Oct
07
2020
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Slack introduces new features to ease messaging between business partners

Slack is holding its Frontiers conference this week — virtually like everyone else in 2020 — and it’s introducing some new features to make it easier to message between partners. At the same time, it’s talking about some experimental features that could appear in the platform at some point (or not).

Let’s start with some features to help communicate with partners outside of your company in a secure way. This is always a tough nut to crack whether it’s collaboration or file sharing or any of the things that trusted partners do when they are working closely together.

To help solve that, the company is creating the notion of trusted partners, and this has a few components. The first is Slack Connect DMs (direct messages), which allows users inside an organization to collaborate with anyone outside their company simply by sending an invite.

“You can now direct message anyone in the Slack ecosystem. That means that anyone that has a Slack license can connect to one another,” Ilan Frank, VP of product at Slack told TechCrunch. While the company is introducing the new capability this week, it won’t be widely available until next year as the company wants to make sure this is used for business purposes only in a secure and non-spammy way.

“We’re going to be focused on, before we make this widely available, a lot of different information privacy and security [components] to make sure that we account for things like spam and phishing attacks and all that. This should not be a LinkedIn or Facebook Messenger where anyone can connect with you. This is [going to focus on] business for business work,” Frank explained.

Slack is introducing a couple of concepts to help ensure that happens. For starters, it’s adding Verified Organizations, which works a bit like verified users on Twitter, to help ensure you are dealing with someone from an organization you trust and work with before you start exchanging information on Slack.

“So if someone connects to you through direct message or through a channel, before you even make that connection, [you can ensure] if they are [from] a verified Slack organization versus someone who has just signed up on the internet, and you have not heard them, don’t have a relationship with them and don’t know who they are,” Frank said.

The last piece is called Managed Connections, which lets Slack admins control which organizations and individuals can connect with people inside your organization on Slack in a streamlined manner, which helps ensure that the other two new features are used in a responsible way.

“Organizations have told us that they want to go even deeper into the granularity of control, and they want to have different policies by external organizations that they’re connected to,” he said. Managed Connections lets admins set policies around different types of relationships with outside organizations.

All of these new tools are being introduced this week, but will be released later this year or early next year.

Among the other things the company working on in is enabling customers to embed video or audio in a Slack channel, extending it beyond a pure text messaging tool. The company was careful to point out that these features are just experiments for now and may or may not end up in the product in the future.

Note: Since we published, Slack contacted us to say that it has since decided to release the audio and video tools before the end of this year. 

Aug
13
2020
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Slack and Atlassian strengthen their partnership with deeper integrations

A lot of “partnerships” between tech companies don’t get very far beyond a press release and maybe some half-hearted co-selling attempts. When Atlassian sold its chat services to Slack in 2018, the two companies said they would form a new partnership and with Atlassian leaving the chat space, a lot of people were skeptical about what that would really mean.

Since then, things got pretty quiet around the collaboration between the two companies, but today the companies announced some of the deep integration work they’ve done, especially within Slack .

Image Credits: Atlassian

Over the course of the last two years, Slack and Atlassian shipped 11 product integrations, which now see about a million active users every month, with Jira being the most often used integration, followed by Halp, which Atlassian acquired earlier this year.

Every month, Atlassian currently sends 42 million Jira notifications to Slack — and that number continues to grow.

At the core of these integrations is the ability to get rich unfurls of deep links to Atlassian products in Slack, no matter whether that’s in DMs, public or private channels. Coming soon, those unfurls will become a default feature within Slack, even if the user who is seeing the link isn’t an Atlassian user yet.

“Today, if you do drop a Jira link in your channel and you’re not a user — or even if you are and you’re not authed in — you just see a link,” Brad Armstrong said.

“You don’t get the benefit of the unfurl. And so one of the things we’re doing is making that unfurl available to everybody, regardless of whether you are logged in and regardless of whether you’re even an Atlassian customer.”

Image Credits: Atlassian

The two companies also worked closely together on making moving between the products easier. If you are a Jira user, for example, you’ll soon be able to click on a link in Slack and if you’re not currently logged into your Atlassian account, you’ll be automatically logged in. The two companies are taking this even further by automatically creating Jira accounts for users when they come from Slack.

“Even if you’re not a user, when you click on the link, we will then map you from Slack and create a Jira user for you that provisions you and auths you in so you’re immediately becoming a Jira user by virtue of wanting to collaborate on that piece of content in Slack,” Armstrong explained.

That, the two companies argue, turns Slack into something akin to a passport that gives you access to the Atlassian product suite — and that should also make onboarding a lot easier for new users.

Image Credits: Atlassian

“As you could probably imagine, as you know, onboarding is a pain, it’s hard because you have different roles, different size teams, so on and so forth,” said Bryant Lee, Atlassian’s head of product partnerships. “And that’s where you see some of the authentication stuff, the unfurling discovery piece really being an understanding of what those practices are. But the way that we look at it is not just about the product but people, products and practices. So it’s really about understanding who it is that we’re trying to optimize for.”

In addition to these new integrations that are launching soon, the two companies are also expanding their co-marketing efforts, starting with a new 50%-off offer for Atlassian users who want to also use Slack.

“We’re building on the strong foundation of our partnership’s success from the past two years, which has yielded tremendous shared customer momentum and impactful product integrations,” said Slack co-founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield . “Thanks to our strategic alliance, Slack and Atlassian have become the technology stack of choice for developer teams.”

Jul
22
2020
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Daily Crunch: Slack files antitrust complaint against Microsoft

An antitrust battle is brewing between Microsoft and Slack, Apple continues to defend its App Store policies and Dexterity raises funding for warehouse robots. Here’s your Daily Crunch for July 22, 2020.

PS: I’m going to be on vacation until Wednesday of next week. Until then, I leave you in Darrell Etherington’s capable hands!

The big story: Slack files antitrust complaint against Microsoft

The complaint was filed in the European Union and alleges that Microsoft is unfairly bundling its Teams product with the broader Office suite.

“Microsoft has illegally tied its Teams product into its market-dominant Office productivity suite, force installing it for millions, blocking its removal, and hiding the true cost to enterprise customers,” Slack said in a statement.

When Microsoft first announced Teams in 2016, Slack took out an ad mocking the company and saying it welcomed competition. In April, Microsoft said Teams has grown to 75 million daily active users, compared to the 12.5 million that Slack reported in March.

The tech giants

Apple digs in heels over its App Store commission structure with release of new study — Apple has been commissioning research that defends its 30% commission on App Store purchases.

Spotify and Universal sign new licensing deal, will partner on development of marketing tools — In addition to re-securing Universal’s catalog for the music streaming service, the deal signs up Universal as an early adopter of Spotify’s future products for labels and artists.

Twitter cracks down on QAnon conspiracy theory, banning 7,000 accounts — Moving forward, Twitter said it will be removing QAnon-related topics from its trending pages and algorithmic recommendations and blocking any associated URLs.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Dexterity exits stealth with $56.2 million raised for its collaborative warehouse robots — The startup’s system combines hardware and software for warehouse tasks like bin picking and box packing.

Misfits Market raises $85 million Series B to send you ‘ugly’ fruits and veggies — Users sign up for a weekly produce box and can also add chocolate, snacks, chips, coffee, herbs, grains, lentils, sauces and spices.

YC-backed Glimpse helps Airbnb hosts make money through product placement — Airbnbs could the perfect place to convince someone to try a new mattress or a new kind of coffee.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

What you need to know before selling your company’s stock — Part 3 of financial adviser Peyton Carr’s guide for startup founders.

Messenger tools can help you recover millions in lost revenue — Rank Secure CEO Baruch Labunski says messenger tools have helped a single client recover more than $5 million in lost revenue.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

GEDmatch confirms data breach after users’ DNA profile data made available to police — The company said that during the breach, “Users who did not opt-in for law enforcement matching were also available for law enforcement matching, and conversely, all law enforcement profiles were made visible to Gedmatch users.”

Go SPAC yourself — I’d never heard of SPACs before today, but the latest episode of Equity explains that they could offer a way for companies to go public through a different pricing mechanism.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Jul
08
2020
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Slack snags corporate directory startup Rimeto to up its people search game

For the second time in less than 24 hours, an enterprise company bought an early-stage startup. Yesterday afternoon DocuSign acquired Liveoak, and this morning Slack announced it was buying corporate directory startup Rimeto, which should help employees find people inside the organization who match a specific set of criteria from inside Slack.

The companies did not share the purchase price.

Rimeto helps companies build directories to find employees beyond using tools like Microsoft Active Directory, homegrown tools or your corporate email program. When we covered the company’s $10 million Series A last year, we described what it brings to directories this way:

Rimeto has developed a richer directory by sitting between various corporate systems like HR, CRM and other tools that contain additional details about the employee. It of course includes a name, title, email and phone like the basic corporate system, but it goes beyond that to find areas of expertise, projects the person is working on and other details that can help you find the right person when you’re searching the directory.

In the build versus buy equation that companies balance all the time, it looks like Slack weighed the pros and cons and decided to buy. You could see how a tool like this would be useful to Slack as people try to build teams of employees, especially in a world where so many are working from home.

While the current Slack people search tool lets you search by name, role or team, Rimeto should give users a much more robust way of searching for employees across the company. You can search for the right person to help you with a particular problem and get much more granular with your search requirements than the current tool allows.

Image Credit: Rimeto

At the time of its funding announcement, the company, which was founded in 2016 by three former Facebook employees, told TechCrunch it had bootstrapped for the first three years before taking the $10 million investment last year. It also reported it was cash-flow positive at the time, which is pretty unusual for an early-stage enterprise SaaS company.

In a company blog post announcing the deal, as is typical in these deals, the founders saw being part of a larger organization as a way to grow more quickly than they could have alone. “Joining Slack is a special opportunity to accelerate Rimeto’s mission and impact with greater reach, expanded resources, and the support of Slack’s impressive global team,” the founders wrote in the post.

The acquisition is part of a continuing trend around enterprise companies buying early-stage startups to fill in holes in their product road maps.

Jun
24
2020
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Slack announces Connect, an improved way for companies to talk to one another

Virtual events are the new norm for product rollouts in 2020, with Slack taking to the internet earlier today to talk about a new part of its service called Slack Connect.

On the heels of Apple’s lengthy and pretty good virtual WWDC that took place earlier this week, Slack’s event, part experiment and part press conference, was called to detail the firm’s new Slack Connect capability, which will allow companies to better link together and communicate inside of their Slack instance than what was possible with its shared channels feature. The product was described inside of a business-to-business context, including examples about companies needing to chat with agencies and other external vendors.

In its most basic form, Slack is well-known for internal chat functionality, helping teams talk amongst themselves. Slack Connect appears to be a progression past that idea, pushing internal communications tooling to allow companies to plug their private comms into the private comms of other orgs, linking them for simple communication while keeping the entire affair secure.

Slack Connect, a evolution past what shared channels offered, includes better security tooling and the ability to share channels across 20 orgs. The enterprise SaaS company is also working to give Connect-using companies “the ability to form DM connections independent of channels,” the company told TechCrunch.

The product could slim down email usage; if Slack Connect can let many orgs chat amongst themselves, perhaps fewer emails will be needed to keep different companies in sync. That said, Slack is hardly a quiet product. During his part of the presentation, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield noted that the service sees up to 65 million messages sent each second at peak times.

According to the CEO, Slack Connect has been piloted for a few months, and is now available for paid plans.

Slack shares are off 3.8% today, before the news came out. Its broader company cohort (SaaS) are also down today, along with the market more broadly; investors don’t appear to have reacted to this piece of news, at least yet.

Jun
05
2020
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Slack’s new integration deal with AWS could also be about tweaking Microsoft

Slack and Amazon announced a big integration late yesterday afternoon. As part of the deal, Slack will use Amazon Chime for its call feature, while reiterating its commitment to use AWS as its preferred cloud provider to run its infrastructure. At the same time, Amazon has agreed to offer Slack as an option for all internal communications.

“Some parts of Amazon had licensed Slack before, but this is the first time it will be offered as an option to all employees,” an Amazon spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Make no mistake, this is a big deal as the SaaS communications tool increases its ties with AWS, but this agreement could also be about slighting Microsoft and its rival Teams product by making a deal with a cloud rival. In the past, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield has had choice words for Microsoft saying the Redmond technology giant sees his company as an “existential threat.”

Whether that’s true  — Teams is but one piece of a huge technology company — it’s impossible not to look at the deal in this context. Aligning more deeply with AWS sends a message to Microsoft, whose Azure infrastructure services compete with AWS.

Butterfield didn’t say that of course. He talked about how synergistic the deal was. “Strategically partnering with AWS allows both companies to scale to meet demand and deliver enterprise-grade offerings to our customers. By integrating AWS services with Slack’s channel-based messaging platform, we’re helping teams easily and seamlessly manage their cloud infrastructure projects and launch cloud-based services without ever leaving Slack,” he said in a statement.

The deal also includes several other elements including integrating AWS Key Management Service with Slack Enterprise Key Management (EKM) for encryption key management, deeper alignment with AWS’s chatbot service and direct integration with AWS AppFlow to enable secure transfer of data between Slack and Amazon S3 storage and the Amazon Redshift data warehouse.

AWS CEO Andy Jassy saw it as a pure integration play. “Together, AWS and Slack are giving developer teams the ability to collaborate and innovate faster on the front end with applications, while giving them the ability to efficiently manage their backend cloud infrastructure,” Jassy said in a statement.

Like any good deal, it’s good for both sides. Slack gets a big customer in AWS and AWS now has Slack directly integrating more of its services. One of the reasons enterprise users are so enamored with Slack is the ability to get work done in a single place without constantly having to change focus and move between interfaces.

This deal will provide more of that for common customers, while tweaking a common rival. That’s what you call win-win.

May
12
2020
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Atlassian acquires Halp to bring Slack integration to the forefront

Atlassian announced today that it was acquiring Halp, an early-stage startup that enables companies to build integrated help desk ticketing and automated answers inside Slack. The companies did not disclose the purchase price.

It was a big day for Halp, which also announced its second product today, called Halp Answers. The new tool will work hand in glove with its previous entry Halp Tickets, which lets Slack users easily create a Help Desk ticket without leaving the tool.

“Halp Answers enables your teams to leverage the knowledge that already exists within your company to automatically answer tickets right in Slack . That knowledge can be pulled in from Slack messages, Confluence articles or any piece of knowledge in your organization,” the company wrote in a blog post announcing the deal.

Note that integration with Confluence, which is an Atlassian tool. The company also sees it integrating with Jira support for other enterprise communications tools down the road. “Existing Halp users can look forward to deeper (and new) integrations with Jira and Confluence. We’re committed to supporting Microsoft Teams customers as well,” Atlassian wrote in a blog post.

Halp is selling early, having just launched last year. The company had raised a $2 million seed round in April 2019 on a $9.5 million post valuation, according to PitchBook data. The startup sees an opportunity with Atlassian that it apparently didn’t think it could achieve alone.

“We’ll be able to harness the vast resources at Atlassian to continue with our mission to make Halp the best tool for any team collaborating on requests with other teams. Our team will grow and be able to focus on making the core experience of Halp even more powerful. We’ll also develop a deeper integration with the Atlassian suite — improving our existing Jira and Confluence integrations and discovering the possibilities of Halp generating alerts in Opsgenie, cards in Trello, and much more,” the company wrote.

Halp’s founders promise that it won’t be abandoning its existing customers as it joins the larger organization. As a matter of fact, Halp is bringing with them a slew of big-name customers, including Adobe, VMware, GitHub and Slack.

Apr
20
2020
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Leverice is a team messenger app that’s taking aim at information overload

Meet Leverice: A team messenger and collaboration platform that’s aiming to compete with b2b giants like Slack by tackling an issue that continues to plague real-time messaging — namely, ‘always-on’ information overload. This means these tools can feel like they’re eating into productivity as much as aiding it. Or else leave users stressed and overwhelmed about how to stay on top of the work comms firehose. 

Leverice’s pitch is that it’s been built from the ground up to offer a better triage structure so vital bits of info aren’t lost in rushing rivers of chatter than flow across less structured chat platforms.

It does this by giving users the ability to organize chat content into nested subchannels. So its theory is that hyper structured topic channels will let users better direct and navigate info flow, freeing them from the need to check everything or perform lots of searches in order to find key intel. Instead they can just directly drill down to specific subchannels, tuning out the noise.

The overarching aim is to bring a little asynchronicity to the world of real-time collaboration platforms, per co-founder and COO Daniel Velton.

“Most messaging and collaboration tools are designed for and built around synchronous communications, instant back-and-forth. But most members of remote teams communicate at their own pace — and there was no go-to messaging tool built around asynchronous communications,” he tells TechCrunch.

“We set out to solve that problem, to build a messenger and collaboration platform that breaks rivers down into rivulets. To do that, we needed a tech stack and unique architecture that would allow teams to efficiently work with hundreds of channels and subchannels distributed between scores of channel branches of varying depths. Having that granularity ensures that each little shelf maintains topical integrity.

“We’re not discussing Feature 2.1.1 and 2.1.2 and 2.1.3 and 2.1.4 inside a single ‘Features’ channel, where the discussions would blend together. Each has its own little home.”

Of course Slack isn’t blind to the info-overload issues its platform can generate. Last month it announced “a simpler, more organized Slack”, which includes the ability for users to organize channels, messages and apps into “custom, collapsible sections”. Aka folders.

So how is Leverice’s subchannel architecture a great leap forward on the latest version of Slack — which does let users organize themselves (and is now in the process of being rolled out across its user-base)?

“All structuring (including folders) on other popular messengers is essentially an individual preference setting,” says Velton. “It does not reflect on a teamwide channel tree. It’s definitely a step in the right direction but it’s about each user adding a tiny bit of structure to their own private interface, not having a structure that affects and improves the way an entire team communicates.

“Leverice architecture is based on structuring of channels and subchannels into branches of unlimited depth. This kind of deep structuring is not something you can simply ‘overlay’ on top of an existing messenger that was designed around a single layer of channels. A tremendous number of issues arise when you work with a directory-like structure of infinite depth, and these aren’t easily solved or addressed unless the architecture is built around it.”

“Sure, in Leverice you can build the ‘6-lane autobahns’,” he adds, using an analogy of vehicle traffic on roads to illustrate the concept of a hierarchy of topic channels. “But we are the only messenger where you can also construct a structured network of ‘country roads’. It’s more ‘places’ but each ‘place’ is so narrow and topical that working through it all becomes more manageable, quick and pleasant, and it’s something you can do at your own pace without fear of missing important kernels of information as they fly by on the autobahn.”

To be clear, while Slack has now started letting users self-organize — by creating a visual channel hierarchy that suits them — Leverice’s structure means the same structured tree of channels/subchannels applies for the whole team.

“At the end of the day, for communications to work, somebody on a team needs to be organized,” argues Velton. “What we allow is structuring that affects the channel tree for an entire team, not just an individual preference that reflects only on a user’s local device.”

Leverice has other features in the pipeline which it reckons will further help users cut through the noise — with a plan to apply AI-powered prioritization to surface the most pressing inbound comms.

There will also be automated alerts for conversation forks when new subchannels are created. (Though generating lots of subchannel alerts doesn’t sound exactly noise-free…)

“We have features coming that alert users to forks in a conversation and nudge the user toward those new subchannels. At this stage those forks are created manually, although our upcoming AI module will have nudges based on those forks,” says Velton.

“The architecture (deep structuring) also opens the door to scripting of automated workflows and open source plug-ins,” he adds.

Leverice officially launched towards the end of February after a month-long beta which coincided with the coronavirus-induced spike in remote work.

At this stage they have “members of almost 400 teams” registered on the platform, per Velton, with initial traction coming from mid-size tech companies — who he says are either unhappy with the costs of their current messaging platform or with distraction/burnout caused by “channel fatigue”; or who are facing info fragmentation as internal teams are using different p2p/messaging tools and lack a universal choice.

“We have nothing but love and respect for our competitors,” he adds. “Slack, Teams, WhatsApp, Telegram, Skype, Viber, etc.: each have their own benefits and many teams are perfectly content to use them. Our product is for teams looking for more focus and structure than existing solutions offer. Leverice’s architecture is unique on the market, and it opens the door to powerful features that are neither technically nor practically feasible in a messenger with a single layer containing a dozen or two dozen channels.”

Other differentiating features he highlights as bringing something fresh to the team messaging platform conversation are a whiteboard feature that lets users collaborate in the app for brainstorming or listing ideas, prorities; and a Jira integration for managing and discussing tasks in the project- and issue-tracking tool. The team is planning further integrations including with Zoom, Google Docs and “other services you use most”.

The startup — which was founded by CEO Rodion Zhitomirsky in Minsk but is now headquartered in San Jose, California, also with offices in Munich, Germany — has been bootstrapping development for around two years, taking in angel investment of around $600,000.

“We are three friends who managed complex project-based teams and personally felt the pains of all the popular messengers out there,” says Velton, discussing how they came to set up the business. “We used all the usual suspects, and even tried using p2p messengers as substitutes. They all led us and our teams to the same place: we couldn’t track large amounts of communications unless we were in “always-on” mode. We knew there had to be a better way, so we set out to build Leverice.”

The third co-founder is Dennis Dokutchitz.

Leverice’s business model is freemium, with a free tier, a premium tier, and a custom enterprise tier. As well as offering the platform as SaaS via the cloud, they do on-premise installations — for what Velton describes as “the highest level of security and privacy”.

On the security front the product is not end-to-end encrypted but he says the team is developing e2e encrypted channels to supplement the client-server encryption it applies as standard.

Velton notes these forthcoming channels would not support the usual search features, while AI analysis would be limited to “meta-information analysis”, i.e. excluding posts’ content.

“We don’t process customer or message data for commercial purposes, only for internal analytics and features to improve the product for users,” he adds when asked about any additional uses made of customer data. (Leverice’s Privacy Policy can be found here.)

With remote work the order of the day across most of the globe because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems likely there will be a new influx of collaboration tools being unboxed to help home workers navigate a new ‘professionally distant’ normal.

“We’ve only been on the market for 6 weeks and have no meaningful revenue to speak of as of yet,” adds Velton.

Apr
14
2020
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Replace non-stop Zoom with remote office avatars app Pragli

Could avatars that show what co-workers are up to save work-from-home teams from constant distraction and loneliness? That’s the idea behind Pragli, the Bitmoji for the enterprise. It’s a virtual office app that makes you actually feel like you’re in the same building.

Pragli uses avatars to signal whether co-workers are at their desk, away, in a meeting, in the zone while listening to Spotify, taking a break at a digital virtual water coooler or done for the day. From there, you’ll know whether to do a quick ad hoc audio call, cooperate via screenshare, schedule a deeper video meeting or a send a chat message they can respond to later. Essentially, it translates the real-word presence cues we use to coordinate collaboration into an online workplace for distributed teams.

“What Slack did for email, we want to do for video conferencing,” Pragli co-founder Doug Safreno tells me. “Traditional video conferencing is exclusive by design, whereas Pragli is inclusive. Just like in an office, you can see who is talking to who.” That means less time wasted planning meetings, interrupting colleagues who are in flow or waiting for critical responses. Pragli offers the focus that makes remote work productive with the togetherness that keeps everyone sane and in sync.

The idea is to solve the top three problems that Pragli’s extensive interviews and a Buffer/AngelList study discovered workers hate:

  1. Communication friction
  2. Loneliness
  3. Lack of boundaries

You never have to worry about whether you’re intruding on someone’s meeting, or if it’d be quicker to hash something out on a call instead of vague text. Avatars give remote workers a sense of identity, while the Pragli water cooler provides a temporary place to socialize rather than an endless Slack flood of GIFs. And because you clock in and out of the Pragli office just like a real one, co-workers understand when you’ll reply quickly versus when you’ll respond tomorrow unless there’s an emergency.

“In Pragli, you log into the office in the morning and there’s a clear sense of when I’m working and when I’m not working. Slack doesn’t give you a strong sense if they’re online or offline,” Safreno explains. “Everyone stays online and feels pressured to respond at any time of day.”

Pragli co-founder Doug Safreno

Safreno and his co-founder Vivek Nair know the feeling first-hand. After both graduating in computer science from Stanford, they built StacksWare to help enterprise software customers avoid overpaying by accurately measuring their usage. But when they sold StacksWare to Avi Networks, they spent two years working remotely for the acquirer. The friction and loneliness quickly crept in.

They’d message someone, not hear back for a while, then go back and forth trying to discuss the problem before eventually scheduling a call. Jumping into synchronous communicating would have been much more efficient. “The loneliness was more subtle, but it built up after the first few weeks,” Safreno recalls. “We simply didn’t socially bond while working remotely as well as in the office. Being lonely was de-motivating, and it negatively affected our productivity.”

The founders interviewed 100 remote engineers, and discovered that outside of scheduled meetings, they only had one audio or video call with co-workers per week. That convinced them to start Pragli a year ago to give work-from-home teams a visual, virtual facsimile of a real office. With no other full-time employees, the founders built and released a beta of Pragli last year. Usage grew 6X in March and is up 20X since January 1.

Today Pragli officially launches, and it’s free until June 1. Then it plans to become freemium, with the full experience reserved for companies that pay per user per month. Pragli is also announcing a small pre-seed round today led by K9 Ventures, inspired by the firm’s delight using the product itself.

To get started with Pragi, teammates download the Pragli desktop app and sign in with Google, Microsoft or GitHub. Users then customize their avatar with a wide range of face, hair, skin and clothing options. It can use your mouse and keyboard interaction to show if you’re at your desk or not, or use your webcam to translate occasional snapshots of your facial expressions to your avatar. You can also connect your Spotify and calendar to show you’re listening to music (and might be concentrating), reveal or hide details of your meeting and decide whether people can ask to interrupt you or that you’re totally unavailable.

From there, you can by audio, video or text communicate with any of your available co-workers. Guests can join conversations via the web and mobile too, though the team is working on a full-fledged app for phones and tablets. Tap on someone and you can instantly talk to them, though their mic stays muted until they respond. Alternatively, you can jump into Slack-esque channels for discussing specific topics or holding recurring meetings. And if you need some down time, you can hang out in the water cooler or trivia game channel, or set a manual “away” message.

Pragli has put a remarkable amount of consideration into how the little office social cues about when to interrupt someone translate online, like if someone’s wearing headphones, in a deep convo already or if they’re chilling in the microkitchen. It’s leagues better than having no idea what someone’s doing on the other side of Slack or what’s going on in a Zoom call. It’s a true virtual office without the clunky VR headset.

“Nothing we’ve tried has delivered the natural, water-cooler-style conversations that we get from Pragli,” says Storj Labs VP of engineering JT Olio. “The ability to switch between ‘rooms’ with screen sharing, video and voice in one app is great. It has really helped us improve transparency across teams. Plus, the avatars are quite charming as well.”

With Microsoft’s lack of social experience, Zoom consumed with its scaling challenges and Slack doubling down on text as it prioritizes Zoom integration over its own visual communication features, there’s plenty of room for Pragli to flourish. Meanwhile, COVID-19 quarantines are turning the whole world toward remote work, and it’s likely to stick afterwards as companies de-emphasize office space and hire more abroad.

The biggest challenge will be making comprehensible enough to onboard whole teams such a broad product encompassing every communication medium and tons of new behaviors. How do you build a product that doesn’t feel distracting like Slack but where people can still have the spontaneous conversations that are so important to companies innovating?,” Safreno asks. The Pragli founders are also debating how to encompass mobile without making people feel like the office stalks them after hours.

“Long-term, [Pragli] should be better than being in the office because you don’t actually have to walk around looking for [co-workers], and you get to decide how you’re presented,” Safreno concludes. “We won’t quit, because we want to work remotely for the rest of our lives.”

Apr
01
2020
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Okta launches Lifecycle Management Workflows to make building identity-centric processes easy

Okta, the popular identity and access management service, today used its annual (and now virtual) user conference to launch Lifecycle Management Workflows, a new tool that helps IT teams build and manage IFTTT-like automated processes with the help of an easy to use graphical interface.

The new service is an extension of Okta’s existing automation tools. But the key here is that IT teams and developers can now easily build complex identity-centric workflows across a wide range of applications. With this, these teams can easily automate an onboarding process, where setting up a new Okta account also immediately kicks off processes on third-party services like Box, Salesforce, ServiceNow and Slack to set up accounts there. The same goes for offboarding workflows and username creation. A lot of companies still do this manually, which is not just a hassle but also error-prone.

“Adopting more technology is incredibly beneficial for enterprises today, but complexity is a significant side effect of a changing technology ecosystem and workforce. There is no better example of the potential challenges it can create than with lifecycle management,” said Diya Jolly, chief product officer at Okta. “Okta’s vision of enabling any organization to use any technology goes deeper than just access; it’s about improving how organizations use technology. Okta Lifecycle Management Workflows improves the efficiency and security of enterprises through its simple user experience and broad applicability, keeping organizations secure and efficient without requiring the complexity of writing code.”

Okta, of course, had lifecycle management features before, but now it is also putting its acquisition of Azuqua to work and using that company’s graphical interface and technology for making it easier to create these automation processes. And while the focus right now is on processes like provisioning and de-provisioning accounts, the long-term plan is to expand Workflows with support for more identity processes.

As Okta also stresses, administrators can also manage very granular access across the supported third-party tools like assigning territories in Salesforce or access to specific group channels in Slack, for example. For temporary employees, admins can also set up automatic de-provisioning workflows that revoke access to some tools but maybe leave access to payroll services open for a while longer. There are also built-in tools for automatically managing conflicts when two people have the same name.

“Millions of people rely on Slack every day to make their working lives simpler, more pleasant and more productive,” said Tamar Yehoshua, chief product officer at Slack, one of the early adopters of this service. “Okta Lifecycle Management Workflows has significantly increased efficiency for us by automating the provisioning and de-provisioning of users from applications in our environment, without us ever having to write a line of code.”

This new feature is part of Okta’s new Platform Services, which the company also debuted today and which currently consists of core technologies like the Okta Identity Engine, Directories Integrations, Insights, Workflow and Devices. The core idea behind Platform Services is to give Okta users the flexibility to manage their unique identity use cases but also to give Okta itself a platform on which to innovate. One other new product that sits on top of the platform is Okta Fastpass, for example, which allows for passwordless authentication on any device.

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