Aug
26
2021
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Workera.ai, a precision upskilling platform, taps $16M to close enterprise skills gap

Finding the right learning platform can be difficult, especially as companies look to upskill and reskill their talent to meet demand for certain technological capabilities, like data science, machine learning and artificial intelligence roles.

Workera.ai’s approach is to personalize learning plans with targeted resources — both technical and nontechnical roles — based on the current level of a person’s proficiency, thereby closing the skills gap.

The Palo Alto-based company secured $16 million in Series A funding, led by New Enterprise Associates, and including existing investors Owl Ventures and AI Fund, as well as individual investors in the AI field like Richard Socher, Pieter Abbeel, Lake Dai and Mehran Sahami.

Kian Katanforoosh, Workera’s co-founder and CEO, says not every team is structured or feels supported in their learning journey, so the company comes at the solution from several angles with an assessment on technical skills, where the employee wants to go in their career and what skills they need for that, and then Workera will connect those dots from where the employee is in their skillset to where they want to go. Its library has more than 3,000 micro-skills and personalized learning plans.

“It is what we call precision upskilling,” he told TechCrunch. “The skills data then can go to the organization to determine who are the people that can work together best and have a complementary skill set.”

Workera was founded in 2020 by Katanforoosh and James Lee, COO, after working with Andrew Ng, Coursera co-founder and Workera’s chairman. When Lee first connected with Katanforoosh, he knew the company would be able to solve the problem around content and basic fundamentals of upskilling.

It raised a $5 million seed round last October to give the company a total of $21 million raised to date. This latest round was driven by the company’s go-to-market strategy and customer traction after having acquired over 30 customers in 12 countries.

Over the past few quarters, the company began working with Fortune 500 companies, including Siemens Energy, across industries like professional services, medical devices and energy, Lee said. As spending on AI skills is expected to exceed $79 billion by 2022, he says Workera will assist in closing the gap.

“We are seeing a need to measure skills,” he added. “The size of the engagements are a sign as is the interest for tech and non-tech teams to develop AI literacy, which is a more pressing need.”

As a result, it was time to increase the engineering and science teams, Katanforoosh said. He plans to use the new funding to invest in more talent in those areas and to build out new products. In addition, there are a lot of natural language processes going on behind the scenes, and he wants the company to better understand it at a granular level so that the company can assess people more precisely.

Carmen Chang, general partner and head of Asia at NEA, said she is a limited partner in Ng’s AI fund and in Coursera, and has looked at a lot of his companies.

She said she is “very excited” to lead the round and about Workera’s concept. The company has a good understanding of the employee skill set, and with the tailored learning program, will be able to grow with company needs, Chang added.

“You can go out and hire anyone, but investing in the people that you have, educating and training them, will give you a look at the totality of your employees,” Chang said. “Workera is able to go in and test with AI and machine learning and map out the skill sets within a company so they will be able to know what they have, and that is valuable, especially in this environment.”

 

May
19
2021
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Spokn slurps out the BS in corporate internal comms and replaces it with audio storytelling

The podcasting world remains one of the most vibrant formats in media (and I am not just saying that since the Equity crew won a Webby yesterday for our not-that-humble podcast). Its openness, diversity, freedom and ease-of-authoring has broadened the medium to all sorts of hosts on every subject imaginable.

We experience that dynamism and verve in our own audio listening, but then we start to tune into our company’s internal communications, and, well, you certainly don’t need sleeping pills to zone out. Top-down, formal, banal — corporate comms remains mired in a 1950s way of speaking that is completely out-of-sync with the millennials and Gen Z majority of workers who expect something actually worth watching and listening to.

Spokn wants to make company-wide podcasting a must-listen event, not just for leaders to talk to their employees, but for every worker to have a voice and share their expertise and stories across their workplaces. Through its app, companies can deliver personalized podcast feeds on everything from a daily standup or weekly AMA to training and development content, all of which is secure and kept for internal use.

It’s an idea that has quickly attracted investor attention. The startup, which was part of Y Combinator’s most recent Winter 2021 batch, closed on a $4 million seed round two weeks before Demo Day led by Ann Bordetsky, a partner at NEA who joined earlier this year and previously served as COO of Rival. This is her first investment with the firm.

The company was founded by Fawzy Abu Seif, Mariel Davis and Mohammad Galal Eldeen. Abu Seif and Davis met each other in an Egyptian jazz club in November 2017, about a week after he had quit his job. They eventually came together not just as a couple — they got married in the fall of 2019 — but as business partners, linking up with Galal Eldeen and incorporating Spokn in April 2018.

Spokn’s Mohammad Galal Eldeen, Mariel Davis and Fawzy Abu Seif. Image Credits: Spokn

Spokn’s product evolved across three iterations. First, the team tried to create audio narrations of evergreen content at major publishers like The New York Times. The idea was to help publishers reuse their best content as a new revenue source while connecting more listeners into these brands. Getting publishers to commit was tough though. “The consumer app wasn’t doing that great, and we started hunting around the data to see if something was working,” Davis said.

What they found was that professional development podcasts were much more popular compared to other topics, and so they had an opportunity to re-jigger the product to focus on training and specifically target enterprises. The idea was “let’s empower companies with the same tools we had as a consumer company,” Abu Seif said.

Prior to Spokn, Davis had worked with an entrepreneur in the Middle East building out a social enterprise network focused on skills training, a role in which she handled internal communications. She saw just how little impact media like email made for employees, particularly in the distributed workforce she was attempting to engage. The new direction for Spokn was far more enticing.

The newly married couple moved to New York City from Egypt and signed an apartment lease in early March 2020 — just as the COVID-19 pandemic spread widely in the region. We “multiplied the living expenses by 8-10x while doing the same Zoom calls we could make from there,” Abu Seif joked.

Eventually, the company realized that it could do much more than just training, and expanded into broader internal comms. “Async audio is a lot more personal than email,” Abu Seif said. This latest product iteration launched in November 2020, and included push notifications, an app for streaming, personalization features and analytics to allow companies to track what was working and what was not for employees.

Spokn’s app offers a personalized feed of company podcasts. Image Credits: Spokn

Perhaps most importantly, companies can tailor the access lists for individual podcasts to particular groups of people, such as senior execs, people managers, sales employees or any other logical grouping. We “get a lot of inbound from companies that are trying to duct-tape solutions together,” Davis said. For Abu Seif, “all the tools that marketers have to engage consumers, we are empowering companies to engage with their employees.”

Despite the startup and product’s youth, it has attracted a quick following among companies, with customers including Podium, ShipBob, Cedar, Mixpanel, ServiceNow and Superhuman. Podium’s CEO, for example, records weekly podcasts that are shipping on Spokn, and apparently even installed a podcast studio near his office just to make it easier to produce his shows.

Podcasting inside companies fixes a lot of problems with traditional internal comms. First and foremost, it can create a deeper connection where email cannot. Audio can feel more personal than even video, and also can be played in the background. It’s also asynchronous, unlike live video, allowing employees in different time zones to connect with key stories at an appropriate time.

Plus, employees can avoid all the fatigue that comes from being onscreen. “No one wants Zoom zombies,” Bordetsky of NEA said. “We need intuitive and asynchronous communication tools like Spokn to build connection and community in the workplace.” Her thesis for the investment is that “flexible, distributed work is here to stay and employee communication is at the heart of building a modern, virtual-first employee experience.”

Buyers of Spokn range from heads of people to sales teams, and the company is also focused on recruiting and retention as well. “Companies are pretty freaked out about retaining their great talent,” Davis said. Some companies are now sharing “stories with prospects even before their first day at the company.”

While the product is mostly used by leaders today, Spokn wants to expand that remit to employees talking with their peer colleagues, helping to build community in hybrid offices where it is harder than ever to make a connection with others.

Of course, companies can screw up podcasting just as much as they have screwed up every other medium to communicate like humans, and Davis says it’s become her full-time job to help them think through storytelling and how to connect better with their own employees. We “work to find the right storytellers in the company,” she said.

Outside NEA, other investors in the seed round included Reach Capital, Funders Club, Liquid2, Share Capital, SOMA Capital, Scribble VC and Hack VC.

Feb
05
2020
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Where top VCs are investing in open source and dev tools (Part 2 of 2)

In part two of a survey that asks top VCs about exciting opportunities in open source and dev tools, we dig into responses from 10 leading open-source-focused investors at firms that span early to growth stage across software-specific firms, corporate venture arms and prominent generalist firms.

In the conclusion to our survey, we’ll hear from:

These responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Jul
29
2019
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The Exit: The acquisition charting Salesforce’s future

Before Tableau was the $15.7 billion key to Salesforce’s problems, it was a couple of founders arguing with a couple of venture capitalists over lunch about why its Series A valuation should be higher than $12 million pre-money.

Salesforce has generally been one to signify corporate strategy shifts through their acquisitions, so you can understand why the entire tech industry took notice when the cloud CRM giant announced its priciest acquisition ever last month.

The deal to acquire the Seattle-based data visualization powerhouse Tableau was substantial enough that Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff publicly announced it was turning Seattle into its second HQ. Tableau’s acquisition doesn’t just mean big things for Salesforce. With the deal taking place just days after Google announced it was paying $2.6 billion for Looker, the acquisition showcases just how intense the cloud wars are getting for the enterprise tech companies out to win it all.

The Exit is a new series at TechCrunch. It’s an exit interview of sorts with a VC who was in the right place at the right time but made the right call on an investment that paid off. [Have feedback? Shoot me an email at lucas@techcrunch.com]

Scott Sandell, a general partner at NEA (New Enterprise Associates) who has now been at the firm for 25 years, was one of those investors arguing with two of Tableau’s co-founders, Chris Stolte and Christian Chabot. Desperate to close the 2004 deal over their lunch meeting, he went on to agree to the Tableau founders’ demands of a higher $20 million valuation, though Sandell tells me it still feels like he got a pretty good deal.

NEA went on to invest further in subsequent rounds and went on to hold over 38% of the company at the time of its IPO in 2013 according to public financial docs.

I had a long chat with Sandell, who also invested in Salesforce, about the importance of the Tableau deal, his rise from associate to general partner at NEA, who he sees as the biggest challenger to Salesforce, and why he thinks scooter companies are “the worst business in the known universe.”

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


Lucas Matney: You’ve been at this investing thing for quite a while, but taking a trip down memory lane, how did you get into VC in the first place? 

Scott Sandell: The way I got into venture capital is a little bit of a circuitous route. I had an opportunity to get into venture capital coming out of Stanford Business School in 1992, but it wasn’t quite the right fit. And so I had an interest, but I didn’t have the right opportunity.

Mar
20
2019
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Movius raises $45M for its business communications service

Atlanta-based Movius, a company that allows companies to assign a separate business number for voice calls and texting to any phone, today announced that it has raised a $45 million Series D round led by JPMorgan Chase, with participation from existing investors PointGuard Ventures, New Enterprise Associates and Anschutz Investment company. With this, the company has now raised a total of $100 million.

In addition to the new funding, Movius also today announced that it has brought on former Adobe and Sun executive John Loiacono as its new CEO. Loiacono was also the founding CEO of network analytics startup Jolata.

“The Movius opportunity is pervasive. Almost every company on planet Earth is mobilizing their workforce but are challenged to find a way to securely interact with their customers and constituents using all the preferred communication vehicles – be that voice, SMS or any other channel they use in their daily lives,” said Loiacono. “I’m thrilled because I’m joining a team that features highly passionate and proven innovators who are maniacally focused on delivering this very solution. I look forward to leading this next chapter of growth for the company.”

Sanjay Jain, the chief strategy officer at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, and Larry Feinsmith, the head of JPMorgan Chase’s Technology Innovation, Strategy & Partnerships office, are joining the company’s board.

Movius currently counts more than 1,400 businesses as its customers, and its carrier partners include Sprint, Telstra and Telefonica. What’s important to note is that Movius is more than a basic VoIP app on your phone. What the company promises is a carrier-grade network that allows businesses to assign a second number to their employees’ phones. That way, the employer remains in charge, even as employees bring their own devices to work.

Sep
28
2015
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Online Content Manager Acquia Raises $55 Million For Online Customer Relationships

general store Acquia, the eight-year-old service provider that helps businesses tailor their websites to Internet browsers and mobile application users, has raised $55 million in a late-stage round of financing. The move comes as the battle to manage the customer experience continues to heat up. Giants like Salesforce are looking to own the customer experience as it relates to the customer record, marketing… Read More

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