Apr
14
2019
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Diving into Google Cloud Next and the future of the cloud ecosystem

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 Frederic Lardinois and Ron Miller offered up their analysis on the major announcements that came out of Google’s Cloud Next conference this past week, as well as their opinions on the outlook for the company going forward.

Google Cloud announced a series of products, packages and services that it believes will improve the company’s competitive position and differentiate itself from AWS and other peers. Frederic and Ron discuss all of Google’s most promising announcements, including its product for managing hybrid clouds, its new end-to-end AI platform, as well as the company’s heightened effort to improve customer service, communication, and ease-of-use.

“They have all of these AI and machine learning technologies, they have serverless technologies, they have containerization technologies — they have this whole range of technologies.

But it’s very difficult for the average company to take these technologies and know what to do with them, or to have the staff and the expertise to be able to make good use of them. So, the more they do things like this where they package them into products and make them much more accessible to the enterprise at large, the more successful that’s likely going to be because people can see how they can use these.

…Google does have thousands of engineers, and they have very smart people, but not every company does, and that’s the whole idea of the cloud. The cloud is supposed to take this stuff, put it together in such a way that you don’t have to be Google, or you don’t have to be Facebook, you don’t have to be Amazon, and you can take the same technology and put it to use in your company”

Image via Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Frederic and Ron dive deeper into how the new offerings may impact Google’s market share in the cloud ecosystem and which verticals represent the best opportunity for Google to win. The two also dig into the future of open source in cloud and how they see customer use cases for cloud infrastructure evolving.

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. 

Apr
05
2019
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Peter Kraus dishes on the market

During my recent conversation with Peter Kraus, which was supposed to be focused on Aperture and its launch of the Aperture New World Opportunities Fund, I couldn’t help veering off into tangents about the market in general. Below is Kraus’ take on the availability of alpha generation, the Fed, inflation versus Amazon, housing, the cross-ownership of U.S. equities by a few huge funds and high-frequency trading.

Gregg Schoenberg: Will alpha be more available over the next five years than it has been over the last five?

To think that at some point equities won’t become more volatile and decline 20% to 30%… I think it’s crazy.

Peter Kraus: Do I think it’s more available in the next five years than it was in the last five years? No. Do I think people will pay more attention to it? Yes, because when markets are up to 30 percent, if you get another five, it doesn’t matter. When markets are down 30 percent and I save you five by being 25 percent down, you care.

GS: Is the Fed’s next move up or down?

PK: I think the Fed does zero, nothing. In terms of its next interest rate move, in my judgment, there’s a higher probability that it’s down versus up.

Apr
03
2019
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Torch takes $10M to teach empathy to executives

When everyone always tells you “yes,” you can become a monster. Leaders especially need honest feedback to grow. “If you look at rich people like Donald Trump and you neglect them, you get more Donald Trumps,” says Torch co-founder and CEO Cameron Yarbrough about our gruff president. His app wants to make executive coaching (a polite word for therapy) part of even the busiest executive’s schedule. Torch conducts a 360-degree interview with a client and their employees to assess weaknesses, lays out improvement goals and provides one-on-one video chat sessions with trained counselors.

“Essentially we’re trying to help that person develop the capacity to be a more loving human being in the workplace,” Yarbrough explains. That’s crucial in the age of “hustle porn,” where everyone tries to pretend they’re working all the time and constantly “crushing it.” That can leave leaders facing challenges feeling alone and unworthy. Torch wants to provide a private place to reach out for a helping hand or shoulder to cry on.

Now Torch is ready to lead the way to better management for more companies, as it’s just raised a  $10 million Series A round led by Norwest Ventures, along with Initialized Capital, Y Combinator and West Ventures. It already has 100 clients, including Reddit and Atrium, but the new cash will fuel its go-to market strategy. Rather than trying to democratize access to coaching, Torch is doubling-down on teaching founders, C-suites and other senior executives how to care… or not care too much.

“I came out of a tough family myself and I had to do a ton of therapy and a ton of meditation to emerge and be an effective leader myself,” Yarbrough recalls. “Philosophically, I care about personal growth. It’s just true all the way down to birth for me. What I’m selling is authentic to who I am.”

Torch’s co-founders met when they were in grad school for counseling psychology degrees, practicing group therapy sessions together. Yarbrough went on to practice clinically and start Well Clinic in the Bay Area, while Keegan Walden got his PhD. Yarbrough worked with married couples to resolve troubles, and “the next thing I know I was working with high-profile startup founders, who like anybody have their fair share of conflicts.”

Torch co-founders (from left): Cameron Yarbrough and Keegan Walden

Coaching romantic partners to be upfront about expectations and kind during arguments translated seamlessly to keep co-founders from buckling under stress. As Yarbrough explains, “I was noticing that they were consistently having problems with five different things:

1. Communication – Surfacing problems early with kindness

2. Healthy workplace boundaries – Making sure people don’t step on each others’ toes

3. How to manage conflict in a healthy way – Staying calm and avoiding finger-pointing

4. How to be positively influential – Being motivational without being annoying or pushy

5. How to manage one’s ego, whether that’s insecurity or narcissism – Seeing the team’s win as the first priority

To address those, companies hire Torch to coach one or more of their executives. Torch conducts extensive 360-degree interviews with the exec, as well as their reports, employees and peers. It seeks to score them on empathy, visionary thinking, communication, conflict, management and collaboration, Torch then structures goals and improvement timelines that it tracks with follow-up interviews with the team and quantifiable metrics that can all be tracked by HR through a software dashboard.

To make progress on these fronts, execs do video chat sessions through Torch’s app with coaches trained in these skills. “These are all working people with by nature very tight schedules. They don’t have time to come in for a live session so we come to them in the form of video,” Yarbrough tells me. Rates vary from $500 per month to $1,500 per month for a senior coach in the U.S., Europe, APAC or EMEA, with Torch scoring a significant margin. “We’re B2B only. We’re not focused on being the most affordable solution. We’re focused on being the most effective. And we find that there’s less price sensitivity for senior leaders where the cost of their underperformance is incredibly high to the organization.” Torch’s top source of churn is clients’ going out of business, not ceasing to want its services.

Here are two examples of how big-wigs get better with Torch. “Let’s say we have a client who really just wants to be liked all the time, so much so that they have a hard time getting things done. The feedback from the 360 would come back like ‘I find that Cameron is continually telling me what I want to hear but I don’t know what the expectations are of me and I need him to be more direct,’ ” Yarbrough explains. “The problem is those leaders will eventually fire those people who are failing, but they’ll say they had no idea they weren’t performing because he never told them.” Torch’s coaches can teach them to practice tough-love when necessary and to be more transparent. Meanwhile, a boss who storms around the office and “is super-direct and unkind” could be instructed on how to “develop more empathic attunement.”

Yarbrough specifically designed Torch’s software to not be too prescriptive and leave room for the relationship between the coach and client to unfold. And for privacy, coaches don’t record notes and HR only sees the performance goals and progress, not the content of the video chats. It wants execs to feel comfortable getting real without the worry their personal or trade secrets could leak. “And if someone is bringing in something about trauma or that’s super-sensitive about their personal life, their coach will refer them out to psychotherapists,” Yarbrough assures me.

Torch’s direct competition comes from boutique executive coaching firms around the world, while on the tech side, BetterUp is trying to make coaching scale to every type of employee. But its biggest foe is the stubborn status quo of stiff-upper-lipping it.

The startup world has been plagued by too many tragic suicides, deep depression and paralyzing burnout. It’s easy for founders to judge their own worth not by self-confidence or even the absolute value of their accomplishments, but by their status relative to yesterday. That means one blown deal, employee quitting or product delay can make an executive feel awful. But if they turn to their peers or investors, it could hurt their partnership and fundraising prospects. To keep putting in the work, they need an emotional outlet.

“We ultimately have to create this great software that super-powers human beings. People are not robots yet. They will be someday, but not yet,” Yarbrough concludes with a laugh. IQ alone doesn’t make people succeed. Torch can help them develop the EQ, or emotional intelligence quotient, they need to become a boss that’s looked up to.

Mar
27
2019
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Goodly replaces lame office perks with student loan repayment

There are better employee perks than a ping-pong table. Seventy percent of Americans graduate college with student loan debt. That’s 45 million people who owe $1.6 trillion. So when employers use Goodly to offer $100 per month in student loan payback for a $6 fee, talent sticks around. The startup found 86 percent of employees said they’d stay with a company for at least five years if their employer helped pay down their student loans. Yet employers break even if workers stay just two extra months, and get a 5X return if they stay an extra year because it costs so much to hire and train replacement staff.

Now, Y Combinator-backed Goodly has raised a $1.3 million seed round led by Norwest. The startup hopes to capitalize on corporate America waking up to student loan payback as a benefit, which is expected to grow from being offered by 4 percent of companies today to 32 percent by 2021.

Goodly co-founder and CEO Greg Poulin knows the student loan crisis personally. “When I was in school, my father passed away very unexpectedly due to a heart attack. I had to borrow $80,000 for college at Dartmouth,” he tells me. His monthly payment is now $900. The stress that debt creates can poison the rest of your life. He says 21 percent of employees with student loan debt have delayed marriage, 28 percent have put off starting a family and 1 out of 8 divorces is now directly attributed to student loan debt. “I’ve seen first-hand how challenging it is for employees to save for retirement or start a family” when they’re strapped with debt, Poulin says.

He met his co-founder and CTO Hemant Verma when they started working at Zenefits’ founder Parker Conrad’s new employee onboarding startup, Rippling, in 2017. That taught them how simplifying the benefits sign-up process could become its own business. Typically it requires that benefits be integrated with a company’s financial software, like payroll, and be set up with proper provisioning access. It’s enough of a chore that companies don’t go to the trouble of offering student loan repayment.

Poulin and Verma started Goodly to create a “set it and forget it” system that automates everything. They charge $6 per month per participating employee and typically see adoption by 30 percent to 40 percent of employees. Rather than help with their monthly payment that includes interest, Goodly clients pay down their employees’ core debt so they can escape more quickly. Employees get a dashboard where they can track their debt and all of the contributions their company has made. Goodly hasn’t had a single customer churn since launch, demonstrating how badly employers want to keep job-hopping talent in their roles.

“We found that our people put off contributing to their 401ks and buying a house because of their student loan debt. We thought that offering a Student Loan Repayment Benefit would be a great low-cost and high-impact benefit to attract and retain talent while alleviating some of the stress and the financial burden on our employees,” says Kim Alessi, an HR generalist.

Goodly’s founders and first employees

The business opportunity here is relatively young, but there are a few competitors. Boston-based Gratify was acquired by First Republic, which Santa Monica’s Tuition.io pivoted to offering student loan benefits. But Goodly’s connection to so many potential clients plus its new funding could help it make student loan repayment a ubiquitous perk. Along with Norwest and YC, the funding comes from ACE & Company, Arab Angel, Zeno Ventures and angel investors, including Optimizely’s Pete Koomen, DreamHost’s Josh Jones, ShipStation’s Jason Hodges, Fairy’s Avlok Kohli and Telly’s Mo Al Adham.

Beyond improving talent retention, Goodly may also help erase some of the systematic discrimination against minorities in our country. Women hold 66 percent of all student loan debt, black and Latinx Americans have 31 percent more student debt than their peers and LGBTQ borrowers owe $16,000 more than an average member of the population. Convincing employers to address student loan debt could give everyone more freedom of choice when it comes to what they work on and how they live their lives.

Dec
18
2018
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Ex-Googlers meld humans & machines at new cobotics startup Formant

Our distinct skill sets and shortcomings mean people and robots will join forces for the next few decades. Robots are tireless, efficient and reliable, but in a millisecond through intuition and situational awareness, humans can make decisions machine can’t. Until workplace robots are truly autonomous and don’t require any human thinking, we’ll need software to supervise them at scale. Formant comes out of stealth today to “help people speak robot,” says co-founder and CEO Jeff Linnell. “What’s really going to move the needle in the innovation economy is using humans as an empowering element in automation.”

Linnell learned the grace of uniting flesh and steel while working on the movie Gravity. “We put cameras and Sandra Bullock on dollies,” he bluntly recalls. Artistic vision and robotic precision combined to create gorgeous zero-gravity scenes that made audiences feel weightless. Google bought his startup Bot & Dolly, and Linnell spent four years there as a director of robotics while forming his thesis.

Now with Formant, he wants to make hybrid workforce cooperation feel frictionless.

The company has raised a $6 million seed round from SignalFire, a data-driven VC fund with software for recruiting engineers. Formant is launching its closed beta that equips businesses with cloud infrastructure for collecting, making sense of and acting on data from fleets of robots. It allows a single human to oversee 10, 20 or 100 machines, stepping in to clear confusion when they aren’t sure what to do.

“The tooling is 10 years behind the web,” Linnell explains. “If you build a data company today, you’ll use AWS or Google Cloud, but that simply doesn’t exist for robotics. We’re building that layer.”

A beautiful marriage

“This is going to sound completely bizarre,” Formant CTO Anthony Jules warns me. “I had a recurring dream [as a child] in which I was a ship captain and I had a little mechanical parrot on my should that would look at situations and help me decide what to do as we’d sail the seas trying to avoid this octopus. Since then I knew that building intelligent machines is what I would do in this world.”

So he went to MIT, left a robotics PhD program to build a startup called Sapient Corporation that he built into a 4,000-employee public company, and worked on the Tony Hawk video games. He too joined Google through an acquisition, meeting Linnell after Redwood Robotics, where he was COO, got acquired. “We came up with some similar beliefs. There are a few places where full autonomy will actually work, but it’s really about creating a beautiful marriage of what machines are good at and what humans are good at,” Jules tells me.

Formant now has SaaS pilots running with businesses in several verticals to make their “robot-shaped data” usable. They range from food manufacturing to heavy infrastructure inspection to construction, and even training animals. Linnell also foresees retail increasingly employing fleets of robots not just in the warehouse but on the showroom floor, and they’ll require precise coordination.

What’s different about Formant is it doesn’t build the bots. Instead, it builds the reins for people to deftly control them.

First, Formant connects to sensors to fill up a cloud with LiDAR, depth imagery, video, photos, log files, metrics, motor torques and scalar values. The software parses that data and when something goes wrong or the system isn’t sure how to move forward, Formant alerts the human “foreman” that they need to intervene. It can monitor the fleet, sniff out the source of errors, and suggest options for what to do next.

For example, “when an autonomous digger encounters an obstacle in the foundation of a construction site, an operator is necessary to evaluate whether it is safe for the robot to proceed or stop,” Linnell writes. “This decision is made in tandem: the rich data gathered by the robot is easily interpreted by a human but difficult or legally questionable for a machine. This choice still depends on the value judgment of the human, and will change depending on if the obstacle is a gas main, a boulder, or an electrical wire.”

Any single data stream alone can’t reveal the mysteries that arise, and people would struggle to juggle the different feeds in their minds. But not only can Formant align the data for humans to act on, it also can turn their choices into valuable training data for artificial intelligence. Formant learns, so next time the machine won’t need assistance.

The industrial revolution, continued

With rock-star talent poached from Google and tides lifting all automated boats, Formant’s biggest threat is competition from tech giants. Old engineering companies like SAP could try to adapt to the new real-time data type, yet Formant hopes to out-code them. Google itself has built reliable cloud scaffolding and has robotics experience from Boston Dynamics, plus buying Linnell’s and Jules’ companies. But the enterprise customization necessary to connect with different clients isn’t typical for the search juggernaut.

Linnell fears that companies that try to build their own robot management software could get hacked. “I worry about people who do homegrown solutions or don’t have the experience we have from being at a place like Google. Putting robots online in an insecure way is a pretty bad problem.” Formant is looking to squash any bugs before it opens its platform to customers in 2019.

With time, humans will become less and less necessary, and that will surface enormous societal challenges for employment and welfare. “It’s in some ways a continuation of the industrial revolution,” Jules opines. “We take some of this for granted but it’s been happening for 100 years. Photographer — that’s a profession that doesn’t exist without the machine that they use. We think that transformation will continue to happen across the workforce.”

Dec
17
2018
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The Mom Project, a job site for moms returning to work, nabs $8M from Initialized and more

If you are a mother who has taken a break from full-time employment to raise kids, you may have also experienced the challenge that is jumping back into the working world after your break.

You may find you need more time flexibility; you have been out of the job market for years and so your confidence is knocked; your skills are no longer as relevant as they were before; or you just want to rethink your career; plus many employers — whether they say it or not — seem less interested in you because of all of the above, and no level of burnishing your resume on LinkedIn will help. It can be tough (and I say that from first-hand experience).

Now, Chicago-based startup The Mom Project, a platform specifically built to help female knowledge workers find jobs after pausing to raise kids, has raised a little egg of its own to take on this challenge. It’s picked up a Series A of $8 million that it plans to use to bring its job marketplace to more cities — it’s currently in Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco — and to expand the kinds of services it offers to make the challenge of juggling work and parenthood easier.

The funding is being led by Grotech Ventures and Initialized Capital, with another new investor, Aspect Ventures, and previous backers Atlanta Seed Company, Engage Ventures, OCA Ventures, BBG Ventures, IrishAngels and Wintrust Financial also participating.

This brings the total raised by The Mom Project to $11 million, and with 75,000 registered moms and 1,000 companies, including Procter & Gamble, BP, Miller Coors and AT&T, the startup claims it’s now the largest platform of its kind in the U.S.

From selling diapers to changing diapers

Allison Robinson, the founder and CEO of The Mom Project, said she came up with the idea for the startup in 2016, when she was on maternity leave from a strategy role at Pampers.

“I started realising a lot about moms before I became one,” she says about her last role before striking out as an entrepreneur. “But what I hadn’t understood until I was on maternity leave myself was that your priorities can change after having a child.” (She’s pictured up above with her son.)

Citing a study she’d seen in the Harvard Business Review that estimated 43 percent of skilled women exit the workforce after having children, Robinson realised there was a gap in the market for those among them who had timed out from returning to their previous roles, but still wanted to make the leap back into working at some point.

And she has a point: Not only do people who decide they want to return to work face all of the usual issues of newly needing more time flexibility, wondering whether their skills are still current enough, general confidence and so on, but the average recruitment process, and job sites overall, do not really have ways to account for any of that very well.

And the gap exists on the employer side of the marketplace, too. Businesses — both large corporates very much in the public eye as well as smaller businesses that are not — are rethinking how they hire and keep good people in the overall competition for talent. (Just this week, the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics said that the number of unfilled positions in the information and communication technology sector rose by 24.3 percent compared to last year in the country, a shortage that’s reflected in other markets.)

Having a diverse workforce — including more women and women from different walks of life — is key not only to helping counteract that, but to contribute to better overall work culture. That’s a fact that many employers have realised independently or have simply been thrown into the spotlight unwittingly and now are trying to repair.

And yet, there haven’t been many opportunities for them to pursue more diverse hiring practices.

LinkedIn recently made a tiny move into exploring diversity in hiring by at least allowing recruiters to search their job candidate results by gender, but this is a far cry from actually addressing the specific predicaments that particular segments of the working population have, and how to help them connect better with employers who might be keen to bring more of them on through recruitment.

In fact, the idea of providing improved job search for knowledge workers in specific cases is actually a very interesting one that shows there is definitely still room for innovation in the world of recruitment: Handshake earlier this year raised $40 million for its own take on this, which is providing a better LinkedIn-style platform to connect minority university graduates with interesting job opportunities at companies keen to make their workforces more diverse.

“Companies have started to realize the value in building a diverse workforce, but we still have a long way to go in achieving equal representation and opportunities,” said Julia Taxin, a partner at Grotech and new Mom Project board member. “Allison and her team have built an incredible marketplace of diverse talent for companies and I look forward to working with The Mom Project to execute on their vision of helping to close the gender gap in the workplace.”

The Mom Project, Robinson said, is tackling the challenges at both ends of the spectrum.

On the employer side, she said there is a lot of educating going on, talking to HR people and getting them to understand the opportunity they could unlock by hiring more parents — which tend to be almost entirely all-women, but sometimes men, too.

“We want to provide more data to these companies,” she said, pointing out that it’s not just a matter of providing a job opportunity, but also giving parents options in areas like childcare, or flexible working schedules. “We want to show them ‘here is where you are doing well, and here is where you are not. Fixes don’t cost a lot of money, but a lot of companies are just not aware.”

“We’ve got 75,000 women on our platform, and currently around 1,000 companies posting jobs,” she said. “The goal is to have 75,000-plus jobs. We want to make sure that all the moms signing up on the platform are getting work.”

“The Mom Project is determined to create a future where women aren’t forced to choose between their families and their careers,” said Alda Leu Dennis, partner at Initialized Capital and new Mom Project board member, in a statement. “There is a huge pool of experienced talent, parents and non-parents, that is sometimes overlooked because companies haven’t created the kind of diverse, flexible workplace culture that attracts and retains them. Initialized wants to be part of making this cultural shift happen.”

On the parent side, not only is it also about making the platform known to people who are considering a return to work, but it’s also about some fundamental, but very important basics, such as giving would-be jobseekers the flexibility to go to interviews. Robinson said that one campaign it’s about to launch, in partnership with Urban Sitter, is to provide free childcare credits to Mom Project jobseekers so that they can get to their interview.

“Sometimes you have to go to an interview with 24 hours’ notice, and lining up a sitter can be stressful,” she said. “We want to alleviate that.”

Parents also know that this isn’t just an issue for the interview: Many towns and regions have what Robinson called “childcare deserts,” where there is a scarcity of affordable options to replace the parent on a more daily basis.

Contract work is king (and queen)

For now, Robinson said that the majority of jobs on the platform are focused on fixed-term employment — that is, not permanent, full-time work.

This is due to a number of reasons. For example, parents coming back to working after a break may be more inclined to ease in with shorter roles and less long-term commitment. And employers are still testing out how this demographic of workers will work out, so to speak. Equally, though, we have seen a huge swing in more general employment trends, where businesses are hiring fixed-term workers rather than full-time employees to account for seasonality and to give themselves more flexibility (not to mention less liability on the benefits front).

While Robinson said that the aim is definitely to bring more full-time job opportunities to the platform over time, this has nonetheless presented an interesting business opportunity to The Mom Project. The startup acts like Airbnb, Amazon and a number of other marketplaces, where it not only connects job-seekers and employers, but also then handles all the transactions around the job. When the job is fixed-term, the Mom Project essentially becomes like the job agency paying the employee, and that is how it makes a cut. And it also becomes the provider of benefits and more.

In other words, while there is an immediate opportunity for The Mom Project to compete against (or at least win some business from) the likes of LinkedIn to target the specific opportunity of providing jobs for women returning to work, there is a potentially and equally big one in becoming a one-stop employment shop to handle customers’ other needs as employers or workers, providing a range of other services, from payroll through to childcare listings and more.

Nov
20
2018
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Our 3 favorite startups from Morgan Stanley’s 2nd Multicultural Innovation Lab Demo Day 

The Morgan Stanley Multicultural Innovation LabMorgan Stanley’s in-house accelerator focused on companies founded by multicultural and female entrepreneurs, hosted its second Annual Showcase and Demo Day. The event also featured companies from accelerators HearstLab, Newark Venture Partner Labs and PS27 Ventures. (Note: I was formerly employed by Morgan Stanley and have no financial ties.)

The showcase represented the culmination of the program’s second year, which followed an initial five-company class that has already seen two acquisitions. Through the six-month program, Morgan Stanley provides early-stage companies with a wide range of benefits, including an equity investment from Morgan Stanley, office space at Morgan Stanley headquarters, access to Morgan Stanley’s extensive network and others. Applications are now open for its third cohort of companies, with the application window closing on January 4th, 2019.

The 16 presenting startups, all led by a female or multicultural founder, offered solutions to structural inefficiencies across a wide array of categories, including fintech, developer tools and health. Though all of the companies offered impressive presentations and strong value propositions, here are three of the companies that stood out to us.

Hatch Apps

In hopes of democratizing software and app development, Hatch Apps provides a platform that allows users and companies to build iOS, Android and web applications without any code through pre-built templates and custom plug-and-play functions. In essence, Hatch Apps provides a solution for application building similar to what Squarespace or Wix provide for websites.

In the modern economy, every company is in one way or another a tech or tech-enabled company. Now the demand for strong engineers has made the fight for talent increasingly competitive and has made engineering quite costly, even when only needed for simple tasks. 

For an implementation and subscription fee, Hatch Apps allows companies with less sophisticated engineering DNA to reduce entering costs by launching native apps on their own, across platforms and often on faster timelines than those seen through third-party developers. Once an app is launched, Hatch Apps provides customers with detailed analytics and allows them to send targeted push notifications, export data and make in-app changes that can automatically go live in app stores.

The company initially took a bootstrapping approach to financing and raised funds by selling a 2016 election-themed “Cards Against Humanity”-style game created on the platform. Since then, Hatch Apps has already received funding from the Y Combinator Fellowship, Morgan Stanley and a number of other investors.

FreeWill

While estate planning is a topic many don’t like to think about, it’s a critical issue for managing cross-generational wealth. But will drafting can often be very complex, time-consuming and costly, requiring hours of legal consultation and coordination between various parties.

Founded by two former classmates at Stanford Business School, FreeWill looks to simplify the estate-planning process by providing a free online platform that automates will drafting, in a similar function to what TurboTax does for taxes. Using FreeWill, users can quickly set allocations for their estate and select personal recipients, charitable donations, executor specifications and other ancillary requests. The platform then creates a finalized legal document that is legally valid in all 50 states, to which users can also quickly make changes and replace without incurring expensive legal costs.

FreeWill is able to provide the platform to consumers for free due to the proceeds it receives from its nonprofit customers, who pay to be featured on the platform as a partner organization. FreeWill offers a compelling value proposition for partnering companies. By acting as a channel to funnel user donations to listed organizations, FreeWill has been able to drive a 600 percent increase in charitable giving to partner organizations on average. FreeWill also provides partner organizations with backing analytics that allow nonprofits to track bequests and donors through monthly reports. 

FreeWill currently boasts an impressive roster of 75 paying nonprofit partners that include American Red Cross, Amnesty International and many others. In the long-run it hopes to be the go-to solution for financial and legal end-of-life planning for investment advisors, life insurance and employee benefits providers.

Shoobs

Shoobs is looking to be the go-to platform for local “urban” events, which the company defined as events centered on local nightlife, comedy and concerts in the hip-hop, R&B and reggae genres to name a few. But unlike the genre-agnostic, transaction-focused event management platforms that can make the space seem pretty crowded, Shoobs focused on providing genre-specific even discovery. Shoobs matches urban event goers with artists of their choice and related smaller-scale events that can be harder to discover, acting as a form of curation, quality control and discovery.

For event organizers, Shoobs helps provide digital ticketing and promotion services, with event recommendation capabilities that target the most promising potential customers. Through its offering to event organizers, Shoobs is able to monetize its services through ticket sale commission, advertising and brand partnerships.

Since its initial launch in London, Shoobs notes it has become one of the top urban events platforms in the city, with an extensive base of recurring registered users and event organizers. After previously working with AEG for its London launch, Shoobs is looking to expand stateside with the help of organizers like Live Nation. Shoobs joins a long list of promising Y Combinator alumni companies with YC also acting as one of Shoobs’ initial investors.

Other presenting companies included:

Morgan Stanley Multicultural Innovation Lab

  • BeautyLynk “is an on-demand hair and makeup service provider, specializing in customizable services for women.”
  • Broadway Roulette “is an events marketplace that pairs consumers with surprise cultural events, beginning with Broadway theater.”
  • CariClub “is an enterprise software platform to connect young professionals with nonprofit opportunities.”
  • COI Energy Services “is an integrated platform for electric utilities and business users to optimize and manage energy usage.”
  • CoSign “is an API and application that allows anyone to create, distribute and monetize visual content.”
  • Goalsetter “is a goals-based gifting, savings and investing platform designed for children.”
  • myLAB Box “offers customizable at-home health-test kits and relevant telemedicine consultations / prescription services.”

HearstLab

  • Priori “is a global legal marketplace changing the way in-house teams find, hire and manage outside counsel.”
  • TRENCH “is an online fashion marketplace that makes use of the unworn items in every woman’s closet.”

Newark Venture Partners Labs

  • Floss Bar “is a new type of preventive brand for oral health care. The company offers high-quality, routine dental care across flexible locations at thoughtful prices.”
  • Upsider “is a software solution allowing recruiters to leverage AI technology to identify a comprehensive set of candidates who align with their business and role requirements, resulting in a more strategic understanding of the best possible talent for the job.”

PS27 Ventures

  • BlueWave Technologies “is a cleantech company and the creators of the BlueWave™ Cleaning System — a water-free, detergent-free and chemical-free plasma device that cleans items that are extremely hard or impossible to clean with a washer and dryer.”
  • OnPay Solutions “focuses exclusively on business-to-business payments. They create payment software and offer payment web services to enhance efficiency and productivity for Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivable.”

Nov
20
2018
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LinkedIn launches its own Snapchat Stories: ‘Student Voices’

The social media singularity continues with the arrival of Snapchat Stories-style slideshows on LinkedIn as the app grasps for relevance with a younger audience. LinkedIn confirms to TechCrunch that it plans to build Stories for more sets of users, but first it’s launching “Student Voices” just for university students in the U.S. The feature appears atop the LinkedIn home screen and lets students post short videos to their Campus Playlist. The videos (no photos allowed) disappear from the playlist after a week while staying permanently visible on a user’s own profile in the Recent Activity section. Students can tap through their school’s own slideshow and watch the Campus Playlists of nearby universities.

LinkedIn now confirms the feature is in testing, with product manager Isha Patel telling TechCrunch “Campus playlists are a new video feature that we’re currently rolling out to college students in the US. As we know, students love to use video to capture moments so we’ve created this new product to help them connect with one another around shared experiences on campus to help create a sense of community.” Student Voices was first spotted by social consultant Carlos Gil, and tipped by Socially Contented’s Cathy Wassell to Matt Navarra.

A LinkedIn spokesperson tells us the motive behind the feature is to get students sharing their academic experiences like internships, career fairs and class projects that they’d want to show off to recruiters as part of their personal brand. “It’s a great way for students to build out their profile and have this authentic content that shows who they are and what their academic and professional experiences have been. Having these videos live on their profile can help students grow their network, prepare for life after graduation, and help potential employers learn more about them,” Patel says.

But unfortunately that ignores the fact that Stories were originally invented for broadcasting off-the-cuff moments that disappear so you DON’T have to worry about their impact on your reputation. That dissonance might confuse users, discourage them from posting to Student Voices or lead them to assume their clips will disappear from their profile too — which could leave embarrassing content exposed to hirers. “Authenticity” might not necessarily paint users in the best light to recruiters, so it seems more likely that students would post polished clips promoting their achievements… if they use it at all.

LinkedIn seems to be desperate to appeal to the next generation. Social app investigator and TechCrunch’s favorite tipster Jane Manchun Wong today spotted 10 minor new features LinkedIn is prototyping that include youth-centric options like GIF comments, location sharing in messages and Facebook Reactions-style buttons beyond “Like” such as “Clap,” “Insightful,” “Hmm,” and “Support.”

When users post to Student Stories, they’ll have their university’s logo overlaid as a sticker they can move around. LinkedIn will generate this plus a set of suggested hashtags like #OnCampus based on a user’s profile, including which school they say they attend, though users can also overlay their own text captions. Typically, users in the test phase were sharing videos of around 30 to 45 seconds. “Students are taking us to their school hackathons, showing us their group projects, sharing their student group activities and teaching us about causes they care about,” Patel explains. You can see an example video here, and watch a sizzle reel about the feature below.

For now, LinkedIn tells me it has no plans to insert ads between clips in Student Voices. But if the Stories content assists with discovering and vetting job candidates, it could make LinkedIn more unique and indispensable to recruiters who do pay for premium access. And if these Stories get a ton of views simply by being emblazoned atop the LinkedIn feed, users might return to the app more frequently to share them. As we’ve seen with the steady increase in popularity of Facebook Stories, if you give people a stage for narcissism, they will fill it.

LinkedIn’s start as a dry web tool for seeking jobs has made for a rocky transition as it tries to become a daily habit for users. Some tactical advice in its feed can be helpful, but much of LinkedIn’s content feels blatantly self-promotional, boring or transactional. Meanwhile, it’s encountering new competition as Facebook integrates career listings and job applications for blue-collar work into its social network that already sees over a billion people visit each day. It’s understandable why LinkedIn would try to latch on to the visual communication trend, as Facebook estimates Stories sharing will surpass feed sharing across all apps in 2019. But Student Voices nonetheless feels unabashedly “how do you do, fellow kids?”

Oct
07
2018
--

Facebook poaches leaders of Refdash interview prep to work on Jobs

Facebook just snatched some talent to fuel its invasion of LinkedIn’s turf. A source tells TechCrunch that members of coding interview practice startup Refdash including at least some of its executives have been hired by Facebook. The social network confirmed to TechCrunch that members of Refdash’s leadership team are joining to work on Facebook’s Jobs feature that lets business promote employment openings that users can instantly apply for.

Facebook’s big opportunity here is that it’s a place people already browse naturally, so they can be exposed to Job listings even when they’re not actively looking for a company or career change. Since launching the feature in early 2017, Facebook has focused on blue-collar jobs like service and retail industry jobs that constantly need filling. But the Refdash team could give it more experience in recruiting for technical roles, connecting high-skilled workers like computer programmers to positions that need filling. These hirers might be willing to pay high prices to advertise their job listings on Facebook, siphoning revenue away from LinkedIn.

Facebook confirms that this is not an acquisition or technically a full acquihire, as there’s no overarching deal to buy assets or talent as a package. It’s so far unclear what exactly will happen to Refdash now that its team members are starting at Facebook this week, though it’s possible it will shut down now that its leaders have left for the tech giant’s cushy campuses and premium perks. Refdash’s website now says that “We’ve temporarily suspended interviews in order to make product changes that we believe will make your job search experience significantly better.”

Founded in 2016 in Mountain View with an undisclosed amount of funding from Founder Friendly Labs, Refdash gave programmers direct qualitative and scored feedback on their coding interviews. Users would do a mock interview, get graded, and then have their performance anonymously shared with potential employers to match them with the right companies and positions for their skills. This saved engineers from having to endure grueling interrogations with tons of different hirers. Refdash claimed to place users at startups like Coinbase, Cruise, Lyft, and Mixpanel.

A source tells us that Refdash focused on understanding people’s deep professional expertise and sending them to the perfect employer without having to judge by superficial resumes that can introduce bias to the process. It also touted allowing hirers to browse candidates without knowing their biographical details, which could also cut down on discrimination and helps ensure privacy in the job hunting process (especially if people are still working elsewhere and are trying to be discreet in their job hunt).

It’s easy to imagine Facebook building its own coding challenge and puzzles that programmers could take to then get paired with appropriate hirers through its Jobs product. Perhaps Facebook could even build a similar service to Refdash, though the one-on-one feedback sessions it’d conduct might not be scalable enough for Menlo Park’s liking. If Facebook can make it easier to not only apply for jobs but interview for them too, it could lure talent and advertisers away from LinkedIn to a product that’s already part of people’s daily lives.

The co-founders of Refdash have something of a track record in building companies that get acquihired to help add new features to existing services. Nicola Otasevic and Andrew Kearney were respectively the founder and tech lead for Room 77, which was picked up by Google in 2014 to help rebuild its travel search vertical. At the time it was described as a licensing deal although Refdash’s founders these days call it an acquisition.

Building tools to improve the basic process of hiring via remote testing could help Facebook get an edge on technical recruiting, but it’s not the only one building such features. LinkedIn’s stablemate Skype (like LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft) last year unveiled Interviews to let recruiters test developers and others applying for technical jobs with a real-time code editor. LinkedIn has not (yet?) incorporated it into its platform.

Sep
14
2018
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Drone startup Airware crashes, will shut down after burning $118M

Drone operating system startup Airware today suddenly informed employees it will cease operations immediately despite having raised $118 million from top investors like Andreessen Horowitz, Google’s GV, and Kleiner Perkins. The startup ran out of money after trying to manufacture its own hardware that couldn’t compete with drone giants like China’s DJI. The company at one point had as many as 140 employees, all of which are now out of a job.

A source sent TechCrunch screenshots from the Airware alumni Slack channel detailing how the staff was told this morning that Airware would shut down.

Airware makes a cloud sofware system that helps enterprise customers like construction companies, mining operations, and insurance companies reviewing equipment for damages to use drones to collect and analyze aerial data. That allowed companies to avoid using expensive helicopters or dangerous rigs with humans on harnesses to make inspections and gauge work progress.

One ex-employee asked “How do I get my options sent to me on paper so I can burn them all in a fire??

Founded in 2011 by Jonathan Downey, the son of two pilots, Airware first built an autopilot system for programming drones to follow certain routes to collect data. It could help businesses check rooftops for damage, see how much of a raw material was coming out of a mine, or build constantly-updated maps of construction sites. Later it tried to build its own drones before pivoting to consult clients on how to most efficiently apply unmanned aerial vehicles.

While flying high, Airware launched its own Commercial Drone Fund for investing in the market in 2015, and acquired 38-person drone analytics startup Redbird in 2016. In this pre-crypto, pre-AI boom, Airware scored a ton of hype from us and others as tried to prove drones could be more than war machines. But over time, the software that shipped with commercial drone hardware from other manufacturers was good enough to make Airware irrelevant, and a downward spiral of layoffs began over the past two years, culminating in today’s shutdown. Demonstating how sudden the shut down is, Airware opened a Tokyo headquarters alongside an investment and partnership from Mitsubishi just four days ago.

“Airware was ahead of the game trying to build their software. So far ahead that the drone hardware on the market wasn’t sophisticated enough to actually produce the granularity of data they needed to test out their software/train their algorithms” an ex-employee told TechCrunch (emphasis ours). “So they spent shitloads of money designing bespoke hardware, including two drones in-house, one multi-rotor called an AT-28, and one fixed-wing called Cygnet. Both projects were scuttled as hardware from DJI and Ebee caught up to needs, after sinking tons of engineering time and manufacturing into them.”

Following TechCrunch’s inquiry about the unnannounced news, Airware confirmed the shut down to us with this statement:

“History has taught us how hard it can be to call the timing of a market transition. We have seen this play out first hand in the commercial drone marketplace. We were the pioneers in this market and one of the first to see the power drones could have in the commercial sector. Unfortunately, the market took longer to mature than we expected. As we worked through the various required pivots to position ourselves for long term success, we ran out of financial runway. As a result, it is with a heavy heart that we notified our team, customers, and partners that we will wind down the business.

This is not the business outcome we had worked so hard for over the years and yet we are deeply proud of our company’s accomplishments and our leadership in driving the adoption of drone powered analytics to improve productivity, mitigate risks, and take workers out of harm’s way.

As we close the book of Airware; we want to thank the partners and customers who believed in us and helped us along the way. And, while it is difficult to say goodbye to our team, we want to thank them for all they have contributed to Airware and the industry. We look forward to seeing how they will take their learnings from Airware to fuel continued innovations in the world around us.”

[Update: Since we broke the news, Airware has put up a “thank you” note about the shutdown informing clients that “A representative from the Airware team will be in touch.”]

An Airware-hardware equipped drone

Employees will get one week’s severance, COBRA insurance until November, and payouts for unused paid time off. It appears the startup wasn’t able to raise necessary funding to save the company or secure an acquisition from one of its strategic partners like Catepillar.

Airware will serve as cautionary tale of startup overspending in hopes of finding product-market fit. Had it been more frugal, saved cash to extend its runway, and given corporate clients more time to figure out how to use drones, Airware might have stayed afloat. Sometimes, even having the most prestigious investors can’t save a startup from mismanagement.

Our ex-employee source concludes that “I think having $118M in the bank led Airware to charge ahead and sink tons of money into force-it-to-work methods rather than exercise a bit of patience and wait for the inevitable advance of hardware to catch up. They had a knack for hiring extremely talented and expensive people from places like Google, Autodesk, there was even SpaceX and NASA alumni there.

They spared no expense ever.”

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