Mar
20
2019
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Abstract, a versioning platform that helps designers work like developers, raises $30M

Design and engineering are two sides of the same coin when it comes to building software and hardware, and yet — unlike engineers, who can use services like GitHub, Bitbucket, GitLab or many others to help manage their development process — it has traditionally been slim pickings for designers when it comes to tools to manage the iterations and collaborations that are a part of their workflow.

Now, we are seeing a rising wave of startups responding to that vacuum in the market. In the latest development, Abstract, which has built a platform to help manage versioning and workflow for design projects, is announcing $30 million in funding led by Lightspeed Venture Partners with participation from previous investors Scale Venture Partners, Amplify Partners and Cowboy Ventures.

Abstract is not disclosing valuation, but I understand from sources that it is now $190 million, a decent leap from the $76 million valuation (according to PitchBook) it reached in its last round. Abstract has raised around $55 million since 2016.

This latest round, a Series C, comes at a time when we are seeing a number of other startups that are building tools for designers — some competing with Abstract, and some significantly larger — also raising big money.

In December, InVision (which has an ambition to be the “Salesforce of design”), raised $115 million at a $1.9 billion valuation. Last month, Figma (building both design development and collaboration tools) raised $40 million at a $440 million valuation. Last week, Sketch (which also makes design tools) raised its first outside round of $20 million after a long track record as a very popular bootstrapped startup.

Abstract fits very much in the middle of this spread. The problem that it has identified is that many designers still work in an inefficient way compared to their engineering counterparts (as well as those in other parts of an operation, including people who collaborate on creating documents or presentations). Designers still typically sling around multiple versions of the same file, or try to handle all passing around and working on one single file. That loose structure makes for many errors and lost changes, not to mention an inability to track who has done what and when.

To address this, Abstract offers a number of features. First and foremost, it provides a way for designers to track versions of files — it automatically uploads the most recent copy even if you are working locally, so that whoever works next will use the most updated version. It also lets a project manager task different people with different parts of a project and manage the reviewing system. When a project is in progress or already completed, there is a way to present it and also gather feedback. And then, importantly, the design team can also use Abstract to interface with engineering teams that are building the tech underneath and around that design.

The funding is going to help Abstract expand that with more features, including a better and more streamlined way to export the most current files, as well as more security integrations for better control over who can access materials and when.

It started with a hashtag…

Abstract was co-founded by Josh Brewer and Kevin Smith — the former a designer, the latter an engineer who has also headed up design teams. Brewer, the CEO, said in an interview that his own past experience — his track record includes a period as Twitter’s principal designer — was the kindling that eventually led to the building of Abstract. One example he gave was the rebuild of Twitter back in 2011, which needed a redesign across web, mobile web, iOS and Android with a consistent navigation pattern, and new behavioral/usage patterns. (Not a small task.)

“We had only 12 designers at that time, a relatively small crew, but also a short timeline,” he recalled. “We decided to try to standardize on one tool to manage everything, but didn’t really have much to work with.” He and the team decided to “hack some of the tools we were using at the time,” which included Apache Subversion and GitHub for software development, “to solve the problem.” This helped him identify that there was a clear opportunity to build something that spoke specifically to designers’ needs.

That something has indeed started to find some traction: there are now more than 5,000 design teams using Abstract, with companies using it including Shopify, Cisco, Intuit, Spotify, Salesforce, Zappos and Instacart.

“As design becomes an increasingly significant competitive advantage, the tools designers use have to become more sophisticated, collaborative, and transparent to the broader organization. At Lightspeed, we invest in the sort of exceptional teams that are poised to transform a market,” said Nakul Mandan, who is also joining the board. “Josh, Kevin and the rest of the Abstract team have reimagined a design workflow that is quickly becoming the professional standard for how growing design teams work together and with functional stakeholders. We are excited to partner with Abstract to help the company continue its explosive growth.”

Abstract’s first efforts have been to support Sketch, the design tool that raised money just last week. The two are often associated with each other, it seems: many tend to use Abstract and Sketch together as an alternative to using Figma. But in addition to adding more versioning tools, the plan will be to add more design software to the list Abstract supports, starting with Adobe XD and Illustrator (it has currently opened early access waitlists for both). But even in the effort to be the go-to platform for all kinds of design projects, there are lines being drawn. It seems there are no plans, for example, to support Figma.

Another thing Abstract does not plan to do, Smith added, is to start building and offering many of those design tools itself.

“We are focused on expanding support for other file formats and bringing all your design files, whether it’s for a font or data to populate a design,” he said. There might be exceptions down the line, however: the company launched an SDK last fall, which Smith described as “our first step to exposing data to developers and design engineers, and that is part of our vision, which may or may not involve other kinds of tooling on the Abstract platform.”

He noted that “one of the things we’re been hearing about is the need for light-weight editing,” so that might be one area where Abstract might build or offer a third-party tool. “If we understand the data we are storing it’s not outside the realm of possibility to expose that. From a tooling perspective, it would be coming from the needs of our customers.”

Jan
29
2019
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Figma’s design and prototyping tool gets new enterprise collaboration features

Figma, the design and prototyping tool that aims to offer a web-based alternative to similar tools from the likes of Adobe, is launching a few new features today that will make the service easier to use to collaborate across teams in large organizations. Figma Organization, as the company calls this new feature set, is the company’s first enterprise-grade service that features the kind of controls and security tools that large companies expect. To develop and test these tools, the company partnered with companies like Rakuten, Square, Volvo and Uber, and introduced features like unified billing and audit reports for the admins and shared fonts, browsable teams and organization-wide design systems for the designers.

For designers, one of the most important new features here is probably organization-wide design systems. Figma already had tools to create design systems, of course, but this enterprise version now makes it easier for teams to share libraries and fonts with each other to ensure that the same styles are applied to products and services across a company.

Businesses can now also create as many teams as they would like and admins will get more controls over how files are shared and with whom they can be shared. That doesn’t seem like an especially interesting feature, but because many larger organizations work with customers outside of the company, it’s something that will make Figma more interesting to these large companies.

After working with Figma on these new tools, Uber, for example, moved all of its company over to the service and 90 percent of its product design work now happens on the platform. “We needed a way to get people in the right place at the right time — in the right team with the right assets,” said Jeff Jura, staff product designer who focuses on Uber’s design systems. “Figma does that.”

Other new enterprise features that matter in this context are single sign-on support, activity logs for tracking activities across users, teams, projects and files, and draft ownership to ensure that all the files that have been created in an organization can be recovered after an employee leaves the company.

Figma still offers free and professional tiers (at $12/editor/month). Unsurprisingly, the new Organization tier is a bit more expensive and will cost $45/editor/month.

Dec
11
2018
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InVision, valued at $1.9 billion, picks up $115 million Series F

“The screen is becoming the most important place in the world,” says InVision CEO and founder Clark Valberg . In fact, it’s hard to get through a conversation with him without hearing it. And, considering that his company has grown to $100 million in annual recurring revenue, he has reason to believe his own affirmation.

InVision, the startup looking to be the Salesforce of design, has officially achieved unicorn status with the close of a $115 million Series F round, bringing the company’s total funding to $350 million. This deal values InVision at $1.9 billion, which is nearly double its valuation as of mid-2017 on the heels of its $100 million Series E financing.

Spark Capital led the round, with participation from Goldman Sachs, as well as existing investors Battery Ventures, ICONIQ Capital, Tiger Global Management, FirstMark and Geodesic Capital. Atlassian also participated in the round. Earlier this year, Atlassian and InVision built out much deeper integrations, allowing Jira, Confluence and Trello users to instantly collaborate via InVision.

As part of the deal, Spark Capital’s Megan Quinn will be joining the board alongside existing board members and observers Amish Jani, Lee Fixel, Matthew Jacobson, Mike Kourey, Neeraj Agrawal, Vas Natarajan and Daniel Wolfson.

InVision started in 2011 as a simple prototyping tool. It let designers build out their experience without asking the engineering/dev team to actually build it, to then send to the engineering and product and marketing and executive teams for collaboration and/or approval.

Over the years, the company has stretched its efforts both up and downstream in the process, building out a full collaboration suite called InVision Cloud, so that every member of the organization can be involved in the design process; Studio, a design platform meant to take on the likes of Adobe and Sketch; and InVision Design System Manager, where design teams can manage their assets and best practices from one place.

But perhaps more impressive than InVision’s ability to build design products for designers is its ability to attract users that aren’t designers.

“Originally, I don’t think we appreciated how much the freemium model acted as a flywheel internally within an organization,” said Quinn. “Those designers weren’t just inviting designers from their own team or other teams, but PMs and Marketing and Customer Service and executives to collaborate and approve the designs. From the outside, InVision looks like a design company. But really, they start with the designer as a core customer and spread virally within an organization to serve a multitude.”

InVision has simply dominated prototyping and collaboration, today announcing it has surpassed 5 million users. What’s more, InVision has a wide variety of customers. The startup has a long and impressive list of digital-first customers — including Netflix, Uber, Airbnb and Twitter — but also serves 97 percent of the Fortune 100, with customers like Adidas, General Electric, NASA, IKEA, Starbucks and Toyota.

Part of that can be attributed to the quality of the products, but the fundamental shift to digital (as predicted by Valberg) is most certainly under way. Whether brands like it or not, customers are interacting with them more and more from behind a screen, and digital customer experience is becoming more and more important to all companies.

In fact, a McKinsey study showed that companies that are in the top quartile scores of the McKinsey Design Index outperformed their counterparts in both revenues and total returns to shareholders by as much as a factor of two.

But as with any transition, some folks are averse to change. Valberg identifies industry education and evangelism as two big challenges for InVision.

“Organizations are not quick to change on things like design, which is why we’ve built out a Design Transformation Team,” said Valberg. “The team goes in and gets hands on with brands to help them with new practices and to achieve design maturity within the organization.”

With a fresh $115 million and 5 million users, InVision has just about everything it needs to step into a new tier of competition. Even amongst behemoths like Adobe, which pulled in $2.29 billion in revenue in Q3 alone, InVision has provided products that can both complement and compete.

But Quinn believes the future of InVision rests on execution.

“As with most companies, the biggest challenge will be continued excellence in execution,” said Quinn. “InVision has all the right tail winds with the right team, a great product and excellent customers. It’s all about building and executing ahead of where the pack is going.”

Jun
13
2018
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Microsoft gives Office a refreshed look and feel

Microsoft today announced that it’s bringing a new user interface design to its Office apps like Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. This new look will be in line with the Fluent Design System the company launched last year and will roll out to both the Office.com online apps and the Office desktop tools over the course of the next few months.

Besides the overall switch to the Fluent Design System, which is essentially Microsoft’s take on what Google is doing with Material Design, there are three major changes to the design of the Office apps.

The most obvious is the redesigned and simplified Ribbon — though Microsoft is taking a very cautious approach with rolling this new feature out to all users. While it was a bit controversial when it first launched in Office 2007, most users quickly got used to the Ribbon and Microsoft quickly brought it to virtually all its Windows and online applications. With this update, Microsoft is collapsing the traditional three-row view into a single line that highlights the most important features. Users who want the traditional view can still expand the simplified Ribbon and get that full view.

Microsoft is clearly aware that this is going to be a controversial move, so it’s only launching the new Ribbon for the web version of Word for now. Some Office Insiders will also see it in Outlook for Windows in July. For now, though, the company is holding back on a wider rollout.

“Word, Excel, and PowerPoint on Windows offer our deepest, richest feature set – and they’re the preferred experience for users who want to get the most from our apps,” the company writes in today’s announcement. “Users have a lot of ‘muscle memory’ built around these versions, so we plan on being especially careful with changes that could disrupt their work. We aren’t ready to bring the simplified ribbon to these versions yet because we feel like we need more feedback from a broader set of users first. But when we do, users will always be able to revert back to the classic ribbon with one click.”

The other major visual overhaul here is a new set of colors and icons. Unlike the new Ribbon, these design changes will make their way to all the Office applications soon. The Web version of Word at Office.com will get it first, followed by an Insider release for Word, Excel and PowerPoint on Windows later this month. Outlook for Windows will follow in July, with Outlook for Mac getting it this update in August.

Another new feature that’s less about the design but the user experience is the launch of what Microsoft calls ‘zero query search.” This AI- and Microsoft Graph-powered feature is meant to bring up useful recommendations for your searches every time you place your cursor into the search box. For commercial users, this feature is already live in Office.com, SharePoint Online and the Outlook mobile app. It’ll roll out to Outlook on the web in August.

Apr
03
2018
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InVision acquires design visibility tool Wake

InVision, the NY-based design platform focused on collaboration, has today announced the acquisition of Wake.

Wake is a design tool focused squarely on supporting design visibility throughout a particular organization. Wake allows companies to share design assets and view work in progress as designers build out their screens, logos, or other designs. Design team leaders, or other higher-ups at the company, can upvote certain design projects or give feedback on specific tweaks.

InVision CEO Clark Valberg said that one of the most attractive features of Wake is that sharing on the Wake platform was implicit, rather than on InVision where designers have to take an extra step to upload their prototypes on InVision.

Wake will continue to operate independently within InVision, and Valberg has plans to integrate some of the Wake tools into the InVision core product. Moreover, as part of the deal, Wake will be introducing a free tier.

“We’re in the midst of a shift,” said CEO Clark Valberg. “The screen is the most important place in the world. Every company is now a digital product company. The world of design is growing and the Wake product represents a very interesting philosophical vector of that market.”

The entire Wake team will join InVision. Wake was founded in 2013 by Chris Kalani and Johan Bakken, with a customer list that includes Capital One, Spotify, Palantir, Stripe, and Airbnb. In fact, InVision’s Valberg said that Wake’s customer overlap with InVision was one of the first things that alerted InVision to Wake.

Wake has raised a total of $3.8 million, with investments from First Round and Designer Fund.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Oct
02
2017
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ServiceNow just bought a design firm because even enterprise apps have to look pretty

 ServiceNow is best known for helping large organizations organize field service and help desk activity. Today it bought design firm Telepathy because it knows that offering enterprise-class functionality isn’t enough anymore. Your applications have to look good too.
The company did not reveal the acquisition price
Telepathy is a design firm that was founded in 2001 in San Diego and… Read More

Sep
18
2017
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Goodbye, photo studios. Hello, colormass virtual photoshoots

 Berlin-based colormass, one of the startups presenting today at TechCrunch Disrupt as part of the Battlefield, has developed a platform that lets you recreate an IKEA-style experience for your own merchandise: highly realistic, but digitally manipulated 3D facsimiles. Read More

Jul
04
2017
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Outside of AI, companies are doing less research and more development

 If you’ve been following the headlines in the world of AI, you might be fooled into thinking that corporations are doubling down, rather than withdrawing, from pure research. But on the ground, things are considerably more complicated — tech companies are spending more on the development part of R&D while relying more on cash strapped universities to move the needle on… Read More

Apr
25
2017
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Airbnb’s new open source library lets you design with React and render to Sketch

 Today, Airbnb’s design team open sourced its internal library for writing React components that easily render directly to Sketch. Instead of trying to get Sketch to export to code, the Airbnb team spent its time on the opposite — putting the paintbrush in the hands of the engineer.
Everyday engineers and designers have the luxury of operating without design systems, but large… Read More

Feb
01
2017
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Salesforce acquires Sequence to build out its UX design services

screen-shot-2017-02-02-at-01-31-39 Salesforce has made another acquisition that underscores how the CRM and cloud software giant is looking to sell more services to its customers that complement the software they are already buying. It has acquired Sequence, a user experience design agency based out of San Francisco and New York that works with brands like Best Buy, Peets, Apple, Google and many more. The news was announced… Read More

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