Apr
03
2020
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Want to survive the downturn? Better build a platform

When you look at the most successful companies in the world, they are almost never just one simple service. Instead, they offer a platform with a range of services and an ability to connect to it to allow external partners and developers to extend the base functionality that the company provides.

Aspiring to be a platform and actually succeeding at building one are not the same. While every startup probably sees themselves as becoming a platform play eventually, the fact is it’s hard to build one. But if you can succeed and your set of services become an integral part of a given business workflow, your company could become bigger and more successful than even the most optimistic founder ever imagined.

Look at the biggest tech companies in the world, from Microsoft to Oracle to Facebook to Google and Amazon. All of them offer a rich complex platform of services. All of them provide a way for third parties to plug in and take advantage of them in some way, even if it’s by using the company’s sheer popularity to advertise.

Michael A. Cusumano, David B. Yoffie and Annabelle Gawer, who wrote the book The Business of Platforms, wrote an article recently in MIT Sloan Review on The Future of Platforms, saying that simply becoming a platform doesn’t guarantee success for a startup.

“Because, like all companies, platforms must ultimately perform better than their competitors. In addition, to survive long-term, platforms must also be politically and socially viable, or they risk being crushed by government regulation or social opposition, as well as potentially massive debt obligations,” they wrote.

In other words, it’s not cheap or easy to build a successful platform, but the rewards are vast. As Cusumano, Yoffie and Gawer point out their studies have found, “…Platform companies achieved their sales with half the number of employees [of successful non-platform companies]. Moreover, platform companies were twice as profitable, were growing twice as fast, and were more than twice as valuable as their conventional counterparts.”

From an enterprise perspective, look at a company like Salesforce . The company learned long ago that it couldn’t possibly build every permutation of customer requirements with a relatively small team of engineers (especially early on), so it started to build hooks into the platform it had built to allow customers and consultants to customize it to meet the needs of individual organizations.

Eventually Salesforce built APIs, then it built a whole set of development tools, and built a marketplace to share these add-ons. Some startups like FinancialForce, Vlocity and Veeva have built whole companies on top of Salesforce.

Rory O’Driscoll, a partner at Scale Venture Partners, speaking at a venture capitalist panel at BoxWorks in 2014, said that many startups aspire to be platforms, but it’s harder than it looks. “You don’t make a platform. Third-party developers only engage when you achieve a critical mass of users. You have to do something else and then become a platform. You don’t come fully formed as a platform,” he said at the time.

If you’re thinking, how you could possibly start a company like that in the middle of a massive economic crisis, consider that Microsoft launched in 1975 in the middle of recession. Google and Salesforce both launched in the late 1990s, just ahead of the dot-com crash, and Facebook launched in 2004, four years before the massive downturn in 2008. All went on to become tremendously successful companies

That success often requires massive spending and sales and marketing burn, but when it works, the rewards are enormous. Just don’t expect that it’s an easy path to success.

Apr
02
2020
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Collibra nabs another $112.5M at a $2.3B valuation for its big data management platform

GDPR and other data protection and privacy regulations — as well as a significant (and growing) number of data breaches and exposées of companies’ privacy policies — have put a spotlight on not just the vast troves of data that businesses and other organizations hold on us, but also how they handle it. Today, one of the companies helping them cope with that data in a better and legal way is announcing a huge round of funding to continue that work. Collibra, which provides tools to manage, warehouse, store and analyse data troves, is today announcing that it has raised $112.5 million in funding, at a post-money valuation of $2.3 billion.

The funding — a Series F, from the looks of it — represents a big bump for the startup, which last year raised $100 million at a valuation of just over $1 billion. This latest round was co-led by ICONIQ Capital, Index Ventures, and Durable Capital Partners LP, with previous investors CapitalG (Google’s growth fund), Battery Ventures, and Dawn Capital also participating.

Collibra was originally a spin-out from Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, Belgium and today it works with some 450 enterprises and other large organizations. Customers include Adobe, Verizon (which owns TechCrunch), insurers AXA and a number of healthcare providers. Its products cover a range of services focused around company data, including tools to help customers comply with local data protection policies and store it securely, and tools (and plug-ins) to run analytics and more.

These are all features and products that have long had a place in enterprise big data IT, but they have become increasingly more used and in-demand both as data policies have expanded, as security has become more of an issue, and as the prospects of what can be discovered through big data analytics have become more advanced.

With that growth, many companies have realised that they are not in a position to use and store their data in the best possible way, and that is where companies like Collibra step in.

“Most large organizations are in data chaos,” Felix Van de Maele, co-founder and CEO, previously told us. “We help them understand what data they have, where they store it and [understand] whether they are allowed to use it.”

As you would expect with a big IT trend, Collibra is not the only company chasing this opportunity. Competitors include Informatica, IBM, Talend, and Egnyte, among a number of others, but the market position of Collibra, and its advanced technology, is what has continued to impress investors.

“Durable Capital Partners invests in innovative companies that have significant potential to shape growing industries and build larger companies,” said Henry Ellenbogen, founder and chief investment officer for Durable Capital Partners LP, in a statement (Ellenbogen is formerly an investment manager a T. Rowe Price, and this is his first investment in Collibra under Durable). “We believe Collibra is a leader in the Data Intelligence category, a space that could have a tremendous impact on global business operations and a space that we expect will continue to grow as data becomes an increasingly critical asset.”

“We have a high degree of conviction in Collibra and the importance of the company’s mission to help organizations benefit from their data,” added Matt Jacobson, general partner at ICONIQ Capital and Collibra board member, in his own statement. “There is an increasing urgency for enterprises to harness their data for strategic business decisions. Collibra empowers organizations to use their data to make critical business decisions, especially in uncertain business environments.”

Mar
31
2020
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Amid shift to remote work, application performance monitoring is IT’s big moment

In recent weeks, millions have started working from home, putting unheard-of pressure on services like video conferencing, online learning, food delivery and e-commerce platforms. While some verticals have seen a marked reduction in traffic, others are being asked to scale to new heights.

Services that were previously nice to have are now necessities, but how do organizations track pressure points that can add up to a critical failure? There is actually a whole class of software to help in this regard.

Monitoring tools like Datadog, New Relic and Elastic are designed to help companies understand what’s happening inside their key systems and warn them when things may be going sideways. That’s absolutely essential as these services are being asked to handle unprecedented levels of activity.

At a time when performance is critical, application performance monitoring (APM) tools are helping companies stay up and running. They also help track root causes should the worst case happen and they go down, with the goal of getting going again as quickly as possible.

We spoke to a few monitoring vendor CEOs to understand better how they are helping customers navigate this demand and keep systems up and running when we need them most.

IT’s big moment

Mar
26
2020
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Salesforce’s Benioff pledges no ‘significant’ layoffs for 90 days

In a Twitter thread on Tuesday, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff outlined an eight-step plan to keep people safe and find treatments and a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus, all while working to find a way to get people back to work safely. He also asked that all CEOs take a 90-day “no lay off” pledge to help everyone get through the crisis.

The same day, he posted another tweet pledging to not make any “significant” layoffs for 90 days. When TechCrunch asked Salesforce to comment on the difference between the two tweets, the company chose not to comment any further on the matter and let the tweets stand on their own.

It sounds like Benioff’s second tweet, which also asked employees to consider paying their own hourly workers like housekeepers and dog walkers throughout the layoff period, whether they were working or not, was designed to give the CEO some wiggle room for at least some layoffs.

Salesforce has almost 50,000 employees worldwide. Even if the company were to lay off just 1% of employees it would equal 500 people without jobs, though it’s not clear if that would count as “significant.” Perhaps more likely, the company might make some cuts to staff for performance or HR-related reasons, but not broad cuts, and thus make both of its CEO’s claims essentially true.

Salesforce is a wildly successful company. It celebrated its 20th anniversary last fall and has grown from a pesky startup to a software behemoth with a projected revenue of over $20 billion for FY2021. It currently has almost $8 billion in cash and equivalents on hand. Certainly companies that use Salesforce’s products will continue to need them, even with the workforce at home.

While it could have an impact on that projection for FY2021 and its ability to land new customers this quarter, it seems like it has the money and revenue to ride out the situation for the short term without making any moves to reduce headcount at this critical time.

Mar
23
2020
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Activist investor Starboard Value taking three Box board seats as involvement deepens

When activist investors Starboard Value took a 7.5% stake in Box last September, there was reasonable speculation that it would begin to try and push an agenda, as activist investors tend to do. While the firm has been quiet to this point, today Box announced that Starboard was adding three members to the 9 member Box board.

At the same time, two long-time Box investors and allies, Rory O’Driscoll from Scale Venture Partners and Josh Stein from Threshold Ventures (formerly from DFJ), will be retiring from the board and not seeking re-election at the annual stockholder’s meeting in June.

O’Driscoll involvement with the company dates back a decade, and Stein has been with the company for 14 years and has been a big supporter from almost the beginning of the company.

For starters, Jack Lazar, whose credentials including being chief financial officer at GoPro and Atheros Communications, is joining the board immediately. A second new board member from a list to be agreed upon by Box and Starboard will also be joining immediately.

Finally, a third member will be selected by the newly constituted board in June, giving Starboard three friendly votes and the ability to push the Box agenda in a significant way.

While this was obviously influenced by Starboard’s activist approach, a person close to the situation stressed that it was a highly collaborative effort between the two organizations, and also indicated that there was general agreement that it was time to bring in new perspectives to the board. The end goal for all concerned is to raise the stock value, and do this against the current bleak economic backdrop.

At the time it announced it was taking a stake in Box, Starboard telegraphed that it could be doing something like this. Here’s what it had to say in its filing at the time:

“Depending on various factors including, without limitation, the Issuer’s financial position and investment strategy, the price levels of the Shares, conditions in the securities markets and general economic and industry conditions, the Reporting Persons may in the future take such actions with respect to their investment in the Issuer as they deem appropriate including, without limitation, engaging in communications with management and the Board of Directors of the Issuer, engaging in discussions with stockholders of the Issuer or other third parties about the Issuer and the [Starboard’s] investment, including potential business combinations or dispositions involving the Issuer or certain of its businesses, making recommendations or proposals to the Issuer concerning changes to the capitalization, ownership structure, board structure (including board composition), potential business combinations or dispositions involving the Issuer or certain of its businesses, or suggestions for improving the Issuer’s financial and/or operational performance, purchasing additional Shares, selling some or all of their Shares, engaging in short selling of or any hedging or similar transaction with respect to the Shares…”

Box CEO Aaron Levie appeared at TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise, the week this news about Starboard broke, and he was careful in how he discussed a possible relationship with the firm. “Well, I think in their statement actually they really just identified that they think there’s upside in the stock. It’s still very early in the conversations and process, but again we’re super collaborative in these types of situations. We want to work with all of our investors, and I think that’ll be the same here,” Levie told us at the time.

Now the company has no choice but to work more collaboratively with Starboard as it takes a much more meaningful role on the company board. What impact this will have in the long run is hard to say, but surely significant changes are likely on the way.

Mar
22
2020
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Box’s Aaron Levie says it will take creativity and focus to get through this crisis

The COVID-19 virus is touching every aspect of our lives and having a profound impact on individuals, businesses and society at large. Box’s Aaron Levie has built a successful business from dorm room to IPO and beyond. He spoke to TechCrunch today about the level of creativity and focus that it’s going to take to succeed in the current environment.

Levie pointed out that his company was a fledgling startup when the economic downturn hit in 2008, but he thinks this one could have a much greater impact on business than that one did.

“I think Silicon Valley is going to definitely experience this in a very, very significant way. We were building a company in 2008, and that was extremely hard, but I don’t think it is going to compare to how hard the coming year is going to be,” Levie said.

This morning on Twitter, Levie wrote that we are in uncharted territory, and everyone will have to work together to help navigate this crisis.

He believes the government will need to step in to help individuals and businesses alike. “Businesses, who have lots of employees, need to be supported, but fundamentally we need to make sure that we’re focused on all the workers that are out of work, hopefully just temporarily displaced, but we’re going to need a lot of government financial support to get through this,” he said.

For startups, he advised startups to firmly focus on their mission. “It’s about extreme focus right now. It’s about extreme discipline. It’s about making sure that you’re maintaining your culture during this time,” Levie said.

As for his own company, he’s looking a three areas: his employees, his customers and the community. He said his first priority is making sure his employees are safe and healthy and that the hourly workers who support the business normally are being taken care of as we move through this unprecedented situation.

Secondly, he’s making sure that he supports his customers. To that end the company has removed any license limits as customers deal with increased usage with employees working from home.

He has also joined forces with Cloudflare in an effort to provide small businesses with 90 days of free services to help ride out the situation, and he said they would revisit extending these programs if the situation continues.

Thirdly, he says every business who can has to look at ways to support the communities where they live to assist non-profit organizations who are helping in the response. “This is an event where business communities globally are going to have to put more of a concerted effort on this than any issue in modern history,” Levie said.

Levie is not alone in this thinking by any means. He points to other leaders such as Chuck Robbins, Marc Benioff and Tim Cook, all who have stepped up in recent days to offer help and support.

He has built his company from the ground up to one that’s on nearly an $800 million run rate, but like so many business leaders, he is dealing with a situation which, as he said, has no playbook. Like every other CEO, he’s trying to help keep his business thriving, while not losing sight of the needs of the people in his organization, his customers or his community. It’s not an easy balancing act for anyone right now.

Mar
18
2020
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Slack introduces simplified interface as usage moves deeper into companies

When Slack first launched in 2013, the product was quickly embraced by developers, and the early product reflected that. To get at advanced tools, you used a slash (/) command, but the company recognizes that as it moves deeper into the enterprise, it needed to simplify the interface.

Today, the company introduced a newly designed interface aimed at easing the user experience, making Slack more of an accessible enterprise communications hub.

Jaime DeLanghe, director of product management at Slack, says that the messaging application has become a central place for people to communicate about work, which has grown even more important as many of us have begun working from home as a result of COVID-19.

But DeLanghe says usage was up even before the recent work from home trend began taking off. “People are connected to Slack, on average, about nine hours a day and they’re using Slack actively for almost 90 minutes,” she told TechCrunch.

To that end, she says her team has been working hard to update the interface.

“From my team’s perspective, we want to make sure that the experience is as simple to understand and get on-boarded as possible,” she said. That also means surfacing more advanced tooling, which has been hidden behind those slash commands in previous versions of the tool.

She said that the company has been trying to address the needs of the changing audience over the years by adding many new features, but admits that has resulted in some interface clutter. Today’s redesign is meant to address that.

New Slack interface. Screenshot: Slack

Among the new features, besides the overall cleaner look, many people will welcome the new ability to nest channels to organize them better in the Channel sidebar. As your channels proliferate, it becomes harder to navigate them all. Starting today, users can organize their channels into logical groupings with labels.

New nested channel labels in Slack. Screenshot: Slack

DeLanghe is careful to point out that this channel organization is personal, and cannot be done at an administrative level. “The channels don’t actually live inside of another channel. You’re creating a label for them, so that you can organize them in the sidebar for just yourself, not for everybody,” she explained.

Other new features include an improved navigation bar at the top of the window, a centralized search and help tool also located at the top of the window and a universal compose button in the Sidebar.

All of these new features are designed to help make Slack more accessible to users, as more employees start using it across an organization.

Mar
06
2020
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SaaStr postpones annual conference as county officials discourage large gatherings

SaaStr, the venture firm that puts on the largest conference for SaaS companies, postponed its SaaStr Annual 2020 conference today amid concerns from local and national officials around large gatherings in light of the COVID-19 virus. The event was scheduled to take place next week.

On March 5th, Santa Clara County issued updated guidelines that included, “[Minimizing] the number of employees working within arm’s length of one another, including minimizing or canceling large in-person meetings and conferences.”

Company founder Jason Lemkin said his team was prepared to go forward and had put stringent safeguards in place. “We put in place health and safety measures no one else in the industry equaled, but once the County made its statement, we needed to reschedule,” he told TechCrunch.

They outlined the health guidelines for the event in an article on the company website earlier this week, including not allowing anyone from a hot zone to attend, passport checks to enforce that, temperature checks and more. As Lemkin tweeted:

The event will now be folded into the company’s fall conference, which they say will be even bigger now, while replacing the company’s annual Scale conference. “Following that [guidance from Santa Clara County] and guidance from the CDC, and the growing escalation of the Covid-19 outbreak around the world and in the United States, SaaStr Annual must now be rescheduled and merged with our existing fall event into a new, less formal ‘SaaStr Bi-Annual’ to take place in September 2020,” the company wrote in a statement.

Lemkin expressed frustration with authorities today on Twitter about the lack of leadership on this:

The event included some of the biggest names in SaaS, from Jennifer Tejada of PagerDuty and Aaron Levie of Box and many more. It’s an event that’s designed to help SaaS companies of all sizes discuss the issues facing them, in one place, with panels, interviews and sessions. Many other tech conferences are being cancelled as well, including SXSW.

Feb
27
2020
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London-based Gyana raises $3.9M for a no-code approach to data science

Coding and other computer science expertise remain some of the more important skills that a person can have in the working world today, but in the last few years, we have also seen a big rise in a new generation of tools providing an alternative way of reaping the fruits of technology: “no-code” software, which lets anyone — technical or non-technical — build apps, games, AI-based chatbots, and other products that used to be the exclusive terrain of engineers and computer scientists.

Today, one of the newer startups in the category — London-based Gyana, which lets non-technical people run data science analytics on any structured dataset — is announcing a round of £3 million to fuel its next stage of growth.

Led by U.K. firm Fuel Ventures, other investors in this round include Biz Stone of Twitter, Green Shores Capital and U+I , and it brings the total raised by the startup to $6.8 million since being founded in 2015.

Gyana (Sanskrit for “knowledge”) was co-founded by Joyeeta Das and David Kell, who were both pursuing post-graduate degrees at Oxford: Das, a former engineer, was getting an MBA, and Kell was doing a Ph. D. in physics.

Das said the idea of building this tool came out of the fact that the pair could see a big disconnect emerging not just in their studies, but also in the world at large — not so much a digital divide, as a digital light year in terms of the distance between the groups of who and who doesn’t know how to work in the realm of data science.

“Everyone talks about using data to inform decision making, and the world becoming data-driven, but actually that proposition is available to less than one percent of the world,” she said.

Out of that, the pair decided to work on building a platform that Das describes as a way to empower “citizen data scientists,” by letting users upload any structured data set (for example, a .CSV file) and running a series of queries on it to be able to visualise trends and other insights more easily.

While the longer term goal may be for any person to be able to produce an analytical insight out of a long list of numbers, the more practical and immediate application has been in enterprise services and building tools for non-technical knowledge workers to make better, data-driven decisions.

To prove out its software, the startup first built an app based on the platform that it calls Neera (Sanskrit for “water”), which specifically parses footfall and other “human movement” metrics, useful for applications in retail, real estate and civic planning — for example to determine well certain retail locations are performing, footfall in popular locations, decisions on where to place or remove stores, or how to price a piece of property.

Starting out with the aim of mid-market and smaller companies — those most likely not to have in-house data scientists to meet their business needs — startup has already picked up a series of customers that are actually quite a lot bigger than that. They include Vodafone, Barclays, EY, Pret a Manger, Knight Frank and the UK Ministry of Defense. It says it has some £1 million in contracts with these firms currently.

That, in turn, has served as the trigger to raise this latest round of funding and to launch Vayu (Sanskrit for “air”) — a more general purpose app that covers a wider set of parameters that can be applied to a dataset. So far, it has been adopted by academic researchers, financial services employees, and others that use analysis in their work, Das said.

With both Vayu and Neera, the aim — refreshingly — is to make the whole experience as privacy-friendly as possible, Das noted. Currently, you download an app if you want to use Gyana, and you keep your data local as you work on it. Gyana has no “anonymization” and no retention of data in its processes, except things like analytics around where your cursor hovers, so that Gyana knows how it can improve its product.

“There are always ways to reverse engineer these things,” Das said of anonymization. “We just wanted to make sure that we are not accidentally creating a situation where, despite learning from anaonyised materials, you can’t reverse engineer what people are analysing. We are just not convinced.”

While there is something commendable about building and shipping a tool with a lot of potential to it, Gyana runs the risk of facing what I think of as the “water, water everywhere” problem. Sometimes if a person really has no experience or specific aim, it can be hard to think of how to get started when you can do anything. Das said they have also identified this, and so while currently Gyana already offers some tutorials and helper tools within the app to nudge the user along, the plan is to eventually bring in a large variety of datasets for people to get started with, and also to develop a more intuitive way to “read” the basics of the files in order to figure out what kinds of data inquiries a person is most likely to want to make.

The rise of “no-code” software has been a swift one in the world of tech spanning the proliferation of startups, big acquisitions, and large funding rounds. Companies like Airtable and DashDash are aimed at building analytics leaning on interfaces that follow the basic design of a spreadsheet; AppSheet, which is a no-code mobile app building platform, was recently acquired by Google; and Roblox (for building games without needing to code) and Uncorq (for app development) have both raised significant funding just this week. In the area of no-code data analytics and visualisation, there are biggies like Tableau, as well as Trifacta, RapidMiner and more.

Gartner predicts that by 2024, some 65% of all app development will be made on low- or no-code platforms, and Forrester estimates that the no- and low-code market will be worth some $10 billion this year, rising to $21.2 billion by 2024.

That represents a big business opportunity for the likes of Gyana, which has been unique in using the no-code approach specifically to tackle the area of data science.

However, in the spirit of citizen data scientists, the intention is to keep a consumer version of the apps free to use as it works on signing up enterprise users with more enhanced paid products, which will be priced on an annual license basis (currently clients are paying between $6,000 and $12,000 depending on usage, she said).

“We want to do free for as long as we can,” Das said, both in relation to the data tools and the datasets that it will offer to users. “The biggest value add is not about accessing premium data that is hard to get. We are not a data marketplace but we want to provide data that makes sense to access,” adding that even with business users, “we’d like you to do 90% of what you want to do without paying for anything.”

Feb
26
2020
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As Block exits, Salesforce forecasts it will surpass $20B in revenue in FY2021

When Keith Block joined Salesforce from Oracle in 2013, the CRM giant was already a successful SaaS vendor on a billion dollar quarterly revenue cadence. When the co-CEO announced he was stepping down yesterday, the company reported revenue of $4.9 billion for the quarter.

During his tenure, the company’s revenue more than quadrupled, earning an impressive $17.1 billion last year, and as Block announced at the earnings call, the company he was leaving was forecasting revenue of $21 billion for FY2021.

Consider that it was not that long ago in May 2017 that we wrote about the company reaching the $10 billion mark. It’s perilously easy to get lost in these numbers, to take them for granted and think they don’t mean as much as they do. It’s hard work to build a billion SaaS business, never mind $10 billion or $20 billion.

Yet Salesforce is embarking on unchartered territory for a SaaS company. It’s approaching $20 billion in revenue for a single year.

Growth through acquisition

Granted the company keeps growing revenue by making big deals like buying Mulesoft for $6.5 billion in 2018 or Tableau for $15.7 billion in 2019, or just this week buying Vlocity for a mere $1.33 billion. That means the company spent more than $25 billion over a couple of years to buy substantial companies that help them build their business.

Block took a moment to brag a bit about his accomplishments including how some of those purchases performed during his swan song call with Salesforce, calling it a capstone of his time at Salesforce.

“In Q4, we grew 32% in the Americas, 28% in APAC and 47% in EMEA in constant currency. Now that includes our recent acquisitions. And at the close of FY 2020, the number of Salesforce customers spending $20 million annually grew 34%,” he said.

Think about that last number for just a minute. This a SaaS vendor with the number of customers spending $20 million growing by 34%. Block helped orchestrate that growth and worked with the executive team to help determine which companies it should be targeting.

At a press conference in 2016 at Dreamforce, he discussed Salesforce’s acquisition strategy. At the time, it had bought a 10 of 12 companies it would end up acquiring that year. It would buy only one in 2017, before revving up again 2018. Here’s what he said about what they look for in a company, as we reported in an article at the time:

“We look at culture. Will it be a good cultural fit? Is it a good product fit? Is there talent? Is there financial value? What are the risks of assimilating the company into our company,” Block explained.

What’s next for Block?

There is no word on what Block will do next beyond acting as an advisor to his former co-CEO Marc Benioff, who took time in the earnings call to thank his colleague for his time at Salesforce. As well, he should.

As Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst point out, Block leaves a big hole as he steps away. “If there is no equivalent replacement, you will see a significant impact in sales. Keith brought industries and sales discipline,” Wang told TechCrunch

It will be interesting to watch what he does next, and who, if anyone, will benefit from his vast experience helping to build the most successful pure SaaS company on the planet.

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