Aug
09
2018
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Blissfully grabs $3.5 million seed investment to help companies get their SaaS in gear

Blissfully, a New York City startup that helps companies understand their SaaS usage inside their organizations, announced it has received a $3.5 million seed round.

The investment was led by Hummer Winblad Venture Partners. Hubspot, Founder Collective, and several unnamed pre-seed investors also participated. They got a $1.5 million pre-seed investment, bringing the total so far to $5 million, according the company.

Company co-founder and CEO Ariel Diaz says Blissfully actually helped him and his co-founder solve a problem they were having tracking the SaaS usage at their previous startups. Like many companies, they were using spreadsheets to track this information and they found it was untenable as the company grew beyond 30 or 40 people. They figured there had to be a better way, so they built one.

Their product is much more than simply a database of the SaaS products in use inside an organization. It can integrate with existing company systems like single sign-on tools such as Okta and OneLogIn, financial reporting systems and G Suite login information. “We are trying to automate as much of the data collection as possible to discover what you’re using, who’s using it and how much you are spending,” he said.

Blissfully SaaS report. Screenshot: Blissfully

Their scans often turn up products customers thought they had canceled or those that IT had asked employees to stop using. More than finding Shadow IT, the product also gives insight to overall SaaS spend, which many companies have trouble getting a grip on. They can find most usage with a scan. Some data such as customized contract information may have to be manually entered into the system, he says.

Hubspot CEO Brian Halligan, whose company is one of the investors in this round, sees a growing need for this kind of tool. “The widespread growth of SaaS across companies of all sizes is a leading indicator of the market need for Blissfully. As business’ investments in SaaS increase, they lose visibility into issues ranging from spending to security,” Halligan said in a statement.

The company offers a freemium and pay model and is available in the G Suite Marketplace. If you go for the free version, you can scan your systems for SaaS usage, but if you want to do more complex integrations with company systems, you have to pay. They currently have 10 employees and 500 customers with a mix of paying and free.

One interesting aspect of the Blissfully tool is that it is built entirely using Serverless architecture on AWS Lambda.

Jul
30
2018
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A pickaxe for the AI gold rush, Labelbox sells training data software

Every artificial intelligence startup or corporate R&D lab has to reinvent the wheel when it comes to how humans annotate training data to teach algorithms what to look for. Whether it’s doctors assessing the size of cancer from a scan or drivers circling street signs in self-driving car footage, all this labeling has to happen somewhere. Often that means wasting six months and as much as a million dollars just developing a training data system. With nearly every type of business racing to adopt AI, that spend in cash and time adds up.

Labelbox builds artificial intelligence training data labeling software so nobody else has to. What Salesforce is to a sales team, Labelbox is to an AI engineering team. The software-as-a-service acts as the interface for human experts or crowdsourced labor to instruct computers how to spot relevant signals in data by themselves and continuously improve their algorithms’ accuracy.

Today, Labelbox is emerging from six months in stealth with a $3.9 million seed round led by Kleiner Perkins and joined by First Round and Google’s Gradient Ventures.

“There haven’t been seamless tools to allow AI teams to transfer institutional knowledge from their brains to software,” says co-founder Manu Sharma. “Now we have over 5,000 customers, and many big companies have replaced their own internal tools with Labelbox.”

Kleiner’s Ilya Fushman explains that “If you have these tools, you can ramp up to the AI curve much faster, allowing companies to realize the dream of AI.”

Inventing the best wheel

Sharma knew how annoying it was to try to forge training data systems from scratch because he’d seen it done before at Planet Labs, a satellite imaging startup. “One of the things that I observed was that Planet Labs has a superb AI team, but that team had been for over six months building labeling and training tools. Is this really how teams around the world are approaching building AI?,” he wondered.

Before that, he’d worked at DroneDeploy alongside Labelbox co-founder and CTO Daniel Rasmuson, who was leading the aerial data startup’s developer platform. “Many drone analytics companies that were also building AI were going through the same pain point,” Sharma tells me. In September, the two began to explore the idea and found that 20 other companies big and small were also burning talent and capital on the problem. “We thought we could make that much smarter so AI teams can focus on algorithms,” Sharma decided.

Labelbox’s team, with co-founders Ysiad Ferreiras (third from left), Manu Sharma (fourth from left), Brian Rieger (sixth from left) Daniel Rasmuson (seventh from left)

Labelbox launched its early alpha in January and saw swift pickup from the AI community that immediately asked for additional features. With time, the tool expanded with more and more ways to manually annotate data, from gradation levels like how sick a cow is for judging its milk production to matching systems like whether a dress fits a fashion brand’s aesthetic. Rigorous data science is applied to weed out discrepancies between reviewers’ decisions and identify edge cases that don’t fit the models.

“There are all these research studies about how to make training data” that Labelbox analyzes and applies, says co-founder and COO Ysiad Ferreiras, who’d led all of sales and revenue at fast-rising grassroots campaign texting startup Hustle. “We can let people tweak different settings so they can run their own machine learning program the way they want to, instead of being limited by what they can build really quickly.” When Norway mandated all citizens get colon cancer screenings, it had to build AI for recognizing polyps. Instead of spending half a year creating the training tool, they just signed up all the doctors on Labelbox.

Any organization can try Labelbox for free, and Ferreiras claims hundreds have. Once they hit a usage threshold, the startup works with them on appropriate SaaS pricing related to the revenue the client’s AI will generate. One called Lytx makes DriveCam, a system installed on half a million trucks with cameras that use AI to detect unsafe driver behavior so they can be coached to improve. Conde Nast is using Labelbox to match runway fashion to related items in their archive of content.

Eliminating redundancy, and jobs?

The big challenge is convincing companies that they’re better off leaving the training software to the experts instead of building it in-house where they’re intimately, though perhaps inefficiently, involved in every step of development. Some turn to crowdsourcing agencies like CrowdFlower, which has their own training data interface, but they only work with generalist labor, not the experts required for many fields. Labelbox wants to cooperate rather than compete here, serving as the management software that treats outsourcers as just another data input.

Long-term, the risk for Labelbox is that it’s arrived too early for the AI revolution. Most potential corporate customers are still in the R&D phase around AI, not at scaled deployment into real-world products. The big business isn’t selling the labeling software. That’s just the start. Labelbox wants to continuously manage the fine-tuning data to help optimize an algorithm through its entire life cycle. That requires AI being part of the actual engineering process. Right now it’s often stuck as an experiment in the lab. “We’re not concerned about our ability to build the tool to do that. Our concern is ‘will the industry get there fast enough?’” Ferreiras declares.

Their investor agrees. Last year’s big joke in venture capital was that suddenly you couldn’t hear a startup pitch without “AI” being referenced. “There was a big wave where everything was AI. I think at this point it’s almost a bit implied,” says Fushman. But it’s corporations that already have plenty of data, and plenty of human jobs to obfuscate, that are Labelbox’s opportunity. “The bigger question is ‘when does that [AI] reality reach consumers, not just from the Googles and Amazons of the world, but the mainstream corporations?’”

Labelbox is willing to wait it out, or better yet, accelerate that arrival — even if it means eliminating jobs. That’s because the team believes the benefits to humanity will outweigh the transition troubles.

“For a colonoscopy or mammogram, you only have a certain number of people in the world who can do that. That limits how many of those can be performed. In the future, that could only be limited by the computational power provided so it could be exponentially cheaper” says co-founder Brian Rieger. With Labelbox, tens of thousands of radiology exams can be quickly ingested to produce cancer-spotting algorithms that he says studies show can become more accurate than humans. Employment might get tougher to find, but hopefully life will get easier and cheaper too. Meanwhile, improving underwater pipeline inspections could protect the environment from its biggest threat: us.

“AI can solve such important problems in our society,” Sharma concludes. “We want to accelerate that by helping companies tell AI what to learn.”

Jul
17
2018
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Dialpad dials up $50M Series D led by Iconiq

Dialpad announced a $50 million Series D investment today, giving the company plenty of capital to keep expanding its business communications platform.

The round was led by Iconiq Capital with help from existing investors Andreessen Horowitz, Amasia, Scale Ventures, Section 32 and Work-Bench. With today’s round, the company has now raised $120 million.

As technology like artificial intelligence and internet of things advances, it’s giving the company an opportunity to expand its platform. Dialpad products include UberConference conferencing software and VoiceAI for voice transcription applications.

The company is competing in a crowded market that includes giants like Google and Cisco and a host of smaller companies like GoToMeeting (owned by LogMeIn), Zoom and BlueJeans. All of these companies are working to provide cloud-based meeting and communications services.

Increasingly, that involves artificial intelligence like natural language processing (NLP) to provide on the fly transcription services. While none of these services is perfect yet, they are growing increasingly accurate.

VoiceAI was launched shortly after Dialpad acquired TalkIQ in May to take this idea a step further by applying sentiment analysis and analytics to voice transcripts. The company plans to use the cash infusion to continue investing in artificial intelligence on the Dialpad platform.

Post call transcript generated by VoiceAI. Screenshot: Dialpad

CEO Craig Walker certainly sees the potential of artificial intelligence for the company moving forward. “Smart CIOs know AI isn’t just another trendy tech tool, it’s the future of work. By arming sales and support teams, and frankly everybody in the organization, with VoiceAI’s real-time artificial intelligence and insights, businesses can dramatically improve customer satisfaction and ultimately their bottom line,” Walker said in a statement.

Dialpad is also working with voice-driven devices like the Amazon Alexa and it announced Alexa integration with Dialpad in April. This allows Alexa users to make calls by saying something like, “Alexa, call Liz Green with Dialpad” and the Echo will make the phone call on your behalf using Dialpad software.

According to the company website, it has over 50,000 customers including WeWork, Stitch Fix, Uber and Reddit. The company says it has added over 10,000 new customers since its last funding round in September, 2017.

Jun
20
2018
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Beamery closes $28M Series B to stoke support for its ‘talent CRM’

Beamery, a London-based startup that offers self-styled “talent CRM”– aka ‘candidate relationship management’ — and recruitment marketing software targeted at fast-growing companies, has closed a $28M Series B funding round, led by EQT Ventures.

Also participating in the round are M12, Microsoft’s venture fund, and existing investors Index Ventures, Edenred Capital Partners and Angelpad Fund. Beamery last raised a $5M Series A, in April 2017, led by Index.

Its pitch centers on the notion of helping businesses win a ‘talent war’ by taking a more strategic and pro-active approach to future hires vs just maintaining a spreadsheet of potential candidates.

Its platform aims to help the target enterprises build and manage a talent pool of people they might want to hire in future to get out ahead of the competition in HR terms, including providing tools for customized marketing aimed at nurture relations with possible future hires.

Customer numbers for Beamery’s software have stepped up from around 50 in April 2017 to 100 using it now — including the likes of Facebook (which is using it globally), Continental, VMware, Zalando, Grab and Balfour Beatty.

It says the new funding will be going towards supporting customer growth, including by ramping up hiring in its offices in London (HQ), Austin and San Francisco.

It also wants to expand into more markets. “We’re focusing on some of the world’s biggest global businesses that need support in multiple timezones and geographies so really it’s a global approach,” said a spokesman on that.

“Companies adopting the system are large enterprises doing talent at scale, that are innovative in terms of being proactive about recruiting, candidate experience and employer brand,” he added.

A “significant” portion of the Series B funds will also go towards R&D and produce development focused on its HR tech niche.

“Across all sectors, there’s a shift towards proactive recruitment through technology, and Beamery is emerging as the category leader,” added Tom Mendoza, venture lead and investment advisor at EQT, in a supporting statement.

“Beamery has a fantastic product, world-class high-ambition founders, and an outstanding analytics-driven team. They’ve been relentless about building the best talent CRM and marketing platform and gaining a deep understanding of the industry-wide problems.”

Jun
19
2018
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Cisco buys July Systems to bring digital experience to the real world

Customer experience management is about getting to know your customer’s preferences in an online context, but pulling that information into the real world often proves a major challenge for organizations. This results in a huge disconnect when a customer walks into a physical store. This morning, Cisco announced it has bought July Systems, a company that purports to solve that problem.

The companies did not share the acquisition price.

July Systems connects to a building’s WiFi system to understand the customer who just walked in the door, how many times they have shopped at this retailer, their loyalty point score and so forth. This gives the vendor the same kind of understanding about that customer offline as they are used to getting online.

It’s an interesting acquisition for Cisco, taking advantage of some of its strengths as a networking company, given the WiFi component, but also moving in the direction of providing more specific customer experience services.

“Enterprises have an opportunity to take advantage of their in-building Wi-Fi for a broad range of indoor location services. In addition to providing seamless connectivity, Wi-Fi can help enterprises glean deep visitor behavior insights, associate these learnings with their enterprise systems, and drive better customer and employee experiences,” Cisco’s Rob Salvagno wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition.

As is often the case with these kinds of purchases, the two companies are not strangers. In fact, July Systems lists Cisco as a partner prominently on the company website (along with AWS). Customers include an interesting variety from Intercontinental Hotels Group to the New York Yankees baseball team.

Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst at Constellation Research says the acquisition is also about taking advantage of 5G. “July Systems gives Cisco the ability to expand its localization and customer experience management (CXM) capabilities pre-5g and post-5g. The WiFi analytics improve CXM, but more importantly Cisco also gains a robust developer community,” Wang told TechCrunch.

According to reports, the company had over $67 billion in cash as of February. That leaves plenty of money to make investments like this one and the company hasn’t been shy about using their cash horde to buy companies as they try to transform from a pure hardware company to one built on services

In fact, they have made 211 acquisitions over the years, according to data on Crunchbase. In recent years they have made some eye-popping ones like plucking AppDynamics for $3.7 billion just before it was going to IPO in 2017 or grabbing Jasper for $1.4 billion in 2016, but the company has also made a host of smaller ones like today’s announcement.

July Systems was founded back in 2001 and raised almost $60 million from a variety of investors including Sequoia Capital, Intel Capital, CRV and Motorola Solutions. Salvagno indicated the July Systems group will become incorporated into Cisco’s enterprise networking group. The deal is expected to be finalized in the first quarter of fiscal 2019.

Apr
13
2018
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Zuora’s IPO is another step in golden age of enterprise SaaS

Zuroa’s founder and CEO Tien Tzuo had a vision of a subscription economy long before most people ever considered the notion. He knew that for companies to succeed with subscriptions, they needed a bookkeeping system that understood how they collected and reported money. The company went public yesterday, another clear sign post on the road to SaaS maturation.

Tzuo was an early employee at Salesforce and their first CMO. He worked there in the early days in the late 90s when Salesforce’s Marc Benioff famously rented an apartment to launch the company. Tzuo was at Salesforce 9 years, and it helped him understand the nature of subscription-based businesses like Salesforce.

“We created a great environment for building, marketing and delivering software. We rewrote the rules, the way it was built, marketed and sold,” Tzuo told me in an interview in 2016.

He saw a fundamental problem with traditional accounting methods, which were designed for selling a widget and declaring the revenue. A subscription was an entirely different model and it required a new way to track revenue and communicate with customers. Tzuo took the long view when he started his company in early 2007, leaving a secure job at a growing company like Salesforce.

He did it because he had the vision, long before anyone else, that SaaS companies would require a subscription bookkeeping system, but before long, so would other unrelated businesses.

Building a subscription system

As he put it in that 2016 interview, if you commit to pay me $1 for 10 years, you know that $1 was coming in come hell or high water, that’s $10 I know I’m getting, but I can’t declare the money until I get it. That recurring revenue still has value though because my investors know that I’m secure for 10 years, even though it’s not on the books yet. That’s where Zuora came in. It could account for that recurring revenue when nobody else could. What’s more, it could track the billing over time, and send out reminders, help the companies stay engaged with their customers.

Photo: Lukas Kurka/Getty Images

As Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst at Constellation Research put it, they pioneered the whole idea of a subscription economy, and not just for SaaS companies. Over the last several years, we’ve heard companies talking about selling services and SLAs (service/uptime agreements) instead of a one-time sale of an item, but not that long ago it wasn’t something a lot of companies were thinking about.

“They pioneered how companies can think about monetization,” Wang said. “So large companies like a GE could go from selling a wind turbine one time to selling a subscription to deliver a certain number of Kw/hr of green energy at peak hours from 1 to 5 pm with 98 percent uptime.” There wasn’t any way to do this before Zuora came along.

Jason Lemkin, founder at SaaStr, a firm that invests in SaaS startups, says Tzuo was a genuine visionary and helped create the underlying system for SaaS subscriptions to work. “The most interesting part of Zuora is that it is a “second” order SaaS play. It could only thrive once SaaS became mainstream, and could only scale on top of other recurring revenue businesses. Zuora started off as a niche player helping SaaS companies do billing, and it dramatically expanded and thrived as SaaS became … Software.”

Market catches up with idea

When he launched the company in 2007, perhaps he saw that extension of his idea out on the distant horizon. He certainly saw companies like Salesforce needing a service like the one he had decided to create. The early investors must have recognized that his vision was early and it would take a slow, steady climb on the way to exiting. It took 11 years and $242 million in venture capital before they saw the payoff. The revenue after 11 years was a reported $167 million. There is plenty of room to grow.

But yesterday the company had its initial public offering, and it was by any measure a huge success. According TechCrunch’s Katie Roof, “After pricing its IPO at $14 and raising $154 million, the company closed at $20, valuing the company around $2 billion.” Today it was up a bit more as of this writing.

When you consider the Tzuo’s former company has become a $10 billion company, that companies like Box, Zendesk, Workday and Dropbox have all gone public, and others like DocuSign and Smartsheets are not far behind, it’s pretty clear that we are in a golden age of SaaS — and chances are it’s only going to get better.

Apr
09
2018
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Juro grabs $2M to take the hassle out of contracts

UK startup Juro, which is applying a “design centric approach” and machine learning tech to help businesses speed up the authoring and management of sales contracts, has closed $2m in seed funding led by Point Nine Capital.

Prior investor Seedcamp also contributed to the round. Juro is announcing Taavet Hinrikus (TransferWise’s co-founder) as an investor now too, as well as Michael Pennington (Gumtree co-founder) and the family office of Paul Forster (co-founder of Indeed.com).

Back in January 2017 the London-based startup closed a $750,000 (£615k) seed round, though CEO and co-founder Richard Mabey tells us that was really better classed as an angel round — with Point Nine Capital only joining “late” in the day.

“We actually could have strung it out to Series A,” he says of the funding that’s being announced now. “But we had multiple offers come in and there is so much of an explosion in demand for the [machine learning] that it made sense to do a round now rather than wait for the A. The whole legal industry is undergoing radical change and we want to be leading it.”

Juro’s SaaS product is an integrated contracts workflow that combines contract creation, e-signing and commenting capabilities with AI-powered contract analytics.

Its general focus is on customers that have to manage a high volume of contacts — such as marketplaces.

The 2016-founded startup is not breaking out any customer numbers yet but says its client list includes the likes of Estee Lauder, Deliveroo and Nested. And Mabey adds that “most” of its demand is coming from enterprise at this point, noting it has “several tech unicorns and Fortune 500 companies in trial”.

While design is clearly a major focus — with the startup deploying clean-looking templates and visual cues to offer a user-friendly ‘upgrade’ on traditional legal processes — the machine learning component is its scalable, value-added differentiator to serve the target b2b users by helping them identify recurring sticking points in contract negotiations and keep on top of contract renewals.

Mabey tells TechCrunch the new funding will be used to double down on development of the machine learning component of the product.

“We’re not the first to market in contract management by about 25 years,” he says with a smilie. “So we have always needed to prove out our vision of why the incumbents are failing. One part of this is clunky UX and we’ve succeeded so far in replacing legacy providers through better design (e.g. we replace DocuSign at 80% of our customers).

“But the thing we and our investors are really excited about is not just helping businesses with contract workflow but helping them understand their contract data, auto-tag contracts, see pattens in negotiations and red flag unusual contract terms.”

While this machine learning element is where he sees Juro cutting out a competitive edge in an existing and established market, Mabey concedes it takes “quite a lot of capital to do well”. Hence taking more funding now.

“We need a level of predictive accuracy in our models that risk averse lawyers can get comfortable with and that’s a big ask!” he says.

Specifically, Juro will be using the funding to hire data scientists and machine learning engineers — building out the team at both its London and Riga offices. “We’re doing it like crazy,” adds Mabey. “For example, we just hired from the UK government Digital Service the data scientist who delivered the first ML model used by the UK government (on the gov.uk website).

“There is a huge opportunity here but great execution is key and we’re building a world class team to do it. It’s a big bet to grow revenue as quickly as we are and do this kind of R&D but that’s just what the market is demanding.”

Juro’s HQ remains in London for now, though Mabey notes its entire engineering team is based in the EU — between Riga, Amsterdam and Barcelona — “in part to avoid ‘Brexit risk’”.

“Only 27% of the team is British and we have customers operating in 12 countries — something I’m quite proud of — but it does leave us rather exposed. We’re very open minded about where we will be based in the future and are waiting to hear from the government on the final terms of Brexit,” he says when asked whether the startup has any plans to Brexit to Berlin.

“We always look beyond the UK for talent: if the government cannot provide certainty to our Romanian product designer (ex Kalo, Entrepreneur First) that she can stay in the UK post Brexit without risking a visa application, tbh it makes me less bullish on London!”

Jan
30
2018
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SAP snags CallidusCloud for $2.4 billion

 SAP, the German enterprise software giant, announced it acquired CallidusCloud last night for $2.4 billion or $36 per share. Callidus provides configure price quote (CPQ) and sales performance management tools delivered as a cloud service. The share price is a nice bump for shareholders, representing a 21 percent premium over the 30-day volume weighted average share price, according to SAP.… Read More

Jan
25
2018
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Snowflake lands massive $263 million investment on unicorn valuation

 Snowflake, the cloud-based data warehouse service, announced an enormous investment round today, pulling in a whopping $263 million on a unicorn valuation of $1.5 billion. The round was led by a trio of big-name Silicon Valley VC firms including existing investors Iconiq Capital and Altimeter Capital and new investor Sequoia Capital. Today’s announcement comes on top of the $100… Read More

Oct
04
2017
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Cloud computing has demanded a kinder, gentler Oracle

 Oracle has always had a swagger that reflects the public persona of its bombastic leader, Larry Ellison, but over the last several years, as the company has transitioned to the cloud, it has required a transformation to one that is softer and more customer-centric. Mind you, this was a company that was the poster child for vendor lock-in the 90s and early 2000s. They knew you were looking for… Read More

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