Jan
17
2020
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DigitalOcean is laying off staff, sources say 30-50 affected

After appointing a new CEO and CFO last summer, cloud infrastructure provider DigitalOcean is embarking on a wider reorganisation: the startup has announced a round of layoffs, with potentially between 30 and 50 people affected.

DigitalOcean has confirmed the news with the following statement:

“DigitalOcean recently announced a restructuring to better align its teams to its go-forward growth strategy. As part of this restructuring, some roles were, unfortunately, eliminated. DigitalOcean continues to be a high-growth business with $275M in [annual recurring revenues] and more than 500,000 customers globally. Under this new organizational structure, we are positioned to accelerate profitable growth by continuing to serve developers and entrepreneurs around the world.”

Before the confirmation was sent to us this morning, a number of footprints began to emerge last night, when the layoffs first hit, with people on Twitter talking about it, some announcing that they are looking for new opportunities and some offering help to those impacted. Inbound tips that we received estimate the cuts at between 30 and 50 people. With around 500 employees (an estimate on PitchBook), that would work out to up to 10% of staff affected.

It’s not clear what is going on here — we’ll update as and when we hear more — but when Yancey Spruill and Bill Sorenson were respectively appointed CEO and CFO in July 2019 (Spruill replacing someone who was only in the role for a year), the incoming CEO put out a short statement that, in hindsight, hinted at a refocus of the business in the near future:

“My aspiration is for us to continue to provide everything you love about DO now, but to also enhance our offerings in a way that is meaningful, strategic and most helpful for you over time.”

The company provides a range of cloud infrastructure services to developers, including scalable compute services (“Droplets” in DigitalOcean terminology), managed Kubernetes clusters, object storage, managed database services, Cloud Firewalls, Load Balancers and more, with 12 data centers globally. It says it works with more than 1 million developers across 195 countries. It has also been expanding the services that it offers to developers, including more enhancements in its managed database services, and a free hosting option for continuous code testing in partnership with GitLab.

All the same, as my colleague Frederic pointed out when DigitalOcean appointed its latest CEO, while developers have generally been happy with the company, it isn’t as hyped as it once was, and is a smallish player nowadays.

And in an area of business where economies of scale are essential for making good margins on a business, it competes against some of the biggest leviathans in tech: Google (and its Google Cloud Platform), Amazon (which as AWS) and Microsoft (with Azure). That could mean that DigitalOcean is either trimming down as it talks to investors for a new round; or to better conserve cash as it sizes up how best to compete against these bigger, deep-pocketed players; or perhaps to start thinking about another kind of exit.

In that context, it’s notable that the company not only appointed a new CFO last summer, but also a CEO with prior CFO experience. It’s been a while since DigitalOcean has raised capital. According to PitchBook data, DigitalOcean last raised money in 2017, an undisclosed amount from Mighty Capital, Glean Capital, Viaduct Ventures, Black River Ventures, Hanaco Venture Capital, Torch Capital and EG Capital Advisors. Before that, it took out $130 million in debt, in 2016. Altogether it has raised $198 million, and its last valuation was from a round in 2015, $683 million.

It’s been an active week for layoffs among tech startups. Mozilla laid off 70 employees this week; and the weed delivery platform Eaze is also gearing up for more cuts amid an emergency push for funding.

We’ll update this post as we learn more. Best wishes to those affected by the news.

Jan
13
2020
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Atrium lays off lawyers, explains pivot to legal tech

Seventy-five-million-dollar-funded legal services startup Atrium doesn’t want to be the next company to implode as the tech industry tightens its belt and businesses chase margins instead of growth via unsustainable economics. That’s why Atrium is laying off most of its in-house lawyers.

Now, Atrium will focus on its software for startups navigating fundraising, hiring and collaborating with lawyers. Atrium plans to ramp up its startup advising services. And it’s also doubling down on its year-old network of professional service providers that help clients navigate day-to-day legal work. Atrium’s laid-off attorneys will be offered spots as preferred providers in that network if they start their own firm or join another.

“It’s a natural evolution for us to create a sustainable model,” Atrium co-founder and CEO Justin Kan tells TechCrunch. “We’ve made the tough decision to restructure the company to accommodate growth into new business services through our existing professional services network,” Kan wrote on Atrium’s blog. He wouldn’t give exact figures, but confirmed that more than 10 but less than 50 staffers are impacted by the change, with Atrium having a headcount of 150 as of June.

The change could make Atrium more efficient by keeping fewer expensive lawyers on staff. However, it could weaken its $500 per month Atrium membership that included some services from its in-house lawyers that might be more complicated for clients to get through its professional network. Atrium will also now have to prove the its client-lawyer collaboration software can survive in the market with firms paying for it rather than it being bundled with its in-house lawyers’ services.

“We’re making these changes to move Atrium to a sustainable model that provides high-quality services to our clients. We’re doing it proactively because we see the writing on the wall that it’s important to have a sustainable business,” Kan says. “That’s what we’re doing now. We don’t anticipate any disruption of services to clients. We’re still here.”

Justin Kan (Atrium) at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017

Founded in 2017, Atrium promised to merge software with human lawyers to provide quicker and cheaper legal services. Its technology can help automatically generate fundraising contracts, hiring offers and cap tables for startups while using machine learning to recommend procedures and clauses based on anonymized data from its clients. It also serves like a Dropbox for legal, organizing all of a startup’s documents to ensure everything’s properly signed and teams are working off the latest versions without digging through email.

The $500 per month Atrium membership offered this technology plus limited access to an in-house startup lawyer for consultation, plus access to guide books and events. Clients could pay extra if they needed special help such as with finalizing an acquisition deal, or access to its Fundraising Concierge service for aid with developing a pitch and lining up investor meetings.

Kan tells me Atrium still has some in-house lawyers on staff, which will help it honor all its existing membership contracts and power its new emphasis on advising services. He wouldn’t say if Atrium is paid any equity for advising, or just cash. The membership plan may change for future clients, so lawyer services are provided through its professional network instead.

“What we noticed was that Atrium has done a really good job of building a brand with startups. Often what they wanted from attorneys was…advice on ‘how to set my company up,’ ‘how to set my sales and marketing team up,’ ‘how to get great terms in my fundraising process,’ ” so Atrium is pursuing advising, Kan tells me. “As we sat down to look at what’s working and what’s not working, our focus has been to help founders with their super-hero story, connect them with the right providers and advisors, and then helping quarterback everything you need with our in-house specialists.”

LawSites first reported Saturday that Atrium was laying off in-house lawyers. A source tells TechCrunch that Atrium’s lawyers only found out a week ago about the changes, and they’ve been trying to pitch Atrium clients on working with them when they leave. One Atrium client said they weren’t surprised by the changes because they got so much legal advice for just $500 per month, which they suspected meant Atrium was losing money on the lawyers’ time as it was so much less expensive than competitors. They also said these cheap legal services rather than the software platform were the main draw of Atrium, and they’re unsure if the tech on its own is valuable enough.

One concern is Atrium might not learn as quickly about which services to translate into software if it doesn’t have as many lawyers in-house. But Kan believes third-party lawyers might be more clear and direct about what they need from legal technology. “I feel like having a true market for the software you’re building is better than having an internal market,” he says. “We get feedback from the outside firms we work with. I think in some ways that’s the most valuable feedback. I think there’s a lot of false signals that can happen when you’re the both the employer and the supplier.”

It was critical for Atrium to correct course before getting any bigger, given the fundraising problems hitting late-stage startups with poor economics in the wake of the WeWork debacle and SoftBank’s troubles. Atrium had raised a $10.5 million Series A in 2017 led by General Catalyst alongside Kleiner, Founders Fund, Initialized and Kindred Ventures. Then in September 2018, it scored a huge $65 million Series B led by Andreessen Horowitz.

Raising even bigger rounds might have been impossible if Atrium was offering consultations with lawyers at far below market rate. Now it might be in a better position to attract funding. But the question is whether clients will stick with Atrium if they get less access to a lawyer for the same price, and whether the collaboration platform is useful enough for outside law firms to pay for.

Kan had gone through tough pivots in the past. He had strapped a camera to his head to create content for his live-streaming startup Justin.tv, but wisely recentered on the 3% of users letting people watch them play video games. Justin.tv became Twitch and eventually sold to Amazon for $970 million. His on-demand personal assistant startup Exec had to switch to just cleaning in 2013 before shutting down due to rotten economics.

Rather than deny the inevitable and wait until the last minute, with Atrium Kan tried to make the hard decision early.

Dec
11
2019
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Refocusing on relocation, Jobbatical launches new offices in Spain and Germany

I’ve been following Estonia-headquartered Jobbatical and its founder, Karoli Hindriks, for years. Part of the vanguard of startups working on infrastructure for digital nomads, the startup has been building the base platform to help global job seekers hire and fire their governments.

As Jobbatical has worked with more and more companies and governments though, it has learned that the friction here is not just finding employment globally for talented individuals, but rather the actual process of applying for immigration and work permits, ranging from forms that must be filed in person to the hours of labor it can take to fill out an application.

“What started to happen was that the relocation part… became something that the clients came back to us and said, ‘Can you do relocation for everyone and not just those coming through Jobbatical?’” Hindriks explained.

Last year, Jobbatical began to refocus its platform on powering relocation for workers at companies, and now its new strategy is coming into focus with the launch of the company’s new offices in Spain and Germany, announced on stage earlier today at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

In the process, the company hopes to not just make the immigration process easier — but also much faster.

“How much time are government officials doing dummy work?” Hindriks asked. “30-40% of the consulate’s time is spent on answering the question of ‘what is the status of my visa?’”

The problem is that feedback in the immigration system is not available to all the players involved. Immigration process agents at companies who handle their workers’ visas have to constantly search around to make sure they are moving each of their cases forward. Managers have no idea when their workers may move, while employees are kept in the dark about their current status, inducing anxiety.

Hindriks’ vision is to help each of these three sides use a “TurboTax for immigration” to streamline the process. Jobbatical now can handle immigration applications in Estonia, Germany, and Spain and hopes to add Finland early next year.

But the more ambitious vision is ultimately to help governments drive their processes faster. Similar to how, say, the U.S. tax agency the Internal Revenue Service offers eFiling, Hindriks sees a future where Jobbatical can help facilitate immigration filings and massively speed up the efficiency of governments around these processes by allowing workers to directly submit applications to the government. She is working with two countries today to create exactly these sorts of digital submission systems.

It’s a space that has heated up in recent years as immigration continues to flow across the world. Boundless, for instance, helps individuals apply for U.S. green cards. Jobbatical is focused on the B2B market, focused on companies with global workforces.

Despite the deep debate in many countries over immigration, the reality is that every country has skills deficits that can be helped with smart and efficient immigration. Jobbatical is one company that may make the system more fair and relaxing for stressed workers looking to build their international careers.

Oct
02
2019
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A startup factory? $1.2B-exit team launches $65M super{set}

Think Jack Dorsey’s jobs are tough? Well, Tom Chavez is running six startups. He thinks building businesses can be boiled down to science, so today he’s unveiling his laboratory for founding, funding and operating companies. He and his team have already proven they can do it themselves after selling their startups Rapt to Microsoft and Krux to Salesforce for a combined $1.2 billion. Now they’ve raised a $65 million fund for “super{set}”, an enterprise startup studio with a half-dozen companies currently in motion.

The idea is that {super}set either conceptualizes a company or brings in founders whose dream they can make a reality. The studio provides early funding and expertise while the startup works from their shared space in San Francisco, plus future ones in New York and Boston. The secret sauce is the “super{set} Code,” an execution playbook plus technological tools and building blocks that guide the strategy and eliminate redundant work. “Our belief is that we can make the companies 10x faster and increase capital efficiency by 5X,” says Chavez of his partnership with {super}set co-founders Vivek Vaidya, who acts as CTO, and Jae Lim who manages the fund.

Superset Team

The {super}set team (from left): Tom Chavez, Jae Lim, Jen Elena and Vivek Vaidya

Perhaps the question isn’t whether the portfolio startups can scale, but if the humans behind them can without breaking. It’s stressful running a single company, let alone six. Even with the order of operations nailed down, each encounters unique challenges and no plan is one-size-fits-all. But after delivering 17.5X returns to their past investors, Chavez et al. have proven their power to repeatedly recognize what enterprises need and build admittedly boring but bountiful products in customer data management, and advertising yield.

The studio’s playbooks cover business plan formation, pitch strategies, go to market, revenue, machine learning, management principles, HR processes, sales methods, pipeline measurement, product sequencing, finance, legal and more. There’s also shared engineering code it provides, so each startup doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. “I don’t think you can systemize it but I do think you can accelerate and de-risk the path,” Chavez explains.

Superset Code 1

{super}set Code

Today, the first {super}set company is coming out of stealth. Eskalera helps enterprises retain top talent by tracking diversity and inclusion stats of employees to engage them with career growth and community programs. Chavez is the CEO, but plans to install a new one shortly so he can focus more time on founding more startups. There are 55 employees across the first six companies, with two already generating revenue and most ready to emerge in the next nine months.

The funding for Eskalera and other {super}set companies comes with unique terms. Because Chavez and the team aren’t just board members you hear from once a quarter but “shoulder to shoulder with the entrepreneurs” as he repeats several times in our interview, the startups pay more equity for the cash.

The hope is having seasoned leadership aboard is worth it. “We’re product people first and foremost,” Chavez tells me. “What are you going to build? Who’s going to buy it? Why? What’s the technical moat? We’re not people doing jazz hands.” The {super}set team has plenty of skin in the game, though, given Chavez himself put in a big chunk of the $65 million, and the fund sticks to a standard management fee.

Eskalera

Eskalera

To supercharge the companies, {super}set brings in expert staffers in artificial intelligence, data science and more, who then align with the most relevant companies in the portfolio. They get equity grants to incentivize them to work hard on the startups’ behalf. “The worry I have about these larger funds is that they have an incentive disconnect where they work for the fees” Chavez says. His fund hopes to win through follow-on funding of its winners.

Tom Chavez Superset

{super}set co-founder Tom Chavez

If portfolio companies hit hard times, Chavez says {super}set will stick with them. “My first company had multiple layoffs and a major pivot. We had an enterperenur that walked away. They lost conviction, but we brought that company to an $180 million exit after people said there was no effing way and that felt really good,” Chavez says of staying the course. “The good entrepreneurs have that demonic energy.” But if everyone involved agrees a project isn’t working, they’ll shutter it. “It comes back to opportunity cost of people’s time.”

Chavez has respect for studios taking different approaches, like Atomic in consumer startups, Science in e-commerce and Pioneer Square Labs, which maintains a larger fund staff. “What excites me is moving entrepreneurship a step forward. Why couldn’t we franchise this in other cities?” He hopes {super}set can attract top talent that “just want to work on cool shit” rather than getting sucked into a single company.

Can {super}set keep all the plates spinning and really lower their risk? “If we’re wrong there will be a giant orange plume streak across the sky. The early returns are promising but we have to prove it,” Chavez says. But after accruing plenty of wealth for himself, he says the thrill that keeps him in the startup game is seeing life-changing outcomes for his teams. “I have spreadsheets showing the wealth generated by employees of companies I’ve built and nothing makes me happier than seeing them pay for tuitions, property, or retiring.”

Aug
27
2019
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How to move from VP of Sales to CRO with leading exec recruiter David Ives

It wasn’t so long ago that sales meant just showing up with a deck and a smile. These days, it seems that sales leaders almost need a PhD in statistics just to get through the typical day managing a sales funnel. From SQLs and MQLs to NDRR and managing overall retention, the roles of VP of Sales and Chief Revenue Officers (CROs) are evolving rapidly in tandem with the best practices of SaaS startups.

Few people know this world better than David Ives, who is a partner at True Search, one of the top executive recruiting firms in the country where he co-leads the go-to-market practice. David has led countless CRO and VP of Sales searches, and in the process, has learned not just what CEOs and boards are looking for, but also the kinds of skills that candidates need to shine in these important career inflection points.

In our conversation, we talk about the evolving nature of the sales org, how leaders can best position themselves for future advancement, what companies are looking for today in new executive sales hires, and compensation changes in the industry.

This interview has been extensively edited and condensed for clarity

Introduction and background

Danny: Why don’t we start with your background — how did you get into recruiting?

David: So my background was definitely unique. I started as an enterprise sales rep of the truest form selling subscription-based data analytics and systems into capital markets, so into investment banks, trading desks, hedge funds, asset managers, portfolio managers — you name it. Then I drifted purposely, intentionally away from capital markets and did about four different growth technology companies. I landed at NewsCred, and it was a neat time — it was really the birth of the startup landscape with the whole Flatiron district in New York.

Later, I was looking for my next CRO opportunity and was networking with some of the investor folks that I knew. I had a friend of mine who was a talent partner at a private equity firm who said to me, “I’ve always thought that you’d be really good at this and we’re starting to push for our search firms to have operators.” I went and met with Brad and Joe [founders of True], and three weeks later I was in the seat.

Danny: That’s great. And what do you do at True?

David: Well, we moved to a specialization model right when I got here. I don’t know if I was the test case or not, but I didn’t know search, so my skillset was that I knew the role. I run our go-to-market practice with another partner, and we have probably 40, 45 people in that group. We focus exclusively on sales, marketing, customer success, we’ll do biz dev. I probably skew more to CRO than anything else, but I do CMO and VP of marketing as well, and then I do a handful of business development, chief client officers, and VPs of customer success a year. That’s my mix basically.

What is the skillset of a modern CRO?

Danny: You’ve been in the sales leadership space for a long time, and you’ve been in the recruiting space for a couple of years. What are some of the changes that you’re seeing today in terms of candidates, skills, and experiences?

David: I think a big change has been from what I call a backend pipeline manager to what I would call a full funnel manager.

Aug
08
2019
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‘The Operators’: Experts from Airbnb and Carta on building and managing your company’s customer support

Welcome to this transcribed edition of The Operators. TechCrunch is beginning to publish podcasts from industry experts, with transcriptions available for Extra Crunch members so you can read the conversation wherever you are.

The Operators features insiders from companies like Airbnb, Brex, Docsend, Facebook, Google, Lyft, Carta, Slack, Uber, and WeWork sharing their stories and tips on how to break into fields like marketing and product management. They also share best practices for entrepreneurs on how to hire and manage experts from domains outside their own.

This week’s edition features Airbnb’s Global Product Director of Customer and Community Support Platform Products, Andy Yasutake, and Carta’s Head of Enterprise Relationship Management, Jared Thomas.

Airbnb, one of the most valuable private tech companies in the world, has millions of hosts who trust strangers (guests) to come into their homes and hundreds of millions of guests who trust strangers (hosts) to provide a roof over their head. Carta, a $1 Billion+ company formerly known as eShares, is the leading provider of cap table management and valuation software, with thousands of customers and almost a million individual shareholders as users. Customers and users entrust Carta to manage their investments, a very serious responsibility requiring trust and security.

In this episode, Andy and Jared share with Neil how companies like Airbnb, Carta, and LinkedIn think about customer service, how to get into and succeed in the field and tech generally, and how founders should think about hiring and managing the customer support. With their experiences at two of tech’s trusted companies, Airbnb and Carta, this episode is packed with broad perspectives and deep insights.

image1 2

Neil Devani and Tim Hsia created The Operators after seeing and hearing too many heady, philosophical podcasts about the future of tech, and not enough attention on the practical day-to-day work that makes it all happen.

Tim is the CEO & Founder of Media Mobilize, a media company and ad network, and a Venture Partner at Digital Garage. Tim is an early-stage investor in Workflow (acquired by Apple), Lime, FabFitFun, Oh My Green, Morning Brew, Girls Night In, The Hustle, Bright Cellars, and others.

Neil is an early-stage investor based in San Francisco with a focus on companies building stuff people need, solutions to very hard problems. Companies he’s invested in include Andela, Clearbit, Kudi, Recursion Pharmaceuticals, Solugen, and Vicarious Surgical.

If you’re interested in starting or accelerating your marketing career, or how to hire and manage this function, you can’t miss this episode!

The show:

The Operators brings experts with experience at companies like Airbnb, Brex, Docsend, Facebook, Google, Lyft, Carta, Slack, Uber, WeWork, etc. to share insider tips on how to break into fields like marketing and product management. They also share best practices for entrepreneurs on how to hire and manage experts from domains outside their own.

In this episode:

In Episode 5, we’re talking about customer service. Neil interviews Andy Yasutake, Airbnb’s Global Product Director of Customer and Community Support Platform Products, and Jared Thomas, Carta’s Head of Enterprise Relationship Management.


Neil Devani: Hello and welcome to the Operators, where we talk to entrepreneurs and executives from leading technology companies like Google, Facebook, Airbnb, and Carta about how to break into a new field, how to build a successful career, and how to hire and manage talent beyond your own expertise. We skip over the lofty prognostications from venture capitalists and storytime with founders to dig into the nuts and bolts of how it all works here from the people doing the real day to day work, the people who make it all happen, the people who know what it really takes. The Operators.

Today we are talking to two experts in customer service, one with hundreds of millions of individual paying customers and the other being the industry standard for managing equity investments. I’m your host, Neil Devani, and we’re coming to you today from Digital Garage in downtown San Francisco.

Joining me is Jared Thomas, head of Enterprise Relationship Management at Carta, a $1 billion-plus company after a recent round of financing led by Andreessen Horowitz. Carta, formerly known as eShares, is the leading provider of cap table management and valuation software with thousands of customers and almost a million individual shareholders as users. Customers and users trust Carta to manage their investments, a very serious responsibility requiring trust and security.

Also joining us is Andy Yasutake, the Global Product Director of Customer and Community Support Platform Products at Airbnb, one of the most valuable private tech startups today. Airbnb has millions of hosts who are trusting strangers to come into their homes and hundreds of millions of guests who are trusting someone to provide a roof over their head. The number of cases and types of cases that Andy and his team have to think about and manage boggle the mind. Jared and Andy, thank you for joining us.

Andy Yasutake: Thank you for having us.

Jared Thomas: Thank you so much.

Devani: To start, Andy, can you share your background and how you got to where you are today?

Yasutake: Sure. I’m originally from southern California. I was born and raised in LA. I went to USC for undergrad, University of Southern California, and I actually studied psychology and information systems.

Late-90s, the dot com was going on, I’d always been kind of interested in tech, went into management consulting at interstate consulting that became Accenture, and was in consulting for over 10 years and always worked on large systems of implementation of technology projects around customers. So customer service, sales transformation, anything around CRM, as kind of a foundation, but it was always very technical, but really loved the psychology part of it, the people side.

And so I was always on multiple consulting projects and one of the consulting projects with actually here in the Bay Area. I eventually moved up here 10 years ago and joined eBay, and at eBay I was the director of product for the customer services organization as well. And was there for five years.

I left for Linkedin, so another rocket ship that was growing and was the senior director of technology solutions and operations where I had all the kind of business enabling functions as well as the technology, and now have been at Airbnb for about four months. So I’m back to kind of my, my biggest passion around products and in the customer support and community experience and customer service world.

Jul
08
2019
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Grasshopper’s Judith Erwin leaps into innovation banking

In the years following the financial crisis, de novo bank activity in the US slowed to a trickle. But as memories fade, the economy expands and the potential of tech-powered financial services marches forward, entrepreneurs have once again been asking the question, “Should I start a bank?”

And by bank, I’m not referring to a neobank, which sits on top of a bank, or a fintech startup that offers an interesting banking-like service of one kind or another. I mean a bank bank.

One of those entrepreneurs is Judith Erwin, a well-known business banking executive who was part of the founding team at Square 1 Bank, which was bought in 2015. Fast forward a few years and Erwin is back, this time as CEO of the cleverly named Grasshopper Bank in New York.

With over $130 million in capital raised from investors including Patriot Financial and T. Rowe Price Associates, Grasshopper has a notable amount of heft for a banking newbie. But as Erwin and her team seek to build share in the innovation banking market, she knows that she’ll need the capital as she navigates a hotly contested niche that has benefited from a robust start-up and venture capital environment.

Gregg Schoenberg: Good to see you, Judith. To jump right in, in my opinion, you were a key part of one of the most successful de novo banks in quite some time. You were responsible for VC relationships there, right?

…My background is one where people give me broken things, I fix them and give them back.

Judith Erwin: The VC relationships and the products and services managing the balance sheet around deposits. Those were my two primary roles, but my background is one where people give me broken things, I fix them and give them back.

Schoenberg: Square 1 was purchased for about 22 times earnings and 260% of tangible book, correct?

Erwin: Sounds accurate.

Schoenberg: Plus, the bank had a phenomenal earnings trajectory. Meanwhile, PacWest, which acquired you, was a “perfectly nice bank.” Would that be a fair characterization?

Erwin: Yes.

Schoenberg: Is part of the motivation to start Grasshopper to continue on a journey that maybe ended a little bit prematurely last time?

Erwin: That’s a great insight, and I did feel like we had sold too soon. It was a great deal for the investors — which included me — and so I understood it. But absolutely, a lot of what we’re working to do here are things I had hoped to do at Square 1.

Image via Getty Images / Classen Rafael / EyeEm

Schoenberg: You’re obviously aware of the 800-pound gorilla in the room in the form of Silicon Valley Bank . You’ve also got the megabanks that play in the segment, as well as Signature Bank, First Republic, Bridge Bank and others.

Jul
01
2019
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Tara.ai, which uses machine learning to spec out and manage engineering projects, nabs $10M

Artificial intelligence has become an increasingly important component of how a lot of technology works; now it’s also being applied to how technologists themselves work. Today, one of the startups building such a tool has raised some capital, Tara.ai, a platform that uses machine learning to help an organization get engineering projects done — from identifying and predicting the work that will need to be tackled, to sourcing talent to execute that, and then monitoring the project of that project — has raised a Series A of $10 million to continue building out its platform.

The funding for the company cofounded by Iba Masood (she is the CEO) and Syed Ahmed comes from an interesting group of investors that point to Tara’s origins, as well as how it sees its product developing over time.

The round was led by Aspect Ventures (the female-led firm that puts a notable but not exclusive emphasis on female-founded startups) with participation also from Slack, by way of its Slack Fund. Previous investors Y Combinator and Moment Ventures also participated in the round. (Y Combinator provides an avenue to companies from its cohorts to help them source their Series A rounds, and Tara.ai went through this process.)

Tara.ai was originally founded as Gradberry out of Y Combinator, with its initial focus on using an AI platform for organizations to evaluate and help source engineering talent: Tara.ai was originally that name of its AI engine.

(The origin of how Masood and Ahmed identified this problem was through their own direct experience: both were grads (she in finance, he in engineering) from the American University of Sharjah in the U.A.E. that had problems getting hired because no one had ever heard of their university. Even so, they had won an MIT-affiliated startup competition in Morocco and relocated to Boston. The idea with Gradberry was to cut through the big names and focus just on what people could do.)

Masood and Syed (who eventually got married) eventually realised that using that engine to evaluate the wider challenges of executing engineering projects came as a natural progression once the team started digging into the challenges and identifying what actually needed to be solved.

A study that McKinsey (where Masood once worked) conducted across some 5,000 projects found that $66 billion dollars were identified as “lost” due to projects running past the expected completion time, lack of adequate talent and just overall poor planning.

“We realised that recruiting was actually the final decision you make, not the first, and we wanted to be involved earlier in the decision-making process,” Masood said in an interview. “We saw a much bigger opportunity looking not at the people, but the whole project.”

In action, that means that Tara.ai is used not just to scope out the nature of the problem that needed to be solved, or the goal that an organization wanted to achieve; it is also used to suggest which frameworks will need to be used to execute on that goal, and then suggest a timeline to follow.

Then, it starts to evaluate a company’s own staff expertise, along with that from other recruiting platforms, to figure out which people to source from within the company. Eventually, that will also be complemented with sourcing information from outside the organization — either contractors or new hires.

Masood noted that a large proportion of users in the tech world today use Jira and platforms like it to manage projects. While there are some tools in Jira to help plan out projects better, Tara is proposing its platform as a kind of virtual project manager, or an assistant to an existing project manager, to conceive of the whole project, not just help with the admin of getting it done.

Notably, right now she says that some 75% of Tara.ai’s users — customers include Cisco, Orange Silicon Valley and Mower Digital — are “not technical,” meaning they themselves do not ship or use code. “This helps them understand what could be considered and the dependencies that can be expected out of a project,” she notes.

Lauren Kolodny, the partner at Aspect who led the investment, said that one of the things that stood out for her, in fact, with Tara.ai, was precisely how it could be applied exactly in those kinds of scenarios.

Today, tech is such a fundamental part of how a lot of businesses operate, but that doesn’t mean that every business is natively a technology one (think here of food and beverage companies as an example, or government agencies). In those cases, these companies would have traditionally had to turn to outside consultants to identify opportunities, and then build and potentially long-term operate whatever the solutions become. Now there is an opportunity to rethink how technology is used in these kinds of organizations.

“Projects have been hacked together from multiple systems, not really built in combination,” Kolodny said of how much development happens at these traditional businesses. “We are really excited about the machine learning scoping and mapping of internal and external talent, which is looking to be particularly important as traditional enterprises are required to get level with newer businesses, and the amount of talent they need to execute on these projects becomes challenging.”

Tara.ai’s next steps will involve essentially taking the building blocks of what you can think of as a very powerful talent and engineering project search engine, and making it more powerful. That will include integrating databases of external consultants and figuring out how best to have these in tandem with internal teams while keeping them working well together. And soon to come also will be bug prediction: how to identify these before they arise in a project. The company is releasing an updated AI engine to coincide with the funding.

Tara AI launch

The Slack investment is also a notable nod to what direction Tara.ai will take. Masood said that Slack was one of three “big tech” companies interested in investing in this round, and she and Syed chose Slack because from what they could see of its existing and target customers, many were already using it and some have already started requesting closer collaboration so that events in one could come up as updates in the other.

“Our largest customers are heavy Slack users and they are already having conversations in Slack related to projects in Tara.ai,” she said. “We are tackling the scoping element and now seeing how to link up even command line interfaces between the two.”

She noted that this does not rule out closer integrations with communications and other platforms that people use on a daily basis to get their work done: the idea is to become a tool to work better overall.

Jun
20
2019
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Transitioning from engineering to product with Adobe’s Anjul Bhambhri

Many roles inside of startups and tech companies are clear: marketers market, salespeople sell, engineers engineer. Then there are the roles like “product manager” that seem obvious on the surface (product managers “product,” right?) but in reality are very fuzzy roles that can be highly variable across different companies.

A few weeks ago, TechCrunch editor Jordan Crook interviewed J Crowley, who is head of product for Airbnb Lux and was formerly at Foursquare. Crowley came up in the consumer product world without a technical background, and he spoke to overcoming some of his own insecurities to become a leading product thinker in the Valley.

This week, I wanted to offer another perspective on product from Anjul Bhambhri, who is Vice President, Platform Engineering at Adobe, where she and her team conceived Adobe’s new Experience Platform for real-time customer experience management.

Across Bhambhri’s more than two decade career straddling the line between software engineering and product, she has worked on deeply technical, enterprise projects at Sybase and Informix as startups, big data infrastructure at IBM, and now at Adobe.

We discuss the challenges and opportunities of moving from an engineering career into product (and management more generally) as well as the ways she thinks about building compelling products that are sold B2B.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity

Scaling out product after product

Danny Crichton: Anjul, thanks for joining us. One of the major initiatives that we’ve been doing as part of Extra Crunch is to interview experts in their fields, talking about how they go about doing their job, and how you think about the decisions that come up on a day-to-day basis in the work that you do. So to start, I would love to talk a little about your background.

Anjul Bhambhri: Very nice to meet you, and happy to share my journey, Danny. I have been in the software industry now for really almost 30 years. I’m an electrical engineer, and basically, my entire career has been in data, databases, and big data analytics.

May
29
2019
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How we scaled our startup by being remote first

Startups are often associated with the benefits and toys provided in their offices. Foosball tables! Free food! Dog friendly! But what if the future of startups was less about physical office space and more about remote-first work environments? What if, in fact, the most compelling aspect of a startup work environment is that the employees don’t have to go to one?

A remote-first company model has been Seeq’s strategy since our founding in 2013. We have raised $35 million and grown to more than 100 employees around the globe. Remote-first is clearly working for us and may be the best model for other software companies as well.

So, who is Seeq and what’s been the key to making the remote-first model work for us?  And why did we do it in the first place?

Seeq is a remote-first startup – i.e. it was founded with the intention of not having a physical headquarters or offices, and still operates that way – that is developing an advanced analytics application that enables process engineers and subject matter experts in oil & gas, pharmaceuticals, utilities, and other process manufacturing industries to investigate and publish insights from the massive amounts of sensor data they generate and store.

To succeed, we needed to build a team quickly with two skill sets: 1) software development expertise, including machine learning, AI, data visualization, open source, agile development processes, cloud, etc. and 2) deep domain expertise in the industries we target.

Which means there is no one location where we can hire all the employees we need: Silicon Valley for software, Houston for oil & gas, New Jersey for fine chemicals, Seattle for cloud expertise, water utilities across the country, and so forth. But being remote-first has made recruiting and hiring these high-demand roles easier much easier than if we were collocated.

Image via Seeq Corporation

Job postings on remote-specific web sites like FlexJobs, Remote.co and Remote OK typically draw hundreds of applicants in a matter of days. This enables Seeq to hire great employees who might not call Seattle, Houston or Silicon Valley home – and is particularly attractive to employees with location-dependent spouses or employees who simply want to work where they want to live.

But a remote-first strategy and hiring quality employees for the skills you need is not enough: succeeding as a remote-first company requires a plan and execution around the “3 C’s of remote-first”.

The three requirements to remote-first success are the three C’s: communication, commitment and culture.

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