DREAMTECH NEWS

Why we’re doubling down on cloud investments right now

Years from now, people will look back on the COVID-19 pandemic as a watershed moment for society and the global economy.

Wearing a mask might be as common as owning a phone; telework, telemedicine and online education will be more of a norm than a backup plan; and for the global economy, the cloud will have transformed the underlying infrastructure of businesses and entire industries.

COVID-19 is a turning point for the cloud and cloud company founders. For its computing power and as a delivery model of software, the cloud has been embraced as a solution to many challenges that businesses face during today’s economic downturn and recovery. Not only is the cloud industry more resilient than other industries, but the cloud model offers businesses a promising future in the age of social distancing and beyond.

We believe that once founders find shelter in the cloud, they’ll never go back.

Cloud’s resiliency amid historic volatility

Over the past decade, there’s been a massive market shift from on-premises to cloud, as 94% of enterprises use at least one cloud service today. 2020 was already a milestone year for the cloud industry, as aggregate SaaS and IaaS run-rate revenue each crossed $100 billion, and the BVP Nasdaq Emerging Cloud Index (^EMCLOUD) market cap crossed $1 trillion in early February. Yet in a matter of days, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread, fear tore through financial markets.

In early March, public markets experienced the steepest crash in history with volatility we haven’t seen since the Great Recession. The cloud index market cap dropped to ~$750 million and cloud multiples returned close to their historical averages of ~7x while the VIX volatility index spiked to the mid-80s. Both at global highs in February 2020, the ^EMCLOUD and the S&P 500 traded off by roughly 35% by mid-March. Over the next two months, though, the ^EMCLOUD recouped those losses, charging to a new all-time high on May 7.

The cloud index has continued its rise since then, and as of the close on May 11 has a market cap above $1.2 trillion and has returned to the lofty 12x forward run rate revenue multiples from 2019. Similar to Adobe in 2012, we expect many enterprises to transition over to the cloud model, and the index will continue to expand. As we predicted in this year’s State of the Cloud 2020, by 2025 we expect the cloud to penetrate 50% of enterprise software.


By Walter Thompson

Google makes it easier to migrate VMware environments to its cloud

Google Cloud today announced the next step in its partnership with VMware: the Google Cloud VMware Engine. This fully managed service provides businesses with a full VMware Cloud Foundation stack on Google Cloud to help businesses easily migrate their existing VMware-based environments to Google’s infrastructure. Cloud Foundation is VMware’s stack for hybrid and private cloud deployments

Given Google Cloud’s focus on enterprise customers, it’s no surprise that the company continues to bet on partnerships with the likes of VMware to attract more of these companies’ workloads. Less than a year ago, Google announced that VMware Cloud Foundation would come to Google Cloud and that it would start supporting VMware workloads. Then, last November, Google Cloud acquired CloudSimple, a company that specialized in running VMware environments and that Google had already partnered with for its original VMware deployments. The company describes today’s announcement as the third step in this journey.

VMware Engine provides users with all of the standard Cloud Foundation components: vSphere, vCenter, vSAN, NSX-T and HCX. With this, Google Cloud General Manager June Yang notes in today’s announcement, businesses can quickly stand up their own software-defined data center in the Google Cloud.

“Google Cloud VMware Engine is designed to minimize your operational burden, so you can focus on your business,” she notes. “We take care of the lifecycle of the VMware software stack and manage all related infrastructure and upgrades. Customers can continue to leverage IT management tools and third-party services consistent with their on-premises environment.”

Google is also working with third-party providers like NetApp, Veeam, Zerto, Cohesity and Dell Technologies to ensure that their solutions work on Google’s platform, too.

“As customers look to simplify their cloud migration journey, we’re committed to build cloud services to help customers benefit from the increased agility and efficiency of running VMware workloads on Google Cloud,” said Bob Black, Dell Technologies Global Lead Alliance Principal at Deloitte Consulting. “By combining Google Cloud’s technology and Deloitte’s business transformation experience, we can enable our joint customers to accelerate their cloud migration, unify operations, and benefit from innovative Google Cloud services as they look to modernize applications.””


By Frederic Lardinois

Kustomer acquires Reply.ai to enhance chatbots on its CRM platform

Last December, when CRM startup Kustomer was announcing its latest round of funding — a $60 million round led by Coatue — its co-founder and CEO Brad Birnbaum said it would use some of the money to build more RPA-style automations into its platform to expand KustomerIQ, its AI-based product that helps understand and respond to customer enquiries to take some of the more repetitive load off of agents. Today, Kustomer is announcing some M&A that will help in that strategy: it is acquiring Reply.ai, a startup originally founded in Madrid that has built a code-free platform for companies to create customised chatbots to handle customer service enquires that use machine learning to, over time, become better at responding to those inbound contacts.

Kustomer, which has raised more than $170 million and is now valued at $710 million (per PitchBook), said it is not disclosing the financial terms of the deal.

Reply.ai — whose customers include Coca Cola, Starbucks, Samsung, and a number of retailers and major ad and marketing agencies working on behalf of clients — had by comparison raised a modest $4 million in funding (with the last round back in 2018). Its list of investors included strategic backers like Aflac and Westfield (the shopping mall giant), as well as Seedcamp, Madrid’s JME Ventures, and Y Combinator, where Reply.ai was a part of its Startup School cohort in 2017.

Birnbaum said that the conversation for acquiring Reply.ai started before the global health pandemic — the two already worked together, as part of Reply.ai’s integrations with a number of CRM platforms. But active discussions, due diligence, and the closing of the deal were all done over Zoom. “We were fortunate that we got to meet before Corona, but for the most part we did this remotely,” he said.

Reply.ai was founded back in 2016 — the year when chatbots suddenly became all the rage — and it managed to make it through that and then the subsequent the trough of disillusionment, when a lot of the early novelty wore off after they were discovered to be not quite as effective as many had hoped or assumed they would be. One of the reasons for Reply.ai’s survival was that it had proven to be a builder of effective applications in one of the only segments of the market became a willing customer and user of chatbots: customer service.

While a large part of the CRM industry — estimated to be worth some $40 billion in 2019 —  is still based around human interactions, there has been a growing push to leverage advances in AI, cloud services, and use of the Internet as a point of interaction to bring more automation into the process, both to help those who are agents deal with more tricky issues, and to help bring overall costs down for those who rely on customer support as part of their service proposition.

That trend, if anything, is only getting a boost right now. In some cases, agents are unable to work because of social distancing rules in cases where customer queries cannot be handled by remote workers. In others, companies are seeing a lot of financial pressure and are looking to reduce expenses. But at the same time, with more people at home and unable to my physical queries to stores and more, the whole medium of customer support is seeing new levels of usage.

Kustomer has been taking on the bigger names in CRM, including Salesforce (where Birnbaum and his cofounder Jeremy Suriel previously worked), Zendesk and Oracle, by providing a platform that makes it easier for human agents to handle inbound “omni-channel” customer requests — another big trend, leveraging the rise of multiple messaging and communications platforms as potential routes to both speaking to customers and seeing them complain for all the world to see. So moving deeper into chatbots and other AI-powered tools is a natural progression.

Birnbaum said that one of its key interests with Reply.ai was its focus on “deflection” — the term for using non-human tools and services to help resolve inbound requests before needing to call in a human agent. Reply.ai’s tools have been shown to help deflect 40% of initial inbound queries, he noted.

“Some companies have been dealing with a significant increase in inbound volume, and it’s been hard to scale their teams of agents, especially when they are remote,” he said. “So those companies are looking for ways to respond more rapidly. So anything they can do to help with that deflection and let their agents be more productive to drive higher levels of satisfaction, anything that can enable self service, is what this is about.”

Other tools in the Reply toolkit, in addition to its chatbot-building platform and deflection capabilities, include agent assistant tools for suggesting relevant answers, as well as suggestions for tagging (for analytics) and re-routing.

“We are excited for Reply to join Kustomer and share its mission to make customer service more efficient, effective and personalized,” said said Omar Pera, one of Reply.ai’s founders, in a statement. “As a long-time partner of Kustomer, we are able to seamlessly integrate our deflection and chatbots technologies into Kustomer’s platform and help brands more cost-effectively increase efficiency. We look forward to working with Brad and the entire team.”


By Ingrid Lunden

UK’s ANNA raises $21M for its SMB-focused business account and tax app

Small and medium businesses and sole-traders account for the vast majority of businesses globally, 99.9% of all enterprises in the UK alone. And while the existence millions of separate companies, with their individual demands, speaks of a fragmented market, together they still represent a lot of opportunity. Today, a UK fintech startup looking to capitalise on that is announcing a round of growth funding to enter Europe after onboarding 20,000 customers in its home country.

ANNA, a mobile-first banking, tax accounting and financial service assistant aimed at small and medium businesses and freelancers, has closed a $21 million round of investment from a single investor, the ABHH Group, the sometimes controversial owner of Alfa Bank in Russia, the Amsterdam Trade Bank in the Netherlands, and other businesses.

The investment is a strategic one: ANNA will be using the funding to expand for the first time outside of the UK into Europe, and CEO Edouard Panteleev said that effort will be built on Amsterdam Trade Bank’s rails. He confirmed that the investment values ANNA at $110 million, and the founders keep control of 40% of the company in the deal.

The fundraising started before COVID-19 really picked up speed, but its chilling effect on the economy has also had a direct impact on the very businesses that ANNA targets as customers: some have seen drastic reductions in commercial activity, and some have shuttered their businesses altogether.

Despite this, the situation hasn’t changed measurably for ANNA, Panteleev said.

“Covid-19 hasn’t impacted us so far. We are designed as a digital business, and so working from home was a completely normal shift for us to make,” he said, but added that when it comes to the customers, “Yes, we have seen that our customers’ incoming payments are quite affected, with 15-30% decrease in the volume of customer payments.” The firm belief that ANNA and investors have, however, is that business will bounce back, and ANNA wants to make sure it’s in a strong position when it does.

ANNA is an acronym for “Absolutely No Nonsense Admin” and that explains the gist of what it aims to do: it provides an all-in-one service for smaller enterprises that lets them run a business account to make and receive payments, along with software for invoicing, accounting and managing taxes that is run through a chat interface to assist you and automate some of the functions (like invoice tracking). ANNA also offers additional services, such as connecting you to a live accountant during tax season.

ANNA is part of a wave of fintech startups that have cropped up in the last several years specifically targeting SMEs .

It used to be the case that SMEs and freelancers were drastically underserved in the world of financial services: their business, even collectively, is not as lucrative as accounts from larger enterprises, and therefore there was little innovation or attention paid to how to improve their experience or offerings, and so whatever traditional banks had to offer was what they got.

All that changed with the rise of “fintech” as a salient category: ever-smarter smartphones and app usage are now ubiquitous, broadband is inexpensive and also widespread, cloud and other technology has turbo charged what people can do on their devices, and people are just more digitally savvy. A wave of startups have taken advantage of all that to develop fintech services catering to SMEs, which also has meant competition from the likes of Monzo, Revolut, Tide, and  now even offerings from high street banks like NatWest.

Panteleev believes ANNA’s product stands separate from these. “We offer more of a financial assistant to users, rather than just moving their money, and it’s also a different business case, because we look at what a user needs more holistically,” he said. Pricing is also a little different: businesses with monthly income of less than $500 can use ANNA for free. It then goes up on a sliding scale to a maximum of £19.90 per month, for those with monthly income between £20,000 and £500,000.

Panteleev — who co-founded the company with Andrey Pachay, Boris Dyakonov, Daljit Singh, Nikita Filippov, and Slava Akulov — is a repeat entrepreneur, having founded two other banking startups in Russia with Dyakonov that are still going, Knopka (Russian for button), and Totchka (Russian for dot). These are older and more established: Totchka for example has some 500,000 users, but Panteleev has said that there are no plans to try to bring ANNA into the Russian market, nor take these other companies international.

For ABHH, the attraction of investing in this particular startup was probably two-fold. The businesses have Russian DNA in common, making for potentially a better cultural fit, but also it is yet another example of a legacy, large bank tapping into a smaller and more fleet-of-foot startup to address a market sector that the bigger company might be more challenged to do alone.

“I’m looking forward to embarking on this exciting journey together,” said Alan Vaksman, member of the supervisory board at Amsterdam Trade Bank and future chairman of ANNA, in a statement. “At this moment most SMEs find themselves in a challenging situation, however, once the pandemic comes to an end, there will be a very clear realisation that neither corporates nor family businesses can afford to run most operational processes manually. Tech services and platforms, like ANNA, are in for some dynamic times ahead.”


By Ingrid Lunden

Startups are transforming global trade in the COVID-19 era

Global trade watchers breathed a sigh of relief on January 15, 2020.

After two years of threats, tariffs and tweets, there was finally a truce in the trade war between the U.S. and China. The agreement signed by President Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He in the Oval Office didn’t resolve all trade tensions and maintained most of the $360 billion in tariffs the administration had put on Chinese goods. But for the first time in months, it looked like manufacturers, importers and shippers could start to put two difficult years behind them.

Then came COVID-19, at first a local disruption in Wuhan, China. Then it spread throughout Hubei province, causing havoc in a concentric circle that eventually engulfed the rest of China, where industrial production fell by more than 13.5% in the first two months of the year. When the virus spread everywhere, chaos ensued: Factories shuttered. Borders closed. Supply chains crumbled.

“It has had a cascading effect through the entire world’s economy,” says Anja Manuel, co-founder and managing partner of Rice, Hadley, Gates & Manuel LLC, an international strategic consulting firm based in Silicon Valley.

The crisis has caused a drastic contraction in global trade; the World Trade Organization estimates trade volumes will fall 13-20% in 2020. And spinning activity back up could be tricky: Even as China starts to get back online, the slowdown there could reduce worldwide exports by $50 billion this year. When factories do reopen, there’s no guarantee whether they will have parts available or empty warehouses, says Manuel, who also serves on the advisory board of Flexport, a shipping logistics startup. “Our supply chains are so tightly-knit and so just-in-time that throw a few wrenches in it like we’ve just done, and it’s going to be really hard to stand it back up again. The idea that we go back to normal the moment we lift restrictions is unlikely, fanciful, even.”

Getting to that new normal, though, is a job that a number of logistics startups are embracing. Already on the rise, companies like Flexport, Haven and Factiv see a global trade crisis as a setback, but also an opportunity to demonstrate the value of their digital platforms in a very much analog industry.

Information is king

As companies along the global supply chain reel from these fast-moving events, they are increasingly turning to firms that can offer them information — and the options that come with it.

“In moments of lots of volatility, you want to make sure the data you’re looking at is real,” says Sanne Manders, Flexport’s COO. “Where before you could get away with a weekly supply chain update, now you need accurate and timely data every minute. If you don’t, you’re not agile to make decisions.”


By Walter Thompson

VMware to acquire Kubernetes security startup Octarine and fold it into Carbon Black

VMware announced today that it intends to buy early-stage Kubernetes security startup, Octarine and fold it into Carbon Black, a security company it bought last year for $2.1 billion. The company did not reveal the price of today’s acquisition.

According to a blog post announcing the deal from Patrick Morley, general manager and senior vice president at VMware’s Security Business Unit, Octarine should fit in with what Carbon Black calls its “intrinsic security strategy” — that is, protecting content and applications wherever they live. In the case of Octarine, it’s cloud native containers in Kubernetes environments.

“Acquiring Octarine enables us to advance intrinsic security for containers (and Kubernetes environments), by embedding the Octarine technology into the VMware Carbon Black Cloud, and via deep hooks and integrations with the VMware Tanzu platform,” Morley wrote in a blog post.

This also fits in with VMware’s Kubernetes strategy, having purchased Heptio, an early Kuberentes company started by Craig McLuckie and Joe Beda, two folks who helped develop Kubernets while at Google before starting their own company,

We covered Octarine last year when it released a couple of open source tools to help companies define the Kubernetes security parameters. As we quoted head of product Julien Sobrier at the time:

“Kubernetes gives a lot of flexibility and a lot of power to developers. There are over 30 security settings, and understanding how they interact with each other, which settings make security worse, which make it better, and the impact of each selection is not something that’s easy to measure or explain.”

As for the startup, it now gets folded into VMware’s security business. While the CEO tried to put a happy face on the acquisition in a blog post, it seems its days as an independent entity are over. “VMware’s commitment to cloud native computing and intrinsic security, which have been demonstrated by its product announcements and by recent acquisitions, makes it an ideal home for Octarine,” the company CEO Shemer Schwarz wrote in the post.

Octarine was founded in 2017 and has raised $9 million, according to Pitchbook data.


By Ron Miller

FeaturePeek moves beyond Y Combinator with $1.8M seed

FeaturePeek’s founders graduated from Y Combinator in Summer 2019, which for an early stage startup must seem like a million years ago right now. Despite the current conditions though, the company announced a $1.8 million seed investment today.

The round was led by Matrix Partners with some unnamed Angel investors also participating.

The startup has built a solution to allow teams to review front-end designs throughout the development process instead of waiting until the end when the project has been moved to staging, co-founder Eric Silverman explained.

FeaturePeek is designed to give front end capabilities that enable developers to get feedback from all their different stakeholders at every stage in the development process and really fill in the missing gaps of the review cycle,” he said.

He added, “Right now, there’s no dedicated place to give feedback on that new work until it hits their staging environment, and so we’ll spin up ad hoc deployment previews, either on commit or on pull requests and those fully running environments can be shared with the team. On top of that, we have our overlay where you can file bugs you can annotate screenshots, record video or leave comments.”

Since last summer, the company has remained lean with three full time employees, but it has continued to build out the product. In addition to the funding, the company also announced a free command line version of the product for single developers in addition to the teams product it has been building since the Y Combinator days.

Ilya Sukhar, partner at Matrix Partners says as a former engineer, he had experienced this kind of problem first hand, and he knew that there was a lack of tooling to help. That’s what attracted him to FeaturePeek.

“I think FeaturePeek is kind of a company that’s trying to change that and try to bring all of these folks together in an environment where they can review running code in a way that really wasn’t possible before, and I certainly have been frustrated on both ends of this where as an engineer, you’re kind of like okay I wrote it, are you ever going to look at it,” he said.

Sukhar recognizes these are trying times to launch a startup, and nobody really knows how things are going to play out, but he encourages these companies not to get too caught up in the macro view at this stage.

Silverman knows that he needs to adapt his go to market strategy for the times, and he says the founders are making a concerted effort to listen to users and find ways to improve the product while finding ways to communicate with the target audience.


By Ron Miller

FortressIQ snags $30M Series B to streamline processes with AI-fueled data

As we move through life in the pandemic, companies are being forced to review and understand how workflows happen. How do you distribute laptops to your workforce? How do you make sure everyone has the correct tool set? FortressIQ, a startup that wants to help companies use data to understand and improve internal processes, announced a $30 million Series B investment today.

M12, Microsoft’s venture fund and Tiger Global Management led the round with help from previous investors Boldstart Ventures, Comcast Ventures, Eniac Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners. The company has now raised almost $65 million, according to Pitchbook data.

As the product has matured, founder and CEO Pankaj Chowdhry, says its focus has shifted a bit. Whereas before it was primarily about using computer vision to understand workflows, customers are now using that data to help drive their own internal transformations.

That used to require a high priced consulting team to pull off, but FortressIQ is trying to use software, data and artificial intelligence to replace the consultant and expose processes that could be improved.

“We’re building this kind of cool computer vision to help with process discovery, mostly in the automation space to help you automate processes. But what we’ve seen is people leveraging our data to drive transformation strategies, of which automation ends up being a pretty small component,” Chowdry explained.

He said that this is helping define new ways of using the tool they hadn’t considered when they first started the company. “If you think about it, we can use analytics to drive better experiences, better training, all of that. We’ve seen how customers are driving overall improvement strategies by leveraging the data coming out of this system,” he said.

The company currently has 65 employees, but he couldn’t commit to a future number at this point because of the uncertainty that exists in the economy. He knows he wants to hire, but he’s not sure what that will look like. He said they used to revisit hiring every six months. Now it’s ever six weeks, and so they keep having to reevaluate based on an ever-shifting set of conditions.

Chowdry believes that companies will need to be more agile moving forward to react more quickly to changing circumstances beyond the current crisis, and he thinks that’s going to require solid business relationships to pull off.

“I think the idea is to be leveraging this time to build that relationship with your customers so as they do start looking at what are they going to do and where they need to be invested in the business, that we’ve got both the data and the infrastructure to help them do that.”


By Ron Miller

Expel lands $50M Series D as security operations increases in importance

Even in these trying economic times, there are some services that companies can’t do without. Having good security tools is one of them. Expel, a 4-year old startup that offers security operations as a service, announced a $50 million Series D financing today.

CapitalG led the round with participation from existing investors Battery Ventures, Greycroft, Index Ventures, Paladin Capital Group and Scale Venture Partners. The company has now raised almost $117 million, according to Pitchbook data.

It’s never easy finding quality security talent to help protect a large organization. The idea behind Expel is to give customers a set of tools to help use automation to reduce the number of people required to keep an organization safe.

Most companies struggle to find experienced security employees, so it’s using automation to solve a real pain point for them. While co-founder and CEO Dave Merkel says you still need to staff the security operations center, you can do it with fewer people with his platform.

“You may have a 24×7 Security Operations Center, but you don’t need the number of people everybody else does to protect your customers because Workbench does all of the heavy lifting for you. So instead of a SOC with 100 people, maybe you’ve got one with 15 people, and that gives tremendous leverage through this platform, and the platform ensures that you can provide high quality security without having to continually grow headcount,” Merkel explained.

Merkel sees the same economy everyone else does, but he believes that companies will continue to invest in security because they have to.

“Security tends to be a need as opposed to a want in many organizations, and so we still do see business happening. We will be using some of the money to continue to invest smartly in sales and marketing, but we’ll just need to be deliberate to make sure that we’re picking the right things that are still effective right now,” he said.

One thing that’s remarkable about this round is that Expel didn’t go looking for this new money. In fact, CapitalG came knocking, according to CapitalG general partner Gene Frantz.

“We sought out Expel, first and foremost. It wasn’t that Expel sought out to raise money and they called a bunch of people. We called them, and that was in response to a bunch of thematic work that we continually do in the security space,” Frantz told TechCrunch.

That work involved three main areas, where Expel happened to check all the boxes. The first was the threat landscape becoming ever more treacherous. The second was information overload from a variety of security products, and finally the dearth of experienced security personnel to deal with the first two problems.

“And so our bet is that this is the company in the space that actually will take on and address these challenges,” Frantz said.

Merkel describes having a company like CapitalG come to him as a humbling experience for him and his co-founders, especially under the current circumstances.

“It’s tremendous validation, but it is also humbling. We’re pretty thankful to be in that position, and we want to make sure that we do the right things to continue to honor the opportunity that we see in front of us.”


By Ron Miller

Atlassian acquires Halp to bring Slack integration to the forefront

Atlassian announced today that it was acquiring Halp, an early stage startup that enables companies to build integrated help desk ticketing and automated answers inside Slack. The companies did not disclose the purchase price.

It was a big day for Halp, which also announced its second product today called Halp Answers. The new tool will work hand in glove with its previous entry Halp Tickets, which lets Slack users easily create a Help Desk ticket without leaving the tool.

“Halp Answers enables your teams to leverage the knowledge that already exists within your company to automatically answer tickets right in Slack . That knowledge can be pulled in from Slack messages, Confluence articles or any piece of knowledge in your organization,” the company wrote in a blog post announcing the deal.

Note that integration with Confluence, which is an Atlassian tool. The company also sees it integrating with Jira support for other enterprise communications tools down the road. “Existing Halp users can look forward to deeper (and new) integrations with Jira and Confluence. We’re committed to supporting Microsoft Teams customers as well,” Atlassian wrote in a blog post.

Halp is selling early, having just launched last year. The company had raised a $2 million seed round in April 2019 on a 9.5 million post valuation, according to Pitchbook data. The startup sees an opportunity with Atlassian that it apparently didn’t think it could achieve alone.

“We’ll be able to harness the vast resources at Atlassian to continue with our mission to make Halp the best tool for any team collaborating on requests with other teams. Our team will grow and be able to focus on making the core experience of Halp even more powerful. We’ll also develop a deeper integration with the Atlassian suite — improving our existing Jira and Confluence integrations and discovering the possibilities of Halp generating alerts in Opsgenie, cards in Trello, and much more,” the company wrote.

Halp’s founders promise that it won’t be abandoning its existing customers as it joins the larger organization. As a matter of fact, Halp is bringing with them a slew of big-name customers including Adobe, VMware, Github and Slack.


By Ron Miller