Atlassian’s Confluence gets a new template gallery

Confluence, Atlassian’s content-centric collaboration tool for teams, is making it easier for new users to get started with the launch of an updated template gallery and 75 new templates. They incorporate what the company has learned from its customers and partners since it first launched the service back in 2004.

About a year ago, Atlassian gave Confluence a major makeover, with an updated editor and advanced analytics. Today’s update isn’t quite as dramatic but goes to show that Confluence has evolved from a niche wiki for technical documentation teams to a tool that is often used across organizations today.

Today, about 60,000 customers are using Confluence daily and the new templates reflect the different needs of these companies. The new template gallery will make it easier to find the specific template that makes sense for your business, with new search tools, filters and previews that you can find in the right-hand panel of your Confluence site.

The updated gallery features new templates for design, marketing and HR teams, for example. Working with partners, Atlassian also added templates like a job description guide from Indeed and a design system template from InVision, as well as similar use case-specific templates from HubSpot, Optimizely and others. Since most tasks take more than one template, Atlassian is also launching collections of templates for accomplishing more complex tasks around developing marketing strategies, HR workflows, product development and more.


By Frederic Lardinois

SMB loans platform Kabbage to furlough a ‘significant’ number of staff, close office in Bangalore

Another tech unicorn is feeling the pinch of doing business during the coronavirus pandemic. Today, Kabbage, the Softbank-backed lending startup that uses machine learning to provide speedy and more accurate evaluations of loan applications for small and medium businesses, is furloughing a “significant number” of its US team of 500 employees, according to a memo sent to staff and seen by TechCrunch, in the wake of drastically changed business conditions for the company. It is also completely closing down its office in Bangalore, India, and executive staff is taking a “considerable” pay cut.

The announcement is effective immediately and was made to staff earlier today by way of a video conference call, as the whole company is currently remote working in the current conditions.

Kabbage is not disclosing the full number of staff that are being affected by the news (if you know, you can contact us anonymously). It’s also not putting a timeframe on how long the furlough will last, but it’s going to continue providing benefits to affected employees. The intention is to bring them back on when things shift again.

“We realize this is a shock to everyone. No business in the world could have prepared for what has transpired these past few weeks and everyone has been impacted,” co-founder and CEO Rob Frohwein wrote in the memo. “The economic fallout of this virus has rattled the small business community to which Kabbage is directly linked. It’s painful to say goodbye to our friends and colleagues in Bangalore and to furlough a number of U.S. team members. While the duration of the furlough remains uncertain, please bear in mind that the full intention of furloughing is temporary. We simply have no clear idea of how long quarantining or its reverberations in the economy will last.”

Kabbage’s predicament underscores the complicated and stressful calculus that tech companies built around providing services to SMBs, or fintech (or both, as in the case of Kabbage) are currently facing.

SMBs are struggling right now in the US: many operate on very short terms when it comes to finances and closing their businesses (or seeing a drastic reduction in custom) means they will not have the cash to last 10 days without revenue, “and we’re already well past that window,” Frohwein noted in his memo.

In Kabbage’s case, that means not only are SMBs not able to be evaluated and approved for normal loans at the moment, but SMBs that already have loans out are likely facing delinquencies.

The decision to furlough is hard but in relative terms it’s actually good news: it was made at the eleventh hour after a period when Kabbage was considering layoffs instead.

The company has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in equity and debt, and it was in a healthy state before the coronavirus outbreak. The memo notes that the “board and our top investors are aware of the challenges we are facing and have committed to helping us through this period,” although it doesn’t specify what that means in terms of financial support for the business, and whether that support would have been there for the business as-is.

The shift to furlough from layoffs came in the wake of announcement yesterday by Steven Mnuchin, the US Secretary of the Treasury, who clarified that “any FDIC bank, any credit union, any fintech lender will be authorized” to make loans to small businesses as a part of the US government’s CARE Act, the giant stimulus package that included nearly $350 billion in loan guarantees for small businesses.

While that provides much-needed relief for these businesses, the implementation of it — the Small Business Administration has already received nearly 1 million claims for disaster-relief loans since the crisis started — has been and is going to be a challenge.

That effectively opens up an opportunity for Kabbage and companies like it to revive and reorient some of its business. Kabbage said it is in “deep discussions” with the Treasury Department, the White House, and the Small Business Administration to help expedite applications for aid.

While loans still make up the majority of Kabbage’s business, the company has been making a move to diversify its services, and in recent times it has made acquisitions and launched new services around market intelligence insights and payments services. While there has certainly been a jump in e-commerce, overall the tightening economy will have a chilling effect on the wider market, and it will be worth seeing what happens with other companies that focus on loans, as well as adjacent financial services.


By Ingrid Lunden

Turbo Systems hires former Looker CMO Jen Grant as CEO

Turbo Systems, a three-year old, no-code mobile app startup, announced today it has brought on industry veteran Jen Grant to be CEO.

Grant, who was previously vice president of marketing at Box and chief marketing officer at Elastic and Looker, brings more than 15 years of tech company experience to the young startup.

She says that when Looker got acquired by Google last June for $2.6 billion, she began looking for her next opportunity. She had done a stint with Google as a product manager earlier in her career and was looking for something new.

She saw Looker as a model for the kind of company she wanted to join, one that had a founder focused on product and engineering, who hired an outside CEO early on to run the business, as Looker had done. She found that in Turbo where founder Hari Subramanian was taking on that type of role. Subramanian was also a successful entrepreneur, having previously founded ServiceMax before selling it to GE in 2016.

“The first thing that really drew me to Turbo was this partnership with Hari,” Grant told TechCrunch. While that relationship was a key component for her, she says even with that, before she decided to join, she spoke to customers and she saw an enthusiasm there that drew her to the company.

“I love products that actually help people. And so Box is helping people collaborate and share files and work together. Looker is about getting data to everyone in the organization so that everyone could be making great decisions, and at Turbo we’re making it easy for anyone to create a mobile app that helps run their business,” she said.

Grant has been on the job for just 30 days, joining the company in the middle of a global pandemic. So it’s even more challenging than the typical early days for any new CEO, but she is looking forward and trying to help her 36 employees navigate this situation.

“You know, I didn’t know that this is what would happen in my first 30 days, but what inspires me, what’s a big part of it is that I can help by growing this company, by being successful and by being able to hire more and more people, and contribute to getting our economy back on track,” Grant said.

She also recognizes that there is a lack of diversity in her new CEO role, and she hopes to be a role model. “I have been fortunate to get to a position where I know I can do this job and do it well. And it’s my responsibility to do this work, my responsibility to show it can be done and shouldn’t be an anomaly.”

Turbo Systems was founded in 2017 and has raised $8 million, according to Crunchbase. It helps companies build mobile apps without coding, connecting to 140 different data sources such as Salesforce, SAP and Oracle.


By Ron Miller

Tech giants should let startups defer cloud payments

Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are the landlords. Amidst the Coronavirus economic crisis, startups need a break from paying rent. They’re in a cash crunch. Revenue has stopped flowing in, capital markets like venture debt are hesitant, and startups and small-to-medium sized businessesf are at risk of either having to lay off huge numbers of employees and/or shut down.

Meanwhile, the tech giants are cash rich. Their success this decade means they’re able to weather the storm for a few months. Their customers cannot.

Cloud infrastructure costs area amongst many startups’ top expenses besides payroll. The option to pay these cloud bills later could save some from going out of business or axing huge parts of their staff. Both would hurt the tech industry, the economy, and the individuals laid off. But most worryingly for the giants, it could destroy their customer base.

The mass layoffs have already begun. Soon we’re sure to start hearing about sizable companies shutting down, upended by COVID-19. But there’s still an opportunity to stop a larger bloodbath from ensuing.

That’s why I have a proposal: cloud relief.

The platform giants should let startups and small businesses defer their cloud infrastructure payments for three to six months until they can pay them back in installments. Amazon AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, these companies’ additional infrastructure products, and other platform providers should let customers pause payment until the worst of the first wave of the COVID-19 economic disruption passes. Profitable SAAS providers like Salesforce could give customers an extension too.

There are plenty of altruistic reasons to do this. They have the resources to help businesses in need. We all need to support each other in these tough times. This could protect tons of families. Some of these startups are providing important services to the public and even discounting them, thereby ramping up their bills while decreasing revenue.

Then there are the PR reasons. After years of techlash and anti-trust scrutiny, here’s the chance for the giants to prove their size can be beneficial to the world. Recruiters could use it as a talking point. “We’re the company that helped save Silicon Valley.” There’s an explanation for them squirreling away so much cash: the rainy day has finally arrived.

But the capitalistic truth and the story they could sell to Wall Street is that it’s not good for our business if our customers go out of business. Look at what happened to infrastructure providers in the dotcom crash. When tons of startups vaporized, so did the profits for those selling them hosting and tools. Any government stimulus for businesses would be better spent by them paying employees than paying the cloud companies that aren’t in danger. Saving one future Netflix from shutting down could cover any short-term loss from helping 100 other businesses.

This isn’t a handout. These startups will still owe the money. They’d just be able to pay it a little later, spread out over their monthly bills for a year or so. Once mass shelter-in-place orders subside, businesses can operate at least a little closer to normal, and investors get less cautious, customers will have the cash they need to pay their dues. Plus interest if necessary.

Meanwhile, they’ll be locked in and loyal customers for the foreseeable future. Cloud vendors could gate the deferment to only customers that have been with them for X amount of months or that have already spent Y amount on the platform. The vendors could also offer the deferment on the condition that customers add a year or more to their existing contracts. Founders will remember who gave them the benefit of the doubt.

cloud ice cream cone imagine

Consider it a marketing expense. Platforms often offer discounts or free trials to new customers. Now it’s existing customers that need a reprieve. Instead of airport ads, the giants could spend the money ensuring they’ll still have plenty of developers building atop them by the end of 2020.

Beyond deferred payment, platforms could just push the due date on all outstanding bills to three or six months from now. Alternatively, they could offer a deep discount such as 50% off for three months if they didn’t want to deal with accruing debt and then servicing it. Customers with multi-year contracts could offered the opportunity to downgrade or renegotiate their contracts without penalties. Any of these might require giving sales quota forgiveness to their account executives.

It would likely be far too complicated and risky to accept equity in lieu of cash, a cut of revenue going forward, or to provide loans or credit lines to customers. The clearest and simplest solution is to let startups skip a few payments, then pay more every month later until they clear their debt. When asked for comment or about whether they’re considering payment deferment options, Microsoft declined, and Amazon and Google did not respond.

To be clear, administering payment deferment won’t be simple or free. There are sure to be holes that cloud economists can poke in this proposal, but my goal is to get the conversation startup. It could require the giants to change their earnings guidance. Rewriting deals with significantly sized customers will take work on both ends, and there’s a chance of breach of contract disputes. Giants would face the threat of customers recklessly using cloud resources before shutting down or skipping town.

Most taxing would be determining and enforcing the criteria of who’s eligible. The vendors would need to lay out which customers are too big so they don’t accidentally give a cloud-intensive but healthy media company a deferment they don’t need. Businesses that get questionably excluded could make a stink in public. Executing on the plan will require staff when giants are stretched thin trying to handle logistics disruptions, misinformation, and accelerating work-from-home usage.

Still, this is the moment when the fortunate need to lend a hand to the vulnerable. Not a hand out, but a hand up. Companies with billions in cash in their coffers could save those struggling to pay salaries. All the fundraisers and info centers and hackathons are great, but this is how the tech giants can live up to their lofty mission statements.

We all live in the cloud now. Don’t evict us. #CloudRelief

Thanks to Falon Fatemi, Corey Quinn, Ilya Fushman, Jason Kim, Ilya Sukhar, and Michael Campbell for their ideas and feedback on this proposal


By Josh Constine

Salesforce’s Benioff pledges no ‘significant’ layoffs for 90 days

In a Twitter thread on Tuesday, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff outlined an eight-step plan to keep people safe and find treatments and a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus, all while working to find a way to get people back to work safely. He also asked that all CEOs take a 90-day “no lay off” pledge to help everyone get through the crisis.

The same day, he posted another tweet pledging to not make any “significant” layoffs for 90 days. When TechCrunch asked Salesforce to comment on the difference between the two tweets, the company chose not to comment any further on the matter and let the tweets stand on their own.

It sounds like Benioff’s second tweet, which also asked employees to consider paying their own hourly workers like housekeepers and dog walkers throughout the layoff period, whether they were working or not, was designed to give the CEO some wiggle room for at least some layoffs.

Salesforce has almost 50,000 employees worldwide. Even if the company were to lay off just 1% of employees it would equal 500 people without jobs, though it’s not clear if that would count as “significant.” Perhaps more likely, the company might make some cuts to staff for performance or HR-related reasons, but not broad cuts, and thus make both of its CEO’s claims essentially true.

Salesforce is a wildly successful company. It celebrated its 20th anniversary last fall and has grown from a pesky startup to a software behemoth with a projected revenue of over $20 billion for FY2021. It currently has almost $8 billion in cash and equivalents on hand. Certainly companies that use Salesforce’s products will continue to need them, even with the workforce at home.

While it could have an impact on that projection for FY2021 and its ability to land new customers this quarter, it seems like it has the money and revenue to ride out the situation for the short term without making any moves to reduce headcount at this critical time.


By Ron Miller

Microsoft acquires 5G specialist Affirmed Networks

Microsoft today announced that it has acquired Affirmed Networks, a company that specializes in fully virtualized, cloud-native networking solutions for telecom operators.

With its focus on 5G and edge computing, Affirmed looks like the ideal acquisition target for a large cloud provider looking to get deeper into the telco business. According to Crunchbase, Affirmed had raised a total of $155 million before this acquisition and the company’s over 100 enterprise customers include the likes of AT&T, Orange, Vodafone, Telus, Turkcell and STC.

“As we’ve seen with other technology transformations, we believe that software can play an important role in helping advance 5G and deliver new network solutions that offer step-change advancements in speed, cost and security,” writes Yousef Khalidi, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Azure Networking. “There is a significant opportunity for both incumbents and new players across the industry to innovate, collaborate and create new markets, serving the networking and edge computing needs of our mutual customers.”

With its customer base, Affirmed gives Microsoft another entry point into the telecom industry. Previously, the telcos would often build their own data centers and stuff it with costly proprietary hardware (and the software to manage it). But thanks to today’s virtualization technologies, the large cloud platforms are now able to offer the same capabilities and reliability without any of the cost. And unsurprisingly, a new technology like 5G with its promise of new and expanded markets makes for a good moment to push forward with these new technologies.

Google recently made some moves in this direction with its Anthos for Telecom and Global Mobile Edge Cloud, too. Chances are, we will see all of the large cloud providers continue to go after this market in the coming months.

In a somewhat odd move, only yesterday Affirmed announced a new CEO and President, Anand Krishnamurthy. It’s not often that we see these kinds of executive moves hours before a company announces its acquisition.

The announcement doesn’t feature a single hint at today’s news and includes all of the usual cliches we’ve come to expect from a press release that announces a new CEO. “We are thankful to Hassan for his vision and commitment in guiding the company through this extraordinary journey and positioning us for tremendous success in the future,” Krishnamurthy wrote at the time. “It is my honor to lead Affirmed as we continue to drive this incredible transformation in our industry.”

We asked Affirmed for some more background about this and will update this post once we hear more.


By Frederic Lardinois

Kaizo raises $3M for its AI-based tools to improve customer service support teams

CRM has for years been primarily a story of software to manage customer contacts, data to help agents do their jobs, and tools to manage incoming requests and outreach strategies. Now to add to that we’re starting to see a new theme: apps to help agents track how they work and to work better.

Today comes the latest startup in that category, a Dutch company called Kaizo, which uses AI and gamification to provide feedback on agents’ work, tips on what to do differently, and tools to set and work to goals — all of which can be used remotely, in the cloud. Today, it is announcing $3 million in a seed round of funding co-led by Gradient — Google’s AI venture fund — and French VC Partech. 

And along with the seed round, Kaizo (which rebranded last week from its former name, Ticketless) is announcing that Christoph Auer-Welsbach, a former partner at IBM Ventures, is joining the company as a co-founder, alongside founder Dominik Blattner. 

Although this is just a seed round, it’s coming after a period of strong growth for the company. Kaizo has already 500 companies including Truecaller, SimpleSurance, Miro, CreditRepairCloud, Justpark, Festicket and Nmbrs are using its software, covering “thousands” of customer support agents, which use a mixture of free and paid tools that integrate with established CRM software from the likes of Salesforce, Zendesk and more.

Customer service, and the idea of gamifying it to motivate employees, might feel like the last thing on people’s minds at the moment, but it is actually timely and relevant to our current state in responding to and living with the coronavirus.

People are spending much more time at home, and are turning to the internet and remote services to get what they need, and in many cases are finding that their best-laid plans are now in freefall. Both of these are driving a lot of traffic to sites and primarily customer support centers, which are getting overwhelmed with people reaching out for help.

And that’s before you consider how customer support teams might be impacted by coronavirus and the many mandates we’ve had to stay away from work, and the stresses they may be under.

“In our current social climate, customer support is an integral part of a company’s stability and growth that has embraced remote work to meet the demands of a globalized customer-base,” said Dominik Blattner, founder of Kaizo, in a statement. “With the rise of support teams utilizing a digital workplace, providing standards to measure an agent’s performance has never been more important. KPIs provide these standards, quantifying the success, achievement and contribution of each team member.”

On a more general level, Kaizo is also changing the conversation around how to improve one’s productivity. There has been a larger push for “quantified self” platforms, which has very much played out both in workplaces and in our personal lives, but a lot of services to track performance have focused on both managers and employees leaning in with a lot of input. That means if they don’t set aside the time to do that, the platforms never quite work the way they should.

This is where the AI element of Kaizo plays a key role, by taking on the need to proactively report into a system.

“This is how we’re distinct,” Auer-Welsbach said in an interview. “Normally KPIs are top-down. They are about people setting goals and then reporting they’ve done something. This is a bottom-up approach. We’re not trying to change employees’ behaviour. We plug into whatever environment they are using, and then our tool monitors. The employee doesn’t have to report or measure anything. We track clicks on the CRM, ticketing, and more, and we analyse all that.” He notes that Kaizo is looking at up to 50 datapoints in its analysis.

“We’re excited about Kaizo’s novel approach to applying AI to existing ticket data from platforms like Zendesk and Salesforce to optimize the customer support workflow,” said Darian Shirazi, General Partner at Gradient Ventures, in a statement. “Using machine learning, Kaizo understands which behaviors in customer service tickets lead to better outcomes for customers and then guides agents to replicate that using ongoing game mechanics. Customer support and service platforms today are failing to leverage data in the right way to make the life of agents easier and more effective. The demand Kaizo has seen since they launched on the Zendesk Marketplace shows agents have been waiting for such a solution for some time.”

Kaizo is not the only startup to have identified the area of building new services to improve the performance of customer support teams. Assembled earlier this month also raised $3.1 million led by Stripe for what it describes as the “operating system” for customer support.


By Ingrid Lunden

Yaguara nabs $7.2M seed to help e-commerce companies understand customers better

Yaguara, a Denver-based startup that wants to help e-commerce companies understand their customers better to deliver more meaningful experiences, announced a $7.2 million seed investment today.

The round was led by Foundation Capital with participation from Gradient Ventures, Rainfall Ventures and Zelkova. It also had help from some e-commerce heavy hitters including Warby Parker, Harry’s and Allbirds.

Yaguara CEO Jonathan Smalley was working at an agency building specialized cloud tools for online businesses when he recognized there was a need to pull data together into a single place and help companies understand their customer’s behavior better.

“Yaguara is based on integrating data and having all their data in the right place. For us, it started with several dozen tools from performance marketing to your actual e-commerce data to your fulfillment and unit economic data — bringing that all into one place letting them see their data in real time.”

“Then our platform serves predictive and prescriptive insights and recommendations to individual users across your teams, so they can drive specific outcomes across the organization based on that unified data set,” Smalley explained.

Screenshot: Yaguara

They build that data set by connecting to a variety of popular tools to help understand what’s happening across the customer lifecycle, whether that’s customer acquisition through Facebook or Google ads or understanding shopping cart abandonment data or how often the customer has returned to buy again, all of which help build a better picture of the customer.

While this may sound like a customer data platform (CDP), Smalley says it’s actually more than that. While the CDP provides the pipeline to your data sources like Yaguara, it doesn’t stop there. He says it reduces the complexity of helping front-line marketing personnel access and query that data without having to know SQL or R or have a technical intermediary to understand the data.

While the company is young it already has 250 e-commerce customers using the platform. With the new infusion of cash, it should be able to bring in more employees, build more data connectors and continue working to build out the platform.


By Ron Miller

Spotinst rebrands as Spot and announces new cloud spend dashboard

Spotinst, the startup that helps companies find lower cost spot instances in the cloud, announced today that it was rebranding as Spot. It also announced a brand new cloud usage dashboard to help companies get a detailed view of their cloud spend.

Amiram Shachar, co-founder and CEO at Spot, says the new product is designed to give customers much greater insight and visibility into cloud usage and spending.

“With this new product we’re providing a more holistic platform that lets customers see all of their cloud spending in one place — all over their usage, all of their costs, what they are spending and doing across multiple clouds — and then what they can actually do [to deploy resources more efficiently],” Shachar told TechCrunch.

The visibility means that customers can see across cloud vendors and get a big picture view of how they are deploying cloud resources to optimize their usage, which could be useful for the financial side of the house and IT.

“We’re basically bifurcating all of our customers’ cloud infrastructure and telling them this is what you should run on spot instances, this is what you should run on reserved instances and this is why you should keep on on-demand instances,” he said.

The new product builds on the company’s core competency: helping customers deploy cheaper spot and reserved instances from cloud infrastructure vendors in an automated fashion.

Spot instances are a product where cloud vendors deploy their unused resources for much lower cost, while reserved instances provide a discounted rate for buying resources in advance for a set price. However, spot instances have a big catch: when the cloud vendor needs those resources, you get kicked off. Spot helps in this regard by safely moving the workload to another available spot instance automatically.

Spot was founded in 2015 and has raised over $52 million, according to Crunchbase. Shachar says the company is in the $30 million revenue range and this new product should help drive that higher.


By Ron Miller

Humio announces $20M Series B to advance unlimited logging tool

Humio, a startup that has built a modern unlimited logging solution, announced a $20 million Series B investment today.

Dell Technologies Capital led the round with participation from previous investor Accel. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $32 million, according to the company.

Humio co-founder and CEO Geeta Schmidt says the startup wanted to build a solution that would allow companies to log everything, while reducing the overall cost associated with doing that, a tough problem due to the resource and data volume involved. The company deals with customers who are processing multiple terabytes of data per day.

“We really wanted to build an infrastructure where it’s easy to log everything and answer anything in real time. So we built an index-free logging solution which allows you to ask […] ad hoc questions over large volumes of data,” Schmidt told TechCrunch.

They are able to ingest so much data by using streaming technology, says company EVP of sales Morten Gram. “We have this real time streaming engine that makes it possible for customers to monitor whatever they know they want to be looking at. So they can build dashboards and alerts for these [metrics] that will be running in real time,” Gram explained.

What’s more, because the solution enables companies to log everything, rather than pick and choose what to log, they can ask questions about things they might not know, such as an on-going security incident or a major outage, and trace the answer from the data in the logs as the incident is happening.

Perhaps more importantly, the company has come up with technology to reduce the cost associated with processing and storing such high volumes of data. “We have thought a lot about trying to do a lot more with a lot less resources. And so, for example, one of our customers, who moved from a competitor, has gone from 80 servers to 14 doing the same volumes of data,” she said.

Deepak Jeevankumar, managing director and lead investor at Dell Technologies Capital, says that his firm recognized that Humio was solving these issues in a creative and modern way.

“Humio’s team has created a new log analysis architecture for the microservices age. This can support real-time analysis at full-speed ingest, while decreasing cost of storage and analysis by at least an order of magnitude,” he explained. “In a short-period of time, Humio has won the confidence of many Fortune 500 customers who have shifted their log platforms to Humio from legacy, decade-old architectures that do not scale for the cloud world.”

The company’s customers include Netlify, Bloomberg, HP Aruba and Michigan State University. It offers on-prem, cloud and hosted SaaS products. Today, the company also announced it was introducing an unlimited ingest plan for hosted SaaS customers.


By Ron Miller

Espressive lands $30M Series B to build better help chatbots

Espressive, a four-year-old startup from former ServiceNow employees, is working to build a better chatbot to reduce calls to company help desks. Today, the company announced a $30 million Series B investment.

Insight Partners led the round with help from Series A lead investor General Catalyst along with Wing Venture Capital. Under the terms of today’s agreement, Insight founder and managing director Jeff Horing will be joining the Espressive Board. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $53 million, according to the company.

Company founder and CEO Pat Calhoun says that when he was at ServiceNow he observed that, in many companies, employees often got frustrated looking for answers to basic questions. That resulted in a call to a Help Desk requiring human intervention to answer the question.

He believed that there was a way to automate this with AI-driven chatbots, and he founded Espressive to develop a solution. “Our job is to help employees get immediate answers to their questions or solutions or resolutions to their issues, so that they can get back to work,” he said.

They do that by providing a very narrowly focused natural language processing (NLP) engine to understand the question and find answers quickly, while using machine learning to improve on those answers over time.

“We’re not trying to solve every problem that NLP can address. We’re going after a very specific set of use cases which is really around employee language, and as a result, we’ve really tuned our engine to have the highest accuracy possible in the industry,” Calhoun told TechCrunch.

He says what they’ve done to increase accuracy is combine the NLP with image recognition technology. “What we’ve done is we’ve built our NLP engine on top of some image recognition architecture that’s really designed for a high degree of accuracy and essentially breaks down the phrase to understand the true meaning behind the phrase,” he said.

The solution is designed to provide a single immediate answer. If, for some reason, it can’t understand a request, it will open a help ticket automatically and route it to a human to resolve, but they try to keep that to a minimum. He says that when they deploy their solution, they tune it to the individual customers’ buzzwords and terminology.

So far they have been able to reduce help desk calls by 40% to 60% across customers with around 85% employee participation, which shows that they are using the tool and it’s providing the answers they need. In fact, the product understands 750 million employee phrases out of the box.

The company was founded in 2016. It currently has 65 employees and 35 customers, but with the new funding, both of those numbers should increase.


By Ron Miller

TripActions reportedly lays off hundreds amid COVID-19 travel freeze

The coronavirus demand crunch has taken another bite: Palo Alto-based corporate travel-focused unicorn, TripActions, reportedly laid off hundreds of staff yesterday.

Per this post on Blind — written by someone with a verified TripActions email address — the company fired 350 people. Business Insider reported the same figure yesterday. While the Wall Street Journal said the layoffs amount to between one-quarter to one-fifth of the startup’s total staff, citing a person familiar with the situation.

In an email to CrunchBase News TripActions confirmed it has axed jobs in response to the COVID-19 global health crisis — saying it has “cut back on all non-essential spend”. Although it did not confirm exactly how many employees it has fired.

“[We] made the very difficult decision to reduce our global workforce in line with the current climate,” TripActions wrote in the statement. “We look forward to when the strength of the global economy and business travel inevitably return and we can hire back our colleagues to rejoin us in our mission to make business travel effortless for our customers and users.”

“This global health crisis is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes, and our hearts go out to everyone impacted around the world, including our own customers, partners, suppliers and employees,” it added. “The coronavirus has had [a] wide-reaching effect on the global economy. Every business has been impacted including TripActions. While we were fortunate to have recently raised funding and secured debt financing, we are taking appropriate steps in our business to ensure we are here for our customers and their travelers long into the future.”

Per the post on Blind, TripActions is providing one week of severance to sacked staff and medical cover until end of month. “With [the coronavirus pandemic] going on you think they would do better,” the OP wrote. The layoffs were made by Zoom call, they also said.

We’ve reached out to TripActions for comment.

Travel startups are facing an unprecedented nuclear winter as demand has fallen off a cliff globally — with little prospect of a substantial change to the freeze on most business travel in the coming months as rates of COVID-19 infections continue to grow exponentially outside China.

However TripActions is one of the highest valued and best financed of such startups — securing a $500M credit facility for a new corporate product only last month, when we noted Crunchbase had more than $480M in tracked equity funding for the company, including a $250M Series D TripActions raised in June from investors including a16z, Group 11, Lightspeed and Zeev Ventures.

Ahead of making the layoffs the company had already paused all hiring, per one former technical sourcer for the company writing on LinkedIn.


By Natasha Lomas

Control each other’s apps with new screensharing tool Screen

It’s like Google Docs for everything. Screen is a free interactive multiplayer screensharing app that gives everyone a cursor so they can navigate, draw on, and even code within the apps of their co-workers while voice or video chatting. Screen makes it easy and fun to co-design content, pair program, code review or debug together, or get feedback from a teacher.

Jahanzeb Sherwani sold his last screensharing tool ScreenHero to Slack, but it never performed as well crammed inside the messaging app. Five years later, he’s accelerated the launch of Screen to today and made it free to help all the teams stuck working from home amidst coronavirus shelter-in-place orders. 

Sherwani claims that Screen is “2x-5x faster than other screen sharing tools, and has between 30ms-50ms end-to-end latency. Most other screen sharing tools have between 100ms-150ms.”

For being built by just a two-person team, Screen has a remarkable breadth of features that are all responsive and intuitive.

A few things you can do with Screen:

  • Share your screen from desktop on Mac, Windows and Linux while chatting over audio or video calling in a little overlaid window, or join a call and watch from your browser or mobile
  • Use your cursor on someone else’s shared screen so you can control or type anything just like it was your computer
  • Overlay drawing on the screenshare so you can annotate things like “this is misspelled” or “move this there”, with doodles fading away after a few second unless your hold down your mouse or turn on caps lock
  • Post ephemeral text comments so you can collaborate even if you have to be quiet
  • Launch Screen meetings from Slack and schedule them Google Calendar integration
  • Share invite links with anyone with no need to log in or be at the same company, just be careful who you let control your Screen

Normally Screen is free for joining meetings, $10 per month to host them, and $20 per person per month for enterprise teams. But Sherwani writes that for now it’s free to host too “so you can stay healthy & productive during the coronavirus outbreak.” If you can afford to pay, you should though as “We’re trying this as an experiment in the hope that the number of paid users is sufficient to pay for our running costs to help us stay break-even.”

Sherwani’s new creation could become an acquisition target for video call giants like Zoom, but he might not be so willing to sell this time around. Founded in 2013, Screenhero was incredibly powerful for its time, offering some of the collaboration tools now in Screen. But after it was acquired by Slack after raising just $1.8 million, Screenhero never got the integration it deserved.

“We finally shipped interactive screen sharing almost three years later, but it wasn’t as performant as Screenhero, and was eventually removed in 2019” Sherwani writes. “Given that it was used by a tiny fraction of Slack’s user-base, and had a high maintenance cost, this was the correct decision for Slack.” Still, he explains why a company like Screen is better off independent. “Embedding one complex piece of software in another imposes a lot more constraints, which makes it more expensive to build. It’s far easier to have a standalone app that just does one thing well.”

Screen actually does a lot of things well. I tried it with my wife, and the low latency and extensive flexibility made it downright delightful to try co-writing this article. It’s easy to imagine all sorts of social use cases springing up if teens get ahold of Screen. The whole concept of screensharing is getting popularized by apps like Squad and Instagram’s new Co-Watching feature that launched today.

The new Co-Watching feature is like screensharing just for Instagram

Eventually, Screen wants to launch a virtual office feature so you can just instantly pull co-workers into meetings. That could make it feel a lot more like collaborating in the same room with someone, where you can start a conversation at any time. Screen could also democratize the remote work landscape by shifting meetings from top-down broadcasts by managers to jam sessions where everyone has a say.

Sherwani concludes, “When working together, everyone needs to have a seat at the table”.


By Josh Constine

GitLab offers key lessons in running an all-remote workforce in new e-book

As companies that used to having workers in the same building struggle to find ways to work from home, one company that has been remote from Day One is GitLab . It recently published a handbook to help other companies who are facing the work-from-home challenge for the first time.

Lest you think GitLab is a small organization, it’s not. It’s 1,200 employees strong, all of which work from home in a mind boggling 67 countries. And it’s doing well. In September, the company raised $268 million on a $2.75 billion valuation.

Given that it has found a way to make a decentralized company work, GitLab has decided to share the best practices they’ve built up over the years to help others just starting on this journey.

Among the key bits of advice in the 34-page report, perhaps the most important to note when you begin working apart is to document everything. GitLab has a reputation for hyper transparency, publishing everything from its 3-year business strategy to its projected IPO date for the world to see.

But it’s also about writing down policies and procedures and making them available to the remote workforce. When you’re not in the same building, you can’t simply walk up to someone’s cubicle and ask a question, so you need to be vigilant about documenting your processes in a handbook that is available online and searchable.

“By adopting a handbook-first approach, team members have ‘a single source of truth’ for answers. Even though documentation takes a little more time upfront, it prevents people from having to ask the same question repeatedly. Remote work is what led to the development of GitLab’s publicly viewable handbook,” the company wrote in the e-book.

That includes an on-boarding procedure because folks aren’t coming into a meeting with HR when they start at GitLab. It’s essential to have all the information new hires need in one place, and the company has worked hard to build on-boarding templates. They also offer remote GitLab 101 meetings to orient folks who need more face time to get going.

You would think when you work like this, meetings would be required, but GitLab suggests making meetings optional. That’s because people are spread across the world’s time zones, making it difficult to get everyone together at the same time. Instead, the company records meetings and brainstorms ideas, essentially virtual white-boarding in Google Docs.

Another key piece of advice is to align your values with a remote way of working. That means changing your management approach to fit the expectations of a remote workforce. “If your values are structured to encourage conventional colocated workplace norms (such as consensus gathering or recurring meetings with in-person teams), rewrite them. If values are inconsistent with the foundation of remote work, there’s bound to be disappointment and confusion. Values can set the right expectations and provide a clear direction for the company going forward,” the company wrote.

This is just scratching the surface of what’s in the handbook, but it’s a valuable resource for anyone who is trying to find a way to function in a remote work environment. Each company will have its own culture and way of dealing with this, of course, but when a company like GitLab, which was born remote, provides this level of advice, it pays to listen and take advantage of their many years of expertise.


By Ron Miller

Startups are helping cloud infrastructure customers avoid vendor lock-in

For much of the history of enterprise technology, companies tended to buy from a single vendor because it made managing the entire affair much easier while giving them a “single throat to choke” when something went wrong. On the flip side, it also put customers at the mercy of said vendor — and it wasn’t always pretty.

As we move deeper into the cloud model, many IT pros are looking for more flexibility than they had in the past, avoiding the vendor lock-in from the previous generation of enterprise tech, and what being beholden to a single vendor could mean for the bottom line and their own flexibility.

This is something that comes up frequently in discussions about moving workloads from one cloud to another, and is sometimes referred to as a multi-cloud approach. Customers are loath to leave their workloads in the hands of one vendor again and repeat the mistakes of the past. They are looking to have the same flexibility on the infrastructure side that they are getting in the SaaS world, where companies tend to purchase best-of-breed from multiple vendors.

That means, they want the freedom to move workloads between clouds, but that’s not always as easy a prospect as it might seem, and it’s an area where startups could help lead the way.

What’s the problem?

What’s stopping customers from just moving data and applications between clouds? It turns out that there is a complex interlinking of public cloud APIs that help the applications and data work in tandem. If you want to pull out of one public cloud, it’s not a simple matter of just migrating to the next one.


By Ron Miller