Mar
31
2020
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Palo Alto Networks to acquire CloudGenix for $420M

Palo Alto Networks announced today that it has an agreement in place to acquire CloudGenix for $420 million.

CloudGenix delivers a software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) that helps customers stay secure by setting policies to enforce compliance with company security protocols across distributed locations. This is especially useful for companies with a lot of branch offices or a generally distributed workforce, something just about everyone is dealing with at the moment as we find millions suddenly working from home.

Nikesh Arora, chairman and CEO at Palo Alto Networks, says that this acquisition should contribute to Palo Alto’s “secure access service edge,” or SASE solutions, as it is known in industry parlance.

“As the enterprise becomes more distributed, customers want agile solutions that just work, and that applies to both security and networking. Upon the close of the transaction, the combined platform will provide customers with a complete SASE offering that is best-in-class, easy to deploy, cloud-managed, and delivered as a service,” Arora said in a statement.

CloudGenix was founded 2013 by Kumar Ramachandran, Mani Ramasamy and Venkataraman Anand, all of whom will be joining the company as part of the deal. It has 250 customers across a variety of verticals. The company has raised almost $100 million, according to PitchBook data.

Palo Alto Networks has been on an acquisitive streak. Going back to February 2019, this represents the sixth company it has acquired, to the tune of more than $1.6 billion overall.

The acquisition is expected to close in the fourth quarter, subject to customary regulatory approvals.

Mar
18
2020
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Around is the new floating head video chat multitasking app

You have to actually get work done, not just video call all day, but apps like Zoom want to take over your screen. Remote workers who need to stay in touch while staying productive are forced to juggle tabs. Meanwhile, call participants often look and sound far away, dwarfed by their background and drowned in noise.

Today, Around launches its new video chat software that crops participants down to just circles that float on your screen so you have space for other apps. Designed for laptops, Around uses auto-zoom and noise cancelling to keep your face and voice in focus. Instead of crowding around one computer or piling into a big-screen conference room, up to 15 people can call from their own laptop without echo — even from right next to each other.

“Traditional videoconferencing tries to maximize visual presence. But too much presence gets in the way of your work,” says Around CEO Dominik Zane. “People want to make eye contact. They want to connect. But they also want to get stuff done. Around treats video as the means to an end, not the end in itself.”

Around becomes available today by request in invite-only beta for Mac, windows, Linux, and web. It’s been in private beta since last summer, but now users can sign up here for early access to Around. The freemium model means anyone can slide the app into their stack without paying at first.

After two years in stealth, Around’s 12-person distributed team reveals that it’s raised $5.2 million in seed funding over multiple rounds from Floodgate, Initialized Capital, Credo Ventures, AngelList’s Naval Ravikant, Product Hunt’s Ryan Hoover, Crashlytics’ Jeff Seibert, and angel Tommy Leep. The plan is to invest in talent and infrastructure to keep video calls snappy.

Not Just A Picturephone

Around CEO Dominik Zane

Around was born out of frustration with remote work collaboration. Zane and fellow Around co-founder Pavel Serbajlo had built mobile marketing company M.dot that was acquired by GoDaddy by using a fully distributed team. But they discovered that Zoom was “built around decades-old assumptions of what a video call should be” says Zane. “A Zoom video call is basically a telephone connected to a video camera. In terms of design, it’s not much different from the original Picturephone demoed at the 1964 World’s Fair.”

So together, they started Around as a video chat app that slips into the background rather than dominating the foreground. “We stripped out every unnecessary pixel by building a real-time panning and zooming technology that automatically keeps callers’ faces–and only their faces–in view at all times” Zane explains. It’s basically Facebook Messenger’s old Chat Heads design, but for the desktop enterprise.

Calls start with a shared link or /Around Slack command. You’re never unexpectedly dumped into a call, so you can stay on task. Since participants are closely cropped to their faces and not blown up full screen, they don’t have to worry about cleaning their workspace or exactly how their hair looks. That reduces the divide between work-from-homers and those in the office.

As for technology, Around’s “EchoTerminator” uses ultrasonic audio to detect nearby laptops and synchronization to eliminate those strange feedback sounds. Around also employs artificial intelligence and the fast CPUs of modern laptops to suppress noise like sirens, dog barks, washing machines, or screaming children. A browser version means you don’t have to wait for people to download anything, and visual emotes like “Cool idea” pop up below people’s faces so they don’t have to interrupt the speaker.

Traditional video chat vs Around

“Around is what you get when you rethink video chat for a 21st-century audience, with 21st-century technology,” says Initialized co-founder and general partner Garry Tan. “Around has cracked an incredibly difficult problem, integrating video into the way people actually work today. It makes other video-call products feel clumsy by comparison.”

There’s one big thing missing from Around: mobile. Since it’s meant for multitasking, it’s desktop/laptop only. But that orthodoxy ignores the fact that a team member on the go might still want to chime in on chats, even with just audio. Mobile apps are on the roadmap, though, with plans to allow direct dial-in and live transitioning from laptop to mobile. The 15-participant limit also prevents Around from working for all-hands meetings.

Competing with video calling giant Zoom will be a serious challenge. Nearly a decade of perfecting its technology gives Zoom super low latency so people don’t talk over each other. Around will have to hope that its smaller windows let it keep delays down. There’s also other multitask video apps like Loom’s asynchronously-recorded video clips that prevent distraction.

With coronavirus putting a new emphasis on video technology for tons of companies, finding great engineers could be difficult. “Talent is scarce, and good video is hard tech. Video products are on the rise. Google and large companies snag all the talent, plus they have the ability and scale to train audio-video professionals at universities in northern Europe” Zane tells me. “Talent wars are the biggest risk and obstacle for all real-time video companies.”

But that rise also means there are tons of people fed up with having to stop work to video chat, kids and pets wandering into their calls, and constantly yelling at co-workers to “mute your damn mic!” If ever there was a perfect time to launch Around, it’s now.

“Eight years ago we were a team of locals and immigrants, traveling frequently, moving between locations and offices” Zane recalls. “We realized that this was the future of work and it’s going to be one of the most significant transformations of modern society over the next 30 years . . . We’re building the product we’ve wanted for ourselves.”

One of the best things about working remotely is you don’t have colleagues randomly bugging you about superfluous nonsense. But the heaviness of traditional video chat swings things too far in the other direction. You’re isolated unless you want to make a big deal out of scheduling a call. We need presence and connection, but also the space to remain in flow. We don’t want to be away or on top of each other. We want to be around.

Mar
16
2020
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To make locks touchless, Proxy bluetooth ID raises $42M

We need to go hands-off in the age of coronavirus. That means touching fewer doors, elevators, and sign-in iPads. But once a building is using phone-based identity for security, there’s opportunities to speed up access to WIFI networks and printers, or personalize conference rooms and video call set-ups. Keyless office entry startup Proxy wants to deliver all of this while keeping your phone in your pocket.

The door is just a starting point” Proxy co-founder and CEO Denis Mars tells me. “We’re . . . empowering a movement to take back control of our privacy, our sense of self, our humanity, our individuality.”

With the contagion concerns and security risks of people rubbing dirty, cloneable, stealable key cards against their office doors, investors see big potential in Proxy. Today it’s announcing here a $42 million Series B led by Scale Venture Partners with participation from former funders Kleiner Perkins and Y Combinator plus new additions Silicon Valley Bank and West Ventures.

The raise brings Proxy to $58.8 million in funding so it can staff up at offices across the world and speed up deployments of its door sensor hardware and access control software. “We’re spread thin” says Mars. “Part of this funding is to try to grow up as quickly as possible and not grow for growth sake. We’re making sure we’re secure, meeting all the privacy requirements.”

How does Proxy work? Employers get their staff to install an app that knows their identity within the company, including when and where they’re allowed entry. Buildings install Proxy’s signal readers, which can either integrate with existing access control software or the startup’s own management dashboard.

Employees can then open doors, elevators, turnstiles, and garages with a Bluetooth low-energy signal without having to even take their phone out. Bosses can also opt to require a facial scan or fingerprint or a wave of the phone near the sensor. Existing keycards and fobs still work with Proxy’s Pro readers. Proxy costs about $300 to $350 per reader, plus installation and a $30 per month per reader subscription to its management software.

Now the company is expanding access to devices once you’re already in the building thanks to its SDK and APIs. Wifi router-makers are starting to pre-provision their hardware to automatically connect the phones of employees or temporarily allow registered guests with Proxy installed — no need for passwords written on whiteboards. Its new Nano sensors can also be hooked up to printers and vending machines to verify access or charge expense accounts. And food delivery companies can add the Proxy SDK so couriers can be granted the momentary ability to open doors when they arrive with lunch.

Rather than just indiscriminately beaming your identity out into the world, Proxy uses tokenized credentials so only its sensors know who you are. Users have to approve of new networks’ ability to read their tokens, Proxy has SOC-2 security audit certification, and complies with GDPR. “We feel very strongly about where the biometrics are stored . . . they should stay on your phone” says Mars.

Yet despite integrating with the technology for two-factor entry unlocks, Mars says “We’re not big fans of facial recognition. You don’t want every random company having your face in their database. The face becomes the password you were supposed to change every 30 days.”

Keeping your data and identity safe as we see an explosion of Internet Of Things devices was actually the impetus for starting Proxy. Mars had sold his teleconferencing startup Bitplay to Jive Software where he met his eventually co-founder Simon Ratner, who’d joined after his video annotation startup  Omnisio was acquired by YouTube. Mars was frustrated about every IoT lightbulb and appliance wanting him to download an app, set up a profile, and give it his data.

The duo founded Proxy in 2016 as a universal identity signal. Today it has over 60 customers. While other apps want you to constantly open them, Proxy’s purpose is to work silently in the background and make people more productive. “We believe the most important technologies in the world don’t seek your attention. They work for you, they empower you, and they get out of the way so you can focus your attention on what matters most — living your life.”

Now Proxy could actually help save lives. “The nature of our product is contactless interactions in commercial buildings and workplaces so there’s a bit of an unintended benefit that helps prevent the spread of the virus” Mars explains. “We have seen an uptick in customers starting to set doors and other experiences in longer-range hands-free mode so that users can walk up to an automated door and not have to touch the handles or badge/reader every time.”

The big challenge facing Proxy is maintaining security and dependability since it’s a mission-critical business. A bug or outage could potentially lock employees out of their workplace (when they eventually return from quarantine). It will have to keep hackers out of employee files. Proxy needs to stay ahead of access control incumbents like ADT and HID as well as smaller direct competitors like $10 million-funded Nexkey and $28 million-funded Openpath.

Luckily, Proxy has found a powerful growth flywheel. First an office in a big building gets set up, then they convince the real estate manager to equip the lobby’s turnstiles and elevators with Proxy. Other tenants in the building start to use it, so they buy Proxy for their office. Then they get their offices in other cities on board…starting the flywheel again. That’s why Proxy is doubling down on sales to commercial real estate owners.

The question is when Proxy will start knocking on consumers’ doors. While leveling up into the enterprise access control software business might be tough for home smartlock companies like August, Proxy could go down market if it built more physical lock hardware. Perhaps we’ll start to get smart homes that know who’s home, and stop having to carry pointy metal sticks in our pockets.

Mar
10
2020
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Dell spent $67B buying EMC — more than 3 years later, was it worth the debt?

Dell’s 2015 decision to buy EMC for $67 billion remains the largest pure tech deal in history, but a transaction of such magnitude created a mountain of debt for the Texas-based company and its primary backer, Silver Lake.

Dell would eventually take on close to $50 billion in debt. Years later, where are they in terms of paying that back, and has the deal paid for itself?

When EMC put itself up for sale, it was under pressure from activist investors Elliott Management to break up the company. In particular, Elliott reportedly wanted the company to sell one of its most valuable parts, VMware, which it believed would help boost EMC’s share price. (Elliott is currently turning the screws on Twitter and SoftBank.)

Whatever the reason, once the company went up for sale, Dell and private equity firm Silver Lake came ‘a callin with an offer EMC CEO Joe Tucci couldn’t refuse. The arrangement represented great returns for his shareholders, and Tucci got to exit on his terms, telling Elliott to take a hike (even if it was Elliott that got the ball rolling in the first place).

Dell eventually took itself public again in late 2018, probably to help raise some of the money it needed to pay off its debts. We are more than three years past the point where the Dell-EMC deal closed, so we decided to take a look back and see if Dell was wise to take on such debt or not.

What it got with EMC

Mar
10
2020
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MessageBird launches Inbox.ai to disrupt the customer service market

MessageBird, the Amsterdam-headquartered cloud communications platform backed by Accel in the U.S. and Europe’s Atomico, is unveiling another new product today, this time taking aim at the $350 billion customer service market.

Dubbed Inbox.ai and positioned as “Slack for external communications,” the new product — which is to be offered largely for free — enables customers to communicate with businesses via practically any channel of their choosing. This includes WhatsApp, SMS, Voice, Messenger, Instagram, WeChat, Apple Business Chat, RCS, Line and Telegram — in a bid to meet customers on their own digital, “messaging-first” turf. In terms of message content, at launch there is already support for text, images, video, geolocation and more.

And perhaps crucially, regardless of channel, incoming messages and customer conversations are presented in a single thread for easy ticketing and collaboration amongst support agents. There’s some built in intelligence, too, with “AI” promising to analyse keywords and anticipate customer needs, including providing a list of suggested replies. Agents can also drag and drop components to create auto-replies, and there’s support for things like automated NPS surveys, or rules for message routing.

As you’d expect from a company that has primarily targeted developers, Inbox.ai leverages webhooks for integration with various third-party tools used by enterprises and also comes pre-loaded with support for Shopify, Slack, Salesforce, Jira, and more. This includes the ability to have content created within Inbox.ai synced with other software used by a company for its various communication, sales and other business processes — even if over time, and for some companies, Inbox.ai may become all they need.

In a video call with MessageBird founder and CEO Robert Vis, he gave me a personal demo of Inbox.ai, including showing how quick the on-boarding process can be for a new business but also for a new customer. He had me WhatsApp a company’s support number and I could instantly see my message show up within the software and was able to send a photo to help with my request and receive other rich media in return.

Vis explained that the impetus for the new offering was his own frustration with customer support from companies in general, who, he says, haven’t adapted to the new world where customers expect to have their issues solved digitally and where it is no longer acceptable to queue for hours on hold or wait 24 hours or more for an email reply.

He says that a quick back of a napkin calculation suggests that, at the age of 35, he has already spent 2 weeks of his life on hold. He also said Inbox.ai wants to solve the continuity of support problem that typically sees customers having to re-explain their issue each time they are handed off to a different support agent or department.

“From a MessageBird perspective, we built these APIs and people [already] have the possibility to build these experiences, so why am I not living in this world?” Vis says rhetorically, after recalling a recent bad experience with his mobile telephone service provider. “I want to live in a world where I can text and have my problems easily solved… What I don’t want is for them to drop me a note into my email and then have to call them”.

So, rather than simply providing developer hooks and carrying out the infrastructure heavy-lifting, MessageBird is betting on its first user-facing product, which, I’m told, raised a few eyebrows amongst the board.

To that end, Vis told me that Inbox.ai was developed by the MessageBird team in 12 months and followed extensive research with customers, support agents and managers. Prior to launch, the software has been tested and is currently used by, HelloFresh and Deliveroo in Europe, Zilingo in Asia, and Join Buggy and Tix Telecom in Latin America.

Challenged on why nobody has really cracked this problem so far, despite a number of attempts to create a single source of customer support “truth,” Vis told me “everybody is talking about it but nobody is doing it”. That’s because you need to understand and then solve three related and difficult problems.

The first is ingesting data from all the various communication channels, for which MessageBird has previous form. The second is “experience generation”: the ability for support agents to easily communicate via rich experiences, such as images, videos, geolocation, tracking codes, discounts etc. That’s something most companies don’t have the developer resources to create, argues Vis. And thirdly is the UI, which has to allow agents to communicate and track tickets seamlessly across channels in a way that is agnostic to where those messages originate from.

“I think this is a new category, I think this is where things converge together,” adds the MessageBird CEO. “We compete with a lot of tools but we’re not any of them. We’re how we think in five years every tool is going to be”.

Mar
03
2020
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$75M legal startup Atrium shuts down, lays off 100

Justin Kan’s hybrid legal software and law firm startup Atrium is shutting down today after failing to figure out how to deliver better efficiency than a traditional law firm, the CEO tells TechCrunch exclusively. The startup has now laid off all its employees, which totaled just over 100. It will return some of its $75.5 million in funding to investors, including Series B lead Andreessen Horowitz. The separate Atrium law firm will continue to operate.

“I’m really grateful to the customers and the team members who came along with me and our investors. It’s unfortunate that this wasn’t the outcome that we wanted but we’re thankful to everyone that came with us on the journey,” said Kan. He’d previously founded Justin.tv, which pivoted to become Twitch and later sold to Amazon for $970 million. “We decided to call it and wind down the startup operations. There will be some capital returned to investors post wind-down,” Kan told me.

Atrium had attempted a pivot back in January, laying off its in-house lawyers to become a more pure software startup with better margins. Some of its lawyers formed a separate standalone legal firm and took on former Atrium clients. But Kan tells me that it was tough to regain momentum coming out of that change, which some Atrium customers tell me felt chaotic and left them unsure of their legal representation.

More layoffs quietly ensued as divisions connected to those lawyers were eliminated. But trying to build software for third-party lawyers, many of whom have entrenched processes and older leadership, proved difficult. The streamlined workflows may not have seemed worth the thrash of adopting new technology.

“If you look at our original business model with the verticalized law firm, a lot of these companies that have this kind of full stack model are not going to survive,” Kan explained. “A lot of these companies, Atrium included, did not figure out how to make a dent in operational efficiency.”

Disrupting law firms proves difficult

Founded in 2017, Atrium built software for startups to navigate fundraising, hiring, acquisition deals and collaboration with their legal team. Atrium also offered in-house lawyers that could provide counsel and best practices in these matters. The idea was that the collaboration software would make its lawyers more efficient than a traditional law firm so they could get work done faster, translating to savings for clients and Atrium.

Atrium’s software included Records, a Dropbox-esque system for keeping track of legal documents, and Hiring, which instantly generated employment offer letters based on details punched into a form while keeping track of signatures. The startup hoped it could prevent clients and lawyers from wasting time digging through email chains or missing a sign-off that could put them in legal jeopardy.

The company tried to generate client leads by hosting fundraising workshops for startups, starring Kan and his stories from growing Twitch. A charismatic leader with a near-billion-dollar exit under his belt, investors and founders alike were quick to buy into Kan’s vision and advice. Startups saw Atrium as an ally with industry expertise that could help them avoid dirty term sheets or botched hires.

But keeping a large squad of lawyers on staff proved costly. Atrium priced packages of its software and legal assistance under subscriptions, with momentous deals like acquisitions incurring add-on fees. The model relied less on milking clients with steep hourly rates measured down to six-minute increments like most law firms.

Yet eliminating the busywork for lawyers through its software didn’t materialize into bountiful profits. The pivot sought to create a professional services network where Atrium could route clients to attorneys. The layoffs had shaken faith in the startup as clients demanded stability, lest they be caught without counsel at a tough time.

Rather than trudge on, Kan decided to fold the company. The standalone Atrium law firm will continue to operate under partners Michel Narganes and Matthew Melville, but the startup developing legal software is done.

Atrium’s implosion could send ripples through the legal tech scene, and push other entrepreneurs to start with a more focused software-only approach.

Mar
01
2020
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Thought Machine nabs $83M for a cloud-based platform that powers banking services

The world of consumer banking has seen a massive shift in the last ten years. Gone are the days where you could open an account, take out a loan, or discuss changing the terms of your banking only by visiting a physical branch. Now, you can do all this and more with a few quick taps on your phone screen — a shift that has accelerated with customers expecting and demanding even faster and more responsive banking services.

As one mark of that switch, today a startup called Thought Machine, which has built cloud-based technology that powers this new generation of services on behalf of both old and new banks, is announcing some significant funding — $83 million — a Series B that the company plans to use to continue investing in its platform and growing its customer base.

To date, Thought Machine’s customers are primarily in Europe and Asia — they include large, legacy outfits like Standard Chartered, Lloyds Banking Group, and Sweden’s SEB through to “challenger” (AKA neo-) banks like Atom Bank. Some of this financing will go towards boosting the startup’s activities in the US, including opening an office in the country later this year and moving ahead with commercial deals.

The funding is being led by Draper Esprit, with participation also from existing investors Lloyds Banking Group, IQ Capital, Backed and Playfair.

Thought Machine, which started in 2014 and now employs 300, is not disclosing its valuation but Paul Taylor, the CEO and founder, noted that the market cap is currently “increasing healthily.” In its last round, according to PitchBook estimates, the company was valued at around $143 million, which, at this stage of funding, puts this latest round potentially in the range of between $220 million and $320 million.

Thought Machine is not yet profitable, mainly because it is in growth mode, said Taylor. Of note, the startup has been through one major bankruptcy restructuring, although it appears that this was mainly for organisational purposes: all assets, employees and customers from one business controlled by Taylor were acquired by another.

Thought Machine’s primary product and technology is called Vault, a platform that contains a range of banking services: checking accounts, savings accounts, loans, credit cards and mortgages. Thought Machine does not sell directly to consumers, but sells by way of a B2B2C model.

The services are provisioned by way of smart contracts, which allows Thought Machine and its banking customers to personalise, vary and segment the terms for each bank — and potentially for each customer of the bank.

Food for Thought (Machine)

It’s a little odd to think that there is an active market for banking services that are not built and owned by the banks themselves. After all, aren’t these the core of what banks are supposed to do?

But one way to think about it is in the context of eating out. Restaurants’ kitchens will often make in-house what they sell and serve. But in some cases, when it makes sense, even the best places will buy in (and subsequently sell) food that was crafted elsewhere. For example, a restaurant will re-sell cheese or charcuterie, and the wine is likely to come from somewhere else, too.

The same is the case for banks, whose “Crown Jewels” are in fact not the mechanics of their banking services, but their customer service, their customer lists, and their deposits. Better banking services (which may not have been built “in-house”) are key to growing these other three.

“There are all sorts of banks, and they are all trying to find niches,” said Taylor. Indeed, the startup is not the only one chasing that business. Others include Mambu, Temenos and Italy’s Edera.

In the case of the legacy banks that work with the startup, the idea is that these behemoths can migrate into the next generation of consumer banking services and banking infrastructure by cherry-picking services from the VaultOS platform.

“Banks have not kept up and are marooned on their own tech, and as each year goes by, it comes more problematic,” noted Taylor.

In the case of neobanks, Thought Machine’s pitch is that it has already built the rails to run a banking service, so a startup — “new challengers like Monzo and Revolut that are creating quite a lot of disruption in the market” (and are growing very quickly as a result) — can integrate into these to get off the ground more quickly and handle scaling with less complexity (and lower costs).

Money talks

Taylor was new to fintech when he founded Thought Machine, but he has a notable track record in the world of tech that you could argue played a big role in his subsequent foray into banking.

Formerly an academic specialising in linguistics and engineering, his first startup, Rhetorical Systems, commercialised some of his early speech-to-text research and was later sold to Nuance in 2004.

His second entrepreneurial effort, Phonetic Arts, was another speech startup, aimed at tech that could be used in gaming interactions. In 2010, Google approached the startup to see if it wanted to work on a new speech-to-text service it was building. It ended up acquiring Phonetic Arts, and Taylor took on the role of building and launching Google Now, with that voice tech eventually making its way to Google Maps, accessibility services, the Google Assistant and other places where you speech-based interaction makes an appearance in Google products.

While he was working for years in the field, the step changes that really accelerated voice recognition and speech technology, Taylor said, were the rapid increases in computing power and data networks that “took us over the edge” in terms of what a machine could do, specifically in the cloud.

And those are the same forces, in fact, that led to consumers being able to run our banking services from smartphone apps, and for us to want and expect more personalised services overall. Taylor’s move into building and offering a platform-based service to address the need for multiple third-party banking services follows from that, and also is the natural heir to the platform model you could argue Google and other tech companies have perfected over the years.

Draper Esprit has to date built up a strong portfolio of fintech startups that includes Revolut, N26, TransferWise and Freetrade. Thought Machine’s platform approach is an obvious complement to that list. (Taylor did not disclose if any of those companies are already customers of Thought Machine’s, but if they are not, this investment could be a good way of building inroads.)

“We are delighted to be partnering with Thought Machine in this phase of their growth,” said Vinoth Jayakumar, Investment Director, Draper Esprit, in a statement. “Our investments in Revolut and N26 demonstrate how banking is undergoing a once in a generation transformation in the technology it uses and the benefit it confers to the customers of the bank. We continue to invest in our thesis of the technology layer that forms the backbone of banking. Thought Machine stands out by way of the strength of its engineering capability, and is unique in being the only company in the banking technology space that has developed a platform capable of hosting and migrating international Tier 1 banks. This allows innovative banks to expand beyond digital retail propositions to being able to run every function and type of financial transaction in the cloud.”

“We first backed Thought Machine at seed stage in 2016 and have seen it grow from a startup to a 300-person strong global scale-up with a global customer base and potential to become one of the most valuable European fintech companies,” said Max Bautin, Founding Partner of IQ Capital, in a statement. “I am delighted to continue to support Paul and the team on this journey, with an additional £15 million investment from our £100 million Growth Fund, aimed at our venture portfolio outperformers.”

Feb
28
2020
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Notivize makes it easier for non-technical teams to optimize app notifications

A new startup called Notivize aims to give product teams direct access to one of their most important tools for increasing user engagement — notifications.

The company has been testing the product with select customers since last year and says it has already sent hundreds of thousands of notifications. And this week, it announced that it has raised $500,000 in seed funding led by Heroic Ventures.

Notivize co-founder Matt Bornski has worked at a number of startups including AppLovin and Wink, and he said he has “so many stories I can tell you about the time it takes to change a notification that’s deeply embedded in your stack.”

To be clear, Bornski isn’t talking about a simple marketing message that’s part of a scheduled campaign. Instead, he said that the “most valuable” notifications (e.g., the ones that users actually respond to) are usually driven by activity in an app.

For example, it might sound obvious to send an SMS message to a customer once the product they’ve purchased has shipped, but Bornski said that actually creating a notification like that would normally require an engineer to write new code.

“There’s the traditional way that these things are built: The product team specs out that we need to send this email when this happens, or send this SMS or notification when this happens, then the engineering team will go in and find the part of the code where they detect that such a thing has happened,” he said. “What we really want to do is give [the product team] the toolkit, and I think we have.”

Notivize rule

So with Notivize, non-coding members of the product and marketing team can write “if-then” rules that will trigger a notification. And this, Bornski said, also makes it easier to “A/B test and optimize your copy and your send times and your channels” to ensure that your notifications are as effective as possible.

He added that companies usually don’t build this for themselves, because when they’re first building an app, it’s “not a rational thing to invest your time and effort in when you’re just testing the market or you’re struggling for product market fit.” Later on, however, it can be challenging to “go in and rip out all the old stuff” — so instead, you can just take advantage of what Notivize has already built.

Bornski also emphasized that the company isn’t trying to replace services that provide the “plumbing” for notifications. Indeed, Notivize actually integrates with SendGrid and Twilio to send the notifications.

“The actual sending is not the core value [of what we do],” he said. “We’re improving the quality of what you’re paying for, of what you send.”

Notivize allows customers to send up to 100 messages per month for free. After that, pricing starts at $14.99 per month.

“The steady march of low-code and no-code solutions into the product management and marketing stack continues to unlock market velocity and product innovation,” said Heroic Ventures founder Michael Fertik in a statement. “Having been an early investor in several developer platforms, it is clear that Notivize has cracked the code on how to empower non-technical teams to manage critical yet complex product workflows.”

Feb
28
2020
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Notivize makes it easier for non-technical teams to optimize app notifications

A new startup called Notivize aims to give product teams direct access to one of their most important tools for increasing user engagement — notifications.

The company has been testing the product with select customers since last year and says it has already sent hundreds of thousands of notifications. And this week, it announced that it has raised $500,000 in seed funding led by Heroic Ventures.

Notivize co-founder Matt Bornski has worked at a number of startups including AppLovin and Wink, and he said he has “so many stories I can tell you about the time it takes to change a notification that’s deeply embedded in your stack.”

To be clear, Bornski isn’t talking about a simple marketing message that’s part of a scheduled campaign. Instead, he said that the “most valuable” notifications (e.g., the ones that users actually respond to) are usually driven by activity in an app.

For example, it might sound obvious to send an SMS message to a customer once the product they’ve purchased has shipped, but Bornski said that actually creating a notification like that would normally require an engineer to write new code.

“There’s the traditional way that these things are built: The product team specs out that we need to send this email when this happens, or send this SMS or notification when this happens, then the engineering team will go in and find the part of the code where they detect that such a thing has happened,” he said. “What we really want to do is give [the product team] the toolkit, and I think we have.”

Notivize rule

So with Notivize, non-coding members of the product and marketing team can write “if-then” rules that will trigger a notification. And this, Bornski said, also makes it easier to “A/B test and optimize your copy and your send times and your channels” to ensure that your notifications are as effective as possible.

He added that companies usually don’t build this for themselves, because when they’re first building an app, it’s “not a rational thing to invest your time and effort in when you’re just testing the market or you’re struggling for product market fit.” Later on, however, it can be challenging to “go in and rip out all the old stuff” — so instead, you can just take advantage of what Notivize has already built.

Bornski also emphasized that the company isn’t trying to replace services that provide the “plumbing” for notifications. Indeed, Notivize actually integrates with SendGrid and Twilio to send the notifications.

“The actual sending is not the core value [of what we do],” he said. “We’re improving the quality of what you’re paying for, of what you send.”

Notivize allows customers to send up to 100 messages per month for free. After that, pricing starts at $14.99 per month.

“The steady march of low-code and no-code solutions into the product management and marketing stack continues to unlock market velocity and product innovation,” said Heroic Ventures founder Michael Fertik in a statement. “Having been an early investor in several developer platforms, it is clear that Notivize has cracked the code on how to empower non-technical teams to manage critical yet complex product workflows.”

Feb
27
2020
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London-based Gyana raises $3.9M for a no-code approach to data science

Coding and other computer science expertise remain some of the more important skills that a person can have in the working world today, but in the last few years, we have also seen a big rise in a new generation of tools providing an alternative way of reaping the fruits of technology: “no-code” software, which lets anyone — technical or non-technical — build apps, games, AI-based chatbots, and other products that used to be the exclusive terrain of engineers and computer scientists.

Today, one of the newer startups in the category — London-based Gyana, which lets non-technical people run data science analytics on any structured dataset — is announcing a round of £3 million to fuel its next stage of growth.

Led by U.K. firm Fuel Ventures, other investors in this round include Biz Stone of Twitter, Green Shores Capital and U+I , and it brings the total raised by the startup to $6.8 million since being founded in 2015.

Gyana (Sanskrit for “knowledge”) was co-founded by Joyeeta Das and David Kell, who were both pursuing post-graduate degrees at Oxford: Das, a former engineer, was getting an MBA, and Kell was doing a Ph. D. in physics.

Das said the idea of building this tool came out of the fact that the pair could see a big disconnect emerging not just in their studies, but also in the world at large — not so much a digital divide, as a digital light year in terms of the distance between the groups of who and who doesn’t know how to work in the realm of data science.

“Everyone talks about using data to inform decision making, and the world becoming data-driven, but actually that proposition is available to less than one percent of the world,” she said.

Out of that, the pair decided to work on building a platform that Das describes as a way to empower “citizen data scientists,” by letting users upload any structured data set (for example, a .CSV file) and running a series of queries on it to be able to visualise trends and other insights more easily.

While the longer term goal may be for any person to be able to produce an analytical insight out of a long list of numbers, the more practical and immediate application has been in enterprise services and building tools for non-technical knowledge workers to make better, data-driven decisions.

To prove out its software, the startup first built an app based on the platform that it calls Neera (Sanskrit for “water”), which specifically parses footfall and other “human movement” metrics, useful for applications in retail, real estate and civic planning — for example to determine well certain retail locations are performing, footfall in popular locations, decisions on where to place or remove stores, or how to price a piece of property.

Starting out with the aim of mid-market and smaller companies — those most likely not to have in-house data scientists to meet their business needs — startup has already picked up a series of customers that are actually quite a lot bigger than that. They include Vodafone, Barclays, EY, Pret a Manger, Knight Frank and the UK Ministry of Defense. It says it has some £1 million in contracts with these firms currently.

That, in turn, has served as the trigger to raise this latest round of funding and to launch Vayu (Sanskrit for “air”) — a more general purpose app that covers a wider set of parameters that can be applied to a dataset. So far, it has been adopted by academic researchers, financial services employees, and others that use analysis in their work, Das said.

With both Vayu and Neera, the aim — refreshingly — is to make the whole experience as privacy-friendly as possible, Das noted. Currently, you download an app if you want to use Gyana, and you keep your data local as you work on it. Gyana has no “anonymization” and no retention of data in its processes, except things like analytics around where your cursor hovers, so that Gyana knows how it can improve its product.

“There are always ways to reverse engineer these things,” Das said of anonymization. “We just wanted to make sure that we are not accidentally creating a situation where, despite learning from anaonyised materials, you can’t reverse engineer what people are analysing. We are just not convinced.”

While there is something commendable about building and shipping a tool with a lot of potential to it, Gyana runs the risk of facing what I think of as the “water, water everywhere” problem. Sometimes if a person really has no experience or specific aim, it can be hard to think of how to get started when you can do anything. Das said they have also identified this, and so while currently Gyana already offers some tutorials and helper tools within the app to nudge the user along, the plan is to eventually bring in a large variety of datasets for people to get started with, and also to develop a more intuitive way to “read” the basics of the files in order to figure out what kinds of data inquiries a person is most likely to want to make.

The rise of “no-code” software has been a swift one in the world of tech spanning the proliferation of startups, big acquisitions, and large funding rounds. Companies like Airtable and DashDash are aimed at building analytics leaning on interfaces that follow the basic design of a spreadsheet; AppSheet, which is a no-code mobile app building platform, was recently acquired by Google; and Roblox (for building games without needing to code) and Uncorq (for app development) have both raised significant funding just this week. In the area of no-code data analytics and visualisation, there are biggies like Tableau, as well as Trifacta, RapidMiner and more.

Gartner predicts that by 2024, some 65% of all app development will be made on low- or no-code platforms, and Forrester estimates that the no- and low-code market will be worth some $10 billion this year, rising to $21.2 billion by 2024.

That represents a big business opportunity for the likes of Gyana, which has been unique in using the no-code approach specifically to tackle the area of data science.

However, in the spirit of citizen data scientists, the intention is to keep a consumer version of the apps free to use as it works on signing up enterprise users with more enhanced paid products, which will be priced on an annual license basis (currently clients are paying between $6,000 and $12,000 depending on usage, she said).

“We want to do free for as long as we can,” Das said, both in relation to the data tools and the datasets that it will offer to users. “The biggest value add is not about accessing premium data that is hard to get. We are not a data marketplace but we want to provide data that makes sense to access,” adding that even with business users, “we’d like you to do 90% of what you want to do without paying for anything.”

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