Jan
28
2021
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Hong Kong startup ICW eyes supply chain diversification demand amid trade war

For American importers, finding suppliers these days can be challenging not only due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. The U.S. government’s entity list designations, human-rights-related sanctions, among other trade blacklists targeting Chinese firms have also rattled U.S. supply chains.

One young company called International Compliance Workshop, or ICW, is determined to make sourcing easier for companies around the world as it completed a fresh round of funding. The Hong Kong-based startup has just raised $5.75 million as part of its Series A round, boosting its total funding to around $10 million, co-founder and CEO Garry Lam told TechCrunch.

ICW works like a matchmaker for suppliers and buyers, but unlike existing options like Alibaba’s B2B platform or international trade shows, ICW also vets suppliers over compliance, product quality and accreditation. It gathers all that information into its growing database of over 40,000 suppliers — 80% of which are currently in China — and recommends them to customers based on individual needs.

Founded in 2016, ICW’s current client base includes some of the world’s largest retailers, including Ralph Lauren, Prenatal Retail Group, Blokker, Kmart and a major American pharmacy chain that declined to be named.

ICW’s latest funding round was led by Infinity Ventures Partners with participation from Integrated Capital and existing investors MindWorks Capital and the Hong Kong government’s $2 billion Innovation and Technology Venture Fund.

Supply chain shift

In line with the ongoing shift of sourcing outside China, in part due to the U.S.-China trade war and China’s growing labor costs, ICW has seen more customers diversifying their supply chains. But the transition has limitations in the short run.

“It’s still very difficult to find suppliers of certain product categories, for example, Bluetooth devices and power banks, in other countries,” observed Lam. “But for garment and textile, the transition already began to happen a decade ago.”

In Southeast Asia, which has been replacing a great deal of Chinese manufacturing activity, each country has its slight specialization. Whereas Vietnam abounds with wooden furniture suppliers, Thailand is known for plastic goods and Malaysia is a good source for medical supplies, said Lam.

When it comes to trickier compliance burdens, such as human rights sanctions, ICW relies on third-party certification institutes to screen and verify suppliers.

“There is a [type of] qualification standard that verifies whether a supplier has fulfilled its corporate social responsibility … like whether the factory fulfills the labor law, the minimum labor rights or the payroll, everything,” Lam explained.

ICW plans to use the fresh proceeds to further develop its products, including its compliance management system, product testing platform and B2B-sourcing site.

Oct
19
2020
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The OpenStack Foundation becomes the Open Infrastructure Foundation

This has been a long time coming, but the OpenStack Foundation today announced that it is changing its name to “Open Infrastructure Foundation,” starting in 2021.

The announcement, which the foundation made at its virtual developer conference, doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. Over the course of the last few years, the organization started adding new projects that went well beyond the core OpenStack project, and renamed its conference to the “Open Infrastructure Summit.” The organization actually filed for the “Open Infrastructure Foundation” trademark back in April.

Image Credits: OpenStack Foundation

After years of hype, the open-source OpenStack project hit a bit of a wall in 2016, as the market started to consolidate. The project itself, which helps enterprises run their private cloud, found its niche in the telecom space, though, and continues to thrive as one of the world’s most active open-source projects. Indeed, I regularly hear from OpenStack vendors that they are now seeing record sales numbers — despite the lack of hype. With the project being stable, though, the Foundation started casting a wider net and added additional projects like the popular Kata Containers runtime and CI/CD platform Zuul.

“We are officially transitioning and becoming the Open Infrastructure Foundation,” long-term OpenStack Foundation executive president Jonathan Bryce told me. “That is something that I think is an awesome step that’s built on the success that our community has spawned both within projects like OpenStack, but also as a movement […], which is [about] how do you give people choice and control as they build out digital infrastructure? And that is, I think, an awesome mission to have. And that’s what we are recognizing and acknowledging and setting up for another decade of doing that together with our great community.”

In many ways, it’s been more of a surprise that the organization waited as long as it did. As the foundation’s COO Mark Collier told me, the team waited because it wanted to be sure that it did this right.

“We really just wanted to make sure that all the stuff we learned when we were building the OpenStack community and with the community — that started with a simple idea of ‘open source should be part of cloud, for infrastructure.’ That idea has just spawned so much more open source than we could have imagined. Of course, OpenStack itself has gotten bigger and more diverse than we could have imagined,” Collier said.

As part of today’s announcement, the group also announced that its board approved four new members at its Platinum tier, its highest membership level: Ant Group, the Alibaba affiliate behind Alipay, embedded systems specialist Wind River, China’s FiberHome (which was previously a Gold member) and Facebook Connectivity. These companies will join the new foundation in January. To become a Platinum member, companies must contribute $350,000 per year to the foundation and have at least two full-time employees contributing to its projects.

“If you look at those companies that we have as Platinum members, it’s a pretty broad set of organizations,” Bryce noted. “AT&T, the largest carrier in the world. And then you also have a company Ant, who’s the largest payment processor in the world and a massive financial services company overall — over to Ericsson, that does telco, Wind River, that does defense and manufacturing. And I think that speaks to that everybody needs infrastructure. If we build a community — and we successfully structure these communities to write software with a goal of getting all of that software out into production, I think that creates so much value for so many people: for an ecosystem of vendors and for a great group of users and a lot of developers love working in open source because we work with smart people from all over the world.”

The OpenStack Foundation’s existing members are also on board and Bryce and Collier hinted at several new members who will join soon but didn’t quite get everything in place for today’s announcement.

We can probably expect the new foundation to start adding new projects next year, but it’s worth noting that the OpenStack project continues apace. The latest of the project’s bi-annual releases, dubbed “Victoria,” launched last week, with additional Kubernetes integrations, improved support for various accelerators and more. Nothing will really change for the project now that the foundation is changing its name — though it may end up benefitting from a reenergized and more diverse community that will build out projects at its periphery.

Sep
09
2020
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Xometry raises $75M Series E to expand custom manufacturing marketplace

When companies need to find manufacturers to build custom parts, it’s not always an easy process, especially during a pandemic. Xometry, a seven-year-old startup based in Maryland, has built an online marketplace where companies can find manufacturers across the world with excess capacity to build whatever they need. Today, the company announced a $75 million Series E investment to keep expanding the platform.

T. Rowe Price Associates led the investment, with participation from new firms Durable Capital Partners LP and ArrowMark Partners. Previous investors also joined the round, including BMW i Ventures, Greenspring Associates, Dell Technologies Capital, Robert Bosch Venture Capital, Foundry Group, Highland Capital Partners and Almaz Capital . Today’s investment brings the total raised to $193 million, according to the company.

Company CEO and co-founder Randy Altschuler says Xometry fills a need by providing a digital way of putting buyers and manufacturers together with a dash of artificial intelligence to put the right combination together. “We’ve created a marketplace using artificial intelligence to power it, and provide an e-commerce experience for buyers of custom manufacturing and for suppliers to deliver that manufacturing,” Altschuler told TechCrunch.

The kind of custom pieces that are facilitated by this platform include mechanical parts for aerospace, defense, automotive, robotics and medical devices — what Altschuler calls mission-critical parts. Being able to put companies together in this fashion is particularly useful during COVID-19 when certain regions might have been shut down.

“COVID has reinforced the need for distributed manufacturing and our platform enables that by empowering these local manufacturers, and because we’re using technology to do it, as COVID has unfolded […] and as continents have shut down, and even specific states in the United States have shut down, our platform has allowed customers to autocorrect and shift work to other locations,” he explained

What’s more, companies could take advantage of the platform to manufacture critical personal protective equipment. “One of the beauties of our platform was when COVID hit customers could come to our platform and suddenly access this tremendous amount of manufacturing capacity to produce this much-needed PPE,” he said.

Xometry makes money by facilitating the sale between the buyer and producer. They help set the price and then make money on the difference between the cost to produce and how much the buyer was willing to pay to have it done.

They have relationships with 5,000 manufacturers located throughout the world and 30,000 customers using the platform to build the parts they need. The company currently has around 350 employees, with plans to use the money to add more to keep enhancing the platform.

Altschuler says from a human perspective, he wants his company to have a diverse workforce because he never wants to see people being discriminated against for whatever reason, but he also says as a company with an international market, having a diverse workforce is also critical to his business. “The more diversity that we have within Xometry, the more we’re able to effectively market to those folks, sell to those folks and understand how they utilize technology. We’re just going to better understand our customer set as we [build a more diverse workforce],” he said.

As a Series E-stage company, Altschuler does not shy away from the IPO question. In fact, he recently brought in new CFO Jim Rallo, who has experience taking a company public. “The market that we operate in is so large, and there’s so many opportunities for us to serve both our customers and our suppliers, and we have to be great for both of them. We need capital to do that, and the public markets can be an efficient way to access that capital and to grow our business, and in the end that’s what we want to do,” he said.

May
29
2020
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How startups can leverage elastic services for cost optimization

Due to COVID-19, business continuity has been put to the test for many companies in the manufacturing, agriculture, transport, hospitality, energy and retail sectors. Cost reduction is the primary focus of companies in these sectors due to massive losses in revenue caused by this pandemic. The other side of the crisis is, however, significantly different.

Companies in industries such as medical, government and financial services, as well as cloud-native tech startups that are providing essential services, have experienced a considerable increase in their operational demands — leading to rising operational costs. Irrespective of the industry your company belongs to, and whether your company is experiencing reduced or increased operations, cost optimization is a reality for all companies to ensure a sustained existence.

One of the most reliable measures for cost optimization at this stage is to leverage elastic services designed to grow or shrink according to demand, such as cloud and managed services. A modern product with a cloud-native architecture can auto-scale cloud consumption to mitigate lost operational demand. What may not have been obvious to startup leaders is a strategy often employed by incumbent, mature enterprises — achieving cost optimization by leveraging managed services providers (MSPs). MSPs enable organizations to repurpose full-time staff members from impacted operations to more strategic product lines or initiatives.

Why companies need cost optimization in the long run

May
07
2020
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Dtex, a specialist in insider threat cybersecurity, raises $17.5M

A lot of enterprise cybersecurity efforts focus on malicious hackers that work on behalf of larger organizations, be they criminal groups or state actors — and for good reason, since the majority of incidents these days come from phishing and other malicious techniques that originate outside the enterprise itself.

But there has also been a persistent, and now growing, focus also on “insider threats” — that is, breaches that start from within organizations themselves. And today a startup that specialises in this area is announcing a round of growth funding to expand its reach.

Dtex, which uses machine learning to monitor network activity within the perimeter and around all endpoints to detect unusual patterns or behaviour around passwords, data movement and other network activities, is today announcing that it has raised $17.5 million in funding.

The round is being led by new investor Northgate Capital with Norwest Venture Partners and Four Rivers Group, both previous investors, also participating. Prior to this, the San Jose-based startup had raised $57.5 million, according to data from PitchBook, while CrunchBase puts the total raised at $40 million.

CEO Bahman Mahbod said the startup is not disclosing valuation except to say that it’s “very excited” about it.

For some context, the company works with hundreds of large enterprises, primarily in the financial, critical infrastructure, government and defence sectors. The plan is to now extend further into newer verticals where it’s started to see more activity more recently: pharmaceuticals, life sciences and manufacturing. Dtex says that over the past 12 months, 80% of its top customers have been increasing their level of engagement with the startup.

Dtex’s focus on “insider” threats sounds slightly sinister at first. Is the implication here that people are more dishonest and nefarious these days and thus need to be policed and monitored much more closely for wrongdoing? The answer is no. There are no more dishonest people today than there ever have been, but there are a lot more opportunities to make mistakes that result in security breaches.

The working world has been on a long-term trend of becoming increasingly digitised in all of its interactions, and bringing on a lot more devices onto those networks. Across both “knowledge” and front-line workers, we now have a vastly larger number of devices being used to help workers do their jobs or just keep in touch with the company as they work, with many of them being brought by the workers themselves rather than being provisioned by the companies. There has also been a huge increase in cloud services,

And in the realm of “knowledge” workers, we’re seeing a lot more remote or peripatetic working, where people don’t have fixed desks and often work outside the office altogether — something that has skyrocketed in recent times with stay-at-home orders put in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 cases.

All of this translates into a much wider threat “horizon” within organizations themselves, before even considering the sophistication of external malicious hackers.

And the current state of business has exacerbated that. Mahbod tells us that Dtex is currently seeing spikes in unusual activity from the rise in home workers, who sometimes circumvent VPNs and other security controls, thus committing policy violations; as well as more problems arising from the fact that home networks have been compromised and that is leaving work networks, accessed from home, more vulnerable. These started, he said, with COVID-19 phishing attacks but have progressed to undetected malware from drive-by downloads.

And, inevitably, he added that there has been a rise in intentional data theft and accidental loss arising in cases where organizations have had to lay people off or run a round of furloughs, but might still result from negligence rather than intentional actions.

There are a number of other cybersecurity companies that provide ways to detect insider threats — they include CloudKnox and Obsidian Security, along with a number of larger and established vendors. But Mabhod says that Dtex “is the only company with ‘next-generation’ capabilities that are cloud-first, AI/ML baked-in, and enterprise scalable to millions of users and devices, which it sells as DMAP+.

“Effectively, Next-Gen Insider Threat solutions must replace legacy Insider Threat point solutions which were borne out of the UAM, DLP and UEBA spaces,” he said.

Those providing legacy approaches of that kind include Forcepoint with its SureView product and Proofpoint with its ObserveIT product. Interestingly, CyberX, which is currently in the process of getting acquired by Microsoft (according to reports and also our sources), also includes insider threats in its services.

This is one reason why investors have been interested.

“Dtex has built a highly scalable platform that utilizes a cloud-first, lightweight endpoint architecture, offering clients a number of use cases including insider threat prevention and business operations intelligence,” said Thorsten Claus, partner, Northgate Capital, in a statement. Northgate has a long list of enterprise startups in its portfolio that represent potential customers but also a track record of experience in assessing the problem at hand and building products to address it. “With Dtex, we have found a fast-growing, long-term, investible operation that is not just a band-aid collection of tools, which would be short-lived and replaced.”

Apr
07
2020
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WorkClout shifts focus to manufacturing performance support and raises $2.3M seed

WorkClout, a graduate of the Y Combinator Winter 2019 cohort, announced today that it has shifted its focus from manufacturing automation to manufacturing performance support and has raised a $2.3 million seed round.

The funding was led by Spider Capital with participation from Y Combinator, Liquid 2, Soma Capital, Pioneer Fund, Mehta Ventures and several individual investors.

When the company launched last year, it was looking at helping customers drive operational efficiency in their processes, but WorkClout founder and CEO Arjun Patel says they were seeing that there was a ceiling in terms of how much efficiency they could squeeze out of work processes using software.

At that point, Patel decided to take a step back and do some research to figure out how WorkClout could best help manufacturing customers with its software-based solutions. After surveying 124 manufacturers, he says that he realized that these companies really needed help training front-line workers, an area he says is called performance support.

“We found that most of the companies were saying that employees are the biggest challenge that they have to face in terms of how to engage them better or how to empower them better, because ultimately they realize people, even if there is automation, are still the driving force for a lot of sectors,” Patel told TechCrunch.

Towards the end of last year, the company built a new tool to help customers train employees for complex front-line tasks. The workers might have a phone or tablet, which shows them how to complete each task, and gives them feedback as they move through a set of tasks. It also enables these workers to communicate with one another and with management about issues they are seeing on the line. Managers can monitor communication and see how workers are doing on a back-end system in the office.

“We gave them the ability to allow employees to capture and share critical information in real time on the factory floor, where the goal is to actually create standardized multimedia and training content for machines, processes and stations, allowing new and existing employees to get better insight into their work, and at the same time, allowing employees to communicate better about problems on the floor and reduce downtime,” he explained.

Patel recognizes that this is a difficult time to pivot, but says he believes it puts the company in a better position to succeed in the long term. He has cut the team from nine to five employees in an effort to run lean for the short term.

He hopes to begin hiring again in the fourth quarter this year or, at the latest, by Q1 next year. He plans to use that time to build out the product and prepare for a big go-to market push whenever the economy begins to rebound.

He sees this money giving him a long runway of 2.5 years with the company’s current burn and revenue rates, and that should give him enough time to wait out the current economic downturn.

Dec
17
2019
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Odoo grabs $90M to sell more SMEs on its business app suite

Belgium-based all-in-one business software maker Odoo, which offers an open source version as well as subscription-based enterprise software and SaaS, has taken in $90 million led by a new investor: Global growth equity investor Summit Partners.

The funds have been raised via a secondary share sale. Odoo’s executive management team and existing investor SRIW and its affiliate Noshaq also participated in the share sale by buying stock — with VC firms Sofinnova and XAnge selling part of their shares to Summit Partners and others.

Odoo is largely profitable and grows at 60% per year with an 83% gross margin product; so, we don’t need to raise money,” a spokeswoman told us. “Our bottleneck is not the cash but the recruitment of new developers, and the development of the partner network.

“What’s unusual in the deal is that existing managers, instead of cashing out, purchased part of the shares using a loan with banks.”

The 2005-founded company — which used to go by the name of OpenERP before transitioning to its current open core model in 2015 — last took in a $10M Series B back in 2014, per Crunchbase.

Odoo offers some 30 applications via its Enterprise platform — including ERP, accounting, stock, manufacturing, CRM, project management, marketing, human resources, website, eCommerce and point-of-sale apps — while a community of ~20,000 active members has contributed 16,000+ apps to the open source version of its software, addressing a broader swathe of business needs.

It focuses on the SME business apps segment, competing with the likes of Oracle, SAP and Zoho, to name a few. Odoo says it has in excess of 4.5 million users worldwide at this point, and touts revenue growth “consistently above 50% over the last ten years”.

Summit Partners told us funds from the secondary sale will be used to accelerate product development — and for continued global expansion.

“In our experience, traditional ERP is expensive and frequently fails to adapt to the unique needs of dynamic businesses. With its flexible suite of applications and a relentless focus on product, we believe Odoo is ideally positioned to capture this large and compelling market opportunity,” said Antony Clavel, a Summit Partners principal who has joined the Odoo board, in a supporting statement.

Odoo’s spokeswoman added that part of the expansion plan includes opening an office in Mexico in January, and another in Antwerpen, Belgium, in Q3.

This report was updated with additional comment

Sep
16
2019
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Salesforce doubles down on verticals, launches Manufacturing and Consumer Goods Clouds

As legacy industries make the migration to cloud-based digital solutions to run and grow their businesses, Salesforce is hoping that it will get a cut of the action when it comes to their IT investments. The CRM giant has been doubling down on building specialised solutions for individual industry verticals, and today, it is unveiling new business units dedicated to not one but two of them: manufacturing and consumer goods.

The Manufacturing Cloud and Consumer Goods Cloud, as the two new products are called, are the latest in a list of other vertical-specific products the company has created. Other verticals targeted to date include finance, healthcare, media, nonprofits and retail.

The idea behind Salesforce’s strategy to build industry-specific solutions is that while the CRM and sales processes that go into manufacturing and consumer goods do have some aspects in common with other industries, both also have relatively specific requirements, too, around how sales are agreed and clients are managed.

In the case of manufacturing and consumer goods, both are capital-intensive businesses where those working on the physical products might be very removed from those working on sales (not just in terms of job functions, but in terms of the software that’s used to manage each operation), or those who are in the field who are helping to distribute those goods to the people ultimately selling them.

“In the manufacturing industry, changing customer and market demands can have a devastating effect on the bottom line, so being able to understand what is happening on the ground is imperative for success,” said Cindy Bolt, SVP and GM, Salesforce Manufacturing, in a statement. “Manufacturing Cloud bridges the gap between sales and operations teams while ensuring more predictive and transparent business, so they can build deeper and more trusted relationships with their customers.”

In both the cases of manufacturing and consumer goods, Salesforce is not creating these services out of thin air: the company had already been touting solutions for both sectors as part of its bigger push into specific industries. Past acquisitions of companies like Steelbrick — a specialist in quote-to-cash solutions, a cornerstone of how manufacturing sales are made — are likely to have played a contributing role in how the new clouds were built.

With the Manufacturing Cloud, Salesforce says that it has included a feature for sales agreements that link up with a company’s ERP and forecasting software to be able to better predict demand from individual customers as well as the wider market. The services are also coming with more analytical insights by way of Einstein Analytics, and more functionality to work with channel partners. Third parties working with Salesforce on joint solutions using Marketing Cloud include Acumen Solutions, Deloitte and Rootstock.

The Consumer Goods Cloud has some parallel with the Manufacturing Cloud, in that both are targeting businesses that are by their nature and by legacy very rooted in physical goods and are therefore not easily “disrupted” by digital innovation. Indeed, despite all that we hear about the might of Amazon and e-commerce, a full 95% of products are still sold in physical stores. That system has a lot of drawbacks, not least of them being challenges with consumer goods brands having accurate control over how products are distributed and ultimately sold.

“Retail execution remains one of the most important pieces of a consumer goods brands strategy, but so much opportunity is wasted if the field rep doesn’t have the data and technology needed to make smart decisions,” said John Strain, GM and SVP, Retail and Consumer Goods at Salesforce, in a statement. “Consumer Goods Cloud provides these field reps with the tools they need to be successful on the ground while helping build both business opportunities and stronger relationships with their retail partners.”

The company, citing research from PwC, claims that of the $200 billion that’s spent in the U.S. by consumer goods companies each year on merchandising, marketing and sales efforts for in-store sales, some $100 billion of that spend is never used in the way it was originally intended. (That’s one reason so many consumer goods companies have jumped into social media: it’s a way of connecting better and more directly, at least with the customers.)

That represents a huge area to tackle for a company likes Salesforce, and the Consumer Goods Cloud is the start of that effort. The product covers software that addresses areas optimising visits to stores, improving relationships with retailers, using Einstein insights for analytics and ordering software. Partners in the effort include Accenture and PwC.

Another important thing to note here is that Salesforce’s move into the area comes as a competitive strike: Not only are there companies out there that have built products specifically for these markets — Sysco for consumer goods, and Atlatl Software for manufacturing, for example — but Salesforce has to contend with general rivals such as Microsoft and SAP also targeting the same potential customers.

As of last quarter, Sales Cloud now accounts for more than one-quarter of Salesforce’s revenues, but today’s news underscores how “sales” is becoming a more complex and nuanced topic for the company as its business continues to grow, and as cloud-based digital processes become ever more ubiquitous across all sectors beyond simply knowledge workers. As Salesforce builds out more solutions to meet every kind of enterprise’s needs, it’s likely there will be more vertical-specific tools making their way to the platform.

Aug
15
2019
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How Facebook does IT

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG 20190702 125344

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jul
31
2019
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Calling all hardware startups! Apply to Hardware Battlefield @ TC Shenzhen

Got hardware? Well then, listen up, because our search continues for boundary-pushing, early-stage hardware startups to join us in Shenzhen, China for an epic opportunity; launch your startup on a global stage and compete in Hardware Battlefield at TC Shenzhen on November 11-12.

Apply here to compete in TC Hardware Battlefield 2019. Why? It’s your chance to demo your product to the top investors and technologists in the world. Hardware Battlefield, cousin to Startup Battlefield, focuses exclusively on innovative hardware because, let’s face it, it’s the backbone of technology. From enterprise solutions to agtech advancements, medical devices to consumer product goods — hardware startups are in the international spotlight.

If you make the cut, you’ll compete against 15 of the world’s most innovative hardware makers for bragging rights, plenty of investor love, media exposure and $25,000 in equity-free cash. Just participating in a Battlefield can change the whole trajectory of your business in the best way possible.

We chose to bring our fifth Hardware Battlefield to Shenzhen because of its outstanding track record of supporting hardware startups. The city achieves this through a combination of accelerators, rapid prototyping and world-class manufacturing. What’s more, TC Hardware Battlefield 2019 takes place as part of the larger TechCrunch Shenzhen that runs November 9-12.

Creativity and innovation no know boundaries, and that’s why we’re opening this competition to any early-stage hardware startup from any country. While we’ve seen amazing hardware in previous Battlefields — like robotic armsfood testing devicesmalaria diagnostic tools, smart socks for diabetics and e-motorcycles, we can’t wait to see the next generation of hardware, so bring it on!

Meet the minimum requirements listed below, and we’ll consider your startup:

Here’s how Hardware Battlefield works. TechCrunch editors vet every qualified application and pick 15 startups to compete. Those startups receive six rigorous weeks of free coaching. Forget stage fright. You’ll be prepped and ready to step into the spotlight.

Teams have six minutes to pitch and demo their products, which is immediately followed by an in-depth Q&A with the judges. If you make it to the final round, you’ll repeat the process in front of a new set of judges.

The judges will name one outstanding startup the Hardware Battlefield champion. Hoist the Battlefield Cup, claim those bragging rights and the $25,000. This nerve-wracking thrill-ride takes place in front of a live audience, and we capture the entire event on video and post it to our global audience on TechCrunch.

Hardware Battlefield at TC Shenzhen takes place on November 11-12. Don’t hide your hardware or miss your chance to show us — and the entire tech world — your startup magic. Apply to compete in TC Hardware Battlefield 2019, and join us in Shenzhen!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Hardware Battlefield at TC Shenzhen? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

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