Oct
06
2020
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Tone raises $4M to help e-commerce brands text with their customers

While many companies are using chatbots and other forms of automation to manage their communication with customers, Boston-based Tone is betting that humans will remain a key part of the equation.

“The traditional models of bots and humans is, ‘Hello, I’m a bot, now you get to battle with me to finally get to a human,’ ” said Tone CEO Tivan Amour. “Our version of that is, ‘I’m a human using AI to get you the answers you need more quickly.’ ”

Amour and his co-founders Vlad Pick and Kyle Weidman previously created a bicycle startup called Fortified Bicycle, and he said they “figured out that the best way to close our customers on these $750 to $1,000 orders was to actually engage them in text message conversations.”

After all, when it comes to “high consideration” purchases like bicycles, people usually want to discuss their questions and concerns with another human being. Over time, the Fortified team built what Amour said was a “semi-automated system” to help its sales team stay on top of these conversations.

“We started bragging to our friends about it, ‘You’ve gotta do this, it’s the future of mobile commerce,’ ” he recalled. “And they’d say, ‘Okay, that’s cool, but we don’t have any of the systems of doing that, we don’t have the salespeople.’ ”

Tone’s founders

So after selling Fortified Bicycle, Amour and Pick created Tone to help any e-commerce business manage similar text message conversations. Tone employs its own team of human agents to actually do the texting, assisted by software that helps them find the information they need.

It integrates with e-commerce systems like Shopify and Magento, and it’s already working with more than 1,000 brands like ThirdLove, Peak Design and Usual Wines — which are seeing as much as a 26% increase in revenue and a 15% increase in order size.

Amour also noted that specific Tone agents are assigned to specific brands, which means that customers will be talking to the same person whenever they have a question for that business. In some cases, customers have been talking to the same agent for months or years. (Update: Tone clarified that this isn’t a person, but a single persona that’s probably an amalgamation of multiple agents.)

“Particularly in a post-COVID world, it’s pretty clear that online shopping has become the dominant form of shopping, but I think nobody has thought about how you replace that human experience that you get in traditional retail,” he said.

Tone is announcing today that it has raised $4 million in seed funding led by Bling Capital, with participation from Day One Ventures, One Way Ventures, TIA Ventures and executives from Google, Facebook, Dropbox and Uber.

With the new funding, Amour said Tone will be able to build out the “relationship automation” aspect of the product. He also suggested that the platform could eventually expand beyond text messaging, but it sounds like that’s not a big priority.

“In theory, we’re a conversational sales platform more than we are an SMS company,” he said. “However there are a bunch of trends right now [such as the growth of mobile commerce] that make SMS the most obvious place for this sort of innovation.”

Sep
24
2020
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Airship acquires SMS commerce company ReplyBuy

Airship is announcing that it has acquired mobile commerce startup ReplyBuy.

The startup (which was a finalist at TechCrunch’s 1st and Future competition in 2016) works with customers like entertainment venues and professional and college sports teams to send messages and sell tickets to fans via SMS. It raised $4 million in funding from Sand Hill Angels, Kosinski Ventures, SEAG Ventures, Enspire Capital, MRTNZ Ventures and others, according to Crunchbase.

Airship, meanwhile, has been expanding its platform beyond push notifications to cover customer communication across SMS, email, mobile wallets and more. But CEO Brett Caine said this is the first time the company is moving into commerce.

While sports and concerts tickets might not be a booming market right now, Caine suggested that the company is actually seeing increased purchasing activity “in and around the Airship platform” as businesses try to drive more in-app purchases. He also suggested that both the COVID-19 pandemic and increased restrictions on mobile data collection and ad targeting are going to “accelerate direct-to-consumer motion by large brands.”

Airship isn’t disclosing the deal price, but Caine said the seven-person ReplyBuy team will be joining the company, with CEO Brandon O’Halloran becoming Airship’s general manager of commerce and CTO Anthony Saia leading the commerce engineering team.

“Nobody directly connects more brands to mobile consumers than Airship,” O’Halloran said in a statement. “Joining Airship offers ReplyBuy the opportunity to serve the global market with a more comprehensive solution across more industries, and provide more valuable mobile customer experiences.”

Caine added, “These are really key roles, demonstrating the importance, in our view, of extending commerce to the customer engagement experience.”

He also said that Airship will continue to support ReplyBuy as a standalone product, while also integrating and extending its capabilities to other areas of the Airship platform.

“This one-to-one commerce at scale is a key part of the ReplyBuy solution,” he said. “We’re going to bring it into all the digital channels that Airship powers [to create] a seamless, fast, easy experience around commerce.”

Jun
26
2020
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Fleetsmith customers unhappy with loss of third-party app support after Apple acquisition

When Apple confirmed it had acquired Fleetsmith, a mobile device management vendor, on Wednesday, it seemed like a straightforward purchase, but Fleetsmith customers quickly learned a key piece of functionality had stopped working  — and many weren’t happy about it.

Apple systems administrators began complaining on social media on the morning of the acquisition announcement that the company was no longer allowing them to connect to third-party applications.

“Primarily Fleetsmith maintained a third-party app catalog, so you could deploy things like Chrome or Zoom to your Macs, and Fleetsmith would maintain security updates for those apps. This was the main reason we purchased Fleetsmith,” a Fleetsmith customer told TechCrunch.

The customer added that the company described this functionality as a major feature in a company blog post:

For apps like Chrome, which are managed through the Fleetsmith Catalog, we handle all aspects of testing, packaging, triage, and deployment automatically. Whenever there’s an update (including security patches), we quickly add them to the Catalog so that our customers can enforce the latest version. In this case, we had the Chrome 78.0.3904.87 patch up within a couple hours of the update dropping.

As one system administrator pointed out, being able to manage Chrome browser security in an automated way was a huge part of this, and that was also removed along with third party app support.

As it turned out, Apple had made it clear that it was discontinuing this feature in an email to Fleetsmith customers on the day of the transition. The email included links to several help articles that were supposed to assist admins with the transition. (The email is included in full at the end of this article.)

The general consensus among admins that I spoke to was that these articles were not terribly helpful. While they described a way to fix the issues, they said that Apple has turned what was a highly automated experience into a highly manual one, effectively eliminating the speed and ease of use advantage of having the update feature in the first place.

Apple did confirm that it had responded to some help ticket requests after the changes this week, saying that it would soon restore some configurations for Catalog apps, and was working with impacted customers as needed. The company did not make clear, however, why they removed this functionality in the first place.

Fleetsmith offered a couple of key features that appealed to Mac system administrators. For starters, it let them set up new Macs automatically out of the box. This allows them to ship a new Mac or other Apple device, and as soon as the employee powers it up and connects to Wi-Fi, it connects to Fleetsmith, where systems administrators can track usage and updates. In addition, it allowed System Administrators to enforce Apple security and OS updates on company devices.

What’s more, it could also do the same thing with third-party applications like Google Chrome, Zoom or many others. When these companies pushed a new update, system administrators could make sure all users had the most recent version running on their machines. This is the key functionality that was removed this week.

It’s not clear why Apple chose to strip out these features outlined in the email to customers, but it seems likely that most of this functionality isn’t coming back, other than restoring some configurations for Catalog apps.

Email that went out to Fleetsmith customers the day of the acquisition outlining the changes:

 

Attempts to reach Fleetsmith founders for comment were unsuccessful. Should that change we will update the article.

Jun
18
2020
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Payfone raises $100M for its mobile phone-based digital verification and ID platform

As an increasing number of daily and essential services move to digital platforms — a trend that’s had a massive fillip in the last few months — having efficient but effective ways to verify that people are who they say they are online is becoming ever more important. Now, a startup called Payfone, which has built a B2B2C platform to identify and verify people using data (but no personal data) gleaned from your mobile phone, has raised $100 million to expand its business. Specifically, Rodger Desai, the co-founder and CEO, said in an interview that plan will be to build in more machine learning into its algorithms, expand to 35 more geographies and make strategic acquisitions to expand its technology stack.

The funding is being led by Apax Digital, with participation from an interesting list of new and existing backers. They include Sandbox Insurtech Ventures, a division of Sandbox Industries, which connects corporate investment funds with strategic startups in their space); Ralph de la Vega, the former vice chairman of AT&T; MassMutual Ventures; Synchrony; Blue Venture Fund (another Sandbox outfit); Wellington Management LLP; and the former CEO of LexisNexis, Andrew Prozes.

Several of these investors have a close link to the startup’s business: Payfone counts carriers, healthcare and insurance companies, and banks among its customers, which use Payfone technology in their backends to help verify users making transactions and logging in to their systems.

Payfone tells me it has now raised $175 million to date, and while it’s not disclosing its valuation with this round, according to PitchBook, in April 2019 when it raised previously, it was valued at $270 million. Desai added that Payfone is already profitable and business has been strong lately.

“In 2019 we processed 20 billion authentications, mostly for banks but also healthcare companies and others, and more generally, we’ve been growing 70% year-over-year,” he said. The aim is to boost that up to 100 billion authentications in the coming years, he said.

Payfone was founded in 2008 amongst a throng of mobile payment startups (hence its name) that emerged to help connect consumers, mobile content businesses and mobile carriers with simpler ways to pay using a phone, with a particular emphasis on using carrier billing infrastructure as a way of letting users pay without inputting or using cards (especially interesting in regions where credit and debit card penetration and usage are lower).

That has been an interesting if slowly growing business, so around 2015 Payfone starting to move toward using its tech and infrastructure to delve into the adjacent and related space of applying its algorithms, which use authentication data from mobile phones and networks to help carriers, banks and many other kinds of businesses verify users on their networks.

(Indeed, the connection between the technology used for mobile payments that bypasses credit/debit cards and the technology that might be used for ID verification is one that others are pursuing, too: Carrier billing startup Boku — which yesterday acquired one of its competitors, Fortumo, in a $41 million deal as part of a wider consolidation play — also acquired one of Payfone’s competitors, Danal, 18 months ago to add user authentication into its own range of services.)

The market for authentication and verification services was estimated to be worth some $6 billion in 2019 and is projected to grow to $12.8 billion by 2024, according to research published by MarketsandMarkets. But within that there seems to be an almost infinite amount of variations, approaches and companies offering services to carry out the work. That includes authentication apps, password managers, special hardware that generates codes, new innovations in biometrics using fingerprints and eye scans, and more.

While some of these require active participation from consumers (say by punching in passwords or authentication codes or using fingerprints), there’s also a push to develop more seamless and user-friendly, and essentially invisible, approaches, and that’s where Payfone sits.

As Desai describes it, Payfone’s behind-the-scenes solution is used either as a complement to other authentication techniques or on its own, depending on the implementation. In short, it’s based around creating “signal scores” and tokens, and is built on the concept of “data privacy and zero data knowledge architecture.” That is to say, the company’s techniques do not store any personal data and do not need personal data to provide verification information.

As he describes it, while many people might only be in their 20s when getting their first bank account (one of the common use cases for Payfone is in helping authenticate users who are signing up for accounts via mobile), they will have likely already owned a phone, likely with the same phone number, for a decade before that.

“A phone is with you and in your use for daily activities, so from that we can opine information,” he said, which the company in turn uses to create a “trust score” to identify that you are who you say you are. This involves using, for example, a bank’s data and what Desai calls “telecoms signals” against that to create anonymous tokens to determine that the person who is trying to access, say, a bank account is the same person identified with the phone being used. This, he said, has been built to be “spoof proof” so that even if someone hijacks a SIM it can’t be used to work around the technology.

While this is all proprietary to Payfone today, Desai said the company has been in conversation with other companies in the ecosystem with the aim of establishing a consortium that could compete with the likes of credit bureaus in providing data on users in a secure way.

“The trust score is based on our own proprietary signals but we envision making it more like a clearing house,” he said.

The fact that Payfone essentially works in the background has been just as much of a help as a hindrance for some observers. For example, there have been questions raised previously about how data is sourced and used by Payfone and others like it for identification purposes. Specifically, it seems that those looking closer at the data that these companies amass have taken issue not necessarily with Payfone and others like it, but with the businesses using the verification platforms, and whether they have been transparent enough about what is going on.

Payfone does provide an explanation of how it works with secure APIs to carry out its services (and that its customers are not consumers but the companies engaging Payfone’s services to work with consumer customers), and offers a route to opt out of of its services for those that seek to go that extra mile to do so, but my guess is that this might not be the end of that story if people continue to learn more about personal data, and how and where it gets used online.

In the meantime, or perhaps alongside however that plays out, there will continue to be interesting opportunities for approaches to verify users on digital platforms that respect their personal data and general right to control how any identifying detail — personal or not — gets used. Payfone’s traction so far in that area has helped it stand out to investors.

“Identity is the key enabling technology for the next generation of digital businesses,” said Daniel O’Keefe, managing partner of Apax Digital, in a statement. “Payfone’s Trust Score is core to the real-time decisioning that enterprises need in order to drive revenue while thwarting fraud and protecting privacy.” O’Keefe and his colleague, Zach Fuchs, a principal at Apax Digital, are both joining the board.

“Payfone’s technology enables frictionless customer experience, while curbing the mounting operating expense caused by manual review,” said Fuchs. 

Jun
18
2020
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Superhuman’s Rahul Vohra says recession is the ‘perfect time’ to be aggressive for well-capitalized startups

Email is one of those things that no one likes but that we’re all forced to use. Superhuman, founded by Rahul Vohra, aims to help everyone get to inbox zero.

Launched in 2017, Superhuman charges $30 per month and is still in invite-only mode with more than 275,000 people on the waitlist. That’s by design, Vohra told us earlier this week on Extra Crunch Live.

“I think a lot of folks misunderstand the nature of our waitlist,” he said. “They assume it’s some kind of FOMO-generating technique or some kind of false scarcity. Nothing could be further from the truth. The real reason we have the waitlist is that I want everyone who uses Superhuman to be deliriously happy with their experience.”

Today, the app is only available for desktop and iOS. Superhuman started with iOS because most premium users have iPhones, Vohra said. Still, many users have Android, so Superhuman’s waitlist consists mostly of Android users.

“We don’t think that if we onboard them they’d have the best experience with Superhuman because email really is an ecosystem product,” he said. “You do it just as much on the go as you do from your laptop. There’s a lot of reasons like that. So if you’re a person who identifies that as a must-have, well, we’ll take in the survey, we’ll learn about you so we know when to reach out to you. Then when we have those things built or integrated, we’ll reach out.”

We also chatted about his obsession with email, determining pricing for a premium product, the impact of COVID-19, diversity in tech in light of the police killing of George Floyd and so much more.

Throughout the conversation, Vohra also offered up some good practical advice for founders. Here are some highlights from the conversation.

On competition from Hey, the latest buzzy email app

Yeah, I’m not at all worried. I used to get worried about this. You know, 10 years ago, even as recently as five years ago, I would get worried about competitors. But I think Paul Graham has really, really great advice on this. I think he says pretty much verbatim: Startups don’t kill other startups. Competition generally doesn’t kill the startup. Other things do, like running out of money being the biggest one, or lack of momentum or lack of motivation or co-founder feuds; these are all really dangerous things.

Competition from other startups generally isn’t the thing that gets you and you know, props to the Basecamp team and everything they’ve done with Hey. It’s really impressive. I think it’s for an entirely different demographic than Superhuman is for.

Superhuman is for the person for whom essentially email is work and work is email. Our users kind of almost personally identify with their email inbox, and they’re coming from Gmail or G Suite. Typically it’s overflowing so they often receive hundreds if not thousands of emails a day, and they send off 100 emails a day. Superhuman is for high-volume email for whom email really matters. Power users, essentially, though power users isn’t quite the right articulation. What I actually say is prosumers because there’s a lot of people who come to us at Superhuman and they’re not yet power users of email, but they know they need to be.

That’s what I would call a prosumer — someone who really wants to be brilliant at doing email. Now Hey doesn’t seem to be designed for that target market. It doesn’t seem to be designed for high-volume emailers or prosumers or power users.

Jun
03
2020
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Watchful is a mobile product intelligence startup that surfaces unreleased features

Meet Watchful, a Tel Aviv-based startup coming out of stealth that wants to help you learn more about what your competitors are doing when it comes to mobile app development. The company tries to identify features that are being tested before getting rolled out to everyone, giving you an advantage if you’re competing with those apps.

Mobile app development has become a complex task, especially for the biggest consumer apps, from social to e-commerce. Usually, mobile development teams work on a new feature and try it out on a small subset of users. That process is called A/B testing as you separate your customers in two buckets — bucket A or bucket B.

For instance, Twitter is trying out its own version of Stories called Fleets. The company first rolled it out in Brazil to track the reaction and get some data from its user base. If you live anywhere else in the world, you’re not going to see that feature.

There are other ways to select a group of users to try out a new feature — you could even take part in a test because you’ve been randomly picked.

“When you open the app, you’ll probably see a different version from the app I see. You’re in a different region, you have a different device,” co-founder and CEO Itay Kahana told me. He previously founded popular to-do app Any.do.

For product designers, it has become a nightmare as you can’t simply open an app and look at what your competitors are doing. At any point in time, there are as many different versions of the same app as there are multiple A/B tests going on at the same time.

Watchful lets you learn from the competition by analyzing all those different versions and annotating changes in user flows, flagging unreleased features and uncovering design changes.

It is different from other mobile intelligence startups, such as App Annie or Sensor Tower. Those services mostly let you track downloads and rankings on the App Store and Play store to uncover products that are doing well.

“We’re focused on everything that is open and visible to the users,” Kahana said.

Like other intelligence startups, Watchful needs data. App Annie acquired a VPN app called Distimo and a data usage monitoring app called Mobidia. When you activate those apps, App Annie captures data about your phone usage, such as the number of times you open an app and how much time you spend in those apps.

According to a BuzzFeed News report, Sensor Tower has operated at least 20 apps on iOS and Android to capture data, such as Free and Unlimited VPN, Luna VPN, Mobile Data and Adblock Focus. Some of those apps have been removed from the stores following BuzzFeed’s story.

I asked a lot of questions about Watchful’s source of data. “It’s all real users that give us access to this information. It’s all running on real devices, real users. We extract videos and screenshots from them,” Kahana said.

“It’s more like a panel of users that we have access to their devices. It’s not an SDK that is hidden in some app and collects information and do shady stuff,” he added.

You’ll have to trust him as the company didn’t want to elaborate further. Kahana also said that data is anonymized in order to remove all user information.

Images are then analyzed by a computer vision algorithm focused on differential analysis. The startup has a team in the Philippines that goes through all that data and annotates it. It is then sent to human analysts so that they can track apps and write reports.

Watchful shared one of those reports with TechCrunch earlier this year. Thanks to this process, the startup discovered that TikTok parent company ByteDance has been working on a deepfake maker. The feature was spotted in both TikTok and its Chinese sister app Douyin.

But Watchful’s customers aren’t news organizations. The company sells access to its service to big companies working in the mobile space. Kahana didn’t want to name them, but it said it is already working with “the biggest social network players and the biggest e-commerce players, mainly in the U.S.”

The startup sells annual contracts based on the number of apps that you want to track. It has raised a $3 million seed round led by Vertex Ventures .

May
26
2020
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Scandit raises $80M as COVID-19 drives demand for contactless deliveries

Enterprise barcode scanner company Scandit has closed an $80 million Series C round, led by Silicon Valley VC firm G2VP. Atomico, GV, Kreos, NGP Capital, Salesforce Ventures and Swisscom Ventures also participated in the round — which brings its total raised to date to $123M.

The Zurich-based firm offers a platform that combines computer vision and machine learning tech with barcode scanning, text recognition (OCR), object recognition and augmented reality which is designed for any camera-equipped smart device — from smartphones to drones, wearables (e.g. AR glasses for warehouse workers) and even robots.

Use-cases include mobile apps or websites for mobile shopping; self checkout; inventory management; proof of delivery; asset tracking and maintenance — including in healthcare where its tech can be used to power the scanning of patient IDs, samples, medication and supplies.

It bills its software as “unmatched” in terms of speed and accuracy, as well as the ability to scan in bad light; at any angle; and with damaged labels. Target industries include retail, healthcare, industrial/manufacturing, travel, transport & logistics and more.

The latest funding injection follows a $30M Series B round back in 2018. Since then Scandit says it’s tripled recurring revenues, more than doubling the number of blue-chip enterprise customers, and doubling the size of its global team.

Global customers for its tech include the likes of 7-Eleven, Alaska Airlines, Carrefour, DPD, FedEx, Instacart, Johns Hopkins Hospital, La Poste, Levi Strauss & Co, Mount Sinai Hospital and Toyota — with the company touting “tens of billions of scans” per year on 100+ million active devices at this stage of its business.

It says the new funding will go on further pressing on the gas to grow in new markets, including APAC and Latin America, as well as building out its footprint and ops in North America and Europe. Also on the slate: Funding more R&D to devise new ways for enterprises to transform their core business processes using computer vision and AR.

The need for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic has also accelerated demand for mobile computer vision on personal smart devices, according to Scandit, which says customers are looking for ways to enable more contactless interactions.

Another demand spike it’s seeing is coming from the pandemic-related boom in ‘Click & Collect’ retail and “millions” of extra home deliveries — something its tech is well positioned to cater to because its scanning apps support BYOD (bring your own device), rather than requiring proprietary hardware.

“COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the need for rapid digital transformation in these uncertain times, and the need to blend the physical and digital plays a crucial role,” said CEO Samuel Mueller in a statement. “Our new funding makes it possible for us to help even more enterprises to quickly adapt to the new demand for ‘contactless business’, and be better positioned to succeed, whatever the new normal is.”

Also commenting on the funding in a supporting statement, Ben Kortlang, general partner at G2VP, added: “Scandit’s platform puts an enterprise-grade scanning solution in the pocket of every employee and customer without requiring legacy hardware. This bridge between the physical and digital worlds will be increasingly critical as the world accelerates its shift to online purchasing and delivery, distributed supply chains and cashierless retail.”

May
07
2020
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Health APIs usher in the patient revolution we have been waiting for

If you’ve ever been stuck using a health provider’s clunky online patient portal or had to make multiple calls to transfer medical records, you know how difficult it is to access your health data.

In an era when control over personal data is more important than ever before, the healthcare industry has notably lagged behind — but that’s about to change. This past month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published two final rules around patient data access and interoperability that will require providers and payers to create APIs that can be used by third-party applications to let patients access their health data.

This means you will soon have consumer apps that will plug into your clinic’s health records and make them viewable to you on your smartphone.

Critics of the new rulings have voiced privacy concerns over patient health data leaving internal electronic health record (EHR) systems and being surfaced to the front lines of smartphone apps. Vendors such as Epic and many health providers have publicly opposed the HHS rulings, while others, such as Cerner, have been supportive.

While that debate has been heated, the new HHS rulings represent a final decision that follows initial rules proposed a year ago. It’s a multi-year win for advocates of greater data access and control by patients.

The scope of what this could lead to — more control over your health records, and apps on top of it — is immense. Apple has been making progress with its Health Records app for some time now, and other technology companies, including Microsoft and Amazon, have undertaken healthcare initiatives with both new apps and cloud services.

It’s not just big tech that is getting in on the action: startups are emerging as well, such as Commure and Particle Health, which help developers work with patient health data. The unlocking of patient health data could be as influential as the unlocking of banking data by Plaid, which powered the growth of multiple fintech startups, including Robinhood, Venmo and Betterment.

What’s clear is that the HHS rulings are here to stay. In fact, many of the provisions require providers and payers to provide partial data access within the next 6-12 months. With this new market opening up, though, it’s time for more health entrepreneurs to take a deeper look at what patient data may offer in terms of clinical and consumer innovation.

The incredible complexity of today’s patient data systems

Apr
14
2020
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Replace non-stop Zoom with remote office avatars app Pragli

Could avatars that show what co-workers are up to save work-from-home teams from constant distraction and loneliness? That’s the idea behind Pragli, the Bitmoji for the enterprise. It’s a virtual office app that makes you actually feel like you’re in the same building.

Pragli uses avatars to signal whether co-workers are at their desk, away, in a meeting, in the zone while listening to Spotify, taking a break at a digital virtual water coooler or done for the day. From there, you’ll know whether to do a quick ad hoc audio call, cooperate via screenshare, schedule a deeper video meeting or a send a chat message they can respond to later. Essentially, it translates the real-word presence cues we use to coordinate collaboration into an online workplace for distributed teams.

“What Slack did for email, we want to do for video conferencing,” Pragli co-founder Doug Safreno tells me. “Traditional video conferencing is exclusive by design, whereas Pragli is inclusive. Just like in an office, you can see who is talking to who.” That means less time wasted planning meetings, interrupting colleagues who are in flow or waiting for critical responses. Pragli offers the focus that makes remote work productive with the togetherness that keeps everyone sane and in sync.

The idea is to solve the top three problems that Pragli’s extensive interviews and a Buffer/AngelList study discovered workers hate:

  1. Communication friction
  2. Loneliness
  3. Lack of boundaries

You never have to worry about whether you’re intruding on someone’s meeting, or if it’d be quicker to hash something out on a call instead of vague text. Avatars give remote workers a sense of identity, while the Pragli water cooler provides a temporary place to socialize rather than an endless Slack flood of GIFs. And because you clock in and out of the Pragli office just like a real one, co-workers understand when you’ll reply quickly versus when you’ll respond tomorrow unless there’s an emergency.

“In Pragli, you log into the office in the morning and there’s a clear sense of when I’m working and when I’m not working. Slack doesn’t give you a strong sense if they’re online or offline,” Safreno explains. “Everyone stays online and feels pressured to respond at any time of day.”

Pragli co-founder Doug Safreno

Safreno and his co-founder Vivek Nair know the feeling first-hand. After both graduating in computer science from Stanford, they built StacksWare to help enterprise software customers avoid overpaying by accurately measuring their usage. But when they sold StacksWare to Avi Networks, they spent two years working remotely for the acquirer. The friction and loneliness quickly crept in.

They’d message someone, not hear back for a while, then go back and forth trying to discuss the problem before eventually scheduling a call. Jumping into synchronous communicating would have been much more efficient. “The loneliness was more subtle, but it built up after the first few weeks,” Safreno recalls. “We simply didn’t socially bond while working remotely as well as in the office. Being lonely was de-motivating, and it negatively affected our productivity.”

The founders interviewed 100 remote engineers, and discovered that outside of scheduled meetings, they only had one audio or video call with co-workers per week. That convinced them to start Pragli a year ago to give work-from-home teams a visual, virtual facsimile of a real office. With no other full-time employees, the founders built and released a beta of Pragli last year. Usage grew 6X in March and is up 20X since January 1.

Today Pragli officially launches, and it’s free until June 1. Then it plans to become freemium, with the full experience reserved for companies that pay per user per month. Pragli is also announcing a small pre-seed round today led by K9 Ventures, inspired by the firm’s delight using the product itself.

To get started with Pragi, teammates download the Pragli desktop app and sign in with Google, Microsoft or GitHub. Users then customize their avatar with a wide range of face, hair, skin and clothing options. It can use your mouse and keyboard interaction to show if you’re at your desk or not, or use your webcam to translate occasional snapshots of your facial expressions to your avatar. You can also connect your Spotify and calendar to show you’re listening to music (and might be concentrating), reveal or hide details of your meeting and decide whether people can ask to interrupt you or that you’re totally unavailable.

From there, you can by audio, video or text communicate with any of your available co-workers. Guests can join conversations via the web and mobile too, though the team is working on a full-fledged app for phones and tablets. Tap on someone and you can instantly talk to them, though their mic stays muted until they respond. Alternatively, you can jump into Slack-esque channels for discussing specific topics or holding recurring meetings. And if you need some down time, you can hang out in the water cooler or trivia game channel, or set a manual “away” message.

Pragli has put a remarkable amount of consideration into how the little office social cues about when to interrupt someone translate online, like if someone’s wearing headphones, in a deep convo already or if they’re chilling in the microkitchen. It’s leagues better than having no idea what someone’s doing on the other side of Slack or what’s going on in a Zoom call. It’s a true virtual office without the clunky VR headset.

“Nothing we’ve tried has delivered the natural, water-cooler-style conversations that we get from Pragli,” says Storj Labs VP of engineering JT Olio. “The ability to switch between ‘rooms’ with screen sharing, video and voice in one app is great. It has really helped us improve transparency across teams. Plus, the avatars are quite charming as well.”

With Microsoft’s lack of social experience, Zoom consumed with its scaling challenges and Slack doubling down on text as it prioritizes Zoom integration over its own visual communication features, there’s plenty of room for Pragli to flourish. Meanwhile, COVID-19 quarantines are turning the whole world toward remote work, and it’s likely to stick afterwards as companies de-emphasize office space and hire more abroad.

The biggest challenge will be making comprehensible enough to onboard whole teams such a broad product encompassing every communication medium and tons of new behaviors. How do you build a product that doesn’t feel distracting like Slack but where people can still have the spontaneous conversations that are so important to companies innovating?,” Safreno asks. The Pragli founders are also debating how to encompass mobile without making people feel like the office stalks them after hours.

“Long-term, [Pragli] should be better than being in the office because you don’t actually have to walk around looking for [co-workers], and you get to decide how you’re presented,” Safreno concludes. “We won’t quit, because we want to work remotely for the rest of our lives.”

Apr
03
2020
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Zoom will enable waiting rooms by default to stop Zoombombing

Zoom is making some drastic changes to prevent rampant abuse as trolls attack publicly-shared video calls. Starting April 5th, it will require passwords to enter calls via Meeting ID, since these may be guessed or reused. Meanwhile, it will change virtual waiting rooms to be on by default so hosts have to manually admit attendees.

The changes could prevent “Zoombombing”, a term I coined two weeks ago to describe malicious actors entering Zoom calls and disrupting them by screensharing offensive imagery. New Zoombombing tactics have since emerged, like spamming the chat thread with terrible GIFs, using virtual backgrounds to spread hateful messages, or just screaming profanities and slurs. Anonymous forums have now become breeding grounds for organized trolling efforts to raid calls.

Just imagine the most frightened look on all these people’s faces. That’s what happened when Zoombombers attacked the call.

The FBI has issued a warning about the Zoombombing problem after children’s online classes, alcoholics anonymous meetings, and private business calls were invaded by trolls. Security researchers have revealed many ways that attackers can infiltrate a call.

The problems stem from Zoom being designed for trusted enterprise use cases rather than cocktail hours, yoga classes, roundtable discussions, and classes. But with Zoom struggling to scale its infrastructure as its daily user count has shot up from 10 million to 200 million over the past month due to coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, it’s found itself caught off guard.

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan apologized for the security failures this week and vowed changes. But at the time, the company merely said it would default to making screensharing host-only and keeping waiting rooms on for its K-12 education users. Clearly it determined that wasn’t sufficient, so now waiting rooms are on by default for everyone.

Zoom communicated the changes to users via an email sent this afternoon that explains “we’ve chosen to enable passwords on your meetings and turn on Waiting Rooms by default as additional security enhancements to protect your privacy.”

The company also explained that “For meetings scheduled moving forward, the meeting password can be found in the invitation. For instant meetings, the password will be displayed in the Zoom client. The password can also be found in the meeting join URL.” Some other precautions users can take include disabling file transfer, screensharing, or rejoining by removed attendees.

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 18: Zoom founder Eric Yuan reacts at the Nasdaq opening bell ceremony on April 18, 2019 in New York City. The video-conferencing software company announced it’s IPO priced at $36 per share, at an estimated value of $9.2 billion. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

The shift could cause some hassle for users. Hosts will be distracted by having to approve attendees out of the waiting room while they’re trying to lead calls. Zoom recommends users resend invites with passwords attached for Meeting ID-based calls scheduled for after April 5th. Scrambling to find passwords could make people late to calls.

But that’s a reasonable price to pay to keep people from being scarred by Zoombombing attacks. The rash of trolling threatened to sour many people’s early experiences with the video chat platform just as it’s been having its breakout moment. A single call marred by disturbing pornography can leave a stronger impression than 100 peaceful ones with friends and colleagues. The old settings made sense when it was merely an enterprise product, but it needed to embrace its own change of identity as it becomes a fundamental utility for everyone.

Technologists will need to grow better at anticipating worst-case scenarios as their products go mainstream and are adapted to new use cases. Assuming everyone will have the best intentions ignores the reality of human nature. There’s always someone looking to generate a profit, score power, or cause chaos from even the smallest opportunity. Building development teams that include skeptics and realists, rather than just visionary idealists, could keep ensure products get safeguarded from abuse before rather than after a scandal occurs.

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