May
22
2019
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Zendesk acquires Smooch, doubles down on support via messaging apps like WhatsApp

One of the bigger developments in customer services has been the impact of social media — both as a place to vent frustration or praise (mostly frustration) and — especially over messaging apps — as a place for businesses to connect with their users.

Now, customer support specialist Zendesk has made an acquisition so that it can make a bigger move into how it works within social media platforms, and specifically messaging apps: it has acquired Smooch, a startup that describes itself as an “omnichannel messaging platform,” which companies’ customer care teams can use to interact with people over messaging platforms like WhatsApp, WeChat, Line and Messenger, as well as SMS and email.

Smooch was in fact one of the first partners for the WhatsApp Business API, alongside VoiceSage, Nexmo, Infobip, Twilio, MessageBird and others already advertising their services in this area.

It had also been a longtime partner of Zendesk’s, powering the company’s own WhatsApp Business integration and other features. The two already have some customers in common, including Uber. Other Smooch customers include Four Seasons, SXSW, Betterment, Clarabridge, Harry’s, LVMH, Delivery Hero and BarkBox.

Terms of the deal are not being disclosed, but Zendesk SVP  class=”il”>Shawna Wolverton said in an interview that the startup’s entire team of 48, led by co-founder and CEO Warren Levitan, are being offered positions with Zendesk. Smooch is based out of Montreal, Canada — so this represents an expansion for Zendesk into building an office in Canada.

Its backers included iNovia, TA Associates and Real Ventures, who collectively had backed it with less than $10 million (when you leave the inflated hills surrounding Silicon Valley, numbers magically decline). As Zendesk is publicly traded, we may get more of a picture of the price in future quarterly reports. This is the company’s fifth acquisition to date.

The deal underscores the big impact that messaging apps are making in customer service. While phone and internet are massive points of contact, messaging apps is one of the most-requested features Zendesk’s customers are requesting, “because they want to be where their customers are,” with WhatsApp — now at 1.5 billion users — currently at the top of the pile, Wolverton said. (More than half of Zendesk’s revenues are from outside the U.S., which speaks to why WhatsApp — which is bigger outside the U..S than it is in it — is a popular request.)

That’s partly a by-product of how popular messaging apps are full-stop, with more than 75% of all smartphone users having at least one messaging app in use on their devices.

“We live in a messaging-centric world, and customers expect the convenience and interactivity of messaging to be part of their experiences,” said Mikkel Svane, Zendesk founder, CEO and chairman, in a statement. “As long-time partners with Smooch, we know first hand how much they have advanced the conversational experience to bring together all forms of messaging and create a continuous conversation between customers and businesses.”

While the two companies were already working together, the acquisition will mean a closer integration.

That will be in multiple areas. Last year, Zendesk launched a new CRM play called Sunshine, going head to head with the likes of Salesforce in helping businesses better organise and make use of customer data. Smooch will build on that strategy to bring in data to Sunshine from messaging apps and the interactions that take place on them. Also last year, Zendesk launched an omnichannel play, a platform called The Suite, which it says “has become one of our most successful products ever,” with a 400% rise in its customers taking an omnichannel approach. Smooch already forms a key part of that, and it will be even more tightly so.

On the outbound side, for now, there will be two areas where Smooch will be used, Wolverton said. First will be on the basic level of giving Zendesk users the ability to see and create messaging app discussions within a dashboard where they are able to monitor and handle all customer relationship contacts: a conversation that was initiated now on, say, Twitter, can be easily moved into WhatsApp or whatever more direct channel someone wants to use.

Second, Wolverton said that customer care workers can use Smooch to send on “micro apps” to users to handle routine service enquiries, for example sending them links to make or change seat assignments on a flight.

Over time, the plan will be to bring more automated options into the experience, which opens the door for using more AI and potentially bots down the line.

Apr
09
2019
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PubNub nabs $23M as its IaaS network hits 1.3T messages sent each month

There’s been a huge increase in the last decade of applications and services that rely on real-time notifications and other alerts as a core part of how they operate, and today one of the companies that powers those notifications is announcing a growth round. PubNub — an infrastructure-as-a-service provider that provides a real-time network to send and manage messaging traffic between companies, between companies and apps and between internet-of-things devices — has raised $23 million in a Series D round of funding to ramp up its business internationally, with an emphasis on emerging markets.

The round adds another strategic investor to PubNub’s cap table: Hewlett Packard Enterprise is coming on as an investor, joining in this round previous backers Sapphire Ventures (backed by SAP), Relay Ventures, Scale Venture Partners, Cisco Investments, Bosch and Ericsson.

Todd Greene, the CEO of PubNub (who co-founded it with Stephen Blum), said the startup is not disclosing its valuation with this round except to say that “we are happy with it, and it’s a solid increase on where we were the last time.” That, according to PitchBook, was just under $155 million back in 2016 in a small extension to its Series C round. The company has raised around $70 million to date.

PubNub’s growth — along with that of competing companies and technologies, which includes the likes of Pusher, RabbitMQ, Google’s Firebase and others — has come alongside the emergence of a number of use cases built on the premise of real-time notifications. These include a multitude of apps; for example, for on-demand commerce (e.g. ride hailing and online food ordering), medical services, entertainment services, IoT systems and more.

That’s pushed PubNub to a new milestone of enabling some 1.3 trillion messages per month for customers that include the likes of Peloton, Atlassian, athenahealth, JustEat, Swiggy, Yelp, the Sacramento Kings and Gett, who choose from some 70 SDKs to tailor what kinds of notifications and actions are triggered around their specific services.

Greene said that while some of the bigger services in the world have largely built their own messaging platforms to manage their notifications — Uber, for example, has taken this route — that process can result in “death by 1,000 paper cuts,” in Greene’s words. Others will opt for a PubNub-style alternative from the start.

“About 50 percent of our customers started by building themselves and then got to scale, and then decided to turn to PubNub,” Greene said.

It’s analogous to the same kind of decision businesses make regarding public cloud infrastructure: whether it makes sense to build and operate their own servers, or turn to a third-party provider — a decision that PubNub itself ironically is also in the process of contemplating.

Today the company runs its own business as an overlay on the public cloud, using a mixture of AWS and others, Greene said — the company has partnerships with Microsoft Azure, AWS, and IBM Watson — but “every year we evaluate the benefits of going into different kinds of data centres and interesting opportunities there. We are evaluating a cost and performance calculation,” he added.

And while he didn’t add it, that could potentially become an exit opportunity for PubNub down the line, too, aligning with a cloud provider that wanted to offer messaging infrastructure-as-a-service as an additional feature to customers.

The strategic relationship with its partners, in fact, is one of the engines for this latest investment. “Edge computing and realtime technologies will be at the heart of the next wave of technology innovation,” commented Vishal Lall, COO of Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, said in a statement. “PubNub’s global Data Stream Network has demonstrated extensive accomplishments powering both enterprise and consumer solutions. HPE is thrilled to be investing in PubNub’s fast-growing success, and to accelerate the commercial and industrial applications of PubNub’s real time platform.”

Feb
27
2019
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Threads emerges from stealth with $10.5M from Sequoia for a new take on enabling work conversations

The rapid rise of Slack has ushered in a new wave of apps, all aiming to solve one challenge: creating a user-friendly platform where coworkers can have productive conversations. Many of these are based around real-time notifications and “instant” messaging, but today a new startup called Threads coming out of stealth to address the other side of the coin: a platform for asynchronous communication that is less time-sensitive, and creating coherent narratives out of those conversations.

Armed with $10.5 million in funding led by Sequoia, the company is launching a beta of its service today.

Rousseau Kazi, the startup’s CEO who co-founded threads with Jon McCord, Mark Rich and Suman Venkataswamy, cut his social teeth working for six years at Facebook (with a resulting number of patents to his name around the mechanics of social networking), says that the mission of Threads is to become more inclusive when it comes to online conversations.

“After a certain number of people get involved in an online discussion, conversations just break and messaging becomes chaotic,” he said. (McCord and Rich are also Facebook engineering alums, while Venkataswamy is a Bright Roll alum.)

And if you have ever used Twitter, or even been in a popular channel in Slack, you will understand what he is talking about. When too many people begin to talk, the conversation gets very noisy and it can mean losing the “thread” of what is being discussed, and seeing conversation lurch from one topic to another, often losing track of important information in the process.

There is an argument to be made for whether a platform that was built for real-time information is capable of handling a difference kind of cadence. Twitter, as it happens, is trying to figure that out right now. Slack, meanwhile, has itself introduced threaded comments to try to address this too — although the practical application of its own threading feature is not actually very user friendly.

Threads’ answer is to view its purpose as addressing the benefit of “asynchronous” conversation.

To start, those who want to start threads first register as organizations on the platform. Then, those who are working on a project or in a specific team creates a “space” for themselves within that org. You can then start threads within those spaces. And when a problem has been solved or the conversation has come to a conclusion, the last comment gets marked as the conclusion.

The idea is that topics and conversations that can stretch out over hours, days or even longer, around specific topics. Threads doeesn’t want to be the place you go for red alerts or urgent requests, but where you go when you have thoughts about a work-related subject and how to tackle it.

These resulting threads, when completed or when in progress, can in turn be looked at as straight conversations, or as annotated narratives.

For now, it’s up to users themselves to annotate what might be important to highlight for readers, although when I asked him, Kazi told me he would like to incorporate over time more features that might use natural language processing to summarize and pull out what might be worth following up or looking at if you only want to skim read a longer conversation. Ditto the ability to search threads. Right now it’s all based around keywords but you can imagine a time when more sophisticated and nuanced searches to surface conversations relevant to what you might be looking for.

Indeed, in this initial launch, the focus is all about what you want to say on Threads itself — not lots of bells and whistles, and not trying to compete against the likes of Slack, or Workplace (Facebook’s effort in this space), or Yammer or Teams from Microsoft, or any of the others in the messaging mix.

There are no integrations of other programs to bring data into Threads from other places, but there is a Slack integration in the other direction: you can create an alert there so that you know when someone has updated a Thread.

“We don’t view ourselves as a competitor to Slack,” Kazi said. “Slack is great for transactional conversation but for asynchronous chats, we thought there was a need for this in the market. We wanted something to address that.”

It may not be a stated competitor, but Threads actually has something in common with Slack: the latter launched with the purpose of enabling a certain kind of conversation between co-workers in a way that was easier to consume and engage with than email.

You could argue that Threads has the same intention: email chains, especially those with multiple parties, can also be hard to follow and are in any case often very messy to look at: something that the conversations in Threads also attempt to clear up.

But email is not the only kind of conversation medium that Threads thinks it can replace.

“With in-person meetings there is a constant tension between keeping the room small for efficiency and including more people for transparency,” said Sequoia partner Mike Vernal in a statement. “When we first started chatting with the team about what is now Threads, we saw an opportunity to get rid of this false dichotomy by making decision-making both more efficient and more inclusive. We’re thrilled to be partnering with Threads to make work more inclusive.” Others in the round include Eventbrite CEO Julia Hartz, GV’s Jessica Verrilli, Minted CEO Mariam Naficy, and TaskRabbit CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot.

The startup was actually formed in 2017, and for months now it has been running a closed, private version of the service to test it out with a small amount of users. So far, the company sizes have ranged between 5 and 60 employees, Kazi tells me.

“By using Threads as our primary communications platform, we’ve seen incredible progress streamlining our operations,” said one of the testers, Perfect Keto & Equip Foods Founder and CEO, Anthony Gustin. “Internal meetings have reduced by at least 80 percent, we’ve seen an increase in participation in discussion and speed of decision making, and noticed an adherence and reinforcement of company culture that we thought was impossible before. Our employees are feeling more ownership and autonomy, with less work and time that needs to be spent — something we didn’t even know was possible before Threads.”

Kazi said that the intention is ultimately to target companies of any size, although it will be worth watching what features it will have to introduce to help handle the noise, and continue to provide coherent discussions, when and if they do start to tackle that end of the market.

Jan
09
2019
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Microsoft’s latest Teams features take aim at shift workers

Collaboration tools tend to be geared toward workers who are sitting at a desk for much of the day, but there are plenty of shift workers, also known as first-line workers, who rarely use a computer, but still need to communicate with one another and management. Microsoft released several new features today aimed at including these workers.

In a blog post announcing the new features, Emma Williams, Microsoft corporate vice president for modern workplace verticals, wrote that there are two billion such workers. By making the product more mobile-friendly and linking to existing enterprise employee management systems, Microsoft can make Teams more relevant for shift employees.

For starters, Microsoft is making mobile Teams more flexible to meet the needs of a variety of shift worker jobs. Some might need to record and share audio messages, while others might need to share their location or access the camera. Whatever the requirements, Microsoft has started with a Firstline Worker configuration policy template, which IT can customize to meet the needs of various worker types.

The mobile tool also includes a navigation bar, which allows workers to add the tools they use most often for easy access. The idea is to make it as simple as possible to access the tools they need, given that these workers tend to be on their feet or on the move a good part of the day.

Photo: MicrosoftNext, the company has released a new API to help IT connect Teams to existing workforce management systems. The Graph API for Shifts enables first-line managers, who are responsible for setting up worker schedules, to share data between a company’s workforce management system and Teams, allowing employees to get all of their shift information in one tool. This will be available in public preview later in the quarter, according to the company.

Finally, the tool now includes a new Praise feature, designed to let managers recognize good work by their employees by issuing badges with messages like “Thank you” and “Problem solver.”

The company wants Teams to be more than a tool for knowledge workers. These new features provide a way to include workers that are sometimes left out of these kinds of collaboration tools. The new features also help Microsoft compete with a number of startups that trying to attack the same problem.

These include Crew, a startup that scored a $35 million Series C round just last month and has raised almost $60 million, and Zinc, which also takes aim at the deskless worker, and has raised $16 million, according to Crunchbase.

Whether Microsoft can appeal to both the knowledge worker and the first-line variety in the same tool remains to be seen, but these updates are clearly an effort to take on this space.

Nov
07
2017
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Proofpoint acquires Cloudmark for $110M in cybersecurity consolidation play

 As malicious groups continue to become more sophisticated in their hacking techniques, cybersecurity efforts are attempting to expand in their reach, and that is leading to some consolidation in the field. Today, cybersecurity firm Proofpoint — which provides SaaS products to protect businesses’ email, social media and other services — announced that it would pay $110 million… Read More

Oct
24
2017
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LinkedIn boosts its messaging with smart replies, pre-written, AI based interactions

 LinkedIn — the Microsoft-owned platform for those who want to network with professional contacts and advance their own careers — has been in the middle of a long-term makeover of its social tools, as it looks to drive more usage. Today comes the latest chapter in that story: the site is unveiling a new smart reply feature in its messaging app, which gives users prompts with… Read More

Jun
28
2017
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Intercom lands former Intuit exec Karen Peacock as its new COO

Karen Peacock, COO at Intercom Intercom, a business messaging tool that enables companies to communicate directly with customers in an online context, announced today that it has hired former Intuit SVP Karen Peacock as company COO.
She joined the company May 30th, but they are making the news public for the first time today.
Peacock comes with an impressive resume that starts with a BA from Harvard and an MBA from Stanford. Read More

Mar
09
2017
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Google goes after Slack and splits Hangouts into Chat and Meet

Google’s messaging strategy can be confusing, but if there’s one thing that’s clear after today’s Cloud Next keynote, it’s that the company is doubling down on the idea that Hangouts is its enterprise product and Allo/Duo are its consumer communications apps. Read More

Feb
24
2017
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Communication platform Layer raises $15M and acquires interactive messaging startup Cola

IMG_9233 Layer, the messaging platform that won TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield back in 2013, is making two big announcement today: It’s raised $15 million in Series B funding, and it’s acquiring another startup, Cola. Layer makes it easy for businesses to add messaging capabilities to their iOS, Android and web products — customers include Trunk Club, Staples and Udacity. In… Read More

Feb
01
2017
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The enterprise is the next logical step for Slack

Faces on discs depicting a man as leader of a marketing or social scheme in the centre Slack took a big step in its evolution as a startup yesterday when it launched Slack Enterprise Grid, the enterprise version of its popular messaging platform.
For Slack to continue its growth trajectory, it had to move on from being a tool for discrete teams to one that could deal with substantially more users, and provide some security and governance as it connected to other departments… Read More

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