Apr
06
2021
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Sendbird raises $100M at a $1B+ valuation, says 150M+ users now interact using its chat and video APIs

Messaging is the medium these days, and today a startup that has built an API to help others build text and video interactivity into their services is announcing a big round to continue scaling its business. Sendbird, a popular provider of chat, video and other interactive services to the likes of Reddit, Hinge, Paytm, Delivery Hero and hundreds of others by way of a few lines of code, has closed a round of $100 million, money that it plans to use to continue expanding the functionalities of its platform to meet our changing interactive times. Sendbird has confirmed that the funding values the company at $1.05 billion.

Today, customers collectively channel some 150 million users through Sendbird’s APIs to chat with each other and large groups of users over text and video, a figure that has seen a lot of growth in particular in the last year, where people were spending so much more time in front of screens as their primary interface to communicate with the world.

Sendbird already provides some services around that core functionality, such as moderation and text search. John Kim, Sendbird’s CEO and founder, said that additional developments like moderation has seen a huge take-up, and services it plans to add into the mix include payments and logistics features, and that it is looking at adding in group audio conversations for customers to build their own Clubhouse clones.

“We are getting enquiries,” said Kim. “We will be setting it up in a personalized way. Voice chat has certainly picked up due to Clubhouse.”

The funding — oversubscribed, the company says — is being led by Steadfast Financial, with SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2 also participating, along with previous backers ICONIQ Capital, Tiger Global Management and Meritech Capital. It comes about two years after Sendbird closed its Series B at $102 million, and the startup appears to have nearly doubled its valuation since then: PitchBook estimates it was around $550 million in 2019.

That growth, in a sense, is not a surprise, given not just the climate right now for virtual interaction, but the fact that Sendbird itself has tripled the number of customers using its tools since 2019. The company, co-headquartered in Seoul, Korea and San Mateo, California, has now raised around $221 million.

The market that Sendbird has been pecking away at since being founded in 2013 is a hefty one.

Messaging apps have become a major digital force, with a small handful of companies overtaking (and taking on) the primary features found on the most basic of phones and finding traction with people by making them easier to use and full of more interesting features to use alongside the basic functionality. That in turn has led a wave of other companies to build in their own communications features, a way both to provide more community for their users, and to keep people on their own platforms in the process.

“It’s an arms race going on between messaging and payment apps,” Sid Suri, Sendbird’s marketing head, said to me in describing the competitive landscape. “There is a high degree of urgency among all businesses to say we don’t have to lose users to any of them. White label services like ours are powering the ability to keep up.”

Sendbird is indeed one of a wave of companies that have identified both that trend and the opportunity of building that functionality out as a commodity of sorts that can be embedded anywhere a developer chooses to place it by way of an API. It’s not the only one: Others in the same space include publicly listed Twilio, the similarly named competitor MessageBird (which is also highly capitalised and has positioned itself as a consolidator in the space), PubNub, Sinch, Stream, Firebase and many more.

That competition is one reason Sendbird has raised money. It gives it more capital to bring on more users, and critically to invest in building out more functionality alongside its core features, to address the needs of its existing users and to discover new opportunities to provide them with features they perhaps didn’t know they needed in their messaging channels to keep users’ attention.

“We are doing a lot around transactions and payments, as well as logistics,” Kim said in an interview. “We are really building out the end to end experience [since that] really ties into engagement. A couple of new features will be heavily around transactions, and others will be around more engagement.”

Karan Mehandru, a partner at Steadfast, is joining the board with this round, and he believes that there remains a huge opportunity, especially when you consider the many verticals that have yet to adopt solid and useful communications channels within their services, such as healthcare.

“The channel that Sendbird is leveraging is the next channel we have come to expect from all brands,” he said in an interview. “Sendbird may look the same as others but if you peel the onion, providing a scalable chat experience that is highly customized is a real problem to solve. Large customers think this is critical but not a core competence and then zoom back to Sendbird because they can’t do it. Sendbird is a clear leader. Sendbird is permeating many verticals and types of companies now. This is one of those rare companies that has been at the right place at the right time.”

Mar
26
2021
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Slack wants to be more than a text-based messaging platform

Last October as Slack was preparing for its virtual Frontiers conference, the company began thinking about different ways people could communicate on the platform. While it had built its name on being able to integrate a lot of services in a single place to alleviate the dreaded task-switching phenomenon, it has been largely text-based up until now.

More recently, Slack has started developing a few new features that could bring different ways of interacting to the platform. CEO Stewart Butterfield discussed them on Thursday with former TechCrunch reporter Josh Constine, now a SignalFire investor, in a Clubhouse interview.

The talk was about the future of work, and Slack believes these new ways of communicating could help employees better connect online as we shift to a hybrid work world — one which has been hastened by the pandemic over the last year. There is a general consensus that many companies will continue to work in a hybrid fashion, even when the pandemic is over.

For starters, Slack aims to add a way to communicate by video. But instead of trying to compete with Zoom or Microsoft Teams, Slack is envisioning an experience that’s more like Instagram Stories.

Think about the CEO sharing an important announcement with the company, or the kind of information that might have gone out in a company-wide email. Instead, you can skip the inbox and deliver the message directly by video. It’s taking a page from the consumer approach to social and trying to move it into the enterprise.

Writing in a company blog post earlier this week, Slack chief product officer Tamar Yehoshua was clear this was going to be an asynchronous approach, rather than a meeting kind of experience.

“To help with this, we are piloting ways to shift meetings toward an asynchronous video experience that feels native in Slack. It allows us to express nuance and enthusiasm without a meeting,” she wrote.

While it was at it, Slack decided to create a way of just chatting by voice. As Butterfield told Constine in his Clubhouse interview, this is essentially Clubhouse (or Twitter Spaces) being built for Slack.

Yeah, I’ve always believed the ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’ thing, so we’re just building Clubhouse into Slack, essentially. Like that idea that you can drop in, the conversation’s happening whether you’re there or not, you can enter and leave when you want, as opposed to a call that starts and stops, is an amazing model for encouraging that spontaneity and that serendipity and conversations that only need to be three minutes, but the only option for you to schedule them is 30 minutes. So look out for Clubhouse built into Slack.

Again, it’s taking a consumer social idea and applying it to a business setting with the idea of finding other ways to keep you in Slack when you could be using other tools to achieve the same thing, whether it be Zoom meetings, email or your phone.

Butterfield also hinted hinted that another feature — asynchronous audio, allowing you to leave the equivalent of a voicemail — could be coming some time in the future. A Slack spokesperson confirmed that it was in the works, but wasn’t ready to share details yet.

It’s impossible to look at these features without thinking about them in the context of the $27 billion Salesforce acquisition of Slack at the end of last year. When you put them all together, you have this set of tools that let you communicate in whatever way makes the most sense to you.

When you combine that Slack Connect DM, a new feature to communicate outside the organization that was released this week to some controversy, as people wanted assurances that they could control spam and harassment, it takes the concept one step further — outside the organization itself.

As part of a larger entity like Salesforce, these tools could be useful across sales, service and even marketing as a way to communicate in a variety of ways inside and outside the organization. And they greatly expand the value prop of Slack as it becomes part of Salesforce sometime later this year.

While it began talking about the new audio and video features last fall, the company has been piloting them since the beginning of this year. So far Slack is not saying when the new features will be generally available.

Mar
23
2021
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Dataminr raises $475M on a $4.1B valuation for real-time insights based on 100k sources of public data

Significant funding news today for one of the startups making a business out of tapping huge, noisy troves of publicly available data across social media, news sites, undisclosed filings and more. Dataminr, which ingests information from a mix of 100,000 public data sources, and then based on that provides customers real-time insights into ongoing events and new developments, has closed on $475 million in new funding. Dataminr has confirmed that this Series F values the company at $4.1 billion as it gears up for an IPO in 2023.

This Series F is coming from a mix of investors including Eldridge (a firm that owns the LA Dodgers but also makes a bunch of other sports, media, tech and other investments), Valor Equity Partners (the firm behind Tesla and many tech startups), MSD Capital (Michael Dell’s fund), Reinvent Capital (Mark Pincus and Reid Hoffman’s firm), ArrowMark Partners, IVP, Eden Global and investment funds managed by Morgan Stanley Tactical Value, among others.

To put its valuation into some context, the New York-based company last raised money in 2018 at a $1.6 billion valuation. And with this latest round, it has now raised over $1 billion in outside funding, based on PitchBook data. This latest round has been in the works for a while and was rumored last week at a lower valuation than what Dataminr ultimately got.

The funding is coming at a critical moment, both for the company and for the world at large.

In terms of the company, Dataminr has been seeing a huge surge of business.

Ted Bailey, the founder and CEO, said in an interview that it will be using the money to continue growing its business in existing areas: adding more corporate customers, expanding in international sales and expanding its AI platform as it gears up for an IPO, most likely in 2023. In addition to being used journalists and newsrooms, NGOs and other public organizations, its corporate business today, Bailey said, includes half of the Fortune 50 and a number of large public sector organizations. Over the last year that large enterprise segment of its customers doubled in revenue growth.

“Whether it’s for physical safety, reputation risk or crisis management, or business intelligence or cybersecurity, we’re providing critical insights on a daily basis,” he said. “All of the events of the recent year have created a sense of urgency, and demand has really surged.”

Activity on the many platforms that Dataminr taps to ingest information has been on the rise for years, but it has grown exponentially in the last year especially as more people spend more time at home and online and away from physically interacting with each other: that means more data for Dataminr to crawl, but also, quite possibly, more at stake for all of us as a result: there is so much more out there than before, and as a result so much more to be gleaned out of that information.

That also means that the wider context of Dataminr’s growth is not quite so clear cut.

The company’s data tools have indeed usefully helped first responders react in crisis situations, feeding them data faster than even their own channels might do; and it provides a number of useful, market-impacting insights to businesses.

But Dataminr’s role in helping its customers — which include policing forces — connect the dots on certain issues has not always been seen as a positive. One controversial accusation made last year was that Dataminr data was being used by police for racial profiling. In years past, it has been barred by specific partners like Twitter from sharing data with intelligence agencies. Twitter used to be a 5% shareholder in the company. Bailey confirmed to me that it no longer is but remains a key partner for data. I’ve contacted Twitter to see if I can get more detail on this and will update the story if and when I learn more. Twitter made $509 million in revenues from services like data licensing in 2020, up by about $45 million on the year before.

In defense of Dataminr, Bailey that the negative spins on what it does result from “misperceptions,” since it can’t track people or do anything proactive. “We deliver alerts on events and it’s [about] a time advantage,” he said, likening it to the Associated Press, but “just earlier.”

“The product can’t be used for surveillance,” Bailey added. “It is prohibited.”

Of course, in the ongoing debate about surveillance, it’s more about how Dataminr’s customers might ultimately use the data that they get through Dataminr’s tools, so the criticism is more about what it might enable rather than what it does directly.

Despite some of those persistent questions about the ethics of AI and other tools and how they are implemented by end users, backers are bullish on the opportunities for Dataminr to continue growing.

Eden Global Partners served as strategic partner for the Series F capital round.


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Mar
09
2021
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Wefarm adds $11M to expand its network for independent farmers, now at 2.5M users

The vast majority of startups remain focused on consumers, knowledge workers and the opportunities to provide services to those that are already operating completely, or at least partially, in digital environments. But today comes news of funding for a startup building a social network for what is probably one of the least digital business sectors of all: independent, small-hold farmers in the developing world.

Wefarm, a social networking platform aimed at independent farmers to help them meet each other, exchange ideas and get advice, and sell or trade equipment and supplies, has raised $11 million funding to continue expanding its business, which now has 2.5 million users.

To put that number and the growth opportunity into some perspective, Wefarm estimates there are some 400 million small-hold farmers globally, with a large proportion of them in developing markets.

The funding, an extension to the company’s 2019 Series A, is being led by Octopus Ventures. True Ventures (which led the 2019 round), Rabo Frontier Ventures, LocalGlobe, June Fund and AgFunder also participated. Wefarm has raised $32 million since being founded in 2015.

To date, London-based Wefarm has primarily found traction in countries in East Africa. Its service is available via a website, but most of its users are accessing without any internet use at all, via the company’s SMS interface. The SMS format has now hosted more than 37 million conversations from farmers engaging in around 400 different types of farming (from livestock or dairy to grains and fruits and vegetables) and $29 million in marketplace sales, the company said.

But rolling out SMS services can be slow, in part because it requires Wefarm to strike local deals with carriers over data usage. (That has also meant that the company has tightly controlled growth: if you go to the main site, you’ll see that you can either join a waitlist or join by way of an invitation from an existing member.)

Kenny Ewan, Wefarm’s founder and CEO, said this latest tranche of funding in part will be used to roll out an app (currently in beta) that will help it launch in more countries and pick up more farmers.

“The big step we’re taking is going from SMS to a digital, app-based service, which will remove the digital barrier,” he said in an interview. “We compare it to the shift from sending DVDs in the mail to streaming video online. We feel like the time is right and believe it could take us to the 100 million mark of users.”

From pandemics to locust plagues

Wefarm’s role in helping link up independent farmers — traditionally and by its nature one of the most analog of industries — has taken on an interesting profile particularly in the last year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a stark light on a number of digital divides in the world, and one of the most distinctive has been in the wider world of business. Entrepreneurs, companies and organizations that had digital strategies in place could hit the ground running to adapt to a “new normal,” with less physical interaction. Those that did not had to scramble to get there to avoid a nosedive in activity.

Wefarm was around for years before the COVID-19 pandemic, and in some regards it has always been championing and giving a digital voice to the underdogs.

The wider agricultural industry — globally a multi-trillion-dollar enterprise, accounting for up to 25% of GDP in some markets — has undergone some significant digital transformation, but that has been focused on tools and other technology for the agribusiness sector, which includes the giant conglomerates and multinationals like Cargill, Archer-Daniels-Midland, Bayer (Monsanto’s parent), John Deere and others.

Wefarm’s importance (and often singular presence) as a tool for independent farmers to communicate, trade and generally network with others like them was already playing out before COVID-19. When we covered the company’s previous raise in 2019 (the first part of its Series A, a $13 million round) it had already grown to 1.9 million members. And, as it happens, for many of its users, COVID-19 was in some regards the least of their concerns:

“In reality a lot of people in rural Africa were concerned about the weather, or the effect of a locust plague,” Ewan said. “What we saw was traffic around not COVID, but these topics. They had different preoccupations.”

But the pandemic has had an impact, nevertheless. On the platform itself, as we saw in other e-commerce scenarios, Wefarm emerged as an essential service for trading at a time when in-person meetings were halted. As for Wefarm as a business, Ewan said that it essentially meant that the company’s country expansion plans had completely halted mainly because business development teams could no longer travel as they had before: another reason why launching an app could be a useful growth tool.

(That lack of travel was also potentially helpful to Wefarm: despite that the company still managed to grow by 600,000 more users, Ewan pointed out, underscoring a clear demand for the service among its target audience.)

Going forward, there are other ways in which Wefarm aims to leverage its user base, its network and the data that it potentially can amass from them.

“We see the possibility of providing more analytics and data. Our users want that very much,” Ewan said. “We now know more about small-scale farmers than anyone else, because they talk to us.” Areas that Wefarm is considering to develop over the next two years are whether it can help provide more insight into more workable business models, pricing models and more data on particular aspects like ripening periods.

“By building a highly engaged community of millions of small-holder farmers, Wefarm has created a powerful platform providing greater access to vital knowledge and information, which allows farmers to unlock greater economic potential from their land,” said Kamran Adle, early-stage investor at Octopus Ventures. “In practice that might mean understanding which fertilisers work best, what the market price is for certain goods, or new farming techniques that result in better yields, all of which can make a significant difference to livelihoods. It’s also an enormous market with more than 400 million small-holder farmers globally who collectively spend around $400 billion on farming inputs. There is a huge opportunity for Kenny and the team at Wefarm to achieve incredible scale and we’re excited for the launch of its digital platform which will further accelerate growth.”

Feb
23
2021
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Quill, the messaging app backed by Index, quietly comes out of stealth to take on Slack

Slack took the workplace communications landscape by storm after it launched its integration-friendly, GIF-tastic chat platform in 2013. Within the space of a decade it entered into the pantheon of big tech: first with massive growth and usage, then a series of giant VC rounds and valuations, spawning controversial competition from incumbents, followed by a public listing and ultimately a $27.7 billion acquisition by Salesforce. Now that the cycle is complete, the decks are clear for a Slack disruptor!

Today, a new app quietly launched out of stealth called Quill, available by way of apps for the web, MacOS, Windows, Linux, Android and iOS.

Like Slack, Quill is a messaging app for co-workers to update each other on what they are doing, have conversations about projects and more.

Unlike Slack — the implication seems to be — the difference is that Quill is about delivering messaging in a non-distracting way that doesn’t take up too much of your time, your concentration, and your energy. Quill bills itself as “messaging for people that focus.”

So while you get a lot of the same features you have in Slack for chatting with workers, creating channels, integrating other apps, and having video and voice conversations — one of my colleagues quipped, “It looks like Slack, but more colorful!” — it also includes a bunch of features that put the focus on, well, focus.

“We grew exhausted having to skim thousands of messages every day to keep up, so we built a way to chat that’s even better than how we already communicate in person,” Quill notes on its website. “A more deliberate way to chat. That’s what Quill is all about.”

For example, “structured channels” let you enforce threads in a channel for different conversations rather than view chatter in a waterfall. Automatic sorting in the app moves up active conversations you’re in above others. Limitations on notifications mean you can have more nuance in what ultimately might end up distracting you, and senders for example can alter a setting (with a !!) to notify you if something is critical and needs to ping you. Video chats come automatically with a sidebar to continue texting, too.

Then, you get separate channels for social and non-work chat; and a series of features that let you manipulate conversations after they’ve already started: you can recast conversations into threads after they’ve already started and you have a fast way to reply to messages. There is an easier and more obvious way to pin important things to the tops of channels; and in addition to creating new threads after a conversation starts, you can also move messages from one channel or thread to another.

You can also interact with Quill chats using SMS and email, and like Slack, it offers the ability to integrate other app notifications into the process.

It’s also working on adding a Clubhouse-like feature for voice channels, end-to-end encryption, context-based search (it already has keyword search), and user profiles.

Managing “high load”

The app has been in stealth mode for nearly three years, and while some projects might never go noticed in that time, this one is a little different because of the pedigree and the context.

For starters, Quill was founded by the former creative director of Stripe, Ludwig Pettersson, who was given a lot of the credit for the simplicity and focus of the payment company’s flagship product and platform (simplicity that became the hallmark of the service and helped it balloon into a commerce behemoth).

His involvement signaled that the effort might get at least a little attention. In a landscape that seemed to be all but dominated by Slack and a few huge, well-funded rivals in the form of Microsoft and Facebook, it’s notable that when Quill was just an idea, it had already picked up $2 million in seed funding, from Sam Altman (at the time the head of Y Combinator) and General Catalyst.

Following that it raised a Series A of $12.5 million led by Sarah Cannon of Index Ventures, totaling some $14.5 million in funding in all. The Series A valued the company at $62.5 million, as we reported at the time.

Added to this is the story behind Quill and what brought Pettersson and others on his team to the idea of building it. From what we understand, the idea in its earliest inception was to capture something of the magic of communication that you get from messaging apps, and specifically from workplace communication tools like Slack, but without the distraction and resulting frustration that often come along with them.

By 2018, Slack was already a big product, valued at over $7 billion and attracting millions of users. But there was also a growing number of people criticizing it for being the opposite of productive. “It’s hard to track everything that’s going on in Slack, it can be distracting. Given the network effect, Slack has become powerful, but it was not designed as a high-load system,” Sam Altman, the investor and former head of both Y-Combinator and OpenAI, said to me back in 2018 when I asked him what he knew about Quill after I first got wind of it.

He said he was “super impressed” by Ludwig’s work at Stripe, and then OpenAI (where he stayed for a year after leaving Stripe), so much so that when Ludwig suggested building “a better version of Slack,” it seemed like a “credible idea” and one worth backing even without a product yet to be built.

It’s quite fitting that for an app focused on focus, Quill launched today quietly and without much fanfare: why worry about PR distraction when you can just get something out there?

In any case, we’re hoping to hear more and see what kind of momentum it picks up. We’ve asked Index if we can talk to Sarah Cannon about the investment, and we are still waiting to hear back. We are also trying to see if we can talk to Pettersson. But I should mention we have been trying to talk to him since first getting wind of this app back in August of 2018, so we’re not holding our breath (nor this story).

Feb
03
2021
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Rocket.Chat raises $19M for its open-source approach to integrated enterprise messaging

Chat platforms like Slack have been game-changers when it comes to what business users want and expect out of their work communications. Today, a company that’s aiming to move the goalpost again with an integrated, open-source alternative is announcing some funding to fuel its growth.

Rocket.Chat, a startup and open-source-based platform of the same name used by banks, the U.S. Navy, NGOs and other organizations big and small to set up and run any variety of secure virtual communications services from one place — they can include not just team chat, but also customer service, collaboration platforms covering your staff and outside partners, school classrooms, conferences and more — has raised $19 million.

The company plans to use the funding both to continue adding more customers, but also expanding the platform’s functionality, including more security features, a way to use the service over federated blockchain architecture, apps for marketplaces, options for bots, and more social media and omnichannel customer service integrations, and potentially facilities for virtual events.

As more business interactions have gone virtual, it has essentially opened the door for companies like Rocket.Chat building virtual communications platforms to build in an increasing number of features into what it does.

The Series A round of funding has four lead investors — Valor Capital Group, Greycroft, Monashees and NEA — with e.ventures, Graphene Ventures, ONEVC and DGF also participating. The Porto Alegre, Brazil-based startup (which is incorporated in Delaware) has now raised $27 million to date.

Rocket.Chat is not disclosing its valuation with this round, but it comes on the back of some significant growth in the last year. The startup now has 16 million registered users across 150 countries, with eight million of them monthly active users. Of that 16 million, 11.3 million users registered for the service in the past six months. It’s currently installed on some 845,000 servers, the company said, and has over 1,500 developers building on its platform.

Rocket.Chat’s funding and expanding business comes as part of a bigger focus overall for open-source platforms.

The promise of open source in the world of enterprise IT has been that it provides a platform to customise a service to fit with how the organization in question wants to use it, while at the same time providing tools to make sure it is robust enough in terms of security, extensibility and more for use in a business environment.

Over the years, it has become a big business opportunity, in line with organizations getting more sophisticated in terms of what they expect and need out of their IT services, where off-the-shelf apps may not always fit the bill.

Rocket.Chat positions itself as something of an all-in-one superstore for any and all communications needs, with organizations putting their own services together in whatever way works for their purposes.

It can either be hosted and managed by customers themselves, or used as a cloud-based SaaS, with its pricing ranging between free (for minimal, self-hosted services) to $4 per user per month, or higher, depending on which services customers want to have, whether its hosted and how much the platform is being used each month.

Image Credits: Rocket.Chat

As you can see in the mock-up here, its basic platform looks a little like Slack. But if you are using it for omnichannel communications for customer service, for example, you can build a platform within Rocket.Chat where you incorporate communications from any other platforms that might be used to communicate with customers.

Its work collaboration platform starts with Rocket.Chat’s basic chat interface, but also allows you to integrate alerts and links to other apps that you regularly use, as well as video calls and more. These and other functions built on Rocket.Chat can then be made to interact with each other — for example handing tickets off in customer service to internal tech support teams — or separately.

The idea is that by providing a version that can be hosted and managed by organizations themselves, it gives them more privacy and control over their electronic messaging.

Its thousands of customers reflect an interesting mix of the kinds of organizations that are looking for solutions that do just that.

Gabriel Engel, the CEO and founder, tells me the list includes several military and public sector organizations including the U.S. Navy, financial services companies like Credit Suisse and Citibank, as well as the likes of Cornell, Arizona State, UC Irvine, Bielefeld University and other educational institutions, and a number of other private companies. 

That flexibility does not always play to Rocket.Chat’s advantage, however. Controversially, it seems that the list also includes the other end of the spectrum of organizations that want to keep their messages limited to a very specific audience: Islamic State it turns out also hosts and runs a Rocket.Chat to disseminate messages.

Engel says that while this is not something that the company supports, and that it works with authorities to shut down users like these as much as it can, it’s a consequence of how the service was built:

“We are not able to track usage if they are running Rocket.Chat servers of their own,” he said. “There’s a reason why the U.S. Navy uses Rocket.Chat. And that’s because we cannot track and know what they’re doing. It’s isolated from any external influence, for better or worse.” He added that the company has policies so that if an illicit organization is using its SaaS version, these get taken down in cooperation with authorities. “But just as with Linux, if you download and run Rocket.Chat on your own computer, then obviously it’s out of our reach.”

Hearing about how a platform built with privacy by design can be abused, with seemingly little to be done about it, does seem to offset some of the benefits. The ethics of that predicament, and whether technology can ever solve it, or whether it will be up to government authorities to address, will continue to be a question not just for Rocket.Chat but for all of us.

In the meantime, investors are interested because of the alternative it provides to those groups that need it.

“In today’s environment, organizations must have a secure communication platform to engage teams internally, communicate with customers and partners externally, and connect with safe interest-based communities,” said Dylan Pearce, partner at Greycroft, in a statement. “Rocket.Chat’s world-class management team and open-source community lead the industry in innovation and provide a communications platform capable of serving every person on the planet.” 

Dec
15
2020
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Twitter taps AWS for its latest foray into the public cloud

Twitter has a lot going on, and it’s not always easy to manage that kind of scale on your own. Today, Amazon announced that Twitter has signed a multi-year agreement with AWS to run its real-time timelines. It’s a major win for Amazon’s cloud arm.

While the companies have worked together in some capacity for over a decade, this marks the first time that Twitter is tapping AWS to help run its core timelines.

“This expansion onto AWS marks the first time that Twitter is leveraging the public cloud to scale their real-time service. Twitter will rely on the breadth and depth of AWS, including capabilities in compute, containers, storage and security, to reliably deliver the real-time service with the lowest latency, while continuing to develop and deploy new features to improve how people use Twitter,” the company explained in the announcement.

Parag Agrawal, chief technology officer at Twitter, sees this as a way to expand and improve the company’s real-time offerings by taking advantage of AWS’s network of data centers to deliver content closer to the user. “The collaboration with AWS will improve performance for people who use Twitter by enabling us to serve Tweets from data centers closer to our customers at the same time as we leverage the Arm-based architecture of AWS Graviton2 instances. In addition to helping us scale our infrastructure, this work with AWS enables us to ship features faster as we apply AWS’s diverse and growing portfolio of services,” Agrawal said in a statement.

It’s worth noting that Twitter also has a relationship with Google Cloud. In 2018, it announced it was moving its Hadoop clusters to GCP.

This announcement could be considered a case of the rich getting richer as AWS is the leader in the cloud infrastructure market by far, with around 33% market share. Microsoft is in second with around 18% and Google is in third with 9%, according to Synergy Research. In its most recent earnings report, Amazon reported $11.6 billion in AWS revenue, putting it on a run rate of over $46 billion.

Dec
01
2020
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Salesforce buys Slack in a $27.7B megadeal

Salesforce, the CRM powerhouse that recently surpassed $20 billion in annual revenue, announced today it is wading deeper into enterprise social by acquiring Slack in a $27.7 billion megadeal. Rumors of a pending deal surfaced last week, causing Slack’s stock price to spike.

Salesforce co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff didn’t mince words on his latest purchase. “This is a match made in heaven. Together, Salesforce and Slack will shape the future of enterprise software and transform the way everyone works in the all-digital, work-from-anywhere world,” Benioff said in a statement.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield was no less effusive than his future boss. “As software plays a more and more critical role in the performance of every organization, we share a vision of reduced complexity, increased power and flexibility, and ultimately a greater degree of alignment and organizational agility. Personally, I believe this is the most strategic combination in the history of software, and I can’t wait to get going,” Butterfield said in a statement.

Every worker at every company needs to communicate, something that Slack can ably empower. What’s more, it also facilitates external communication with customers and partners, something that should be quite useful for a company like Salesforce and its family of offerings.

Ultimately, Slack was ripe for the taking. Entering 2020 it had lost around 40% of its value since it went public. Consider that after its most recent earnings report, the company lost 16% of its value, and before the Salesforce deal leaked, the company was worth only a few dollars per share more than its direct listing reference price. Toss in net losses of $147.6 million during the two quarters ending July 31, 2020, Slack’s uninspiring public valuation and its winding path to profitability and it was a sitting target for a takeover like this one. The only surprise here is the price.

Slack’s current valuation, according to both Yahoo and Google Finance, is just over $25 billion, which, given its very modest price change after-hours means that the market priced the company somewhat effectively. Slack is up around 48% from its valuation that preceded the deal becoming known.

The new deal also puts Salesforce more on par — and in competition — with its arch rival and sometime friend Microsoft, whose Teams product has been directly challenging Slack in the market. Microsoft, which passed on buying Slack in the past for a fraction of what Salesforce is paying today, has made Teams a key priority in recent quarters, loathe to cede any portion of the enterprise software market to another company.

What really has set Slack apart from the pack, at least initially, was its ability to integrate with other enterprise software. When you combined that with bots, those intelligent digital helpers, the company could potentially provide Salesforce customers with a central place to work without changing focus because everything they need to do can be done in Slack.

Today’s deal comes after Salesforce’s purchase of Quip in 2016 for $750 million. Quip brought to the SaaS giant a way of socially sharing documents, and when paired with the Slack acquisition gives Salesforce a much more robust social story to tell than its internal option Chatter, an early attempt at enterprise social that never really caught on.

It’s worth noting that Salesforce was interested in Twitter in 2016, the same year that Microsoft was reportedly interested in Slack, but eventually walked away from that deal when shareholders objected, not wanting to deal with the controversial side of the social platform.

Slack was founded in 2013, but its origins go back to an online multiplayer game company called Glitch that was founded in 2009. While the game was ultimately a failure, the startup developed an internal messaging system in the process of building that company that later evolved into Slack.

The company’s historic growth helped Slack raise more than $1 billion while private, earning an impressive $7 billion valuation before going public last year. But while the Glitch-to-unicorn story appears simple, Slack has always faced entrenched competition from the likes of not only Microsoft, but also Cisco, Facebook, Google and even Asana and Monday.com.

For Slack, the path to the public markets was fraught with hype and outsized expectation. The company was famous, or as famous as an enterprise software company can be. At the time it felt like its debut was the start of a long tenure as an indie company. Instead, that public life has been cut short by a huge check. Such is the dog-eat-dog world of tech.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loop Team Highlights

Image Credits: Loop Team

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

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

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

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

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

Oct
22
2020
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Facebook adds hosting, shopping features and pricing tiers to WhatsApp Business

Facebook has been making a big play to be a go-to partner for small and medium businesses that use the internet to interface with the wider world, and its messaging platform WhatsApp, with some 50 million businesses and 175 million people messaging them (and more than 2 billion users overall) has been a central part of that pitch.

Now, the company is making three big additions to WhatsApp to fill out that proposition.

It’s launching a way to shop for and pay for goods and services in WhatsApp chats; it’s going head to head with the hosting providers of the world with a new product called Facebook Hosting Services to host businesses’ online assets and activity; and — in line with its expanding product range — Facebook said it will finally start to charge companies using WhatsApp for Business.

Facebook announced the news in a short blog post light on details. We have reached out to the company for more information on pricing, availability of the services and whether Facebook will provide hosting itself or work with third parties, and we will update this post as we learn more.

Update: Facebook responded and we are putting the replies below, in-line where it makes sense.

Here is what we know for now:

In-chat Shopping: Companies are already using WhatsApp to present product information and initiate discussions for transactions. One of the more recent developments in that area was the addition of QR codes and the ability to share catalog links in chats, added in July. At the same time, Facebook has been expanding the ways that businesses can display what they are selling on Facebook and Instagram, most recently with the launch in August of Facebook Shop, following a similar product roll out on Instagram before that.

Today’s move sounds like a new way for businesses in turn to use WhatsApp both to link through to those Facebook-native catalogs, as well as other products, and then purchase items, while still staying in the chat.

At the same time, Facebook will be making it possible for merchants to add “buy” buttons in other places that will take shoppers to WhatsApp chats to complete the purchase. “We also want to make it easier for businesses to integrate these features into their existing commerce and customer solutions,” it notes. “This will help many small businesses who have been most impacted in this time.”

Although Facebook is not calling this WhatsApp Pay, it seems that this is the next step ahead for the company’s ambitions to bring payments into the chat flow of its messaging app. That has been a long and winding road for the company, which finally launched WhatsApp Payments, using Facebook Pay, in Brazil, in June of this year only to have it shut down by regulators for failing to meet their requirements. (The plan has been to expand it to India, Indonesia and Mexico next.)

Facebook Hosting Services: These will be available in the coming months, but no specific date to share right now. “We’re sharing our plans now while we work with our partners to make these services available,” the company said in a statement to TechCrunch.

No! This is not about Facebook taking on AWS. Or… not yet at least? The idea here appears that it is specifically aimed at selling hosting services to the kind of SMBs who already use Facebook and WhatsApp messaging, who either already use hosting services for their online assets, whether that be their online stores or other things, or are finding themselves now needing to for the first time, now that business is all about being “online.”

“Today, all businesses using our API are using either an on-premise solution or leverage a solutions provider, both of which require costly servers to maintain,” Facebook said. “With this change, businesses will be able to choose to use Facebook’s own secure hosting infrastructure for free, which helps remove a costly item for every company that wants to use the WhatsApp Business API, including our business service providers, and will help them all save money.” It added that it will share more info about where data will be hosted closer to launch.

This is a very interesting move, since the SMB hosting market is pretty fragmented with a number of companies, including the likes of GoDaddy, Dream Host, HostGator, BlueHost and many others also offering these services. That fragmentation spells opportunity for a huge company like Facebook with a global profile, a burgeoning amount of connections through to other online services for these SMBs and a pretty extensive network of data centers around the world that it has built for itself and can now use to provide services to others — which is, indeed, a pretty strong parallel with how Amazon and AWS have done business.

Facebook already has an “app store” of sorts with partners it works with to provide marketing and related services to businesses using its platform. It looks like it plans to expand this, and will sell the hosting alongside all of that, with the kicker that hosting natively on Facebook will speed up how everything works.

“Providing this option will make it easier for small and medium size businesses to get started, sell products, keep their inventory up to date, and quickly respond to messages they receive – wherever their employees are,” it notes.

Charging tiers: As you would expect, to encourage more adoption, Facebook has not been charging for WhatsApp Business up to now, but it has charged for some WhatsApp business messages — for example when businesses send a boarding pass or e-commerce receipt to a customer over Facebook’s rails. (These prices vary and a list of them is published here.) Now, with more services coming into the mix, and businesses tying their fates more strongly to how well they are performing on Facebook’s platforms, it’s no surprise to see Facebook converting that into a pay to play scenario.

“What we’ve heard over the past couple years is how the conversational nature of business messaging is really valuable to people. So in the future we may look at ways to update how we charge businesses that better reflect how it’s used,” the company told us. Important to note that this will relate to how businesses send messages. “As always, it’s free for people to send a business a message,” Facebook added.

Frustratingly, there seems so far to be no detail on which services will be charged, nor how much, nor when, so this is more of a warning than a new requirement.

“We will charge business customers for some of the services we offer, which will help WhatsApp continue building a business of our own while we provide and expand free end-to-end encrypted text, video and voice calling for more than two billion people,” it notes.

For those who might find that annoying, on the plus side, for those who are concerned about an ever-encroaching data monster, it will, at the least, help WhatsApp and Facebook continue to stick to its age-old commitment to stay away from advertising as a business model.

Doubling-down on SMBs

The new services come at a time when Facebook is doubling down on providing services for businesses, spurred in no small part by the coronavirus pandemic, which has driven physical retailers and others to close their actual doors, shifting their focus to using the internet and mobile services to connect with and sell to customers.

Citing that very trend, last month the company’s COO Sheryl Sandberg announced the Facebook Business Suite, bringing together all of the tools it has been building for companies to better leverage Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp profiles both to advertise themselves as well as communicate with and sell to customers. And the fact that Sandberg was leading the announcement says something about how Facebook is prioritizing this: it’s striking while the iron is hot with companies using its platform, but it sees/hopes that business services can a key way to diversify its business model while also helping buffer it — since many businesses building Pages may also advertise.

Facebook has also been building more functionality across Facebook and Instagram specifically aimed at helping power users and businesses leverage the two in a more efficient way. Adding in more tools to WhatsApp is the natural progression of all of this.

To be sure, as we pointed out earlier this year, even while there is a lot of very informal use of WhatsApp by businesses all around the world, WhatsApp Business remains a fairly small product, most popular in India and Brazil. Facebook launching more tools for how to use it will potentially drive more business not just in those markets but help the company convert more businesses to using it in other places, too.

Smaller businesses have been on Facebook’s radar for a while now. Even before the pandemic hit, in many cases retailers or restaurants do not have websites of their own, opting for a Facebook Page or Instagram Profile as their URL and primary online interface with the world; and even when they do have standalone sites, they are more likely to update people and spread the word about what they are doing on social media than via their own URLs.

Facebook’s also made a video to help demonstrate how it sees these WhatsApp Business in action, which you can here:

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