Nov
19
2019
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SocialRank sells biz to Trufan, pivots to a mobile LinkedIn

What do you do when your startup idea doesn’t prove big enough? Run it as a scrawny but profitable lifestyle business? Or sell it to a competitor and take another swing at the fences? Social audience analytics startup SocialRank chose the latter and is going for glory.

Today, SocialRank announced it’s sold its business, brand, assets, and customers to influencer marketing campaign composer and distributor Trufan which will run it as a standalone product. But SocialRank’s team isn’t joining up. Instead, the full six-person staff is sticking together to work on a mobile-first professional social network called Upstream aiming to nip at LinkedIn.

SocialRank co-founder and CEO Alex Taub

Started in 2014 amidst a flurry of marketing analytics tools, SocialRank had raised $2.1 million from Rainfall Ventures and others before hitting profitability in 2017. But as the business plateaued, the team saw potential to use data science about people’s identity to get them better jobs.

“A few months ago we decided to start building a new product (what has become Upstream). And when we came to the conclusion to go all-in on Upstream, we knew we couldn’t run two businesses at the same time” SocialRank co-founder and CEO Alex Taub tells me. “We decided then to run a bit of a process. We ended up with a few offers but ultimately felt like Trufan was the best one to continue the business into the future.”

The move lets SocialRank avoid stranding its existing customers like the NFL, Netflix, and Samsung that rely on its audience segmentation software. Instead, they’ll continue to be supported by Trufan where Taub and fellow co-founder Michael Schonfeld will become advisors.

“While we built a sustainable business, we essentially knew that if we wanted to go real big, we would need to go to the drawing board” Taub explains.

SocialRank

Two-year-old Trufan has raised $1.8 million Canadian from Round13 Capital, local Toronto startup Clearbanc’s founders, and several NBA players. Trufan helps brands like Western Union and Kay Jewellers design marketing initiatives that engage their customer communities through social media. It’s raising an extra $400,000 USD in venture debt from Round13 to finance the acquisition, which should make Trufan cash-flow positive by the end of the year.

Why isn’t the SocialRank team going along for the ride? Taub said LinkedIn was leaving too much opportunity on the table. While it’s good for putting resumes online and searching for people, “All the social stuff are sort of bolt-ons that came after Facebook and Twitter arrived. People forget but LinkedIn is the oldest active social network out there”, Taub tells me, meaning it’s a bit outdated.

Trufan’s team

Rather than attack head-on, the newly forged Upstream plans to pick the Microsoft-owned professional network apart with better approaches to certain features. “I love the idea of ‘the unbundling of LinkedIn’, ala what’s been happening with Craigslist for the past few years” says Taub. “The first foundational piece we are building is a social professional network around giving and getting help. We’ll also be focused on the unbundling of the groups aspect of LinkedIn.”

Taub concludes that entrepreneurs can shackle themselves to impossible goals if they take too much venture capital for the wrong business. As we’ve seen with SoftBank, investors demand huge returns that can require pursuing risky and unsustainable expansion strategies.

“We realized that SocialRank had potential to be a few hundred million dollar in revenue business but venture growth wasn’t exactly the model for it” Taub says. “You need the potential of billions in revenue and a steep growth curve.” A professional network for the smartphone age has that kind of addressable market. And the team might feel better getting out of bed each day knowing they’re unlocking career paths for people instead of just getting them to click ads.

Nov
18
2019
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Salesforce, Apple partnership begins to come to life

Last year at Dreamforce, Salesforce’s enormous annual customer conference, Apple and Salesforce announced the beginnings of a partnership where the two organizations would work together to enhance Salesforce products running on Apple devices. Today, as this year’s Dreamforce conference begins, the companies announced the fruits of that labor with general availability of two new tools that were first announced at last year’s event.

For starters, Apple has been working with Salesforce to redesign the Salesforce Mobile app to build in Apple iOS features into the app like being able to use Siri shortcuts to get work done faster, using your voice instead of typing, something that’s sometimes awkward to do on a mobile device.

Hey Siri example in Salesforce Mobile app.

Photo: Salesforce

For instance, you could say, “Hey Siri, next sales meeting,” and Siri can interact with Salesforce CRM to tell you who your meeting is with, the name of his or her company, when you last met and what the Einstein opportunity score is to help you predict how likely it is that you could make a sale today (or eventually).

In addition, the Mobile App takes advantage of Apple’s Handoff feature to reflect changes across devices immediately, and Apple’s Face ID for easy log on to the app.

Salesforce also announced a pilot of Einstein Voice on Salesforce Mobile, allowing reps to enter notes, add tasks and update the CRM database using voice. Einstein is Salesforce’s general artificial intelligence layer, and the voice feature uses natural language understanding to interpret what the rep asks.

The company reports that over 1000 companies participated in piloting the updated app, which constitutes the largest pilot in the history of the organization.

Salesforce also announced its new mobile development platform SDK, built specifically for iOS and iPadOS using the Swift language. The idea is to provide a tool to give Salesforce developers with the ability to build apps for iPad and iPhone, then package them up with a new tool called Swift UI and Package Manager.

Trailhead Go

Photo: Salesforce

Trailhead Go is the mobile version of the company’s online learning platform designed specifically for iPad and iPhone. It was built using the new Mobile SDK, and allows users to access the same courses they can on the web in a mobile context. The new mobile tool includes the ability to Handoff between devices along with support for picture-in-picture and split view for multi-tasking when it makes sense.

Salesforce Mobile and Trailhead Go are available starting today for free in the iOS App Store. The Salesforce Mobile SDK will be available later this year.

As this partnership continues to develop, both companies should benefit. Salesforce gets direct access to Apple features, and can work with Apple to implement them in an optimized way. Apple gets deeper access to the enterprise with help from Salesforce, one of the biggest enterprise software vendors around.

Sep
24
2019
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Meme editor Kapwing grows 10X, raises $11M

Kapwing is a laymen’s Adobe Creative Suite built for what people actually do on the internet: make memes and remix media. Need to resize a video? Add text or subtitles to a video? Trim or crop or loop or frame or rotate or soundtrack or… then you need Kapwing. The free web and mobile tool is built for everyone, not just designers. No software download or tutorials to slog through. Just efficient creativity.

Kapwing Video Editor

In a year since coming out of stealth with 100,000 users, Kapwing has grown 10X, to more than 1 million. Now it going pro, building out its $20/month collaboration tools for social media managers and scrappy teams. But it won’t forget its roots with teens, so it has dropped its pay-$6-to-remove-watermarks tier while keeping its core features free.

Eager to capitalize on the meme and mobile content business, CRV has just led an $11 million Series A round for Kapwing. It’s joined by follow-on cash from Village Global, Sinai and Shasta Ventures, plus new investors Jane VC, Harry Stebbings, Vector and the Xoogler Syndicate. CRV partners “the venture twins” Justine and Olivia Moore actually met Kapwing co-founder and CEO Julia Enthoven while they all worked at The Stanford Daily newspaper in 2012.

“As a team, we love memes. We talk about internet fads almost every day at lunch and pay close attention to digital media trends,” says Enthoven, who started the company with fellow Googler Eric Lu. “One of our cultural tenets is to respect the importance of design, art and culture in the world, and another one is to not take ourselves too seriously.” But it is taking on serious clients.

As Kapwing’s toolset has grown, it has seen paying customers coming from Amazon, Sony, Netflix and Spotify. Now only 13% of what’s made with it are traditional text-plus-media memes. “Kapwing will always be designed for creators first: the students, artists, influencers, entrepreneurs, etc. who define and spread culture,” says Enthoven. “But we make money from the creative professionals, marketers, media teams and office workers who need to create content for work.”

Kapwing Tools

That’s why in addition to plenty of templates for employing the latest trending memes, Kapwing now helps Pro subscribers with permanent hosting, saving throughout the creation process and re-editing after export. Eventually it plans to sell enterprise licenses to let whole companies use Kapwing.

Kapwing Tools 1

Copycats are trying to chip away at its business, but Kapwing will use its new funding to keep up a breakneck pace of development. Pronounced “Ka-Pwing,” like a bullet ricochet, it’s trying to stay ahead of Imgflip, ILoveIMG, Imgur’s on-site tool and more robust apps like Canva.

If you’ve ever been stuck with a landscape video that won’t fit in an Instagram Story, a bunch of clips you want to stitch together or the need to subtitle something for accessibility, you’ll know the frustration of lacking a purpose-built tool. And if you’re on mobile, there are even fewer options. Unlike some software suites you have to install on a desktop, Kapwing works right from a browser.

Trending Memes Kapwing

” ‘Memes’ is such a broad category of media nowadays. It could refer to a compilation like the political singalong videos, animations like Shooting Star memes or a change in music like the AOC Dancing memes,” Enthoven explains. “Although they used to be edgy, memes have become more mainstream . . . Memes popularized new types of multimedia formats and made raw, authentic footage more acceptable on social media.”

As communication continues to shift from text to visual media, design can’t only be the domain of designers. Kapwing empowers anyone to storytell and entertain, whether out of whimsy or professional necessity. If big-name creative software from Adobe or Apple don’t simplify and offer easy paths through common use cases, they’ll see themselves usurped by the tools of the people.

Aug
19
2019
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The five technical challenges Cerebras overcame in building the first trillion-transistor chip

Superlatives abound at Cerebras, the until-today stealthy next-generation silicon chip company looking to make training a deep learning model as quick as buying toothpaste from Amazon. Launching after almost three years of quiet development, Cerebras introduced its new chip today — and it is a doozy. The “Wafer Scale Engine” is 1.2 trillion transistors (the most ever), 46,225 square millimeters (the largest ever), and includes 18 gigabytes of on-chip memory (the most of any chip on the market today) and 400,000 processing cores (guess the superlative).

CS Wafer Keyboard Comparison

Cerebras’ Wafer Scale Engine is larger than a typical Mac keyboard (via Cerebras Systems).

It’s made a big splash here at Stanford University at the Hot Chips conference, one of the silicon industry’s big confabs for product introductions and roadmaps, with various levels of oohs and aahs among attendees. You can read more about the chip from Tiernan Ray at Fortune and read the white paper from Cerebras itself.

Superlatives aside though, the technical challenges that Cerebras had to overcome to reach this milestone I think is the more interesting story here. I sat down with founder and CEO Andrew Feldman this afternoon to discuss what his 173 engineers have been building quietly just down the street here these past few years, with $112 million in venture capital funding from Benchmark and others.

Going big means nothing but challenges

First, a quick background on how the chips that power your phones and computers get made. Fabs like TSMC take standard-sized silicon wafers and divide them into individual chips by using light to etch the transistors into the chip. Wafers are circles and chips are squares, and so there is some basic geometry involved in subdividing that circle into a clear array of individual chips.

One big challenge in this lithography process is that errors can creep into the manufacturing process, requiring extensive testing to verify quality and forcing fabs to throw away poorly performing chips. The smaller and more compact the chip, the less likely any individual chip will be inoperative, and the higher the yield for the fab. Higher yield equals higher profits.

Cerebras throws out the idea of etching a bunch of individual chips onto a single wafer in lieu of just using the whole wafer itself as one gigantic chip. That allows all of those individual cores to connect with one another directly — vastly speeding up the critical feedback loops used in deep learning algorithms — but comes at the cost of huge manufacturing and design challenges to create and manage these chips.

CS Wafer Sean

Cerebras’ technical architecture and design was led by co-founder Sean Lie. Feldman and Lie worked together on a previous startup called SeaMicro, which sold to AMD in 2012 for $334 million (via Cerebras Systems).

The first challenge the team ran into, according to Feldman, was handling communication across the “scribe lines.” While Cerebras’ chip encompasses a full wafer, today’s lithography equipment still has to act like there are individual chips being etched into the silicon wafer. So the company had to invent new techniques to allow each of those individual chips to communicate with each other across the whole wafer. Working with TSMC, they not only invented new channels for communication, but also had to write new software to handle chips with trillion-plus transistors.

The second challenge was yield. With a chip covering an entire silicon wafer, a single imperfection in the etching of that wafer could render the entire chip inoperative. This has been the block for decades on whole-wafer technology: due to the laws of physics, it is essentially impossible to etch a trillion transistors with perfect accuracy repeatedly.

Cerebras approached the problem using redundancy by adding extra cores throughout the chip that would be used as backup in the event that an error appeared in that core’s neighborhood on the wafer. “You have to hold only 1%, 1.5% of these guys aside,” Feldman explained to me. Leaving extra cores allows the chip to essentially self-heal, routing around the lithography error and making a whole-wafer silicon chip viable.

Entering uncharted territory in chip design

Those first two challenges — communicating across the scribe lines between chips and handling yield — have flummoxed chip designers studying whole-wafer chips for decades. But they were known problems, and Feldman said that they were actually easier to solve than expected by re-approaching them using modern tools.

He likens the challenge to climbing Mount Everest. “It’s like the first set of guys failed to climb Mount Everest, they said, ‘Shit, that first part is really hard.’ And then the next set came along and said ‘That shit was nothing. That last hundred yards, that’s a problem.’ ”

And indeed, the toughest challenges, according to Feldman, for Cerebras were the next three, since no other chip designer had gotten past the scribe line communication and yield challenges to actually find what happened next.

The third challenge Cerebras confronted was handling thermal expansion. Chips get extremely hot in operation, but different materials expand at different rates. That means the connectors tethering a chip to its motherboard also need to thermally expand at precisely the same rate, lest cracks develop between the two.

As Feldman explained, “How do you get a connector that can withstand [that]? Nobody had ever done that before, [and so] we had to invent a material. So we have PhDs in material science, [and] we had to invent a material that could absorb some of that difference.”

Once a chip is manufactured, it needs to be tested and packaged for shipment to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) who add the chips into the products used by end customers (whether data centers or consumer laptops). There is a challenge though: Absolutely nothing on the market is designed to handle a whole-wafer chip.

CS Wafer Inspection

Cerebras designed its own testing and packaging system to handle its chip (via Cerebras Systems).

“How on earth do you package it? Well, the answer is you invent a lot of shit. That is the truth. Nobody had a printed circuit board this size. Nobody had connectors. Nobody had a cold plate. Nobody had tools. Nobody had tools to align them. Nobody had tools to handle them. Nobody had any software to test,” Feldman explained. “And so we have designed this whole manufacturing flow, because nobody has ever done it.” Cerebras’ technology is much more than just the chip it sells — it also includes all of the associated machinery required to actually manufacture and package those chips.

Finally, all that processing power in one chip requires immense power and cooling. Cerebras’ chip uses 15 kilowatts of power to operate — a prodigious amount of power for an individual chip, although relatively comparable to a modern-sized AI cluster. All that power also needs to be cooled, and Cerebras had to design a new way to deliver both for such a large chip.

It essentially approached the problem by turning the chip on its side, in what Feldman called “using the Z-dimension.” The idea was that rather than trying to move power and cooling horizontally across the chip as is traditional, power and cooling are delivered vertically at all points across the chip, ensuring even and consistent access to both.

And so, those were the next three challenges — thermal expansion, packaging and power/cooling — that the company has worked around-the-clock to deliver these past few years.

From theory to reality

Cerebras has a demo chip (I saw one, and yes, it is roughly the size of my head), and it has started to deliver prototypes to customers, according to reports. The big challenge, though, as with all new chips, is scaling production to meet customer demand.

For Cerebras, the situation is a bit unusual. Because it places so much computing power on one wafer, customers don’t necessarily need to buy dozens or hundreds of chips and stitch them together to create a compute cluster. Instead, they may only need a handful of Cerebras chips for their deep-learning needs. The company’s next major phase is to reach scale and ensure a steady delivery of its chips, which it packages as a whole system “appliance” that also includes its proprietary cooling technology.

Expect to hear more details of Cerebras technology in the coming months, particularly as the fight over the future of deep learning processing workflows continues to heat up.

Aug
12
2019
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India’s Reliance Jio inks deal with Microsoft to expand Office 365, Azure to more businesses; unveils broadband, blockchain and IoT platforms

India’s Reliance Jio, which has disrupted the local telecom and features phone markets in less than three years of existence, is ready to foray into many more businesses.

In a series of announcements Monday, which included a long-term partnership with global giant Microsoft, Reliance Jio said it will commercially roll out its broadband service next month; an IoT platform with ambitions to power more than a billion devices on January 1 next year; and “one of the world’s biggest blockchain networks” in the next 12 months — all while also scaling its retail and commerce businesses.

The broadband service, called Jio Fiber, is aimed at individual customers, small and medium-sized businesses as well as enterprises, Mukesh Ambani, chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries and Asia’s richest man, said at a shareholders’ meeting today.

The service, which is being initially targeted at 20 million homes and 15 million businesses in 1,600 towns, will start rolling out commercially starting September 5. Ambani said more than half a million customers have already been testing the broadband service, which was first unveiled last year.

The broadband service will come bundled with access to hundreds of TV channels and free calls across India and at discounted rates to the U.S. and Canada, Ambani said. The service, the cheapest tier of which will offer internet speeds of 100Mbps, will be priced at Rs 700 (~$10) a month. The company said it will offer various plans to meet a variety of needs, including those of customers who want access to gigabit internet speeds.

Continuing its tradition to woo users with significant “free stuff,” Jio, which is a subsidiary of India’s largest industrial house (Reliance Industries) said customers who opt for the yearly plan of its fiber broadband will be provided with the set-top box and an HD or 4K TV at no extra charge. Specific details weren’t immediately available. A premium tier, which will be available starting next year, will allow customers to watch many movies on the day of their public release.

The broadband service will bundle games from many popular studios, including Microsoft Game Studios, Riot Games, Tencent Games and Gameloft, Jio said.

Partnership with Microsoft

The company also announced a 10-year partnership with Microsoft to launch new cloud data centers in India to ensure “more of Jio’s customers can access the tools and platforms they need to build their own digital capability,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a video appearance Monday.

ambani nadella

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella talks about the company’s partnership with Reliance Jio

“At Microsoft, our mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. Core to this mission is deep partnerships, like the one we are announcing today with Reliance Jio. Our ambition is to help millions of organizations across India thrive and grow in the era of rapid technological change.”

“Together, we will offer a comprehensive technology solution, from compute to storage, to connectivity and productivity for small and medium-sized businesses everywhere in the country,” he added.

As part of the partnership, Nadella said, Jio and Microsoft will jointly offer Azure, Microsoft 365 and Microsoft AI platforms to more organizations in India, and also bring Azure Cognitive Services to more devices and in 13 Indian languages to businesses in the country. The solutions will be “accessible” to reach as many people and organizations in India as possible, he added. The cloud services will be offered to businesses for as little as Rs 1,500 ($21) per month.

The first two data centers will be set up in Gujarat and Maharashtra by next year. Jio will migrate all of its non-networking apps to the Microsoft Azure platform and promote its adoption among its ecosystem of startups, the two said in a joint statement.

The foray into broadband business and push to court small enterprises come as Reliance Industries, which dominates the telecom and retail spaces in India, attempts to diversify from its marquee oil and gas business. Reliance Jio, the nation’s top telecom operator, has amassed more than 340 million subscribers in less than three years of its commercial operations.

At the meeting, Ambani also unveiled that Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil producer Aramco was buying a 20% stake in $75 billion worth Reliance Industries’ oil-to-chemicals business.

Like other Silicon Valley companies, Microsoft sees massive potential in India, where tens of millions of users and businesses have come online for the first time in recent years. Cloud services in India are estimated to generate a revenue of $2.4 billion this year, up about 25% from last year, according to research firm Gartner. Microsoft has won several major clients in India in recent years, including insurance giant ICICI Lombard.

Today’s partnership could significantly boost Microsoft’s footprint in India, posing a bigger headache for Amazon and Google.

Ambani also said Reliance Retail, the nation’s largest retailer, is working on a “digital stack” to create a new commerce partnership platform in India to reach tens of millions of merchants, consumers and producers. Ambani said Reliance Industries plans to list both Reliance Retail and Jio publicly in the next years.

“We have received strong interests from strategic and financial investors in our consumer businesses — Jio and Reliance Retail. We will induct leading global partners in these businesses in the next few quarters and move towards listing of both these companies within the next five years,” he said.

The announcement comes weeks after Reliance Industries acquired for $42.3 million a majority stake in Fynd, a Mumbai-based startup that connects brick and mortar retailers with online stores and consumers. Reliance Industries has previously stated plans to launch a new e-commerce firm in the country.

Without revealing specific details, Ambani also said that Jio is building an IoT platform to control at least one billion of the two billion IoT devices in India by next year. He said he sees IoT as a $2.8 billion revenue opportunity for Jio. Similarly, the company also plans to expand its blockchain network across India, he said.

“Using blockchain, we can deliver unprecedented security, trust, automation and efficiency to almost any type of transaction. And using blockchain, we also have an opportunity to invent a brand-new model for data privacy where Indian data, especially customer data is owned and controlled through technology by the Indian people an d not by corporate, especially global corporations,” he added.

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.

Jun
12
2019
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Helium launches $51M-funded ‘LongFi’ IoT alternative to cellular

With 200X the range of Wi-Fi at 1/1000th of the cost of a cellular modem, Helium’s “LongFi” wireless network debuts today. Its transmitters can help track stolen scooters, find missing dogs via IoT collars and collect data from infrastructure sensors. The catch is that Helium’s tiny, extremely low-power, low-data transmission chips rely on connecting to P2P Helium Hotspots people can now buy for $495. Operating those hotspots earns owners a cryptocurrency token Helium promises will be valuable in the future…

The potential of a new wireless standard has allowed Helium to raise $51 million over the past few years from GV, Khosla Ventures and Marc Benioff, including a new $15 million Series C round co-led by Union Square Ventures and Multicoin Capital. That’s in part because one of Helium’s co-founders is Napster inventor Shawn Fanning. Investors are betting that he can change the tech world again, this time with a wireless protocol that like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth before it could unlock unique business opportunities.

Helium already has some big partners lined up, including Lime, which will test it for tracking its lost and stolen scooters and bikes when they’re brought indoors, obscuring other connectivity, or their battery is pulled, out deactivating GPS. “It’s an ultra low-cost version of a LoJack” Helium CEO Amir Haleem says.

InvisiLeash will partner with it to build more trackable pet collars. Agulus will pull data from irrigation valves and pumps for its agriculture tech business. Nestle will track when it’s time to refill water in its ReadyRefresh coolers at offices, and Stay Alfred will use it to track occupancy status and air quality in buildings. Haleem also imagines the tech being useful for tracking wildfires or radiation.

Haleem met Fanning playing video games in the 2000s. They teamed up with Fanning and Sproutling baby monitor (sold to Mattel) founder Chris Bruce in 2013 to start work on Helium. They foresaw a version of Tile’s trackers that could function anywhere while replacing expensive cell connections for devices that don’t need high bandwith. Helium’s 5 kilobit per second connections will compete with SigFox, another lower-power IoT protocol, though Haleem claims its more centralized infrastructure costs are prohibitive. It’s also facing off against Nodle, which piggybacks on devices’ Bluetooth hardware. Lucky for Helium, on-demand rental bikes and scooters that are perfect for its network have reached mainstream popularity just as Helium launches six years after its start.

Helium says it already pre-sold 80% of its Helium Hotspots for its first market in Austin, Texas. People connect them to their Wi-Fi and put it in their window so the devices can pull in data from Helium’s IoT sensors over its open-source LongFi protocol. The hotspots then encrypt and send the data to the company’s cloud that clients can plug into to track and collect info from their devices. The Helium Hotspots only require as much energy as a 12-watt LED light bulb to run, but that $495 price tag is steep. The lack of a concrete return on investment could deter later adopters from buying the expensive device.

Only 150-200 hotspots are necessary to blanket a city in connectivity, Haleem tells me. But because they need to be distributed across the landscape, so a client can’t just fill their warehouse with the hotspots, and the upfront price is expensive for individuals, Helium might need to sign up some retail chains as partners for deployment. As Haleem admits, “The hard part is the education.” Making hotspot buyers understand the potential (and risks) while demonstrating the opportunities for clients will require a ton of outreach and slick marketing.

Without enough Helium Hotspots, the Helium network won’t function. That means this startup will have to simultaneously win at telecom technology, enterprise sales and cryptocurrency for the network to pan out. As if one of those wasn’t hard enough.

Jun
11
2019
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Dropbox relaunches as an enterprise collaboration workspace

Dropbox is evolving from a file-storage system to an enterprise software portal, where you can coordinate work with your team. Today the company launches a new version of Dropbox that allows you to launch apps with shortcuts for G Suite and more, plus use built-in Slack message-sending and Zoom video calls. It lets you search across all your files on your device and inside your other enterprise tools, and communicate and comment on your team’s work. Dropbox is also becoming a task manager, with the ability to add notes and tag co-workers in to-do lists attached to files.

The new Dropbox launches today for all of its 13 million business users across 400,000 teams plus its consumer tiers. Users can opt-in here for early access and businesses can turn on early access in their admin panel. “The way we work is broken,” CEO Drew Houston said to cue up the company’s mission statement: “to design a more enlightened way of working.”

Dropbox seems to have realized that file storage by itself is a dying business. With storage prices dropping and any app being able to add their own storage system, it needed to move up the enterprise stack and become a portal that opens and organizes your other tools. Becoming the enterprise coordination layer is a smart strategy, and one that it seems Slack was happy to partner into rather than building itself.

As part of the update, Dropbox is launching a new desktop app for all users so it won’t have to live inside your Mac or Windows file system. When you click a file, you can see a preview and presence data about who has viewed it, who is currently and who has access.

The launch includes deep integrations with Slack, so you can comment on files from within Dropbox, and Zoom, so you can video chat without leaving the workspace. Web and enterprise app shortcuts relieve you from keeping all your other tools constantly open in other tabs. Dropbox’s revamped search tool lets you crawl across your computer’s file system and all your cloud storage across other productivity apps.

But what’s most important about today’s changes is that Dropbox is becoming a task-management app. Each file lets you type out descriptions, to-do lists and tag co-workers to assign them tasks. An Activity Feed per file shows comments and actions from co-workers so you don’t have to collaborate in a separate Google Doc or Slack channel.

When asked about how Dropbox decided who to partner with (Slack, Zoom) versus who to copy (Asana), VP of biz dev Billy Blau essentially dodged the question while citing the “shared ethos” of Dropbox’s partners.

Houston kicked off the San Francisco launch event by pointing out that it’s easier to find info from the public than our own company’s knowledge that’s scattered across our computers and the cloud. The “Finder” on our computers hasn’t evolved to embrace a post-download era. He described how people spend 60% of our office time on work about work, like organization and communication, instead of actually working — a marketing angle frequently used by task-management startup Asana that Dropbox is now competing with more directly. “We’re going to help you get a handle on all this ‘work about work,’ ” Dropbox writes. Yet Asana has been using that phrase as a core of its messaging since 2013.

Now Dropbox wants to be your file tree, your finder and your desktop for the cloud. The question is whether files are always the central unit of work that comments and tasks should be pegged to, or whether it should be the task and project at the center of attention with files attached.

It will take some savvy onboarding and persistence to retrain teams to see Dropbox as their workspace instead of their computer’s desktop or their browser. But if it can become the identity and collaboration layer that connects the fragmented enterprise software, it could outlive file storage and stay relevant as new office tools emerge.

Jun
10
2019
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Apple is making corporate ‘BYOD’ programs less invasive to user privacy

When people bring their own devices to work or school, they don’t want IT administrators to manage the entire device. But until now, Apple only offered two ways for IT to manage its iOS devices: either device enrollments, which offered device-wide management capabilities to admins or those same device management capabilities combined with an automated setup process. At Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference last week, the company announced plans to introduce a third method: user enrollments.

This new MDM (mobile device management) enrollment option is meant to better balance the needs of IT to protect sensitive corporate data and manage the software and settings available to users, while at the same time allowing users’ private personal data to remain separate from IT oversight.

According to Apple, when both users’ and IT’s needs are in balance, users are more likely to accept a corporate “bring your own device” (BYOD) program — something that can ultimately save the business money that doesn’t have to be invested in hardware purchases.

The new user enrollments option for MDM has three components: a managed Apple ID that sits alongside the personal ID; cryptographic separation of personal and work data; and a limited set of device-wide management capabilities for IT.

The managed Apple ID will be the user’s work identity on the device, and is created by the admin in either Apple School Manager or Apple Business Manager — depending on whether this is for a school or a business. The user signs into the managed Apple ID during the enrollment process.

From that point forward until the enrollment ends, the company’s managed apps and accounts will use the managed Apple ID’s iCloud account.

Meanwhile, the user’s personal apps and accounts will use the personal Apple ID’s iCloud account, if one is signed into the device.

Third-party apps are then either used in managed or unmanaged modes.

That means users won’t be able to change modes or run the apps in both modes at the same time. However, some of the built-in apps like Notes will be account-based, meaning the app will use the appropriate Apple ID — either the managed one or personal — depending on which account they’re operating on at the time.

To separate work data from personal, iOS will create a managed APFS volume at the time of the enrollment. The volume uses separate cryptographic keys which are destroyed along with the volume itself when the enrollment period ends. (iOS had always removed the managed data when the enrollment ends, but this is a cryptographic backstop just in case anything were to go wrong during unenrollment, the company explained.)

The managed volume will host the local data stored by any managed third-party apps along with the managed data from the Notes app. It also will house a managed keychain that stores secure items like passwords and certificates; the authentication credentials for managed accounts; and mail attachments and full email bodies.

The system volume does host a central database for mail, including some metadata and five line previews, but this is removed as well when the enrollment ends.

Users’ personal apps and their data can’t be managed by the IT admin, so they’re never at risk of having their data read or erased.

And unlike device enrollments, user enrollments don’t provide a UDID or any other persistent identifier to the admin. Instead, it creates a new identifier called the “enrollment ID.” This identifier is used in communication with the MDM server for all communications and is destroyed when enrollment ends.

Apple also noted that one of the big reasons users fear corporate BYOD programs is because they think the IT admin will erase their entire device when the enrollment ends — including their personal apps and data.

To address this concern, the MDM queries can only return the managed results.

In practice, that means IT can’t even find out what personal apps are installed on the device — something that can feel like an invasion of privacy to end users. (This feature will be offered for device enrollments, too.) And because IT doesn’t know which personal apps are installed, it also can’t restrict certain apps’ use.

User enrollments will also not support the “erase device” command — and they don’t have to, because IT will know the sensitive data and emails are gone. There’s no need for a full device wipe.

Similarly, the Exchange Server can’t send its remote wipe command — just the account-only remote wipe to remove the managed data.

Another new feature related to user enrollments is how traffic for managed accounts is guided through the corporate VPN. Using the per-app VPN feature, traffic from the Mail, Contacts and Calendars built-in apps will only go through the VPN if the domains match that of the business. For example, mail.acme.com can pass through the VPN, but not mail.aol.com. In other words, the user’s personal mail remains private.

This addresses what has been an ongoing concern about how some MDM solutions operate — routing traffic through a corporate proxy meant the business could see the employees’ personal emails, social networking accounts and other private information.

User enrollments also only enforces a six-digit non-simple passcode, as the MDM server can’t help users by clearing the past code if the user forgets it.

Some today advise users to not accept BYOD MDM policies because of the impact to personal privacy. While a business has every right to manage and wipe its own apps and data, IT has overstepped with some of its remote management capabilities — including its ability to erase entire devices, access personal data, track a phone’s location, restrict personal use of apps and more.

Apple’s MDM policies haven’t included GPS tracking, however, nor does this new option.

Apple’s new policy is a step toward a better balance of concerns, but will require that users understand the nuances of these more technical details — which they may not.

That user education will come down to the businesses that insist on these MDM policies to begin with — they will need to establish their own documentation, explainers, and establish new privacy policies with their employees that detail what sort of data they can and cannot access, as well as what sort of control they have over corporate devices.

Jun
06
2019
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The Ticket Fairy is tech’s best hope against Ticketmaster

Ticketmaster’s dominance has led to ridiculous service fees, scalpers galore, and exclusive contracts that exploit venues and artists. The moronic approval of venue operator and artist management giant Live Nation’s merger with Ticketmaster in 2010 produced an anti-competitive juggernaut. It pressures venues to sign ticketing contracts under veiled threat that artists would otherwise be routed to different concert halls. Now it’s become difficult for venues, artists, and fans to avoid Ticketmaster, which charges fees as high as 50% that many see as a ripoff.

But The Ticket Fairy wants to wrestle control of venues away from Ticketmaster while giving fans ways to earn tickets for referring their friends. The startup is doing that by offering the most technologically advanced ticketing platform that not only handle sales and checkins, but acts as a full-stack Salesforce for concerts that can analyze buyers and run ad campaigns while thwarting scalpers. Co-founder Ritesh Patel says The Ticket Fairy has increased revenue for event organizers by 15% to 25% during its private beta focused on dance music festivals.

Now after 850,000 tickets sold, it’s officially launching its ticketing suite and actively poaching venues from EventBrite as it moves deeper into esports and conventions. With a little more scale, it will be ready to challenge Ticketmaster for lucrative clients.

Ritesh’s combination of product and engineering skills, rapid progress, and charismatic passion for live events after throwing 400 of his own has attracted an impressive cadre of angel investors. They’ve delivered a $2.5 million seed round for Ticket Fairy adding to its $485,000 pre-seed from angels like Twitch/Atrium founder Justin Kan, Twitch COO Kevin Lin, and Reddit CEO Steve Huffman. The new round includes YouTube founder Steve Chen, former Kleiner Perkins partner and Mark’s sister Arielle Zuckerberg, and funds like 500 Startups, ex-Uber angels Fantastic Ventures, G2 Ventures, Tempo Ventures, and WeFunder. It’s also scored music industry angels like Serato DJ hardware CEO AJ Bertenshaw, Spotify’s head of label licensing Niklas Lundberg, and celebrity lawer Ken Hertz who reps Will Smith and Gwen Stefani.

“The purpose of starting The Ticket Fairy was not to be another EventBrite, but to reduce the risk of the person running the event so they can be profitable. We’re not just another shopping cart” Patel says. The Ticket Fairy charges a comparable rate to EventBrite’s $1.59 + 3.5% per ticket plus payment processing that brings it closer to 6%, but Patel insists it offers far stronger functionality.

Constantly clad in his golden disco hoodie over a Ticket Fairy t-shirt, Patel lives his product, spending late nights dancing and taking feedback at the events his clients host. He’s been a savior of SXSW the past two years, injecting the aging festival that shuts down at 2am with multi-night after-hours raves. Featuring top DJs like Pretty Lights in creative locations cab drivers don’t believe are real, The Ticket Fairy’s parties have won the hearts of music industry folks.

The Ticket Fairy co-founders. Center and inset left: Ritesh Patel. Inset right: Jigar Patel

Now the Y Combinator startup hopes its ticketing platform will do the same thanks to a slew of savvy features:

Earn A Ticket – The Ticket Fairy supercharges word of mouth marketing with a referral system that lets fans get a rebate or full-free ticket if they get enough friends to buy a ticket. 30% of ticket buyers are now sharing a Ticket Fairy referral link, and Patel says the return on investment is $30 in revenue for each $1 paid out in rewards, with 10% to 25% of all ticket sales coming from referrals. A public leaderboard further encourages referrals, with those at the top eligible for backstage passes, free merch, and bar tabs. And to prevent mass spamming, only buyers, partners, and street teamers get a referral code.

Creative Payment Options – The startup offers “FreeFund” tickets for free events that otherwise see huge no-show rates. Users pay a small deposit that’s refunded when they scan their ticket for entry, discouraging RSVPs from those who won’t come. Buyers can also pay on layaway with Affirm or LayBuy and then earn a ticket before their debt is due.

Anti-Scalping – The Ticket Fairy offers identity-locked tickets that must be presented with the buyer’s ID on arrival, which means customers can’t scalp them. Instead, the startup offers a waitlist for sold out events, and buyers can sell their tickets back to the company which then redistributes them at face value with a new QR code to a specific friend or whoever’s at the top of the waitlist. Patel says client SunAndBass Festival hasn’t had a scalped ticket in five years of working with the ticketer.

Clever Analytics – Never wasting an opportunity, The Ticket Fairy lets events collect contact info and demand before ticket sales start with its pre-registration system. It can ceate multiple variants of ticketing sites designed for different demographics like rock vs dance fans for a festival, track sales and demographics in real-time, and relay instant stats about checkins at the door. Integration of email managers like MailChimp and sales pixels like Facebook plus the ability to instantly retarget people who abandoned their shopping via Facebook Custom Audience ads makes marketing easier. And all the metrics, budgets, and expenses are automatically organized into financial reports to eliminate spreadsheet busywork.

Still, the biggest barrier to adoption remains the long exclusive contracts Ticketmaster and other giants like AEG coerce venues into in the US. Abroad, venues typically work with multiple ticket promoters who sell from the same pool, which is why 80% of The Ticket Fairy’s business is international right now. In the US, ticketing is often handled by a single company except for the 8% of tickets artists can sell however they want. That’s why The Ticket Fairy has focused on signing up non-traditional venues for festivals, trade convention halls, newly built esports arenas, as well as concert halls.

“Coming from the event promotion background, we understand the risk event organizers take in creating these experiences” The Ticket Fairy’s co-founder and Ritesh’s brother Jigar Patel explains. “The odds of breaking even are poor and many are unable to overcome those challenges, but it is sheer passion that keeps them going in the face of financial uncertainty and multi-year losses.” As competitors’ contracts expire, The Ticket Fairy hopes to swoop in by dangling its sales-boosting tech. “We get locked out of certain things because people are locked in a contract, not because they don’t want to use our system.”

The live music industry can brutal, though. Events can have slim margins, organizers are loathe to change their process, it’s a sales heavy process convincing them to try new software. But while record business has been redefined by streaming, ticketing looks a lot like it did a decade ago. That makes it ripe for disruption.

“The events industry is more important than ever, with artists making the bulk of their income from touring instead of record sales, and demand from fans for live experiences is increasing at a global level” Jigar concludes. “When events go out of business, everybody loses, including artists and fans. Everything we do at The Ticket Fairy has that firmly in mind – we are here to keep the ecosystem alive.”

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