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.

Oct
20
2020
--

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
--

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
--

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.

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