Jul
18
2019
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Investor Jocelyn Goldfein to join us on AI panel at TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise

Artificial intelligence is quickly becoming a foundational technology for enterprise software development and startups have begun addressing a variety of issues around using AI to make software and processes much more efficient.

To that end, we are delighted to announce that Jocelyn Goldfein, a Managing Director at Zetta Venture Partners will be joining on us a panel to discuss AI in the enterprise. It will take place at the TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise show on September 5 at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco.

It’s not just startups that are involved in AI in the enterprise. Some of the biggest names in enterprise software including Salesforce Einstein, Adobe Sensei and IBM Watson have been addressing the need for AI to help solve the enterprise data glut.

Computers can process large amounts of information much more quickly than humans, and as enterprise companies generate increasing amounts of data, they need help understanding it all as the volume of information exceeds human capacity to sort through it.

Goldfein brings a deep engineering background to her investment work. She served as a VP of engineering at VMware and as an engineering director at Facebook, where she led the project that adopted machine learning for the News Feed ranker, launched major updates in photos and search, and helped spearhead Facebook’s pivot to mobile. Goldfein drove significant reforms in Facebook hiring practices and is a prominent evangelist for women in computer science. As an investor, she primarily is focused on startups using AI to take more efficient approaches to infrastructure, security, supply chains and worker productivity.

At TC Sessions: Enterprise, she’ll be joining Bindu Reddy from Reality Engines along with other panelists to discuss the growing role of AI in enterprise software with TechCrunch editors. You’ll learn why AI startups are attracting investor attention and how AI in general could fundamentally transform enterprise software.

Prior to joining Zetta, Goldfein had stints at Facebook and VMware, as well as startups Datify, MessageOne and Trilogy/pcOrder.

Early Bird tickets to see Joyce at TC Sessions: Enterprise are on sale for just $249 when you book here; but hurry, prices go up by $100 soon! Students, grab your discounted tickets for just $75 here.

Jul
16
2019
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Workplace, Facebook’s service for business teams, is raising its prices for the first time since launch

Three years into its life with 2 million paying users signed up, Workplace — Facebook’s platform for businesses and other organizations to build internal communities and communications — is about to make a significant business shift of its own. Come September 2, Workplace is changing its pricing tiers, how it charges its users and the services that it provides customers.

Up to now, Facebook has taken a very simple approach to how it charges for Workplace, unique not just because of it being a paid service (unlike Facebook itself, which is free), but for how it modeled its pricing on the basic building block of Facebook-the-consumer product: a basic version was free, with an enhanced premium edition costing a flat $3 per active user, per month.

In September, that will change. The standard (basic) tier is getting rebranded as Workplace Essential, and will still be free to use. Meanwhile, the premium tier is being renamed Workplace Advanced and getting charged $4 per person, per month. And Facebook is introducing a new tier, Workplace Enterprise, which will be charged at $8 per person, per month, and will come with a new set of services specifically around guaranteed, quicker support and first-look access at new features. (Those who are already customers have the option of being grandfathered for a year, the company said, before switching to a new plan.)

Screenshot 2019 07 16 at 14.16.02

Those are not the only changes. Two other notable shifts are getting introduced with these new tiers. First, these prices will be for all users, regardless of whether they are active in the month.

And second, they are specifically prices for people who access Workplace as general “knowledge workers” — marked by having email addresses and specific job functions. Frontline workers — for example, cashiers or baristas or others mostly on their feet all day helping customers — will be an add-on at $1.50 per person per month, also regardless of whether they are active or not.

For now, the rest of the features in the different tiers are remaining the same.

Screenshot 2019 07 16 at 14.16.33

The changes at Workplace come amid a number of other developments among workforce collaboration and communication platforms.

First and foremost, Slack has gone public, subjecting it and its ups and downs to a lot more public scrutiny, but also putting it on the map as a business of some standing, helping it make a bigger move into brokering more deals with the larger enterprises that Workplace has been winning over. The latter’s customers include the likes of Walmart, the world’s biggest employer; as well as Nestlé, Vodafone, GSK, Telefonica, AstraZeneca and Delta Airlines, and Facebook says there are more than 150 companies signed up with more than 10,000 employees each.

Teams, meanwhile, has now passed Slack in user numbers, and in a way is a more direct competitor: it has positioned itself (like Workplace) as a tool for both knowledge and frontline workers, helping with actual back-office collaboration, as well as a way to broadcast communications to a wider group of employees.

Julien Codorniou, the VP of Workplace, said the changes in pricing tiers was not a reaction to competition, but rather a reaction to customers. Although the pricing for Workplace was an interesting twist on how enterprises tend to procure IT, it turned out to be too novel by half: it turned out that most actually like the predictability of paying the same amount for a service upfront, rather than having the pricing change each month depending on usage.

“Today, customers’ bills change every month, for example when a co-worker goes on vacation or whatever,” he said. “It’s a nightmare for the accounting department, who needs to know how much to pay two years out.”

He added that this doesn’t mean you can’t change how much you pay: you could change the pricing each month if necessary.

So far, no one has made the shift to the new tiers, so it will be interesting to see how and if they have much of an impact. I do know that from retail theory, customers in stores are more likely to select a middle-priced product if they are given an option of something cheap and something expensive at either end, and so this could be an interesting way to drive more users to Workplace’s paid tier.

What is more clear is that this is also a way for Facebook to raise its prices for the first time since the service launched, and lays the groundwork for more differentiation between different kinds of offerings.

Jul
03
2019
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Capital One CTO George Brady will join us at TC Sessions: Enterprise

When you think of old, giant mainframes that sit in the basement of a giant corporation, still doing the same work they did 30 years ago, chances are you’re thinking about a financial institution. It’s the financial enterprises, though, that are often leading the charge in bringing new technologies and software development practices to their employees and customers. That’s in part because they are in a period of disruption that forces them to become more nimble. Often, this means leaving behind legacy technology and embracing the cloud.

At TC Sessions: Enterprise, which is happening on September 5 in San Francisco, Capital One executive VP in charge of its technology operations, George Brady, will talk about the company’s journey from legacy hardware and software to embracing the cloud and open source, all while working in a highly regulated industry. Indeed, Capital One was among the first companies to embrace the Facebook-led Open Compute project and it’s a member of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation. It’s this transformation at Capital One that Brady is leading.

At our event, Brady will join a number of other distinguished panelists to specifically talk about his company’s journey to the cloud. There, Capital One is using serverless compute, for example, to power its Credit Offers API using AWS’s Lambda service, as well as a number of other cloud technologies.

Before joining Capital One as its CTO in 2014, Brady ran Fidelity Investment’s global enterprise infrastructure team from 2009 to 2014 and served as Goldman Sachs’ head of global business applications infrastructure before that.

Currently, he leads cloud application and platform productization for Capital One. Part of that portfolio is Critical Stack, a secure container orchestration platform for the enterprise. Capital One’s goal with this work is to help companies across industries become more compliant, secure and cost-effective operating in the public cloud.

Early-bird tickets are still on sale for $249; grab yours today before we sell out.

Student tickets are just $75 — grab them here.

Jul
02
2019
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Sam Lessin and Andrew Kortina on their voice assistant’s workplace pivot

Sam Lessin, a former product management executive at Facebook and old friend to Mark Zuckerberg, incorporated his latest startup under the name “Fin Exploration Company.”

Why? Well, because he wanted to explore. The company — co-founded alongside Andrew Kortina, best known for launching the successful payments app Venmo — was conceived as a consumer voice assistant in 2015 after the two entrepreneurs realized the impact 24/7 access to a virtual assistant would have on their digital to-do lists.

The thing is, developing an AI assistant capable of booking flights, arranging trips, teaching users how to play poker, identifying places to purchase specific items for a birthday party and answering wide-ranging zany questions like “can you look up a place where I can milk a goat?” requires a whole lot more human power than one might think. Capital-intensive and hard-to-scale, an app for “instantly offloading” chores wasn’t the best business. Neither Lessin nor Kortina will admit to failure, but Fin‘s excursion into B2B enterprise software eight months ago suggests the assistant technology wasn’t a billion-dollar idea.

Staying true to its name, the Fin Exploration Company is exploring again.

Jun
12
2019
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Apollo raises $22M for its GraphQL platform

Apollo, a San Francisco-based startup that provides a number of developer and operator tools and services around the GraphQL query language, today announced that it has raised a $22 million growth funding round co-led by Andreessen Horowitz and Matrix Partners. Existing investors Trinity Ventures and Webb Investment Network also participated in this round.

Today, Apollo is probably the biggest player in the GraphQL ecosystem. At its core, the company’s services allow businesses to use the Facebook -incubated GraphQL technology to shield their developers from the patchwork of legacy APIs and databases as they look to modernize their technology stacks. The team argues that while REST APIs that talked directly to other services and databases still made sense a few years ago, it doesn’t anymore now that the number of API endpoints keeps increasing rapidly.

Apollo replaces this with what it calls the Data Graph. “There is basically a missing piece where we think about how people build apps today, which is the piece that connects the billions of devices out there,” Apollo co-founder and CEO Geoff Schmidt told me. “You probably don’t just have one app anymore, you probably have three, for the web, iOS and Android . Or maybe six. And if you’re a two-sided marketplace you’ve got one for buyers, one for sellers and another for your ops team.”

Managing the interfaces between all of these apps quickly becomes complicated and means you have to write a lot of custom code for every new feature. The promise of the Data Graph is that developers can use GraphQL to query the data in the graph and move on, all without having to write the boilerplate code that typically slows them down. At the same time, the ops teams can use the Graph to enforce access policies and implement other security features.

“If you think about it, there’s a lot of analogies to what happened with relational databases in the ’80s,” Schmidt said. “There is a need for a new layer in the stack. Previously, your query planner was a human being, not a piece of software, and a relational database is a piece of software that would just give you a database. And you needed a way to query that database, and that syntax was called SQL.”

Geoff Schmidt, Apollo CEO, and Matt DeBergalis, CTO

GraphQL itself, of course, is open source. Apollo is now building a lot of the proprietary tools around this idea of the Data Graph that make it useful for businesses. There’s a cloud-hosted graph manager, for example, that lets you track your schema, as well as a dashboard to track performance, as well as integrations with continuous integration services. “It’s basically a set of services that keep track of the metadata about your graph and help you manage the configuration of your graph and all the workflows and processes around it,” Schmidt said.

The development of Apollo didn’t come out of nowhere. The founders previously launched Meteor, a framework and set of hosted services that allowed developers to write their apps in JavaScript, both on the front-end and back-end. Meteor was tightly coupled to MongoDB, though, which worked well for some use cases but also held the platform back in the long run. With Apollo, the team decided to go in the opposite direction and instead build a platform that makes being database agnostic the core of its value proposition.

The company also recently launched Apollo Federation, which makes it easier for businesses to work with a distributed graph. Sometimes, after all, your data lives in lots of different places. Federation allows for a distributed architecture that combines all of the different data sources into a single schema that developers can then query.

Schmidt tells me the company started to get some serious traction last year and by December, it was getting calls from VCs that heard from their portfolio companies that they were using Apollo.

The company plans to use the new funding to build out its technology to scale its field team to support the enterprises that bet on its technology, including the open-source technologies that power both the services.

“I see the Data Graph as a core new layer of the stack, just like we as an industry invested in the relational database for decades, making it better and better,” Schmidt said. “We’re still finding new uses for SQL and that relational database model. I think the Data Graph is going to be the same way.”

Jun
11
2019
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WhatsApp is finally going after outside firms that are abusing its platform

WhatsApp has so far relied on past dealings with bad players within its platform to ramp up its efforts to curtail spam and other automated behavior. The Facebook -owned giant has now announced an additional step it plans to take beginning later this year to improve the health of its messaging service: going after those whose mischievous activities can’t be traced within its platform.

The messaging platform, used by more than 1.5 billion users, confirmed on Tuesday that starting December 7 it will start considering signals off its platform to pursue legal actions against those who are abusing its system. The company will also go after individuals who — or firms that — falsely claim to have found ways to cause havoc on the service.

The move comes as WhatsApp grapples with challenges such as spam behavior to push agendas or spread of false information on its messaging service in some markets. “This serves as notice that we will take legal action against companies for which we only have off-platform evidence of abuse if that abuse continues beyond December 7, 2019, or if those companies are linked to on-platform evidence of abuse before that date,” it said in an FAQ post on its site.

A WhatsApp spokesperson confirmed the change to TechCrunch, adding, “WhatsApp was designed for private messaging, so we’ve taken action globally to prevent bulk messaging and enforce limits on how WhatsApp accounts that misuse WhatsApp can be used. We’ve also stepped up our ability to identify abuse, which helps us ban 2 million accounts globally per month.”

Earlier this year, WhatsApp said (PDF) it had built a machine learning system to detect and weed out users who engage in inappropriate behavior such as sending bulk messages or creating multiple accounts with intention to harm the service. The platform said it was able to assess the past dealings with problematics behaviors to ban 20% of bad accounts at the time of registration itself.

But the platform is still grappling to contain abusive behavior, a Reuters report claimed last month. The news agency reported about tools that were readily being sold in India for under $15 that claimed to bypass some of the restrictions that WhatsApp introduced in recent months.

TechCrunch understands that with today’s changes, WhatsApp is going after those same set of bad players. It has already started to send cease and desist letters to marketing companies that claim to abuse WhatsApp in recent months, a person familiar with the matter said.

Jun
04
2019
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VCs bet $12M on Troops, a Slackbot for sales teams

Slack wants to be the new operating system for teams, something it has made clear on more than one occasion, including in its recent S-1 filing. To accomplish that goal, it put together an in-house $80 million venture fund in 2015 to invest in third-party developers building on top of its platform.

Weeks ahead of its direct listing on The New York Stock Exchange, it continues to put that money to work.

Troops is the latest to land additional capital from the enterprise giant. The New York-based startup helps sales teams communicate with a customer relationship management tool plugged directly into Slack. In short, it automates routine sales management activities and creates visibility into important deals through integrations with employee emails and Salesforce.

Troops founder and chief executive officer Dan Reich, who previously co-founded TULA Skincare, told TechCrunch he opted to build a Slackbot rather than create an independent platform because Slack is a rocket ship and he wanted a seat on board: “When you think about where Slack will go in the future, it’s obvious to us that companies all over the world will be using it,” he said.

Troops has raised $12 million in Series B funding in a round led by Aspect Ventures, with participation from the Slack Fund, First Round Capital, Felicis Ventures, Susa Ventures, Chicago Ventures, Hone Capital, InVision founder Clark Valberg and others. The round brings Troops’ total raised to $22 million.

Launched in 2015 by New York tech veterans Reich, Scott Britton and Greg Ratner, the trio weren’t initially sure of Slack’s growth trajectory. It wasn’t until Slack confirmed its intent to support the developer ecosystem with a suite of developer tools and a fund that the team focused its efforts on building a Slackbot.

“People sometimes thought of us, at least in the early days, as a little bit crazy,” Reich said. “But now Slack is the fastest-growing SaaS company ever.”

“We think the biggest opportunity in the [enterprise SaaS] category is going to be tools oriented around the customer-facing employee (CRM), and that’s where we are innovating,” he added.

Troops’ tools are helpful for any customer-facing team, Reich explains. Envoy, WeWork, HubSpot and a few hundred others are monthly paying subscribers of the tool, using it to interact with their CRM in a messaging interface and to receive notifications when a deal has closed. Troops integrates with Salesforce, so employees can use it to search records, schedule automatic reports and celebrate company wins.

Slack, in partnership with a number of venture capital funds, including Accel, Kleiner Perkins and Index, has also deployed capital to a number of other startups, like Lattice, Drafted and Loom.

With Slack’s direct listing afoot, the Troops team is counting on the imminent and long-term growth of the company’s platform.

“We think it’s still early days,” Reich said. “In the future, we see every company using something like Troops to manage their day-to-day.”

May
13
2019
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Market map: the 200+ innovative startups transforming affordable housing

In this section of my exploration into innovation in inclusive housing, I am digging into the 200+ companies impacting the key phases of developing and managing housing.

Innovations have reduced costs in the most expensive phases of the housing development and management process. I explore innovations in each of these phases, including construction, land, regulatory, financing, and operational costs.

Reducing Construction Costs

This is one of the top three challenges developers face, exacerbated by rising building material costs and labor shortages.

May
02
2019
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Takeaways from F8 and Facebook’s next phase

Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch’s Josh Constine and Frederic Lardinois discuss major announcements that came out of Facebook’s F8 conference and dig into how Facebook is trying to redefine itself for the future.

Though touted as a developer-focused conference, Facebook spent much of F8 discussing privacy upgrades, how the company is improving its social impact, and a series of new initiatives on the consumer and enterprise side. Josh and Frederic discuss which announcements seem to make the most strategic sense, and which may create attractive (or unattractive) opportunities for new startups and investment.

“This F8 was aspirational for Facebook. Instead of being about what Facebook is, and accelerating the growth of it, this F8 was about Facebook, and what Facebook wants to be in the future.

That’s not the newsfeed, that’s not pages, that’s not profiles. That’s marketplace, that’s Watch, that’s Groups. With that change, Facebook is finally going to start to decouple itself from the products that have dragged down its brand over the last few years through a series of nonstop scandals.”

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Josh and Frederic dive deeper into Facebook’s plans around its redesign, Messenger, Dating, Marketplace, WhatsApp, VR, smart home hardware and more. The two also dig into the biggest news, or lack thereof, on the developer side, including Facebook’s Ax and BoTorch initiatives.

For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

Apr
30
2019
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Facebook Messenger will get desktop apps, co-watching, emoji status

To win chat, Facebook Messenger must be as accessible as SMS, yet more entertaining than Snapchat. Today, Messenger pushes on both fronts with a series of announcements at Facebook’s F8 conference. Those include that it will launch Mac and PC desktop apps, a faster and smaller mobile app, simultaneous video co-watching and a revamped Friends tab, where friends can use an emoji to tell you what they’re up to or down for.

Facebook is also beefing up its tools for the 40 million active businesses and 300,000 businesses on Messenger, up from 200,000 businesses a year ago. Merchants will be able to let users book appointments at salons and masseuses, collect information with new lead generation chatbot templates and provide customer service to verified customers through authenticated m.me links. Facebook hopes this will boost the app beyond the 20 billion messages sent between people and businesses each month, which is up 10X from December 2017.

“We believe you can build practically any utility on top of messaging,” says Facebook’s head of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky. But he stresses that “All of the engineering behind it is has been redone” to make it more reliable, and to comply with CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s directive to unite the backends of Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram Direct. “Of course, if we didn’t have to do all that, we’d be able to invest more in utilities. But we feel that utilities will be less functional if we don’t do that work. They need to go hand-in-hand together. Utilities will be more powerful, more functional and more desired if built on top of a system that’s interoperable and end-to-end encrypted.”

Here’s a look at the major Messenger announcements and why they’re important:

Messenger Desktop – A stripped-down version of Messenger focused on chat, audio and video calls will debut later this year. Chudnovsky says it will remove the need to juggle and resize browser tabs by giving you an always-accessible version of Messenger that can replace some of the unofficial knock-offs. Especially as Messenger focuses more on businesses, giving them a dedicated desktop interface could convince them to invest more in lead generation and customer service through Messenger.

Facebook Messenger’s upcoming desktop app

Project Lightspeed – Messenger is reengineering its app to cut 70 mb off its download size so people with low-storage phones don’t have to delete as many photos to install it. In testing, the app can cold start in merely 1.3 seconds, which Chudnovsky says is just 25 percent of where Messenger and many other apps are today. While Facebook already offers Messenger Light for the developing world, making the main app faster for everyone else could help Messenger swoop in and steal users from the status quo of SMS. The Lightspeed update will roll out later this year.

Video Co-Watching – TechCrunch reported in November that Messenger was building a Facebook Watch Party-style experience that would let users pick videos to watch at the same time as a friend, with reaction cams of their faces shown below the video. Now in testing before rolling out later this year, users can pick any Facebook video, invite one or multiple friends and laugh together. Unique capabilities like this could make Messenger more entertaining between utilitarian chat threads and appeal to a younger audience Facebook is at risk of losing.

Watch Videos Together on Messenger

Business Tools – After a rough start to its chatbot program a few years ago, where bots couldn’t figure out users’ open-ended responses, Chudnovsky says the platform is now picking up steam with 300,000 developers on board. One option that’s worked especially well is lead-generation templates, which teach bots to ask people standardized questions to collect contact info or business intent, so Messenger is adding more of those templates with completion reminders and seamless hand-off to a live agent.

To let users interact with appointment-based businesses through a platform they’re already familiar with, Messenger launched a beta program for barbers, dentists and more that will soon open to let any business handle appointment booking through the app. And with new authenticated m.me links, a business can take a logged-in user on their website and pass them to Messenger while still knowing their order history and other info. Getting more businesses hooked on Messenger customer service could be very lucrative down the line.

Appointment booking on Messenger

Close Friends and Emoji Status – Perhaps the most interesting update to Messenger, though, is its upcoming effort to help you make offline plans. Messenger is in the early stages of rebuilding its Friends tab into “Close Friends,” which will host big previews of friends’ Stories, photos shared in your chats, and let people overlay an emoji on their profile pic to show friends what they’re doing. We first reported this “Your Emoji” status update feature was being built a year ago, but it quietly cropped up in the video for Messenger Close Friends. This iteration lets you add an emoji like a home, barbell, low battery or beer mug, plus a short text description, to let friends know you’re back from work, at the gym, might not respond or are interested in getting a drink. These will show up atop the Close Friends tab as well as on location-sharing maps and more once this eventually rolls out.

Messenger’s upcoming Close Friends tab with Your Emoji status

Facebook Messenger is the best poised app to solve the loneliness problem. We often end up by ourselves because we’re not sure which of our friends are free to hang out, and we’re embarrassed to look desperate by constantly reaching out. But with emoji status, Messenger users could quietly signal their intentions without seeming needy. This “what are you doing offline” feature could be a whole social network of its own, as apps like Down To Lunch have tried. But with 1.3 billion users and built-in chat, Messenger has the ubiquity and utility to turn a hope into a hangout.

Click below to check out all of TechCrunch’s Facebook conference coverage from today:

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