. (Example: “An online, cloud-based, open-source hyperconverged Kubernetes solution.”) Often, when pressed, PR representatives couldn’t explain to me what these companies actually did.

These companies obviously never made it into my stories. And I would argue that many of them suffered more broadly from their overall lack of high-profile press coverage; large business publications like the ones for which I worked target the very big-company executives and investors these later-stage startups were trying to reach.

Now, of course, I’m on the other side of that reporter/company equation — and I often feel like a big chunk of my job is working as a technology translator.

A natural-born storyteller

So why is this B2B storytelling problem so common, and arguably getting worse? Lots of reasons. Many of these hard-to-understand companies are founded by highly technical engineers for whom storytelling is (not surprisingly) not a natural skill. In many cases, their marketing departments are purely data-driven, focused on demand generation, ROI and driving prospects to an online sales funnel — not branding and high-level communications. As marketing technology has gotten more and more advanced and specialized, so have marketing departments.

As a result, many B2B and enterprise-IT companies are often laser-focused on talking about their products’ specific bells and whistles, staying in “sell mode” for a technical audience and cranking out wonky whitepapers and often-boring product press releases. They’re less adept at taking a step back to address the actual business benefits their product enables. Increasingly, this tech-talk also plays well with the legions of hyper-specialized, tech-news websites that have proliferated to serve every corner of the technology market, making some executives think there’s no need to target higher-level press.

Everyone has a story to tell. It’s up you to figure out what your company’s is, and how to tell that story in a compelling, understandable fashion.

One prominent marketing and PR consultant I know, who has worked with hundreds of Silicon Valley startups since the 1980s, says she is “shocked” by how poorly many senior tech industry CEOs today communicate their companies’ stories. Many tend to “shun” communications, considering it too “soft” in this new era of data-obsessed marketing, the consultant Jennifer Jones, recently told me. But in the end, poor communications and storytelling can create or exacerbate business problems, and often affect a company’s valuation.

So how do you get to a point where you can talk about your company in plain terms, and reach the high-level audiences you’re targeting?

One tactic, obviously, is to ditch the jargon when you need to. The pitch you use on potential customers — who likely already have an intimate understanding of your market and the specific problems you’re trying to solve — is not as relevant for other audiences.

A big fund manager at Fidelity or T. Rowe Price, or a national business journalist, probably knows, for example, that cloud computing is a big trend now, or that companies are buying more technology to battle complex cybersecurity attacks. But do they really understand the intricacies of “hybrid-cloud” data center setups? Or what a “behavioral attack detection solution” does? Probably not.

The David versus Goliath angle

Another tip is to put your company story in a larger, thematic context. People can better understand what you do if you can explain how you fit into larger technology and societal trends. These might include the rise of free, open-source software, or the growing importance of mobile computing.

It’s also helpful to talk about what you do in relation to larger, more established players. Are you nipping away at the slow-growing, legacy business of Oracle/EMC/Dell/Cisco? As a journalist, I once wrote a story about a small public networking company called F5 Networks that specialized in making “application delivery controllers.” But the story mostly focused on F5’s battle with a much larger competitor; in fact, the editors titled the story “One-Upping Cisco.” That’s the angle most readers were likely to care about. Journalists, particularly, love these David versus Goliath type stories, and national business publications are full of them.

Start focusing on high-level storytelling earlier, not when you’ve already raised $100 million in venture funding and have several hundred employees.

Another key storytelling strategy is leveraging your customers. If your business is boring to the average person, try to get one of your household-name customers to talk publicly about how they use your technology. Does your supply-chain software help L’Oréal sell more lipstick, or UPS make faster package deliveries?

One of our portfolio companies had a nice business-press hit a few years ago by talking about how their software helped HBO stream “Game of Thrones” episodes. (The service had previously crashed because too many people were trying to watch the show.) You can leverage these highly visible customers for case studies on your website. These can be great fodder for your sales team as well as later press interviews, as long as they’re well-written and understandable. Try to get more customers to agree to this type of content when you sign the contract with them.

From “Mad Men” to math men

Finally, there’s the issue of marketing leadership inside tech companies. In my experience, most smaller, B2B or enterprise IT-focused startups have CMOs or VPs of marketing who are more focused on data and analytics than brand communications — more “math men” than “Mad Men.” This isn’t surprising, as these companies often sell data-rich products and have business models where PR and general advertising don’t directly drive sales (unlike, say, a company making a food-delivery app). The CEOs of these companies value data and analytics, too.

I encourage B2B tech CEOs to focus on hiring CMOs with some brand/communications experience, or at least a willingness to outsource it to competent partners who are experts in that area. After a couple of early rounds of funding, you should be outgrowing your highly specialized PR firm (if you even have one) that focuses on a narrow brand of trade publications, for example. These firms usually don’t have contacts at the bigger, national business and technology outlets that are read by big mutual fund managers, and the business development folks at Cisco or Oracle. Hiring ex-journalists — not technical experts — to write content and develop messaging can be a good idea, too.

In other words, start focusing on high-level storytelling earlier, not when you’ve already raised $100 million in venture funding and have several hundred employees. By that point, it can simply be too late: Your company has already been typecast by the trade press and written off by higher-level reporters, and sometimes even potential business partners, as too niche-y and hard to understand.

As a journalist, I learned that everyone has a story to tell. It’s up you to figure out what your company’s is, and how to tell that story in a compelling, understandable fashion. If you do, I’m pretty sure the business benefits will follow.

Jun
28
2017
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The next generational shift in enterprise infrastructure has arrived

 Cloud computing is driving growth at 3 of the 5 most valuable companies in the world. AI will impact jobs only as quickly as AI-powered business software evolves. These are just two of the ramifications of disruptions in enterprise technology permeating mainstream media. Yet the inner workings of the tightly knit enterprise software industry are rarely publicized. Read More

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