Oct
20
2020
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Dublin’s LearnUpon raises $56M for its online learning management system for enterprises

One big technology by-product of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a much stronger focus on online education solutions — providing the tools for students to continue learning when the public health situation is preventing them from going into physical classrooms. As it happens, that paradigm also applies to the business world.

Today, a startup out of Dublin called LearnUpon, which has been building e-learning solutions not for schools but corporates to use for development and training, has raised $56 million to feed a growth in demand for its tools, particularly in the U.S. market, which currently accounts for 70% of LearnUpon’s sales.

The funding is coming from a single investor, Summit Partners . LearnUpon’s CEO and co-founder Brendan Noud said the capital will be used in two areas. First, to add more people to the startup’s engineering and product teams (it has 180 employees currently) to continue expanding in areas like data analytics, providing more insights to its customers on how their training materials are used on via its learning management system (commonly referred to as LMS in the industry). Second, to bring on more people to help sell the product particularly in countries where it is currently growing fast, like the U.S., to larger corporate clients.

LearnUpon already has some 1,000 customers globally, including Booking.com, Twilio, USA Football and Zendesk. And notably, eight-year-old LearnUpon was profitable and had only raised $1.5 million before now.

“We’ve been growing organically pretty fast since we started but especially for the last 4-5 years using a SaaS model, but now we’re at a scale where the opportunity is vast, especially with more people working from home,” he said. “We want to give ourselves firepower.”

Corporate learning has followed similar but not identical trajectory to that of online education for K-12 and higher learning. In common, especially in the last 8 months. has been a growing need to engage and connect with learners at a time when it’s been challenging, or in some cases impossible, to see each other in person.

What’s different is that corporate learning was already a very established market, with organizations widely investing in online tools to manage training and personal development for years before any pandemic necessitated it.

Areas like employee onboarding, personnel development, customer training, training on new products, partner training, sales development, compliance, and building training services that you then sell to third parties are all areas that count as corporate learning. One researcher estimated that the corporate learning market was valued at an eye-watering $64 billion in 2019, with LMS investments alone at over $9 billion that year, and both are growing.

That has been a boost for companies like LearnUpon, which provides services in all of those categories and says that annual recurring revenues have grown by more than 50% year-on-year for each of the last 12 quarters.

But that also underscores the challenge in the market.

“It’s definitely a very crowded space, with maybe over 1000 LMS’s out there,” said Noud, although he added that it only has about 10-15 actually direct competitors (which to me still sounds like quite a lot). They include the likes of Cornerstone, TalentLMS from the Greek startup Epignosis, the Candian publicly-traded Docebo, and 360Learning from France.

But also consider those that have moved into corporate learning from other directions. LinkedIn has made big moves into learning to complement its bigger recruitment and professional development profile; and companies originally built to target the education sector, such as Coursera and Kahoot, have also expanded into business training and education. Both represent further competitive fronts for companies like LearnUpon natively built to service the business market.

Noud said that one reason why LearnUpon is finding some traction against the rest of the pack, and why it’s better, is because it’s a more comprehensive platform. Users can run live or asynchronous (on-demand) learning or training, and the SaaS LMS is designed to handle material and learning environments for multiple “students” — be they internal users, partners of the organization, or customers. In contrast, he said that many other solutions are more narrow in their scope, requiring organizations to manage multiple systems.

“And the legacy platforms are overly bloated, with bad customer support, which was a key area for us,” he said, recalling back to eight years ago when he and co-founder Des Anderson were first starting LearnUpon. “Our first hire was in customer support, and that has carried through to how we have grown.”

One area where LearnUpon not doing anything right now is in content development. It does offer tools to construct tests and surveys, but users can also import content created with other e-learning authoring tools, Noud said. Similarly, it’s not in the business of building its own live teaching platforms: you can import links from others like Zoom to provide the platform where people will teach and engage.

That’s not going to be a focus for now for the company, but given that others it competes with are providing a one-stop shop, for those that are looking to simplify procurement and have a more direct hand in building training as well as managing it, you can see how this might be an area that LearnUpon might develop down the line.

“In today’s knowledge economy, we believe corporate learning has become a key requirement for all organizations of scale – and the added challenge of remote working has only accelerated the importance of delivering learning digitally,” said Antony Clavel, a Principal with Summit Partners, in a statement. “With its modern, cloud-based learning management system, strong product development organization, demonstrated dedication to customer success and capital efficient go-to-market model, we believe LearnUpon is strongly positioned to serve this growing and increasingly critical market need. We are thrilled to support Brendan and the LearnUpon team in this next phase of growth.”

Clavel is joining the LearnUpon Board of Directors with this round. The startup is not disclosing its valuation.

Sep
16
2020
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User-generated e-learning site Kahoot acquires Actimo for up to $33M to double down on corporate sector

Norwegian company Kahoot originally made its name with a platform that lets educators and students create and share game-based online learning lessons, in the process building up a huge public catalogue of gamified lessons created by its community. Today the startup — now valued at more than $2 billion — is announcing an acquisition to give a boost to another segment of its business: corporate customers.

Kahoot has acquired Danish startup Actimo, which provides a platform for businesses to train and engage with employees. Kahoot said that the purchase is being made with a combination of cash and shares, and works out to a total enterprise value of between $26 million and $33 million for the smaller company, with the sale expected to be completed in October 2020.

It may sound like a modest sum in a tech market where companies are currently and regularly seeing paper valuations in the hundreds of millions at Series A stage, but it also presents a different kind of trajectory both for founders and their investors.

This is actually a strong exit for Actimo, which had raised less than $500,000, according to data from PitchBook. And it puts Actimo under the wing of a company that has been scaling globally fast, finding — like others in the areas of online education and remote working — that the current state of social distancing due to COVID-19 is resulting in a boost to its business.

To give you an idea of the scale and growth of Kahoot, the company says that currently it has over 1 billion “participating players,” on top of some 4.4 billion users in aggregate since first launching the platform in 2013. In the last 12 months, some 200 million games have been played on its platform. In June, when Kahoot announced that it had raised $28 million in funding, it told us that 100 million games had been played.

In light of its growth and the future opportunity — even putting aside the progression of the coronavirus, it looks like remote work and remote learning will at least become a lot more common as a longer-term option — the company has also seen a rise in its valuation. With some of its shares traded on the Merkur Market in Norway, the company currently has a market cap of 18.716 billion Norwegian Krone, which at today’s rates is about $2.08 billion. That figure was $1.4 billion in June.

Kahoot’s targeting of the corporate sector is not new. The company has been building a business in this space for years. It says that in the last 12 months, it logged 2 million sessions across 20 million participating “players” of its corporate training “games,” with some 97% of the Fortune 500 among those users. Customers include the likes of Facebook (for sales training), Oyo (hospitality training and onboarding) and Qualys (for taking polls during a conference), among others.

Critically, while a lot of Kahoot’s audience is in education, it’s corporate that most of the revenues come in —  one reason why it’s keen to grow that segment with more services and users.

The aim with Actimo, Kahoot says, is to build out a product set aimed at helping organisations with company culture — which, with many organisations now going on eight months and counting of entire teams working regularly outside of their physical offices, has grown as a priority.

Keeping a team feeling like a team, and an individual feeling more than a transactional regard for an employer, is not a simple thing in the best of times. Now, as we continue to work physically away from each other, it will take even more tools and efforts to get the balance right.

In that context, Actimo’s solution is just one aspect, but potentially an interesting one: it has built a platform where employees can track the training that they have done or need to do, engage with other co-workers, and provide feedback, and employers can use it to generally track and encourage how employees are engaging across the company and its various efforts. It counts some 200 enterprises, including Circle K, Hi3G and Compass Group, among its customers, and has current ARR of $5 million.

For comparison, Kahoot, in its Q2 financials published in August, reported ARR of $25 million, with invoiced revenue for the quarter at $9.6 million, growing some 317% on the same quarter a year before. The company has also raised some $110 million in private funding from the likes of Microsoft and Disney.

As Kahoot looks to find more than just a transient place in a company’s IT and software fabric — transience of attention always being a risk with anything gaming-based — it makes a lot of sense to pick up Actimo and work on ways of coupling the platform with its other corporate work. You can also imagine a time when it might create a similar kind of dashboard for the educational sector.

“We are excited to welcome the Actimo team to be part of the fast-growing Kahoot! family,” said Kahoot CEO, Eilert Hanoa, in a statement. “This acquisition will further extend Kahoot!’s corporate learning offerings, by providing solutions tailored for the frontline segment, as well as to solidify company culture and engagement among remote and distributed teams in companies of all types and sizes. This continues our expressed ambition to also grow through M&A by adding strategic capabilities that we can leverage across our global platform.”

“We are thrilled to join forces with Kahoot! in our mission to develop next-level solutions that connect remote employees and boost employee engagement and productivity,” said Eske Gunge, CEO at Actimo, in a statement. “Being part of Kahoot! and with our experience from working with innovative and ambitious enterprises across industries, we can together set a new standard for corporate learning and engagement.”

Sep
01
2020
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12 Paris-based VCs look at the state of their city

Four years after the Great Recession, France’s newly elected socialist president François Hollande raised taxes and increased regulations on founder-led startups. The subsequent flight of entrepreneurs to places like London and Silicon Valley portrayed France as a tough place to launch a company. By 2016, France’s national statistics bureau estimated that about three million native-born citizens had moved abroad.

Those who remained fought back: The Family was an early accelerator that encouraged French entrepreneurs to adopt Silicon Valley’s startup methodology, and the 2012 creation of Bpifrance, a public investment bank, put money into the startup ecosystem system via investors. Organizers founded La French Tech to beat the drum about native startups.

When President Emmanuel Macron took office in May 2017, he scrapped the wealth tax on everything except property assets and introduced a flat 30% tax rate on capital gains. Station F, a giant startup campus funded by billionaire entrepreneur Xavier Niel on the site of a former railway station, began attracting international talent. Tony Fadell, one of the fathers of the iPod and founder of Nest Labs, moved to Paris to set up investment firm Future Shape; VivaTech was created with government backing to become one of Europe’s largest startup conference and expos.

Now, in the COVID-19 era, the government has made €4 billion available to entrepreneurs to keep the lights on. According to a recent report from VC firm Atomico, there are 11 unicorns in France, including BlaBlaCar, OVHcloud, Deezer and Veepee. More appear to be coming; last year Macron said he wanted to see “25 French unicorns by 2025.”

According to Station F, by the end of August, there had been 24 funding rounds led by international VCs and a few big transactions. Enterprise artificial intelligence and machine-learning platform Dataiku raised a $100 million Series D round, and Paris-based gaming startup Voodoo raised an undisclosed amount from Tencent Holdings.

We asked 12 Paris-based investors to comment on the state of play in their city:

Alison Imbert, Partech

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?

All the fintechs addressing SMBs to help them to focus more on their core business (including banks disintermediation by fintech, new infrastructures tech that are lowering the barrier to entry to nonfintech companies).

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?

77foods (plant-based bacon) — love that alternative proteins trend as well. Obviously, we need to transform our diet toward more sustainable food. It’s the next challenge for humanity.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Impact investment: Logistic companies tackling the life cycle of products to reduce their carbon footprint and green fintech that reinvent our spending and investment strategy around more sustainable products.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
D2C products.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
100% investing in France as I’m managing Paris Saclay Seed Fund, a €53 million fund, investing in pre-seed and seed startups launched by graduates and researchers from the best engineering and business schools from this ecosystem.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Deep tech, biotech and medical devices. Paris, and France in general, has thousands of outstanding engineers that graduate each year. Researchers are more and more willing to found companies to have a true impact on our society. I do believe that the ecosystem is more and more structured to help them to build such companies.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Paris is booming for sure. It’s still behind London and Berlin probably. But we are seeing more and more European VC offices opening in the city to get direct access to our ecosystem. Even in seed rounds, we start to have European VCs competing against us. It’s good — that means that our startups are moving to the next level.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
For sure startups will more and more push for remote organizations. It’s an amazing way to combine quality of life for employees and attracting talent. Yet I don’t think it will be the majority. Not all founders are willing/able to build a fully remote company. It’s an important cultural choice and it’s adapted to a certain type of business. I believe in more flexible organization (e.g., tech team working remotely or 1-2 days a week for any employee).

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Travel and hospitality sectors are of course hugely impacted. Yet there are opportunities for helping those incumbents to face current challenges (e.g., better customer care and services, stronger flexibility, cost reduction and process automation).

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Cash is king more than ever before. My only piece of advice will be to keep a good level of cash as we have a limited view on events coming ahead. It’s easy to say but much more difficult to put in practice (e.g., to what extend should I reduce my cash burn? Should I keep on investing in the product? What is the impact on the sales team?). Startups should focus only on what is mission-critical for their clients. Yet it doesn’t impact our seed investments as we invest pre-revenue and often pre-product.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
There is no reason to be hopeless. Crises have happened in the past. Humanity has faced other pandemics. Humans are resilient and resourceful enough to adapt to a new environment and new constraints.

May
18
2020
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GO1, an enterprise learning platform, picks up $40M from Microsoft, Salesforce and more

With a large proportion of knowledge workers doing now doing their jobs from home, the need for tools to help them feel connected to their profession can be as important as tools to, more practically, keep them connected. Today, a company that helps do precisely that is announcing a growth round of funding after seeing engagement on its platform triple in the last month.

GO1.com, an online learning platform focused specifically on professional training courses (both those to enhance a worker’s skills as well as those needed for company compliance training), is today announcing that it has raised $40 million in funding, a Series C that it plans to use to continue expanding its business. The startup was founded in Brisbane, Australia and now has operations also based out of San Francisco — it was part of a Y Combinator cohort back in 2015 — and more specifically, it wants to continue growth in North America, and to continue expanding its partner network.

GO1 not disclosing its valuation but we are asking. It’s worth pointing out that not only has it seen engagement triple in the last month as companies turn to online learning to keep users connected to their professional lives even as they work among children and house pets, noisy neighbours, dirty laundry, sourdough starters, and the rest (and that’s before you count the harrowing health news we are hit with on a regular basis). But even beyond that, longer term GO1 has shown some strong signs that speak of its traction.

It counts the likes of the University of Oxford, Suzuki, Asahi and Thrifty among its 3,000+ customers, with more than 1.5 million users overall able to access over 170,000 courses and other resources provided by some 100 vetted content partners. Overall usage has grown five-fold over the last 12 months. (GO1 works both with in-house learning management systems or provides its own.)

“GO1’s growth over the last couple of months has been unprecedented and the use of online tools for training is now undergoing a structural shift,” said Andrew Barnes, CEO of GO1, in a statement. “It is gratifying to fill an important void right now as workers embrace online solutions. We are inspired about the future that we are building as we expand our platform with new mediums that reach millions of people every day with the content they need.”

The funding is coming from a very strong list of backers: it’s being co-led by Madrona Venture Group and SEEK — the online recruitment and course directory company that has backed a number of edtech startups, including FutureLearn and Coursera — with participation also from Microsoft’s venture arm M12; new backer Salesforce Ventures, the investing arm of the CRM giant; and another previous backer, Our Innovation Fund.

Microsoft is a strategic backer: GO1 integrated with Teams, so now users can access GO1 content directly via Microsoft’s enterprise-facing video and messaging platform.

“GO1 has been critical for business continuity as organizations navigate the remote realities of COVID-19,” said Nagraj Kashyap, Microsoft Corporate Vice President and Global Head of M12, in a statement. “The GO1 integration with Microsoft Teams offers a seamless learning experience at a time when 75 million people are using the application daily. We’re proud to invest in a solution helping keep employees learning and businesses growing through this time.”

Similarly, Salesforce is also coming in as a strategic, integrating this into its own online personal development products and initiatives.

“We are excited about partnering with GO1 as it looks to scale its online content hub globally. While the majority of corporate learning is done in person today, we believe the new digital imperative will see an acceleration in the shift to online learning tools. We believe GO1 fits well into the Trailhead ecosystem and our vision of creating the life-long learner journey,” said Rob Keith, Head of Australia, Salesforce Ventures, in a statement.

Working remotely has raised a whole new set of challenges for organizations, especially those whose employees typically have never before worked for days, weeks and months outside of the office.

Some of these have been challenges of a more basic IT nature: getting secure access to systems on the right kinds of machines and making sure people can communicate in the ways that they need to to get work done.

But others are more nuanced and long-term but actually just as important, such as making sure people remain in a healthy state of mind about work. Education is one way of getting them on the right track: professional development is not only useful for the person to do her or his job better, but it’s a way to motivate people, to focus their minds, and take a rest from their routines, but in a way that still remains relevant to work.

GO1 is absolutely not the only company pursuing this opportunity. Others include Udemy and Coursera, which have both come to enterprise after initially focusing more on traditional education plays. And LinkedIn Learning (which used to be known as Lynda, before LinkedIn acquired it and shifted the branding) was a trailblazer in this space.

For these, enterprise training sits in a different strategic place to GO1, which started out with compliance training and onboarding of employees before gravitating into a much wider set of topics that range from photography and design, through to Java, accounting, and even yoga and mindfulness training and everything in between.

It’s perhaps the directional approach, alongside its success, that have set GO1 apart from the competition and that has attracted the investment, which seems to have come ahead even of the current boost in usage.

“We met GO1 many months before COVID-19 was on the tip of everyone’s tongue and were impressed then with the growth of the platform and the ability of the team to expand their corporate training offering significantly in North America and Europe,” commented S. Somasegar, managing director, Madrona Venture Group, in a statement. “The global pandemic has only increased the need to both provide training and retraining – and also to do it remotely. GO1 is an important link in the chain of recovery.” As part of the funding Somasegar will join the GO1 board of directors.

Notably, GO1 is currently making all COVID-19 related learning resources available for free “to help teams continue to perform and feel supported during this time of disruption and change,” the company said.

Apr
03
2020
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In the wake of COVID-19, UK puts up £20M in grants to develop resilience tech for critical industries

Most of the world — despite the canaries in the coal mine — was unprepared to cope with the coronavirus outbreak that’s now besieging us. Now, work is starting to get underway both to help manage what is going on now and better prepare us in the future. In the latest development, the UK government today announced that it will issue £20 million ($24.5 million) in grants of up to £50,000 each to startups and other businesses that are developing tools to improve resilience for critical industries — in other words, those that need to keep moving when something cataclysmic like a pandemic hits.

You can start your application here. Unlike a lot of other government efforts, this one is aimed at a quick start: you need to be ready to kick of your project using the grant no later than June 2020, but earlier is okay, too.

Awarded through Innovate UK, which part of UK Research and Innovation (itself a division of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), the grants will be available to businesses of any size as long as they are UK-registered, and aim to cover a wide swathe of industries that form the core fabric of how society and the economy can continue to operate.

“The Covid-19 situation is not just a health emergency, but also one that effects the economy and society. With that in mind, Innovate UK has launched this rapid response competition today seeking smart ideas from innovators,” said Dr Ian Campbell Executive Chair, Innovate UK, in a statement. “These could be proposals to help the distribution of goods, educate children remotely, keep families digitally connected and even new ideas to stream music and entertainment. The UK needs a great national effort and Innovate UK is helping by unleashing the power of innovation for people and businesses in need.”

These include not just what are typically considered “critical” industries like healthcare and food production and distribution, but also those that are less tangible but equally important in keeping society running smoothly, like entertainment and wellbeing services:

  • community support services
  • couriers and delivery (rural and/or city based)
  • education and culture
  • entertainment (live entertainment, music, etc.)
  • financial services
  • food manufacture and processing
  • healthcare
  • hospitality
  • personal protection equipment
  • remote working
  • retail
  • social care
  • sport and recreation
  • transport
  • wellbeing

The idea is to introduce new technologies and processes that will support existing businesses and organizations, not use the funding to build new startups from scratch. Those getting the funding could already be businesses in these categories, or building tools to help companies that fall under these themes.

The grants were announced at a time where we are seeing a huge surge of companies step up to the challenge of helping communities and countries cope with COVID-19. That’s included not only those that already made medical supplies increase production, but a number of other businesses step in and try to help where they can, or recalibrate what they normally do to make their factories or other assets more useful. (For example, in the UK, Rolls Royce, Airbus and the Formula 1 team are all working on ventilators and other hospital equipment, a model of industry retooling that has been seen in many other countries, too.)

That trend is what helped to inspire this newest wave of non-equity grants.

“The response of researchers and businesses to the coronavirus outbreak have been remarkable,” said Science Minister Amanda Solloway in a statement. “This new investment will support the development of technologies that can help industries, communities and individuals adapt to new ways of working when situations like this, and other incidents, arise.”

The remit here is intentionally open-ended but will likely be shaped by some of the shortcomings and cracks that have been appearing in recent weeks while systems get severely stress-tested.

So, unsurprisingly, the sample innovations that UK Innovate cites appear to directly relate to that. They include things like technology to help respond to spikes in online consumer demand — every grocery service in the online and physical world has been overwhelmed by customer traffic, leading to sites crashing, people leaving stores disappointed at what they cannot find, and general panic. Or services for families to connect with and remotely monitor vulnerable relatives: while Zoom and the rest have seen huge surges in traffic, there are still too many people on the other side of the digital divide who cannot access or use these. And better education tools: again, there are thousands of edtech companies in the world, but in the UK at least, I wouldn’t say that the educational authorities had done even a small degree of disaster planning, leaving individual schools to scramble and figure out ways to keep teaching remotely that works for everyone (again not always easy with digital divides, safeguarding and other issues).

None of this can cure coronavirus or stop another pandemic from happening — there are plenty of others that are working very squarely on that now, too — but these are equally critical to get right to make sure that a health disaster doesn’t extend into a more permanent economic or societal one.

More information and applications are here.

Mar
16
2020
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Torch & Everwise merge into affordable exec coaching for all

While companies might pay for a CEO coach, lower level employees often get stuck with lame skill-building worksheets or no mentorship at all. Not only does that limit their potential productivity, but it also makes them feel stagnated and undervalued, leading them to jump ship.

Therapy… err… executive coaching is finally becoming destigmatized as entrepreneurs and their teams realize that everyone can’t be crushing it all the time. Building a business is hard. It’s okay to cry sometimes. But the best thing you can do is be vulnerable and seek help.

Torch emerged from stealth last year with $18 million in funding to teach empathy to founders and C-suite execs. Since 2013, Everwise has raised $26 million from Sequoia and others for its peer-to-peer mentorship marketplace that makes workplace guidance accessible to rank-and-file staffers. Tomorrow they’ll official announce their merger under the Torch name to become a full-stack career coach for every level of employee.

“As human beings, we face huge existential challenges in the form of pandemics, climate change, the threats coming down the pipe from automation and AI” says Torch co-founder and CEO Cameron Yarbrough. “We need to create leaders at every single level of an organization and ignite these people with tools and human support in order to level up in the world.”

Startup acquisitions and mergers can often be train wrecks because companies with different values but overlapping products are jammed together. But apparently it’s gone quite smoothly since the products are so complementary, with all 70 employees across the two companies keeping their jobs. “Everwise is much more bottom up whereas Torch is about the upper levels, and it just sort of made sense” says Garry Tan, partner and co-founder of Initialized Capital that funded Torch’s Series A and is also a client of its coaching.

How does each work? Torch goes deep, conducting extensive 360-interviews with an executive as well as their reports, employees, and peers to assess their empathy, communication, vision, conflict resolution, and collaboration. Clients’ executives do extensive 360-interviews. It establishes quantifiable goals that executives work towards through video call sessions with Torch’s coaches. They learn about setting healthy workplace boundaries, staying calm amidst arguments, motivating staff without seeming preachy, and managing their own ego.

This coaching can be exceedingly valuable for the leaders setting a company’s strategy and tone. But the one-on-one sessions are typically too expensive to buy for all levels of employees. That’s where Everwise comes in.

Everwise goes wide, offering a marketplace with 6,000 mentors across different job levels and roles that can provide more affordable personal guidance or group sessions with 10 employees all learning from each other. It also provides a mentorship platform where bigger companies can let their more senior staffers teach junior employees exactly what it takes to succeed. That’s all stitched together with a curated and personalized curriculum of online learning materials. Meanwhile, a company’s HR team can track everyone’s progress and performance through its Academy Builder dashboard.

“We know Gen Z has grown up with mentors by their side from SAT prep” says Torch CMO Cari Jacobs. Everwise lets them stay mentored, even at early stages of their professional life. “As they advance through their career, they might notch up to more executive private coaching.” Post-merger, Torch can keep them sane and ambitious throughout the journey. 

“It really allows us to move up market without sacrificing all the traction we’ve built working with startups and mid-market companies,” Yarbrough tells me. Clients have included Reddit and ZenDesk, but also giants like Best Buy, Genentech, and T-Mobile.

The question is whether Everwise’s materials are engaging enough to not become just another employee handbook buried on an HR site that no one ever reads. Otherwise, it could just feel like bloat tacked onto Torch. Meanwhile, scaling up to bigger clients pits Torch against long-standing pillars of the executive coaching industry like Aon and Korn Ferry that have been around for decades and have billions in revenue. Meanwhile, new mental health and coaching platforms are emerging like BetterUp and Sounding Board.

But the market is massive since so few people get great coaching right now. “No one goes to work and is like, ‘Man, I wish my boss was less mindful,’” Tan jokes. When Yarbrough was his coach, the Torch CEO taught the investor that while many startup employees might think they thrive on flexibility, “people really want high love and high structure.” In essence, that’s what Torch is trying to deliver — a sense of emotional camaraderie mixed with a prod in the direction of fulfilling their destiny.

Nov
06
2019
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Cyber-skills platform Immersive Labs raises $40M in North America expansion

Immersive Labs, a cybersecurity skills platform, has raised $40 million in its Series B, the company’s second round of funding this year following an $8 million Series A in January.

Summit Partners led the fundraise, with Goldman Sachs participating, the Bristol, U.K.-based company confirmed.

Immersive, led by former GCHQ cybersecurity instructor James Hadley, helps corporate employees learn new security skills by using real, up-to-date threat intelligence in a “gamified” way. Its cybersecurity learning platform uses a variety of techniques and psychology to build up immersive and engaging cyber war games to help IT and security teams learn. The platform aims to help users better understand cybersecurity threats, like detecting and understanding phishing and malware reverse-engineering.

It’s a new take on cybersecurity education, as the company’s founder and chief executive Hadley said the ever-evolving threat landscape has made traditional classroom training “obsolete.”

“It creates knowledge gaps that increase risk, offer vulnerabilities and present opportunities for attackers,” said Hadley.

The company said it will use the round to expand further into the U.S. and Canadian markets from its North American headquarters in Boston, Mass.

Since its founding in 2017, Immersive already has big customers to its name, including Bank of Montreal and Citigroup, on top of its U.K. customers, including BT, the National Health Service and London’s Metropolitan Police.

Goldman Sachs, an investor and customer, said it was “impressed” by Immersive’s achievements so far.

“The platform is continually evolving as new features are developed to help address the gap in cyber skills that is impacting companies and governments across the globe,” said James Hayward, the bank’s executive director.

Immersive said it has 750% year-over-year growth in annual recurring revenues and more than 100 employees across its offices.

Sep
17
2019
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LinkedIn launches skills assessments, tests that let you beef up your credentials for job hunting

LinkedIn, the social networking service for the working world, is today taking the wraps off its latest effort to provide its users with better tools for presenting their professional selves, and to make the process of recruitment on the platform more effective. It will now offer a new feature called Skills Assessments: short, multiple-choice tests that users can take to verify their knowledge in areas like computer languages, software packages and other work-related skills.

The feature is being rolled out globally today. However, while offering the skills assessments as part of an earlier, limited beta, LinkedIn tells us that 2 million tests were taken and applied across the platform. That’s a sign of how the full service might well be a very popular, and needed, feature.

First up are English-language tests covering some 75 different skills, all free to take, but the plan, according to Emrecan Dogan, the group product manager in its talent solutions division, is to “ramp that up agressively” in the near future, both adding in different languages and more test areas.

(Side note: Dogan joined LinkedIn when his company ScoreBeyond was quietly acquired by LinkedIn last year. ScoreBeyond was an online testing service to help students prep for college entrance exams. Given LinkedIn’s efforts to get closer to younger users — again, in part because of competitive pressure — I suspect that is one area where LinkedIn will likely want to expand this assessment tool longer term, if it takes off.)

The skills assessment tool is coming at an important moment for LinkedIn.

The Microsoft-owned company now has nearly 650 million people around the world using its social networking tools to connect with each other for professional purposes, most often to network, talk about work, or find work.

That makes for a fascinating and lucrative economy of scale when it comes to rolling out its products. But it comes with a major drawback, too: the bigger the platform gets, the harder it is to track and verify details about each and every individual on it. The skills assessment becomes one way of at least being able to verify certain people’s skills in specific areas, and for that information to start feeding into other channels and products on the platform.

It’s also a critical competitive move. The company is by far the biggest platform of its kind on the internet today, but smaller rivals are building interesting products to chip away at that lead in specific areas. Triplebyte, for example, has created a platform for those looking to hire engineers, and engineers looking for new roles, to connect by way of the engineers — yes — taking online tests to measure their skills and match them up with compatible job opportunities. Triplebyte is focused on just one field — software engineering — but the template is a disruptive one that, if replicated in other verticals, could slowly start to chip away at LinkedIn’s hegemony.

Other larger platforms also continue to look at ways that they might leverage their own social graphs to provide work-related networking services. Facebook, for example, had incorporated e-learning into its own efforts in professional development, laying the groundwork for other kinds of interactive training and assessment.

This is not the first time that LinkedIn has tinkered with the idea of offering tests to help ascertain the level of users’ skills on its platform, although the information was used for different ends. In India, several years ago the company started to incorporate tests on its platform to help suggest jobs to users. Nor is it the first time that the company has worked on ways to improve its skills and endorsement profile to make them more useful.

Testing on actual skills is just one area where verification has fallen short on LinkedIn. Another big trend in recruitment is the push for more diverse workforces. The thinking is that traditionally too many of the parameters that have been used up to now to assess people — what college was attended, or where people have worked already — have been essentially cutting many already-disenfranchised groups out of the process.

Given that LinkedIn currently has no way of ascertaining when people on its platform are from minority backgrounds, a skills assessment — and especially a good result on one — might potentially help tip the balance in favor of meritrocracy (if not proactive diversity focused hiring as such).

For regular users, the option to take skills assessments and add them to your profile will appear for users as a button in the skills and endorsements area of their profiles.

Users take short tests — currently only multiple choice — which Dogan says are created by professionals who are subject area experts that already work with LinkedIn, for example to write content for LinkedIn learning.

Indeed, in November last year, the company expanded LinkedIn Learning to include content from third-party providers and Q&A interactivity so there is a trove of work already there that might be repurposed as part of this new effort.

These tests measure your knowledge in specific areas, and if you pass, you are given a badge that you can apply to your profile page, and potentially broadcast out to those who are looking for people with the skills you’ve just verified you have. (This is presuming that you are not cheating and having someone else take the test for you, or taking it while looking up answers elsewhere.) You can opt out of sharing the information anywhere else, if you choose.

If you fail, you have three months to wait before taking it again, and in the meantime LinkedIn will use the moment to upsell you on its other content: you get offered LinkedIn Learning tests to improve your skills.

For those who pass, they will need to retake tests every year to keep their badges and credentials.

On the side of recruiters, they are able to use the data that gets amassed through the tests as a way of better filtering out users when sourcing candidate pools for job openings. This is a huge issue on a platform like LinkedIn: while having a large group of people on there is a boost for finding matches, in fact there can be too many, and too much of a challenge and time suck to figure out who is genuinely suitable for a particular role.

There is another angle where the skills are being used to help LinkedIn monetise: those who are putting in ads for jobs can now buy ads that are targeted specifically to people with certain skills that have been verified through assessments.

There are still some shortfalls in the skills assessment tool as it exists now. For example, coding tests are all multiple choice, but that’s not how many coding environments work these days. (Triplebyte for example offers collaborative assessments.) And of course, skills is just one aspect of how people might fit into a particular working environment. (Currently there are no plans to bring in psychometric or similar assessments, Dogan said.) This is an interesting start, however, and worth testing the waters as more interesting variations in recruitment and connecting professionals online continue to proliferate.

 

Apr
16
2019
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Why it just might make sense that Salesforce.com is buying Salesforce.org

Yesterday, Salesforce .com announced its intent to buy its own educational/nonprofit arm, Salesforce.org, for $300 million. On its face, this feels like a confusing turn of events, but industry experts say it’s really about aligning educational and nonprofit verticals across the entire organization.

Salesforce has always made a lot of hay about being a responsible capitalist. It’s something it highlights at events and really extends with the 1-1-1 model it created, which gives one percent of profit, time and resources (product) to education and nonprofits. Its employees are given time off and are encouraged to work in the community. Salesforce.org has been the driver behind this, but something drove the company to bring Salesforce.org into the fold.

While it’s easy to be cynical about the possible motivations, it could be a simple business reason, says Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst at Constellation Research. As he pointed out, it didn’t make a lot of sense from a business perspective to be running two separate entities with separate executive teams, bookkeeping systems and sales teams. What’s more, he said there was some confusion over lack of alignment and messaging between the Salesforce.com education sales team and what was happening at Salesforce.org. Finally, he says because Salesforce.org couldn’t issue Salesforce.com stock options, it might not have been attracting the best talent.

“It allows them to get better people and talent, and it’s also eliminating redundancies with the education vertical. That was really the big driver behind this,” Wang told TechCrunch.

Tony Byrne, founder and principal analyst at Real Story Group agreed. “My guess is that they were struggling to align roadmaps between the offerings (.com and .org), and they see .org as more strategic now and want to make sure they’re in the fold,” he said.

Focusing on the charity arm

Brent Leary, principal and co-founder at CRM Essentials, says it’s also about keeping that charitable focus front and center, while pulling that revenue into the Salesforce.com revenue stream. “It seems like doing good is set to be really good for business, making it a potentially very good idea to be included as part of Salesforce’s top line revenue numbers, Leary said.

For many, this was simply about keeping up with Microsoft and Google in the nonprofit space, and being part of Salesforce.com makes more sense in terms of competing. “I believe Salesforce’s move to bring Salesforce.org in house was a well-timed strategic move to have greater influence on the company’s endeavors into the Not for Profit (NFP) space. In the wake of Microsoft’s announcements of significantly revamping and adding resources to its Dynamics 365 Nonprofit Accelerator, Salesforce would be well-served to also show greater commitment on their end to helping NFPs acquire greater access to technologies that enable them to carry out their mission,” Daniel Newman, founder and principal analyst at Futurum Research, said.

Good or bad idea?

But not everyone sees this move in a positive light. Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst and founder at Moor Insights and Strategies, says it could end up being a public relations nightmare for Salesforce if the general public doesn’t understand the move. Salesforce could exacerbate that perception if it ends up raising prices for nonprofits and education.

“Salesforce and Benioff’s move with Salesforce.org is a big risk and could blow up in its face. The degree of negative reaction will be dependent on how large the price hikes are and how much earnings get diluted. We won’t know that until more details are released,” Moorhead said.

The deal is still in progress, and will take some months to close, but if it’s simply an administrative move designed to create greater efficiencies, it could make sense. The real question that remains is how this will affect educational and nonprofit institutions as the company combines Salesforce.org and Salesforce.com.

Salesforce did not wish to comment for this story.

Apr
16
2019
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Salesforce ‘acquires’ Salesforce.org for $300M in a wider refocus on the nonprofit sector

Salesforce yesterday announced a move to reposition how it provides software to and works with nonprofits like educational institutions and charities: the company announced that it would integrate Salesforce.org — which had been a reseller of Salesforce software and services to the nonprofit sector — into Salesforce itself as part of a larger, new nonprofit and education vertical. The new vertical, in turn, will be led by Rob Acker, the current CEO of Salesforce.org.

As part of the deal, Salesforce said it would pay $300 million in cash for all shares of Salesforce.org. The latter had existed as a California public benefit corporation, and now it will be converting into a California business corporation.

Salesforce said that the $300 million, in turn, will be distributed to another independent public benefit corporation called the Salesforce.com Foundation, which will use it for philanthropic purposes. Salesforce will be making further contributions to the Foundation, but did not specify the amount.

Salesforce also said that the combination will add between about $150 million and $200 million to the company’s full-year revenues, depending on when the deal closes.

Salesforce.org had been a vehicle for the company to provide nonprofits, educational institutions and philanthropic organizations free or very discounted licenses to use its software, to the tune of some $260 million in grants distributed to over 40,000 organizations. Salesforce will continue that practice, but now that effort, it seems, will come in line with a bigger business operation in which Salesforce will also develop and sell commercial software and services as well.

“Combining Salesforce and Salesforce.org into a new nonprofit and education vertical reinforces the strength of Salesforce’s philanthropic model,” the company notes. “Salesforce will extend this model by continuing to provide free and highly discounted software to nonprofits and education institutions around the world and investing in local communities through employee volunteering, strategic grants and matching employee giving up to $5,000 per employee annually.”

The new organization will include sales, marketing and the company’s Salesforce Customer Success Platform tailored for the nonprofit and education communities, and all future development of the company’s Nonprofit Cloud, Education Cloud and Philanthropy Cloud vertical applications.

Education, nonprofits and philanthropy might not be the most lucrative sectors that come to mind when you think of enterprise IT, but by virtue of their sheer size and ubiquity, and the fact that these organizations also very much need better technology to operate more efficiently, there is a big opportunity.

Some of that will firmly never catapult into the world of big money — and nor should it, in my opinion — but as Newsela and its backer TCV, and Microsoft, identified recently, schools are still big buyers of IT, and the same goes for other nonprofit and philanthropic organizations.

I’m not sure how Salesforce will bring the different sides of the business together, but it makes sense for the company to at least think of them in a more cohesive way, providing financial help where it’s needed and selling where it is not.

Salesforce said that it expects the deal to close in Q2 or Q3 of this year, pending approval from the Attorney General of California and “other customary closing conditions.”

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