Sep
29
2020
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How Twilio built its own conference platform

Twilio’s annual customer conference was supposed to happen in May, but like everyone else who had live events scheduled for this year, it ran smack-dab into COVID-19 and was forced to cancel. That left the company wondering how to reimagine the event online. It began an RFP process to find a vendor to help, but eventually concluded it could use its own APIs and built a platform on its own.

That’s a pretty bold move, but one of the key issues facing Twilio was how to recreate the in-person experience of the show floor where people could chat with specific API experts. After much internal deliberation, they realized that was what their communication API products were designed to do.

Once they committed to going their own way, they began a long process that involved figuring out must-have features, building consensus in the company, creating a development and testing cycle and finding third-party partnerships to help them when they ran into the limitations of their own products.

All that work culminates this week when Twilio holds its annual Signal Conference online Wednesday and Thursday. We spoke to In-Young Chang, director of experience at Twilio, to learn how this project came together.

Chang said once the decision was made to go virtual, the biggest issue for them (and for anyone putting on a virtual conference) was how to recreate that human connection that is a natural part of the in-person conference experience.

The company’s first step was to put out a request for proposals with event software vendors. She said that the problem was that these platforms hadn’t been designed for the most part to be fully virtual. At best, they had a hybrid approach, where some people attended virtually, but most were there in person.

“We met with a lot of different vendors, vendors that a lot of big tech companies were using, but there were pros to some of them, and then cons to others, and none of them truly fit everything that we needed, which was connecting our customers to product experts [like we do at our in-person conferences],” Chang told TechCrunch.

Even though they had winnowed the proposals down to a manageable few, they weren’t truly satisfied with what the event software vendors were offering, and they came to a realization.

“Either we find a vendor who can do this fully custom in three months’ time, or [we do it ourselves]. This is what we do. This is in our DNA, so we can make this happen. The hard part became how do you prioritize because once we made the conference fully software-based, the possibilities were endless,” she said.

All of this happened pretty quickly. The team interviewed the vendors in May, and by June made the decision to build it themselves. They began the process of designing the event software they would be using, taking advantage of their own communications capabilities, first and foremost.

The first thing they needed to do was meet with various stakeholders inside the company and figure out the must-have features in their custom platform. She said that reeling in people’s ambitions for version 1.0 of the platform was part of the challenge that they faced trying to pull this together.

“We only had three months. It wasn’t going to be totally perfect. There had to be some prioritization and compromises, but with our APIs we [felt that we] could totally make this happen,” Chang said.

They started meeting with different groups across the company to find out their must-haves. They knew that they wanted to recreate this personal contact experience. Other needs included typical conference activities like being able to collect leads and build agendas and the kinds of things you would expect to do at any conference, whether in-person or virtual.

As the team met with the various constituencies across the company, they began to get a sense of what they needed to build and they created a priorities document, which they reviewed with the Signal leadership team. “There were some hard conversations and some debates, but everyone really had goodwill toward each other knowing that we only had a few months,” she said.

Signal Concierge Agent for virtual Twilio Signal Conference

Signal Concierge Agent helps attendees navigate the online conference. Image Credits: Twilio

The team believed it could build a platform that met the company’s needs, but with only 10 developers working on it, they had a huge challenge to get it done in three months.

With one of the major priorities putting customers together with the right Twilio personnel, they decided to put their customer service platform, Twilio Flex, to work on the problem. Flex combines voice, messaging, video and chat in one interface. While the conference wasn’t a pure customer service issue, they believed that they could leverage the platform to direct requests to people with the right expertise and recreate the experience of walking up to the booth and asking questions of a Twilio employee with a particular skill set.

“Twilio Flex has Taskrouter, which allows us to assign agents unique skills-based characteristics, like you’re a video expert, so I’m going to tag you as a video expert. If anyone has a question around video, I know that we can route it directly to you,” Chang explained.

They also built a bot companion, called Signal Concierge, that moves through the online experience with each attendee and helps them find what they need, applying their customer service approach to the conference experience.

“Signal Concierge is your conference companion, so that if you ever have a question about what session you should go to next or [you want to talk to an expert], there’s just one place that you have to go to get an answer to your question, and we’ll be there to help you with it,” she said.

The company couldn’t do everything with Twilio’s tools, so it turned to third parties in those cases. “We continued our partnership with Klik, a conference data and badging platform all available via API. And Perficient, a Twilio SI partner we hired to augment the internal team to more quickly implement the custom Twilio Flex experience in the tight time frame we had. And Plexus, who provided streaming capabilities that we could use in an open-source video player,” she said.

They spent September testing what they built, making sure the Signal Concierge was routing requests correctly and all the moving parts were working. They open the virtual doors on Wednesday morning and get to see how well they pulled it off.

Chang says she is proud of what her team pulled off, but recognizes this is a first pass and future versions will have additional features that they didn’t have time to build.

“This is V1 of the platform. It’s not by any means exactly what we want, but we’re really proud of what we were able to accomplish from scoping the content to actually building the platform within three months’ time,” she said.

Aug
03
2020
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EventGeek relaunches as Circa to help marketers embrace virtual events

EventGeek was a Y Combinator-backed startup that offered tools to help large enterprises manage the logistics of their events. So with the COVID-19 pandemic essentially eliminating large-scale conferences, at least in-person, it’s not exactly surprising that the company had to reinvent itself.

Today, EventGeek relaunched as Circa, with a new focus on virtual events. Founder and CEO Alex Patriquin said that Circa is reusing some pieces of EventGeek’s existing technology, but he estimated that 80% of the platform is new.

While the relaunch only just became official, the startup says its software has already been used to adapt 40,000 in-person events into virtual conferences and webinars.

The immediate challenge, Patriquin said, is simply figuring out how to throw a virtual event — something for which Circa offers a playbook. But the startup’s goals go beyond virtual event logistics.

“Our new focus is really more at the senior marketing stakeholder level, helping them have a unified view of the customer,” Patriquin said.

He explained that “events have always been kind of disconnected from the marketing stack,” so the shift to virtual presents an opportunity to treat event participation as part of the larger customer journey, and to include events in the broader customer record. To that end, Circa integrates with sales and marketing systems like Salesforce and Marketo, as well as with video conferencing platforms like Zoom and On24.

Circa screenshot

Image Credits: Circa

“We don’t actually deliver [the conference] experience,” Patriquin said. “We put it into that context of the customer journey.”

Liz Kokoska, senior director of demand generation for North America at Circa customer Okta, made a similar point.

“Prior to Circa, we had to manage our physical and virtual events in separate systems, even though we thought of them as parts of the same marketing channel,” Kokoska said in a statement. “With Circa, we now have a single view of all our events in one place — this is helpful in planning and company-wide visibility on marketing activity. Being able to seamlessly adapt to the new world of virtual and hybrid events has given our team a significant advantage.”

And as Patriquin looks ahead to a world where large conferences are possible again, he predicted that there’s still “a really big opportunity for the events industry and for Circa.”

“As in-person events start to come back, there’s going to be a phase where health and safety are going to be paramount,” he continued. “After that health and safety phase, it’s going to be the age of hybrid events — where everything is virtual right now, hybrid will provide the opportunity to bring key [virtual] learnings back into the in-person world, to have a lot more data and intelligence and really be able to personalize an attendee’s experience.”

Jun
25
2020
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Zoom founder and CEO Eric Yuan will speak at Disrupt 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has bruised and battered many technology startups, but it has also boosted a small few. One such company is Zoom, which has shouldered the task of keeping us connected to one another in the midst of remote work and social distancing.

So, of course, we’re absolutely thrilled to have the chance to chat with Zoom founder and CEO Eric Yuan at Disrupt 2020 online.

Yuan moved to Silicon Valley in 1997 after being rejected for a work visa nine times. He got a job at WebEx and, upon the company’s acquisition by Cisco, became VP of Engineering at the company. He pitched an idea for a mobile-friendly video conferencing system that was rejected by his higher-ups.

And thus, Zoom was born.

Zoom launched in 2011 and quickly became one of the biggest teleconferencing platforms in the world, competing with the likes of Google and Cisco. The company has investors like Emergence, Horizon Ventures and Sequoia, and ultimately filed to go public in 2019.

With some of the most reliable video conferencing software on the market, a tiered pricing structure that’s friendly to average users and massive enterprises alike, and a lively ecosystem of apps and bots on the Zoom App Marketplace, Zoom was well poised to be a public company. In fact, Zoom popped 81% in its first day of trading on the Nasdaq, garnering a valuation of $16 billion at the time.

But few could have prepared the company for the explosive growth it would see in 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic necessitated access to reliable and user-friendly video conferencing software for everyone, not just companies moving to remote work. People used Zoom for family dinners, cocktail hours with friends, first dates and religious gatherings.

In fact, Zoom reported 300 million daily active participants in April.

But that growth led to increased scrutiny of the business and the product. The company was beset by security issues and had to pause product innovation to focus its energy on resolving those issues.

We’ll talk to Yuan about the growing pains the company went through, his plans for Zoom’s future, the acceleration in changing user behavior and more.

It’ll be a conversation you won’t want to miss.

Disrupt 2020 runs from September 14 to September 18, and the show will be completely virtual. That means it’s easier than ever to attend and engage with the show. There are just a few Digital Pro Passes left at the $245 price — once they are gone, prices will increase. Discounts are available for current students and nonprofit/government employees. Or if you are a founder, you can exhibit at your virtual booth for $445 and be able to generate leads even before the event kicks off. Get your tickets today.


Jun
24
2020
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Airtable’s Howie Liu to join us at Disrupt 2020

Collaborative enterprise software is absolutely booming, and Airtable is riding that wave in a very real way.

The company, which offers a flexible, collaborative database product, has raised more than $170 million in funding from investors like CRV, Benchmark, Coatue Management and Thrive Capital. So it should come as no surprise that we’re simply thrilled to have Airtable co-founder and CEO Howie Liu join us at Disrupt 2020.

Liu went to Duke University before starting his first company, eTacts, which was an automated CRM system that received investment from the founders of YouTube, Powerset and Delicious, as well as investors like Ron Conway and Ashton Kutcher.

Liu then went on to lead the social CRM product for Salesforce before leaving to set his own course once again with Airtable .

Airtable was founded back in 2012 with a broad mission of democratizing software. At its essence, Airtable is a relational database. Laymen can think of it as a Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel on steroids, but it actually goes much deeper than that.

Software is built on data — organized data, to be exact — and while many of us can compile and organize data into a spreadsheet, few can make it sing its way to a software product. Airtable aims to make that possible for anyone, even a non-developer.

That said, the company faces several hurdles. Airtable is a product that can be used in many, many ways, from tracking sales goals to organizing product road maps to managing workflows. With this type of open-ended product, it can be difficult to educate the end-user on how to make the most of it, or how to use it to begin with.

We’ll talk with Liu about how to build a very complex product in the most user-friendly way possible. We’ll also ask him about the state of enterprise software sales at a time when most large companies are freezing or decreasing spending, the future of no- and low-code software and how he thinks about hyper-growth.

Disrupt is all virtual in 2020 and runs September 14 to September 18, and we have several Digital Pass options to be part of the action or to exhibit virtually, which you can check out here.

Liu joins a stellar roster of speakers, including Roelof Botha, Cyan Banister, Charles Hudson and Mike Cannon-Brookes, with more speakers to be announced soon!

Jun
16
2020
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Extra Crunch Live: Join Superhuman’s Rahul Vohra for a live discussion of email, SaaS and buzzy businesses

An email app with a waitlist? No, this isn’t 2004 and I’m not talking about Gmail. Superhuman has managed to attract and maintain constant interest for its subscription email product, with a wait list at over 275,000 people long at last count – all while asking users to pay $30 per month to gain access to the service. Founder and CEO Rahul Vohra will join us on Tuesday, June 26 at 2pm ET/11am PT for an Extra Crunch Live Q&A.

We have plenty of questions of our own, but we bet you do, too! Extra Crunch members can ask their own questions directly to Vohra during the chat.

We’re thrilled to be able to sit down with Vohra for a discussion about email, why it was in need of change, and what’s bringing so much attention and interest to Superhuman on a sustained basis. We’ll talk about the current prevailing market climate and what that’s meant for the business, as well as how you manage to create not one, but two companies (Vohra previously founded and sold Rapportive) that have adapted email to more modern needs – and struck a chord with users as a result.

Meanwhile, SaaS seems to be one of the bright spots in an otherwise fairly gloomy global economic situation, and Superhuman’s $30 per month subscription model definitely qualifies. We’ll ask Vohra what it means to build a successful SaaS startup in 2020, and how there might be plenty of opportunity even in so-called ‘solved’ problems like email and other aspects of our digital lives that have become virtually invisible thanks to habit.

Audience members can also ask their own questions, so come prepared with yours if you’re already an Extra Crunch member. And if you aren’t yet – now’s a great time to sign up.

We hope to see you there!

May
27
2020
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Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg shares his COVID-19 strategy and tactics

This week, Verizon Communications CEO Hans Vestberg joined us for an episode of Extra Crunch Live.

Vestberg is leading the company through the midst of one its biggest rollouts to date with the push into 5G connectivity. In our discussion, he spoke about how he’s managing the organization during this global crisis, his thoughts on work from home and acquisition strategy, and the ways in which 5G will change the way we work and live.

(Disclosure: Verizon Communications is TechCrunch’s parent company.)

Extra Crunch members can check out a partial transcript of the conversation (edited for length and clarity) or watch it in its entirety via YouTube video below.


Extra Crunch Live features some of the brightest minds in tech and VC, including Aileen Lee, Roelof Botha, Kirsten Green and Mark Cuban. Upcoming episodes will include Aaron Levie from Box, GGV’s Hans Tung and Jeff Richards, Eventbrite’s Julia Hartz and others. Extra Crunch members can submit questions to speakers in real time, so please sign up here if you haven’t already.


His initial reaction to news of the lockdown

We’re a large company with 135,000 employees in 70 different countries around the globe. So, of course, we had an early warning when it started actually in Asia. We have employees in Asia, so we got the feeling that this could be really serious. It was early in the first week of February, we moved to the highest emergency or crisis level in the company. That means that we go to a certain crisis mode on how we organized and how we galvanized the company.

That’s usually put into place every time there is a big national disaster because you need to split between people taking care of the crisis and people taking care of running the business. So we were very early on with that. In the beginning of February, we started the emergency crisis operations center that was taking care of employee questions and prioritization of important things. At the same time, we continued to run the business. That was the first thing we did very early on.

Upcoming Extra Crunch Live episodes include discussions with Aaron Levie from Box, GGV’s Hans Tung and Jeff Richards, and Eventbrite’s Julia Hartz.

The other thing we did very early on is that we understood that this was something unprecedented. I mean, you have been in crisis before. I mean, I’ve been in the telecom crisis, and we’ve been in the banking crisis when everything just went boom. This is something totally different. You cannot use any of your historical experience when it comes to this pandemic, which actually impacts each and every one of us when it comes to health. So I was honest, and thought that they’re going to be a lot of questions. We decided very early on to run our noon live webcast to our employees. We are on our… I think it’s the 11th week, where at noon every day, we run the webcast for all our employees. That was two of the first things we did.

We didn’t think we were going to run for 11 weeks on the new live webcast, but we have done it because we see there’s a very good tool to communicate with all our employees.

May
21
2020
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Extra Crunch Live: Join Box CEO Aaron Levie May 28th at noon PT/3 pm ET/7 pm GMT

We’ve been on a roll with our Extra Crunch Live Series for Extra Crunch members, where we’re talking to some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley about business, investment and the startup community. Recent interviews include Kirsten Green from Forerunner Ventures, Charles Hudson from Precursor Ventures and investor Mark Cuban.

Next week, we’re pleased to welcome Box CEO Aaron Levie. He is a well-known advocate of digital transformation, often a years-long process that many companies have compressed into a few months because of the pandemic, as he has pointed out lately.

As the head of an enterprise SaaS company that started out to help users manage information online, he has a unique perspective on what’s happening in this period as companies move employees home and implement cloud services to ease the transition.

Levie started his company 15 years ago while still an undergrad in the proverbial dorm room and has matured from those early days into a public company executive, guiding his employees, customers and investors through the current crisis. This is not the first economic downturn he has faced as CEO at Box; when it was still an early-stage startup, he saw it through the 2008 financial crisis. Presumably, he’s taking the lessons he learned then and applying them now to a much more mature organization.

Please join TechCrunch writers Ron Miller and Jon Shieber as we chat with Levie about how he’s handling the COVID-19 crisis, moving employees offsite and what advice he has for companies that are accelerating their digital transformation. After he’s shared his wisdom for startups seeking survival strategies, we’ll discuss what life might look like for Box and other companies in a post-pandemic environment.

During the call, audience members are encouraged to ask questions. We’ll get to as many as we can, but you can only participate if you’re an Extra Crunch member, so please subscribe here.

Extra Crunch subscribers can find the Zoom link below (with YouTube to follow) as well as a calendar invite so you won’t miss this conversation.

May
10
2020
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Sequoia’s Roelof Botha is more optimistic about startups today than he was a year ago

“I just think change unfairly favors the startup, the nimble small company,” says Roelof Botha.

The Sequoia partner, whose portfolio includes Unity, 23andMe, Instagram, Instacart, Xoom and YouTube, says he’s hopeful about the opportunities this pandemic has created for companies across a variety of sectors, including healthcare, cloud computing, social and others.

We spoke for an hour with Botha about several topics, including how user behavior is rapidly evolving, trends he’s seeing, his outlook on economic recovery, how he’s evaluating new investments and how fundraising itself is changing. Fun fact: Sequoia has made 10 investments over Zoom since the coronavirus pandemic forced us to stay at home.

The full conversation was broadcast on YouTube, and the embed appears below.

Side note: Extra Crunch Live is our new virtual speaker series for Extra Crunch members. Folks can ask their own questions live during the chat, with guests that include Aileen Lee, Kirsten Green, Mark Cuban and many, many more. You can check out the schedule here.

Below, you’ll find a lightly edited transcript of our recent chat with Botha. Enjoy!

The differences in fundraising based on stage

When you’re listening to a seed-stage company, it’s often about the story. The founders paint a vision of the future. That’s part of what I love about my job, by the way. You’re sitting there and you’re trying to imagine what the world is going to look like one day and whether this company is on the right side of history. Or is it implausible that this will happen? It’s so much fun to sit there and think about that. At the seed stage, it’s about the story.

As you get to a Series A or Series B stage, the company will definitely start to have some metrics: usage numbers, early adoption numbers. If it’s an enterprise company, what are people willing to pay for your product? You start to get a sense of the metrics that back up the story. If the metrics don’t support the story, then you start to wonder if that company makes sense. In the long run, you need to have financials that flow from the metrics. But that’s typically at a Series C or later stage. And clearly, by the time a company goes public, you need to have connected story to metrics to financials.

Apr
29
2020
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Atlassian co-founder and co-CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes is coming to Disrupt SF 2020

Atlassian is about as ubiquitous to software engineers as Google is to the rest of us. The Sydney-based company, which launched in 2002, develops tools and services for enterprise collaboration and marched efficiently to a public offering in 2015.

So it goes without saying that we’re thrilled to have Atlassian co-founder and co-CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes join us at Disrupt SF 2020, which runs September 14 to September 16.

As far as entrepreneurship goes, Cannon-Brookes is on a very short list of founders who have led a company from founding to public offering, and all the steps in between.

Atlassian was one of the early players in enterprise collaboration, particularly for engineering and development teams, and has over the years introduced a robust product suite, including Jira, Confluence and HipChat.

Cannon-Brookes has been at the helm for the entire journey, from raising early funding to product development to acquisitions (including Trello) to public offering and beyond. All the while, Cannon-Brookes kept the company’s HQ, and all invoicing, in its home country of Australia, becoming the most successful tech startup to ever launch out of the nation down under.

One of the more interesting features of the company? Unlike Microsoft and IBM and other big enterprise software companies, Atlassian has always operated without a proper sales team, using a fraction of spend on sales and marketing compared to other enterprise software giants.

“We had a hunch early on that salespeople break software companies,” Cannon-Brookes told the Australian Financial Review in 2015. “But convincing people this model would work has probably been the biggest struggle we’ve had. We’ve had a lot of smart people who wouldn’t join the company or give us money or advise us because it made no sense to them.”

The company developed an enormously successful distribution flywheel built on the back of one necessary ingredient: remarkable products. Great products at low prices mean that you can sell to everyone, and if you sell to everyone you have to do it online and with transparent pricing and a great free trial. But if you offer a free trial, you better have a remarkable product, and the flywheel spins on and on.

It has worked.

Atlassian products are used by more than 160,000 large and small organizations across the globe, including Spotify, NASA, Sotheby’s and Visa.

Cannon-Brookes is also a tech investor across sectors like software, fintech, agriculture and energy, with a seat on the board of Zoox.

We’re excited to sit down with Cannon-Brookes and hear more about the company’s trajectory over the last two decades and hear what comes next for the behemoth.

Disrupt SF 2020 runs September 14 to September 16 at the Moscone Center right in the heart of San Francisco. For folks who can’t make it in person, we have several Digital Pass options to be part of the action or to exhibit virtually, which you can check out here.

We’ll be announcing more speakers over the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

(Editor’s Note: We’re watching the developing situation around the novel coronavirus very closely and will adapt as we go. You can find out the latest on our event schedule plans here.)


Apr
13
2020
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How Adobe shifted a Las Vegas conference to executives’ living rooms in less than 30 days

Adobe was scheduled to hold its annual conference in Las Vegas two weeks ago, but the coronavirus pandemic forced the company to make alternate plans. In less than a month, its events team shifted venues for the massive conference, not once, but twice as the severity of the situation became clear.

This year didn’t just involve Adobe Summit itself. To make things more interesting, it was also hosting Magento Imagine as a separate conference within a conference at the same time. (Adobe bought Magento in 2018 for $1.6 billion.)

Originally, Adobe had more than 500 sessions planned across four venues on the Las Vegas Strip, with more than 23,000 attendees expected. Combining all of the sponsors, partners and Adobe personnel, it involved more than 40,000 hotel rooms.

Once it became clear that such a large event couldn’t happen, the company reimagined the conference as a fully digital experience.

Plan A

VP of Experience Marketing Alex Amado is in charge of planning Adobe Summit, a tall task under normal circumstances.

“Planning Summit is a year-round endeavor,” he said. “Literally within weeks of finishing one of those Las Vegas events we are starting on the next one, and some of the work actually is on an 18 or 24-month cycle because we have those long-term hotel contracts and all of that stuff.

“For the last 12 months, basically, we had people who were working on what we now call Plan A — and we didn’t know that we needed a Plan B and Plan C — and the original event was going to be our biggest yet.”

2019 Adobe Summit stage in Las Vegas. Photo: Ron Miller/TechCrunch

After the team began to wonder in January if the virus would force them to change how they deliver the conference, they started building contingency plans in earnest, Amado said. “As we got into February, things started looking a little scarier, and it very quickly escalated to the point where we were talking really seriously about Plan B.”

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