Feb
18
2021
--

Tired of ‘Zoom University’? So is edtech

The rise of “Zoom University” was only possible because edtech wasn’t ready to address the biggest opportunity of the past year: remote learning at scale. Of course, the term encapsulates more than just Zoom, it’s a nod to how schools had to rapidly adopt enterprise video conferencing software to keep school in session in the wake of closures brought on by the virus’ rapid spread.

Now, nearly a year since students were first sent home because of the coronavirus, a cohort of edtech companies is emerging, emboldened with millions in venture capital, ready to take back the market.

The new wave of startups are slicing and dicing the same market of students and teachers who are fatigued by Zoom University, which — at best — often looks like a gallery view with a chat bar. Four of the companies that are gaining traction include Class, Engageli, Top Hat and InSpace. It signals a shift from startups playing in the supplemental education space and searching to win a spot in the largest chunk of a students day: the classroom.

While each startup has its own unique strategy and product, the founders behind them all need to answer the same question: Can they make digital learning a preferred mode of pedagogy and comprehension — and not merely a backup — after the pandemic is over?

Answering that question begins with deciding whether videoconferencing is what online, live learning should look like.

Ground up

“This is completely grounds up; there is no Zoom, Google Meets or Microsoft Teams anywhere in the vicinity,” said Dan Avida, co-founder of Engageli, just a few minutes into the demo of his product.

Engageli, a new startup founded by Avida, Daphne Koller, Jamie Nacht Farrell and Serge Plotkin, raised $14.5 million in October to bring digital learning to college universities. The startup wants to make big lecture-style classes feel more intimate, and thinks digitizing everything from the professor monologues to side conversations between students is the way to go.

Engageli is a videoconferencing platform in that it connects students and professors over live video, but the real product feature that differentiates it, according to Avida, is in how it views the virtual classroom.

Upon joining the platform, each student is placed at a virtual table with another small group of students. Within those pods, students can chat, trade notes, screenshot the lecture and collaborate, all while hearing a professor lecture simultaneously.

“The FaceTime session going on with friends or any other communication platform is going to happen,” Avida said. “So it might as well run it through our platform.”

The tables can easily be scrambled to promote different conversation or debates, and teachers can pop in and out without leaving their main screen. It’s a riff on Zoom’s breakout rooms, which let participants jump into separate calls within a bigger call.

There’s also a notetaking feature that allows students to screenshot slides and live annotate them within the Engageli platform. Each screenshot comes with a hyperlink that will take the student back to the live recording of that note, which could help with studying.

“We don’t want to be better than Zoom, we want to be different than Zoom,” Avida said. Engageli can run on a variety of products of differing bandwidth, from Chromebooks to iPads and PCs.

Engageli is feature-rich to the point that it has to onboard teachers, its main customer, in two phases, a process that can take over an hour. While Avida says that it only takes five minutes to figure out how to use the platform to hold a class, it does take longer to figure out how to fully take advantage of all the different modules. Teachers and students need to have some sort of digital savviness to be able to use the platform, which is both a barrier to entry for adoption but also a reason why Engageli can tout that it’s better than a simple call. Complexity, as Avida sees it, requires well-worth-it time.

The startup’s ambition doesn’t block it from dealing with contract issues. Other video conferencing platforms can afford to be free or already have been budgeted into. Engageli currently charges $9.99 or less per student seat for its platform. Avida says that with Zoom, “it’s effectively free because people have already paid for it, so we have to demonstrate why we’re much better than those products.”

Engageli’s biggest hurdle is another startup’s biggest advantage.

Built on top of Zoom

Class, launched less than a year ago by Blackboard co-founder Michael Chasen, integrates exclusively with Zoom to offer a more customized classroom for students and teachers alike. The product, currently in private paid beta, helps teachers launch live assignments, track attendance and understand student engagement levels in real time.

While positioning an entire business on Zoom could lead to platform risk, Chasen sees it as a competitive advantage that will help the startup stay relevant after the pandemic.

“We’re not really pitching it as pandemic-related,” Chasen said. “No school has only said that we’re going to plan to use this for a month, and very few K-12 schools say we’re only looking at this in case a pandemic comes again.” Chasen says that most beta customers say online learning will be part of their instructional strategy going forward.

Investors clearly see the opportunity in the company’s strategy, from distribution to execution. Earlier this month, Class announced it had raised $30 million in Series A financing, just 10 weeks after raising a $16 million seed round. Raising that much pre-launch gives the startup key wiggle room, but it also gives validation: a number of Zoom’s earliest investors, including Emergence Capital and Bill Tai, who wrote the first check into Zoom, have put money into Class.

“At Blackboard, we had a six to nine month sales cycle; we’d have to explain that e-learning is a thing,” Chasen said, who was at the LMS business for 15 years. “[With Class] we don’t even have to pitch. It wraps up in a month, and our sales cycle is just showing people the product.

Unlike Engageli, Class is selling to both K-12 institutions and higher-education institutions, which means its product is more focused on access and ease of use instead of specialized features. The startup has over 6,000 institutions, from high schools to higher education institutions, on the waitlist to join.

Image Credits: Class

Right now, Class software is only usable on Macs, but its beta will be available on iPhone, Windows and Android in the near future. The public launch is at the end of the quarter.

“K-12 is in a bigger bind,” he said, but higher-ed institutions are fully committed to using synchronous online learning for the “long haul.”

“Higher-ed has already been taking this step towards online learning, and they’re now taking the next step,” he said. “Whereas with a lot of K-12, I’m actually seeing that this is the first step that they’re taking.”

The big hurdle for Class, and any startup selling e-learning solutions to institutions, is post-pandemic utility. While institutions have traditionally been slow to adopt software due to red tape, Chasen says that both of Class’ customers, higher ed and K-12, are actively allocating budget for these tools. The price for Class ranges between $10,000 to $65,000 annually, depending on the number of students in the classes.

“We have not run into a budgeting problem in a single school,” he said. “Higher ed has already been taking this step towards online learning, and they’re now taking the next step, whereas K-12, this is the first step they’re taking.”

Asynchronously, silly

Engageli and Class are both trying to innovate on the live learning experience, but Top Hat, which raised $130 million in a Series E round this past week, thinks that the future is pre-recorded video.

Top Hat digitizes textbooks, but instead of putting a PDF on a screen, the startup fits features such as polls and interactive graphics in the text. The platform has attracted millions of students on this premise.

“We’re seeing a lot of companies putting emphasis on creating a virtual classroom,” he said. “But replicating the same thing in a different medium is never a good idea…nobody wants to stare at a screen and then have the restraint of having to show up at a previous pre-prescribed time.”

In July, Top Hat launched Community to give teachers a way to make class more than just a YouTube video. Similar to ClassDojo, Community provides a space for teachers and students to converse and stay up to date on shared materials. The interface also allows students to create private channels to discuss assignments and work on projects, as well as direct message their teachers.

CEO Mike Silagadze says that Top Hat tried a virtual classroom tool early on, and “very quickly learned that it was fundamentally just the wrong strategy.” His mindset contrasts with the demand that Class and Engageli have proven so far, to which Silagadze says might not be as long-term as they think.

“There’s definitely a lot of interest that’s generated in people signing up to beta lists and like wanting to try it out. But when people really get into it, everyone pretty much drops off and focuses more on asynchronous, small and in-person groups.”

Instead, the founder thinks that “schools are going to double down on the really valuable in-person aspects of higher education that they couldn’t provide before” and deliver other content, like large lecture-style classes or meetings, through asynchronous content delivery.

This is similar to what Jeff Maggioncalda, the CEO of Coursera, told TechCrunch in November: Colleges are going to re-invest in their in-person and residential experiences, and begin offering credentials and content online to fill in the gaps.

“We’ve been on the journey to create a more and more complete platform that our customers can use since almost day one,” Silagadze said. “What the pandemic has brought is much more comprehensive testing functionality that Top Hat has rolled out and better communication tooling so basically better chat and communication tooling for professors.”

TopHat costs $30 per semester, per student. Currently Top Hat has most of its paying customers coming in through its content offering, the digital textbooks, instead of this learning platform.

College spin-out

InSpace, a startup spinning out of Champlain college, is similarly focused on making the communication between professors and students more natural. Dr. Narine Hall, the founder of the startup, is a professor herself who just wanted class to “feel more natural” when it was being conducted.

InSpace is similar to some of the virtual HQ platforms that have popped up over the past few months. The platforms, which my colleague Devin Coldewey aptly dubbed Sims for Enterprise, are trying to create the feel of an office or classroom online but without a traditional gallery view or conference call vibe. The potential success of inSpace and others could signal how the future of work will blend gaming and socialization for distributed teams.

InSpace is using spatial gaming infrastructure to create spontaneity. The technology allows users to only hear people within their nearby proximity, and get quieter as they walk, or click, away. When applied to a virtual world, spatial technology can give the feeling of a hallway bump-in.

Similar to Engageli, inSpace is rethinking how an actual class is conducted. In inSpace, students don’t have to leave the main call to have a conversation during inSpace, which they do in Zoom. Students can just toggle over to their own areas and a professor can see teamwork being done in real time. When a student has a question, their bubble becomes bigger, which is easier to track than the hand-raise feature, says Hall.

InSpace has a different monetization strategy than other startups. It charges $15 a month per-educator or “host” versus per-student, which Hall says was so educators could close contracts “as fast as possible.” Hall agrees with other founders that schools have a high demand for the product, but she says that the decision-making process around buying new tooling continues to be difficult in schools with tight budgets, even amid a pandemic. There are currently 100 customers on the platform.

So far, Hall sees inSpace working best with classes that include 25 people, with a max of 50 people.

The company was born out of her own frustrations as a teacher. In grad school, Hall worked on research that combined proximity-based interactions with humans. When August rolled around and she needed a better solution than WebEx or Zoom, she turned to that same research and began building code atop of her teachings. It led to inSpace, which recently announced that it has landed $2.5 million in financing led by Boston Seed Capital.

The differences between each startup, from strategy to monetization to its view of the competition, are music to Zoom’s ears. Anne Keough Keehn, who was hired as Zoom’s Global Education Lead just nine months ago, says that the platform has a “very open attitude and policy about looking at how we best integrate…and sometimes that’s going to be a co-opetition.”

“In the past there has been too much consolidation and therefore it limits choices,” Keehn said. “And we know everybody in education likes to have choices.” Zoom will be used differently in a career office versus a class, and in a happy hour versus a wedding; the platform sees opportunity in it all beyond the “monolithic definition” that video-conferencing has had for so long.

And, despite the fact that this type of response is expected by a well-trained executive at a big company in the spotlight, maybe Keehn is onto something here: Maybe the biggest opportunity in edtech right now is that there is opportunity and money in the first place, for remote learning, for better video-conferencing and for more communication.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story claims that TopHat’s community platform cost $30 per student, per month. TopHat has clarified since that the community platform is free, but its core product is sold for this cost. An update has been made to reflect this clarification.

Jan
29
2021
--

Extra Crunch roundup: Edtech VC survey, 5 founder mistakes, fintech liquidity, more

Edtech is so widespread, we already need more consumer-friendly nomenclature to describe the products, services and tools it encompasses.

I know someone who reads stories to their grandchildren on two continents via Zoom each weekend. Is that “edtech?”

Similarly, many Netflix subscribers sought out online chess instructors after watching “The Queen’s Gambit,” but I doubt if they all ran searches for “remote learning” first.

Edtech needs to reach beyond underfunded public school systems to become more sustainable, which is why more investors and founders are focusing on lifelong learning.

Besides serving traditional students with field trips and art classes, a maturing sector is now branching out to offer software tutors, cooking classes and singing lessons.

For our latest investor survey, Natasha Mascarenhas polled 13 edtech VCs to learn more about how “employer-led up-skilling and a renewed interest in self-improvement” is expanding the sector’s TAM.

Here’s who she spoke to:

  • Deborah Quazzo, managing partner, GSV Ventures
  • Ashley Bittner, founding partner, Firework Ventures (a future of work fund with portfolio companies LearnIn and TransfrVR)
  • Jomayra Herrera, principal, Cowboy Ventures (a generalist fund with portfolio companies Hone and Guild Education)
  • John Danner, managing partner, Dunce Capital (an edtech and future of work fund with portfolio companies Lambda School and Outschool)
  • Mercedes Bent and Bradley Twohig, partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners (a multistage generalist fund with investments including Forage, Clever and Outschool)
  • Ian Chiu, managing director, Owl Ventures (a large edtech-focused fund backing highly valued companies including Byju’s, Newsela and Masterclass)
  • Jan Lynn-Matern, founder and partner, Emerge Education (a leading edtech seed fund in Europe with portfolio companies like Aula, Unibuddy and BibliU)
  • Benoit Wirz, partner, Brighteye Ventures (an active edtech-focused venture capital fund in Europe that backs YouSchool, Lightneer and Aula)
  • Charles Birnbaum, partner, Bessemer Venture Partners (a generalist fund with portfolio companies including Guild Education and Brightwheel)
  • Daniel Pianko, co-founder and managing director, University Ventures (a higher ed and future of work fund that is backing Imbellus and Admithub)
  • Rebecca Kaden, managing partner, Union Square Ventures (a generalist fund with portfolio companies including TopHat, Quizlet, Duolingo)
  • Andreata Muforo, partner, TLCom Capital (a generalist fund backing uLesson)

Full Extra Crunch articles are only available to members
Use discount code ECFriday to save 20% off a one- or two-year subscription


In other news: Extra Crunch Live, a series of interviews with leading investors and entrepreneurs, returns next month with a full slate of guests. This year, we’re adding a new feature: Our guests will analyze pitch decks submitted by members of the audience to identify their strengths and weaknesses.

If you’d like an expert eye on your deck, please sign up for Extra Crunch and join the conversation.

Thanks very much for reading! I hope you have a fantastic weekend — we’ve all earned it.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

13 investors say lifelong learning is taking edtech mainstream

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

Rising African venture investment powers fintech, clean tech bets in 2020

After falling into yesterday’s wild news cycle, Alex Wilhelm returned to The Exchange this morning with a close look at venture capital activity across Africa in 2020.

“Comparing aggregate 2020 figures to 2019 results, it appears that last year was a somewhat robust year for African startups, albeit one with fewer large rounds,” he found.

For more context, he interviewed Dario Giuliani, the director of research firm Briter Bridges, which focuses on emerging markets in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Talent and capital are shifting cybersecurity investors’ focus away from Silicon Valley

A road sign that says "Leaving California."

Image Credits: MCCAIG (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

New cybersecurity ecosystems are popping up in different parts of the world.

Some of of that growth has been fueled by an exodus from the Bay Area, but many early-stage security startups already have deep roots in East Coast cities like Boston and New York.

In the United Kingdom and Europe, government innovation programs have helped entrepreneurs close higher numbers of Series A and B rounds.

Investor interest and expertise is migrating out of Silicon Valley: This post will help you understand where it’s going.

Will Apple’s spectacular iPhone 12 sales figures boost the smartphone industry in 2021?

On Wednesday, 20 January, 2021, in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Image Credits: NurPhoto (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Today’s smartphones are unfathomably feature-rich and durable, so it’s logical that sales have slowed.

A phone purchased 18 months ago is probably “good enough” for many consumers, especially in times of economic uncertainty.

Then again, of the record $111.4 billion in revenue Apple earned last quarter, $65.68 billion came from phone sales, largely driven by the release of the iPhone 12.

Even though “Apple’s success this quarter was kind of a perfect storm,” writes Hardware Editor Brian Heater, “it’s safe to project a rebound for the industry at large in 2021.”

The 5 biggest mistakes I made as a first-time startup founder

Boy Standing with Dropped Ice Cream Cone

Image Credits: Randy Faris (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Finmark co-founder and CEO Rami Essaid wrote a post for Extra Crunch that candidly describes the traps he laid for himself that made him a less-effective entrepreneur.

As someone who’s worked closely with founders at several startups, each of the points he raised resonated deeply with me.

In my experience, many founders have a hard time delegating, which can quickly create cultural and operational problems. Rami’s experience bears this out:

“I became a human GPS: People could follow my directions, but they struggled to find the way themselves. Independent thinking suffered.”

Dear Sophie: How can I sponsor my mom and stepdad for green cards?

lone figure at entrance to maze hedge that has an American flag at the center

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Dear Sophie:

I just got my U.S. citizenship! My husband and I want to bring my mom and her husband to the U.S. to help us take care of our preschooler and toddler.

My biological dad passed away several years ago when I was an adult and my mom has since remarried.

Can they get green cards?

— Appreciative in Aptos

Check out the amazing speakers joining us on Extra Crunch Live in February

Extra Crunch Live February Schedule: February 3 Gaurav Gupta Lightspeed Venture Partners Raj Dutt Grafana Labs February 10 Aydin Senkut Felicis Kevin Busque Guideline February 17 Steve Loughlin Accel Jason Boehmig Ironclad February 24 Matt Harris Bain Capital Isaac Oates Justworks

Next month, Extra Crunch Live returns with a lineup of guests who are extremely well-qualified to discuss early-stage startups.

Each Wednesday at noon PPST/3 p.m. EST, join a conversation with founders and the investors who backed their companies:

February 3:

Gaurav Gupta (Lightspeed Venture Partners) + Raj Dutt (Grafana Labs)

February 10:

Aydin Senkut (Felicis Ventures) + Kevin Busque (Guideline)

February 17:

Steve Loughlin (Accel) + Jason Boehmig (Ironclad)

February 24:

Matt Harris (Bain Capital) + Isaac Oates (Justworks)

Also, we’re adding a new feature to Extra Crunch Live — our guests will offer advice and feedback on pitch decks submitted by Extra Crunch members in the audience!

10 VCs say interactivity, regulation and independent creators will reshape digital media in 2021

Photo of a young woman watching TV in the bedroom of her apartment; eating sushi and enjoying her night at home alone.

Image Credits: Aleksandar Nakic (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Since the pandemic disrupted the social rhythms of work and school, many of us have compensated by changing our relationship to digital media.

For instance, I purchased a new sofa and thicker living room curtains several months ago when I realized we have no idea when movie theaters will reopen.

Last year, podcast sponsors spent almost $800 million to reach listeners, but ad revenue is estimated to surpass $1 billion this year. Clearly, I’m not the only person who used a discount code to buy a new product in 2020.

At this point, I can scarcely keep track of the multiple streaming platforms I’m subscribed to, but a new voice-activated remote control that comes with my basic cable plan makes it easier to browse my options.

Media reporter Anthony Ha spoke to10 VCs who invest in media startups to learn more about where they see digital media heading in the months ahead. For starters, how much longer can we expect traditional advertising models to persist?

And in a world with hundreds of channels, how are creators supposed to compete for our attention? What sort of discovery tools can we expect to help us navigate between a police procedural set in a Scandinavian village and a 90s sitcom reboot?

Here’s who Anthony interviewed:

  • Daniel Gulati, founding partner, Forecast Fund
  • Alex Gurevich, managing director, Javelin Venture Partners
  • Matthew Hartman, partner, Betaworks Ventures
  • Jerry Lu, senior associate, Maveron
  • Jana Messerschmidt, partner, Lightspeed Venture Partners
  • Michael Palank, general partner, MaC Venture Capital (with additional commentary from MaC’s Marlon Nichols)
  • Pär-Jörgen Pärson, general partner, Northzone
  • M.G. Siegler, general partner, GV
  • Laurel Touby, managing director, Supernode Ventures
  • Hans Tung, managing partner, GGV Capital

Normally, we list each investor’s responses separately, but for this survey, we grouped their responses by question. Some readers say they use our surveys to study up on an individual VC before pitching them, so let us know which format you prefer.

Does a $27 billion or $29 billion valuation make sense for Databricks?

Data analytics platform Databricks is reportedly raising new capital that could value the company between $27 billion and $29 billion.

By the end of Q3 2020, Databricks had surpassed a $350 million run rate — a $150 million YoY increase, reports Alex Wilhelm.

At the time, he described the company as “an obvious IPO candidate” with “broad private-market options.”

Which begs the question: “Can we come up with a set of numbers that help make sense of Databricks at $27 billion?”

End-to-end operators are the next generation of consumer business

Tourist route to the top of the mountain. Rope bridge in the clouds. Crimea. Ai-Petri

Image Credits: Natalia Timchenko (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Rapid shifts in the way we buy goods and services disrupted old-school marketplaces like local newspapers and the Yellow Pages.

Today, I can use my phone to summon a plumber, a week’s worth of groceries or a ride to a doctor’s office.

End-to-end operators like Netflix, Peloton and Lemonade take a lot of time and energy to reach scale, but “the additional capital required is often outweighed by the value captured from owning the entire experience.”

Unpacking Chamath Palihapitiya’s SPAC deals for Latch and Sunlight Financial

On January 25, Social Capital CEO Chamath Palihapitiya tweeted that he was making two blank-check deals.

Enterprise SaaS company Latch makes keyless entry systems; Sunlight Financial helps consumers finance residential solar power installations.

“There are nearly 300 SPACs in the market today looking for deals,” noted Alex Wilhelm, who unpacked both transactions.

“There’s no escaping SPACs for a bit, so if you are tired of watching blind pools rip private companies into the public markets, you are not going to have a very good next few months.”

Fintechs could see $100 billion of liquidity in 2021

Long exposure spillway shines water and light. Copy space.

Image Credits: dan tarradellas (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

On Monday, we published the Matrix Fintech Index, a three-part study that weighs liquidity, public markets and e-commerce trends to create a snapshot of an industry in perpetual flux.

For four years running, the S&P 500 and incumbent financial services companies have been outperformed by companies like Afterpay, Square and Bill.com.

In light of steady VC investment, increasing consumer adoption and a crowded IPO pipeline, “fintech represents one of the most exciting major innovation cycles of this decade.”

Drupal’s journey from dorm-room project to billion-dollar exit

Dries Buytaert, co-founder and CTO at Acquia

Image Credits: Acquia

On January 15, 2001, then-college student Dries Buytaert released Drupal 1.0.0, an open-source content-management platform. At the time, about 7% of the world’s population was online.

After raising more than $180 million, Buytaert exited to Vista Equity Partners for $1 billion in 2019.

Enterprise reporter Ron Miller interviewed Buytaert to learn more about his 18-year journey.

“His story is compelling, but it also offers lessons for startup founders who also want to build something big,” says Ron.

Jan
22
2021
--

Extra Crunch roundup: Digital health VC survey, edtech M&A, deep tech marketing, more

I had my first telehealth consultation last year, and there’s a high probability that you did, too. Since the pandemic began, consumer adoption of remote healthcare has increased 300%.

Speaking as an unvaccinated urban dweller: I’d rather speak to a nurse or doctor via my laptop than try to remain physically distanced on a bus or hailed ride traveling to/from their office.

Even after things return to (rolls eyes) normal, if I thought there was a reliable way to receive high-quality healthcare in my living room, I’d choose it.

Clearly, I’m not alone: a May 2020 McKinsey study pegged yearly domestic telehealth revenue at $3 billion before the coronavirus, but estimated that “up to $250 billion of current U.S. healthcare spend could potentially be virtualized” after the pandemic abates.

That’s a staggering number, but in a category that includes startups focused on sexual health, women’s health, pediatrics, mental health, data management and testing, it’s clear to see why digital-health funding topped more than $10 billion in the first three quarters of 2020.

Drawing from The TechCrunch List, reporter Sarah Buhr interviewed eight active health tech VCs to learn more about the companies and industry verticals that have captured their interest in 2021:

  • Bryan Roberts and Bob Kocher, partners, Venrock
  • Nan Li, managing director, Obvious Ventures
  • Elizabeth Yin, general partner, Hustle Fund
  • Christina Farr, principal investor and health tech lead, OMERS Ventures
  • Ursheet Parikh, partner, Mayfield Ventures
  • Nnamdi Okike, co-founder and managing partner, 645 Ventures
  • Emily Melton, founder and managing partner, Threshold Ventures

Full Extra Crunch articles are only available to members
Use discount code ECFriday to save 20% off a one- or two-year subscription


Since COVID-19 has renewed Washington’s focus on healthcare, many investors said they expect a friendly regulatory environment for telehealth in 2021. Additionally, healthcare providers are looking for ways to reduce costs and lower barriers for patients seeking behavioral support.

“Remote really does work,” said Elizabeth Yin, general partner at Hustle Fund.

We’ll cover digital health in more depth this year through additional surveys, vertical reporting, founder interviews and much more.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch this week; I hope you have a relaxing weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

8 VCs agree: Behavioral support and remote visits make digital health a strong bet for 2021

Woman having a medicine video conferencing with her doctor using digital tablet. Senior woman on a video call with a doctor using her tablet computer at home.

Image Credits: Luis Alvarez (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Lessons from Top Hat’s acquisition spree

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

In the last year, edtech startup Top Hat acquired three publishing companies: Fountainhead Press, Bludoor and Nelson HigherEd.

Natasha Mascarenhas interviewed CEO and founder Mike Silagadze to learn more about his content acquisition strategy, but her story also discussed “some rumblings of consolidation and exits in edtech land.”

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020

Last year, U.S.-based VCs invested an average of $428 million each day in domestic startups, with much of the benefits flowing to fintech companies.

This morning, Alex Wilhelm examined Q4 VC totals for Europe, which had its lowest deal count since Q1 2019, despite a record $14.3 billion in investments.

Asia’s VC industry, which saw $25.2 billion invested across 1,398 deals is seeing “a muted recovery,” says Alex.

“Falling seed volume, lots of big rounds. That’s 2020 VC around the world in a nutshell.”

Decrypted: With more SolarWinds fallout, Biden picks his cybersecurity team

Image Credits: Treedeo (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

In this week’s Decrypted, security reporter Zack Whittaker covered the latest news in the unfolding SolarWinds espionage campaign, now revealed to have impacted the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Malwarebytes.

In other news, the controversy regarding WhatsApp’s privacy policy change appears to be driving users to encrypted messaging app Signal, Zack reported. Facebook has put changes at WhatsApp on hold “until it could figure out how to explain the change without losing millions of users,” apparently.

Hot IPOs hang onto gains as investors keep betting on tech

A big IPO debut is a juicy topic for a few news cycles, but because there’s always another unicorn ready to break free from its corral and leap into the public markets, it doesn’t leave a lot of time to reflect.

Alex studied companies like Lemonade, Airbnb and Affirm to see how well these IPO pop stars have retained their value. Not only have most held steady, “many have actually run up the score in the ensuing weeks,” he found.

Dear Sophie: What are Biden’s immigration changes?

lone figure at entrance to maze hedge that has an American flag at the center

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Dear Sophie:

I work in HR for a tech firm. I understand that Biden is rolling out a new immigration plan today.

What is your sense as to how the new administration will change business, corporate and startup founder immigration to the U.S.?

—Free in Fremont

Hello, Extra Crunch community!

Hello in Different Languages

Image Credits: atakan (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

I began my career as an avid TechCrunch reader and remained one even when I joined as a writer, when I left to work on other things and now that I’ve returned to focus on better serving our community.

I’ve been chatting with some of the folks in our community and I’d love to talk to you, too. Nothing fancy, just 5-10 minutes of your time to hear more about what you want to see from us and get some feedback on what we’ve been doing so far.

If you would be so kind as to take a minute or two to fill out this form, I’ll drop you a note and hopefully we can have a chat about the future of the Extra Crunch community before we formally roll out some of the ideas we’re cooking up.

Drew Olanoff
@yoda

In 2020, VCs invested $428m into US-based startups every day

Last year was a disaster across the board thanks to a global pandemic, economic uncertainty and widespread social and political upheaval.

But if you were involved in the private markets, however, 2020 had some very clear upside — VCs flowed $156.2 billion into U.S.-based startups, “or around $428 million for each day,” reports Alex Wilhelm.

“The huge sum of money, however, was itself dwarfed by the amount of liquidity that American startups generated, some $290.1 billion.”

Using data sourced from the National Venture Capital Association and PitchBook, Alex used Monday’s column to recap last year’s seed, early-stage and late-stage rounds.

How and when to build marketing teams at deep tech companies

Pole lifting rubber duck with hook in its head

Image Credits: Andy Roberts (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Building a marketing team is one of the most opaque parts of spinning up a startup, but for a deep tech company, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

How can technical founders working on bleeding-edge technology find the right people to tell their story?

If you work at a post-revenue, early-stage deep tech startup (or know someone who does), this post explains when to hire a team, whether they’ll need prior industry experience, and how to source and evaluate talent.

Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg explains his plans for taking the company public

Bustle Digital Group CEO Bryan Goldberg

Bustle Digital Group CEO Bryan Goldberg. Image Credits: Bustle Digital Group

Senior Writer Anthony Ha interviewed Bustle Digital Group CEO Bryan Goldberg to get his thoughts on the state of digital media.

Their conversation covered a lot of ground, but the biggest news it contained focuses on Goldberg’s short-term plans.

“Where do I want to see the company in three years? I want to see three things: I want to be public, I want to see us driving a lot of profits and I want it to be a lot bigger, because we’ve consolidated a lot of other publications,” he said.

It may not be as glamorous as D2C, but beauty tech is big money

Directly Above Shot Of Razors On Green Background

Image Credits: Laia Divols Escude/EyeEm (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is not a huge fan of personal-care D2C brands merging with traditional consumer product companies.

This month, razor startup Billie and Proctor & Gamble announced they were calling off their planned merger after the FTC filed suit.

For similar reasons, Edgewell Personal Care dropped its plans last year to buy Harry’s for $1.37 billion.

In a harsher regulatory environment, “the path to profitability has become a more important part of the startup story versus growth at all costs,” it seems.

Twilio CEO says wisdom lies with your developers

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – SEPTEMBER 12: Founder and CEO of Twilio Jeff Lawson speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2016 at Pier 48 on September 12, 2016 in San Francisco, California. Image Credits: Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Companies that build their own tools “tend to win the hearts, minds and wallets of their customers,” according to Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson.

In an interview with enterprise reporter Ron Miller for his new book, “Ask Your Developer,” Lawson says founders should use developer teams as a sounding board when making build-versus-buy decisions.

“Lawson’s basic philosophy in the book is that if you can build it, you should,” says Ron.

Jan
19
2021
--

UK’s WhiteHat rebrands as Multiverse, raises $44M to build tech apprenticeships in the US

University education is getting more expensive, and at the moment it feels a bit like a Petri dish for infections, but the long-term trends continue to show a dramatic growth in the number of people worldwide getting degrees beyond high school, with one big reason for this being that a college degree generally provides better economic security.

But today, a startup that is exploring a different route for those interested in technology and knowledge worker positions — specifically by way of apprenticeships to bring in and train younger people on the job — is announcing a significant round of growth funding to see if it can provide a credible, scalable alternative to that model.

Multiverse, a U.K. startup that works with organizations to develop these apprenticeships, and then helps source promising, diverse candidates to fill those roles, has raised $44 million, funding that it will be using to spearhead a move into the U.S. market after picking up some 300 clients in the U.K. and thousands of apprentices.

The Series B is being led by General Catalyst (which has been especially active this week with U.K. startups: it also led a large round yesterday for Bloom & Wild), with GV (formerly known as Google Ventures), Audacious Ventures, Latitude and SemperVirens also participating. Index Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners, which first invested in the company in its $16 million Series A in 2020, also participated.

Valuation is not being disclosed, but for what it’s worth, the round was one that generated a lot of interest. In between getting pitched this story and publishing it, the size of the Series B grew by $8 million (it was originally closed at $36 million). The FT notes that the valuation was around $200 million with this round, but the company says that is “speculation on the FT’s part.”

The company was originally co-founded as WhiteHat and is officially rebranding today. Co-founder Euan Blair (who happens to be the son of the former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and his accomplished barrister wife Cherie Booth Blair) said the name change was because the original name was a reference to how the startup sought to “hack the system for good.”

However, he added, “The scale has become bigger and more evolved.” The new name is to convey that — as in gaming, which is probably the arena where you might have heard this term before — “anything is possible.”

There are “multiple universes” one can inhabit as a post-18 young adult, Blair continued. While it’s been assumed that to get into tech, the obvious route was a two-to-four year (and often more) tour through college or university to pick up a higher education degree, the bet that Multiverse is making here is that apprenticeships can easily, and widely, become another. “We want to build an outstanding alternative to university and college,” he said. These typically last 1.5 years. 

The idea of an “outstanding alternative” is especially important when thinking of how to target more marginalized groups and how this ties up with how tech companies are looking to be more diverse in the future, without cutting down on the quality of what people are getting out of the experience, or the resulting talent that is getting recruited.

There’s long been a stigma attached to less prestigious institutions, and putting money or effort into another channel to perpetuate that doesn’t really make sense or point to progress.

Blair said that currently over half of the people making their way through Multiverse are people of color, and 57% are women, and the plan is to build tools to make that an even firmer part of its mission. 

The startup sees itself as part tech company and part education enterprise.

It works with tech companies and others to open up opportunities for people who have not had any higher education or any training, where fresh high school graduates can come in, learn the ropes of a job while getting paid and then continue on working their way up the ladder with that knowledge base in place.

Apprenticeships on the platform right now range from data analysts through to exhibition designers, and the idea is that by opening up and targeting the U.S. market, the breadth, number and location of roles will grow.

This is not just a social enterprise: There is actual money in this area. Blair said that prices it charges the companies it works with range by qualification, “but are broadly around the $15,000 mark.” (The individuals applying don’t pay anything, and they will also be paid by the companies providing the apprenticeships.)

On the educational front, Multiverse doesn’t just connect people as a recruiter might: it has a team in place to build out what the “curriculum” might be for a particular apprenticeship, and how to deliver and train people with the requisite skills alongside the practice experience of working, and more.

That latter role, of course, has taken on a more poignant dimension in the last year: Concepts like remote training and virtual mentorship have very much come into their own at a time when offices are largely standing empty to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Regardless of what happens in the year ahead — fingers crossed that vaccinations and other efforts will help us collectively move past where we are right now — many believe that the infrastructure that has been put into place to keep working virtually will continue to be used, which bodes well for a company like Multiverse that is building a business around that, both with technology it creates itself and will bring in from third parties and partners.

Indeed, the ecosystem of companies building tools to deliver educational content, provide training and work collaboratively has really boomed in the pandemic, giving companies like Multiverse a large library of options for how to bring people into new work situations. (Google, which is now an investor in Multiverse, is very much one of the makers of such education tools.)

Apprenticeships are an interesting area for a startup to tackle. Traditionally, it’s a term that would have been associated mainly with skilled labor positions, rather than “knowledge workers.”

But you can argue that with the bigger swing that the globe has seen away from industrial and towards knowledge economies, there is an argument to be made for building more enterprises and opportunities for an ever wider pool of users, rather than expecting everyone to be shoehorned into the models of the last 50 years. (The latter would essentially imply that college is possibly the only way up.)

You might also be fair to claim that Blair’s connections helped him secure funding and open doors with would-be customers, and that might well be the case, but ultimately the startup will live or die by how well it executes on its premise, whether it finds a good way to connect more people, engage them in opportunities and keep them on board.

This is what really attracted the investors, said Joel Cutler, managing director and co-founder of General Catalyst.

“Euan has a genuine belief that this is important, and when you talk to him, you get a  feeling of manifest destiny,” Cutler said in an interview. In response to the question of family connections, he said that this was precisely the kind of issue that the technology industry should be tackling to fight.

“Of all the industries to break the mold of where you went to school, it should be the tech world that will do that, since it is far more of a meritocracy than others. This is the perfect place to start to break that mold,” he said. “Education will be super valuable but apprenticeships will also be important.” He noted that another company that General Catalyst invests in, Guild Education, is addressing similar opportunities, or rather the gaps in current opportunities, for older people.

Dec
15
2020
--

Vista’s $3.5B purchase of Pluralsight signals a maturing edtech market

On Monday, Pluralsight, a Utah-based startup that sells software development courses to enterprises, announced that it has been acquired by Vista for $3.5 billion.

The deal, yet to close, is one of the largest enterprise buys of the year: Vista is getting an online training company that helps retrain techies with in-demand skills through online courses in the midst of a booming edtech market. Additionally, the sector is losing one of its few publicly traded companies just two years after it debuted on the stock market.

The Pluralsight acquisition is largely a positive signal that shows the strength of edtech’s capital options as the pandemic continues.

Investors and founders told Techcrunch that the Pluralsight acquisition is largely a positive signal that shows the strength of edtech’s capital options as the pandemic continues.

“What’s happening in edtech is that capital markets are liquidating,” said Deborah Quazzo, managing partner of GSV Advisors.

Quazzo, a seed investor in Pluralsight, said the ability to move fluidly between privately held and publicly held companies is a characteristic of tech sectors with deep capital markets, which is different from edtech’s “old days, where the options to exit were very narrow.”

Dec
14
2020
--

Vista acquires IT education platform Pluralsight for $3.5B

The hectic M&A cycle we have seen throughout 2020 continued this weekend when Vista Equity Partners announced it was acquiring Pluralsight for $3.5 billion.

That comes out to $20.26 per share. The company stock closed on Friday at $18.50 per share on a market cap of over $2.7 billion.

With Pluralsight, Vista gets an online training company that helps educate IT professionals, including developers, operations, data and security, with a suite of online courses. As the pandemic has taken hold, it has breathed new life into edtech, but even before that, there was a market for upskilling IT Pros online.

This trend certainly didn’t escape Monti Saroya, co-head of the Vista Flagship Fund and senior managing director at Vista. “We have seen firsthand that the demand for skilled software engineers continues to outstrip supply, and we expect this trend to persist as we move into a hybrid online-offline world across all industries and interactions, with business leaders recognizing that technological innovation is critical to business success,” he said in a statement.

As is typical for acquired companies, Pluralsight CEO Aaron Skonnard sees this as a way to grow the company more quickly. “The global Vista ecosystem of leading enterprise software companies provides significant resources and institutional knowledge that will open doors and help fuel our growth. We’re thrilled that we will be able to leverage Vista’s expertise to further strengthen our market leading position,” Skonnard said in a statement.

In a 2017 interview with TechCrunch’s Sarah Buhr, Skonnard described the company as an enterprise SaaS learning platform. It goes beyond simply offering the courses by giving professionals in a given category such as developer or IT operations the ability to measure their skills and abilities against other pros in that category. He saw this assessment capability as a big differentiator.

“Our platform is ultimately focused on closing the technology skills gap throughout the world,” Skonnard told Buhr.

Pluralsight, which was founded in 2004, raised more than $190 million before going public in 2018. The company has 1,700 employees and more than 17,000 customers. The acquisition is subject to standard regulatory oversight, but is expected to close in the first half of next year. Once that happens, the company will go private once again.

Dec
09
2020
--

WorkRamp raises $17M to ramp up its enterprise learning platform

Remote learning and training have become a large priority this year for organizations looking to keep employees engaged and up to date on work practices at a time when many of them are not working in an office — and, in the case of those who have joined in 2020, may have never met any of their work colleagues in person, ever. Today one of the startups that’s built a new, more user-friendly approach to creating and provisioning those learning materials is announcing some funding as it experiences a boost in its growth.

WorkRamp, which has built a platform that helps organizations build their own training materials, and then distribute them both to their workforce and to partners, has raised $17 million, a Series B round of funding that’s being led by OMERS Ventures, with Bow Capital also participating.

Its big pitch is that it has built the tools to make it easy for companies to build their own training and learning materials, incorporating tests, videos, slide shows and more, and by making it easier for companies to build these themselves, the materials themselves become more engaging and less stiff.

“We’re disrupting the legacy LMS [learning management system] providers, the Cornerstones of the world, with our bite-size training platform,” said CEO and founder Ted Blosser in an interview. “We want to do what Peloton did for the exercise market, but with corporate training. We are aiming for a consumer-grade experience.”

The company, originally incubated in Y Combinator, has now raised $27 million.

The funding comes on the back of strong growth for WorkRamp . Blosser said that it now has around 250 customers, with 1 million courses collectively created on its platform. That list includes fast-growing tech companies like Zoom, Box, Reddit and Intercom, as well as Disney, GlobalData and PayPal. As it continues to expand, it will be interesting to see how and if it can also snag more legacy, late adopters who are not as focused on tech in their own DNA.

WorkRamp estimates that there is some $20 billion spent annually by organizations on corporate training. Unsurprisingly, that has meant the proliferation of a number of companies building tools to address that market.

Just Google WorkRamp and you’re likely to encounter a number of its competitors who have bought its name as a keyword to snag a little more attention. There are both big and small players in the space, including Leapsome, Capterra, Lessonly, LearnUpon (which itself recently raised a big round), SuccessFactors and TalentLMS.

The interesting thing about what WorkRamp has built is that it plays on the idea of the “creator,” which really has been a huge development in our digital world. YouTube may have kicked things off with the concept of “user-generated content.” but today we have TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and so many more platforms — not to mention smartphones themselves, with their easy facilities to shoot videos and photos of others, or of yourself, and then share with others — which have made the idea of building your own work, and looking at that of others, extremely accessible.

That has effectively laid the groundwork for a new way of conceiving of even more prosaic things, like corporate training. (Can there really be anything more comedically prosaic than that?) Other startups like Kahoot have also played on this idea, by making it easy for enterprises to build their own games to help train their staff.

This is what WorkRamp has aimed to tap into with its own take on the learning market, to help its customers eschew the idea of hiring outside production companies to make training materials, or expect WorkRamp to build those materials for them: Instead, the people who are going to use the training now have the control.

“I think it’s critical to be able to build your own customer education,” Blosser said. “That’s a big trend for clients that want both to rapidly onboard people but also reduce costs.”

The company’s platform includes user-friendly drag-and-drop functionality, which also lets people build slide shows, flip cards and questions that viewers can answer. The plan is to bring on more “Accenture” style consultants, Blosser said, for bigger customers who may not be as tech savvy to help them take better advantage of the tools. It also integrates with third-party packages like Salesforce.com, Workday and Zoom both to build out training as well as distribute it.

“Since 2000, we have seen three major technology shifts in the enterprise: the transition from on-premise to SaaS, the growth of mobile, and the most recent – sweeping digital transformation across almost every part of every business,” said Eugene Lee of OMERS Ventures, in a statement. “The pandemic has forced adoption of a digital-first approach towards customers and employees across virtually all industries. WorkRamp’s platform is foundational to empowering both of these important audiences today and in the future. We are bullish on the massive opportunity in front of the company and are excited to get involved.” Lee is joining the board with this round.

Dec
07
2020
--

Berlin’s Wonder raises $11M for a new approach to video chat where you wander and join groups

If this year has taught us a lesson about the world of work, it’s that collectively, we weren’t very well-equipped in terms of the technology we use to translate the in-person experience seamlessly to a remote version. That’s led to a rush of companies launching new services to fill that hole — cloud computing and data warehousing startups, collaboration platforms, sales tools and more — and today one of the latest startups in the area of videoconferencing is announcing a round of funding to see its business scale to the next level.

Wonder, a Berlin startup that has built a platform for people to come together in video-based groups to meet up, network and collaborate, while also having a bird’s-eye view of a larger space where they can more serendipitously, or more intentionally, interact with others — not unlike in an office or other business venue — is today announcing that it has raised $11 million (€9 million) in a substantial seed round.

The funding was led by European VC EQT Ventures, with BlueYard Capital — which led a pre-seed round in the startup when it was previously called “YoTribe” — also participating.

It comes on the heels of the young startup seeing some impressive traction this year.

Wonder now has 200,000 monthly users from a pretty diverse set of organizations, including NASA, Deloitte, Harvard and SAP, which are using it for a variety of purposes, from team collaboration through to career fairs. The company will use the funding both to add in more features as requested by current users, as well as to hire more people for its team, co-founder Stephane Roux said in an interview. Those features will include sharing files and other technical services, but they will not be piled on quickly or thickly.

“We think of this less in terms of content and more about people,” he said. “The core experience is about live interaction, not just repositories of stuff. We want to build a place for collaboration and communication. Interesting ways to carve up a group virtually.”

Now, you may be thinking: another workplace video app? Hasn’t this $14 billion space race already been “won” by Zoom (which some of us now use as a verb for videoconferencing, regardless of which app we actually use)? Or Microsoft or Google or BlueJeans, or whatever it is that your organization has inevitably already signed up and paid for?

But it turns out that for all the growth and use that these other platforms have had, they are sorely lacking in their overall experience, as it pertains to what it’s like to be in physical spaces with other people. One of the key points, it turns out, is that a lot of solutions are not really built with the user experience of the larger group in mind.

Wonder is built around the idea of a “shared space” that you enter. That space comes not from a VR experience as you might expect, but something much simpler that takes a tip from more rudimentary but very effective older game dynamics. You get a single window where you can “see” from an aerial view, as it were, all of the other people who are in the same space, and the areas within that space where they might cluster together.

Those clusters could be designed around a specific interest (such as marketing or HR or product) or — if the product is being used at a career fair, for example, at a list of different companies taking part; or — at a conference — different conference sessions, plus an exhibition space.

You can move around all of the clusters, or start your own, or sit in the margins with another person, and when you do come together with one or more people, you can join them in a video chat to interact. In the future, the plan is to do more than just join a video chat; you might also be able to access documents related to that cluster, and more.

The clusters can be “public” for anyone to join, or set to private, as you might have in a physical meeting room. The overall effect is that, without actually being in a physical space, you get the sense of a collective group of people in motion.

The startup was originally the brainchild of Leonard Witteler, who built a version of this last year as a coding project at university before showing it to friends and family and getting positive feedback.

As another co-founder, Pascal Steck, describes it, he, Witteler and Roux, who all knew each other, had been looking to build a startup together, but around a completely different idea — a portal for photographers and other creatives in the wedding industry.

Given how drastically curtailed weddings and other group gatherings have been this year, that didn’t really go anywhere at all. But the three could see an opportunity, a very different one, with the software that Witteler had built while still a student. So in the grand tradition of startups, they pivoted.

Wonder had previously been called YoTribe, which sounds a little like YouTube and also plays on the idea of groups of friends who come together around special interests.

And from how Steck and Roux described it to me in an interview (over Wonder of course), it didn’t sound like the initial idea was to target enterprises at all, but people who found themselves a bit at a loss when music festivals and other events like that suddenly died a death because of COVID-19.

Indeed, they themselves were all too aware of the state of the market for videoconferencing apps: it was very, very crowded.

“The space is very busy and some great products are already out there. But as soon as you zoom into this space” — no pun intended, Steck said — “when it’s about large group meetings, these other tools do not allow for serendipitous conversations or bottom-up gatherings, and the list gets very thin very quickly. Our focus is around improving presentations, but in the case of large groups, there is just not a lot out there. Especially something building an association as we know it to how we do things in the offline world. We think we have a unique spot in the market. 

“A meeting for three people can use Zoom or Teams perfectly. There is no need for anything else, but for larger groups, that is not the case and it seems like the market is really open for something like Wonder.”

The name “Wonder” is an interesting choice when the startup rebranded from YoTribe. Wonder’s main meaning is surprise and discovery, but it has long been thought and assumed that “wonder” is also connected to the word “wander”. (In fact, the two are not related etymologically, but have often crossed paths and wandered into each other’s territories over the centuries.) Similarly, the idea with Wonder the app is that you can “wander” around a room, and find who and what you are looking for in the process.

Wonder is not the only upstart video app that has picked up some attention in the last several months. In fact, there has been a wave of them launching or announcing funding (or both) in 2020 to try to address the gaps — or opportunities — that exist as a result of the features from the current leaders.

Other launches have included mmhmm (Phil Libin’s latest startup that adds lots of bells and whistles to make the presentations more than just a talking head); Headroom (founded by ex-Google and ex-Magic Leap entrepreneurs, using AI to get more meaningful insights from the video conversations); Vowel (which lets people search across video chats to follow up items and dig into what people said across different calls); and Descript, Andrew Mason’s audio effort, now also has video features.

But if anything, a lot of these newer tools fail to address the shortcomings of what it’s like being a part of a big group using a video app. In fact, many of these newer entrants highlight another set of challenges, those of the speaker, who is thus graced with better presentation tools in mmhmm, or given way better insights into the audience with Headroom, etc.

In any case, Wonder has found, serendipitously, a lot of traction from people who have identified and lamented the problems with so much else out there today. The app is still free to use, and the plan will be to keep it that way until some time in 2021, Roux said. Ironically, he pointed out that many of its current customers are asking to be charged, not least because it lends using it more credibility, which is important with IT departments and so on. All that might mean the charging plan gets pushed up sooner.

In any case, even if companies are also using something else, they are also adopting Wonder, and that has in turn piqued the interest of investors who are interested to see where it might go next.

“Throughout COVID-19, real-time video has become the default for both private and professional interactions, and hybrid working is here to stay,” said Jenny Dreier, investor at EQT Ventures Berlin, in a statement. “No other video tools come anywhere near as close to replicating real-life interactions as Wonder, so the product has explosive potential, already foreshadowed with the platform’s stellar organic growth. It’s incredibly exciting to be working with the team and to be part of the journey; I can’t wait to be a part of their next chapter.”

Nov
03
2020
--

Udacity raises $75M in debt, says its tech education business is profitable after enterprise pivot

Online education tools continue to see a surge of interest boosted by major changes in work and learning practices in the midst of a global health pandemic. And today, one of the early pioneers of the medium is announcing some funding as it tips into profitability on the back of a pivot to enterprise services, targeting businesses and governments that are looking to upskill workers to give them tech expertise more relevant to modern demands.

Udacity, which provides online courses and popularized the concept of “Nanodegrees” in tech-related subjects like artificial intelligence, programming, autonomous driving and cloud computing, has secured $75 million in the form of a debt facility. The funding will be used to continue investing in its platform to target more business customers.

Udacity said that part of the business is growing fast, with Q3 bookings up by 120% year-over-year and average run rates up 260% in H1 2020.

Udacity said that customers in the segment include “five of the world’s top seven aerospace companies, three of the Big Four professional services firms, the world’s leading pharmaceutical company, Egypt’s Information Technology Industry Development Agency, and three of the four branches of the United States Department of Defense”, which work with Udacity to build tailor-made courses for their specific needs, as well as use off-the-shelf content from its catalogue.

Udacity also works with companies to build programs as part of their CSR remits, and with tech companies like Microsoft to build programs to get more developers using their tools.

“We’re seeing tremendous demand on the enterprise and government side,” said Gabe Dalporto, Udacity’s CEO who joined the company in 2019. “But to date it’s mostly been inbound, with enterprises, Fortune 500 companies and government organizations coming in and wanting to work with us. Now it’s time to build out a sales team to go after them.”

The news today is a welcome turn of events for a company that has been in the spotlight over the years for less rosy reasons, partly because it found it challenging to land on a profitable business model.

Founded nearly a decade ago by three robotics specialists, including Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford professor who at the time was instrumental in building and running Google’s self-driving car and larger moonshot programs, Udacity initially saw an opportunity to partner with colleges and universities to build online tech courses (Thrun’s academic standing, and the vogue for MOOCs, were possibly two fillips for that strategy).

After that proved to be too challenging and costly, Udacity pivoted to positioning itself as a vocational learning provider targeting adults, specifically those who didn’t have the hours or money to embark on full-time courses but wanted to learn tech skills that could help them land better jobs.

That resulted in some substantial user growth, but still no profit. Eventually, the company faced multiple rounds of layoffs as it restructured and gravitated closer to its current form.

Currently, the company still provides direct-to-consumer (direct-to-learner?) courses, but it won’t be long, Dalporto said, before enterprise and government customers account for about 80% of the company’s business.

Previously, Udacity had raised nearly $170 million from a pretty illustrious group of investors that include Andreessen Horowitz, Ballie Gifford, CRV, Emerson Collective and more. This latest tranche is coming in the form of a debt facility from a single company, Hercules Capital.

Dalporto said the decision to take the debt route came after initially getting a number of term sheets for an equity round.

“We had multiple term sheets on the equity side, but then we received an unsolicited debt term sheet,” he said. That led to the company modelling out the cost of capital and dilution, he said, and “it turned out it was the better option.” For now, he added, equity was “off the table” but it may consider revisiting the idea en route to a public listing. “For the foreseeable future, we are cash flow positive so there is no compelling reason right now, but we might do something closer to an IPO.”

Being a debt facility, this funding does not mean a revisiting of Udacity’s valuation. The company was last capitalized five years ago at $1 billion, but Dalporto would not comment on how that had changed in the (uncompleted) equity term sheets it had received.

Education is in session

The interest Udacity is seeing — both from investors and as a company — is part of the bigger spotlight that online education companies have had in the last year. In K-12 and university education, the focus has been on building better technology and content to help students stay engaged and continue learning even when they cannot be in their normal physical classrooms as schools, districts, governments and public health officials implement social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19.

But that’s not the only classroom where online education is getting called on. In the world of business, organizations that have also gone remote because of the pandemic are facing a matrix of challenges. How can they keep employees productive and feeling like part of a team when they no longer work next to each other? How do they make sure their workforces have the skills they need to work in the new environment? How do they make sure their own businesses are equipped with the right technology, and the expertise of people to run it, for this latest and future iterations of “work”? And how can governments make sure their economies don’t fall off a cliff as a result of the pandemic?

Online education has been seen as something of a panacea for all of these questions, and that has spelled a lot of opportunity for tech companies building online learning tools and other infrastructure — with others including the likes of Coursera, LinkedIn, Pluralsight, Treehouse and Springboard in the area of tech-related courses and learning platforms for workers.

As with other market segments like e-commerce, this isn’t about a trend emerging out of the blue, but about it accelerating much faster than people projected it would.

“Given Udacity’s growth, focus on sustainable business practices, and expanding reach across multiple industries, we are excited to provide this investment. We look forward to working with the company to help them sustain their impressive global growth, and continued innovation in upskilling and reskilling,” said Steve Kuo, senior MD and Technology Group head at Hercules Capital, in a statement.

In the areas of enterprise and government, Dalporto described a number of scenarios where Udacity is already active, which are natural progressions of the kind of vocational learning it was already offering.

They include, for example, the energy company Shell retraining structural and geological engineers “who had good math skills but no machine learning expertise” to be able to work in data science, needed as the company builds more automation into its operation and moves into new kinds of energy technology.

And he said that Egypt and other nations — looking to the success that India has had — have been providing technology expertise training to residents to help them find jobs in the “outsourcing economy.” He said that the program in Egypt has seen an 80% graduation rate and 70% “positive outcomes” (resulting in jobs).

“If you take just AI and machine learning, demand for these skills is growing at a rate of 70% year-over-year, but there is a shortage of talent to fill those roles,” Dalporto said.

Udacity is for now not looking at any acquisitions, he added, for another 6-12 months. “We have so much demand and work to do internally that there is no compelling reason to do that. At some point we will look at that but it needs to be linked to our strategy.”

Oct
26
2020
--

The No-Code Generation is arriving

In the distant past, there was a proverbial “digital divide” that bifurcated workers into those who knew how to use computers and those who didn’t.[1] Young Gen Xers and their later millennial companions grew up with Power Macs and Wintel boxes, and that experience made them native users on how to make these technologies do productive work. Older generations were going to be wiped out by younger workers who were more adaptable to the needs of the modern digital economy, upending our routine notion that professional experience equals value.

Of course, that was just a narrative. Facility with using computers was determined by the ability to turn it on and log in, a bar so low that it can be shocking to the modern reader to think that a “divide” existed at all. Software engineering, computer science and statistics remained quite unpopular compared to other academic programs, even in universities, let alone in primary through secondary schools. Most Gen Xers and millennials never learned to code, or frankly, even to make a pivot table or calculate basic statistical averages.

There’s a sociological change underway though, and it’s going to make the first divide look quaint in hindsight.

Over the past two or so years, we have seen the rise of a whole class of software that has been broadly (and quite inaccurately) dubbed “no-code platforms.” These tools are designed to make it much easier for users to harness the power of computing in their daily work. That could be everything from calculating the most successful digital ad campaigns given some sort of objective function, or perhaps integrating a computer vision library into a workflow that calculates the number of people entering or exiting a building.

The success and notoriety of these tools comes from the feeling that they grant superpowers to their users. Projects that once took a team of engineers some hours to build can now be stitched together in a couple of clicks through a user interface. That’s why young startups like Retool can raise at nearly a $1 billion valuation and Airtable at $2.6 billion, while others like Bildr, Shogun, Bubble, Stacker and dozens more are getting traction among users.

Of course, no-code tools often require code, or at least, the sort of deductive logic that is intrinsic to coding. You have to know how to design a pivot table, or understand what machine learning capability is and what it might be useful for. You have to think in terms of data, and about inputs, transformations and outputs.

The key here is that no-code tools aren’t successful just because they are easier to use — they are successful because they are connecting with a new generation that understands precisely the sort of logic required by these platforms to function. Today’s students don’t just see their computers and mobile devices as consumption screens and have the ability to turn them on. They are widely using them as tools of self-expression, research and analysis.

Take the popularity of platforms like Roblox and Minecraft. Easily derided as just a generation’s obsession with gaming, both platforms teach kids how to build entire worlds using their devices. Even better, as kids push the frontiers of the toolsets offered by these games, they are inspired to build their own tools. There has been a proliferation of guides and online communities to teach kids how to build their own games and plugins for these platforms (Lua has never been so popular).

These aren’t tiny changes; 150 million play Roblox games across 40 million user-created experiences, and the platform has nearly 350,000 developers. Minecraft for its part has more than 130 million active users. These are generation-defining experiences for young people today.

That excitement to harness computers is also showing up in educational data. Advanced Placement tests for computer science have grown from around 20,000 in 2010 to more than 70,000 this year according to the College Board, which administers the high school proficiency exams. That’s the largest increase among all of the organization’s dozens of tests. Meanwhile at top universities, computer science has emerged as the top or among the top majors, pulling in hundreds of new students per campus per year.

The specialized, almost arcane knowledge of data analysis and engineering is being widely democratized for this new generation, and that’s precisely where a new digital divide is emerging.

In business today, it’s not enough to just open a spreadsheet and make some casual observations anymore. Today’s new workers know how to dive into systems, pipe different programs together using no-code platforms and answer problems with much more comprehensive — and real-time — answers.

It’s honestly striking to see the difference. Whereas just a few years ago, a store manager might (and strong emphasis on might) put their sales data into Excel and then let it linger there for the occasional perusal, this new generation is prepared to connect multiple online tools to build an online storefront (through no-code tools like Shopify or Squarespace), calculate basic LTV scores using a no-code data platform and prioritize their best customers with marketing outreach through basic email delivery services. And it’s all reproducible, as it is in technology and code and not produced by hand.

There are two important points here. First is to note the degree of fluency these new workers have for these technologies, and just how many members of this generation seem prepared to use them. They just don’t have the fear to try new programs, and they know they can always use search engines to find answers to problems they are having.

Second, the productivity difference between basic computer literacy and a bit more advanced expertise is profound. Even basic but accurate data analysis on a business can raise performance substantially compared to gut instinct and expired spreadsheets.

This second digital divide is only going to get more intense. Consider students today in school, who are forced by circumstance to use digital technologies in order to get their education. How many more students are going to become even more capable of using these technologies? How much more adept are they going to be at remote work? While the current educational environment is a travesty and deeply unequal, the upshot is that ever more students are going to be forced to become deeply fluent in computers.[2]

Progress in many ways is about raising the bar. This generation is raising the bar on how data is used in the workplace, in business and in entrepreneurship. They are better than ever at bringing together various individual services and cohering them into effective experiences for their customers, readers and users. The No-Code Generation has the potential to finally fill that missing productivity gap in the global economy, making our lives better, while saving time for everyone.

[1] Probably worth pointing out that the other “digital divide” at the time was describing households that had internet access and households that did not. That’s a divide that unfortunately still plagues America and many other rich, industrialized countries.

[2] Important to note that access to computing is still an issue for many students and represents one of the most easily fixable inequalities today in America. Providing equal access to computing should be an absolute imperative.

Powered by WordPress | Theme: Aeros 2.0 by TheBuckmaker.com