Feb
18
2021
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Tired of ‘Zoom University’? So is edtech

The rise of “Zoom University” was only possible because edtech wasn’t ready to address the biggest opportunity of the past year: remote learning at scale. Of course, the term encapsulates more than just Zoom, it’s a nod to how schools had to rapidly adopt enterprise video conferencing software to keep school in session in the wake of closures brought on by the virus’ rapid spread.

Now, nearly a year since students were first sent home because of the coronavirus, a cohort of edtech companies is emerging, emboldened with millions in venture capital, ready to take back the market.

The new wave of startups are slicing and dicing the same market of students and teachers who are fatigued by Zoom University, which — at best — often looks like a gallery view with a chat bar. Four of the companies that are gaining traction include Class, Engageli, Top Hat and InSpace. It signals a shift from startups playing in the supplemental education space and searching to win a spot in the largest chunk of a students day: the classroom.

While each startup has its own unique strategy and product, the founders behind them all need to answer the same question: Can they make digital learning a preferred mode of pedagogy and comprehension — and not merely a backup — after the pandemic is over?

Answering that question begins with deciding whether videoconferencing is what online, live learning should look like.

Ground up

“This is completely grounds up; there is no Zoom, Google Meets or Microsoft Teams anywhere in the vicinity,” said Dan Avida, co-founder of Engageli, just a few minutes into the demo of his product.

Engageli, a new startup founded by Avida, Daphne Koller, Jamie Nacht Farrell and Serge Plotkin, raised $14.5 million in October to bring digital learning to college universities. The startup wants to make big lecture-style classes feel more intimate, and thinks digitizing everything from the professor monologues to side conversations between students is the way to go.

Engageli is a videoconferencing platform in that it connects students and professors over live video, but the real product feature that differentiates it, according to Avida, is in how it views the virtual classroom.

Upon joining the platform, each student is placed at a virtual table with another small group of students. Within those pods, students can chat, trade notes, screenshot the lecture and collaborate, all while hearing a professor lecture simultaneously.

“The FaceTime session going on with friends or any other communication platform is going to happen,” Avida said. “So it might as well run it through our platform.”

The tables can easily be scrambled to promote different conversation or debates, and teachers can pop in and out without leaving their main screen. It’s a riff on Zoom’s breakout rooms, which let participants jump into separate calls within a bigger call.

There’s also a notetaking feature that allows students to screenshot slides and live annotate them within the Engageli platform. Each screenshot comes with a hyperlink that will take the student back to the live recording of that note, which could help with studying.

“We don’t want to be better than Zoom, we want to be different than Zoom,” Avida said. Engageli can run on a variety of products of differing bandwidth, from Chromebooks to iPads and PCs.

Engageli is feature-rich to the point that it has to onboard teachers, its main customer, in two phases, a process that can take over an hour. While Avida says that it only takes five minutes to figure out how to use the platform to hold a class, it does take longer to figure out how to fully take advantage of all the different modules. Teachers and students need to have some sort of digital savviness to be able to use the platform, which is both a barrier to entry for adoption but also a reason why Engageli can tout that it’s better than a simple call. Complexity, as Avida sees it, requires well-worth-it time.

The startup’s ambition doesn’t block it from dealing with contract issues. Other video conferencing platforms can afford to be free or already have been budgeted into. Engageli currently charges $9.99 or less per student seat for its platform. Avida says that with Zoom, “it’s effectively free because people have already paid for it, so we have to demonstrate why we’re much better than those products.”

Engageli’s biggest hurdle is another startup’s biggest advantage.

Built on top of Zoom

Class, launched less than a year ago by Blackboard co-founder Michael Chasen, integrates exclusively with Zoom to offer a more customized classroom for students and teachers alike. The product, currently in private paid beta, helps teachers launch live assignments, track attendance and understand student engagement levels in real time.

While positioning an entire business on Zoom could lead to platform risk, Chasen sees it as a competitive advantage that will help the startup stay relevant after the pandemic.

“We’re not really pitching it as pandemic-related,” Chasen said. “No school has only said that we’re going to plan to use this for a month, and very few K-12 schools say we’re only looking at this in case a pandemic comes again.” Chasen says that most beta customers say online learning will be part of their instructional strategy going forward.

Investors clearly see the opportunity in the company’s strategy, from distribution to execution. Earlier this month, Class announced it had raised $30 million in Series A financing, just 10 weeks after raising a $16 million seed round. Raising that much pre-launch gives the startup key wiggle room, but it also gives validation: a number of Zoom’s earliest investors, including Emergence Capital and Bill Tai, who wrote the first check into Zoom, have put money into Class.

“At Blackboard, we had a six to nine month sales cycle; we’d have to explain that e-learning is a thing,” Chasen said, who was at the LMS business for 15 years. “[With Class] we don’t even have to pitch. It wraps up in a month, and our sales cycle is just showing people the product.

Unlike Engageli, Class is selling to both K-12 institutions and higher-education institutions, which means its product is more focused on access and ease of use instead of specialized features. The startup has over 6,000 institutions, from high schools to higher education institutions, on the waitlist to join.

Image Credits: Class

Right now, Class software is only usable on Macs, but its beta will be available on iPhone, Windows and Android in the near future. The public launch is at the end of the quarter.

“K-12 is in a bigger bind,” he said, but higher-ed institutions are fully committed to using synchronous online learning for the “long haul.”

“Higher-ed has already been taking this step towards online learning, and they’re now taking the next step,” he said. “Whereas with a lot of K-12, I’m actually seeing that this is the first step that they’re taking.”

The big hurdle for Class, and any startup selling e-learning solutions to institutions, is post-pandemic utility. While institutions have traditionally been slow to adopt software due to red tape, Chasen says that both of Class’ customers, higher ed and K-12, are actively allocating budget for these tools. The price for Class ranges between $10,000 to $65,000 annually, depending on the number of students in the classes.

“We have not run into a budgeting problem in a single school,” he said. “Higher ed has already been taking this step towards online learning, and they’re now taking the next step, whereas K-12, this is the first step they’re taking.”

Asynchronously, silly

Engageli and Class are both trying to innovate on the live learning experience, but Top Hat, which raised $130 million in a Series E round this past week, thinks that the future is pre-recorded video.

Top Hat digitizes textbooks, but instead of putting a PDF on a screen, the startup fits features such as polls and interactive graphics in the text. The platform has attracted millions of students on this premise.

“We’re seeing a lot of companies putting emphasis on creating a virtual classroom,” he said. “But replicating the same thing in a different medium is never a good idea…nobody wants to stare at a screen and then have the restraint of having to show up at a previous pre-prescribed time.”

In July, Top Hat launched Community to give teachers a way to make class more than just a YouTube video. Similar to ClassDojo, Community provides a space for teachers and students to converse and stay up to date on shared materials. The interface also allows students to create private channels to discuss assignments and work on projects, as well as direct message their teachers.

CEO Mike Silagadze says that Top Hat tried a virtual classroom tool early on, and “very quickly learned that it was fundamentally just the wrong strategy.” His mindset contrasts with the demand that Class and Engageli have proven so far, to which Silagadze says might not be as long-term as they think.

“There’s definitely a lot of interest that’s generated in people signing up to beta lists and like wanting to try it out. But when people really get into it, everyone pretty much drops off and focuses more on asynchronous, small and in-person groups.”

Instead, the founder thinks that “schools are going to double down on the really valuable in-person aspects of higher education that they couldn’t provide before” and deliver other content, like large lecture-style classes or meetings, through asynchronous content delivery.

This is similar to what Jeff Maggioncalda, the CEO of Coursera, told TechCrunch in November: Colleges are going to re-invest in their in-person and residential experiences, and begin offering credentials and content online to fill in the gaps.

“We’ve been on the journey to create a more and more complete platform that our customers can use since almost day one,” Silagadze said. “What the pandemic has brought is much more comprehensive testing functionality that Top Hat has rolled out and better communication tooling so basically better chat and communication tooling for professors.”

TopHat costs $30 per semester, per student. Currently Top Hat has most of its paying customers coming in through its content offering, the digital textbooks, instead of this learning platform.

College spin-out

InSpace, a startup spinning out of Champlain college, is similarly focused on making the communication between professors and students more natural. Dr. Narine Hall, the founder of the startup, is a professor herself who just wanted class to “feel more natural” when it was being conducted.

InSpace is similar to some of the virtual HQ platforms that have popped up over the past few months. The platforms, which my colleague Devin Coldewey aptly dubbed Sims for Enterprise, are trying to create the feel of an office or classroom online but without a traditional gallery view or conference call vibe. The potential success of inSpace and others could signal how the future of work will blend gaming and socialization for distributed teams.

InSpace is using spatial gaming infrastructure to create spontaneity. The technology allows users to only hear people within their nearby proximity, and get quieter as they walk, or click, away. When applied to a virtual world, spatial technology can give the feeling of a hallway bump-in.

Similar to Engageli, inSpace is rethinking how an actual class is conducted. In inSpace, students don’t have to leave the main call to have a conversation during inSpace, which they do in Zoom. Students can just toggle over to their own areas and a professor can see teamwork being done in real time. When a student has a question, their bubble becomes bigger, which is easier to track than the hand-raise feature, says Hall.

InSpace has a different monetization strategy than other startups. It charges $15 a month per-educator or “host” versus per-student, which Hall says was so educators could close contracts “as fast as possible.” Hall agrees with other founders that schools have a high demand for the product, but she says that the decision-making process around buying new tooling continues to be difficult in schools with tight budgets, even amid a pandemic. There are currently 100 customers on the platform.

So far, Hall sees inSpace working best with classes that include 25 people, with a max of 50 people.

The company was born out of her own frustrations as a teacher. In grad school, Hall worked on research that combined proximity-based interactions with humans. When August rolled around and she needed a better solution than WebEx or Zoom, she turned to that same research and began building code atop of her teachings. It led to inSpace, which recently announced that it has landed $2.5 million in financing led by Boston Seed Capital.

The differences between each startup, from strategy to monetization to its view of the competition, are music to Zoom’s ears. Anne Keough Keehn, who was hired as Zoom’s Global Education Lead just nine months ago, says that the platform has a “very open attitude and policy about looking at how we best integrate…and sometimes that’s going to be a co-opetition.”

“In the past there has been too much consolidation and therefore it limits choices,” Keehn said. “And we know everybody in education likes to have choices.” Zoom will be used differently in a career office versus a class, and in a happy hour versus a wedding; the platform sees opportunity in it all beyond the “monolithic definition” that video-conferencing has had for so long.

And, despite the fact that this type of response is expected by a well-trained executive at a big company in the spotlight, maybe Keehn is onto something here: Maybe the biggest opportunity in edtech right now is that there is opportunity and money in the first place, for remote learning, for better video-conferencing and for more communication.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story claims that TopHat’s community platform cost $30 per student, per month. TopHat has clarified since that the community platform is free, but its core product is sold for this cost. An update has been made to reflect this clarification.

Dec
15
2020
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Parsec raises $25M from a16z to power remote work and cloud gaming

Parsec, a startup that’s built streaming technology for both work and play, is announcing that it has raised $25 million in Series B funding.

This brings Parsec’s total funding to $33 million, according to Crunchbase. The round was led by Andreessen Horowitz, with the firm’s general partner Martin Casado joining the board. Previous investors Lerer Hippeau, Makers Fund, NextView Ventures and Notation Capital also participated.

CEO Benjy Boxer told me that since he and CTO Chris Dickson founded the company in 2016, the vision has always been “to make it easier for people to connect to their technology, software and content from anywhere, on any device.”

They started out by helping gamers access their gaming PCs from other devices (the Parsec app is currently available for Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, Raspberry Pi and the web).

“From the beginning, we thought that if we could build something that is great for gaming, it will be great for everything,” Boxer said.

But it was a natural transition to other use cases, since some of the people using Parsec to play games in their free time also turned out to work at TV production companies, video game companies or in other jobs where they need access to high-end workstations. That’s why the company launched Parsec for Teams this year, which offers the same low-latency remote experience, while also adding features like encryption, group permissions and collaboration on the same file.

Parsec screenshot

Image Credits: Parsec

“The performance of Parsec is just way above everything else,” Boxer said. “People forget they’re using Parsec.”

Parsec works with major gaming clients like EA, Ubisoft, Blizzard Entertainment and Square Enix, and it’s also being used in industries like architecture, engineering and video broadcast/production/post-production.

And as you might imagine, the need for something like this has only increased during the pandemic. Boxer said customers have found that the platform is saving their employees more than an hour a day by eliminating the commute and giving them high-speed access to their workstations — rather than, say, having to wait an hour for a 100 gigabyte file to download.

And most of those clients anticipate that after the pandemic, their employees will continue for work from home for part of the time.

“So in that scenario, people are bringing their computers back to the office, and they can use Parsec to make sure it’s always accessible to them,” Boxer said.

On the consumer side, he said that where usage was previously heaviest during the weekends, during the pandemic “there’s no spike anymore on the weekends, people are playing all the time.”

Boxer added that the company will continue developing the core platform, leading to improvements for both gaming and enterprise users, while there’s a separate team focused on building administrative and collaborative features.

 

Dec
10
2020
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Turing nabs $32M more for an AI-based platform to source and manage engineers remotely

As remote work continues to solidify its place as a critical aspect of how businesses exist these days, a startup that has built a platform to help companies source and bring on one specific category of remote employees — engineers — is taking on some more funding to meet demand.

Turing — which has built an AI-based platform to help evaluate prospective, but far-flung, engineers, bring them together into remote teams, then manage them for the company — has picked up $32 million in a Series B round of funding led by WestBridge Capital. Its plan is as ambitious as the world it is addressing is wide: an AI platform to help define the future of how companies source IT talent to grow.

“They have a ton of experience in investing in global IT services, companies like Cognizant and GlobalLogic,” said co-founder and CEO Jonathan Siddharth of its lead investor in an interview the other day. “We see Turing as the next iteration of that model. Once software ate the IT services industry, what would Accenture look like?”

It currently has a database of some 180,000 engineers covering around 100 or so engineering skills, including React, Node, Python, Agular, Swift, Android, Java, Rails, Golang, PHP, Vue, DevOps, machine learning, data engineering and more.

In addition to WestBridge, other investors in this round included Foundation Capital, Altair Capital, Mindset Ventures, Frontier Ventures and Gaingels. There is also a very long list of high-profile angels participating, underscoring the network that the founders themselves have amassed. It includes unnamed executives from Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Microsoft, Snap and other companies, as well as Adam D’Angelo (Facebook’s first CTO and CEO at Quora), Gokul Rajaram, Cyan Banister and Scott Banister, and Beerud Sheth (the founder of Upwork), among many others (I’ll run the full list below).

Turing is not disclosing its valuation. But as a measure of its momentum, it was only in August that the company raised a seed round of $14 million, led by Foundation. Siddharth said that the growth has been strong enough in the interim that the valuations it was getting and the level of interest compelled the company to skip a Series A altogether and go straight for its Series B.

The company now has signed up to its platform 180,000 developers from across 10,000 cities (compared to 150,000 developers back in August). Some 50,000 of them have gone through automated vetting on the Turing platform, and the task will now be to bring on more companies to tap into that trove of talent.

Or, “We are demand-constrained,” which is how Siddharth describes it. At the same time, it’s been growing revenues and growing its customer base, jumping from revenues of $9.5 million in October to $12 million in November, increasing 17x since first becoming generally available 14 months ago. Current customers include VillageMD, Plume, Lambda School, Ohi Tech, Proxy and Carta Healthcare.

Remote work = immediate opportunity

A lot of people talk about remote work today in the context of people no longer able to go into their offices as part of the effort to curtail the spread of COVID-19. But in reality, another form of it has been in existence for decades.

Offshoring and outsourcing by way of help from third parties — such as Accenture and other systems integrators — are two ways that companies have been scaling and operating, paying sums to those third parties to run certain functions or build out specific areas instead of shouldering the operating costs of employing, upsizing and sometimes downsizing that labor force itself.

Turing is essentially tapping into both concepts. On one hand, it has built a new way to source and run teams of people, specifically engineers, on behalf of others. On the other, it’s using the opportunity that has presented itself in the last year to open up the minds of engineering managers and others to consider the idea of bringing on people they might have previously insisted work in their offices, to now work for them remotely, and still be effective.

Siddarth and co-founder Vijay Krishnan (who is the CTO) know the other side of the coin all too well. They are both from India, and both relocated to the Valley first for school (post-graduate degrees at Stanford) and then work at a time when moving to the Valley was effectively the only option for ambitious people like them to get employed by large, global tech companies, or build startups — effectively what could become large, global tech companies.

“Talent is universal, but opportunities are not,” Siddarth said to me earlier this year when describing the state of the situation.

A previous startup co-founded by the pair — content discovery app Rover — highlighted to them a gap in the market. They built the startup around a remote and distributed team of engineers, which helped them keep costs down while still recruiting top talent. Meanwhile, rivals were building teams in the Valley. “All our competitors in Palo Alto and the wider area were burning through tons of cash, and it’s only worse now. Salaries have skyrocketed,” he said.

After Rover was acquired by Revcontent, a recommendation platform that competes against the likes of Taboola and Outbrain, they decided to turn their attention to seeing if they could build a startup based on how they had, basically, built their own previous startup.

There are a number of companies that have been tapping into the different aspects of the remote work opportunity, as it pertains to sourcing talent and how to manage it.

They include the likes of Remote (raised $35 million in November), Deel ($30 million raised in September), Papaya Global ($40 million also in September), Lattice ($45 million in July) and Factorial ($16 million in April), among others.

What’s interesting about Turing is how it’s trying to address and provide services for the different stages you go through when finding new talent. It starts with an AI platform to source and vet candidates. That then moves into matching people with opportunities, and onboarding those engineers. Then, Turing helps manage their work and productivity in a secure fashion, and also provides guidance on the best way to manage that worker in the most compliant way, be it as a contractor or potentially as a full-time remote employee.

The company is not freemium, as such, but gives people two weeks to trial people before committing to a project. So unlike an Accenture, Turing itself tries to build in some elasticity into its own product, not unlike the kind of elasticity that it promises its customers.

It all sounds like a great idea now, but interestingly, it was only after remote work really became the norm around March/April of this year that the idea really started to pick up traction.

“It’s amazing what COVID has done. It’s led to a huge boom for Turing,” said Sumir Chadha, managing director for WestBridge Capital, in an interview. For those who are building out tech teams, he added, there is now “No need for to find engineers and match them with customers. All of that is done in the cloud.”

“Turing has a very interesting business model, which today is especially relevant,” said Igor Ryabenkiy, managing partner at Altair Capital, in a statement. “Access to the best talent worldwide and keeping it well-managed and cost-effective make the offering attractive for many corporations. The energy of the founding team provides fast growth for the company, which will be even more accelerated after the B-round.”

PS. I said I’d list the full, longer list of investors in this round. In these COVID times, this is likely the biggest kind of party you’ll see for a while. In addition to those listed above, it included [deep breath] Founders Fund, Chapter One Ventures (Jeff Morris Jr.), Plug and Play Tech Ventures (Saeed Amidi), UpHonest Capital (?Wei Guo, Ellen Ma?), Ideas & Capital (Xavier Ponce de Leo?n), 500 Startups Vietnam (Binh Tran and Eddie Thai), Canvas Ventures (Gary Little), B Capital (Karen Appleton P?age, Kabir Narang), Peak State Ventures (?Bryan Ciambella, Seva Zakharov)?, Stanford StartX Fund, Amino C?apital, ?Spike Ventures, Visary Capital (Faizan Khan), Brainstorm Ventures (Ariel Jaduszliwer), Dmitry Chernyak, Lorenzo Thione, Shariq Rizvi, Siqi Chen, Yi Ding, Sunil Rajaraman, Parakram Khandpur, Kintan Brahmbhatt, Cameron Drummond, Kevin Moore, Sundeep Ahuja, Auren Hoffman, Greg Back, Sean Foote, Kelly Graziadei, Bobby Balachandran, Ajith Samuel, Aakash Dhuna, Adam Canady, Steffen Nauman, Sybille Nauman, Eric Cohen, Vlad V, Marat Kichikov, Piyush Prahladka, Manas Joglekar, Vladimir Khristenko, Tim and Melinda Thompson, Alexandr Katalov, Joseph and Lea Anne Ng, Jed Ng, Eric Bunting, Rafael Carmona, Jorge Carmona, Viacheslav Turpanov, James Borow, Ray Carroll, Suzanne Fletcher, Denis Beloglazov, Tigran Nazaretian, Andrew Kamotskiy, Ilya Poz, Natalia Shkirtil, Ludmila Khrapchenko, Ustavshchikov Sergey, Maxim Matcin and Peggy Ferrell.

Dec
04
2020
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3 ways the pandemic is transforming tech spending

Ever since the pandemic hit the U.S. in full force last March, the B2B tech community keeps asking the same questions: Are businesses spending more on technology? What’s the money getting spent on? Is the sales cycle faster? What trends will likely carry into 2021?

Recently we decided to join forces to answer these questions. We analyzed data from the just-released Q4 2020 Outlook of the Coupa Business Spend Index (BSI), a leading indicator of economic growth, in light of hundreds of conversations we have had with business-tech buyers this year.

A former Battery Ventures portfolio company, Coupa* is a business spend-management company that has cumulatively processed more than $2 trillion in business spending. This perspective gives Coupa unique, real-time insights into tech spending trends across multiple industries.

Tech spending is continuing despite the economic recession — which helps explain why many startups are raising large rounds and even tapping public markets for capital.

Broadly speaking, tech spending is continuing despite the economic recession — which helps explain why many tech startups are raising large financing rounds and even tapping the public markets for capital. Here are our three specific takeaways on current tech spending:

Spending is shifting away from remote collaboration to SaaS and cloud computing

Tech spending ranks among the hottest boardroom topics today. Decisions that used to be confined to the CIO’s organization are now operationally and strategically critical to the CEO. Multiple reasons drive this shift, but the pandemic has forced businesses to operate and engage with customers differently, almost overnight. Boards recognize that companies must change their business models and operations if they don’t want to become obsolete. The question on everyone’s mind is no longer “what are our technology investments?” but rather, “how fast can they happen?”

Spending on WFH/remote collaboration tools has largely run its course in the first wave of adaptation forced by the pandemic. Now we’re seeing a second wave of tech spending, in which enterprises adopt technology to make operations easier and simply keep their doors open.

SaaS solutions are replacing unsustainable manual processes. Consider Rhode Island’s decision to shift from in-person citizen surveying to using SurveyMonkey. Many companies are shifting their vendor payments to digital payments, ditching paper checks entirely. Utility provider PG&E is accelerating its digital transformation roadmap from five years to two years.

The second wave of adaptation has also pushed many companies to embrace the cloud, as this chart makes clear:

Similarly, the difficulty of maintaining a traditional data center during a pandemic has pushed many companies to finally shift to cloud infrastructure under COVID. As they migrate that workload to the cloud, the pie is still expanding. Goldman Sachs and Battery Ventures data suggest $600 billion worth of disruption potential will bleed into 2021 and beyond.

In addition to SaaS and cloud adoption, companies across sectors are spending on technologies to reduce their reliance on humans. For instance, Tyson Foods is investing in and accelerating the adoption of automated technology to process poultry, pork and beef.

All companies are digital product companies now

Mention “digital product company” in the past, and we’d all think of Netflix. But now every company has to reimagine itself as offering digital products in a meaningful way.

Dec
01
2020
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Loop Team wants to give remote workers an in-office feel

As we’ve moved to work from home during the pandemic, it’s been challenging for remote workers to feel connected. Loop Team, a new entrant into the enterprise communications space, thinks the way we are communicating needs improvement. That’s why the startup is releasing Loop Team today, a tool that is trying to use software to reproduce the in-office experience.

Company founder and CEO Raj Singh says that he learned about the problems of feeling disconnected first-hand at a previous remote-first company, but in spite of his best attempts to use technology to produce that in-office feel, he said he continued to feel out of the loop (so to speak). That’s when he decided to build the solution he wanted.

“We’ve looked at a lot of the interactions that happen when you’re physically in an office — the visual communication, the background conversations, the hallway chatter, the serendipitous bumping, things like that. And we built an experience that effectively is a virtual office. And so it tries to represent the best parts of what a physical office experience might be like, but in a virtual form,” Singh explained to me.

While he created this company prior to COVID, the pandemic has highlighted the need for a tool like this. Before he created the software, he interviewed hundreds of people who worked from home to understand their issues working outside of the office and he heard a lot of common complaints.

“There was an office and they didn’t necessarily know what was going on. They didn’t know who was available. They didn’t know who was around. It was difficult to connect. Everything was scheduled through a calendar. They were missing some of that presence — and they were feeling lonely or out of touch or out of the loop,” he said.

His company’s solution tries to reproduce the office experience using AI, good old-fashioned presence awareness and other tech to let team members know what you’re doing and if you’re available to chat. So just as you would wander down the hall and see your colleague on the phone or deeply involved with work on the laptop, and know to leave them be, you could get that same feel with Loop.

Loop Team Highlights

Image Credits: Loop Team

It gives the current status of the person, and you can know from looking at the list of people on your team who’s available to talk and who’s busy. As you go into virtual discussions, the team can see who’s having meetings and individuals can pop in too, just as you might do in the office.

What’s more, you can set up rooms (like in Slack), but these are designed to give you a more personal connection using video and audio for actual discussion. You can work on projects via screen share and people who miss these meetings because of other obligations or time zone differences can always review what they missed.

While you can do all of these things in Slack and Zoom, or in some combination of similar tools, Loop’s layout and presentation is designed to help you see the conversations in a clear way and expose what you want to see, while hiding parts of the day that don’t interest you.

The product is available for free starting today, but Singh wants to introduce a pricing model sometime next year based on team size. He expects there will always be a freemium version for teams with fewer than 10 people.

The company was founded in 2018 and nurtured at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). It has raised $4.75 million so far. Today it starts on its journey as a startup with its first product, and it’s one that comes with good timing as more teams find themselves working remotely than ever before.

Nov
27
2020
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Wall Street needs to relax, as startups show remote work is here to stay

We are hearing that a COVID-19 vaccine could be on the way sooner than later, and that means we could be returning to normal life some time in 2021. That’s the good news. The perplexing news, however, is that each time some positive news emerges about a vaccine — and believe me I’m not complaining — Wall Street punishes stocks it thinks benefits from us being stuck at home. That would be companies like Zoom and Peloton.

While I’m not here to give investment advice, I’m confident that these companies are going to be fine even after we return to the office. While we surely pine for human contact, office brainstorming, going out to lunch with colleagues and just meeting and collaborating in the same space, it doesn’t mean we will simply return to life as it was before the pandemic and spend five days a week in the office.

One thing is clear in my discussions with startups born or growing up during the pandemic: They have learned to operate, hire and sell remotely, and many say they will continue to be remote-first when the pandemic is over. Established larger public companies like Dropbox, Facebook, Twitter, Shopify and others have announced they will continue to offer a remote-work option going forward. There are many other such examples.

It’s fair to say that we learned many lessons about working from home over this year, and we will carry them with us whenever we return to school and the office — and some percentage of us will continue to work from home at least some of the time, while a fair number of businesses could become remote-first.

Wall Street reactions

On November 9, news that the Pfizer vaccine was at least 90% effective threw the markets for a loop. The summer trade, in which investors moved capital from traditional, non-tech industries and pushed it into software shares, flipped; suddenly the stocks that had been riding a pandemic wave were losing ground while old-fashioned, even stodgy, companies shot higher.

Nov
23
2020
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Friday app, a remote work tool, raises $2.1 million led by Bessemer

Friday, an app looking to make remote work more efficient, has announced the close of a $2.1 million seed round led by Bessemer Venture Partners. Active Capital, Underscore, El Cap Holdings, TLC Collective and New York Venture Partners also participated in the round, among others.

Founded by Luke Thomas, Friday sits on top of the tools that teams already use — GitHub, Trello, Asana, Slack, etc. — to surface information that workers need when they need it and keep them on top of what others in the organization are doing.

The platform offers a Daily Planner feature, so users can roadmap their day and share it with others, as well as a Work Routines feature, giving users the ability to customize and even automate routine updates. For example, weekly updates or daily standups done via Slack or Google Hangouts can be done via Friday app, eliminating the time spent by managers, or others, jotting down these updates or copying that info over from Slack.

Friday also lets users set goals across the organization or team so that users’ daily and weekly work aligns with the broader OKRs of the company.

Plus, Friday users can track their time spent in meetings, as well as team morale and productivity, using the Analytics dashboard of the platform.

Friday has a free-forever model, which allows individual users or even organizations to use the app for free for as long as they want. More advanced features like Goals, Analytics and the ability to see past three weeks of history within the app are paywalled for a price of $6/seat/month.

Thomas says that one of the biggest challenges for Friday is that people automatically assume it’s competing with an Asana or Trello, as opposed to being a layer on top of these products that brings all that information into one place.

“The number one problem is that we’re in a noisy space,” said Thomas. “There are a lot of tools that are saying they’re a remote work tool when they’re really just a layer on top of Zoom or a video conferencing tool. There is certainly increased amount of interest in the space in a good and positive way, but it also means that we have to work harder to cut through the noise.”

The Friday team is small for now — four full-time staff members — and Thomas says that he plans to double the size of the team following the seed round. Thomas declined to share any information around the diversity breakdown of the team.

Following a beta launch at the beginning of 2020, Friday says it is used by employees at organizations such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Quizlet, Red Hat and EA, among others.

This latest round brings the company’s total funding to $2.5 million.

Nov
17
2020
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Dropbox shifts business product focus to remote work with Spaces update

In a September interview at TechCrunch Disrupt, Dropbox co-founder and CEO Drew Houston talked about how the pandemic had forced the company to rethink what work means, and how his company is shifting with the new requirements of a work-from-home world. Today, the company announced broad changes to Dropbox Spaces, the product introduced last year, to make it a collaboration and project management tool designed with these new requirements in mind.

Dropbox president Timothy Young says that the company has always been about making it easy to access files wherever you happen to be and whatever device you happen to be on, whether that was in a consumer or business context. As the company has built out its business products over the last several years, that involved sharing content internally or externally. Today’s announcement is about helping teams plan and execute around the content you create with a strong project focus.

“Now what we’re basically trying to do is really help distributed teams stay organized, collaborate together and keep moving along, but also do so in a really secure way and support IT, administrators and companies with some features around that as well, while staying true to Dropbox principles,” Young said.

This involves updating Spaces to be a full-fledged project management tool designed with a distributed workforce in mind. Spaces connects to other tools like your calendar, people directory, project management software — and of course files. You can create a project, add people and files, then set up a timeline and assign and track tasks, In addition, you can access meetings directly from Spaces and communicate with team members, who can be inside or outside the company.

Houston suggested a product like this could be coming in his September interview when he said:

“Back in March we started thinking about this, and how [the rapid shift to distributed work] just kind of happened. It wasn’t really designed. What if you did design it? How would you design this experience to be really great? And so starting in March we reoriented our whole product road map around distributed work,” he said.

Along these same lines, Young says the company itself plans to continue to be a remote first company even after the pandemic ends, and will continue to build tools to make it easier to collaborate and share information with that personal experience in mind.

Today’s announcement is a step in that direction. Dropbox Spaces has been in private beta and should be available at the beginning of next year.

Nov
08
2020
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What we’ve learned about working from home 7 months into the pandemic

When large parts of the world were shutting down in March, we really didn’t know how we would move massive numbers of employees used to working in the office to work from home.

In early March, I wrote a piece on how to prepare for such an eventuality, speaking to several experts who had a background in the software and other tooling that would be involved. But the shift involved so much more than the mechanics of working at home. We were making this transition during a pandemic that was forcing us to deal with a much broader set of issues in our lives.

Yet here we are seven months later, and surely we must have learned some lessons along the way about working from home effectively, but what do these lessons look like and how can we make the most of this working approach for however long this pandemic lasts?

I spoke to Karen Mangia, vice president of customer and market insights at Salesforce and author of the book, Working from Home, Making the New Normal Work for You, to get her perspective on what working from home looks like as we enter our eighth month and what we’ve learned along the way.

Staying productive

As employees moved home in March, managers had to wonder how productive employees would be without being in the office. While many companies had flexible approaches to work, this usually involved some small percentage of employees working from home, not the entire workforce, and that presented challenges to management used to judging employee performance based for the most part on being in the building during the work day.

One of the things that we looked at in March was putting the correct tools in place to enable communication even when we weren’t together. Mangia says that those tools can help close what she calls the trust gap.

“Leaders want to know that their employees are working on what’s expected and delivering outcomes. Employees want to make sure their managers know how hard they’re working and that they’re getting things done. And the technology and tools I think help us solve for that trust gap in the middle,” she explained.

She believes the biggest thing that individuals can do at the moment is to simply reassess and look for small ways to improve your work life because we are probably not going to be returning to the office anytime soon. “I think what we’re discovering is the things that we can put in place to improve the quality of our own experiences as employees, as learners and as leaders can be very simple adjustments. This does not have to be a five year, five phase, $5 million roadmap kind of a situation. Simple adjustments matter,” she said, adding that could be measures as basic as purchasing a comfortable chair because the one you’ve been using at the dining room table is hurting your back.

Aug
03
2020
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Amid pandemic, returning to offices remains an open question for tech leaders

As COVID-19 infections surge in parts of the U.S., many workplaces remain empty or are operating with skeleton crews.

Most agree that the decision to return to the office should involve a combination of business, government and medical officials and scientists who have a deep understanding of COVID-19 and infectious disease in general. The exact timing will depend on many factors, including the government’s willingness to open up, the experts’ view of current conditions, business leadership’s tolerance for risk (or how reasonable it is to run the business remotely), where your business happens to be and the current conditions there.

That doesn’t mean every business that can open will, but if and when they get a green light, they can at least begin bringing some percentage of employees back. But what that could look like is clouded in great uncertainty around commutes, office population density and distancing, the use of elevators, how much you can reasonably deep clean, what it could mean to have a mask on for eight hours a day, and many other factors.

To get a sense of how tech companies are looking at this, we spoke to a number of executives to get their perspective. Most couldn’t see returning to the office beyond a small percentage of employees this year. But to get a more complete picture, we also spoke to a physician specializing in infectious diseases and a government official to get their perspectives on the matter.

Taking it slowly

While there are some guidelines out there to help companies, most of the executives we spoke to found that while they missed in-person interactions, they were happy to take things slow and were more worried about putting staff at risk than being in a hurry to return to normal operations.

Iman Abuzeid, CEO and co-founder at Incredible Health, a startup that helps hospitals find and hire nurses, said her company was half-remote even before COVID-19 hit, but since then, the team is now completely remote. Whenever San Francisco’s mayor gives the go-ahead, she says she will reopen the office, but the company’s 30 employees will have the option to keep working remotely.

She points out that for some employees, working at home has proven very challenging. “I do want to highlight two groups that are pretty important that need to be highlighted in this narrative. First, we have employees with very young kids, and the schools are closed so working at home forever or even for the rest of this year is not really an option, and then the second group is employees who are in smaller apartments, and they’ve got roommates and it’s not comfortable to work at home,” Abuzeid explained.

Those folks will need to go to the office whenever that’s allowed, she said. For Lindsay Grenawalt, chief people officer at Cockroach Labs, an 80-person database startup in NYC, said there has to be a highly compelling reason to bring people back to the office at this point.

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