Nov
08
2018
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Datacoral raises $10M Series A for its data infrastructure service

Datacoral aims to make it easier for enterprises to build data products by abstracting away all of the complex infrastructure to organize and process data. The company today announced that it has raised a $10 million Series A financing round led by Madrona Venture Group, with participation from Social Capital, which also led its $4 million seed round in 2017.

Datacoral CEO Raghu Murthy tells me that the company plans to use the new funding to grow its business team in order to be able to reach more potential customers and to expand its engineering team.

The promise of Datacoral is to offer enterprises an end-to-end data infrastructure that will allow businesses and their data scientists to focus on generating insights over having to manage and integrate their data sources. Because nobody wants to move large amounts of data between clouds — and take the performance hit that comes with that — Datacoral sits right inside a company’s AWS systems. It’s still a fully managed service, though, but the data is encrypted and never leaves a customer’s virtual private cloud.

“As companies look to their data to deliver value – data practitioners are finding that configuring and managing their own data infrastructure is a time-consuming job that is expensive and fraught with errors,” said Murthy. “We have built a platform that easily and automatically brings together data from different applications and databases, organizes that data in any query engine and acts on insights that are critical to running their business. A crucial component is that it works securely and privately within the customer’s cloud, instead of us ingesting data from their systems.”

Murthy was an early engineer at Facebook and part of the team that was in charge of scaling that company’s data infrastructure and ran a part of the engineering team at Bebop, Diane Greene’s startup that was later acquired by Google.

To scale Datacoral, the team is betting on a serverless platform itself. It’s making extensive use of AWS Lambda and other PaaS solutions on Amazon’s cloud computing platform. That doesn’t mean Datacoral plans to only support AWS, though. Murthy tells me that Azure support is next. “We plan to work across all of the top cloud providers by leveraging their unique services and provide a consistent ‘data-centric interface’ to our customers — essentially be ‘cloud best’ instead of ‘cloud agnostic.’”

Current Datacoral users include Greenhouse, Front, Ezetap, Swing Education, mPharma and Mason Finance.

Nov
02
2018
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Dynamic Yield, which builds Amazon-like personalisation for the rest of us, raises $38M

Amazon, one of the world’s largest companies, has transformed the face of commerce in part because it has managed at once to be “The Everything Store” but still with a route into its sea of products that, for most users, surfaces what they might most want to see (and importantly buy or consume). That kind of personalisation has become a goal not just for e-commerce companies, but for any organization running a digital business: users are constantly distracted, and when their attention is caught, they do not want to spend time figuring out what they most want.

Not every business is Amazon, though, so we are seeing a crop of startups emerging that are working on ways to help the rest of the digital world be just as optimised and personalised as Amazon. Now one of them, an Israeli startup called Dynamic Yield, has raised more money as it continues to expand its business, both to more platforms and to more geographies.

The startup’s Series D has now closed off at $38 million, with the inclusion of a $5 million strategic investment from Naver, Korea’s “Google” (it’s the country’s top search portal) that is also behind messaging apps Line and Snow. The plan is for Naver to help bring Dynamic Yield to Korea and Japan, by incorporating its tech into its own services and those of others that work with Naver.

(Personalisation and aggregators are strong magnets for users in Asia and thus big magnets for funding: ByteDance, which provides news aggregation among other services, was recently valued at $75 billion.)

Naver is not the only search engine that has caught sight of Dynamic Yield over the years. Previous investors include Baidu (“the Google of China”), and we’ve heard that when the startup was younger — it was founded in 2011 — Google had tried to acquire it (Dynamic Yield rejected the offer, and it’s been approached for acquisitions numerous times since then).

Other strategic investors include The New York Times and Deutsche Telekom, alongside other backers like Innovation Endeavors, Bessemer Venture Partners, Marker Capital and more.

Dynamic Yield has raised $85 million to date and is now valued at “hundreds of millions of dollars,” but less than $500 million, a source at the company said, after seeing a strong expansion of its services. 

Dynamic Yield says it works with more than 220 global brands, and its tech reaches 600 million unique users each month, across 10 billion page views and 600 billion “events” on those pages. It claims its AI-based personalisation technology can lift revenues (or other engagement metrics) by 10-15 percent. 

“It makes us an effective tool for surviving in a market where customer acquisition cost keeps getting more expensive,” co-founder and CEO Liad Agmon said in an interview.

Dynamic Yield doesn’t talk about many of its customers on the record — most don’t like to reveal to rivals who they work with, Agmon said.

But they include a number of big brands across e-commerce, travel, finance, media and other segments that use its tech not just to show more targeted products to prospective shoppers, but to help power advertising, recommend content and position the same information to different people in different ways depending on who is viewing it (for example with different headlines).

There are a lot of personalisation and A/B analytics companies in the market today — others include Adobe, Marketo (which is becoming a part of Adobe), Optimizely and many more. Indeed, I’d be very surprised if Amazon is not working on ways of productising its own personalisation tech in a way that is not intrinsically linked to its own marketplace (because some will never want to sell there, and because personalisation can be used for so much more than just e-commerce).

Dynamic Yield, however, claims that it has an edge over these because of how it works.

Agmon says that the tech sits on top of whichever CMS or other backend server that a site is using and is activated by way of a small amount of code. It uses machine learning to both “read” what is in a site, and matches that up against specific visitors and its own trove of experience.

Agmon added that when a business already has information about that visitor, that is the primary data that is used; otherwise it also incorporates other data sources like Acxiom and others — much the way that other marketing tech does — to form a stronger picture of your tastes.

It then runs this data through its own machine learning algorithms both to recommend content and to help a marketing manager figure out better customer segmentation overall. There is an “autopilot” version of the product where everything is automated based on Dynamic Yield’s algorithms; or options to use the data sources to set up specific marketing campaigns; or (as is common) a combination of the two.

Going forward, Agmon said the plan is to work across an increasing number of interfaces where customers are going today to discover and buy goods and services. Indeed, we’ve described how some of the newest e-commerce startups have eschewed any website or app of their own and work exclusively in third-party messaging apps to acquire customers and sell goods.

But it’s not just these new digital platforms that are becoming targets for personalisation startups like Dynamic Yield.

Agmon said that his company is also working with a major retailer that is using its tech at its in-person payment points. When — for example — a customer comes to order a latte, instead of generic upselling to the latest seasonal flavour, the person taking the order will now know if the customer ever orders a sweet injection, or if she/he is more of a savoury snack sort of person. The cashier will then know what to recommend to eat with that drink that is more likely to be purchased.

The mom-and-pop shop with its reputation for knowing the regulars and what they like might have found its dystopian (but useful) heir.

Nov
01
2018
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Retail-as-a-service provider Leap raises $3M and launches first store

The past decade in retail has been the golden age of direct-to-consumer (D2C) and digitally native vertical brands (DNVBs) that use the internet to communicate with customers, execute transactions, handle distribution and offer better economics.

But as small independent startups have scaled into unicorn territory and as countless brands have saturated digital channels, customer acquisition has gotten harder and costlier. Companies are now trying to meet customers with different purchase habits by developing physical stores. 

However, building an effective brick-and-mortar presence can be expensive and risky for DNVBs, requiring resources outside their core competencies. Chicago-based startup Leap is hoping to make it easier for digital brands to grow physical retail footprints without the typical risks of store development by taking care of the entire process for them.

Leap offers a full-service platform covering the complete life cycle of a brand’s brick-and-mortar launch.  In addition to owning the lease and the financial commitments that come with it, Leap covers everything from staffing, experiential design, tech integration and even day-to-day operations. 

(Photo by Alexander Scheuber/Getty Images)

Less than a year since its founding, Leap announced today the launch of its first store and the close of a $3 million seed round, led by Costanoa Ventures, with participation from Equal Ventures and Brand Foundry Ventures.

The debut store will act as the first Chicago location for Koio, the high-end D2C sneaker brand backed by headline-grabbing names like the Winklevoss twins, director Simon Kinberg and actor Miles Teller. 

Instead of paying a monthly lease fee, along with all the other variable costs associated with operating a physical store, companies like Koio pay Leap on a percent of sales basis, effectively minimizing risk and incentivizing performance. 

On top of minimizing development expense for brands, Leap believes its customer insights and intelligent logistics platform can help improve shopper engagement, increase customer traffic and drive brand lift. If the startup’s thesis proves true, brands can improve both sides of their brick-and-mortar unit economics by reducing customer acquisition costs and amplifying customer value.

At its core, Leap simplifies a DNVB’s physical retail operations into a single line item on its P&L, allowing the company to focus on brand building and supply chain rather than retail strategy, while also allowing them to scale faster. 

With the latest fundraise, the company hopes to build out its team and continue new location expansion.  Longer-term, Leap’s co-founders hope to build a vast network of sites that can help provide intelligence around new store development and shopper preference.

“We want to be the platform to help brands go to market in the offline space”, said co-founder Amish Tolia.  “We want to help brands build direct-to-consumer relationships in local neighborhoods across the country and enable them to focus on what they’re best at. Enable them to focus on product innovation, supply chain management, great marketing and brand building.”

A glimpse into the future retail

While Leap’s value proposition is straightforward, its business model points to a bigger trend in the world of retail.  

By opting to sell its software and brick-and-mortar services rather than creating its own brands, Leap effectively acts as a “retail-as-a-service” platform. The as-a-service strategy is already quietly growing in popularity in the retail space, with companies like b8ta, the Internet of Things gadget retailer, launching its hardware-oriented “Built by b8ta” platform earlier this year.

Though likely heavy in upfront capital costs, retail-as-a-service businesses don’t have the same constant concern around supply chain, manufacturing, consumer acquisition and marketing spend. And in certain pricing models based on a monthly fee or percent of square footage basis, platforms can see more stable revenues relative to pure retail startups.

From a brand perspective, DNVBs have been looking for ways to extend growth runways while minimizing the cost and uncertainty that deterred them from physical stores in the first place. The as-a-service model can make brick-and-mortar retail a much more scalable engine, possibly even cooling rising concern around bubbling consumer valuations.

As more of the young digitally born D2C giants resort to as-a-service companies to find marginal customers, we may see the rise of a new set of startups fighting to establish themselves as the platform on which brands operate.

If the last decade was defined by retail online, it’s possible that the next decade will be defined by retail-as-a-service.

And if you find yourself in Chicago, feel free to check out the Leap-enabled Koio Store at 924 W Armitage in Lincoln Park.

Sep
26
2018
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Instana raises $30M for its application performance monitoring service

Instana, an application performance monitoring (APM) service with a focus on modern containerized services, today announced that it has raised a $30 million Series C funding round. The round was led by Meritech Capital, with participation from existing investor Accel. This brings Instana’s total funding to $57 million.

The company, which counts the likes of Audi, Edmunds.com, Yahoo Japan and Franklin American Mortgage as its customers, considers itself an APM 3.0 player. It argues that its solution is far lighter than those of older players like New Relic and AppDynamics (which sold to Cisco hours before it was supposed to go public). Those solutions, the company says, weren’t built for modern software organizations (though I’m sure they would dispute that).

What really makes Instana stand out is its ability to automatically discover and monitor the ever-changing infrastructure that makes up a modern application, especially when it comes to running containerized microservices. The service automatically catalogs all of the endpoints that make up a service’s infrastructure, and then monitors them. It’s also worth noting that the company says that it can offer far more granular metrics that its competitors.

Instana says that its annual sales grew 600 percent over the course of the last year, something that surely attracted this new investment.

“Monitoring containerized microservice applications has become a critical requirement for today’s digital enterprises,” said Meritech Capital’s Alex Kurland. “Instana is packed with industry veterans who understand the APM industry, as well as the paradigm shifts now occurring in agile software development. Meritech is excited to partner with Instana as they continue to disrupt one of the largest and most important markets with their automated APM experience.”

The company plans to use the new funding to fulfill the demand for its service and expand its product line.

Sep
18
2018
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UiPath lands $225M Series C on $3 billion valuation as robotic process automation soars

UiPath is bringing automation to repetitive processes inside large organizations and it seems to have landed on a huge pain point. Today it announced a massive $225 million Series C on a $3 billion valuation.

The round was led by CapitalG and Sequoia Capital. Accel, which invested in the companies A and B rounds also participated. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $408 million, according to Crunchbase, and comes just months after a $153 million Series B we reported on last March. At that time, it had a valuation of over $1 billion, meaning the valuation has tripled in less than six months.

There’s a reason this company you might have never heard of is garnering this level of investment so quickly. For starters, it’s growing in leaps in bounds. Consider that it went from $1 million to $100 million in annual recurring revenue in under 21 months, according to the company. It currently has 1800 enterprise customers and claims to be adding 6 new ones a day, an astonishing rate of customer acquisition.

The company is part of the growing field of robotic process automation or RPA . While the robotics part of the name could be considered a bit of a misnomer, the software helps automate a series of mundane tasks that were typically handled by humans. It allows companies to bring a level of automation to legacy processes like accounts payable, employee onboarding, procurement and reconciliation without actually having to replace legacy systems.

Phil Fersht, CEO and chief analyst at HfS, a firm that watches the RPA market, says RPA isn’t actually that intelligent. “It’s about taking manual work, work-arounds and integrated processes built on legacy technology and finding way to stitch them together,” he told TechCrunch in an interview earlier this year.

It isn’t quite as simple as the old macro recorders that used to record a series of tasks and execute them with a keystroke, but it is somewhat analogous to that approach. Today, it’s more akin to a bot that may help you complete a task in Slack. RPA is a bit more sophisticated moving through a workflow in an automated fashion.

Ian Barkin from Symphony Ventures, a firm that used to do outsourcing, has embraced RPA. He says while most organizations have a hard time getting a handle on AI, RPA allows them to institute fundamental change around desktop routines without having to understand AI.

If you’re worrying about this technology replacing humans, it is somewhat valid, but Barkin says the technology is replacing jobs that most humans don’t enjoy doing. “The work people enjoy doing is exceptions and judgment based, which isn’t the sweet spot of RPA. It frees them from mundaneness of routine,” he said in an interview last year.

Whatever it is, it’s resonating inside large organizations and UiPath, is benefiting from the growing need by offering its own flavor of RPA. Today its customers include the likes of Autodesk, BMW Group and Huawei.

As it has grown over the last year, the number of employees has increased 3x  and the company expects to reach 1700 employees by the end of the year.

Sep
12
2018
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Sisense hauls in $80M investment as data analytics business matures

Sisense, a company that helps customers understand and visualize their data across multiple sources, announced an $80 million Series E investment today led by Insight Venture Partners. They also announced that Zack Urlocker, former COO at Duo Security and Zendesk, has joined the organization’s board of directors.

The company has attracted a prestigious list of past investors, who also participated in the round, including Battery Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, DFJ Venture Capital, Genesis Partners and Opus Capital. Today’s investment brings the total raised to close to $200 million.

CEO Amir Orad says investors like their mission of simplifying complex data with analytics and business intelligence and delivering it in whatever way makes sense. That could be on screens throughout the company, desktop or smartphone, or via Amazon Alexa. “We found a way to make accessing data extremely simple, mashing it together in a logical way and embedding it in every logical place,” he explained.

It appears to be resonating. The company has over 1000 customers including Expedia, Oppenheimer and Phillips to name but a few. Orad says they are actually the analytics engine behind Nasdaq Corporate Solutions, which is the the main investor relations system used by CFOs.

He was not in the mood to discuss the company’s valuation, an exercise he called “an ego boost he doesn’t relate to.” He says that he would prefer to be measured by how efficiently he uses the money investors give him or by customer satisfaction scores. Nor would he deal with IPO speculation. All he would say on that front was, “When you focus on the value you bring, positive things happen.”

In spite of that, he was clearly excited about having Urlocker join the board. He says the two spent six months getting to know each other and he sees a guy who has brought several companies to successful exit joining his team, and perhaps someone who can help him bring his company across the finish line, however that ultimately happens. Just last month, Cisco bought Urlocker’s former company, Duo Security for $2.35 billion.

For now Sisense, which launched in 2010, has another $80 million in the bank. They plan to add to the nearly 500 employees already in place in offices in New York, Tel Aviv, Kiev, Tokyo and Arizona. In particular, they plan to grow their international presence more aggressively, especially adding employees to help with customer success and field engineering. Orad also said that he was also open to acquiring companies should the right opportunity come along, saying “Because of talent, technology and presence, it’s something you have to be on lookout for.”

When a company reaches Series E and a couple of hundred million raised, it’s often a point where an exit could be coming sooner than later. By adding an experienced executive like Urlocker, it just emphasizes that possibility, but for now the company appears to be growing and thriving, and taking the view that whatever will be, will be.

Aug
28
2018
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Very Good Security makes data ‘unhackable’ with $8.5M from Andreessen

“You can’t hack what isn’t there,” Very Good Security co-founder Mahmoud Abdelkader tells me. His startup assumes the liability of storing sensitive data for other companies, substituting dummy credit card or Social Security numbers for the real ones. Then when the data needs to be moved or operated on, VGS injects the original info without clients having to change their code.

It’s essentially a data bank that allows businesses to stop storing confidential info under their unsecured mattress. Or you could think of it as Amazon Web Services for data instead of servers. Given all the high-profile breaches of late, it’s clear that many companies can’t be trusted to house sensitive data. Andreessen Horowitz is betting that they’d rather leave it to an expert.

That’s why the famous venture firm is leading an $8.5 million Series A for VGS, and its partner Alex Rampell is joining the board. The round also includes NYCA, Vertex Ventures, Slow Ventures and PayPal mafioso Max Levchin. The cash builds on VGS’ $1.4 million seed round, and will pay for its first big marketing initiative and more salespeople.

“Hey! Stop doing this yourself!,” Abdelkader asserts. “Put it on VGS and we’ll let you operate on your data as if you possess it with none of the liability.” While no data is ever 100 percent unhackable, putting it in VGS’ meticulously secured vaults means clients don’t have to become security geniuses themselves and instead can focus on what’s unique to their business.

“Privacy is a part of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. We should be able to build innovative applications without sacrificing our privacy and security,” says Abdelkader. He got his start in the industry by reverse-engineering games like StarCraft to build cheats and trainer software. But after studying discrete mathematics, cryptology and number theory, he craved a headier challenge.

Abdelkader co-founded Y Combinator-backed payment system Balanced in 2010, which also raised cash from Andreessen. But out-muscled by Stripe, Balanced shut down in 2015. While transitioning customers over to fellow YC alumni Stripe, Balanced received interest from other companies wanting it to store their data so they could be PCI-compliant.

Very Good Security co-founder and CEO Mahmoud Abdelkader

Now Abdelkader and his VP from Balanced, Marshall Jones, have returned with VGS to sell that as a service. It’s targeting startups that handle data like payment card information, Social Security numbers and medical info, though eventually it could invade the larger enterprise market. It can quickly help these clients achieve compliance certifications for PCI, SOC2, EI3PA, HIPAA and other standards.

VGS’ innovation comes in replacing this data with “format preserving aliases” that are privacy safe. “Your app code doesn’t know the difference between this and actually sensitive data,” Abdelkader explains. In 30 minutes of integration, apps can be reworked to route traffic through VGS without ever talking to a salesperson. VGS locks up the real strings and sends the aliases to you instead, then intercepts those aliases and swaps them with the originals when necessary.

“We don’t actually see your data that you vault on VGS,” Abdelkader tells me. “It’s basically modeled after prison. The valuables are stored in isolation.” That means a business’ differentiator is their business logic, not the way they store data.

For example, fintech startup LendUp works with VGS to issue virtual credit card numbers that are replaced with fake numbers in LendUp’s databases. That way if it’s hacked, users’ don’t get their cards stolen. But when those card numbers are sent to a processor to actually make a payment, the real card numbers are subbed in last-minute.

VGS charges per data record and operation, with the first 500 records and 100,000 sensitive API calls free; $20 a month gets clients double that, and then they pay 4 cent per record and 2 cents per operation. VGS provides access to insurance too, working with a variety of underwriters. It starts with $1 million policies that can be much larger for Fortune 500s and other big companies, which might want $20 million per incident.

Obviously, VGS has to be obsessive about its own security. A breach of its vaults could kill its brand. “I don’t sleep. I worry I’ll miss something. Are we a giant honey pot?,” Abdelkader wonders. “We’ve invested a significant amount of our money into 24/7 monitoring for intrusions.”

Beyond the threat of hackers, VGS also has to battle with others picking away at part of its stack or trying to compete with the whole, like TokenEx, HP’s Voltage, Thales’ Vormetric, Oracle and more. But it’s do-it-yourself security that’s the status quo and what VGS is really trying to disrupt.

But VGS has a big accruing advantage. Each time it works with a clients’ partners like Experian or TransUnion for a company working with credit checks, it already has a relationship with them the next time another clients has to connect with these partners. Abdelkader hopes that, “Effectively, we become a standard of data security and privacy. All the institutions will just say ‘why don’t you use VGS?’”

That standard only works if it’s constantly evolving to win the cat-and-mouse game versus attackers. While a company is worrying about the particular value it adds to the world, these intelligent human adversaries can find a weak link in their security — costing them a fortune and ruining their relationships. “I’m selling trust,” Abdelkader concludes. That peace of mind is often worth the price.

Aug
21
2018
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Semmle, startup that makes code searchable, hauls in $21M Series B

Semmle, a startup that originally spun out of research at Oxford, announced a $21 million Series B investment today led by Accel Partners. It marked the second time Accel has led an investment in the company.

Work-Bench also participated in the round. Today’s investment brings the total to $31 million.

Semmle has warranted this kind of interest by taking a unique approach to finding vulnerabilities in code. “The key idea behind our technology is to treat code as data and treat analysis problems as simple queries against a database. What this allows you to do is very easily encode domain expertise, security expertise or any other kinds of specialist knowledge in such a way it can be easily and automatically applied to large amounts of code,” Pavel Avgustinov, Semmle co-founder and VP of platform engineering told TechCrunch.

Screenshot: Semmle

Once you create the right query, you can continuously run it against your code to prevent the same mistakes from entering the code base on subsequent builds. The key here is building the queries and the company has a couple of ways to deal with that.

They can work with customers to help them create queries, although in the long run that is not a sustainable way of working. Instead, they share queries, and encourage customers to share them with the community.

“What we find is that the great tech companies we work with have the best security teams in the world, and they are giving back what they created on the Semmle platform with other users in an open source fashion. There is a GitHub repository where we publish queries, but Microsoft and Google are doing the same thing,” Oege de Moor, company CEO and co-founder explained.

In fact, the Semmle solution is freely available to open source programmers to use with their applications, and the company currently analyzes every commit of almost 80,000 open source projects. Open source developers can run shared queries against their code or create their own.

They also have a paid version with customers like Microsoft, Google, Credit Suisse, NASA and Nasdaq. They have relied mostly on these strategic partners up until now. With today’s investment they plan to build out their sales and marketing departments to expand their customer base into a wider enterprise market.

The company spun out of research at Oxford University in 2006. They are now based in San Francisco with 60 employees, a number that should go up with this investment. They received an $8 million Series A in 2014 and $2 million seed round in 2011.

Aug
15
2018
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To fight the scourge of open offices, ROOM sells rooms

Noisy open offices don’t foster collaboration, they kill it, according to a Harvard study that found the less-private floor plan led to a 73 percent drop in face-to-face interaction between employees and a rise in emailing. The problem is plenty of young companies and big corporations have already bought into the open office fad. But a new startup called ROOM is building a prefabricated, self-assembled solution. It’s the IKEA of office phone booths.

The $3,495 ROOM One is a sound-proofed, ventilated, powered booth that can be built in new or existing offices to give employees a place to take a video call or get some uninterrupted time to focus on work. For comparison, ROOM co-founder Morten Meisner-Jensen says, “Most phone booths are $8,000 to $12,000. The cheapest competitor to us is $6,000 — almost twice as much.” Though booths start at $4,500 from TalkBox and $3,995 from Zenbooth, they tack on $1,250 and $1,650 for shipping, while ROOM ships for free. They’re all dividing the market of dividing offices.

The idea might seem simple, but the booths could save businesses a ton of money on lost productivity, recruitment and retention if it keeps employees from going crazy amidst sales call cacophony. Less than a year after launch, ROOM has hit a $10 million revenue run rate thanks to 200 clients ranging from startups to Salesforce, Nike, NASA and JP Morgan. That’s attracted a $2 million seed round from Slow Ventures that adds to angel funding from Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen. “I am really excited about it since it is probably the largest revenue-generating company Slow has seen at the time of our initial Seed stage investment,” says partner Kevin Colleran.

“It’s not called ROOM because we build rooms,” Meisner-Jensen tells me. “It’s called ROOM because we want to make room for people, make room for privacy and make room for a better work environment.”

Phone booths, not sweatboxes

You might be asking yourself, enterprising reader, why you couldn’t just go to Home Depot, buy some supplies and build your own in-office phone booth for way less than $3,500. Well, ROOM’s co-founders tried that. The result was… moist.

Meisner-Jensen has design experience from the Danish digital agency Revolt that he started before co-founding digital book service Mofibo and selling it to Storytel. “In my old job we had to go outside and take the call, and I’m from Copenhagen, so that’s a pretty cold experience half the year.” His co-founder Brian Chen started Y Combinator-backed smart suitcase company Bluesmart, where he was VP of operations. They figured they could attack the office layout issue with hammers and saws. I mean, they do look like superhero alter-egos.

Room co-founders (from left): Brian Chen and Morten Meisner-Jensen

“To combat the issues I myself would personally encounter with open offices, as well as colleagues, we tried to build a private ‘phone booth’ ourselves,” says Meisner-Jensen. “We didn’t quite understand the specifics of air ventilation or acoustics at the time, so the booth got quite warm — warm enough that we coined it ‘the sweatbox.’ ”

With ROOM, they got serious about the product. The 10-square-foot ROOM One booth ships flat and can be assembled in less than 30 minutes by two people with a hex wrench. All it needs is an outlet to power its light and ventilation fan. Each is built from 1088 recycled plastic bottles for noise cancelling, so you’re not supposed to hear anything from outside. The box is 100 percent recyclable, plus it can be torn down and rebuilt if your startup implodes and you’re being evicted from your office.

The ROOM One features a bar-height desk with outlets and a magnetic bulletin board behind it, though you’ll have to provide your own stool. It’s actually designed not to be so comfy that you end up napping inside, which doesn’t seem like it’d be a problem with this somewhat cramped spot. “To solve the problem with noise at scale you want to provide people with space to take a call but not camp out all day,” Meisner-Jensen notes.

Booths by Zenbooth, Cubicall and TalkBox (from left)

A place to get into flow

Couldn’t office managers just buy noise-cancelling headphones for everyone? “It feels claustrophobic to me,” he laughs, but then outlines why a new workplace trend requires more than headphones. “People are doing video calls and virtual meetings much, much more. You can’t have all these people walking by you and looking at your screen. [A booth is] also giving you your own space to do your own work, which I don’t think you’d get from a pair of Bose. I think it has to be a physical space.”

But with plenty of companies able to construct physical spaces, it will be a challenge for ROOM to convey the subtleties of its build quality that warrant its price. “The biggest risk for ROOM right now are copycats,” Meisner-Jensen admits. “Someone entering our space claiming to do what we’re doing better but cheaper.” Alternatively, ROOM could lock in customers by offering a range of office furniture products. The co-founder hinted at future products, saying ROOM is already receiving demand for bigger multi-person prefab conference rooms and creative room divider solutions.

The importance of privacy goes beyond improved productivity when workers are alone. If they’re exhausted from overstimulation in a chaotic open office, they’ll have less energy for purposeful collaboration when the time comes. The bustle could also make them reluctant to socialize in off-hours, which could lead them to burn out and change jobs faster. Tech companies in particular are in a constant war for talent, and ROOM Ones could be perceived as a bigger perk than free snacks or a ping-pong table that only makes the office louder.

“I don’t think the solution is to go back to a world of cubicles and corner offices,” Meisner-Jensen concludes. It could take another decade for office architects to correct the overenthusiasm for open offices despite the research suggesting their harm. For now, ROOM’s co-founder is concentrating on “solving the issue of noise at scale” by asking, “How do we make the current workspaces work in the best way possible?”

Aug
01
2018
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Altru raises $1.3M to improve recruiting with employee videos

Marketers are increasingly looking for social media celebrities and influencers who can promote their products with more authenticity (or at least, the appearance of authenticity) than a traditional ad.

So Altru CEO Alykhan Rehmatullah wondered: Why can’t businesses do something similar with recruiting?

And that’s what Altru is trying to accomplish, powering a page on a company’s website that highlights videos from real employees answering questions that potential hires might be asking. The videos are searchable (thanks to Altru’s transcriptions), and they also can be shared on social media.

The startup was part of the recent winter batch at Techstars NYC, and it’s already working with companies like L’Oréal, Dell and Unilever. Today, Altru is announcing that it’s raised $1.3 million in new funding led by Birchmere Ventures.

Rehmatullah contrasted Altru’s approach with Glassdoor, which he said features “more polarized” content (since it’s usually employees with really good or really bad experiences who want to write reviews) and where companies are often forced to “play defense.”

On Altru, on the other hand, employers can take the informal conversations that often take place when someone’s deciding whether to accept a job and turn them into an online recruiting tool. Over time, Rehmatullah said the platform could expand beyond recruiting to areas like on-boarding new employees.

Since these videos are posted to the company website, with the employees’ name and face attached, they may not always feel comfortable being completely honest, particularly about a company’s flaws. But at least it’s a message coming from a regular person, not the corporate-speak of a recruiter or manager.

Rehmatullah acknowledged that there’s usually “an educational process” involved in making employers more comfortable with this kind of content.

“These conversations are already happening outside your organization,” he said. “In the long-term, candidates expect more authenticity, more transparency, more true experiences.”

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