Sep
17
2019
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IEX’s Katsuyama is no flash in the pan

When you watch a commercial for one of the major stock exchanges, you are welcomed into a world of fast-moving, slick images full of glistening buildings, lush crops and happy people. They are typically interspersed with shots of intrepid executives veering out over the horizon as if to say, “I’ve got a long-term vision, and the exchange where my stock is listed is a valuable partner in achieving my goals.” It’s all very reassuring and stylish. But there’s another side to the story.

I have been educated about the realities of today’s stock exchange universe through recent visits with Brad Katsuyama, co-founder and CEO of IEX (a.k.a. The Investors Exchange). If Katsuyama’s name rings a bell, and you don’t work on Wall Street, it’s likely because you remember him as the protagonist of Michael Lewis’s 2014 best-seller, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, which explored high-frequency trading (HFT) and made the case that the stock market was rigged, really badly.

Five years later, some of the worst practices Lewis highlighted are things of the past, and there are several attributes of the American equity markets that are widely admired around the world. In many ways, though, the realities of stock trading have gotten more unseemly, thanks to sophisticated trading technologies (e.g., microwave radio transmissions that can carry information at almost the speed of light), and pitched battles among the exchanges, investors and regulators over issues including the rebates stock exchanges pay to attract investors’ orders and the price of market data charged by the exchanges.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the inner workings of the stock market, but I do know this: Likening the life cycle of a trade to sausage-making is an insult to kielbasa. More than ever, trading is an arcane, highly technical and bewildering part of our broader economic infrastructure, which is just the way many industry participants like it: Nothing to see here, folks.

Meanwhile, Katsuyama, company president Ronan Ryan and the IEX team have turned IEX into the eighth largest stock exchange company, globally, by notional value traded, and have transformed the concept of a “speed bump” into a mainstream exchange feature.

Brad Aug 12

Brad Katsuyama. Image by Joshua Blackburn via IEX Trading

Despite these and other accomplishments, IEX finds itself in the middle of a vicious battle with powerful incumbents that seem increasingly emboldened to use their muscle in Washington, D.C. What’s more, new entrants, such as The Long-Term Stock Exchange and Members Exchange, are gearing up to enter the fray in US equities, while global exchanges such as the Hong Kong Stock Exchange seek to bulk up by making audacious moves like attempting to acquire the venerable London Stock Exchange.

But when you sell such distinct advantages to one group that really can only benefit from that, it leads to the question of why anyone would want to trade on that market. It’s like walking into a playing field where you know that the deck is stacked against you.

As my discussion with Katsuyama reveals, IEX may have taken some punches in carving out a position for itself in this high-stakes war characterized by cutting-edge technology and size. However, the IEX team remains girded for battle and confident that it can continue to make headway in offering a fair and transparent option for market participants over the long term.

Gregg Schoenberg: Given Flash Boys and the attention it generated for you on Main Street, I’d like to establish something upfront. Does IEX exist for the asset manager, the individual, or both?

Brad Katsuyama: We exist primarily for the asset manager, and helping them helps the individual. We’re one step removed from the individual, and part of that is due to regulation. Only brokers can connect to exchanges, and the asset manager connects to the broker.

Schoenberg: To put a finer point on it, you believe in fairness and being the good guy. But you are not Robinhood. You are a capitalist.

Katsuyama: Yes, but we want to make money fairly. Actually, we thought initially about starting the business as a nonprofit, But once we laid out all the people we would need to convince to work for us, we realized it would’ve been hard for us to attract the skill sets needed as a nonprofit.

Schoenberg: Do you believe that the US equity market today primarily serves investors or traders?

Sep
13
2019
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Ten questions for 2020 presidential candidate John Delaney

In November 2020, America will go to the polls to vote in perhaps the most consequential election in a generation. The winner will lead the country amid great social, economic and ecological unrest. The 2020 election will be a referendum on both the current White House and the direction of the country at large.

Nearly 20 years into the young century, technology has become a pervasive element in all of our lives, and will continue to only grow more important. Whoever takes the oath of office in January 2021 will have to answer some difficult questions, raging from an impending climate disaster to concerns about job loss at the hands of robotics and automation.

Many of these questions are overlooked in day to day coverage of candidates and during debates. In order to better address the issues, TechCrunch staff has compiled a 10-part questionnaire across a wide range of tech-centric topics. The questions have been sent to national candidates, regardless of party. We will be publishing the answers as we receive them. Candidates are not required to answer all 10 in order for us to publish, but we will be noting which answers have been left blank.

First up is former Congressman John Delaney. Prior to being elected to Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, Delaney co-founded and led healthcare loan service Health Care Financial Partners (HCFP) and  commercial lender CapitalSource. He was elected to Congress in 2013, beating out a 10-term Republican incumbent. Rumored to be running against Maryland governor Larry Hogan for a 2018 bid, Delaney instead announced plans to run for president in 2020.

1. Which initiatives will you prioritize to limit humankind’s impact on climate and avoid potential climate catastrophe?

My $4 trillion Climate Plan will enable us to reach the goal of net zero emissions by 2050, which the IPCC says is the necessary target to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The centerpiece of my plan is a carbon-fee-and-dividend that will put a price on carbon emissions and return the money to the American people through a dividend. My plan also includes increased federal funding for renewable energy research, advanced nuclear technologies, direct air capture, a new Climate Corps program, and the construction of the Carbon Throughway, which would transport captured carbon from all over the country to the Permian Basin for reuse and permanent sequestration.

2. What is your plan to increase black and Latinx startup founders’ access to funding?

As a former entrepreneur who started two companies that went on to be publicly traded, I am a firm believer in the importance of entrepreneurship. To ensure people from all backgrounds have the support they need to start a new business, I will create nonprofit banks to serve economically distressed communities, launch a new SBIC program to help provide access to capital to minority entrepreneurs, and create a grant program to fund business incubators and accelerators at HBCUs. Additionally, I pledge to appoint an Entrepreneurship Czar who will be responsible for promoting entrepreneurship-friendly policies at all levels of government and encouraging entrepreneurship in rural and urban communities that have been left behind by venture capital investment.

3. Why do you think low-income students are underrepresented in STEM fields and how do you think the government can help fix that problem?

I think a major part of the problem is that schools serving low-income communities don’t have the resources they need to provide a quality STEM education to every student. To fix that, I have an education plan that will increase investment in STEM education and use Title I funding to eliminate the $23 billion annual funding gap between predominantly white and predominantly black school districts. To encourage students to continue their education after they graduate from high school and ensure every student learns the skills they need, my plan also provides two years of free in-state tuition and fees at a public university, community college, or technical school to everyone who completes one year of my mandatory national service program.

4. Do you plan on backing and rolling out paper-only ballots or paper-verified election machines? With many stakeholders in the private sector and the government, how do you aim to coordinate and achieve that?

Making sure that our elections are secure is vital, and I think using voting machines that create a voter-verified paper record could improve security and increase voters’ confidence in the integrity of our elections. To address other facets of the election security issue, I have proposed creating a Department of Cybersecurity to help protect our election systems, and while in Congress I introduced election security legislation to ensure that election vendors are solely owned and controlled by American citizens.

5. What, if any, federal regulation should be enacted for autonomous vehicles?

I was proud to be the founder of the Congressional Artificial Intelligence Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers dedicated to understanding the impacts of advances in AI technology and educating other legislators so they have the knowledge they need to enact policies that ensure these innovations benefit Americans. We need to use the legislative process to have a real conversation involving experts and other stakeholders in order to develop a comprehensive set of regulations regarding autonomous vehicles, which should include standards that address data collection practices and other privacy issues as well as more fundamental questions about public safety.

6. How do you plan to achieve and maintain U.S. superiority in space, both in government programs and private industry?

Space exploration is tremendously important to me as a former Congressman from Maryland, the home of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, major space research centers at the University of Maryland, and many companies that develop crucial aerospace technologies. As president, I will support the NASA budget and will continue to encourage innovation in the private sector.

7. Increased capital in startups founded by American entrepreneurs is a net positive, but should the U.S. allow its businesses to be part-owned by foreign governments, particularly the government of Saudi Arabia?

I am concerned that joint ventures between U.S. businesses and foreign governments, including state-owned enterprises, could facilitate the theft of intellectual property, potentially allowing foreign governments to benefit from taxpayer-funded research. We need to put in place greater protections that defend American innovation from theft.

8. Will U.S.-China technology decoupling harm or benefit U.S. innovation and why?

In general, I am in favor of international technology cooperation but in the case of China, it engages in predatory economic behavior and disregards international rules. Intellectual property theft has become a big problem for American businesses as China allows its companies to steal IP through joint ventures. In theory, U.S.-China collaboration could advance technology and innovation but without proper IP and economic protections, U.S.-China joint ventures and partnerships can be detrimental to the U.S.

9. How large a threat does automation represent to American jobs? Do you have a plan to help train low-skilled workers and otherwise offset job loss?

Automation could lead to the disruption of up to 54 million American jobs if we aren’t prepared and we don’t have the right policies. To help American workers transition to the high-tech, high-skill future economy, I am calling for a national AI strategy that will support public/private AI partnerships, develop a social contract with the communities that are negatively impacted by technology and globalization, and create updated education and job training programs that will help students and those currently in the workforce learn the skills they need.

To help provide jobs to displaced workers and drive economic growth in communities that suffer negative effects from automation, I have proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that would create an infrastructure bank to facilitate state and local government investment, increase the Highway Trust Fund, create a Climate Infrastructure Fund, and create five new matching funds to support water infrastructure, school infrastructure, deferred maintenance projects, rural broadband, and infrastructure projects in disadvantaged communities in urban and rural areas. In addition, my proposed national service program will create new opportunities that allow young adults to learn new skills and gain valuable work experience. For example, my proposal includes a new national infrastructure apprenticeship program that will award a professional certificate proving mastery of particular skill sets for those who complete the program.

10. What steps will you take to restore net neutrality and assure internet users that their traffic and data are safe from manipulation by broadband providers?

I support the Save Net Neutrality Act to restore net neutrality, and I will appoint FCC commissioners who are committed to maintaining a fair and open internet. Additionally, I would work with Congress to update our digital privacy laws and regulations to protect consumers, especially children, from their data being collected without consent.

Sep
10
2019
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Work Life Ventures raises $5M for debut enterprise SaaS seed fund

Brianne Kimmel had no trouble transitioning from angel investor to general partner.

Initially setting out to garner $3 million in capital commitments, Kimmel, in just two weeks’ time, closed on $5 million for her debut venture capital fund Work Life Ventures. The enterprise SaaS-focused vehicle boasts an impressive roster of limited partners, too, including the likes of Zoom chief executive officer Eric Yuan, InVision CEO Clark Valberg, Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin, Cameo CEO Steven Galanis, Andreessen Horowitz general partners Marc Andreessen and Chris Dixon, Initialized Capital GP Garry Tan and fund-of-funds Slow Ventures, Felicis Ventures and NFX.

At the helm of the new fund, Kimmel joins a small group of solo female general partners: Dream Machine’s Alexia Bonatsos is targeting $25 million for her first fund; Day One Ventures’ Masha Drokova raised $20 million for her debut effort last year; and Sarah Cone launched Social Impact Capital, a fund specializing in impact investing, in 2016, among others.

Meanwhile, venture capital fundraising is poised to reach all-time highs in 2019. In the first half of the year, a total of $20.6 billion in new capital was introduced to the startup market across more than 100 funds.

For most, the process of raising a successful venture fund can be daunting and difficult. For well-connected and established investors in the Bay Area, like Kimmel, raising a fund can be relatively seamless. Given the speed and ease of fund one in Kimmel’s case, she plans to raise her second fund with a $25 million target in as little as 12 months.

“The desire for the fund is to take a step back and imagine how do we build great consumer experiences in the workplace,” Kimmel tells TechCrunch.

Kimmel has been an active angel investor for years, sourcing top enterprise deals via SaaS School, an invite-only workshop she created to educate early-stage SaaS founders on SaaS growth, monetization, sales and customer success. Prior to launching SaaS School, which will continue to run twice a year, Kimmel led go-to-market strategy at Zendesk, where she built the Zendesk for Startups program.

 

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“You start by advising, then you start with very small angel checks,” Kimmel explains. “I reached this inflection point and it felt like a great moment to raise my own fund. I had friends like Ryan Hoover, who started Weekend Fund focused on consumer, and Alexia is one of my friends as well and I saw what she was doing with Dream Machine, which is also consumer. It felt like it was the right time to come out with a SaaS-focused fund.”

Emerging from stealth today, Work Life Ventures will invest up to $150,000 per company. To date, Kimmel has backed three companies with capital from the fund: Tandem, Dover and Command E. The first, Tandem, was amongst the most coveted deals in Y Combinator’s latest batch of companies. The startup graduated from the accelerator with millions from Andreessen Horowitz at a valuation north of $30 million.

Dover, another recent YC alum, provides recruitment software and is said to be backed by Founders Fund in addition to Work Life. Command E, currently in beta, is a tool that facilities search across multiple desktop applications. Kimmel is also an angel investor in Webflow, Girlboss, TechCrunch Disrupt 2018 Startup Battlefield winner Forethought, Voyage and others.

Work Life is betting on the consumerization of the enterprise, or the idea that the next best companies for modern workers will be consumer-friendly tools. In her pitch deck to LPs, she cites the success of Superhuman and Notion, a well-designed email tool and a note-taking app, respectively, as examples of the heightened demand for digestible, easy-to-use B2B products.

“The next generation of applications for the workplace sees people spinning out of Uber, Coinbase and Airbnb,” Kimmel said. “They’ve faced these challenges inside their highly efficient tech company so we are seeing more consumer product builders deeply passionate about the enterprise space.”

But Kimmel doesn’t want to bury her thesis in jargon, she says, so you won’t find any B2B lingo on Work Life’s website or Instagram.

She’s focusing her efforts on a more important issue often vacant from conversations surrounding investment in the future of work: diversity & inclusion.

Kimmel meets with every new female hire of her portfolio companies. Though it’s “increasingly non-scalable,” she admits, it’s part of a greater effort to ensure her companies are thoughtful about D&I from the beginning: “Because I have a very focused fund, it’s about maintaining this community and ensuring that people feel like their voices are heard,” she said.

“I want to be mindful that I am a female GP and I feel [proud] to have that title.”

Sep
06
2019
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APIs are the next big SaaS wave

While the software revolution started out slowly, over the past few years it’s exploded and the fastest-growing segment to-date has been the shift towards software as a service or SaaS.

SaaS has dramatically lowered the intrinsic total cost of ownership for adopting software, solved scaling challenges and taken away the burden of issues with local hardware. In short, it has allowed a business to focus primarily on just that — its business — while simultaneously reducing the burden of IT operations.

Today, SaaS adoption is increasingly ubiquitous. According to IDG’s 2018 Cloud Computing Survey, 73% of organizations have at least one application or a portion of their computing infrastructure already in the cloud. While this software explosion has created a whole range of downstream impacts, it has also caused software developers to become more and more valuable.

The increasing value of developers has meant that, like traditional SaaS buyers before them, they also better intuit the value of their time and increasingly prefer businesses that can help alleviate the hassles of procurement, integration, management, and operations. Developer needs to address those hassles are specialized.

They are looking to deeply integrate products into their own applications and to do so, they need access to an Application Programming Interface, or API. Best practices for API onboarding include technical documentation, examples, and sandbox environments to test.

APIs tend to also offer metered billing upfront. For these and other reasons, APIs are a distinct subset of SaaS.

For fast-moving developers building on a global-scale, APIs are no longer a stop-gap to the future—they’re a critical part of their strategy. Why would you dedicate precious resources to recreating something in-house that’s done better elsewhere when you can instead focus your efforts on creating a differentiated product?

Thanks to this mindset shift, APIs are on track to create another SaaS-sized impact across all industries and at a much faster pace. By exposing often complex services as simplified code, API-first products are far more extensible, easier for customers to integrate into, and have the ability to foster a greater community around potential use cases.

Screen Shot 2019 09 06 at 10.40.51 AM

Graphics courtesy of Accel

Billion-dollar businesses building APIs

Whether you realize it or not, chances are that your favorite consumer and enterprise apps—Uber, Airbnb, PayPal, and countless more—have a number of third-party APIs and developer services running in the background. Just like most modern enterprises have invested in SaaS technologies for all the above reasons, many of today’s multi-billion dollar companies have built their businesses on the backs of these scalable developer services that let them abstract everything from SMS and email to payments, location-based data, search and more.

Simultaneously, the entrepreneurs behind these API-first companies like Twilio, Segment, Scale and many others are building sustainable, independent—and big—businesses.

Valued today at over $22 billion, Stripe is the biggest independent API-first company. Stripe took off because of its initial laser-focus on the developer experience setting up and taking payments. It was even initially known as /dev/payments!

Stripe spent extra time building the right, idiomatic SDKs for each language platform and beautiful documentation. But it wasn’t just those things, they rebuilt an entire business process around being API-first.

Companies using Stripe didn’t need to fill out a PDF and set up a separate merchant account before getting started. Once sign-up was complete, users could immediately test the API with a sandbox and integrate it directly into their application. Even pricing was different.

Stripe chose to simplify pricing dramatically by starting with a single, simple price for all cards and not breaking out cards by type even though the costs for AmEx cards versus Visa can differ. Stripe also did away with a monthly minimum fee that competitors had.

Many competitors used the monthly minimum to offset the high cost of support for new customers who weren’t necessarily processing payments yet. Stripe flipped that on its head. Developers integrate Stripe earlier than they integrated payments before, and while it costs Stripe a lot in setup and support costs, it pays off in brand and loyalty.

Checkr is another excellent example of an API-first company vastly simplifying a massive yet slow-moving industry. Very little had changed over the last few decades in how businesses ran background checks on their employees and contractors, involving manual paperwork and the help of 3rd party services that spent days verifying an individual.

Checkr’s API gives companies immediate access to a variety of disparate verification sources and allows these companies to plug Checkr into their existing on-boarding and HR workflows. It’s used today by more than 10,000 businesses including Uber, Instacart, Zenefits and more.

Like Checkr and Stripe, Plaid provides a similar value prop to applications in need of banking data and connections, abstracting away banking relationships and complexities brought upon by a lack of tech in a category dominated by hundred-year-old banks. Plaid has shown an incredible ramp these past three years, from closing a $12 million Series A in 2015 to reaching a valuation over $2.5 billion this year.

Today the company is fueling an entire generation of financial applications, all on the back of their well-built API.

Screen Shot 2019 09 06 at 10.41.02 AM

Graphics courtesy of Accel

Then and now

Accel’s first API investment was in Braintree, a mobile and web payment systems for e-commerce companies, in 2011. Braintree eventually sold to, and became an integral part of, PayPal as it spun out from eBay and grew to be worth more than $100 billion. Unsurprisingly, it was shortly thereafter that our team decided to it was time to go big on the category. By the end of 2014 we had led the Series As in Segment and Checkr and followed those investments with our first APX conference in 2015.

Plaid, Segment, Auth0, and Checkr had only raised Seed or Series A financings! And we are even more excited and bullish on the space. To convey just how much API-first businesses have grown in such a short period of time, we thought it would be useful perspective to share some metrics over the past five years, which we’ve broken out in the two visuals included above in this article.

While SaaS may have pioneered the idea that the best way to do business isn’t to actually build everything in-house, today we’re seeing APIs amplify this theme. At Accel, we firmly believe that APIs are the next big SaaS wave — having as much if not more impact as its predecessor thanks to developers at today’s fastest-growing startups and their preference for API-first products. We’ve actively continued to invest in the space (in companies like, Scale, mentioned above).

And much like how a robust ecosystem developed around SaaS, we believe that one will continue to develop around APIs. Given the amount of progress that has happened in just a few short years, Accel is hosting our second APX conference to once again bring together this remarkable community and continue to facilitate discussion and innovation.

Screen Shot 2019 09 06 at 10.41.10 AM

Graphics courtesy of Accel

Sep
03
2019
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Kabbage acquires Radius Intelligence, the marketing tech firm with a database of 20M small businesses

Data is the new oil, as the saying goes, and today Kabbage — a fintech startup backed by SoftBank that has built a business around lending up to $250,000 to small and medium enterprises, using AI-based algorithms to help determine the terms of the loan — is picking up an asset to expand its own data trove as it looks to expand into further SMB financial services. The company has acquired Radius Intelligence, the marketing technology firm that has built a database of information on some 20 million small and medium businesses in the U.S.

Terms of the deal are not being disclosed, but notably, it comes on the heels of a sightly tumultuous period for Radius . Last year, the company announced a merger with its big competitor Leadspace, only to quietly cancel the deal three months later. Then two months after that, it replaced its longtime CEO.

Radius — which is backed by some $120 million from investors that include Founders Fund, David Sacks, Salesforce Ventures, AME Cloud Ventures and the actor Jared Leto, among others — last had a valuation of around $200 million, according to PitchBook, but that was prior to these events. Kabbage, meanwhile, has raised hundreds of millions in equity and debt and is valued at more than $1 billion. The deal will be financed off Kabbage’s own balance sheet and will not require the company to raise more funds, I understand.

Rob Frohwein, Kabbage’s co-founder and CEO, said in an interview that the plan is to integrate Radius’ tech and IP into the Kabbage platform — the task will be overseen by Radius’ current CEO, Joel Carusone — as well as Radius’ tech team of 20 engineers, who will work for the Atlanta-based startup out of its office in San Francisco.

He also added that Radius’ current products — which include market intelligence and contact information for employees at SMBs in the U.S., along with a host of related solutions, which up to now had been gathered both via public sources and the businesses updating the information themselves; as well as the technology for merging disparate sources of data and ferreting out the “valid” pieces that are worth retaining and throwing out what is out of date — will not be sold any longer via Radius. From now on, there will be only one customer for all that data: Kabbage itself (the company had already been a user of Radius’ data to help its own marketing team connect with new and and existing customers).

“We have known the company for a long time,” said Frohwein. Other customers that Radius lists on its site include Square, American Express, LendingTree, FirstData, MetLife, Sam’s Club, Yahoo and more.

This doesn’t mean that Kabbage might not offer the SMB intelligence in a format to businesses directly via its own platform at some point, but it also means that as Kabbage expands into services that might compete with some of Radius’ now-former customers — payments and merchant acquirer services, as well as tools to help SMBs grow their own customer funnels are some that are on the cards for the coming months — it will have an edge on them because of the data on users that it will now own.

The deal underscores two bigger trends among startups that focus on enterprise customers. First, it points to  ongoing consolidation in the world of marketing tech, in part as businesses look for ways to better compete against the likes of Microsoft and Salesforce, which are also continually building out their stacks of services. And we likely will see more activity from stronger fintech companies keen to expand their platforms to provide more touchpoints and revenue streams from existing customers, as well as more services to expand the customer base overall.

“We’re thrilled to join the Kabbage team. As a company dedicated to small business analytics and data management, we’ve always had a deep respect for Kabbage’s data-driven technology and focus,” Radius CEO Carusone said in a statement. “Our companies have complementary technical architectures and domain experience for decision making. With Kabbage, we can build a more sophisticated analytics solution to identify, reach and serve small businesses.”

Kabbage itself is not looking for new funding at the moment, Frohwein said, but he added also that it is on a fast trajectory at the moment but still a ways away from an IPO, so I wouldn’t discount more raises in the future. The company is currently on track to see revenues up 40% versus last year, with customers up 60%.

“We’re always looking to grow,” he said.

Aug
23
2019
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Ping Identity files for $100M IPO on Nasdaq to trade as ‘PING’

Some eight months after it was reported that Ping Identity’s owners Vista Equity had hired bankers to explore a public listing, today Ping Identity took the plunge: the Colorado-based online ID management company has filed an S-1 form indicating that it plans to raise up to $100 million in an IPO on the Nasdaq exchange under the ticker “Ping.”

While the initial S-1 filing doesn’t have an indication of price range, Ping is said to be looking at a valuation of between $2 billion and $3 billion in this listing.

The company has been around since 2001, founded by Andre Durand (who is still the CEO), and it was acquired by Vista in 2016 for about $600 million — at a time when a clutch of enterprise companies that looked like strong IPO candidates were going the private equity route and staying private instead.

But more recently, there has been a surge in demand for better IT security linked to identity and authentication management, so it seems that Vista Equity is selling up. The PE firm is taking advantage of the fact that the market’s currently very strong for tech IPOs, but there is so much M&A in enterprise right now (just yesterday VMware acquired not one but two companies, Carbon Black for $2.1 billion and Pivotal for $2.7 billion) that I can’t help but wonder if something might move here too.

The S-1 reveals a number of details on the company’s financials, indicating that it’s currently unprofitable but on a steady growth curve. Ping had revenues of $112.9 million in the first six months of 2019, versus $99.5 million in the same period a year before. Its loss has been shrinking in recent years, with a net loss of $3.1 million in the first six months of this year versus $5.8 million a year before (notably in 2017 overall it was profitable with a net income of $19 million. It seems that the change is due to acquisitions and investing for growth).

Its annual run rate, meanwhile, was $198 million for the first six months of the year, compared to $159.6 million in the same period a year ago.

The area of identity and access management has become a cornerstone of enterprise IT, with companies looking for efficient and secure ways to centralise how not just their employees, but their customers, their partners and various connected devices on their networks can be authenticated across their cloud and on-premise applications.

The demand for secure solutions covering all the different aspects of a company’s IT stack has grown rapidly over recent years, spurred not just by an increased move to centralised applications served through the cloud, but also by the drastic rise in breaches where malicious hackers have exploited vulnerabilities and loopholes in companies’ sign-on screens.

Ping has been one of the bigger companies building services in this area and tackling all of those use cases, competing with the likes of Okta, OneLogin, AuthO, Cisco and dozens more off-the-shelf and custom-built solutions.

The company offers its services on an SaaS basis, covering services like secure sign-on, multi-factor authentication, API access security, personalised and unified profile directories, data governance and AI-based security policies. It claims to be the pioneer of “Intelligent Identity,” using AI to help its system analyse user, device and network behavior to better identify potentially malicious activity.

More to come.

Aug
15
2019
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How Facebook does IT

If you have ever worked at any sizable company, the word “IT” probably doesn’t conjure up many warm feelings. If you’re working for an old, traditional enterprise company, you probably don’t expect anything else, though. If you’re working for a modern tech company, though, chances are your expectations are a bit higher. And once you’re at the scale of a company like Facebook, a lot of the third-party services that work for smaller companies simply don’t work anymore.

To discuss how Facebook thinks about its IT strategy and why it now builds most of its IT tools in-house, I sat down with the company’s CIO, Atish Banerjea, at its Menlo Park headquarter.

Before joining Facebook in 2016 to head up what it now calls its “Enterprise Engineering” organization, Banerjea was the CIO or CTO at companies like NBCUniversal, Dex One and Pearson.

“If you think about Facebook 10 years ago, we were very much a traditional IT shop at that point,” he told me. “We were responsible for just core IT services, responsible for compliance and responsible for change management. But basically, if you think about the trajectory of the company, were probably about 2,000 employees around the end of 2010. But at the end of last year, we were close to 37,000 employees.”

Traditionally, IT organizations rely on third-party tools and software, but as Facebook grew to this current size, many third-party solutions simply weren’t able to scale with it. At that point, the team decided to take matters into its own hands and go from being a traditional IT organization to one that could build tools in-house. Today, the company is pretty much self-sufficient when it comes to running its IT operations, but getting to this point took a while.

“We had to pretty much reinvent ourselves into a true engineering product organization and went to a full ‘build’ mindset,” said Banerjea. That’s not something every organization is obviously able to do, but, as Banerjea joked, one of the reasons why this works at Facebook “is because we can — we have that benefit of the talent pool that is here at Facebook.”

IMG 20190702 125344

The company then took this talent and basically replicated the kind of team it would help on the customer side to build out its IT tools, with engineers, designers, product managers, content strategies, people and research. “We also made the decision at that point that we will hold the same bar and we will hold the same standards so that the products we create internally will be as world-class as the products we’re rolling out externally.”

One of the tools that wasn’t up to Facebook’s scaling challenges was video conferencing. The company was using a third-party tool for that, but that just wasn’t working anymore. In 2018, Facebook was consuming about 20 million conference minutes per month. In 2019, the company is now at 40 million per month.

Besides the obvious scaling challenge, Facebook is also doing this to be able to offer its employees custom software that fits their workflows. It’s one thing to adapt existing third-party tools, after all, and another to build custom tools to support a company’s business processes.

Banerjea told me that creating this new structure was a relatively easy sell inside the company. Every transformation comes with its own challenges, though. For Facebook’s Enterprise  Engineering team, that included having to recruit new skill sets into the organization. The first few months of this process were painful, Banerjea admitted, as the company had to up-level the skills of many existing employees and shed a significant number of contractors. “There are certain areas where we really felt that we had to have Facebook DNA in order to make sure that we were actually building things the right way,” he explained.

Facebook’s structure creates an additional challenge for the team. When you’re joining Facebook as a new employee, you have plenty of teams to choose from, after all, and if you have the choice of working on Instagram or WhatsApp or the core Facebook app — all of which touch millions of people — working on internal tools with fewer than 40,000 users doesn’t sound all that exciting.

“When young kids who come straight from college and they come into Facebook, they don’t know any better. So they think this is how the world is,” Banerjea said. “But when we have experienced people come in who have worked at other companies, the first thing I hear is ‘oh my goodness, we’ve never seen internal tools of this caliber before.’ The way we recruit, the way we do performance management, the way we do learning and development — every facet of how that employee works has been touched in terms of their life cycle here.”

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Facebook first started building these internal tools around 2012, though it wasn’t until Banerjea joined in 2016 that it rebranded the organization and set up today’s structure. He also noted that some of those original tools were good, but not up to the caliber employees would expect from the company.

“The really big change that we went through was up-leveling our building skills to really become at the same caliber as if we were to build those products for an external customer. We want to have the same experience for people internally.”

The company went as far as replacing and rebuilding the commercial Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system it had been using for years. If there’s one thing that big companies rely on, it’s their ERP systems, given they often handle everything from finance and HR to supply chain management and manufacturing. That’s basically what all of their backend tools rely on (and what companies like SAP, Oracle and others charge a lot of money for). “In that 2016/2017 time frame, we realized that that was not a very good strategy,” Banerjea said. In Facebook’s case, the old ERP handled the inventory management for its data centers, among many other things. When that old system went down, the company couldn’t ship parts to its data centers.

“So what we started doing was we started peeling off all the business logic from our backend ERP and we started rewriting it ourselves on our own platform,” he explained. “Today, for our ERP, the backend is just the database, but all the business logic, all of the functionality is actually all custom written by us on our own platform. So we’ve completely rewritten our ERP, so to speak.”

In practice, all of this means that ideally, Facebook’s employees face far less friction when they join the company, for example, or when they need to replace a broken laptop, get a new phone to test features or simply order a new screen for their desk.

One classic use case is onboarding, where new employees get their company laptop, mobile phones and access to all of their systems, for example. At Facebook, that’s also the start of a six-week bootcamp that gets new engineers up to speed with how things work at Facebook. Back in 2016, when new classes tended to still have less than 200 new employees, that was still mostly a manual task. Today, with far more incoming employees, the Enterprise Engineering team has automated most of that — and that includes managing the supply chain that ensures the laptops and phones for these new employees are actually available.

But the team also built the backend that powers the company’s more traditional IT help desks, where employees can walk up and get their issues fixed (and passwords reset).

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To talk more about how Facebook handles the logistics of that, I sat down with Koshambi Shah, who heads up the company’s Enterprise Supply Chain organization, which pretty much handles every piece of hardware and software the company delivers and deploys to its employees around the world (and that global nature of the company brings its own challenges and additional complexity). The team, which has fewer than 30 people, is made up of employees with experience in manufacturing, retail and consumer supply chains.

Typically, enterprises offer their employees a minimal set of choices when it comes to the laptops and phones they issue to their employees, and the operating systems that can run on them tend to be limited. Facebook’s engineers have to be able to test new features on a wide range of devices and operating systems. There are, after all, still users on the iPhone 4s or BlackBerry that the company wants to support. To do this, Shah’s organization actually makes thousands of SKUs available to employees and is able to deliver 98% of them within three days or less. It’s not just sending a laptop via FedEx, though. “We do the budgeting, the financial planning, the forecasting, the supply/demand balancing,” Shah said. “We do the asset management. We make sure the asset — what is needed, when it’s needed, where it’s needed — is there consistently.”

In many large companies, every asset request is double guessed. Facebook, on the other hand, places a lot of trust in its employees, it seems. There’s a self-service portal, the Enterprise Store, that allows employees to easily request phones, laptops, chargers (which get lost a lot) and other accessories as needed, without having to wait for approval (though if you request a laptop every week, somebody will surely want to have a word with you). Everything is obviously tracked in detail, but the overall experience is closer to shopping at an online retailer than using an enterprise asset management system. The Enterprise Store will tell you where a device is available, for example, so you can pick it up yourself (but you can always have it delivered to your desk, too, because this is, after all, a Silicon Valley company).

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For accessories, Facebook also offers self-service vending machines, and employees can walk up to the help desk.

The company also recently introduced an Amazon Locker-style setup that allows employees to check out devices as needed. At these smart lockers, employees simply have to scan their badge, choose a device and, once the appropriate door has opened, pick up the phone, tablet, laptop or VR devices they were looking for and move on. Once they are done with it, they can come back and check the device back in. No questions asked. “We trust that people make the right decision for the good of the company,” Shah said. For laptops and other accessories, the company does show the employee the price of those items, though, so it’s clear how much a certain request costs the company. “We empower you with the data for you to make the best decision for your company.”

Talking about cost, Shah told me the Supply Chain organization tracks a number of metrics. One of those is obviously cost. “We do give back about 4% year-over-year, that’s our commitment back to the businesses in terms of the efficiencies we build for every user we support. So we measure ourselves in terms of cost per supported user. And we give back 4% on an annualized basis in the efficiencies.”

Unsurprisingly, the company has by now gathered enough data about employee requests (Shah said the team fulfills about half a million transactions per year) that it can use machine learning to understand trends and be proactive about replacing devices, for example.

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Facebooks’ Enterprise Engineering group doesn’t just support internal customers, though. Another interesting aspect to Facebook’s Enterprise Engineering group is that it also runs the company’s internal and external events, including the likes of F8, the company’s annual developer conference. To do this, the company built out conference rooms that can seat thousands of people, with all of the logistics that go with that.

The company also showed me one of its newest meeting rooms where there are dozens of microphones and speakers hanging from the ceiling that make it easier for everybody in the room to participate in a meeting and be heard by everybody else. That’s part of what the organization’s “New Builds” team is responsible for, and something that’s possible because the company also takes a very hands-on approach to building and managing its offices.

Facebook also runs a number of small studios in its Menlo Park and New York offices, where both employees and the occasional external VIP can host Facebook Live videos.

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Indeed, live video, it seems, is one of the cornerstones of how Facebook employees collaborate and help employees who work from home. Typically, you’d just use the camera on your laptop or maybe a webcam connected to your desktop to do so. But because Facebook actually produces its own camera system with the consumer-oriented Portal, Banerjea’s team decided to use that.

“What we have done is we have actually re-engineered the Portal,” he told me. “We have connected with all of our video conferencing systems in the rooms. So if I have a Portal at home, I can dial into my video conferencing platform and have a conference call just like I’m sitting in any other conference room here in Facebook. And all that software, all the engineering on the portal, that has been done by our teams — some in partnership with our production teams, but a lot of it has been done with Enterprise Engineering.”

Unsurprisingly, there are also groups that manage some of the core infrastructure and security for the company’s internal tools and networks. All of those tools run in the same data centers as Facebook’s consumer-facing applications, though they are obviously sandboxed and isolated from them.

It’s one thing to build all of these tools for internal use, but now, the company is also starting to think about how it can bring some of these tools it built for internal use to some of its external customers. You may not think of Facebook as an enterprise company, but with its Workplace collaboration tool, it has an enterprise service that it sells externally, too. Last year, for the first time, Workplace added a new feature that was incubated inside of Enterprise Engineering. That feature was a version of Facebook’s public Safety Check that the Enterprise Engineering team had originally adapted to the company’s own internal use.

“Many of these things that we are building for Facebook, because we are now very close partners with our Workplace team — they are in the enterprise software business and we are the enterprise software group for Facebook — and many [features] we are building for Facebook are of interest to Workplace customers.”

As Workplace hit the market, Banerjea ended up talking to the CIOs of potential users, including the likes of Delta Air Lines, about how Facebook itself used Workplace internally. But as companies started to adopt Workplace, they realized that they needed integrations with existing third-party services like ERP platforms and Salesforce. Those companies then asked Facebook if it could build those integrations or work with partners to make them available. But at the same time, those customers got exposed to some of the tools that Facebook itself was building internally.

“Safety Check was the first one,” Banerjea said. “We are actually working on three more products this year.” He wouldn’t say what these are, of course, but there is clearly a pipeline of tools that Facebook has built for internal use that it is now looking to commercialize. That’s pretty unusual for any IT organization, which, after all, tends to only focus on internal customers. I don’t expect Facebook to pivot to an enterprise software company anytime soon, but initiatives like this are clearly important to the company and, in some ways, to the morale of the team.

This creates a bit of friction, too, though, given that the Enterprise Engineering group’s mission is to build internal tools for Facebook. “We are now figuring out the deployment model,” Banerjea said. Who, for example, is going to support the external tools the team built? Is it the Enterprise Engineering group or the Workplace team?

Chances are then, that Facebook will bring some of the tools it built for internal use to more enterprises in the long run. That definitely puts a different spin on the idea of the consumerization of enterprise tech. Clearly, not every company operates at the scale of Facebook and needs to build its own tools — and even some companies that could benefit from it don’t have the resources to do so. For Facebook, though, that move seems to have paid off and the tools I saw while talking to the team definitely looked more user-friendly than any off-the-shelf enterprise tools I’ve seen at other large companies.

Jul
17
2019
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AlphaSense, a search engine for analysis and business intel, raises $50M led by Innovation Endeavors

Google and its flagship search portal opened the door to the possibilities of how to build a business empire on the back of organising and navigating the world’s information, as found on the internet. Now, a startup that’s built a search engine tailored to the needs of enterprises and their own quests for information has raised a round of funding to see if it can do the same for the B2B world.

AlphaSense, which provides a way for companies to quickly amass market intelligence around specific trends, industries and more to help them make business decisions, has closed a $50 million round of funding, a Series B that it’s planning to use to continue enhancing its product and expanding to more verticals.

The company counts some 1,000 clients on its books, with a heavy emphasis on investment banks and related financial services companies. That’s in part because of how the company got its start: Finnish co-founder and CEO Jaakko (Jack) Kokko had been an analyst at Morgan Stanley in a past life and understood the labor and time pain points of doing market research, and decided to build a platform to help shorten a good part of the information-gathering process.

“My experience as an analyst on Wall Street showed me just how fragmented information really was,” he said in an interview, citing as one example how complex sites like those of the FDA are not easy to navigate to look for new information and updates — the kind of thing that a computer would be much more adept at monitoring and flagging. “Even with the best tools and services, it still was really hard to manually get the work done, in part because of market volatility and the many factors that cause it. We can now do that with orders of magnitude more efficiency. Firms can now gather information in minutes that would have taken an hour. AlphaSense does the work of the best single analyst, or even a team of them.”

(Indeed, the “alpha” of AlphaSense appears to be a reference to finance: it’s a term that refers to the ability of a trader or portfolio manager to beat the typical market return.)

The lead investor in this round is very notable and says something about the company’s ambitions. It’s Innovation Endeavors, the VC firm backed by Eric Schmidt, who had been the CEO of none other than Google (the pace-setter and pioneer of the search-as-business model) for a decade, and then stayed on as chairman and ultimately board member of Google and then Alphabet (its later holding company) until just last June.

Schmidt presided over Google at what you could argue was its most important time, gaining speed and scale and transitioning from an academic idea into a full-fledged, huge public business whose flagship product has now entered the lexicon as a verb and (through search and other services like Android and YouTube) is a mainstay of how the vast majority of the world uses the web today. As such, he is good at spotting opportunities and gaps in the market, and while enterprise-based needs will never be as prominent as those of mass-market consumers, they can be just as lucrative.

“Information is the currency of business today, but data is overwhelming and fragmented, making it difficult for business professionals to find the right insights to drive key business decisions,” he said in a statement. “We were impressed by the way AlphaSense solves this with its AI and search technology, allowing businesses to proceed with the confidence that they have the right information driving their strategy.”

This brings the total raised by AlphaSense to $90 million, with other investors in this round including Soros Fund Management LLC and other unnamed existing investors. Previous backers had included Tom Glocer (the former Reuters CEO who himself is working on his own fintech startup, a security firm called BlueVoyant), the MassChallenge incubator, Tribeca Venture Partners and others. Kokko said AlphaSense is not disclosing its valuation at this point. (I’m guessing though that it’s definitely on the up.)

There have been others that have worked to try to tackle the idea of providing more targeted, and business-focused, search portals, from the likes of Wolfram Alpha (another alpha!) through to Lexis Nexis and others like Bloomberg’s terminals, FactSet, Business Quant and many more.

One interesting aspect of AlphaSense is how it’s both focused on pulling in requests as well as set up to push information to its users based on previous search parameters. Currently these are set up to only provide information, but over time, there is a clear opportunity to build services to let the engines take on some of the actions based on that information, such as adjusting asking prices for sales and other transactions.

“There are all kinds of things we could do,” said Kokko. “This is a massive untapped opportunity. But we’re not taking the human out of the loop, ever. Humans are the right ones to be making final decisions, and we’re just about helping them make those faster.”

Jul
08
2019
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Grasshopper’s Judith Erwin leaps into innovation banking

In the years following the financial crisis, de novo bank activity in the US slowed to a trickle. But as memories fade, the economy expands and the potential of tech-powered financial services marches forward, entrepreneurs have once again been asking the question, “Should I start a bank?”

And by bank, I’m not referring to a neobank, which sits on top of a bank, or a fintech startup that offers an interesting banking-like service of one kind or another. I mean a bank bank.

One of those entrepreneurs is Judith Erwin, a well-known business banking executive who was part of the founding team at Square 1 Bank, which was bought in 2015. Fast forward a few years and Erwin is back, this time as CEO of the cleverly named Grasshopper Bank in New York.

With over $130 million in capital raised from investors including Patriot Financial and T. Rowe Price Associates, Grasshopper has a notable amount of heft for a banking newbie. But as Erwin and her team seek to build share in the innovation banking market, she knows that she’ll need the capital as she navigates a hotly contested niche that has benefited from a robust start-up and venture capital environment.

Gregg Schoenberg: Good to see you, Judith. To jump right in, in my opinion, you were a key part of one of the most successful de novo banks in quite some time. You were responsible for VC relationships there, right?

…My background is one where people give me broken things, I fix them and give them back.

Judith Erwin: The VC relationships and the products and services managing the balance sheet around deposits. Those were my two primary roles, but my background is one where people give me broken things, I fix them and give them back.

Schoenberg: Square 1 was purchased for about 22 times earnings and 260% of tangible book, correct?

Erwin: Sounds accurate.

Schoenberg: Plus, the bank had a phenomenal earnings trajectory. Meanwhile, PacWest, which acquired you, was a “perfectly nice bank.” Would that be a fair characterization?

Erwin: Yes.

Schoenberg: Is part of the motivation to start Grasshopper to continue on a journey that maybe ended a little bit prematurely last time?

Erwin: That’s a great insight, and I did feel like we had sold too soon. It was a great deal for the investors — which included me — and so I understood it. But absolutely, a lot of what we’re working to do here are things I had hoped to do at Square 1.

Image via Getty Images / Classen Rafael / EyeEm

Schoenberg: You’re obviously aware of the 800-pound gorilla in the room in the form of Silicon Valley Bank . You’ve also got the megabanks that play in the segment, as well as Signature Bank, First Republic, Bridge Bank and others.

Jul
08
2019
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The startups creating the future of RegTech and financial services

Technology has been used to manage regulatory risk since the advent of the ledger book (or the Bloomberg terminal, depending on your reference point). However, the cost-consciousness internalized by banks during the 2008 financial crisis combined with more robust methods of analyzing large datasets has spurred innovation and increased efficiency by automating tasks that previously required manual reviews and other labor-intensive efforts.

So even if RegTech wasn’t born during the financial crisis, it was probably old enough to drive a car by 2008. The intervening 11 years have seen RegTech’s scope and influence grow.

RegTech startups targeting financial services, or FinServ for short, require very different growth strategies — even compared to other enterprise software companies. From a practical perspective, everything from the security requirements influencing software architecture and development to the sales process are substantially different for FinServ RegTechs.

The most successful RegTechs are those that draw on expertise from security-minded engineers, FinServ-savvy sales staff as well as legal and compliance professionals from the industry. FinServ RegTechs have emerged in a number of areas due to the increasing directives emanating from financial regulators.

This new crop of startups performs sophisticated background checks and transaction monitoring for anti-money laundering purposes pursuant to the Bank Secrecy Act, the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) and FINRA rules; tracks supervision requirements and retention for electronic communications under FINRA, SEC, and CFTC regulations; as well as monitors information security and privacy laws from the EU, SEC, and several US state regulators such as the New York Department of Financial Services (“NYDFS”).

In this article, we’ll examine RegTech startups in these three fields to determine how solutions have been structured to meet regulatory demand as well as some of the operational and regulatory challenges they face.

Know Your Customer and Anti-Money Laundering

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