Apr
20
2020
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Leverice is a team messenger app that’s taking aim at information overload

Meet Leverice: A team messenger and collaboration platform that’s aiming to compete with b2b giants like Slack by tackling an issue that continues to plague real-time messaging — namely, ‘always-on’ information overload. This means these tools can feel like they’re eating into productivity as much as aiding it. Or else leave users stressed and overwhelmed about how to stay on top of the work comms firehose. 

Leverice’s pitch is that it’s been built from the ground up to offer a better triage structure so vital bits of info aren’t lost in rushing rivers of chatter than flow across less structured chat platforms.

It does this by giving users the ability to organize chat content into nested subchannels. So its theory is that hyper structured topic channels will let users better direct and navigate info flow, freeing them from the need to check everything or perform lots of searches in order to find key intel. Instead they can just directly drill down to specific subchannels, tuning out the noise.

The overarching aim is to bring a little asynchronicity to the world of real-time collaboration platforms, per co-founder and COO Daniel Velton.

“Most messaging and collaboration tools are designed for and built around synchronous communications, instant back-and-forth. But most members of remote teams communicate at their own pace — and there was no go-to messaging tool built around asynchronous communications,” he tells TechCrunch.

“We set out to solve that problem, to build a messenger and collaboration platform that breaks rivers down into rivulets. To do that, we needed a tech stack and unique architecture that would allow teams to efficiently work with hundreds of channels and subchannels distributed between scores of channel branches of varying depths. Having that granularity ensures that each little shelf maintains topical integrity.

“We’re not discussing Feature 2.1.1 and 2.1.2 and 2.1.3 and 2.1.4 inside a single ‘Features’ channel, where the discussions would blend together. Each has its own little home.”

Of course Slack isn’t blind to the info-overload issues its platform can generate. Last month it announced “a simpler, more organized Slack”, which includes the ability for users to organize channels, messages and apps into “custom, collapsible sections”. Aka folders.

So how is Leverice’s subchannel architecture a great leap forward on the latest version of Slack — which does let users organize themselves (and is now in the process of being rolled out across its user-base)?

“All structuring (including folders) on other popular messengers is essentially an individual preference setting,” says Velton. “It does not reflect on a teamwide channel tree. It’s definitely a step in the right direction but it’s about each user adding a tiny bit of structure to their own private interface, not having a structure that affects and improves the way an entire team communicates.

“Leverice architecture is based on structuring of channels and subchannels into branches of unlimited depth. This kind of deep structuring is not something you can simply ‘overlay’ on top of an existing messenger that was designed around a single layer of channels. A tremendous number of issues arise when you work with a directory-like structure of infinite depth, and these aren’t easily solved or addressed unless the architecture is built around it.”

“Sure, in Leverice you can build the ‘6-lane autobahns’,” he adds, using an analogy of vehicle traffic on roads to illustrate the concept of a hierarchy of topic channels. “But we are the only messenger where you can also construct a structured network of ‘country roads’. It’s more ‘places’ but each ‘place’ is so narrow and topical that working through it all becomes more manageable, quick and pleasant, and it’s something you can do at your own pace without fear of missing important kernels of information as they fly by on the autobahn.”

To be clear, while Slack has now started letting users self-organize — by creating a visual channel hierarchy that suits them — Leverice’s structure means the same structured tree of channels/subchannels applies for the whole team.

“At the end of the day, for communications to work, somebody on a team needs to be organized,” argues Velton. “What we allow is structuring that affects the channel tree for an entire team, not just an individual preference that reflects only on a user’s local device.”

Leverice has other features in the pipeline which it reckons will further help users cut through the noise — with a plan to apply AI-powered prioritization to surface the most pressing inbound comms.

There will also be automated alerts for conversation forks when new subchannels are created. (Though generating lots of subchannel alerts doesn’t sound exactly noise-free…)

“We have features coming that alert users to forks in a conversation and nudge the user toward those new subchannels. At this stage those forks are created manually, although our upcoming AI module will have nudges based on those forks,” says Velton.

“The architecture (deep structuring) also opens the door to scripting of automated workflows and open source plug-ins,” he adds.

Leverice officially launched towards the end of February after a month-long beta which coincided with the coronavirus-induced spike in remote work.

At this stage they have “members of almost 400 teams” registered on the platform, per Velton, with initial traction coming from mid-size tech companies — who he says are either unhappy with the costs of their current messaging platform or with distraction/burnout caused by “channel fatigue”; or who are facing info fragmentation as internal teams are using different p2p/messaging tools and lack a universal choice.

“We have nothing but love and respect for our competitors,” he adds. “Slack, Teams, WhatsApp, Telegram, Skype, Viber, etc.: each have their own benefits and many teams are perfectly content to use them. Our product is for teams looking for more focus and structure than existing solutions offer. Leverice’s architecture is unique on the market, and it opens the door to powerful features that are neither technically nor practically feasible in a messenger with a single layer containing a dozen or two dozen channels.”

Other differentiating features he highlights as bringing something fresh to the team messaging platform conversation are a whiteboard feature that lets users collaborate in the app for brainstorming or listing ideas, prorities; and a Jira integration for managing and discussing tasks in the project- and issue-tracking tool. The team is planning further integrations including with Zoom, Google Docs and “other services you use most”.

The startup — which was founded by CEO Rodion Zhitomirsky in Minsk but is now headquartered in San Jose, California, also with offices in Munich, Germany — has been bootstrapping development for around two years, taking in angel investment of around $600,000.

“We are three friends who managed complex project-based teams and personally felt the pains of all the popular messengers out there,” says Velton, discussing how they came to set up the business. “We used all the usual suspects, and even tried using p2p messengers as substitutes. They all led us and our teams to the same place: we couldn’t track large amounts of communications unless we were in “always-on” mode. We knew there had to be a better way, so we set out to build Leverice.”

The third co-founder is Dennis Dokutchitz.

Leverice’s business model is freemium, with a free tier, a premium tier, and a custom enterprise tier. As well as offering the platform as SaaS via the cloud, they do on-premise installations — for what Velton describes as “the highest level of security and privacy”.

On the security front the product is not end-to-end encrypted but he says the team is developing e2e encrypted channels to supplement the client-server encryption it applies as standard.

Velton notes these forthcoming channels would not support the usual search features, while AI analysis would be limited to “meta-information analysis”, i.e. excluding posts’ content.

“We don’t process customer or message data for commercial purposes, only for internal analytics and features to improve the product for users,” he adds when asked about any additional uses made of customer data. (Leverice’s Privacy Policy can be found here.)

With remote work the order of the day across most of the globe because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems likely there will be a new influx of collaboration tools being unboxed to help home workers navigate a new ‘professionally distant’ normal.

“We’ve only been on the market for 6 weeks and have no meaningful revenue to speak of as of yet,” adds Velton.

Nov
04
2019
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Microsoft Teams gets Yammer integration, secure private channels and more

You’re forgiven if you thought Yammer — Microsoft’s proto-Slack, not quite real-time chat application — was dead. It’s actually still alive (and well) — and still serves a purpose as a slower-moving social network-like channel for company and team-wide announcements. Today, Microsoft announced that, among other updates, it will offer a Yammer integration in Teams, its Slack competitor. Yammer in Teams will live in the left-hand sidebar.

With this, Microsoft’s two main enterprise communications platforms are finally growing together and will give users the option to use Teams for fast-moving chats and Yammer as their enterprise social network in the same way Facebook messenger and its news feed complement each other.

Screen Shot 2019 10 31 at 2.36.27 PM

Oh, and Yammer itself has been redesigned, too, using Microsoft’s Fluent Design System across all platforms. And Microsoft is also building it into Outlook, too, to let you respond to messages right from your inbox. This new Yammer will roll out as a private preview in December.

With this update, Teams is getting a number of other new features, too. These include secure private channels, multi-window chats and meetings, pinned channels and task integration with Microsoft To Do and Planner (because having one to-do app is never enough). Microsoft is also making a number of enhancements to Teams Rooms, with upcoming support for Cisco WebEx and Zoom meetings, the Teams Phone System, which is getting emergency calling, and the IT management features that help admins keep Teams secure.

A Teams client for Linux is also in the works and will be available in public preview later this year.

Nov
04
2019
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Microsoft launches Power Virtual Agents, its no-code bot builder

Microsoft today announced the public preview of its Power Virtual Agents tool, a new no-code tool for building chatbots that’s part of the company’s Power Platform, which also includes the Microsoft Flow automation tool, which is being renamed to Power Automate today, and Power BI.

Built on top of Azure’s existing AI smarts and tools for building bots, Power Virtual Agents promises to make building a chatbot almost as easy as writing a Word document. With this, anybody within an organization could build a bot that walks a new employee through the onboarding experience, for example.

“Power Virtual Agent is the newest addition to the Power Platform family,” said Microsoft’s Charles Lamanna in an interview ahead of today’s announcement. “Power Virtual Agent is very much focused on the same type of low-code, accessible to anybody, no matter whether they’re a business user or business analyst or professional developer, to go build a conversational agent that’s AI-driven and can actually solve problems for your employees, for your customers, for your partners, in a very natural way.”

Power Virtual Agents handles the full lifecycle of the bot-building experience, from the creation of the dialog to making it available in chat systems that include Teams, Slack, Facebook Messenger and others. Using Microsoft’s AI smarts, users don’t have to spend a lot of time defining every possible question and answer, but can instead rely on the tool to understand intentions and trigger the right action. “We do intent understanding, as well as entity extraction, to go and find the best topic for you to go down,” explained Lamanna. Like similar AI systems, the service also learns over time, based on feedback it receives from users.

One nice feature here is that if your setup outgrows the no-code/low-code stage and you need to get to the actual code, you’ll be able to convert the bot to Azure resources as that’s what’s powering the bot anyway. Once you’ve edited the code, you obviously can’t take it back into the no-code environment. “We have an expression for Power Platform, which is ‘no cliffs.’ […] The idea of ‘no cliffs’ is that the most common problem with a low-code platform is that, at some point, you want more control, you want code. And that’s frequently where low-code platforms run out of gas and you really have issues because you can’t have the pro dev take it over, you can’t make it mission-critical.”

The service is also integrated with tools like Power Automate/Microsoft Flow to allow users to trigger actions on other services based on the information the chatbot gathers.

Lamanna stressed that the service also generates lots of advanced analytics for those who are building bots with it. With this, users can see what topics are being asked about and where the system fails to provide answers, for example. It also visualizes the different text inputs that people provide so that bot builders can react to that.

Over the course of the last two or three years, we went from a lot of hype around chatbots to deep disillusionment with the experience they actually delivered. Lamanna isn’t fazed by that. In part, those earlier efforts failed because the developers weren’t close enough to the users. They weren’t product experts or part of the HR team inside a company. By using a low-code/no-code tool, he argues, the actual topic experts can build these bots. “If you hand it over to a developer or an AI specialist, they’re geniuses when it comes to developing code, but they won’t know the details and ins and outs of, say, the shoe business — and vice versa. So it actually changes how development happens.”

Jun
22
2018
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Security, privacy experts weigh in on the ICE doxxing

In what appears to be the latest salvo in a new, wired form of protest, developer Sam Lavigne posted code that scrapes LinkedIn to find Immigration and Customs Enforcement employee accounts. His code, which basically a Python-based tool that scans LinkedIn for keywords, is gone from Github and Gitlab and Medium took down his original post. The CSV of the data is still available here and here and WikiLeaks has posted a mirror.

“I find it helpful to remember that as much as internet companies use data to spy on and exploit their users, we can at times reverse the story, and leverage those very same online platforms as a means to investigate or even undermine entrenched power structures. It’s a strange side effect of our reliance on private companies and semi-public platforms to mediate nearly all aspects of our lives. We don’t necessarily need to wait for the next Snowden-style revelation to scrutinize the powerful — so much is already hiding in plain sight,” said Lavigne.

Doxxing is the process of using publicly available information to target someone online for abuse. Because we can now find out anything on anyone for a few dollars – a search for “background check” brings up dozens of paid services that can get you names and addresses in a second – scraping public data on LinkedIn seems far easier and innocuous. That doesn’t make it legal.

“Recent efforts to outlaw doxxing at the national level (like the Online Safety Modernization Act of 2017) have stalled in committee, so it’s not strictly illegal,” said James Slaby, Security Expert at Acronis. “But LinkedIn and other social networks usually consider it a violation of their terms of service to scrape their data for personal use. The question of fairness is trickier: doxxing is often justified as a rare tool that the powerless can use against the powerful to call attention to perceived injustices.”

“The problem is that doxxing is a crude tool. The torrent of online ridicule, abuse and threats that can be heaped on doxxed targets by their political or ideological opponents can also rain down on unintended and undeserving targets: family members, friends, people with similar names or appearances,” he said.

The tool itself isn’t to blame. No one would fault a job seeker or salesperson who scraped LinkedIn for targeted employees of a specific company. That said, scraping and publicly shaming employees walks a thin line.

“In my opinion, the professor who developed this scraper tool isn’t breaking the law, as it’s perfectly legal to search the web for publicly available information,” said David Kennedy, CEO of TrustedSec. “This is known in the security space as ‘open source intelligence’ collection, and scrapers are just one way to do it. That said, it is concerning to see ICE agents doxxed in this way. I understand emotions are running high on both sides of this debate, but we don’t want to increase the physical security risks to our law enforcement officers.”

“The decision by Twitter, Github and Medium to block the dissemination of this information and tracking tool makes sense – in fact, law enforcement agents’ personal information is often protected. This isn’t going to go away anytime soon, it’s only going to become more aggressive, particularly as more people grow comfortable with using the darknet and the many available hacking tools for sale in these underground forums. Law enforcement agents need to take note of this, and be much more careful about what (and how often) they post online.”

Ultimately, doxxing is problematic. Because we place our information on public forums there should be nothing to stop anyone from finding and posting it. However, the expectation that people will use our information for good and not evil is swiftly eroding. Today, wrote one security researcher, David Kavanaugh, doxxing is becoming dangerous.

“Going after the people on the ground is like shooting the messenger. Decisions are made by leadership and those are the people we should be going after. Doxxing is akin to a personal attack. Change policy, don’t ruin more lives,” he said.

Mar
12
2018
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Twilio launches Flex, a fully programmable contact center

Earlier this year we reported that Twilio was going to launch a full contact center solution called Flex on March 12 — lo and behold, today is March 12 and Twilio today announced the launch of Flex at the Enterprise Connect conference in Orlando. Flex brings together virtually every part of the existing Twilio infrastructure and platform for developers that already power nearly 40 billion interactions a year and bundles it with a rather slick user interface for companies that want to set up an out-of-the-box contact center or update their existing deployments.

Twilio’s expertise has long been in providing backend communications services and its design expertise is mostly in building APIs, not user interfaces. With this move, though, the company is giving enterprises (and this product is meant for the kind of companies that have hundreds or thousands of people in a contact center) a full stack contact center with a full graphical user interface.

As the company’s head of its contact center business Al Cook told me, though, the main design philosophy behind Flex is to give users maximum flexibility. He argues that business today have to choose between going with products that they can’t customize themselves, so that they have to rely on expensive outside vendors that will do the customization for them (which also tends to take a lot of time), or a SaaS contact center that can be quickly deployed but is hard to scale and lacks customization options. “Think of Flex as an application platform,” Cook told me. It takes its cues from Twilio’s experience in working with developers and gives enterprises an easy API interface for customizing the service to their liking, but also provides all of the necessary tools out of the box.

“The reason why APIs were very transformative to the industry is because you are unconstrained in what you can do,” Cook explained. “Once you put a user interface on that, you constrain users.” So for Flex, the team had to ask itself some new questions. “How do you build user interfaces in a fundamentally different way that gives people the best features they want without constraining them?”

Out of the box, Flex supports all of the standard messaging channels that contact centers are now expected to support. These include Voice, video, text, picture messaging, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, LINE and WeChat. The service also supports screen sharing and co-browsing. Twilio is also integrating its own intelligent TaskRouter service into Flex to automatically route questions to the right agent. A single Flex deployment can support up to 50,000 agents.

Cook argues that getting started with Flex is a one-click affair, though once it’s up and running, most users will surely need to customize the service a bit for their own needs and embed chat widgets and other functions on their websites and into their apps (think click-to-call, for example). Some of the more in-depth customization can be done in Twilio Studio, the company’s drag and drop application builder, too.

Most large enterprises already have contact centers, though, so it’s maybe no surprise that some of the thinking behind making Flex as… well… flexible as possible is about giving those users the ability to mix and match features from Flex with their existing tools to allow for a slow and steady migration.

As we reported last month, Flex will also integrate with all the standard CRM tools like Salesforce and Zendesk, as well as workforce management and optimization tools that are currently in use in most contact centers.

Before launching the product today, Twilio already worked with ING, Zillow, National Debt Relief and RealPage to test Flex. In addition, it lined up a number of tech and consulting partners to support new users.

Sep
08
2016
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Blackstorm raises $33.5M to help developers get their apps everywhere beyond the App Store

img_3742 Managing the App Store can be one of the most difficult experiences for new developers. Getting noticed is hard, the experience isn’t that great, and now Apple is allowing search ads. And to make things more interesting, there’s a lot of interest in different platforms beyond traditional apps — including messaging bots. Eventually, there will have to be a way to… Read More

Apr
12
2016
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Salesforce and Zendesk want to help brands manage Facebook Messenger traffic

Blurred image of customer service people working at computers. No sooner had Facebook announced it was opening up Messenger for developers to build bots, when two players with an eye on sales and service in the enterprise — Salesforce and Zendesk — announced new products to manage Messenger traffic on their respective platforms.
Salesforce announced Salesforce Messenger, a way for customers to communicate directly with brands through the… Read More

Jul
22
2015
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It’s Your Fault Email Is Broken

email As an email startup CEO, I hear it every week. “I hate email. Email sucks. Why can’t anyone fix it? And why would you want to spend your life working on something everyone hates?” Email is an obvious target for blame, since we collectively send 183 billion of them every single day. But blaming email is like shooting the messenger (or shooting the envelope, rather). Read More

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