DREAMTECH NEWS

Messaging app Wire confirms $8.2M raise, responds to privacy concerns after moving holding company to the US

Big changes are afoot for Wire, an enterprise-focused end-to-end encrypted messaging app and service that advertises itself as “the most secure collaboration platform”. In February, Wire quietly raised $8.2 million from Morpheus Ventures and others, we’ve confirmed — the first funding amount it has ever disclosed — and alongside that external financing, it moved its holding company in the same month to the US from Luxembourg, a switch that Wire’s CEO Morten Brogger described in an interview as “simple and pragmatic.”

He also said that Wire is planning to introduce a freemium tier to its existing consumer service — which itself has half a million users — while working on a larger round of funding to fuel more growth of its enterprise business — a key reason for moving to the US, he added: There is more money to be raised there.

“We knew we needed this funding and additional to support continued growth. We made the decision that at some point in time it will be easier to get funding in North America, where there’s six times the amount of venture capital,” he said.

While Wire has moved its holding company to the US, it is keeping the rest of its operations as is. Customers are licensed and serviced from Wire Switzerland; the software development team is in Berlin, Germany; and hosting remains in Europe.

The news of Wire’s US move and the basics of its February funding — sans value, date or backers — came out this week via a blog post that raises questions about whether a company that trades on the idea of data privacy should itself be more transparent about its activities.

The changes to Wire’s financing and legal structure had not been communicated to users until news started to leak out, which brings up questions not just about transparency, but about how secure Wire’s privacy policy will play out, given the company’s ownership now being on US soil.

It was an issue picked up and amplified by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden . Via Twitter, he described the move to the US as “not appropriate for a company claiming to provide a secure messenger — claims a large number of human rights defenders relied on.”

The key question is whether Wire’s shift to the US puts users’ data at risk — a question that Brogger claims is straightforward to answer: “We are in Switzerland, which has the best privacy laws in the world” — it’s subject to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation framework (GDPR) on top of its own local laws — “and Wire now belongs to a new group holding, but there no change in control.” 

In its blog post published in the wake of blowback from privacy advocates, Wire also claims it “stands by its mission to best protect communication data with state-of-the-art technology and practice” — listing several items in its defence:

  • All source code has been and will be available for inspection on GitHub (github.com/wireapp).
  • All communication through Wire is secured with end-to-end encryption — messages, conference calls, files. The decryption keys are only stored on user devices, not on our servers. It also gives companies the option to deploy their own instances of Wire in their own data centers.
  • Wire has started working on a federated protocol to connect on-premise installations and make messaging and collaboration more ubiquitous.
  • Wire believes that data protection is best achieved through state-of-the-art encryption and continues to innovate in that space with Messaging Layer Security (MLS).

But where data privacy and US law are concerned, it’s complicated. Snowden famously leaked scores of classified documents disclosing the extent of US government mass surveillance programs in 2013, including how data-harvesting was embedded in US-based messaging and technology platforms.

Six years on, the political and legal ramifications of that disclosure are still playing out — with a key judgement pending from Europe’s top court which could yet unseat the current data transfer arrangement between the EU and the US.

Privacy versus security

Wire launched at a time when interest in messaging apps was at a high watermark. The company made its debut in the middle of February 2014, and it was only one week later that Facebook acquired WhatsApp for the princely sum of $19 billion. We described Wire’s primary selling point at the time as a “reimagining of how a communications tool like Skype should operate had it been built today” rather than in in 2003.

That meant encryption and privacy protection, but also better audio tools and file compression and more. It was  a pitch that seemed especially compelling considering the background of the company. Skype co-founder Janus Friis and funds connected to him were the startup’s first backers (and they remain the largest shareholders); Wire was co-founded in by Skype alums Jonathan Christensen and Alan Duric (no longer with the company); and even new investor Morpheus has Skype roots.

Even with the Skype pedigree, the strategy faced a big challenge.

“The consumer messaging market is lost to the Facebooks of the world, which dominate it,” Brogger said today. “However, we made a clear insight, which is the core strength of Wire: security and privacy.”

That, combined with trend around the consumerization of IT that’s brought new tools to business users, is what led Wire to the enterprise market in 2017.

But fast forward to today, and it seems that even as security and privacy are two sides of the same coin, it may not be so simple when deciding what to optimise in terms of features and future development, which is part of the question now and what critics are concerned with.

“Wire was always for profit and planned to follow the typical venture backed route of raising rounds to accelerate growth,” one source familiar with the company told us. “However, it took time to find its niche (B2B, enterprise secure comms).

“It needed money to keep the operations going and growing. [But] the new CEO, who joined late 2017, didn’t really care about the free users, and the way I read it now, the transformation is complete: ‘If Wire works for you, fine, but we don’t really care about what you think about our ownership or funding structure as our corporate clients care about security, not about privacy.’”

And that is the message you get from Brogger, too, who describes individual consumers as “not part of our strategy”, but also not entirely removed from it, either, as the focus shifts to enterprises and their security needs.

Brogger said there are still half a million individuals on the platform, and they will come up with ways to continue to serve them under the same privacy policies and with the same kind of service as the enterprise users. “We want to give them all the same features with no limits,” he added. “We are looking to switch it into a freemium model.”

On the other side, “We are having a lot of inbound requests on how Wire can replace Skype for Business,” he said. “We are the only one who can do that with our level of security. It’s become a very interesting journey and we are super excited.”

Part of the company’s push into enterprise has also seen it make a number of hires. This has included bringing in two former Huddle C-suite execs, Brogger as CEO and Rasmus Holst as chief revenue officer — a bench that Wire expanded this week with three new hires from three other B2B businesses: a VP of EMEA sales from New Relic, a VP of finance from Contentful; and a VP of Americas sales from Xeebi.

Such growth comes with a price-tag attached to it, clearly. Which is why Wire is opening itself to more funding and more exposure in the US, but also more scrutiny and questions from those who counted on its services before the change.

Brogger said inbound interest has been strong and he expects the startup’s next round to close in the next two to three months.


By Ingrid Lunden

Atlassian expands Jira Service Desk beyond IT teams

Atlassian today announced a set of new templates and workflows for Jira Service Desk that were purpose-built for HR, legal and facilities teams. Service Desk started six years ago as a version of Jira that was mostly meant for IT departments. Atlassian, however, found that other teams inside the companies that adopted it started to use it as well, including various teams at Twitter and Airbnb, for example. With today’s update, it’s now making it easier for these teams, at least in legal, HR and facilities, to get started with Jira Service Desk without having to customize the product themselves.

“Over the last six years, one of the observations that we’ve made was that we need to provide really good services — the idea that we can provide great services to employees is really something that is really on the rise,” said Edwin Wong, the head of the company’s IT products. “I think in the past, maybe we were a bit more forgiving in terms of what employees expected from services departments. But today you’re just so used to great experiences in your consumer life and when you come to work, you expect the same.”

But lots of service teams, he argues, didn’t have the tools to provide this experience, yet they were looking for tools to streamline their workflows (think onboarding for HR teams, for example) and to move from manual processes to something more automated and modern. Jira was already flexible enough to allow them to do this, but the new set of templates now codifies these processes for them.

Wong stressed this isn’t just about tracking but also managing work across teams and providing them a more centralized hub for information. “One of the big challenges that we’ve seen from many of the customers that we’ve spoken to is the challenge of just figuring out where to go when you want something,” he said. “When I have a new employee, where do I go to ask for a new laptop? Is that the same process as telling my facilities teams that perhaps there is an issue with a bathroom?”

Atlassian is starting with these three templates because that’s where it saw the most immediate need. Over time, I’m sure we’ll see the company get into other verticals as well.


By Frederic Lardinois

Mirantis acquires Docker Enterprise

Mirantis today announced that it has acquired Docker’s Enterprise business and team. Docker Enterprise was very much the heart of Docker’s product lineup, so this sale leaves Docker as a shell of its former, high-flying unicorn self. Docker itself, which installed a new CEO earlier this year, says it will continue to focus on tools that will advance developers’ workflows. Mirantis will keep the Docker Enterprise brand alive, though, which will surely not create any confusion.

With this deal, Mirantis is acquiring Docker Enterprise Technology Platform and all associated IP: Docker Enterprise Engine, Docker Trusted Registry, Docker Unified Control Plane and Docker CLI. It will also inherit all Docker Enterprise customers and contracts, as well as its strategic technology alliances and partner programs. Docker and Mirantis say they will both continue to work on the Docker platform’s open-source pieces.

The companies did not disclose the price of the acquisition, but it’s surely nowhere near Docker’s valuation during any of its last funding rounds. Indeed, it’s no secret that Docker’s fortunes changed quite a bit over the years, from leading the container revolution to becoming somewhat of an afterthought after Google open-sourced Kubernetes and the rest of the industry coalesced around it. It still had a healthy enterprise business, though, with plenty of large customers among the large enterprises. The company says about a third of Fortune 100 and a fifth of Global 500 companies use Docker Enterprise, which is a statistic most companies would love to be able to highlight — and which makes this sale a bit puzzling from Docker’s side, unless the company assumed that few of these customers were going to continue to bet on its technology.

Update: for reasons only known to Docker’s communications team, we weren’t told about this beforehand, but the company also today announced that it has raised a $35 million funding round from Benchmark. This doesn’t change the overall gist of the story below, but it does highlight the company’s new direction.

Here is what Docker itself had to say. “Docker is ushering in a new era with a return to our roots by focusing on advancing developers’ workflows when building, sharing and running modern applications. As part of this refocus, Mirantis announced it has acquired the Docker Enterprise platform business,” Docker said in a statement when asked about this change. “Moving forward, we will expand Docker Desktop and Docker Hub’s roles in the developer workflow for modern apps. Specifically, we are investing in expanding our cloud services to enable developers to quickly discover technologies for use when building applications, to easily share these apps with teammates and the community, and to run apps frictionlessly on any Kubernetes endpoint, whether locally or in the cloud.”

Mirantis itself, too, went through its ups and downs. While it started as a well-funded OpenStack distribution, today’s Mirantis focuses on offering a Kubernetes-centric on-premises cloud platform and application delivery. As the company’s CEO Adrian Ionel told me ahead of today’s announcement, today is possibly the most important day for the company.

So what will Mirantis do with Docker Enterprise? “Docker Enterprise is absolutely aligned and an accelerator of the direction that we were already on,” Ionel told me. “We were very much moving towards Kubernetes and containers aimed at multi-cloud and hybrid and edge use cases, with these goals to deliver a consistent experience to developers on any infrastructure anywhere — public clouds, hybrid clouds, multi-cloud and edge use cases — and make it very easy, on-demand, and remove any operational concerns or burdens for developers or infrastructure owners.”

Mirantis previously had about 450 employees. With this acquisition, it gains another 300 former Docker employees that it needs to integrate into its organization. Docker’s field marketing and sales teams will remain separate for some time, though, Ionel said, before they will be integrated. “Our most important goal is to create no disruptions for customers,” he noted. “So we’ll maintain an excellent customer experience, while at the same time bringing the teams together.”

This also means that for current Docker Enterprise customers, nothing will change in the near future. Mirantis says that it will accelerate the development of the product and merge its Kubernetes and lifecycle management technology into it. Over time, it will also offer a managed services solutions for Docker Enterprise.

While there is already some overlap between Mirantis’ and Docker Enterprise’s customer base, Mirantis will pick up about 700 new enterprise customers with this acquisition.

With this, Ionel argues, Mirantis is positioned to go up against large players like VMware and IBM/Red Hat. “We are the one real cloud-native player with meaningful scale to provide an alternative to them without lock-in into a legacy or existing technology stack.”

While this is clearly a day the Mirantis team is celebrating, it’s hard not to look at this as the end of an era for Docker, too. The company says it will share more about its future plans today, but didn’t make any spokespeople available ahead of this announcement.


By Frederic Lardinois

Work collaboration startup Notion Labs cozies up to Silicon Valley’s top accelerators

Startups building work software for other startups have been a huge focus of investment in Silicon Valley as eager VCs hope to grab a piece of the next Slack. Notion Labs, a profitable work tools startup that recently hit a reported $800 million valuation, isn’t making it easy for VC firms to give them money, but they are partnering with some of them alongside top accelerators like Y Combinator in an effort to become another household name in work software.

Notion has north of 1 million users and has attracted thousands of young startups to its platform, which combines notes, wikis and databases into a versatile tool that can help small teams cut down on the number of enterprise software subscriptions they’re paying for. Notion charges startups $8 per employee (when billed annually) to use the service.

Over half of the startups from Y Combinator’s most recent batch are Notion customers, the company tells TechCrunch, and the startup seems intent to accelerate their adoption among small teams. They have approached and partnered with dozens of accelerators around the globe including Y Combinator, 500 Startups and TechStars to bring their portfolio startups onto Notion’s platform, offering admitted startups $1,000 in free services each.

The new program is part of the company’s efforts to embed their platform as an “operating system” for startups early-on and then scale as their customers do.

“I think we find ourselves in a really interesting spot where I think YC startups know about us and start with it,” COO Akshay Kothari says. “Our goal with the new program is getting to the point where if you’re a new company, you don’t even think about it, you just start with Notion.”

Notion COO Akshay Kothari

Notion COO Akshay Kothari

Kothari says their platform seems to work best for startups in the sub-50 and sub-100 employee range, but they do have larger customers like UK banking startup Monzo which has organized their 1,300+ employees around the platform. Notion itself is unsurprisingly a power user of its product, running everything but internal and external communications on its own software.

The company offers a couple pricing tiers depending on size, but individuals can also use the software for $5 per month, something that Kothari believes offers it advantages over other tools in driving adoption inside companies. “There are a lot of similarities between us and the early stages of Slack in terms of engineering and product design people loving it, tech and media loving it, but one unique thing about us is that you can use Notion alone. Slack alone would be a bit lonely.”

The company is pitching customers a vision of consolidated workplace services that are built so end-users can customize them to their needs. Notion’s pitch contrasts pretty heavily with the overarching enterprise SaaS trends which has seen a wealth of specialized software tools hitting the market.

Notion is working on tools to help it court larger enterprise customers as well, including offline access, better permission systems and an API that can help developers connect their services to the platform. Notion has been iterating its product rather quickly for a company that has 9 engineers and no PMs, but Kothari says that they don’t believe piling more money or doubling employees is going to be the key to scaling more quickly.

“We definitely want to create a large company, a company that could eventually go public or whatever is the right — you know it’s too early for a lot of that stuff. Our preference is to stay small,” he says. “[Notion] doesn’t have a board, it doesn’t have a whole lot of external voices, pretty much everyone in this office decides what we’re doing next.”

Notion has raised millions in funding from investors like First Round Capital, Ron and Ronny Conway, Elad Gill and most recently Daniel Gross. The Information‘s Amir Efrati reported earlier this year that Notion had raised a $10 million “angel round” at an $800 million valuation. The round was less about raising more cash than it was about closing convertible notes, Korthari tells TechCrunch, noting that Notion has been profitable for the last 12-18 months.

“I guess we were profitable before profitability became cool. I think profitability helps you to control destiny a lot better because you’re not out fundraising every year or 18 months,” Kothari says. “Interestingly now, I think it’s cool to be profitable again. When I joined Notion I would tell VCs or investors ‘Oh, we’re profitable,’ and they would be like ‘Oh, so you’re building a lifestyle company.’”

Kothari himself was an investor that dumped money into Notion founders Ivan Zhao and Simon Last’s idea to create a platform that would help non-engineers build software. That was 6 years ago after Kothari sold his previous startup to LinkedIn, he joined about a year ago as COO.

Some VCs may have been skeptical early-on, but the story of Notion over the past year has been VCs fighting to score a spot on their cap table. In January, The New York Times‘s Erin Griffith reported that VCs had “dug up Notion’s office address and sent its founders cookie dough, dog treats and physical letters” to court their interest. The unrequited VC yearning has earned Notion the reputation for being venture averse, something Kothari pushed back on a few times.

“So, again, for the record, we don’t hate venture capitalists.”


By Lucas Matney

Lawyers hate timekeeping. Ping raises $13M to fix it with AI

Counting billable time in six minute increments is the most annoying part of being a lawyer. It’s a distracting waste. It leads law firms to conservatively under-bill. And it leaves lawyers stuck manually filling out timesheets after a long day when they want to go home to their families.

Life is already short, as Ping CEO and co-founder Ryan Alshak knows too well. The former lawyer spent years caring for his mother as she battled a brain tumor before her passing. “One minute laughing with her was worth a million doing anything else” he tells me. “I became obsessed with the idea that we spend too much of our lives on things we have no need to do — especially at work.”

That’s motivated him as he’s built his startup Ping, which uses artificial intelligence to automatically track lawyers’ work and fill out timesheets for them. There’s a massive opportunity to eliminate a core cause of burnout, lift law firm revenue by around 10%, and give them fresh insights into labor allocation.

Ping co-founder and CEO Ryan Alshak. Image Credit: Margot Duane

That’s why today Ping is announcing a $13.2 million Series A led by Upfront Ventures, along with BoxGroup, First Round, Initialized, and Ulu Ventures. Adding to Ping’s quiet $3.7 million seed led by First Round last year, the startup will spend the cash to scale up enterprise distribution and become the new timekeeping standard.

I was a corporate litigator at Manatt Phelps down in LA and joke that I was voted the world’s worst timekeeper” Alshak tells me. “I could either get better at doing something I dreaded or I could try and build technology that did it for me.”

The promise of eliminating the hassle could make any lawyer who hears about Ping an advocate for the firm buying the startup’s software, like how Dropbox grew as workers demanded easier file sharing. “I’ve experienced first-hand the grind of filling out timesheets” writes Initialized partner and former attorney Alda Leu Dennis. “Ping takes away the drudgery of manual timekeeping and gives lawyers back all those precious hours.”

Traditionally, lawyers have to keep track of their time by themselves down to the tenth of an hour — reviewing documents for the Johnson case, preparing a motion to dismiss for the Lee case, a client phone call for Sriram case. There are timesheets built into legal software suites like MyCase, legal billing software like Timesolv, and one-off tools like Time Miner and iTimeKeep. They typically offer timers that lawyers can manually start and stop on different devices, with some providing tracking of scheduled appointments, call and text logging, and integration with billing systems.

Ping goes a big step further. It uses AI and machine learning to figure out whether an activity is billable, for which client, a description of the activity, and its codification beyond just how long it lasted. Instead of merely filling in the minutes, it completes all the logs automatically with entries like “Writing up a deposition – Jenkins Case – 18 minutes”. Then it presents the timesheet to the user for review before the send it to billing.

The big challenge now for Alshak and the team he’s assembled is to grow up. They need to go from cat-in-sunglasses logo Ping to mature wordmark Ping.  “We have to graduate from being a startup to being an enterprise software company” the CEO tells meThat means learning to sell to C-suites and IT teams, rather than just build solid product. In the relationship-driven world of law, that’s a very different skill set. Ping will have to convince clients it’s worth switching to not just for the time savings and revenue boost, but for deep data on how they could run a more efficient firm.

Along the way, Ping has to avoid any embarrassing data breaches or concerns about how its scanning technology could violate attorney-client privilege. If it can win this lucrative first business in legal, it could barge into the consulting and accounting verticals next to grow truly huge.

With eager customers, a massive market, a weak status quo, and a driven founder, Ping just needs to avoid getting in over its heads with all its new cash. Spent well, the startup could leap ahead of the less tech-savvy competition.

Alshak seems determined to get it right. “We have an opportunity to build a company that gives people back their most valuable resource — time — to spend more time with their loved ones because they spent less time working” he tells me. “My mom will live forever because she taught me the value of time. I am deeply motivated to build something that lasts . . . and do so in her name.”


By Josh Constine

Loop Returns picks up $10 million in Series A led by FirstMark Capital

Loop Returns, the startup that helps brands handle returns from online purchases, has today announced the close of a $10 million Series A funding round led by FirstMark Capital. Lerer Hippeau and Ridge Ventures also participated in the round.

Loop started when Jonathan Poma, a cofounder and COO and President, was working at an agency and consulting with a big Shopify brand on how to improve their system for returns and exchanges. After partnering with long-time friend Corbett Morgan Loop Returns was born.

Loop sits on top of Shopify to handle all of a brand’s returns. It first asks the customer if they’d like a different size in the item they bought, quickly managing an exchange. It then asks if the customer would prefer to exchange for a new item altogether, depositing the credit in that person’s account in real time so they can shop for something new immediately.

If an exchange isn’t in the cards, Loop will ask the customer if they’d prefer credit with this brand over a straight-up refund.

The goal, according to Poma and Morgan, is to turn the point of return into a moment where brands can create a life-loyal customer when handled quickly and properly.

The more we shop online, the more brands extend themselves financially, and returns are a big part of that. Returns account for 20 to 30 percent of ecommerce sales, which can become a terrible financial burden on a growing direct-to-consumer brand. And what’s more, the cost of acquiring those users in the first place also goes down the drain.

Loop Returns hopes to keep that customer in the fold by giving them post-purchase options that are more sticky and more lucrative for the brand than a refund.

The company thinks of it as Connection Infrastructure. Most brands already have a customer acquisition architecture, and Shopify and Amazon are ahead when it comes to the infrastructure around customer convenience. But the ties that bind customers to brands haven’t been optimized for the many D2C brands out there looking to make an impact.

“The big problem we’re trying to solve long term is connection infrastructure,” said Morgan. “Why does this brand matter? Why does it mean something to me? Why does the product matter? We want to enforce more mindfulness and meaning into buying.”

Of course, a more mindful shopper doesn’t yield as many returns. Poma and Morgan admit that the goal of their software is to minimize returns, the very reason for the software’s existence. After all, return volume is one of a handful of variables that help Loop Returns determine what it will charge its brand clients.

But the team is thinking about other layers of the connection infrastructure, with plans to launch a product in 2020 that also focuses on the connection point after purchase. Poma and Morgan believe, with an almost religious reverence, that the brands themselves will help lead shoppers and infrastructure providers to a better, more connected shopping experience.

“Brands are the torch bearers,” said Poma. “They will lead us to a more enlightened era of how we think about buying. Empowerment of the brand will lead us to a better consumerism.”

The cofounders stayed mum on any specific plans for the 2020 product, but did say they will use the funding to expand operations and further build out its current and future products.

Of course, Loop is playing in a crowded space. Not only are there other players thinking about post-purchase connection, but Shopify has itself built out tools to help with exchanges and returns, and even acquired Return Magic, a similar service, in the summer of 2018.

That said, Loop Returns believes that there is a long way to go as it builds the ‘connection infrastructure’ and that one clear path forward is actual personalization. With data from returns and exchanges, Loop Returns is relatively well positioned to take on personalization in a meaningful way.

For now, Loop Returns has more than 200 customers and has handled more than 2 million returns, working with brands like Brooklinen, AllBirds, PuraVida and more.


By Jordan Crook

Salesforce Ventures invested $300M in Automattic while Salesforce was building a CMS

In September, Salesforce Ventures, the venture of arm of Salesforce, announced a hefty $300 million investment in Automattic, the company behind WordPress, the ubiquitous content management system (CMS). At the same time, the company was putting the finishing touches on Salesforce CMS, an in-house project it released last week.

The question is, why did it choose to do both?

One reason could be that WordPress isn’t just well-liked; it’s also the world’s most popular content management system, running 34 percent of the world’s 10 billion websites — including this one — according to the company. With Automattic valued at $3 billion, that gives Salesforce Ventures a 10 percent stake.

Given the substantial investment, you wouldn’t have been irrational to at least consider the idea that Salesforce may have had its eye on this company as an acquisition target. In fact, at the time of the funding, Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg told TechCrunch’s Romain Dillet that there could be some partnerships and integrations with Salesforce in the future.

Now we have a Salesforce CMS, and a potential partnership with one of the world’s largest web content management (WCM) tools, and it’s possible that the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.


By Ron Miller

Alpaca nabs $6M for stocks API so anyone can build a Robinhood

Stock trading app Robinhood is valued at $7.6 billion, but it only operates in the US. Freshly-funded fintech startup Alpaca does the dirty work so developers worldwide can launch their own competitors to that investing unicorn. Like the Stripe of stocks, Alpaca’s API handles the banking, security, and regulatory complexity, allowing other startups to quickly build brokerage apps on top for free. It’s already crossed $1 billion in transaction within a year of launch.

The potential to power the backend of a new generation of fintech apps has attracted a $6 million Series A round for Alpaca led by Spark Capital . Instead of charging developers, Alpaca earns its money through payment for order flow, interest on cash deposits, and margin lending much like Robinhood.

“I want to make sure that people even outside the US have access” to a way of building wealth that’s historically only “available to rich people” Alpaca co-founder and CEO Yoshi Yokokawa tells me.

Alpaca co-founder and CEO Yoshi Yokokawa

Hailing from Japan, Yokokawa followed his friends into the investment banking industry where he worked at Lehman Brothers until its collapse. After his grandmother got sick, he moved into day-trading for three years and realized “all the broker dealer business tools were pretty bad”. But when he heard of Robinhood in 2013 and saw it actually catering to users’ needs, he thought “I need to be involved in this new transformation” of fintech.

Yokokawa ended up first building a business selling deep learning AI to banks and trading firms in the foreign exchange market. Watching clients struggle to quickly integrate new technology revealed the lack of available developer tools. By 2017, he was pivoting the business and applying for FINRA approval. Alpaca launched in late 2018, letting developers paste in code to let their users buy and sell securities.

Now international developers and small hedge funds are building atop the Alpaca API so they don’t have to reinvent the underlying infrastructure themselves right away. Alpaca works with clearing broker NTC, and then marks up margin trading while earning interest and payment for order flow. It also offers products like AlpacaForecast with short-term predictions of stock prices, AlpacaRadar for detecting price swings, and its MarketStore financial database server.

AlpacaForecast

The $6 million from Spark Capital, Social Leverage, Portag3, Fathom Capital, and Zillionize adds to $5.8 million in previous funding from investors including Y Combinator. The startup plans to spend the cash on hiring up to handle partnerships with bigger businesses, supporting its developer community, and ensuring compliance.

One major question is whether fintech businesses that start to grow atop Alpaca and drive its revenues will try to declare independence and later invest in their own technology stack. There’s the additional risk of a security breach that might scare away clients.

Alpaca’s top competitor Interactive Brokers offers trading APIs but other services as well that distract it from fostering a robust developer community, Yokokawa tells me. Alpaca focuses on providing great documentation, open source contribution, and SDKs in different languages that make it more developer-friendly. It will also have to watch out for other fintech services startups like DriveWealth and well-funded Galileo.

There’s a big opportunity to capitalize on the race to integrate stock trading into other finance apps to drive stickiness since it’s a consistent voluntary behavior rather than a chore or something only done a few times a year. Lender Sofi and point-of-sale system Square both recently became broker dealers as well, and Yokokawa predicts more and more apps will push into the space.

Why would we need so many stock trading apps? “Every single person is involved with money so the market is huge. Instead of one-player takes all, there will be different players that can all do well” Yokokawa tells me. “Like banks and investment banks co-exist, it will never be that Bank Of America takes 80% of the pie. I think differentiation will be on customer acquisition, and operations management efficiency.”

The co-founder’s biggest concern is keeping up with all the new opportunities in financial services, from cash management and cryptocurrency that Robinhood already deals in, to security token offerings, and fractional investing. Yokokawa says “I need to make sure I’m on top of everything and that we’re executing with the right timing so we don’t lose.”

The CEO hopes that Alpaca will one day power broader access to the US stock market back in Japan, noting that if a modern nation still lags behind in fintech, the rest of world surely fares even worse. “I want to connect this asset class to as many people as possible on the earth.”


By Josh Constine

How Microsoft is trying to become more innovative

Microsoft Research is a globally distributed playground for people interested in solving fundamental science problems.

These projects often focus on machine learning and artificial intelligence, and since Microsoft is on a mission to infuse all of its products with more AI smarts, it’s no surprise that it’s also seeking ways to integrate Microsoft Research’s innovations into the rest of the company.

Across the board, the company is trying to find ways to become more innovative, especially around its work in AI, and it’s putting processes in place to do so. Microsoft is unusually open about this process, too, and actually made it somewhat of a focus this week at Ignite, a yearly conference that typically focuses more on technical IT management topics.

At Ignite, Microsoft will for the first time present these projects externally at a dedicated keynote. That feels similar to what Google used to do with its ATAP group at its I/O events and is obviously meant to showcase the cutting-edge innovation that happens inside of Microsoft (outside of making Excel smarter).

To manage its AI innovation efforts, Microsoft created the Microsoft AI group led by VP Mitra Azizirad, who’s tasked with establishing thought leadership in this space internally and externally, and helping the company itself innovate faster (Microsoft’s AI for Good projects also fall under this group’s purview). I sat down with Azizirad to get a better idea of what her team is doing and how she approaches getting companies to innovate around AI and bring research projects out of the lab.

“We began to put together a narrative for the company of what it really means to be in an AI-driven world and what we look at from a differentiated perspective,” Azizirad said. “What we’ve done in this area is something that has resonated and landed well. And now we’re including AI, but we’re expanding beyond it to other paradigm shifts like human-machine interaction, future of computing and digital responsibility, as more than just a set of principles and practices but an area of innovation in and of itself.”

Currently, Microsoft is doing a very good job at talking and thinking about horizon one opportunities, as well as horizon three projects that are still years out, she said. “Horizon two, we need to get better at, and that’s what we’re doing.”

It’s worth stressing that Microsoft AI, which launched about two years ago, marks the first time there’s a business, marketing and product management team associated with Microsoft Research, so the team does get a lot of insights into upcoming technologies. Just in the last couple of years, Microsoft has published more than 6,000 research papers on AI, some of which clearly have a future in the company’s products.


By Frederic Lardinois

AWS announces new savings plans to reduce complexity of reserved instances

Reserved instances (RIs) have provided a mechanism for companies, who expect to use a certain level of AWS infrastructure resources, to get some cost certainty, but as AWS’s Jeff Barr points out they are on the complex side. To fix that, the company announced a new method called Savings Plans.

“Today we are launching Savings Plans, a new and flexible discount model that provides you with the same discounts as RIs, in exchange for a commitment to use a specific amount (measured in dollars per hour) of compute power over a one or three year period,” Barr wrote in a blog post announcing the new program.

Amazon charges customers in a couple of ways. First, there is an on-demand price, which is basically the equivalent of the rack rate at a hotel. You are going to pay more for this because you’re walking up and ordering it on the fly.

Most organizations know they are going to need a certain level of resources over a period of time, and in these cases, they can save some money by buying in bulk up front. This gives them cost certainty as an organization, and it helps Amazon because it knows it’s going to have a certain level of usage and can plan accordingly.

While Reserved Instances aren’t going away yet, it sounds like Amazon is trying to steer customers to the new savings plans. “We will continue to sell RIs, but Savings Plans are more flexible and I think many of you will prefer them,” Barr wrote.

The Savings Plans come in two flavors. Compute Savings Plans provide up to 66% savings and are similar to RIs in this regard. The aspect that customers should like is that the savings are broadly applicable across AWS products, and you can even move work loads between regions and maintain the same discounted rate.

The other is an EC2 Instance Savings Plan. With this one, also similarly to the reserved instance, you can save up to 72% over the on-demand price, but with this option you are limited to a single region.  It does offer a measure of flexibility though allowing you to select different sizes of the same instance type or even switch operating systems from Windows to Linux without affecting your discount with your region of choice.

You can sign up today through the AWS Cost Explorer.


By Ron Miller