Nov
18
2020
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Will Zoom Apps be the next hot startup platform?

When Zoom announced Zapps last month — the name has since been wisely changed to Zoom Apps — VC Twitter immediately began speculating that Zoom could make the leap from successful video conferencing service to becoming a launching pad for startup innovation. It certainly caught the attention of former TechCrunch writer and current investor at Signal Fire Josh Constine, who tweeted that “Zoom’s new ‘Zapps’ app platform will crush or king-make lots of startups.”

As Zoom usage exploded during the pandemic and it became a key tool for business and education, the idea of using a video conferencing platform to build a set of adjacent tooling makes a lot of sense. While the pandemic will come to an end, we have learned enough about remote work that the need for tools like Zoom will remain long after we get the all-clear to return to schools and offices.

We are already seeing promising startups like Mmhmm, Docket and ClassEdu built with Zoom in mind, and these companies are garnering investor attention. In fact, some investors believe Zoom could be the next great startup ecosystem.

Moving beyond video conferencing

Salesforce paved the way for Zoom more than a decade ago when it opened up its platform to developers and later launched the AppExchange as a distribution channel. Both were revolutionary ideas at the time. Today we are seeing Zoom building on that.

Jim Scheinman, founding managing partner at Maven Ventures and an early Zoom investor (who is credited with naming the company) says he always saw the service as potentially a platform play. “I’ve been saying publicly, before anyone realized it, that Zoom is the next great open platform on which to build billion-dollar businesses,” Scheinman told me.

He says he talked with Zoom leadership about opening up the platform to external developers several years ago before the IPO. It wasn’t really a priority at that point, but COVID-19 pushed the idea to the forefront. “Post-IPO and COVID, with the massive growth of Zoom on both the enterprise and consumer side, it became very clear that an app marketplace is now a critical growth area for Zoom, which creates a huge opportunity for nascent startups to scale,” he said.

Jason Green, founder and managing director at Emergence Capital (another early investor in Zoom and Salesforce) agreed: “Zoom believes that adding capabilities to the core Zoom platform to make it more functional for specific use cases is an opportunity to build an ecosystem of partners similar to what Salesforce did with AppExchange in the past.”

Building the platform

Before a platform can succeed with developers, it requires a critical mass of users, a bar that Zoom has clearly passed. It also needs a set of developer tools to connect to the various services on the platform. Then the substantial user base acts as a ready market for the startup. Finally, it requires a way to distribute those creations in a marketplace.

Zoom has been working on the developer components and brought in industry veteran Ross Mayfield, who has been part of two collaboration startups in his career, to run the developer program. He says that the Zoom Apps development toolset has been designed with flexibility to allow developers to build applications the way that they want.

For starters, Zoom has created WebViews, a way to embed functionality into an application like Zoom. To build WebViews in Zoom, the company created a JS Kit, which in combination with existing Zoom APIs enables developers to build functionality inside the Zoom experience. “So we’re giving developers a lot of flexibility in what experience they create with WebViews plus using our very rich set of API’s that are part of the existing platform and creating some new API’s to create the experience,” he said.

Nov
18
2020
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Grouparoo snares $3M seed to build open source customer data integration framework

Creating a great customer experience requires a lot of data from a variety of sources, and pulling that disparate data together has captured the attention of companies and big and small from Salesforce and Adobe to Segment and Klaviyo. Today, Grouparoo, a new startup from three industry vets is the next company up with an open source framework designed to make it easier for developers to access and make use of customer data.

The company announced a $3 million seed investment led by Eniac Ventures and Fuel Capital with participation from Hack VC, Liquid2, SCM Advisors and several unnamed angel investors.

Grouparoo CEO and co-founder Brian Leonard says that his company has created this open source customer data framework based on his own experience and difficulty getting customer data into the various tools he has been using since he was technical founder at TaskRabbit in 2008.

“We’re an open source data framework that helps companies easily sync their customer data from their database or warehouse to all of the SaaS tools where they need it. [After you] install it, you teach it about your customers, like what properties are important in each of those profiles. And then it allows you to segment them into the groups that matter,” Leonard explained.

This could be something like high earners in San Francisco along with names and addresses. Grouparoo can grab this data and transfer it to a marketing tool like Marketo or Zendesk and these tools could then learn who your VIP customers are.

For now the company is just the three founders Leonard, CTO Evan Tahler and COO Andy Jih, and while he wasn’t ready to commit to how many people he might hire in the next 12 months, he sees it being less than 10. At this early stage, the three co-founders have already been considering how to build a diverse and inclusive company, something he helped contribute to while he was at TaskRabbit.

“So, coming from [what we built at TaskRabbit] and starting something new, it’s important to all three of us to start [building a diverse company] from the beginning, and especially combined with this notion that we’re building something open source. We’ve been talking a lot about being open about our culture and what’s important to us,” he said.

TaskRabbit also comes into play in their investment where Fuel GP Leah Solivan was also founder of TaskRabbit. “Grouparoo is solving a real and acute issue that companies grapple with as they scale — giving every member of the team access to the data they need to drive revenue, acquire customers and improve real-time decision making. Brian, Andy and Evan have developed an elegant solution to an issue we experienced firsthand at TaskRabbit,” she said.

For now the company is taking an open source approach to build a community around the tool. It is still pre-revenue, but the plan is to find a way to build something commercial on top of the open source tooling. They are considering an open core license where they can add features or support or offer the tool as a service. Leonard says that is something they intend to work out in 2021.

Nov
18
2020
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CloudBolt announces $35M Series B debt/equity investment to help manage hybrid cloud

CloudBolt, a Bethesda, Maryland startup that helps companies manage hybrid cloud environments, announced a $35 million Series B investment today. It was split between $15 million in equity investment and $20 million in debt.

Insight Partners provided the equity side of the equation, while Hercules Capital and Bridge Bank supplied the venture debt. The company has now raised more than $61 million in equity and debt, according to Crunchbase data.

CEO Jeff Kukowski says that his company helps customers with cloud and DevOps management including cost control, compliance and security. “We help [our customers] take advantage of the fact that most organizations are already hybrid cloud, multi cloud and/or multi tool. So you have all of this innovation happening in the world, and we make it easier for them to take advantage of it,” he said.

As he sees it, the move to cloud and DevOps, which was supposed to simplify everything, has actually created new complexity, and the tools his company sells are designed to help companies reduce some of that added complexity. What they do is provide a way to automate, secure and optimize their workloads, regardless of the tools or approach to infrastructure they are using.

The company closed the funding round at the end of last quarter and put it to work with a couple of acquisitions — Kumolus and SovLabs — to help accelerate and fill in the road map. Kumolus, which was founded in 2011 and raised $1.7 million, according to Crunchbase, really helps CloudBolt extend its vision from managing on premises to the public cloud.

SovLabs was an early-stage startup working on a very specific problem creating a framework for extending VMware automation.

CloudBolt currently has 170 employees. While Kukowski didn’t want to get specific about the number of additional employees he might be adding to that in the next 12 months, he says that as he does, he thinks about diversity in three ways.

“One is just pure education. So we as a company regularly meet and educate on issues around inclusion, social justice and diversity. We also recruit with those ideas in mind. And then we also have a standing committee within the company that continues to look at issues not only for discussion, but quite frankly for investment in terms of time and fundraising,” he said.

Kukowski says that going remote because of COVID has allowed the company to hire from anywhere, but he still looks forward to a time when he can meet face-to-face with his employees and customers, and sees that as always being part of his company’s culture.

CloudBolt was founded in 2012 and has around 200 customers. Kukowski says that the company is growing between 40% and 50% year over year, although he wouldn’t share specific revenue numbers.

Nov
16
2020
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Gretel announces $12M Series A to make it easier to anonymize data

As companies work with data, one of the big obstacles they face is making sure they are not exposing personally identifiable information (PII) or other sensitive data. It usually requires a painstaking manual effort to strip out that data. Gretel, an early stage startup, wants to change that by making it faster and easier to anonymize data sets. Today the company announced a $12 million Series A led by Greylock. The company has now raised $15.5 million.

Gretel co-founder and CEO Alex Watson says that his company was founded to make it simpler to anonymize data and unlock data sets that were previously out of reach because of privacy concerns.

“As a developer, you want to test an idea or build a new feature, and it can take weeks to get access to the data you need. Then essentially it boils down to getting approvals to get started, then snapshotting a database, and manually removing what looks like personal data and hoping that you got everything,”

Watson, who previously worked as a GM at AWS, believed that there needed to be a faster and more reliable way to anonymize the data, and that’s why he started Gretel. The first product is an open source, synthetic machine learning library for developers that strips out personally identifiable information.

“Developers use our open source library, which trains machine learning models on their sensitive data, then as that training is happening we are enforcing something called differential privacy, which basically ensures that the model doesn’t memorize details about secrets for individual people inside of the data,” he said. The result is a new artificial data set that is anonymized and safe to share across a business.

The company was founded last year, and they have actually used this year to develop the open source product and build an open source community around it. “So our approach and our go-to-market here is we’ve open sourced our underlying libraries, and we will also build a SaaS service that makes it really easy to generate synthetic data and anonymized data at scale,” he said.

As the founders build the company, they are looking at how to build a diverse and inclusive organization, something that they discuss at their regular founders’ meetings, especially as they look to take these investment dollars and begin to hire additional senior people.

“We make a conscious effort to have diverse candidates apply, and to really make sure we reach out to them and have a conversation, and that’s paid off, or is in the process of paying off I would say, with the candidates in our pipeline right now. So we’re excited. It’s tremendously important that we avoid group think that happens so often,” he said.

The company doesn’t have paying customers, but the plan is to build off the relationships it has with design partners and begin taking in revenue next year. Sridhar Ramaswamy, the partner at Greylock, who is leading the investment, says that his firm is placing a bet on a pre-revenue company because he sees great potential for a service like this.

“We think Gretel will democratize safe and controlled access to data for the whole world the way Github democratized source code access and control,” Ramaswamy said.

Nov
12
2020
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Mirantis brings extensions to its Lens Kubernetes IDE, launches a new Kubernetes distro

Earlier this year, Mirantis, the company that now owns Docker’s enterprise business, acquired Lens, a desktop application that provides developers with something akin to an IDE for managing their Kubernetes clusters. At the time, Mirantis CEO Adrian Ionel told me that the company wants to offer enterprises the tools to quickly build modern applications. Today, it’s taking another step in that direction with the launch of an extensions API for Lens that will take the tool far beyond its original capabilities.

In addition to this update to Lens, Mirantis also today announced a new open-source project: k0s. The company describes it as “a modern, 100% upstream vanilla Kubernetes distro that is designed and packaged without compromise.”

It’s a single optimized binary without any OS dependencies (besides the kernel). Based on upstream Kubernetes, k0s supports Intel and Arm architectures and can run on any Linux host or Windows Server 2019 worker nodes. Given these requirements, the team argues that k0s should work for virtually any use case, ranging from local development clusters to private data centers, telco clusters and hybrid cloud solutions.

“We wanted to create a modern, robust and versatile base layer for various use cases where Kubernetes is in play. Something that leverages vanilla upstream Kubernetes and is versatile enough to cover use cases ranging from typical cloud based deployments to various edge/IoT type of cases,” said Jussi Nummelin, senior principal engineer at Mirantis and founder of k0s. “Leveraging our previous experiences, we really did not want to start maintaining the setup and packaging for various OS distros. Hence the packaging model of a single binary to allow us to focus more on the core problem rather than different flavors of packaging such as debs, rpms and what-nots.”

Mirantis, of course, has a bit of experience in the distro game. In its earliest iteration, back in 2013, the company offered one of the first major OpenStack distributions, after all.

Image Credits: Mirantis

As for Lens, the new API, which will go live next week to coincide with KubeCon, will enable developers to extend the service with support for other Kubernetes-integrated components and services.

“Extensions API will unlock collaboration with technology vendors and transform Lens into a fully featured cloud native development IDE that we can extend and enhance without limits,” said Miska Kaipiainen, the co-founder of the Lens open-source project and senior director of engineering at Mirantis. “If you are a vendor, Lens will provide the best channel to reach tens of thousands of active Kubernetes developers and gain distribution to your technology in a way that did not exist before. At the same time, the users of Lens enjoy quality features, technologies and integrations easier than ever.”

The company has already lined up a number of popular CNCF projects and vendors in the cloud-native ecosystem to build integrations. These include Kubernetes security vendors Aqua and Carbonetes, API gateway maker Ambassador Labs and AIOps company Carbon Relay. Venafi, nCipher, Tigera, Kong and StackRox are also currently working on their extensions.

“Introducing an extensions API to Lens is a game-changer for Kubernetes operators and developers, because it will foster an ecosystem of cloud-native tools that can be used in context with the full power of Kubernetes controls, at the user’s fingertips,” said Viswajith Venugopal, StackRox software engineer and developer of KubeLinter. “We look forward to integrating KubeLinter with Lens for a more seamless user experience.”

Nov
12
2020
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Solo.io announces service mesh platform aimed at enterprise customers

Solo.io, a Cambridge, Massachusetts service mesh startup, announced some big changes to its approach today with a full-stack platform of services aimed squarely at the enterprise. The culmination of this will be Gloo Mesh Enterprise, a new product that will be available in beta by the end of the year.

Service meshes are part of a cloud native, containerized approach to development that enable micro services to communicate with one another.

Idit Levine, founder and CEO at Solo, says that she began by creating individual components since launching the company in 2017 because she knew that it was early for service meshes. Today’s announcement is about bringing all of these components the company has created into a more coherent and connected enterprise product.

While she was worried at first that the pandemic would have a negative impact on business, she says that her company has been busier than ever and today’s announcement is really about giving customers what they have been asking for throughout this tumultuous year.

Most of Solo’s customers are running Kubernetes and they needed some missing pieces that Solo was happy to provide for them. The first problem is the primary reason the company started, which was to manage service meshes, and Gloo Mesh, which is based on the open-source Istio service mesh, helps developers manage their service mesh clusters.

Another problem involved running containers at the edge, which required an API gateway. To that end, the company announced Gloo Edge, an API gateway built on the Envoy Proxy, an edge service proxy. Running applications at the edge means they get the resources they need to improve performance and save bandwidth.

The third piece is called Gloo Portal. This provides a centralized, self-service catalog of services that developers can tap into as they are building their applications. The final piece is Gloo Extensions, which provides a way for developers to access or build extensions called web assembly modules.

All of these pieces are available as open source, but companies that want additional functionality and support and a way to connect all of these pieces will need to buy the enterprise product. Among the additional features in the enterprise version is the ability to apply roles to the APIs in Gloo Edge to control who has access. Gloo Mesh users get production Istio support including updates and patches. It also includes a dashboard for managing clusters and developer tools for building web assembly pieces in Gloo Extension.

The company has raised more than $36 million, according to PitchBook data. The most recent deal was $23 million in September. Levine says the startup has several dozen large customers at this point, and 35 employees. She said she is actively hiring and expects to be at 50 soon.

Nov
11
2020
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Mozart Data lands $4M seed to provide out-of-the-box data stack

Mozart Data founders Peter Fishman and Dan Silberman have been friends for over 20 years, working at various startups, and even launching a hot sauce company together along the way. As technologists, they saw companies building a data stack over and over. They decided to provide one for them and Mozart Data was born.

The company graduated from the Y Combinator Summer 2020 cohort in August and announced a $4 million seed round today led by Craft Ventures and Array Ventures with participation from Coelius Capital, Jigsaw VC, Signia VC, Taurus VC and various angel investors.

In spite of the detour into hot sauce, the two founders were mostly involved in data over the years and they formed strong opinions about what a data stack should look like. “We wanted to bring the same stack that we’ve been building at all these different startups, and make it available more broadly,” Fishman told TechCrunch.

They see a modern data stack as one that has different databases, SaaS tools and data sources. They pull it together, process it and make it ready for whatever business intelligence tool you use. “We do all of the parts before the BI tool. So we extract and load the data. We manage a data warehouse for you under the hood in Snowflake, and we provide a layer for you to do transformations,” he said.

The service is aimed mostly at technical people who know some SQL like data analysts, data scientists and sales and marketing operations. They founded the company earlier this year with their own money, and joined Y Combinator in June. Today, they have about a dozen customers and six employees. They expect to add 10-12 more in the next year.

Fishman says they have mostly hired from their networks, but have begun looking outward as they make their next hires with a goal of building a diverse company. In fact, they have made offers to several diverse candidates, who didn’t ultimately take the job, but he believes if you start looking at the top of the funnel, you will get good results. “I think if you spend a lot of energy in terms of top of funnel recruiting, you end up getting a good, diverse set at the bottom,” he said.

The company has been able to start from scratch in the midst of a pandemic and add employees and customers because the founders had a good network to pitch the product to, but they understand that moving forward they will have to move outside of that. They plan to use their experience as users to drive their message.

“I think talking about some of the whys and the rationale is our strategy for adding value to customers […], it’s about basically how would we set up a data stack if we were at this type of startup,” he said.

Nov
02
2020
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AWS launches its next-gen GPU instances

AWS today announced the launch of its newest GPU-equipped instances. Dubbed P4d, these new instances are launching a decade after AWS launched its first set of Cluster GPU instances. This new generation is powered by Intel Cascade Lake processors and eight of Nvidia’s A100 Tensor Core GPUs. These instances, AWS promises, offer up to 2.5x the deep learning performance of the previous generation — and training a comparable model should be about 60% cheaper with these new instances.

Image Credits: AWS

For now, there is only one size available, the p4d.24xlarge instance, in AWS slang, and the eight A100 GPUs are connected over Nvidia’s NVLink communication interface and offer support for the company’s GPUDirect interface as well.

With 320 GB of high-bandwidth GPU memory and 400 Gbps networking, this is obviously a very powerful machine. Add to that the 96 CPU cores, 1.1 TB of system memory and 8 TB of SSD storage and it’s maybe no surprise that the on-demand price is $32.77 per hour (though that price goes down to less than $20/hour for one-year reserved instances and $11.57 for three-year reserved instances.

Image Credits: AWS

On the extreme end, you can combine 4,000 or more GPUs into an EC2 UltraCluster, as AWS calls these machines, for high-performance computing workloads at what is essentially a supercomputer-scale machine. Given the price, you’re not likely to spin up one of these clusters to train your model for your toy app anytime soon, but AWS has already been working with a number of enterprise customers to test these instances and clusters, including Toyota Research Institute, GE Healthcare and Aon.

“At [Toyota Research Institute], we’re working to build a future where everyone has the freedom to move,” said Mike Garrison, Technical Lead, Infrastructure Engineering at TRI. “The previous generation P3 instances helped us reduce our time to train machine learning models from days to hours and we are looking forward to utilizing P4d instances, as the additional GPU memory and more efficient float formats will allow our machine learning team to train with more complex models at an even faster speed.”

Nov
02
2020
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Twilio wraps $3.2B purchase of Segment after warp-speed courtship

It was barely a month ago we began hearing rumors that Twilio was interested in acquiring Segment. The $3.2 billion deal was officially announced three weeks ago, and this morning the communications API company announced that the deal had closed, astonishingly fast for an acquisition of this size.

While we can’t know for sure, the speed with which the deal closed could suggest that it was in the works longer than we had known, and when we began hearing rumors of the acquisition, it could have already been signed, sealed and delivered. In addition, the fact that Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson and Segment CEO Peter Reinhardt knew one another before coming to terms might have helped accelerate the process.

Regardless, the two companies are a nice fit. Both deal with the API economy, providing a set of tools to help developers easily add a particular set of functions to their applications. For Twilio, that’s a set of communications APIs, while Segment focuses on customer data.

When you pull the two sets of tooling together, and combine that with Twilio’s 2018 SendGrid acquisition, you can see the possibility to build more complete applications for interacting with customers at every level, including basic communications like video, SMS and audio from Twilio, as well as customer data from Segment and customized emails and ads based on those interactions from SendGrid.

As companies increasingly focus on digital engagement, especially in the midst of a pandemic, Twilio’s Lawson believes the biggest roadblock to this type of engagement has been that data has been locked in silos, precisely the kind of problem that Segment has been attacking.

“With the addition of Segment, Twilio’s Customer Engagement Platform now enables companies to both understand their customer and engage with them digitally — the combination is key to building great digital experiences,” Lawson said in a statement.

In a recent post looking at the reasoning behind the deal, Brent Leary, founder and principal analyst at CRM Essentials, saw it this way: “This move allows Twilio to impact the data-insight-interaction-experience transformation process by removing friction from developers using their platform,” Leary explained.

With the deal closed, Segment will become a division of Twilio. Reinhardt will continue to be CEO, and will report directly to Lawson.

Oct
29
2020
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Redpoint and Sequoia are backing a startup to copyedit your shit code

Code is the lifeblood of the modern world, yet the tooling for some programming environments can be remarkably spartan. While developers have long had access to graphical programming environments (IDEs) and performance profilers and debuggers, advanced products to analyze and improve lines of code have been harder to find.

These days, the most typical tool in the kit is a linter, which scans through code pointing out flaws that might cause issues. For instance, there might be too many spaces on a line, or a particular line might have a well-known ambiguity that could cause bugs that are hard to diagnose and would best be avoided.

What if we could expand the power of linters to do a lot more though? What if programmers had an assistant that could analyze their code and actively point out new security issues, erroneous code, style problems and bad logic?

Static code analysis is a whole interesting branch of computer science, and some of those ideas have trickled into the real-world with tools like semgrep, which was developed at Facebook to add more robust code-checking tools to its developer workflow. Semgrep is an open-source project, and it’s being commercialized through r2c, a startup that wants to bring the power of this tool to the developer masses.

The whole project has found enough traction among developers that Satish Dharmaraj at Redpoint and Jim Goetz at Sequoia teamed up to pour $13 million into the company for its Series A round, and also backed the company in an earlier, unannounced seed round.

The company was founded by three MIT grads — CEO Isaac Evans and Drew Dennison were roommates in college, and they joined up with head of product Luke O’Malley. Across their various experiences, they have worked at Palantir, the intelligence community, and Fortune 500 companies, and when Evans and Dennison were EIRs at Redpoint, they explored ideas based on what they had seen in their wide-ranging coding experiences.

The r2c team, which I assume only writes bug-free code. Image by r2c.

“Facebook, Apple, and Amazon are so far ahead when it comes to what they do at the code level to bake security [into their products compared to] other companies, it’s really not even funny,” Evans explained. The big tech companies have massively scaled their coding infrastructure to ensure uniform coding standards, but few others have access to the talent or technology to be on an equal playing field. Through r2c and semgrep, the founders want to close the gap.

With r2c’s technology, developers can scan their codebases on-demand or enforce a regular code check through their continuous integration platform. The company provides its own template rulesets (“rule packs”) to check for issues like security holes, complicated errors and other potential bugs, and developers and companies can add their own custom rulesets to enforce their own standards. Currently, r2c supports eight programming languages, including JavaScript and Python, and a variety of frameworks, and it is actively working on more compatibility.

One unique focus for r2c has been getting developers onboard with the model. The core technology remains open-sourced. Evans said that “if you actually want something that’s going to get broad developer adoption, it has to be predominantly open source so that developers can actually mess with it and hack on it and see whether or not it’s valuable without having to worry about some kind of super restrictive license.”

Beyond its model, the key has been getting developers to actually use the tool. No one likes bugs, and no developer wants to find more bugs that they have to fix. With semgrep and r2c though, developers can get much more immediate and comprehensive feedback — helping them fix tricky errors before they move on and forget the context of what they were engineering.

“I think one of the coolest things for us is that none of the existing tools in the space have ever been adopted by developers, but for us, it’s about 50/50 developer teams who are getting excited about it versus security teams getting excited about it,” Evans said. Developers hate finding more bugs, but they also hate writing them in the first place. Evans notes that the company’s key metric is the number of bugs found that are actually fixed by developers, indicating that they are offering “good, actionable results” through the product. One area that r2c has explored is actively patching obvious bugs, saving developers time.

Breaches, errors and downtime are a bedrock of software, but it doesn’t have to be that way. With more than a dozen employees and a hefty pool of capital, r2c hopes to improve the reliability of all the experiences we enjoy — and save developers time in the process.

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