Aug
12
2019
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India’s Reliance Jio inks deal with Microsoft to expand Office 365, Azure to more businesses; unveils broadband, blockchain and IoT platforms

India’s Reliance Jio, which has disrupted the local telecom and features phone markets in less than three years of existence, is ready to foray into many more businesses.

In a series of announcements Monday, which included a long-term partnership with global giant Microsoft, Reliance Jio said it will commercially roll out its broadband service next month; an IoT platform with ambitions to power more than a billion devices on January 1 next year; and “one of the world’s biggest blockchain networks” in the next 12 months — all while also scaling its retail and commerce businesses.

The broadband service, called Jio Fiber, is aimed at individual customers, small and medium-sized businesses as well as enterprises, Mukesh Ambani, chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries and Asia’s richest man, said at a shareholders’ meeting today.

The service, which is being initially targeted at 20 million homes and 15 million businesses in 1,600 towns, will start rolling out commercially starting September 5. Ambani said more than half a million customers have already been testing the broadband service, which was first unveiled last year.

The broadband service will come bundled with access to hundreds of TV channels and free calls across India and at discounted rates to the U.S. and Canada, Ambani said. The service, the cheapest tier of which will offer internet speeds of 100Mbps, will be priced at Rs 700 (~$10) a month. The company said it will offer various plans to meet a variety of needs, including those of customers who want access to gigabit internet speeds.

Continuing its tradition to woo users with significant “free stuff,” Jio, which is a subsidiary of India’s largest industrial house (Reliance Industries) said customers who opt for the yearly plan of its fiber broadband will be provided with the set-top box and an HD or 4K TV at no extra charge. Specific details weren’t immediately available. A premium tier, which will be available starting next year, will allow customers to watch many movies on the day of their public release.

The broadband service will bundle games from many popular studios, including Microsoft Game Studios, Riot Games, Tencent Games and Gameloft, Jio said.

Partnership with Microsoft

The company also announced a 10-year partnership with Microsoft to launch new cloud data centers in India to ensure “more of Jio’s customers can access the tools and platforms they need to build their own digital capability,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a video appearance Monday.

ambani nadella

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella talks about the company’s partnership with Reliance Jio

“At Microsoft, our mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. Core to this mission is deep partnerships, like the one we are announcing today with Reliance Jio. Our ambition is to help millions of organizations across India thrive and grow in the era of rapid technological change.”

“Together, we will offer a comprehensive technology solution, from compute to storage, to connectivity and productivity for small and medium-sized businesses everywhere in the country,” he added.

As part of the partnership, Nadella said, Jio and Microsoft will jointly offer Azure, Microsoft 365 and Microsoft AI platforms to more organizations in India, and also bring Azure Cognitive Services to more devices and in 13 Indian languages to businesses in the country. The solutions will be “accessible” to reach as many people and organizations in India as possible, he added. The cloud services will be offered to businesses for as little as Rs 1,500 ($21) per month.

The first two data centers will be set up in Gujarat and Maharashtra by next year. Jio will migrate all of its non-networking apps to the Microsoft Azure platform and promote its adoption among its ecosystem of startups, the two said in a joint statement.

The foray into broadband business and push to court small enterprises come as Reliance Industries, which dominates the telecom and retail spaces in India, attempts to diversify from its marquee oil and gas business. Reliance Jio, the nation’s top telecom operator, has amassed more than 340 million subscribers in less than three years of its commercial operations.

At the meeting, Ambani also unveiled that Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil producer Aramco was buying a 20% stake in $75 billion worth Reliance Industries’ oil-to-chemicals business.

Like other Silicon Valley companies, Microsoft sees massive potential in India, where tens of millions of users and businesses have come online for the first time in recent years. Cloud services in India are estimated to generate a revenue of $2.4 billion this year, up about 25% from last year, according to research firm Gartner. Microsoft has won several major clients in India in recent years, including insurance giant ICICI Lombard.

Today’s partnership could significantly boost Microsoft’s footprint in India, posing a bigger headache for Amazon and Google.

Ambani also said Reliance Retail, the nation’s largest retailer, is working on a “digital stack” to create a new commerce partnership platform in India to reach tens of millions of merchants, consumers and producers. Ambani said Reliance Industries plans to list both Reliance Retail and Jio publicly in the next years.

“We have received strong interests from strategic and financial investors in our consumer businesses — Jio and Reliance Retail. We will induct leading global partners in these businesses in the next few quarters and move towards listing of both these companies within the next five years,” he said.

The announcement comes weeks after Reliance Industries acquired for $42.3 million a majority stake in Fynd, a Mumbai-based startup that connects brick and mortar retailers with online stores and consumers. Reliance Industries has previously stated plans to launch a new e-commerce firm in the country.

Without revealing specific details, Ambani also said that Jio is building an IoT platform to control at least one billion of the two billion IoT devices in India by next year. He said he sees IoT as a $2.8 billion revenue opportunity for Jio. Similarly, the company also plans to expand its blockchain network across India, he said.

“Using blockchain, we can deliver unprecedented security, trust, automation and efficiency to almost any type of transaction. And using blockchain, we also have an opportunity to invent a brand-new model for data privacy where Indian data, especially customer data is owned and controlled through technology by the Indian people an d not by corporate, especially global corporations,” he added.

Jun
20
2019
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Slack opens at $38.50, a pop of 48% on its first day of trading on NYSE as WORK

Slack, the workplace messaging platform that has helped define a key category of enterprise IT, made its debut as a public company today with a pop. Trading as “WORK” on the New York Stock Exchange, it opened at $38.50 after setting a reference price last night of $26, valuing it at $15.7 billion, and then setting a bid/asking price of $37 this morning.

The trading climbed up quickly in its opening minutes and went as high as $42 and is now down to $38.95. We’ll continue to update this as the day goes on. These prices are pushing the market cap to around $20 billion.

Note: There was no “money raised” with this IPO ahead of today because Slack’s move into being a publicly traded company is coming by way of a direct listing — meaning the shares went directly on the market with no pre-sale. This is a less-conventional route that doesn’t involve bankers underwriting the listing (nor all the costs that come along with the roadshow and the rest). It also means Slack does not raise a large sum ahead of public trading. But it does let existing shareholders trade shares without dilution and is an efficient way of going public if you’re not in need of an immediate, large cash injection. It’s a route that Spotify also took when it went public last year, and, from the front-page article on NYSE.com, it seems that there might be growing interest in this process — or at least, that the NYSE would like to promote it as an option.

Slack’s decision to go slightly off-script is in keeping with some of the ethos that it has cultivated over the last several years as one of the undisputed juggernauts of the tech world. Its rocket ship has been a product that has touched on not one but three different hot growth areas: enterprise software-as-a-service, messaging apps and platform plays that, by way of APIs, can become the touchstone and nerve center for a seemingly limitless number of other services.

What’s interesting about Slack is that — contrary to how some might think of tech — the journey here didn’t start as rocket science.

Slack was nearly an accidental creation, a byproduct that came out of how a previous business, Tiny Speck, was able to keep its geographically spread-out team communicating while building its product, the game Glitch. Glitch and Tiny Speck failed to gain traction, so after they got shut down, the ever-resourceful co-founder Stewart Butterfield did what many founders who still have some money in the bank and fire in their bellies do: a pivot. He took the basic channel they were using and built it (with some help) into the earliest public version of what came to be known as Slack.

But from that unlikely start something almost surprising happened: the right mix of ease of use, efficient responsiveness and functionality — in aid of those already important areas of workplace communication, messaging and app integration — made Slack into a huge hit. Quickly, Slack became the fastest-growing piece of enterprise software ever in terms of adding users, with a rapid succession of funding rounds (raising over $1.2 billion in total), valuation hikes and multiple product improvements along the way to help it grow.

Today, like many a software-as-a-service business that is less than 10 years old and investing returns to keep up with its fast-growing business, Slack is not profitable.

In the fiscal year that ended January 31, 2019, it reported revenues in its S-1 of $400.6 million, but with a net loss of $138.9 million. That was a slight improvement on its net loss from the previous fiscal year of $140.1 million, with a big jump on revenue, which was $220.5 million.

But its growth and the buzz it has amassed has given it a big push. As of January 31, it clocked up over 10 million daily active users across 600,000 organizations, with 88,000 of them on paid plans and 550,000 using the free version of the app. It will be interesting to see how and if that goodwill and excitement outweighs some of those financial bum notes.

Or, in some cases, possibly other bum notes. The company has made “Work” not just its ticker but its mantra. Its slogan is “Where work happens” and it focuses on how its platform helps make people more productive. But as you might expect, not everyone feels that way about it, with the endless streams of notifications, the slightly clumsy way of handling threaded conversations and certain other distracting features raising the ire of some people. (Google “Slack is a distraction” and you can see some examples of those dissenting opinions.)

Slack has had its suitors over the years, unsurprisingly, and at least one of them has in the interim made a product to compete with it. Teams, from Microsoft, is one of the many rival platforms on the market looking to capitalise on the surge of interest for chat and collaboration platforms that Slack has helped usher in. Other competitors include Workplace from Facebook, Mattermost and Flock, along with Threads and more.

Jun
11
2019
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WhatsApp is finally going after outside firms that are abusing its platform

WhatsApp has so far relied on past dealings with bad players within its platform to ramp up its efforts to curtail spam and other automated behavior. The Facebook -owned giant has now announced an additional step it plans to take beginning later this year to improve the health of its messaging service: going after those whose mischievous activities can’t be traced within its platform.

The messaging platform, used by more than 1.5 billion users, confirmed on Tuesday that starting December 7 it will start considering signals off its platform to pursue legal actions against those who are abusing its system. The company will also go after individuals who — or firms that — falsely claim to have found ways to cause havoc on the service.

The move comes as WhatsApp grapples with challenges such as spam behavior to push agendas or spread of false information on its messaging service in some markets. “This serves as notice that we will take legal action against companies for which we only have off-platform evidence of abuse if that abuse continues beyond December 7, 2019, or if those companies are linked to on-platform evidence of abuse before that date,” it said in an FAQ post on its site.

A WhatsApp spokesperson confirmed the change to TechCrunch, adding, “WhatsApp was designed for private messaging, so we’ve taken action globally to prevent bulk messaging and enforce limits on how WhatsApp accounts that misuse WhatsApp can be used. We’ve also stepped up our ability to identify abuse, which helps us ban 2 million accounts globally per month.”

Earlier this year, WhatsApp said (PDF) it had built a machine learning system to detect and weed out users who engage in inappropriate behavior such as sending bulk messages or creating multiple accounts with intention to harm the service. The platform said it was able to assess the past dealings with problematics behaviors to ban 20% of bad accounts at the time of registration itself.

But the platform is still grappling to contain abusive behavior, a Reuters report claimed last month. The news agency reported about tools that were readily being sold in India for under $15 that claimed to bypass some of the restrictions that WhatsApp introduced in recent months.

TechCrunch understands that with today’s changes, WhatsApp is going after those same set of bad players. It has already started to send cease and desist letters to marketing companies that claim to abuse WhatsApp in recent months, a person familiar with the matter said.

Jun
11
2019
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Dropbox relaunches as an enterprise collaboration workspace

Dropbox is evolving from a file-storage system to an enterprise software portal, where you can coordinate work with your team. Today the company launches a new version of Dropbox that allows you to launch apps with shortcuts for G Suite and more, plus use built-in Slack message-sending and Zoom video calls. It lets you search across all your files on your device and inside your other enterprise tools, and communicate and comment on your team’s work. Dropbox is also becoming a task manager, with the ability to add notes and tag co-workers in to-do lists attached to files.

The new Dropbox launches today for all of its 13 million business users across 400,000 teams plus its consumer tiers. Users can opt-in here for early access and businesses can turn on early access in their admin panel. “The way we work is broken,” CEO Drew Houston said to cue up the company’s mission statement: “to design a more enlightened way of working.”

Dropbox seems to have realized that file storage by itself is a dying business. With storage prices dropping and any app being able to add their own storage system, it needed to move up the enterprise stack and become a portal that opens and organizes your other tools. Becoming the enterprise coordination layer is a smart strategy, and one that it seems Slack was happy to partner into rather than building itself.

As part of the update, Dropbox is launching a new desktop app for all users so it won’t have to live inside your Mac or Windows file system. When you click a file, you can see a preview and presence data about who has viewed it, who is currently and who has access.

The launch includes deep integrations with Slack, so you can comment on files from within Dropbox, and Zoom, so you can video chat without leaving the workspace. Web and enterprise app shortcuts relieve you from keeping all your other tools constantly open in other tabs. Dropbox’s revamped search tool lets you crawl across your computer’s file system and all your cloud storage across other productivity apps.

But what’s most important about today’s changes is that Dropbox is becoming a task-management app. Each file lets you type out descriptions, to-do lists and tag co-workers to assign them tasks. An Activity Feed per file shows comments and actions from co-workers so you don’t have to collaborate in a separate Google Doc or Slack channel.

When asked about how Dropbox decided who to partner with (Slack, Zoom) versus who to copy (Asana), VP of biz dev Billy Blau essentially dodged the question while citing the “shared ethos” of Dropbox’s partners.

Houston kicked off the San Francisco launch event by pointing out that it’s easier to find info from the public than our own company’s knowledge that’s scattered across our computers and the cloud. The “Finder” on our computers hasn’t evolved to embrace a post-download era. He described how people spend 60% of our office time on work about work, like organization and communication, instead of actually working — a marketing angle frequently used by task-management startup Asana that Dropbox is now competing with more directly. “We’re going to help you get a handle on all this ‘work about work,’ ” Dropbox writes. Yet Asana has been using that phrase as a core of its messaging since 2013.

Now Dropbox wants to be your file tree, your finder and your desktop for the cloud. The question is whether files are always the central unit of work that comments and tasks should be pegged to, or whether it should be the task and project at the center of attention with files attached.

It will take some savvy onboarding and persistence to retrain teams to see Dropbox as their workspace instead of their computer’s desktop or their browser. But if it can become the identity and collaboration layer that connects the fragmented enterprise software, it could outlive file storage and stay relevant as new office tools emerge.

Jun
06
2019
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The Ticket Fairy is tech’s best hope against Ticketmaster

Ticketmaster’s dominance has led to ridiculous service fees, scalpers galore, and exclusive contracts that exploit venues and artists. The moronic approval of venue operator and artist management giant Live Nation’s merger with Ticketmaster in 2010 produced an anti-competitive juggernaut. It pressures venues to sign ticketing contracts under veiled threat that artists would otherwise be routed to different concert halls. Now it’s become difficult for venues, artists, and fans to avoid Ticketmaster, which charges fees as high as 50% that many see as a ripoff.

But The Ticket Fairy wants to wrestle control of venues away from Ticketmaster while giving fans ways to earn tickets for referring their friends. The startup is doing that by offering the most technologically advanced ticketing platform that not only handle sales and checkins, but acts as a full-stack Salesforce for concerts that can analyze buyers and run ad campaigns while thwarting scalpers. Co-founder Ritesh Patel says The Ticket Fairy has increased revenue for event organizers by 15% to 25% during its private beta focused on dance music festivals.

Now after 850,000 tickets sold, it’s officially launching its ticketing suite and actively poaching venues from EventBrite as it moves deeper into esports and conventions. With a little more scale, it will be ready to challenge Ticketmaster for lucrative clients.

Ritesh’s combination of product and engineering skills, rapid progress, and charismatic passion for live events after throwing 400 of his own has attracted an impressive cadre of angel investors. They’ve delivered a $2.5 million seed round for Ticket Fairy adding to its $485,000 pre-seed from angels like Twitch/Atrium founder Justin Kan, Twitch COO Kevin Lin, and Reddit CEO Steve Huffman. The new round includes YouTube founder Steve Chen, former Kleiner Perkins partner and Mark’s sister Arielle Zuckerberg, and funds like 500 Startups, ex-Uber angels Fantastic Ventures, G2 Ventures, Tempo Ventures, and WeFunder. It’s also scored music industry angels like Serato DJ hardware CEO AJ Bertenshaw, Spotify’s head of label licensing Niklas Lundberg, and celebrity lawer Ken Hertz who reps Will Smith and Gwen Stefani.

“The purpose of starting The Ticket Fairy was not to be another EventBrite, but to reduce the risk of the person running the event so they can be profitable. We’re not just another shopping cart” Patel says. The Ticket Fairy charges a comparable rate to EventBrite’s $1.59 + 3.5% per ticket plus payment processing that brings it closer to 6%, but Patel insists it offers far stronger functionality.

Constantly clad in his golden disco hoodie over a Ticket Fairy t-shirt, Patel lives his product, spending late nights dancing and taking feedback at the events his clients host. He’s been a savior of SXSW the past two years, injecting the aging festival that shuts down at 2am with multi-night after-hours raves. Featuring top DJs like Pretty Lights in creative locations cab drivers don’t believe are real, The Ticket Fairy’s parties have won the hearts of music industry folks.

The Ticket Fairy co-founders. Center and inset left: Ritesh Patel. Inset right: Jigar Patel

Now the Y Combinator startup hopes its ticketing platform will do the same thanks to a slew of savvy features:

Earn A Ticket – The Ticket Fairy supercharges word of mouth marketing with a referral system that lets fans get a rebate or full-free ticket if they get enough friends to buy a ticket. 30% of ticket buyers are now sharing a Ticket Fairy referral link, and Patel says the return on investment is $30 in revenue for each $1 paid out in rewards, with 10% to 25% of all ticket sales coming from referrals. A public leaderboard further encourages referrals, with those at the top eligible for backstage passes, free merch, and bar tabs. And to prevent mass spamming, only buyers, partners, and street teamers get a referral code.

Creative Payment Options – The startup offers “FreeFund” tickets for free events that otherwise see huge no-show rates. Users pay a small deposit that’s refunded when they scan their ticket for entry, discouraging RSVPs from those who won’t come. Buyers can also pay on layaway with Affirm or LayBuy and then earn a ticket before their debt is due.

Anti-Scalping – The Ticket Fairy offers identity-locked tickets that must be presented with the buyer’s ID on arrival, which means customers can’t scalp them. Instead, the startup offers a waitlist for sold out events, and buyers can sell their tickets back to the company which then redistributes them at face value with a new QR code to a specific friend or whoever’s at the top of the waitlist. Patel says client SunAndBass Festival hasn’t had a scalped ticket in five years of working with the ticketer.

Clever Analytics – Never wasting an opportunity, The Ticket Fairy lets events collect contact info and demand before ticket sales start with its pre-registration system. It can ceate multiple variants of ticketing sites designed for different demographics like rock vs dance fans for a festival, track sales and demographics in real-time, and relay instant stats about checkins at the door. Integration of email managers like MailChimp and sales pixels like Facebook plus the ability to instantly retarget people who abandoned their shopping via Facebook Custom Audience ads makes marketing easier. And all the metrics, budgets, and expenses are automatically organized into financial reports to eliminate spreadsheet busywork.

Still, the biggest barrier to adoption remains the long exclusive contracts Ticketmaster and other giants like AEG coerce venues into in the US. Abroad, venues typically work with multiple ticket promoters who sell from the same pool, which is why 80% of The Ticket Fairy’s business is international right now. In the US, ticketing is often handled by a single company except for the 8% of tickets artists can sell however they want. That’s why The Ticket Fairy has focused on signing up non-traditional venues for festivals, trade convention halls, newly built esports arenas, as well as concert halls.

“Coming from the event promotion background, we understand the risk event organizers take in creating these experiences” The Ticket Fairy’s co-founder and Ritesh’s brother Jigar Patel explains. “The odds of breaking even are poor and many are unable to overcome those challenges, but it is sheer passion that keeps them going in the face of financial uncertainty and multi-year losses.” As competitors’ contracts expire, The Ticket Fairy hopes to swoop in by dangling its sales-boosting tech. “We get locked out of certain things because people are locked in a contract, not because they don’t want to use our system.”

The live music industry can brutal, though. Events can have slim margins, organizers are loathe to change their process, it’s a sales heavy process convincing them to try new software. But while record business has been redefined by streaming, ticketing looks a lot like it did a decade ago. That makes it ripe for disruption.

“The events industry is more important than ever, with artists making the bulk of their income from touring instead of record sales, and demand from fans for live experiences is increasing at a global level” Jigar concludes. “When events go out of business, everybody loses, including artists and fans. Everything we do at The Ticket Fairy has that firmly in mind – we are here to keep the ecosystem alive.”

Jun
05
2019
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LinkedIn to shutter Chitu, its Chinese-language app, in July, redirects users to LinkedIn in Chinese

LinkedIn has long eyed China as an important country to offset slowing growth in more mature markets. But now it’s calling time on a localized effort after failing to see it pick up steam. The company has announced that it will be shutting down Chitu — a Chinese-only app it had built targeting younger people and those who had less of a need to network with people outside of the country — at the end of July.

The closure is notable for a couple of reasons.

First, it marks a retreat of sorts for LinkedIn in the country from building standalone apps to target younger users, and specifically those targeting young professionals, at the same time that LinkedIn also faces stiff competition from other services like Maimai and Zhaopin.

Second, Chitu was a rare (and possibly the only) example of an app from LinkedIn built specifically to target one non-English market — and a very big one at that — by building a social graph independent of LinkedIn’s. Chitu’s shutdown is therefore a sign of how LinkedIn ultimately didn’t succeed in that effort.

The company posted an announcement of the change in Chinese on Chitu’s website, and a spokesperson for LinkedIn confirmed the changes further in a statement provided to TechCrunch, where it described Chitu — which has been around since 2015 — as “one of many experiments.”

It also noted that it will be upgrading the LinkedIn core app as a “one-stop shop,” incorporating some of Chitu’s features, presumably in an effort to attract Chitu’s users rather than lose them altogether.

“Chitu will officially go offline at the end of July 2019,” the company noted in the statement. “In the future, we will focus on the continuous optimization and upgrade of the LinkedIn app, serving as a one-stop shop to accompany Chinese professionals along each step of their career development and connect to more opportunities.” We’ll post the full statement LinkedIn sent us at the bottom of this article.

LinkedIn first officially set up shop in China back in 2014 as “??”. Its branding firm pointed out at the time that the characters’ pronunciation, “ling ying,” sounding a bit like “LinkedIn” and loosely meant “to lead elites.” It was initially established as a joint venture with Sequoia and CBC as it was still an independent company and not owned by Microsoft at the time.

LinkedIn already had users in the country at that point — some 4 million individuals and 80,000 companies were already using the English-language version of the site at the time — but the idea was to set up a local operation to seize the opportunity of creating services more tailored to the world’s biggest mobile market, which would include local language support, and to meet the regulatory demands of needing to establish local operations to do that. It included efforts to build integrations with other sites like WeChat, as well as bigger partnerships with the likes of Didi.

A year later, Derek Shen, the LinkedIn executive who led the launch of LinkedIn China, spearheaded the launch of Chitu.

The idea was to build a new app that could tap into the smartphone craze that had swept the country, in particular among younger users who had foregone using computers in favor of their hand-held devices that they used to regularly check in on apps like WeChat.

“In the past year, we have done a lot of localization efforts and achieved great results, such as deep integration with WeChat, Weibo, QQ mailbox, and Alibaba,” he wrote in an essay at the time (originally in Chinese).

“However, in general, we are still maintaining a global platform that is not evolving fast enough, and localization is not determined. We believe that only a product that is independent of the global platform can fully meet the unique needs of social networking in China, so that we can really run like a startup.”

LinkedIn would at the same time continue to build out the Chinese version of LinkedIn itself, targeting older and more premium users who might be interacting with people in other languages, like English.

From what we understand, Chitu had a good start, with millions of users signing up in the early years, beating LinkedIn itself on user retention rates and engagement.

But a source says that internally it faced some issues for trying to develop an ecosystem independent of the LinkedIn platform, which only became more challenging after Microsoft acquired the company, the source said. (He didn’t say why, but for starters it would have been more lucrative to monetise a single user base, and develop new features for a single platform, rather than do either across multiple apps.)

“After Microsoft acquired LinkedIn, independence became unthinkable,” the source said. “People with entrepreneurial DNA have all left, so it’s natural to shut down Chitu at this point.” It didn’t help that Shen himself left the company in 2017.

It’s unclear how many users Chitu ultimately picked up, but LinkedIn says that it has 47 million LinkedIn members in China, out of a total of 610 million globally. Notably, observers point out that its two big rivals Maimai and Zhaopin are both growing faster.

More generally, and likely to better compete against local players, LinkedIn tells us that it rebooted its growth strategy in the country last month. That new strategy appears to be based fundamentally on any new services or partnerships now stemming from one centralised platform.

“2.0 [as the new strategic effort is called] is built on LinkedIn’s vast global network of professionals with real identities and profiles as the foundation and providing a one-stop-shop services to our members and constructing an ecosystem in China,” a spokesperson said in response to a question we had about whether the company will continue to build out more partnerships with third parties. “We do not exclude any partners who participate in building this ‘one-stop-shop’ and eventually construct a powerful ecosystem.” 

Here is the full statement on the shut-down of Chitu:

China is core to LinkedIn’s mission and vision globally – creating economic opportunity to every member of the global workforce. Since entering China in 2014, LinkedIn has explored its development path within the Chinese market, adjusting short-term strategies according to changes in the market environment. This includes Chitu, which launched in 2015, to help LinkedIn expand the social network market through the mobile app.

Chitu is one of many experiments we conducted to continue to learn and provide more value to members. Other efforts include WeChat integration, Sesame Credit partnership etc. Based on user feedback and data analysis, we find that Chinese professionals are proactively seeking for career development opportunities. We incorporate many learnings and insights from Chitu into our new offerings on LinkedIn app that we believe will cover different needs and stages in professional and career development.

Chitu will officially go offline at the end of July 2019, following the completion of its historical mission. In the future, we will focus on the continuous optimization and upgrade of the LinkedIn app, serving as a one-stop shop to accompany Chinese professionals along each step of their career development and connect to more opportunities.

Jun
05
2019
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AntiToxin sells safetytech to clean up poisoned platforms

The big social networks and video games have failed to prioritize user well-being over their own growth. As a result, society is losing the battle against bullying, predators, hate speech, misinformation and scammers. Typically when a whole class of tech companies have a dire problem they can’t cost-effectively solve themselves, a software-as-a-service emerges to fill the gap in web hosting, payment processing, etc. So along comes AntiToxin Technologies, a new startup that wants to help web giants fix their abuse troubles with its safety-as-a-service.

It all started on Minecraft. AntiToxin co-founder Ron Porat is cybersecurity expert who’d started ad blocker Shine. Yet right under his nose, one of his kids was being mercilessly bullied on the hit children’s game. If even those most internet-savvy parents were being surprised by online abuse, Porat realized the issue was bigger than could be addressed by victims trying to protect themselves. The platforms had to do more, research confirmed.

A recent Ofcom study found almost 80% of children had a potentially harmful online experience in the past year. Indeed, 23% said they’d been cyberbullied, and 28% of 12 to 15-year-olds said they’d received unwelcome friend or follow requests from strangers. A Ditch The Label study found of 12 to 20-year-olds who’d been bullied online, 42% were bullied on Instagram.

Unfortunately, the massive scale of the threat combined with a late start on policing by top apps makes progress tough without tremendous spending. Facebook tripled the headcount of its content moderation and security team, taking a noticeable hit to its profits, yet toxicity persists. Other mainstays like YouTube and Twitter have yet to make concrete commitments to safety spending or staffing, and the result is non-stop scandals of child exploitation and targeted harassment. Smaller companies like Snap or Fortnite-maker Epic Games may not have the money to develop sufficient safeguards in-house.

“The tech giants have proven time and time again we can’t rely on them. They’ve abdicated their responsibility. Parents need to realize this problem won’t be solved by these companies” says AntiToxin co-founder and CEO Zohar Levkovitz, who previously sold his mobile ad company Amobee to Singtel for $321 million. “You need new players, new thinking, new technology. A company where ‘Safety’ is the product, not an after-thought. And that’s where we come-in.” The startup recently raised a multimillion-dollar seed round from Mangrove Capital Partners and is allegedly prepping for a double-digit millions Series A.

AntiToxin’s technology plugs into the backends of apps with social communities that either broadcast or message with each other and are thereby exposed to abuse. AntiToxin’s systems privately and securely crunch all the available signals regarding user behavior and policy violation reports, from text to videos to blocking. It then can flag a wide range of toxic actions and let the client decide whether to delete the activity, suspend the user responsible or how else to proceed based on their terms and local laws.

Through the use of artificial intelligence, including natural language processing, machine learning and computer vision, AntiToxin can identify the intent of behavior to determine if it’s malicious. For example, the company tells me it can distinguish between a married couple consensually exchanging nude photos on a messaging app versus an adult sending inappropriate imagery to a child. It also can determine if two teens are swearing at each other playfully as they compete in a video game or if one is verbally harassing the other. The company says that beats using static dictionary blacklists of forbidden words.

AntiToxin is under NDA, so it can’t reveal its client list, but claims recent media attention and looming regulation regarding online abuse has ramped up inbound interest. Eventually the company hopes to build better predictive software to identify users who’ve shown signs of increasingly worrisome behavior so their activity can be more closely moderated before they lash out. And it’s trying to build a “safety graph” that will help it identify bad actors across services so they can be broadly deplatformed similar to the way Facebook uses data on Instagram abuse to police connected WhatsApp accounts.

“We’re approaching this very human problem like a cybersecurity company, that is, everything is a Zero-Day for us” says Levkowitz, discussing how AntiToxin indexes new patterns of abuse it can then search for across its clients. “We’ve got intelligence unit alums, PhDs and data scientists creating anti-toxicity detection algorithms that the world is yearning for.” AntiToxin is already having an impact. TechCrunch commissioned it to investigate a tip about child sexual imagery on Microsoft’s Bing search engine. We discovered Bing was actually recommending child abuse image results to people who’d conducted innocent searches, leading Bing to make changes to clean up its act.

AntiToxin identified publicly listed WhatsApp Groups where child sexual abuse imagery was exchanged

One major threat to AntiToxin’s business is what’s often seen as boosting online safety: end-to-end encryption. AntiToxin claims that when companies like Facebook expand encryption, they’re purposefully hiding problematic content from themselves so they don’t have to police it.

Facebook claims it still can use metadata about connections on its already encrypted WhatApp network to suspend those who violate its policy. But AntiToxin provided research to TechCrunch for an investigation that found child sexual abuse imagery sharing groups were openly accessible and discoverable on WhatsApp — in part because encryption made them hard to hunt down for WhatsApp’s automated systems.

AntiToxin believes abuse would proliferate if encryption becomes a wider trend, and it claims the harm that it  causes outweighs fears about companies or governments surveiling unencrypted transmissions. It’s a tough call. Political dissidents, whistleblowers and perhaps the whole concept of civil liberty rely on encryption. But parents may see sex offenders and bullies as a more dire concern that’s reinforced by platforms having no idea what people are saying inside chat threads.

What seems clear is that the status quo has got to go. Shaming, exclusion, sexism, grooming, impersonation and threats of violence have started to feel commonplace. A culture of cruelty breeds more cruelty. Tech’s success stories are being marred by horror stories from their users. Paying to pick up new weapons in the fight against toxicity seems like a reasonable investment to demand.

May
22
2019
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Zendesk acquires Smooch, doubles down on support via messaging apps like WhatsApp

One of the bigger developments in customer services has been the impact of social media — both as a place to vent frustration or praise (mostly frustration) and — especially over messaging apps — as a place for businesses to connect with their users.

Now, customer support specialist Zendesk has made an acquisition so that it can make a bigger move into how it works within social media platforms, and specifically messaging apps: it has acquired Smooch, a startup that describes itself as an “omnichannel messaging platform,” which companies’ customer care teams can use to interact with people over messaging platforms like WhatsApp, WeChat, Line and Messenger, as well as SMS and email.

Smooch was in fact one of the first partners for the WhatsApp Business API, alongside VoiceSage, Nexmo, Infobip, Twilio, MessageBird and others already advertising their services in this area.

It had also been a longtime partner of Zendesk’s, powering the company’s own WhatsApp Business integration and other features. The two already have some customers in common, including Uber. Other Smooch customers include Four Seasons, SXSW, Betterment, Clarabridge, Harry’s, LVMH, Delivery Hero and BarkBox.

Terms of the deal are not being disclosed, but Zendesk SVP  class=”il”>Shawna Wolverton said in an interview that the startup’s entire team of 48, led by co-founder and CEO Warren Levitan, are being offered positions with Zendesk. Smooch is based out of Montreal, Canada — so this represents an expansion for Zendesk into building an office in Canada.

Its backers included iNovia, TA Associates and Real Ventures, who collectively had backed it with less than $10 million (when you leave the inflated hills surrounding Silicon Valley, numbers magically decline). As Zendesk is publicly traded, we may get more of a picture of the price in future quarterly reports. This is the company’s fifth acquisition to date.

The deal underscores the big impact that messaging apps are making in customer service. While phone and internet are massive points of contact, messaging apps is one of the most-requested features Zendesk’s customers are requesting, “because they want to be where their customers are,” with WhatsApp — now at 1.5 billion users — currently at the top of the pile, Wolverton said. (More than half of Zendesk’s revenues are from outside the U.S., which speaks to why WhatsApp — which is bigger outside the U..S than it is in it — is a popular request.)

That’s partly a by-product of how popular messaging apps are full-stop, with more than 75% of all smartphone users having at least one messaging app in use on their devices.

“We live in a messaging-centric world, and customers expect the convenience and interactivity of messaging to be part of their experiences,” said Mikkel Svane, Zendesk founder, CEO and chairman, in a statement. “As long-time partners with Smooch, we know first hand how much they have advanced the conversational experience to bring together all forms of messaging and create a continuous conversation between customers and businesses.”

While the two companies were already working together, the acquisition will mean a closer integration.

That will be in multiple areas. Last year, Zendesk launched a new CRM play called Sunshine, going head to head with the likes of Salesforce in helping businesses better organise and make use of customer data. Smooch will build on that strategy to bring in data to Sunshine from messaging apps and the interactions that take place on them. Also last year, Zendesk launched an omnichannel play, a platform called The Suite, which it says “has become one of our most successful products ever,” with a 400% rise in its customers taking an omnichannel approach. Smooch already forms a key part of that, and it will be even more tightly so.

On the outbound side, for now, there will be two areas where Smooch will be used, Wolverton said. First will be on the basic level of giving Zendesk users the ability to see and create messaging app discussions within a dashboard where they are able to monitor and handle all customer relationship contacts: a conversation that was initiated now on, say, Twitter, can be easily moved into WhatsApp or whatever more direct channel someone wants to use.

Second, Wolverton said that customer care workers can use Smooch to send on “micro apps” to users to handle routine service enquiries, for example sending them links to make or change seat assignments on a flight.

Over time, the plan will be to bring more automated options into the experience, which opens the door for using more AI and potentially bots down the line.

May
14
2019
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LinkedIn integrates and updates jobs and hiring platforms, hits 20M job postings

LinkedIn, the social networking platform for the working world that’s now owned by Microsoft, has leveraged its role as a repository for people’s work profiles into making itself a job hunting and recruitment powerhouse.

The company today has amassed more than 20 million job listings — up from a mere 300,000  five years ago — and sees its 600 million users collectively apply to jobs 25 million times per week. That activity also translates to big business: paid subscriptions specifically aimed at recruiters, paid tiers for average users who want to have more access to contacting people for jobs, job ads and more all contribute to LinkedIn’s bottom line, a business that is projected to hit $6.4 billion in revenues for 2019, growing 27 percent in the last quarter.

Now, LinkedIn is stepping up a gear in the operation. After a two-year effort, LinkedIn is today announcing that it has finally integrated its jobs and hiring efforts and announcing a raft of new features for both.

On the jobs front, they include instant job alerts, a redesign of the Jobs home page, and more salary insights available to all users (including free users), with skills assessments coming soon.

On the recruitment front, LinkedIn Jobs, Recruiter, and Pipeline Builder are all coming together to create a more seamless way to manage how you post ads, source candidates and other leads and ultimately  interact with them in the process of hiring them.

“This will mean higher quality candiates, better jobs and a better fit,” VP of product John Jersin said in an interview. When asked why it took so long to integrate these tools — and why the process didn’t happen five years ago, for example, he answered that it was more of a consequence of how expectations have evolved as tech has evolved to question some of the silos that are incumbent to how we do business.

“We designed these systems in a way that worked well, but no one foresaw what we needed,” he said. “Advancements in AI have driven the strategy, and integrating all this means we can all learn better from each other.”

The new features that LinkedIn is bringing to jobseekers are responses to how our communications have evolved with the rise of the smartphone. It notes that jobseekers who respond to ads faster are more likely  to get the job, so now when a job gets posted that meet your search criteria, you can get a ping within minutes of the posting. Meanwhile, the redesign of the Jobs homepage is more mobile friendly, with added search features that take into account how you navigate on handheld devices.

The skill assessments, meanwhile, seems to me to be a direct response to the many new innovations we’ve seen among e-learning and recruitment startups, where companies like Coursera and Triplebyte are offering more tools to people to figure out where the best fit might be for their skills in the working world. LinkedIn notes that these can both be used by individuals to verify their skills — tackling a perennial problem with people putting empty claims on their resumes — and also recruiters to source people for jobs.

Important steps for the company, but there remain a lot of opportunities for smaller and newer upstarts to take bites out of LinkedIn’s business in areas where it is still being slow to develop.

For example, we’ve seen the emergence of interesting, more targeted recruitment startups that focus on, say, recruiting with racial diversity in mind (as in the case of Handshake) or focusing on, say, women returning to work after having children (as in the case of the Mom Project). While LinkedIn has made some baby steps (no pun intended) in this area, there is still a ways to go, opening the door to others to come in.

“This is a challenging and multifaceted problem,” admitted Jersin, “but LinkedIn is committed to trying to solve it.” He said the company has quietly started to work on ways of picking up more information that “could be more useful” in addressing questions like these. “One thing that is important is a sense of trust,” he noted as one of the challenges that needs to be tackled online. “I think we are very lucky to be one of the few companies out there that can say that we would use this information responsibly, in the interests of jobseeker.”

May
02
2019
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Takeaways from F8 and Facebook’s next phase

Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch’s Josh Constine and Frederic Lardinois discuss major announcements that came out of Facebook’s F8 conference and dig into how Facebook is trying to redefine itself for the future.

Though touted as a developer-focused conference, Facebook spent much of F8 discussing privacy upgrades, how the company is improving its social impact, and a series of new initiatives on the consumer and enterprise side. Josh and Frederic discuss which announcements seem to make the most strategic sense, and which may create attractive (or unattractive) opportunities for new startups and investment.

“This F8 was aspirational for Facebook. Instead of being about what Facebook is, and accelerating the growth of it, this F8 was about Facebook, and what Facebook wants to be in the future.

That’s not the newsfeed, that’s not pages, that’s not profiles. That’s marketplace, that’s Watch, that’s Groups. With that change, Facebook is finally going to start to decouple itself from the products that have dragged down its brand over the last few years through a series of nonstop scandals.”

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Josh and Frederic dive deeper into Facebook’s plans around its redesign, Messenger, Dating, Marketplace, WhatsApp, VR, smart home hardware and more. The two also dig into the biggest news, or lack thereof, on the developer side, including Facebook’s Ax and BoTorch initiatives.

For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

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