Apr
22
2021
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Kandji nabs $60M Series B as Apple device management platform continues to thrive

During the pandemic, having an automated solution for onboarding and updating Apple devices remotely has been essential, and today Kandji, a startup that helps IT do just that, announced a hefty $60 million Series B investment.

Felicis Ventures led the round, with participation from SVB Capital, Greycroft, Okta Ventures and The Spruce House Partnership. Today’s round comes just seven months after a $21 million Series A, bringing the total raised across three rounds to $88.5 million, according to the company.

CEO Adam Pettit says the company has been growing in leaps and bounds since the funding round last October.

“We’ve seen a lot more traction than even originally anticipated. I think every time we’ve put targets up onto the board of how quickly we would grow, we’ve accelerated past them,” he said. He said that one of the primary reasons for this growth has been the rapid move to work from home during the pandemic.

“We’re working with customers across 40+ industries now, and we’re even seeing international customers come in and purchase so everyone now is just looking to support remote workforces and we provide a really elegant way for them to do that,” he said.

While Pettit didn’t want to discuss exact revenue numbers, he did say that it has tripled since the Series A announcement. That is being fueled, in part, he says, by attracting larger companies, and he says they have been seeing more and more of them become customers this year.

As they’ve grown revenue and added customers, they’ve also brought on new employees, growing from 40 to 100 since October. Pettit says that the startup is committed to building a diverse and inclusive culture at the company and a big part of that is making sure you have a diverse pool of candidates from which to choose.

“It comes down to at the onset just making the decision that it’s important to you and it’s important to the company, which we’ve done. Then you take it step by step all the way through, and we start at the back into the funnel where our candidates are coming from.”

That means clearly telling their recruiting partners that they want a diverse candidate pool. One way to do that is being remote and having a broader talent pool with which to work. “We realized that in order to hold true to [our commitment], it was going to be really hard to do that just sticking to the core market of San Diego or San Francisco, and so now we’ve expanded nationally and this has opened up a lot of [new] pools of top tech talent,” he said.

Pettit is thinking hard right now about how the startup will run its offices whenever they are allowed back, especially with some employees living outside major tech hubs. Clearly it will have some remote component, but he says that the tricky part of that will be making sure that the folks who aren’t coming into the office still feel fully engaged and part of the team.

Apr
22
2021
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With $30M extension, BigID boosts Series D to $100M at $1.25B valuation

When we last heard from BigID at the end of 2020, the company was announcing a $70 million Series D at a $1 billion valuation. Today, it announced a $30 million extension on that deal valuing the company at $1.25 billion just 4 months later.

This chunk of money comes from private equity firm Advent International, and brings the total raised to over $200 million across 4 rounds, according to the company. The late stage startup is attracting all of this capital by building a security and privacy platform. When I spoke to CEO Dimitri Sirota in September 2019 at the time of the $50 million Series C, he described the company’s direction this way:

“We’ve separated the product into some constituent parts. While it’s still sold as a broad-based [privacy and security] solution, it’s much more of a platform now in the sense that there’s a core set of capabilities that we heard over and over that customers want.”

Sirota says he has been putting the money to work, and as the economy improves he is seeing more traction for the product set. “Since December, we’ve added employees as we’ve seen broader economic recovery and increased demand. In tandem, we have been busy building a whole host of new products and offerings that we will announce over the coming weeks that will be transformational for BigID,” he said.

He also said that as with previous rounds, he didn’t go looking for the additional money, but decided to take advantage of the new funds at a higher valuation with a firm that he believes can add value overall. What’s more, the funds should allow the company to expand in ways it might have held off on.

“It was important to us that this wouldn’t be a distraction and that we could balance any funding without the need to over-capitalize, which is becoming a bigger issue in today’s environment. In the end, we took what we thought could bring forward some additional product modules and add a sales team focused on smaller commercial accounts,” Sirota said.

Ashwin Krishnan, a principal on Advent’s technology team in New York says that BigID was clearly aligned with two trends his firm has been following. That includes the explosion of data being collected and the increasing focus on managing and securing that data with the goal of ultimately using it to make better decisions.

“When we met with Dimitri and the BigID team, we immediately knew we had found a company with a powerful platform that solves the most challenging problem at the center of these trends and the data question,”Krishnan said.

Past investors in the company include Boldstart Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners and Tiger Global. Strategic investors include Comcast Ventures, Salesforce Ventures and SAP.io.

Apr
21
2021
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ActiveCampaign raises $240M at a $3B valuation as marketing and sales automation come into focus for SMBs

As businesses continue to adopt new digital tools to get their names out into the world, a startup that’s built a sales and marketing platform specifically for small and medium businesses is announcing a big round of funding. ActiveCampaign, which has built what it describes as a “customer experience automation” platform — providing a way not just to run digital campaigns but to follow up aspects of them automatically to make sales and marketing work more efficiently — has closed a $240 million round of funding. The Series C values the Chicago startup at over $3 billion.

The round is being led by a new, big-name investor, Tiger Global, with participation from another new backer Dragoneer, along with Susquehanna Growth Equity and Silversmith Capital Partners, which had both invested previously.

This funding round represents a huge leap for ActiveCampaign. It was only in January 2020 that it raised $100 million, and before that, the company, which was founded in 2003, had only raised $20 million.

But as we have seen in many other ways, the pandemic resulted in a surge of interest among businesses to do more — a lot more — online than ever before, not least because so many people were spending more time at home, carrying out their consumer lives over the internet. That led to ActiveCampaign growing to a customer base of 145,000 customers, up from 90,000 16 months ago.

That points not just to the company already growing at a decent clip before the pandemic, but how it capitalized on that at a time when companies were looking for more tools to run their businesses in the new world.

The growth was not about ActiveCampaign throwing more money into business development, founder and CEO Jason VandeBoom said in an interview. “It was the network effect of people finding success. Even today, organic word of mouth is our primary driver.”

The company’s tools fit into a wider overall trend in the world of business: automation, built on the back of new, cloud-based technology, is being adopted to carry out some of the less interesting and repetitive aspects of running a business.

In the case of sales, an example of what ActiveCampaign might provide is a way for an e-commerce business to identify when a logged-in customer (that is, a user who has an account already and is signed in) might have ‘abandoned’ a visit to a site before buying a product that had already been searched for, or clicked on, or even added to a cart. In these cases, it sends an email to customers reminding them of those items, with options for other follow-ups, in the event that the choice was due to being distracted or having second thoughts that might be persuaded otherwise.

Users can opt-out of these, but they can be useful given the genuine distraction exercise that is browsing online — with all of the unrelated notifications, plus other options for considering a purchase. Tellingly, ActiveCampaign integrates with 850 different apps, a measure of just how fragmented the online landscape is, and also how many ways your attention might be distracted, or snagged depending on your perspective.

Abandoned carts can cost a company, in aggregate, a lot of lost revenue, yet chasing those down is not the kind of task that a company would typically assign to a valuable employee to carry out. And that’s where companies like ActiveCampaign come in.

This, plus some 500 other actions like it around sales and marketing campaigns — VandeBoom calls them “recipes” — some of which have been contributed by ActiveCampaign’s own users, form the basis of the company’s platform.

The marketing and sales automation market is estimated to be worth billions of dollars today, and, thanks to the rise of social media and simply more places to spend time online (and more time spent online) is expected to be worth more than $8 billion by 2027, so it’s going after a lucrative and much-used tool for doing business online. (And others are looking at it as well, of couse, including newer entrants like Shopify coming from a different angle to the same problem. Shopify today is a valued partner of the company, VandeBoom said when I asked him about it.)

That gives ActiveCampaign not just a big opportunity to continue targeting, but possibly also makes it a target itself, for an acquisition.

The other key aspect of ActiveCampaign’s growth that is worth watching is related to its customers. While the company has a client base that includes recognized names like the Museum of Science and Industry based out of ActiveCampaign’s hometown, it also has some 145,000 others across nearly 200 countries with a big emphasis on small and medium businesses.

SMBs form the vast majority of all businesses globally, collectively representing a huge win for tech companies that can capture them as customers. But traditionally, they have proven to be a challenging sector, given that they cover so many different verticals, are in many ways more price-sensitive than their enterprise-sized counterparts, among other factors.

So for ActiveCampaign to have found successful traction with SMBs — including with pricing that works for many of them (using it starts at $9 for accounts with less than 500 contacts) — is likely another reason why the startup has caught the eye of investors keen to back winning horses.

While the company did not need to raise money, VandeBoom said he “saw it as an opportunity to bring in more partners, saying that investors like how it purposely went after the idea of customer experience not on vertical or locale.”

“We’ve been lucky enough to have a front row seat on this journey from early on – and it’s been pretty breathtaking,” said Todd MacLean, managing partner, Silversmith Capital Partners, in a statement to TechCrunch. “Even compared to other great growth companies, the momentum and capital efficiency are rare.  But Jason is a rare entrepreneur and has built a team in his image.  While there’s lots left to do, we believe we’ve only scratched the surface of this market opportunity and are excited to double-down on Jason and his vision.”

Apr
20
2021
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Cape Privacy announces $20M Series A to help companies securely share data

Cape Privacy, the early-stage startup that wants to make it easier for companies to share sensitive data in a secure and encrypted way, announced a $20 million Series A today.

Evolution Equity Partners led the round with participation from new investors Tiger Global Management, Ridgeline Partners and Downing Lane. Existing investors Boldstart Ventures, Version One Ventures, Haystack, Radical Ventures and a slew of individual investors also participated. The company has now raised approximately $25 million, including a $5 million seed investment we covered last June.

Cape Privacy CEO Ché Wijesinghe says that the product has evolved quite a bit since we last spoke. “We have really focused our efforts on encrypted learning, which is really the core technology, which was fundamental to allowing the multi-party compute capabilities between two organizations or two departments to work and build machine learning models on encrypted data,” Wijesinghe told me.

Wijesinghe says that a key business case involves a retail company owned by a private equity firm sharing data with a large financial services company, which is using the data to feed its machine learning models. In this case, sharing customer data, it’s essential to do it in a secure way and that is what Cape Privacy claims is its primary value prop.

He said that while the data sharing piece is the main focus of the company, it has data governance and compliance components to be sure that entities sharing data are doing so in a way that complies with internal and external rules and regulations related to the type of data.

While the company is concentrating on financial services for now, because Wijesinghe has been working with these companies for years, he sees uses cases far beyond a single vertical, including pharmaceuticals, government, healthcare telco and manufacturing.

“Every single industry needs this and so we look at the value of what Cape’s encrypted learning can provide as really being something that can be as transformative and be as impactful as what SSL was for the adoption of the web browser,” he said.

Richard Seewald, founding and managing partner at lead investor Evolution Equity Partners likes that ability to expand the product’s markets. “The application in Financial Services is only the beginning. Cape has big plans in life sciences and government where machine learning will help make incredible advances in clinical trials and counter-terrorism for example. We anticipate wide adoption of Cape’s technology across many use cases and industries,” he said.

The company has recently expanded to 20 people and Wijesinghe, who is half Asian, takes DEI seriously. “We’ve been very, very deliberate about our DEI efforts, and I think one of the things that we pride ourselves in is that we do foster a culture of acceptance, that it’s not just about diversity in terms of color, race, gender, but we just hired our first nonbinary employee,” he said,

Part of making people feel comfortable and included involves training so that fellow employees have a deeper understanding of the cultural differences. The company certainly has diversity across geographies with employees in 10 different time zones.

The company is obviously remote with a spread like that, but once the pandemic is over, Wijesinghe sees bringing people together on occasion with New York City as the hub for the company, where people from all over the world can fly in and get together.

Apr
20
2021
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FintechOS nabs $60M for a low-code approach to modernizing legacy banking and insurance services

“Challenger” startups in banking and insurance have upended their industries, and picked up significant business, by building more customer-friendly tools and services — more personalized, easier to access and usually competitively priced — than those typically provided by their bigger, incumbent rivals. Now, a startup out of Romania that is building tools to help the incumbents respond with better services of their own is announcing a significant round of funding as its business grows.

FintechOS, which has built a low-code platform aimed at larger (older) banking and insurance companies to help them build new services and analytics on top of and around their existing infrastructure, has raised €51 million ($61.5 million at today’s rates, but $60 million at the time of the deal closing) in a Series B round of funding.

FintechOS’s opportunity has been to target the wave of incumbents in the insurance and banking industries that have been slowly watching as newer players like Lemonade (in insurance) and a huge plethora of challenger banks (Revolut, N26, Monzo and many others) are swooping in and picking up customers, especially among younger demographics, while they have been unable to respond mostly because their infrastructure is too old and big. Turning a huge ship around, as we have seen, is no small task — a situation that has become only more apparent in the last year of pandemic living and the big shift to digital interactions that resulted from it.

“When we launched FintechOS in 2017, we could already see existing solutions to digital transformation would struggle to deliver tangible results. By contrast, our unique approach has quickly inspired a sea-change in how financial institutions address digitization and engage with their customers,” said Teodor Blidarus, co-founder and CEO at FintechOS, in a statement. “Events over the last year have only increased pressure on our industry to evolve and as a result we’re seeing growing demand for our powerful platforms. Our latest round of funding will help us grow at the pace needed to improve outcomes for financial institutions and their customers globally.”

(It is not the only one. Others out of Europe in the space of bringing new tools to incumbent banks to help them make more modern and competitive products include 10x, Thought Machine, Temenos, Mambu and many more.)

The Series B round of funding is being led by Draper Esprit, with Earlybird, Gapminder Ventures, Launchub and OTB Ventures (which all participated in its Series A in December 2019) also participating. There are other backers in the round that are not being disclosed at this time, the startup added. FintechOS is also not disclosing its valuation. The company, based out of Bucharest, has raised just under $80 million to date.

FintechOS is active today in the U.K. and Europe — where it has been growing at a CAGR of 200% and says its services touch “millions” of people, with some of its key customers including the likes of banking giants Societe Generale and IdeaBank and international insurance brokers Howden. The plan will be to continue investing in those markets, as well as expanding internationally.

And it will be adding more services. Today, the banking platform is designed to help banks launch more retail services for consumers and small and medium business customers, and for insurance companies to build new health, life and general insurance products (there are a lot of synergies in how insurance and financial services companies have been built over the years, and so it’s a natural couplet when it comes to building tools for those industries).

In the financial sector, FintechOS lets banks build in new digital onboarding flows, credit cards and loan products, savings and mortgage products. Insurance products include new approaches to generating and handling quotes, customer onboarding and management and claims automation — which may well bring FintechOS into closer contact and collaboration with the most successful startup to come out of its home country to date, the RPA juggernaut UiPath. In all cases, it helps stitch together data from a bank’s own systems with more modern tooling, and to link that up with yet more modern tools to help process that data more easily.

This is “low code,” but it typically means that the company needs to work with third parties to enable all of this. Partners include the likes of integrators and other global services technicians, such as Microsoft, Deloitte, CapGemini, KPMG and so on. (And the founders of the startup themselves come from consulting backgrounds so they well understand the role these companies play in the process of bringing technology into big businesses.)

FintechOS is tapping into a couple of very big trends that have arguably been the biggest in the financial and related insurance industries.

The first of these is the fact that core services around things like credit/loans, current deposits and savings are not just very complex to build but actually have largely become commoditized — similar to digital payments — and so packaging them up and turning them into services that can be integrated by way of an API makes them more easily accessed without the heavy lifting needed to build them from scratch. This lets companies focus instead on customer service or building more interesting tools around those basic services to customise them (for example AI-based personalization). Disintermediating basic functions from the services built around them is arguably a bigger trend, but it has been especially prevalent in enterprise, which has long been a slow-moving space when it comes to innovation in the back-end, and the front-end.

The second of these is the big swing toward using no-code and low-code tools to empower more people within organizations to get stuck in when they can see something not working as efficiently as it could, and building the workflows themselves to improve that. This also applies to trying out and testing new products — again something that typically has not been done in financial and insurance services but can now be possible with low-code and no-code tools.

“Not only is our technology helping financial institutions become customer centric, but it’s also helping them provide products and services to more people and businesses,” said Sergiu Negut, the other co-founder who is FintechOS’s CFO and COO, in a separate statement. “With so many markets still underserved, the ability to tailor offerings to a segment of one offers the opportunity to increase financial inclusion and adheres to our ideal that easy access to financial services is essential. We’re delighted to be working with investors who share our views on how fintech should be transforming the financial services industry.”

Notably, Draper Esprit also has backed Thought Machine, another big player in the world of fintech that is taking some of the learnings and models that have helped new entrants disrupt incumbents, and is packaging them up as services for incumbents, too. It takes a different approach to doing this, not using low-code but smart contracts, which could be one reason why the VC doesn’t see the investments as conflict of interest. They are also tackling an enormous market, and so at least for now there is room for them, and many others in the space, such as 10x, Temenos, Mambu, Rapyd and many others.

“When we met Teo and Sergiu, we were immediately convinced of their vision: a data led, end-to-end platform, facilitated with a low-code/no-code infrastructure,” Vinoth Jayakumar, partner at Draper Esprit, said in a statement. “Incumbent financial services firms have cost-to-income ratios up to 90%, so we see a huge and increasing need for infrastructure software that allows digitisation at speed, ease and lower cost. Draper Esprit builds enduring partnerships; with the team at FintechOS we hope to build an enduring fintech company that will dramatically change financial services experiences for people all over the world.”

 

 

Apr
15
2021
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Bigeye (formerly Toro) scores $17M Series A to automate data quality monitoring

As companies create machine learning models, the operations team needs to ensure the data used for the model is of sufficient quality, a process that can be time consuming. Bigeye (formerly Toro), an early stage startup is helping by automating data quality.

Today the company announced a $17 million Series A led Sequoia Capital with participation from existing investor Costanoa Ventures. That brings the total raised to $21 million with the $4 million seed, the startup raised last May.

When we spoke to Bigeye CEO and co-founder Kyle Kirwan last May, he said the seed round was going to be focussed on hiring a team — they are 11 now — and building more automation into the product, and he says they have achieved that goal.

“The product can now automatically tell users what data quality metrics they should collect from their data, so they can point us at a table in Snowflake or Amazon Redshift or whatever and we can analyze that table and recommend the metrics that they should collect from it to monitor the data quality — and we also automated the alerting,” Kirwan explained.

He says that the company is focusing on data operations issues when it comes to inputs to the model such as the table isn’t updating when it’s supposed to, it’s missing rows or there are duplicate entries. They can automate alerts to those kinds of issues and speed up the process of getting model data ready for training and production.

Bogomil Balkansky, the partner at Sequoia who is leading today’s investment sees the company attacking an important part of the machine learning pipeline. “Having spearheaded the data quality team at Uber, Kyle and Egor have a clear vision to provide always-on insight into the quality of data to all businesses,” Balkansky said in a statement.

As the founding team begins building the company, Kirwan says that building a diverse team is a key goal for them and something they are keenly aware of.

“It’s easy to hire a lot of other people that fit a certain mold, and we want to be really careful that we’re doing the extra work to [understand that just because] it’s easy to source people within our network, we need to push and make sure that we’re hiring a team that has different backgrounds and different viewpoints and different types of people on it because that’s how we’re going to build the strongest team,” he said.

Bigeye offers on prem and SaaS solutions, and while it’s working with paying customers like Instacart, Crux Informatics, and Lambda School, the product won’t be generally available until later in the year.

Apr
15
2021
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Cado Security locks in $10M for its cloud-native digital forensics platform

As computing systems become increasingly bigger and more complex, forensics have become an increasingly important part of how organizations can better secure them. As the recent SolarWinds breach has shown, it’s not always just a matter of being able to identify data loss, or prevent hackers from coming in in the first place. In cases where a network has already been breached, running a thorough investigation is often the only way to identify what happened, if a breach is still active and whether a malicious hacker can strike again.

As a sign of this growing priority, a startup called Cado Security, which has built forensics technology native to the cloud to run those investigations, is announcing $10 million in funding to expand its business.

Cado’s tools today are used directly by organizations, but also security companies like Redacted — a somewhat under-the-radar security startup in San Francisco co-founded by Facebook’s former chief security officer Max Kelly and John Hering, the co-founder of Lookout. It uses Cado to carry out the forensics part of its work.

The funding for London-based Cado is being led by Blossom Capital, with existing investors Ten Eleven Ventures also participating, among others. As another signal of demand, this Series A is coming only six months after Cado raised its seed round.

The task of securing data on digital networks has grown increasingly complex over the years: Not only are there more devices, more data and a wider range of configurations and uses around it, but malicious hackers have become increasingly sophisticated in their approaches to needling inside networks and doing their dirty work.

The move to the cloud has also been a major factor. While it has helped a wave of organizations expand and run much bigger computing processes as part of their business operations, it has also increased the so-called attack surface and made investigations much more complicated, not least because a lot of organizations run elastic processes, scaling their capacity up and down: This means when something is scaled down, logs of previous activity essentially disappear.

Cado’s Response product — which works proactively on a network and all of its activity after it’s installed — is built to work across cloud, on-premise and hybrid environments. Currently it’s available for AWS EC2 deployments and Docker, Kubernetes, OpenShift and AWS Fargate container systems, and the plan is to expand to Azure very soon. (Google Cloud Platform is less of a priority at the moment, CEO James Campbell said, since it rarely comes up with current and potential customers.)

Campbell co-founded Cado with Christopher Doman (the CTO) last April, with the concept for the company coming out of their respective experiences working on security services together at PwC, and respectively for government organizations (Campbell in Australia) and AlienVault (the security firm acquired by AT&T). In all of those, one persistent issue the two continued to encounter was the issue with adequate forensics data, essential for tracking the most complex breaches.

A lot of legacy forensics tools, in particular those tackling the trove of data in the cloud, was based on “processing data with open source and pulling together analysis in spreadsheets,” Campbell said. “There is a need to modernize this space for the cloud era.”

In a typical breach, it can take up to a month to run a thorough investigation to figure out what is going on, since, as Doman describes it, forensics looks at “every part of the disk, the files in a binary system. You just can’t find what you need without going to that level, those logs. We would look at the whole thing.”

However, that posed a major problem. “Having a month with a hacker running around before you can do something about it is just not acceptable,” Campbell added. The result, typically, is that other forensics tools investigate only about 5% of an organization’s data.

The solution — for which Cado has filed patents, the pair said — has essentially involved building big data tools that can automate and speed up the very labor intensive process of looking through activity logs to figure out what looks unusual and to find patterns within all the ones and zeros.

“That gives security teams more room to focus on what the hacker is getting up to, the remediation aspect,” Campbell explained.

Arguably, if there were better, faster tracking and investigation technology in place, something like SolarWinds could have been better mitigated.

The plan for the company is to bring in more integrations to cover more kinds of systems, and go beyond deployments that you’d generally classify as “infrastructure as a service.”

“Over the past year, enterprises have compressed their cloud adoption timelines while protecting the applications that enable their remote workforces,” said Imran Ghory, partner at Blossom Capital, in a statement. “Yet as high-profile breaches like SolarWinds illustrate, the complexity of cloud environments makes rapid investigation and response extremely difficult since security analysts typically are not trained as cloud experts. Cado Security solves for this with an elegant solution that automates time-consuming tasks like capturing forensically sound cloud data so security teams can move faster and more efficiently. The opportunity to help Cado Security scale rapidly is a terrific one for Blossom Capital.”

Apr
14
2021
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Upstack raises $50M for its platform and advisory to help businesses plan and buy for digital transformation

Digital transformation has been one of the biggest catchphrases of the past year, with many an organization forced to reckon with aging IT, a lack of digital strategy, or simply the challenges of growth after being faced with newly-remote workforces, customers doing everything online and other tech demands.

Now, a startup called Upstack that has built a platform to help those businesses evaluate how to grapple with those next steps — including planning and costing out different options and scenarios, and then ultimately buying solutions — is announcing financing to do some growth of its own.

The New York startup has picked up funding of $50 million, money that it will be using to continue building out its platform and expanding its services business.

The funding is coming from Berkshire Partners, and it’s being described as an “initial investment”. The firm, which makes private equity and late-stage growth investments, typically puts between $100 million and $1 billion in its portfolio companies so this could end up as a bigger number, especially when you consider the size of the market that Upstack is tackling: the cloud and internet infrastructure brokerage industry generates annual revenues “in excess of $70 billion,” the company estimates.

We’re asking about the valuation, but PitchBook notes that the median valuation in its deals is around $211 million. Upstack had previously raised around $35 million.

Upstack today already provides tools to large enterprises, government organizations, and smaller businesses to compare offerings and plan out pricing for different scenarios covering a range of IT areas, including private, public and hybrid cloud deployments; data center investments; network connectivity; business continuity and mobile services, and the plan is to bring in more categories to the mix, including unified communications and security.

Notably, Upstack itself is profitable and names a lot of customers that themselves are tech companies — they include Cisco, Accenture, cloud storage company Backblaze, Riverbed and Lumen — a mark of how digital transformation and planning for it are not necessarily a core competency even of digital businesses, but especially those that are not technology companies. It says it has helped complete over 3,700 IT projects across 1,000 engagements to date.

“Upstack was founded to bring enterprise-grade advisory services to businesses of all sizes,” said Christopher Trapp, founder and CEO, in a statement. “Berkshire’s expertise in the data center, connectivity and managed services sectors aligns well with our commitment to enabling and empowering a world-class ecosystem of technology solutions advisors with a platform that delivers higher value to their customers.”

The core of the Upstack’s proposition is a platform that system integrators, or advisors, plus end users themselves, can use to design and compare pricing for different services and solutions. This is an unsung but critical aspect of the ecosystem: We love to hear and write about all the interesting enterprise technology that is being developed, but the truth of the matter is that buying and using that tech is never just a simple click on a “buy” button.

Even for smaller organizations, buying tech can be a hugely time-consuming task. It involves evaluating different companies and what they have to offer — which can differ widely in the same category, and gets more complex when you start to compare different technological approaches to the same problem.

It also includes the task of designing solutions to fit one’s particular network. And finally, there are the calculations that need to be made to determine the real cost of services once implemented in an organization. It also gives users the ability to present their work, which also forms a critical part of the evaluating and decision-making process. When you think about all of this, it’s no wonder that so many organizations have opted to follow the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of digital strategy.

As technology has evolved, the concept of digital transformation itself has become more complicated, making tools like Upstack’s more in demand both by companies and the people they hire to do this work for them. Upstack also employs a group of about 15 advisors — consultants — who also provide insight and guidance in the procurement process, and it seems some of the funding will also be used to invest in expanding that team.

(Incidentally, the model of balancing technology with human experts is one used by other enterprise startups that are built around the premise of helping businesses procure technology: BlueVoyant, a security startup that has built a platform to help businesses manage and use different security services, also retains advisors who are experts in that field.)

The advisors are part of the business model: Upstack’s customers can either pay Upstack a consulting fee to work with its advisors, or Upstack receives a commission from suppliers that a company ends up using, having evaluated and selected them via the Upstack platform.

The company competes with traditional systems integrators and consultants, but it seems that the fact that it has built a tech platform that some of its competitors also use is one reason why it’s caught the eye of investors, and also seen strong growth.

Indeed, when you consider the breadth of services that a company might use within their infrastructure — whether it’s software to run sales or marketing, or AI to run a recommendation for products on a site, or business intelligence or RPA — it will be interesting to see how and if Upstack considers deeper moves into these areas.

“Upstack has quickly become a leader in a large, rapidly growing and highly fragmented market,” said Josh Johnson, principal at Berkshire Partners, in a statement. “Our experience has reinforced the importance of the agent channel to enterprises designing and procuring digital infrastructure. Upstack’s platform accelerates this digital transformation by helping its advisors better serve their enterprise customers. We look forward to supporting Upstack’s continued growth through M&A and further investment in the platform.”

Apr
13
2021
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SambaNova raises $676M at a $5.1B valuation to double down on cloud-based AI software for enterprises

Artificial intelligence technology holds a huge amount of promise for enterprises — as a tool to process and understand their data more efficiently; as a way to leapfrog into new kinds of services and products; and as a critical stepping stone into whatever the future might hold for their businesses. But the problem for many enterprises is that they are not tech businesses at their core, so bringing on and using AI will typically involve a lot of heavy lifting. Today, one of the startups building AI services is announcing a big round of funding to help bridge that gap.

SambaNova — a startup building AI hardware and integrated systems that run on it that only officially came out of three years in stealth last December — is announcing a huge round of funding today to take its business out into the world. The company has closed on $676 million in financing, a Series D that co-founder and CEO Rodrigo Liang has confirmed values the company at $5.1 billion.

The round is being led by SoftBank, which is making the investment via Vision Fund 2. Temasek and the government of Singapore Investment Corp. (GIC), both new investors, are also participating, along with previous backers BlackRock, Intel Capital, GV (formerly Google Ventures), Walden International and WRVI, among other unnamed investors. (Sidenote: BlackRock and Temasek separately kicked off an investment partnership yesterday, although it’s not clear if this falls into that remit.)

Co-founded by two Stanford professors, Kunle Olukotun and Chris Ré, and Liang, who had been an engineering executive at Oracle, SambaNova has been around since 2017 and has raised more than $1 billion to date — both to build out its AI-focused hardware, which it calls DataScale, and to build out the system that runs on it. (The “Samba” in the name is a reference to Liang’s Brazilian heritage, he said, but also the Latino music and dance that speaks of constant movement and shifting, not unlike the journey AI data regularly needs to take that makes it too complicated and too intensive to run on more traditional systems.)

SambaNova on one level competes for enterprise business against companies like Nvidia, Cerebras Systems and Graphcore — another startup in the space which earlier this year also raised a significant round. However, SambaNova has also taken a slightly different approach to the AI challenge.

In December, the startup launched Dataflow-as-a-Service as an on-demand, subscription-based way for enterprises to tap into SambaNova’s AI system, with the focus just on the applications that run on it, without needing to focus on maintaining those systems themselves. It’s the latter that SambaNova will be focusing on selling and delivering with this latest tranche of funding, Liang said.

SambaNova’s opportunity, Liang believes, lies in selling software-based AI systems to enterprises that are keen to adopt more AI into their business, but might lack the talent and other resources to do so if it requires running and maintaining large systems.

“The market right now has a lot of interest in AI. They are finding they have to transition to this way of competing, and it’s no longer acceptable not to be considering it,” said Liang in an interview.

The problem, he said, is that most AI companies “want to talk chips,” yet many would-be customers will lack the teams and appetite to essentially become technology companies to run those services. “Rather than you coming in and thinking about how to hire scientists and hire and then deploy an AI service, you can now subscribe, and bring in that technology overnight. We’re very proud that our technology is pushing the envelope on cases in the industry.”

To be clear, a company will still need data scientists, just not the same number, and specifically not the same number dedicating their time to maintaining systems, updating code and other more incremental work that comes managing an end-to-end process.

SambaNova has not disclosed many customers so far in the work that it has done — the two reference names it provided to me are both research labs, the Argonne National Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — but Liang noted some typical use cases.

One was in imaging, such as in the healthcare industry, where the company’s technology is being used to help train systems based on high-resolution imagery, along with other healthcare-related work. The coincidentally-named Corona supercomputer at the Livermore Lab (it was named after the 2014 lunar eclipse, not the dark cloud of a pandemic that we’re currently living through) is using SambaNova’s technology to help run calculations related to some COVID-19 therapeutic and antiviral compound research, Marshall Choy, the company’s VP of product, told me.

Another set of applications involves building systems around custom language models, for example in specific industries like finance, to process data quicker. And a third is in recommendation algorithms, something that appears in most digital services and frankly could always do to work a little better than it does today. I’m guessing that in the coming months it will release more information about where and who is using its technology.

Liang also would not comment on whether Google and Intel were specifically tapping SambaNova as a partner in their own AI services, but he didn’t rule out the prospect of partnering to go to market. Indeed, both have strong enterprise businesses that span well beyond technology companies, and so working with a third party that is helping to make even their own AI cores more accessible could be an interesting prospect, and SambaNova’s DataScale (and the Dataflow-as-a-Service system) both work using input from frameworks like PyTorch and TensorFlow, so there is a level of integration already there.

“We’re quite comfortable in collaborating with others in this space,” Liang said. “We think the market will be large and will start segmenting. The opportunity for us is in being able to take hold of some of the hardest problems in a much simpler way on their behalf. That is a very valuable proposition.”

The promise of creating a more accessible AI for businesses is one that has eluded quite a few companies to date, so the prospect of finally cracking that nut is one that appeals to investors.

“SambaNova has created a leading systems architecture that is flexible, efficient and scalable. This provides a holistic software and hardware solution for customers and alleviates the additional complexity driven by single technology component solutions,” said Deep Nishar, senior managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement. “We are excited to partner with Rodrigo and the SambaNova team to support their mission of bringing advanced AI solutions to organizations globally.”

Apr
09
2021
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SnackMagic picks up $15M to expand from build-your-own snack boxes into a wider gifting marketplace

The office shut-down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year spurred huge investment in digital transformation and a wave of tech companies helping with that, but there were some distinct losers in the shift, too — specifically those whose business models were predicated on serving the very offices that disappeared overnight. Today, one of the companies that had to make an immediate pivot to keep itself afloat is announcing a round of funding, after finding itself not just growing at a clip, but making a profit, as well.

SnackMagic, a build-your-own snack box service, has raised $15 million in a Series A round of funding led by Craft Ventures, with Luxor Capital also participating.

(Both investors have an interesting track record in the food-on-demand space: Most recently, Luxor co-led a $528 million round in Glovo in Spain, while Craft backs/has backed the likes of Cloud Kitchens, Postmates and many more.)

The funding comes on the back of a strong year for the company, which hit a $20 million revenue run rate in eight months and turned profitable in December 2020.

Founder and CEO Shaunak Amin said in an interview that the plan will be to use the funding both to continue growing SnackMagic’s existing business, as well as extend into other kinds of gifting categories. Currently, you can ship snacks anywhere in the world, but the customizable boxes — recipients are gifted an amount that they can spend, and they choose what they want in the box themselves from SnackMagic’s menu, or one that a business has created and branded as a subset of that — are only available in locations in North America, serviced by SnackMagic’s primary warehouse. Other locations are given options of pre-packed boxes of snacks right now, but the plan is to slowly extend its pick-and-mix model to more geographies, starting with the U.K.

Alongside this, the company plans to continue widening the categories of items that people can gift each other beyond chocolates, chips, hot sauces and other fun food items, into areas like alcohol, meal kits and nonfood items. There’s also scope for expanding to more use cases into areas like corporate gifting, marketing and consumer services, as well as analytics coming out of its sales.

Amin calls the data that SnackMagic is amassing about customer interest in different brands and products “the hidden gem” of the platform.

“It’s one of the most interesting things,” he said. Brands that want to add their items to the wider pool of products — which today numbers between 700 and 800 items — also get access to a dashboard where they monitor what’s selling, how much stock is left of their own items, and so on. “One thing that is very opaque [in the CPG world] is good data.”

For many of the bigger companies that lack their own direct sales channels, it’s a significantly richer data set than what they typically get from selling items in the average brick and mortar store, or from a bigger online retailer like Amazon. “All these bigger brands like Pepsi and Kellogg not only want to know this about their own products more but also about the brands they are trying to buy,” Amin said. Several of them, he added, have approached his company to partner and invest, so I guess we should watch this space.

SnackMagic’s success comes from a somewhat unintended, unlikely beginning, and it’s a testament to the power of compelling, yet extensible technology that can be scaled and repurposed if necessary. In its case, there is personalization technology, logistics management, product inventory and accounting, and lots of data analytics involved.

The company started out as Stadium, a lunch delivery service in New York City that was leveraging the fact that when co-workers ordered lunch or dinner together for the office — say around a team-building event or a late-night working session, or just for a regular work day — oftentimes they found that people all hankered for different things to eat.

In many cases, people typically make separate orders for the different items, but that also means if you are ordering to all eat together, things would not arrive at the same time; if it’s being expensed, it’s more complicated on that front too; and if you’re thinking about carbon footprints, it might also mean a lot less efficiency on that front too.

Stadium’s solution was a platform that provided access to multiple restaurants’ menus, and people could pick from all of them for a single order. The business had been operating for six years and was really starting to take off.

“We were quite well known in the city, and we had plans to expand, and we were on track for March 2020 being our best month ever,” Amin said. Then, COVID-19 hit. “There was no one left in the office,” he said. Revenue disappeared overnight, since the idea of delivering many items to one place instantly stopped being a need.

Amin said that they took a look at the platform they had built to pick many options (and many different costs, and the accounting that came with that) and thought about how to use that for a different end. It turned out that even with people working remotely, companies wanted to give props to their workers, either just to say hello and thanks, or around a specific team event, in the form of food and treats — all the more so since the supply of snacks you typically come across in so many office canteens and kitchens were no longer there for workers to tap.

It’s interesting, but perhaps also unsurprising, that one of the by-products of our new way of working has been the rise of more services that cater (no pun intended) to people working in more decentralised ways, and that companies exploring how to improve rewarding people in those environments are also seeing a bump.

Just yesterday, we wrote about a company called Alyce raising $30 million for its corporate gifting platform that is also based on personalization — using AI to help understand the interests of the recipient to make better choices of items that a person might want to receive.

Alyce is taking a somewhat different approach than SnackMagic: it’s not holding any products itself, and there is no warehouse but rather a platform that links buyers with those providing products. And Alyce’s initial audience is different, too: instead of internal employees (the first, but not final, focus for SnackMagic) it is targeting corporate gifting, or presents that sales and marketing people might send to prospects or current clients as a please and thank you gesture.

But you can also see how and where the two might meet in the middle — and compete not just with each other, but the many other online retailers, Amazon and otherwise, plus the consumer goods companies themselves looking for ways of diversifying business by extending beyond the B2C channel.

“We don’t worry about Amazon. We just get better,” Amin said when I asked him about whether he worried that SnackMagic was too easy to replicate. “It might be tough anyway,” he added, since “others might have the snacks but picking and packing and doing individual customization is very different from regular e-commerce. It’s really more like scalable gifting.”

Investors are impressed with the quick turnaround and identification of a market opportunity, and how it quickly retooled its tech to make it fit for purpose.

“SnackMagic’s immediate success was due to an excellent combination of timing, innovative thinking and world-class execution,” said Bryan Rosenblatt, principal investor at Craft Ventures, in a statement. “As companies embrace the future of a flexible workplace, SnackMagic is not just a snack box delivery platform but a company culture builder.”

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