India’s Reliance Jio inks deal with Microsoft to expand Office 365, Azure to more businesses; unveils broadband, blockchain, and IoT platforms

India’s Reliance Jio, which has disrupted the telecom and features phone businesses in India in less than three years of existence, is now ready to aggressively foray into many more businesses with the help of global giants including Microsoft.

The subsidiary of India’s largest industrial house Reliance Industries today announced that it will commercially launch its optical fiber broadband business next month, an IoT platform on January 1, 2020, and “one of the world’s biggest blockchain networks” in the next 12 months.

The broadband service, called Jio Giga Fiber, is aimed at individual customers, small and medium sized businesses, as well as enterprises, Mukhesh Ambani, Chairman and Managing Director of Reliance Industries, said at a shareholders meeting Monday. The service, which will be available to consumers starting September 5, will offer free voice calls, high-speed internet and start at Rs 700 per month.

The company also announced a 10-year partnership with Microsoft to leverage the Redmond giant’s Azure, Microsoft 365, and Microsoft AI platforms to launch new cloud datacenters in India to ensure “more of Jio’s customers can access the tools and platforms they need to build their own digital capability,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a video appearance Monday.

“At Microsoft, our mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. Core to this mission is deep partnerships, like the one we are announcing today with Reliance Jio. Our ambition is to help millions of organizations across India thrive and grow in the era of rapid technological change… Together, we will offer a comprehensive technology solution, from compute to storage, to connectivity and productivity for small and medium-sized businesses everywhere in the country,” he added.

As part of the partnership, Nadella said, Jio and Microsoft will jointly offer Office 365 to more organizations in India, and also bring Azure Cognitive Services to more devices and in many Indian languages to businesses in the country. The solutions will be “accessible” to reach as many people and organizations in India as possible, he added.

Ambani also said Jio is working on a “digital stack” to create a new commerce partnership platform in India to reach tens of millions of merchants, consumers, and producers.

More to follow…


By Manish Singh

Alibaba to help Salesforce localize and sell in China

Salesforce, the 20-year-old leader in customer relationship management (CRM) tools, is making a foray into Asia by working with one of the country’s largest tech firms, Alibaba.

Alibaba will be the exclusive provider of Salesforce to enterprise customers in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, and Salesforce will become the exclusive enterprise CRM software suite sold by Alibaba, the companies announced on Thursday.

The Chinese internet has for years been dominated by consumer-facing services such as Tencent’s WeChat messenger and Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace, but enterprise software is starting to garner strong interest from businesses and investors. Workflow automation startup Laiye, for example, recently closed a $35 million funding round led by Cathay Innovation, a growth-stage fund that believes “enterprise software is about to grow rapidly” in China.

The partners have something to gain from each other. Alibaba does not have a Salesforce equivalent serving the raft of small-and-medium businesses selling through its e-commerce marketplaces or using its cloud computing services, so the alliance with the American cloud behemoth will fill that gap.

On the other hand, Salesforce will gain sales avenues in China through Alibaba, whose cloud infrastructure and data platform will help the American firm “offer localized solutions and better serve its multinational customers,” said Ken Shen, vice president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence, in a statement.

“More and more of our multinational customers are asking us to support them wherever they do business around the world. That’s why today Salesforce announced a strategic partnership with Alibaba,” said Salesforce in a statement.

Overall, only about 10% of Salesforce revenues in the three months ended April 30 originated from Asia, compared to 20% from Europe and 70% from the Americas.

Besides gaining client acquisition channels, the tie-up also enables Salesforce to store its China-based data at Alibaba Cloud. China requires all overseas companies to work with a domestic firm in processing and storing data sourced from Chinese users.

“The partnership ensures that customers of Salesforce that have operations in the Greater China area will have exclusive access to a locally-hosted version of Salesforce from Alibaba Cloud, who understands local business, culture and regulations,” an Alibaba spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Cloud has been an important growth vertical at Alibaba and nabbing a heavyweight ally will only strengthen its foothold as China’s biggest cloud service provider. Salesforce made some headway in Asia last December when it set up a $100 million fund to invest in Japanese enterprise startups and the latest partnership with Alibaba will see the San Francisco-based firm actually go after customers in Asia.


By Rita Liao

InCountry raises $15M for its cloud-based private data storage-as-a-service solution

The rise of data breaches, along with an expanding raft of regulations (now numbering 80 different regional regimes, and growing) have thrust data protection — having legal and compliant ways of handling personal user information — to the top of the list of things that an organization needs to consider when building and operating their businesses. Now a startup called InCountry, which is building both the infrastructure for these companies to securely store that personal data in each jurisdiction, as well as a comprehensive policy framework for them to follow, has raised a Series A of $15 million. The funding is coming in just three months after closing its seed round — underscoring both the attention this area is getting and the opportunity ahead.

The funding is being led by three investors: Arbor Ventures of Singapore, Global Founders Capital of Berlin, and Mubadala of Abu Dhabi. Previous investors Caffeinated Capital, Felicis Ventures, Charles River Ventures, and Team Builder Ventures (along with others that are not being named) also participated. It brings the total raised to date to $21 million.

Peter Yared, the CEO and founder, pointed out in an interview the geographic diversity of the three lead backers: he described this as a strategic investment, which has resulted from InCountry already expanding its work in each region. (As one example, he pointed out a new law in the UAE requiring all health data of its citizens to be stored in the country — regardless of where it originated.)

As a result, the startup will be opening offices in each of the regions and launching a new product, InCountry Border, to focus on encryption and data handling that keep data inside specific jurisdictions. This will sit alongside the company’s compliance consultancy as well as its infrastructure business.

“We’re only 28 people and only six months old,” Yared said. “But the proposition we offer — requiring no code changes, but allowing companies to automatically pull out and store the personally identifiable information in a separate place, without anything needed on their own back end, has been a strong pull. We’re flabbergasted with the meetings we’ve been getting.” (The alternative, of companies storing this information themselves, has become massively unpalatable, given all the data breaches we’ve seen, he pointed out.)

In part because of the nature of data protection, in its short six months of life, InCountry has already come out of the gates with a global viewpoint and global remit.

It’s already active in 65 countries — which means it’s already equipped to stores, processes, and regulates profile data in the country of origin in these markets — but that is actually just the tip of the iceberg. The company points out that more than 80 countries around the world have data sovereignty regulations, and that in the US, some 25 states already have data privacy laws. Violating these can have disastrous consequences for a company’s reputation, not to mention its bottom line: In Europe, earlier this month the UK data regulator is now fining companies the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars when they violate GDPR rules.

This ironically is translating into a big business opportunity for startups that are building technology to help companies cope with this. Just last week, OneTrust raised a $200 million Series A to continue building out its technology and business funnel — the company is a “gateway” specialist, building the welcome screens that you encounter when you visit sites to accept or reject a set of cookies and other data requests.

Yared says that while InCountry is very young and is still working on its channel strategy — it’s mainly working directly with companies at this point — there is a clear opportunity both to partner with others within the ecosystem as well as integrators and others working on cloud services and security to build bigger customer networks.

That speaks to the complexity of the issue, and the different entry points that exist to solve it.

“The rapidly evolving and complex global regulatory landscape in our technology driven world is a growing challenge for companies,” said Melissa Guzy of Arbor Ventures, in a statement. Guzy is joining the board with this round. “InCountry is the first to provide a comprehensive solution in the cloud that enables companies to operate globally and address data sovereignty. We’re thrilled to partner and support the company’s mission to enable global data compliance for international businesses.”

 

 


By Ingrid Lunden

A 23-year-old B2B company has shown how keen India is for tech IPOs

Away from the limelight of the press and the frenzy of fundraising, a tech startup in India has achieved a feat that few of its peers have managed: going public.

IndiaMART, the country’s largest online platform for selling products directly to businesses, raised nearly $70 million in a rare tech IPO for India this week.

The milestone for the 23-year-old firm is so uncommon for India’s otherwise burgeoning startup ecosystem that, beyond being over-subscribed 36 times, pent up demand for IndiaMART’s stock saw its share price pop 40% on its first day of trading on National Stock Exchange on Thursday — a momentum that it sustained on Friday.

The stock ended Friday at Rs 1326 ($19.3), compared to its issue price of Rs 973 ($14.2).

IndiaMART is the first business-to-business e-commerce firm to go public in India. Its IPO also marks the first listing for a firm following the May reelection of Narendra Modi as the nation’s Prime Minister and the months-long drought that led to it.

Accounting firm EY said it expects more companies from India to follow suit and file for IPO in the coming months.

“Now that national elections are over and favorable results secured, IPO activity is expected to gain momentum in H2 2019 (second half of the year). Companies that had filed their offer documents with the Indian stock markets regulator during H2 2018 and Q1 2019 may finally come to market in the months ahead,” it said in a statement (PDF).

IndiaMART’s origin

The fireworks of the IPO are just as impressive as IndiaMART’s journey.

The startup was founded in 1996 and for the first 13 years, it focused on exports to customers abroad, but it has since modernized its business following the wave of the internet.

“The thesis was, in 1996, there were no computers or internet in India. The information about India’s market to the West was very limited,” Dinesh Agarwal, co-founder and CEO of IndiaMART, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Until 2008, IndiaMART was fully bootstrapped and profitable with $10 million in revenue, Agarwal said. But things started to dramatically change in that year.

“The Indian rupee became very strong against the dollar, which dwindled the exports business. This is also when the stock market was collapsing in the West, which further hurt the exports demand,” he explained.

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Dinesh Agarwal, founder and CEO of IndiaMart.com, poses for a profile shot on July 29, 2015 in Noida, India.

By this time, millions of people in India were on the internet and, with tens of millions of people owning a feature phone, the conditions of the market had begun to shift towards digital.

“This is when we decided to pursue a completely different path. We started to focus on the domestic market,” Agarwal said.

Over the last 10 years, IndiaMART has become the largest e-commerce platform for businesses with about 60% market share, according to research firm KPMG. It handles 97,000 product categories — ranging from machine parts, medical equipment and textile products to cranes — and has amassed 83 million buyers and 5.5 million suppliers from thousands of towns and cities of India.

According to the most recent data published by the Indian government, there are about 50 to 60 million small and medium-sized businesses in India, but only around 10 million of them have any presence on the web. Some 97% of the top 50 companies listed on National Stock Exchange use IndiaMART’s services, Agarwal said.

That’s not to say that the transition to the current day was a straightforward process for the company. IndiaMART tried to capitalize on its early mover advantage with a stream of new services which ultimately didn’t reap the desired rewards.

In 2002, it launched a travel portal for businesses. A year later, it launched a business verification service. It also unveiled a payments platform called ABCPayments. None of these services worked and the firm quickly moved on.

Part of IndiaMART’s success story is its firm leadership and how cautiously it has raised and spent its money, Rajesh Sawhney, a serial angel investor who sits on IndiaMART’s board, told TechCrunch in an interview.

IndiaMART, which employs about 4,000 people, is operationally profitable as of the financial year that ended in March this year. It clocked some $82 million in revenue in the year. It has raised about $32 million to date from Intel Capital, Amadeus Capital Partners and Quona Capital. (Notably, Agarwal said that he rejected offers from VCs for a very long time.)

The firm makes most of its revenue from subscriptions it sells to sellers. A subscription gives a seller a range of benefits including getting featured on storefronts.

Where the industry stands

There are only a handful of internet companies in India that have gone public in the last decade. Online travel service MakeMyTrip went public in 2010. Software firm Intellect Design Arena and e-commerce store Koovs listed in 2014, then travel portal Yatra and e-commerce firm Infibeam followed two years later.

India has consistently attracted billions of dollars in funding in recent years and produced many unicorns. Those include Flipkart, which was acquired by Walmart last year for $16 billion, Paytm, which has raised more than $2 billion to date, Swiggy, which has bagged $1.5 billion to date, Zomato, which has raised $750 million, and relatively new entrant Byju’s — but few of them are nearing profitability and most likely do not see an IPO in their immediate future.

In that context, IndiaMART may set a benchmark for others to follow.

“The fact that we have a homegrown digital commerce business, serving both the urban and smaller cities, and having struggled and been around for so long building a very difficult business and finally going public in the local exchange is a phenomenal story,” Ganesh Rengaswamy, a partner at Quona Capital, told TechCrunch in an interview. “It keeps the story of India tech, to the Western world, going.”

Generally, it is agreed that there are too few IPOs in India and the industry can benefit from momentum and encouragement of high profile and successful public listings.

“There is a firm consensus that in India, markets will prefer only the IPOs of companies that are profitable. And investors in India might not value those companies. Both of these issues are being addressed by IndiaMART,” said Sawhney.

“We need 30 to 40 more IPOs. This will also mean that the stock market here has matured and understands the tech stocks and how it is different from other consumer stocks they usually handle. More tech companies going public would also pave the way for many to explore stock exchanges outside of India.

“Indian market is ready for more tech stocks. We just need to get more companies to go out there,” Sawhney added, although he did predict that it will take a few years before the vast majority of leading startups are ready for the public market.

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The Indian government, for its part, this week announced a number of incentives to uplift the “entrepreneurial spirit” in the nation.

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the government would ease foreign direct investment rules for certain sectors — including e-commerce, food delivery, grocery — and improve the digital payments ecosystem. Sitharaman, who is the first woman to hold this position in India, said the government would also launch a TV program to help startups connect with venture capitalists.

The path ahead for IndiaMART

IndiaMART has managed to build a sticky business that compels more than 55% of its customers to come back to the platform and make another transaction within 90 days, Agarwal — its CEO — said. With some 3,500 of its 4,000 employees classified as sales executives, the company is aggressive in its pursuit of new customers. Moving forward, that will remain one of its biggest focuses, according to Agarwal.

“Most of our time still goes into educating MSMEs on how to use the internet. That was a challenge 20 years ago and it remains a challenge today,” he told TechCrunch.

In recent years, IndiaMART has begun to expand its suite of offerings to its business customers in a bid to increase the value they get from its platform and thus increase their reliance on its service.

IndiaMART has built a customer relationship management (CRM) tool so that customers need not rely on spreadsheets or other third-party services.

“We will continue to explore more SaaS offerings and look into solving problems in accounting, invoice management and other areas,” said Agarwal.

The firm also recently started to offer payment facilitation between buyers and sellers through a PayPal -like escrow system.

“This will bridge the trust gap between the entities and improve an MSME’s ability to accept all kinds of payment options including the new age offerings.”

There’s an elephant in the room, however.

A bigger challenge that looms for IndiaMART is the growing interest of Amazon and Walmart in the business-to-business space. Several startups including Udaan — which has raised north of $280 million from DST Global and Lightspeed Venture Partners — have risen up in recent years and are increasingly expanding their operations. Agarwal did not seem much worried, however, telling TechCrunch that he believes that his prime competition is more focused on B2C and serving niche audiences. Besides he has $100 million in the bank himself.

Indeed, as Quona Capital’s Rengaswamy astutely noted, competition is not new for IndiaMART — the company has survived and thrived more than two decades of it.

“Alibaba came and gave up,” he noted.

An important — and unanswered question — that follows the successful IPO is how IndiaMART’s stock will fare over the coming months. A glance to the U.S. — where hyped companies like Uber, Lyft and others have seen prices taper off — shows clearly that early demand and sustained stock performance are not one and the same.

Nobody knows at this point, and the added complexity at play is that the concept of a tech IPO is so uncommon in India that there is no definitive answer to it… yet. But IndiaMART’s biggest achievement may be that it sets the pathway that many others will follow.


By Manish Singh

Cathay Innovation leads Laiye’s $35M round to bet on Chinese enterprise IT

For many years, the boom and bust of China’s tech landscape have centered around consumer-facing products. As this space gets filled by Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, and more recently Didi Chuxing, Meituan Dianping, and ByteDance, entrepreneurs and investors are shifting attention to business applications.

One startup making waves in China’s enterprise software market is four-year-old Laiye, which just raised a $35 million Series B round led by cross-border venture capital firm Cathay Innovation. Existing backers Wu Capital, a family fund, and Lightspeed China Partners, whose founding partner James Mi has been investing in every round of Laiye since Pre-A, also participated in this Series B.

The deal came on the heels of Laiye’s merger with Chinese company Awesome Technology, a team that’s spent the last 18 years developing Robotic Process Automation, a term for technology that lets organizations offload repetitive tasks like customer service onto machines. With this marriage, Laiye officially launched its RPA product UiBot to compete in the nascent and fast-growing market for streamlining workflow.

“There was a wave of B2C [business-to-consumer] in China, and now we believe enterprise software is about to grow rapidly,” Denis Barrier, co-founder and chief executive officer of Cathay Innovation, told TechCrunch over a phone interview.

Since launching in January, UiBot has collected some 300,000 downloads and 6,000 registered enterprise users. Its clients include major names such as Nike, Walmart, Wyeth, China Mobile, Ctrip and more.

Guanchun Wang, chairman and CEO of Laiye, believes there are synergies between AI-enabled chatbots and RPA solutions, as the combination allows business clients “to build bots with both brains and hands so as to significantly improve operational efficiency and reduce labor costs,” he said.

When it comes to market size, Barrier believes RPA in China will be a new area of growth. For one, Chinese enterprises, with a shorter history than those found in developed economies, are less hampered by legacy systems, which makes it “faster and easier to set up new corporate software,” the investor observed. There’s also a lot more data being produced in China given the population of organizations, which could give Chinese RPA a competitive advantage.

“You need data to train the machine. The more data you have, the better your algorithms become provided you also have the right data scientists as in China,” Barrier added.

However, the investor warned that the exact timing of RPA adoption by people and customers is always not certain, even though the product is ready.

Laiye said it will use the proceeds to recruit talents for research and development as well as sales of its RPA products. The startup will also work on growing its AI capabilities beyond natural language processing, deep learning, and reinforcement learning, in addition to accelerating commercialization of its robotic solutions across industries.


By Rita Liao

SaaS data protection provider Druva nabs $130M, now at a $1B+ valuation, acquiring CloudLanes

As businesses continue to move more of their computing and data to the cloud, one of the startups that has made a name for itself as a provider of cloud-based solutions to protect and manage those IT assets has raised a big round of funding to build its business.

Druva, which provides software-as-a-service-based data protection, backup and management solutions, has raised $130 million in a round of funding that CEO and founder Jaspreet Singh says takes the company “well past the $1 billion mark” in terms of its valuation.

Alongside this news, it’s making an acquisition to continue building out the storage part of its business (one of several product areas that it’s developing): it’s acquiring CloudLanes, a startup that was backed by Microsoft and others, for an undisclosed sum, in a deal that will likely be formally announced in early July.

The funding is being led by Viking Global Investors, the hedge fund and investment firm, with participation from two other new investors, Neuberger Berman and Atreides Capital; and existing investors including Riverwood Capital, Tenaya Capital, and Nexus Venture Partners (who were part of Druva’s last round of $80 million in 2017). The company, Singh said, is now at a $100 million annual run rate. Although he would not disclose revenues, he said it’s now in a strong position to consider going public as its next step (or finally entertaining one of the many acquisition offers Singh admitted Druva gets).

“As we look at growth and the potential of what we are doing, the next obvious step is to look at public markets in the next 12 to 18 months,” he said in an interview.

The strong numbers (in terms of funding raised, valuation and performance) are a sign not just of Druva’s own business health, but of the opportunity it is tackling.

Spurred by a number of factors — the unfortunate rise of malicious hacking and data breaches, a massive wave of computing services that are creating mountains of data that can now be parsed for insights, and a big move to cloud computing — the data protection industry is booming, with IDC predicting that it will collectively be worth $55 billion by 2020. Druva itself works with some 4,000 organizations today, with many in the mid-market in terms of size, with customers ranging across a number of verticals and including the likes of the Build Group, the American Cancer Society and the Port of New Orleans.

With a huge opportunity like this, it’s also an unsurprisingly crowded area in terms of competition. Singh points out that others looking to provide services in the same area include huge incumbents like CommVault and IBM, as well as newer entrants like Rubrik (itself on something of a fundraising tear in the last few years to capitalise on the same opportunity).

Singh notes that Druva stands out from these because it is the only one in the pack that started remains an exclusively cloud-based, SaaS offering, meaning a company requires no hardware changes or appliance purchases in order to use it. While that’s an area that everyone is now moving into, his argument is that having started out here gives Druva a level of expertise and experience that cannot be matched by others — an important point when data protection is at stake.

The reality of today’s enterprise world is that there are a number of companies that are very far from being “in the cloud”. Despite the song and dance that we hear all the time about how cloud is the future, they are more often than not either relying entirely still on on-premises computing, or a hybrid solution. As Singh talks about it, this is almost irrelevant to what Druva is offering, and is in fact a segue to helping those companies come to trust and move more off premises, by giving them a strong example of how a cloud-based solution not only works, but can be less expensive and better than on-premise alternatives.

The CloudLanes acquisition fits in with this strategy, too: the company’s solution stack includes cloud storage that leverages on-premise data as a cache; ransomware protection; audit logs and more. “It will help us cover the gap between the data center and cloud more effectively,” Singh said.

This is also the belief that is propelling Druva to expanding into newer areas of business. Singh noted that business intelligence is going to be a big focus for the company, which makes sense: now that there is a lot of data being stored and managed by Druva, the next obvious move is to help parse it for insights. Security and making a wider move to secure endpoints are also areas that the company is considering, he said.

“We invest in companies based on a thorough assessment of their business models and fundamentals, the quality of their management teams, and cyclical and secular industry trends,” said Harish Belur, Managing Director, Riverwood Capital, in a statement. “Druva is doing something unique and special and, as a result, has grown at a phenomenal rate over recent years, all while keeping the trust and loyalty of its enterprise customers around the globe. We know this market is taking off and we continue to invest in Druva because we are sure it has the right product, executive team, and market execution to maintain leadership in the industry.”

I asked if companies like Amazon or Microsoft are friends, or frenemies, considering that they have a big part to play in cloud services. Singh said that so far, so good, since they are all more focused on infrastructure — or at least that’s where most of their strength has been up to now. Amazon, in particular, is a strong partner to the company he said, where Druva is often an early adopter of new tools of Amazon’s, and the AWS sales team regularly suggests Druva to customers for data protection and management services. Druva even happened to include a quote from the company in its news release:

“Druva is a leading Advanced Technology Partner in the AWS Partner Network,” said Mike Clayville, Vice President Worldwide Commercial Sales and Business Development, Amazon Web Services, Inc, in a statement. “Druva’s solutions powered by AWS are changing the way data is managed and protected at thousands of companies globally. We’d like to congratulate Druva on its latest fund raise, and look forward to innovating with Druva to create new solutions that benefit our customers.”

Seems like that could be one to watch as well as both companies continue their cloud expansion, both independently and in competition with others.


By Ingrid Lunden

Postman raises $50 million to grow its API development platform

Postman, a five-year-old startup that is attempting to simply development, tests, and management of APIs through its platform, has raised $50 million in a new round to scale its business.

The Series B for the startup, that began its journey in India, was led by CRV and included participation from existing investor Nexus Venture Partners . The startup, with offices in India and San Francisco, closed its Series A financing round four years ago and has raised $57 million to date.

Postman offers a development environment which a developer or a firm could use to build, publish, document, design, monitor, test, and debug their APIs. Postman, like some other startups such as RapidAPI, also maintains a marketplace to offer APIs for quick integration with other popular services.

The startup was co-founded by Abhinav Asthana, a former intern at Yahoo . Asthana was frustrated with how APIs were an afterthought for many developers as they usually got around to building them in the eleventh hour. Additionally, developers were relying on their own workflows and there was no organized platform that could be used by many, he explained in an interview with TechCrunch.

Even big software firms have not looked into this space yet, and many have instead become a customer of Postman. “We are solving a fundamental problem for the technology landscape. Big companies tend to be slower as they have many other things on their plate,” said Asthana.

Five years later, Postman has grown significantly. More than 7 million users and 300,000 companies including Microsoft, Twitter, BestBuy, AMC Theaters, Paypal, Shopify, BigCommerce, and DocuSign today use Postman’s platform.

The modern software development relies heavily on APIs as more businesses begin to talk with one another. According to research firm Gartner, more than 65% of global infrastructure service providers’ revenue will be generated through services enabled by APIs by 2023, up from 15% in 2018.

Asthana said Postman intends to use the fresh capital to scale its startup, products, and grow its team. “We are scaling rapidly across all dimensions. There are many use cases that we still want to address over the coming months. We will also experiment with sales and invest in improving user experience,” he added.

Postman offers some of its services in limited capacity for free to users. For rest, it charges between $8 to $18 per user to its customers. That’s how the company generates revenue. Asthana declined to share the financial performance of the startup, but said its customer based was “growing phenomenally.”

Postman said CRV General Partner Devdutt Yellurkar has joined its board of directors.


By Manish Singh

LinkedIn to shutter Chitu, its Chinese-language app, in July, redirects users to LinkedIn in Chinese

LinkedIn has long eyed China as an important country to offset slowing growth in more mature markets. But now it’s calling time on a localized effort after failing to see it pick up steam. The company has announced that it will be shutting down Chitu — a Chinese-only app it had built targeting younger people and those who had less of a need to network with people outside of the country — at the end of July.

The closure is notable for a couple of reasons.

First, it marks a retreat of sorts for LinkedIn in the country from building standalone apps to target younger users, and specifically those targeting young professionals, at the same time that LinkedIn also faces stiff competition from other services like Maimai and Zhaopin.

Second, Chitu was a rare (and possibly the only) example of an app from LinkedIn built specifically to target one non-English market — and a very big one at that — by building a social graph independent of LinkedIn’s. Chitu’s shutdown is therefore a sign of how LinkedIn ultimately didn’t succeed in that effort.

The company posted an announcement of the change in Chinese on Chitu’s website, and a spokesperson for LinkedIn confirmed the changes further in a statement provided to TechCrunch, where it described Chitu — which has been around since 2015 — as “one of many experiments.”

It also noted that it will be upgrading the LinkedIn core app as a “one-stop shop”, incorporating some of Chitu’s features, presumably in an effort to attract Chitu’s users rather than lose them altogether.

“Chitu will officially go offline at the end of July 2019,” the company noted in the statement. “In the future, we will focus on the continuous optimization and upgrade of the LinkedIn app, serving as a one-stop shop to accompany Chinese professionals along each step of their career development and connect to more opportunities.” We’ll post the full statement LinkedIn sent us at the bottom of this article.

LinkedIn first officially set up shop in China back in 2014 as “领英”. Its branding firm pointed out at the time that the characters’ pronunciation, “ling ying,” sounding a bit like “LinkedIn” and loosely meant “to lead elites.” It was initially established as a joint venture with Sequoia and CBC since it was still an independent company and not owned by Microsoft at the time.

LinkedIn already had users in the country at that point — some 4 million individuals and 80,000 companies were already using the English-language version of the site at the time — but the idea was to set up a local operation to seize the opportunity of creating services more tailored to the world’s biggest mobile market, which would include local language support, and to meet the regulatory demands of needing to establish local operations to do that. It included efforts to build integrations with other sites like WeChat, as well as bigger partnerships with the likes of Didi.

A year later, Derek Shen, the LinkedIn executive who led the launch of LinkedIn China, spearheaded the launch of Chitu.

The idea was to build a new app that could tap into the smartphone craze that had swept the country, in particular among younger users who had foregone using computers in favor of their hand-held devices that they used to regularly check in on apps like WeChat.

“In the past year, we have done a lot of localization efforts and achieved great results, such as deep integration with WeChat, Weibo, QQ mailbox, and Alibaba,” he wrote in an essay at the time (originally in Chinese).

“However, in general, we are still maintaining a global platform that is note evolving fast enough, and localization is not determined. We believe that only a product that is independent of the global platform can fully meet the unique needs of social networking in China, so that we can really run like a startup.”

LinkedIn would at the same time continue to build out the Chinese version of LinkedIn itself targeting older and more premium users who might be interacting with people in other languages like English.

From what we understand, Chitu had a good start, with millions of users signing up in the early years, beating LinkedIn itself on user retention rates and engagement.

But a source says that internally it faced some issues for trying to develop an ecosystem independent of the LinkedIn platform, which only became more challenging after Microsoft acquired the company, the source said. (He didn’t say why, but for starters it would have been more lucrative to monetise a single user base, and to develop new features for a single platform, rather than do either across multiple apps.)

“After Microsoft acquired LinkedIn, independence became unthinkable,” the source said. “People with entrepreneurial DNA have all left, so it’s natural to shut down Chitu at this point.” It didn’t help that Shen himself left the company in 2017.

It’s unclear how many users Chitu ultimately picked up but LinkedIn says that it has 47 million LinkedIn members in China, out of a total of 610 million globally. Notably, observers point out that its two big rivals Maimai and Zhaopin are both growing faster.

More generally, and likely to better compete against local players, LinkedIn tells us that it’s rebooted its growth strategy in the country last month. That new strategy appears to be based fundamentally on any new services or partnerships now stemming from one centralised platform.

“2.0 [as the new strategic effort is called] is built on LinkedIn’s vast global network of professionals with real identities and profiles as the foundation and providing a one-stop shop services to our members and constructing an ecosystem in China,” a spokesperson said in response to a question we had about whether the company will continue to build out more partnerships with third parties. “We do not exclude any partners who participate in building this “one-stop shop “and eventually construct a powerful ecosystem.” 

Here is the full statement on the shut-down of Chitu.

“China is core to LinkedIn’s mission and vision globally – creating economic opportunity to every member of the global workforce. Since entering China in 2014, LinkedIn has explored its development path within the Chinese market, adjusting short-term strategies according to changes in the market environment. This includes Chitu, which launched in 2015, to help LinkedIn expand the social network market through the mobile app.

“Chitu is one of many experiments we conducted to continue to learn and provide more value to members. Other efforts include WeChat integration, Sesame Credit partnership etc. Based on user feedback and data analysis, we find that Chinese professionals are proactively seeking for career development opportunities. We incorporate many learnings and insights from Chitu into our new offerings on LinkedIn app that we believe will cover different needs and stages in professional and career development.

“Chitu will officially go offline at the end of July 2019, following the completion of its historical mission. In the future, we will focus on the continuous optimization and upgrade of the LinkedIn app, serving as a one-stop shop to accompany Chinese professionals along each step of their career development and connect to more opportunities.”


By Ingrid Lunden

IDC: Asia-Pacific spending on AI systems will reach $5.5 billion this year, up 80 percent from 2018

Spending on artificial intelligence systems in the Asia-Pacific region is expected to reach $5.5 billion this year, an almost 80 percent increase over 2018, driven by businesses in China and the retail industry, according to IDC. In a new report, the research firm also said it expects AI spending to climb at a compound annual growth rate of 50 percent from 2018 to 2022, reaching a total of $15.06 billion in 2022.

This means AI spending growth in the Asia-Pacific region is expected to outpace the rest of the world over the next three years. In March, IDC forecast that worldwide spending on AI systems is expected to grow at a CAGR of 38 percent between 2018 to 2022.

Most of the growth will happen in China, which IDC says will account for nearly two-thirds of AI spending in the region, excluding Japan, in all forecast years. Spending on AI systems will be driven by retail, professional services and government industries.

Retail demand for AI-based tools will also lead growth in the rest of the region, as companies begin to rely on it more for merchandising, product recommendations, automated customer service and supply and logistics. While the banking industry’s AI spending trails behind retail, it will also begin adopting the tech for fraud analysis, program advisors, recommendations and customer service. IDC forecasts that this year, companies will invest almost $700 million in automated service agents. The next largest area for investment is sales process recommendations and automation, with $450 million expected, and intelligent process automation at more than $350 million.

The fastest-growing industries for AI spending are expected to be healthcare (growing at 60.2 percent CAGR) and process manufacturing (60.1 percent CAGR). In terms of infrastructure, IDC says spending on hardware, including servers and storage, will reach almost $7 billion in 2019, while spending on software is expected to grow at a five-year CAGR of 80 percent.


By Catherine Shu

India’s Locus raises $22 million to expand its logistics management business

Locus, an Indian startup that uses AI to help businesses map out their logistics, has raised $22 million in Series B funding to expand its operations in international markets.

The financing round for the four-year-old startup was led by Falcon Edge Capital and Tiger Global Management . Existing investors Exfinity Venture Partners and Blume Ventures also participated in the round. The startup has raised $29 million to date, Nishith Rastogi, co-founder and CEO of Locus, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Locus works with companies that operate in FMCG, logistics, and e-commerce spaces. Some of its clients include Tata Group companies, Myntra, BigBasket, Lenskart, and Bluedart. It helps these clients automate their logistics workload — tasks such as planning, organizing, transporting and tracking of inventories, and finding the best path to reach a destination — that have traditionally required intensive human labor.

“Say a Lenskart representative is visiting a house or an office to offer an eye checkup, and suddenly two more people there are interested in getting their eyes checked. The representative could attend these two new potential clients, or wrap things up with the first client and take care of his or her next appointment,” said Rastogi.

Locus looks at a client’s past data, identifies patterns, and automates these kind of decisions on a large scale. In an example shared earlier with TechCrunch, Rastogi talked about how Locus had built a scanner for ecommerce companies for measuring products.

Rastogi said he will use the fresh capital to develop products and expand Locus in Southeast Asian and North American markets. The startup says half of its 110 people workforce is outside of India. Half of the IP it has built and the revenue it generates comes from its team outside of India.

He said the startup has spent the recent quarters studying these international markets, and has secured some anchor clients to expand the business. Locus is operationally profitable already and any additional capital goes into expanding its business, he added.

The logistics market in India has long been riddled with challenges. A growing number of startups, including BlackBuck — which raised $150 million last week — have emerged in recent years to tackle these problems.

The new funding also illustrates Tiger Global Management’s new strategy for the Indian market. The VC fund, which has invested in B2C businesses Flipkart and Ola in India, has made a number of investments in B2B startups in recent months. Last month, it invested $90 million in agri-tech supply chain startup Ninjacart, and weeks later, it gave cloud-based solutions provider Zenoti $50 million.


By Manish Singh

Google Cloud brings on 27-year SAP veteran as it doubles down on enterprise adoption

Thomas Kurian, the newly-minted CEO of Google Cloud, used the company’s Cloud Next conference last week to lay out his vision for the future of Google’s cloud computing platform. That vision involves, in part, a hiring spree to give businesses that want to work with Google more people to talk to and get help from. Unsurprisingly, Kurian is also looking to put his stamp on the executive team, too, and today announced that former SAP executive Robert Enslin is joining Google Cloud as its new President of Global Customer Operations.

Enslin’s hire is another clear signal that Kurian is focused on enterprise customers. Enslin, after all, is a veteran of the enterprise business, with 27 years at SAP, where he served on the company’s executive board until he announced his resignation from the company earlier this month. After leading various parts of SAP, including as president of its cloud product portfolio, president of SAP North America and CEO of SAP Japan, Enslin announced that he had “a few more aspirations to fulfill.” Those aspirations, we now know, include helping Google Cloud expand its lineup of enterprise customers.

“Rob brings great international experience to his role having worked in South Africa, Europe, Asia and the United States—this global perspective will be invaluable as we expand Google Cloud into established industries and growth markets around the world,” Kurian writes in today’s announcement.

For the last two years, Google Cloud already had a President of Global Customer Operations, though, in the form of Paul-Henri Ferrand, a former Dell exec who was brought on by Google Cloud’s former CEO Diane Greene . Kurian says that Ferrand “has decided to take on a new challenge within Google.”

 


By Frederic Lardinois

Alibaba has acquired Teambition, a China-based Trello and Asana rival, in its enterprise push

Alibaba has made an acquisition as it continues to square up to the opportunity in enterprise services in China and beyond, akin to what its US counterpart Amazon has done with AWS. TechCrunch has confirmed that the e-commerce and cloud services giant has acquired Teambition, a Microsoft- and Tencent-backed platform for coworkers to plan and collaborate on projects together, similar to Trello and Asana.

There were rumors of an acquisition circulating yesterday in Chinese media. Alibaba has now confirmed the acquisition to TechCrunch but declined to provide any other details.

Teambition had raised about $17 million in funding since 2013, with investors including Tencent, Microsoft, IDG Capital and Gobi Ventures. Gobi also manages investments on behalf of Alibaba, and that might have been one route to how the two became acquainted. Alibaba’s last acquisition in enterprise was German big data startup Data Artisans for $103 million.

As with others in the project management and collaboration space, Teambition provides users with mobile and desktop apps to interact with the service, and in addition to the main planning interface, there is one designed for CRM called Bingo, as well as a “knowledge base” where businesses can keep extra documentation and other collateral.

The deal is another sign of how Alibaba has been slowly building a business in enterprise powerhouse over the last several years as it races to keep its pole position in the Chinese market, as well as gain a stronger foothold in the wider Asian region and beyond.

In China alone, it has been estimated that enterprise services is a $1 billion opportunity, but with no clear leader at the moment across a range of verticals and segments that fall under that general umbrella, there is a lot to play for, and likely a lot more consolidation to come. (And it’s not the only one: Bytedance — more known for consumer services like TikTok — is rumored to be building a Slack competitor, and Tencent also has its sights on the sector, as does Baidu.)

As with AWS, Alibaba’s enterprise business stems out of the cloud-based infrastructure Alibaba has built for its own e-commerce powerhouse, which it has productised as a service for third parties that it calls Alibaba Cloud, which (like AWS) offers a range of cloud-storage and serving tiers to users.

On top of that, Alibaba has been building and integrating a number of apps and other services that leverage that cloud infrastructure, providing more stickiness for the core service as well as the potential for developing further revenue streams with customers.

These apps and services range from the recently-launched “A100” business transformation initiative, where Alibaba proposes working with large companies to digitise and modernize (and help run) their IT backends; through to specific products, such as Alibaba’s Slack competitor DingTalk.

With Alibaba declining to give us any details beyond a confirmation of the acquisition, and Teambition not returning our requests for comment, our best guess is that this app could be a fit in either of areas. That is to say, one option for Alibaba would be to integrate it and use it as part of a wider “business transformation” and modernization offering, or as a standalone product, as it currently exists.

Teambition today counts a number of Chinese giants, and giants with Chinese outposts, as customers, including Huawei, Xiaomi, TCL, and McDonalds in its customer list. The company currently has nothing on its site indicating an acquisition or any notices regarding future services, so it seems to be business as usual for now.

The opportunity around collaboration and workplace communication has become a very hot area in the last few years, spurred by the general growth of social media in the consumer market and people in business environments wanting to bring in the same kinds of tools to help them get work done. Planning and project management — the area that Teambition and its competitors address — is considered a key pillar in the wider collaboration space alongside cloud services to store and serve files and real-time communication services.

Slack, which is now valued at over $7 billion, has said it’s filed paperwork for a public listing, while Asana is now valued at $1.5 billion, while Trello’s owner Atlassian now has a market cap of nearly $26 billion.


By Ingrid Lunden

Kong raises $43M Series C for its API platform

Kong, the open core API management and lifecycle management company previously known as Mashape, today announced that it has raised a $43 million Series C round led by Index Ventures. Previous investors Andreessen Horowitz and Charles River Ventures (CRV), as well as new investors GGV Capital and World Innovation Lab also participated. With this round, Kong has now raised a total of $71 million.

The company’s CEO and co-founder Augusto Marietti tells me that the company plans to use the funds to build out its service control platform. He likened this service to the “nervous system for an organization’s software architecture.”

Right now, Kong is just offering the first pieces of this, though. One area the company plans to especially focus on is security, in addition to its existing management tools, where Kong plans to add more machine learning capabilities over time, too. “It’s obviously a 10-year journey but those two things — immunity with security and machine learning with [Kong] Brain are really a 10-year journey of building an intelligent platform that can manage all the traffic in and out of an organization,” he said.

In addition, the company also plans to invest heavily in its expansion in both Europe and the Asia Pacific market. This also explains the addition of World Innovation Lab as an investor. The firm, after all, focuses heavily on connecting companies in the US with partners in Asia — and especially Japan. As Marietti told me, the company is seeing a lot of demand in Japan and China right now, so it makes sense to capitalize on this, especially as the Chinese market is about to become more easily accessible for foreign companies.

Kong notes that it doubled its headcount in 2018 and now has over 100 enterprise customers, including Yahoo! Japan, Ferrari, SoulCycle and WeWork.

It’s worth noting that while this is officially a Series C investment, Marietti is thinking of it more like a Series B round given that the company went through a major pivot when it moved from being Mashape to its focus on Kong, which was already its most popular open source tool.

“Modern software is now built in the cloud, with applications consuming other applications, service to service,” said Martin Casado, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz . “We’re at the tipping point of enterprise adoption of microservices architectures, and companies are turning to new open source-based developer tools and platforms to fuel their next wave of innovation. Kong is uniquely suited to help enterprises as they make this shift by supporting an organization’s entire service architecture, from centralized or decentralized, monolith or microservices.”


By Frederic Lardinois

Google’s Cloud Spanner database adds new features and regions

Cloud Spanner, Google’s globally distributed relational database service, is getting a bit more distributed today with the launch of a new region and new ways to set up multi-region configurations. The service is also getting a new feature that gives developers deeper insights into their most resource-consuming queries.

With this update, Google is adding to the Cloud Spanner lineup Hong Kong (asia-east2), its newest data center location. With this, Cloud Spanner is now available in 14 out of 18 Google Cloud Platform (GCP) regions, including seven the company added this year alone. The plan is to bring Cloud Spanner to every new GCP region as they come online.

The other new region-related news is the launch of two new configurations for multi-region coverage. One, called eur3, focuses on the European Union, and is obviously meant for users there who mostly serve a local customer base. The other is called nam6 and focuses on North America, with coverage across both costs and the middle of the country, using data centers in Oregon, Los Angeles, South Carolina and Iowa. Previously, the service only offered a North American configuration with three regions and a global configuration with three data centers spread across North America, Europe and Asia.

While Cloud Spanner is obviously meant for global deployments, these new configurations are great for users who only need to serve certain markets.

As far as the new query features are concerned, Cloud Spanner is now making it easier for developers to view, inspect and debug queries. The idea here is to give developers better visibility into their most frequent and expensive queries (and maybe make them less expensive in the process).

In addition to the Cloud Spanner news, Google Cloud today announced that its Cloud Dataproc Hadoop and Spark service now supports the R language, in addition to Python 3.7 support on App Engine.


By Frederic Lardinois

Asana, a work management platform, nabs $50M growth round at a $1.5B valuation

Asana, a service that teams and individuals use to plan and track the progress of work projects, is doubling down on its own project: to shape “the future of work,” in the words of co-founder and CEO Dustin Moskovitz. The startup, whose products are used by millions of free and paying users, today is announcing that it has raised another $50 million in funding — a Series E that catapults Asana into unicorn status with a $1.5 billion valuation — to invest in international and product expansion.

Asana has been on a funding tear: It raised $75 million just 11 months ago at a $900 million post-money valuation, bringing the total this year to $125 million, and $213 million since being founded in 2008.

Led by Generation Investment Management — the London firm co-founded by former US Vice President Al Gore that also led that Series D in January — this latest round also includes existing investors 8VC, Benchmark Capital and Founders Fund as well as new investors Lead Edge Capital and World Innovation Lab.

Asana has lately been focused on international growth — half of its new sales are already coming from outside the US — and expanding its product as it inches toward profitability. These are the areas where its latest investment will go, too.

Specifically, it plans to open an AWS-based data center in Frankfurt in the first half of next year, and it will set down more roots in Asia-Pacific, with offices in Sydney and Tokyo. It is also hiring in both markets. Asana has customers in 195 countries and six languages, and it looks like it’s homing in on these two regions because it’s seeing the most traction there.

On the product side, the company has been gradually adding machine learning, predictive and other AI features and it will continue to do that as part of a “long-term vision for marrying computer and human intelligence to run entire companies.”

“Our role is to help leaders understand where their attention can be most useful and what to be focused on,” Moskovitz, pictured right with co-founder Justin Rosenstein, said to me in an interview earlier this month when describing the company’s AI push.

The funding caps off an active year for Asana.

In addition to raising $75 million in January, it announced 50,000 paying organizations and “millions” of free users in September. It also introduced new products and features, such as a paid tier, Asana for Business, for larger organizations managing multiple projects; Timelines for drilling into sequential tasks and milestones; and its first steps into AI, services that start to anticipate what users need to see first and prioritise, based on previous behaviour, which team the user is on, and so on:

Asana has been close to profitability this year, although it doesn’t look like it has quite reached that point yet. Moskovitz told me that in fact, it has held on to most of its previous funding (that’s before embarking on this next wave of ambitious expansions, though).

“We have so much money in the bank that we have quite a lot of options [and are in a] strong position so choose what makes the most sense strategically,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate with investors. The prime thing is vision match: do they think about the long-term future in the same way we do? Do they have the same values and priorities? Generation nailed that on so many levels as a firm.”

How Asana fits into the mix with Slack, Box and others

Asana’s growth and mission both mirror trends in the wider world of enterprise IT and collaboration within it.

Slack, Microsoft Teams, Workplace from Facebook and other messaging and chat apps have transformed how coworkers communicate with each other, both within single offices and across wider geographies: they have replaced email, phone and other communication channels to some extent.

Meanwhile, the rise of cloud-based services like Dropbox, Box, Google Cloud, AWS and Microsoft’s Azure have transformed how people in organizations manage and ultimately collaborate on files: the rise of mobile and mobile working have increased the need for more flexible file management and access.

The third area that has been less covered is work management: as people continue to multitask on multiple projects – partly spurred by the rise in the other two collaboration categories – they need a platform that helps keep them organised and on top of all that work. This is where Asana sits.

“We think about collaboration as three markets,” Moskovitz said, “file collaboration, messaging, and work management. Each of these has a massive surface area and depth to them. We think it’s important that all companies have tools that they use from each of these big buckets.”

It is not the only one in that big bucket.

Asana alternatives include Airtable, Wrike, Trello and Basecamp. As we have pointed out before, that competitive pressure is another reason Asana is on the path to continue growing and making its service more sticky.

Indeed, just earlier this month Airtable raised $100 million at a $1.1 billion valuation. Airtable has a different approach – its platform can be used for more than project management – but it’s most definitely used to build templates precisely to track projects.

You might even argue that Airtable’s existing offering could present a type of product roadmap for what might be considered next for Asana.

For now, though, Asana is building up big customers for its existing services.

The product initially got its start when Moskovitz and Rosenstein – as respectively as co-founder and early employee of Facebook – built something to help their coworkers  at the social network manage their workloads. Now, it has a range of users that include a number of other tech firms, but also others.

London’s National Gallery, for example, uses Asana to plan and launch exhibitions and business projects; the supermarket chain Tesco’s digital campaigns; Sony Music, which also uses it for marketing management but also to track a digitization project for its back music catalog; Uber, which has managed some 600 city expansions through Asana to date.

“At Generation Investment Management, we’re grounded in the philosophy that through strategic investments in leading, mission-driven companies we can move towards a more sustainable future,” said Colin le Duc, co-founder and partner, Generation Investment Management, in a statement.

“We see Collaborative Work Management as a distinct and rapidly expanding segment, and Asana has the right product and team to lead the market. Through Dustin and the team, Asana is changing how businesses around the world collaborate, epitomizing what it means to deliver results with a mission-driven ethos.”


By Ingrid Lunden