When investors gave Moveworks a hefty $75 million Series B at the end of 2019, they were investing in a chatbot startup that to that point had been tuned to answer IT help question in an automated way. Today, the company announced it had used that money to expand the platform to encompass employee questions across all lines of business.
At the time of that funding, nobody could have anticipated a pandemic either, but throughout last year as companies moved to work from home, having an automated systems in place like Moveworks became even more crucial, says CEO and company co-founder Bhavin Shah.
“It was a tragic year on a variety of fronts, but what it did was it coalesced a lot of energy around people’s need for support, people’s need for speed and help,” Shah said. It helps that employees typically access the Moveworks chatbot inside collaboration tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams, and people have been spending more time in these tools while working at home.
“We definitely saw a lot more interest in the market, and part of that was fueled by the large scale adoption of collaboration tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams by enterprises around the world,” he said.
The company is working with 100 large enterprise customers today, and those customers were looking for a more automated way for employees to ask questions about a variety of tooling from HR to finance and facilities management. While Shah says expanding the platform to move beyond IT into other parts of an organization had been on the roadmap, the pandemic definitely underscored the need to expand even more.
While the company spent its first several years tuning the underlying artificial intelligence technology for IT language, they had built it with expansion in mind. “We learned how to build a conversational system so that it can be dynamic and not be predicated on some person’s forethought around [what the question and answer will be] — that approach doesn’t scale. So there were a lot of things around dealing with all these enterprise resources and so forth that really prepared us to be an enterprise-wide partner,” Shah said.
The company also announced a new communications tool that enables companies to use the Moveworks bot to communicate directly with employees to get them to take some action. Shah says companies usually send out an email that for example, employees have to update their password. The bot tells you it’s time to do that and provides a link to walk you through the process. He says that beta testers have seen a 70% increase in responses using the bot to communicate about an action instead of email.
Shah recognizes that a technology that understands language is going to have a lot of cultural variances and nuances and that requires a diverse team to build a tool like this. He says that his HR team has a set of mandates to make sure they are interviewing people in under-represented roles to build a team that reflects the needs of the customer base and the world at large.
The company has been working with about a dozen customers over the last 9 months on the platform expansion, iterating with these customers to improve the quality of the responses, regardless of the type of question or which department it involves. Today, these tools are generally available.
As the pandemic drags on and we learn about the requirements of working from home with distributed teams, users could be craving more integration across their tools to help reduce the clicks required to complete a set of tasks. Today at the Ignite Conference, Microsoft announced tighter integration between its business suite Dynamics 365 and its collaboration tool Teams to help with that issue.
Alysa Taylor, corporate VP for business applications and global industry at Microsoft, pointed out that one of the advantages of this native integration approach is that it helps reduce context switching across different applications. “We are committed to really bringing together the collaboration platform and the business process layer to enable salespeople, service representatives, operations managers [and other similar roles] to really have a unified platform in which they both collaborate and have their everyday business functions,” Taylor explained.
This could manifest itself in a number of different ways across marketing, sales and service. For instance, a marketer can create a webinar, which they set up and track in Dynamics 365 Marketing tools and run in Teams as a streaming event with the Teams streaming setup integrated directly into the Dynamics 365 console.
In a sales example Taylor says, “We’re enabling sellers to be able to track the career movements of their contacts using the LinkedIn Sales Navigator, as well as connect very specific sales records within Microsoft Teams without ever having to leave Dynamics 365 Sales. So you can be in the Sales application and you have the ability to deeply understand a contact and any contact changes that occur in Teams, and that’s automatically updated in Sales.”
If your company is not an all-Microsoft shop and wants to use different tools as part of these workflows, Taylor says that you can use Microsoft cross-cloud connectors to connect to another service, and this is true regardless of the tasks involved (so long as the connector to the desired application is available).
Salesforce, a primary rival of Microsoft in the business software space, spent over $27 billion to buy Slack at the end of last year to bring this kind of integration to its platform. Taylor sees the acquisition as a reaction to the integration Microsoft already has and continues to build.
“I think that Salesforce had to acquire Slack to be able to have that collaboration [we have], so we are years ahead of what they’re going to be able to provide because they will not have these native integrations. So I actually see the Salesforce acquisition as a response to what we’re doing with Dynamics 365 and Teams,” Taylor told me.
It’s worth pointing out that Salesforce is far ahead of Microsoft when it comes market share in the CRM space with over 19% versus under 3% for Microsoft, according to Gartner numbers from 2019. While it’s possible these numbers have shifted some since then, probably not significantly.
Mark Settle is a seven-time CIO, three-time CIO 100 award winner and two-time book author. His most recent book is “Truth from the Valley: A Practical Primer on IT Management for the Next Decade.”
Tomer Y. Avni Contributor
Tomer Y. Avni is an MBA/MS student at the Harvard Business School and the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Privacy data mismanagement is a lurking liability within every commercial enterprise. The very definition of privacy data is evolving over time and has been broadened to include information concerning an individual’s health, wealth, college grades, geolocation and web surfing behaviors. Regulations are proliferating at state, national and international levels that seek to define privacy data and establish controls governing its maintenance and use.
Existing regulations are relatively new and are being translated into operational business practices through a series of judicial challenges that are currently in progress, adding to the confusion regarding proper data handling procedures. In this confusing and sometimes chaotic environment, the privacy risks faced by almost every corporation are frequently ambiguous, constantly changing and continually expanding.
Conventional information security (infosec) tools are designed to prevent the inadvertent loss or intentional theft of sensitive information. They are not sufficient to prevent the mismanagement of privacy data. Privacy safeguards not only need to prevent loss or theft but they must also prevent the inappropriate exposure or unauthorized usage of such data, even when no loss or breach has occurred. A new generation of infosec tools is needed to address the unique risks associated with the management of privacy data.
The first wave of innovation
A variety of privacy-focused security tools emerged over the past few years, triggered in part by the introduction of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) within the European Union in 2018. New capabilities introduced by this first wave of innovation were focused in the following three areas:
Data discovery, classification and cataloging. Modern enterprises collect a wide variety of personal information from customers, business partners and employees at different times for different purposes with different IT systems. This data is frequently disseminated throughout a company’s application portfolio via APIs, collaboration tools, automation bots and wholesale replication. Maintaining an accurate catalog of the location of such data is a major challenge and a perpetual activity. BigID, DataGuise and Integris Software have gained prominence as popular solutions for data discovery. Collibra and Alation are leaders in providing complementary capabilities for data cataloging.
Consent management. Individuals are commonly presented with privacy statements describing the intended use and safeguards that will be employed in handling the personal data they supply to corporations. They consent to these statements — either explicitly or implicitly — at the time such data is initially collected. Osano, Transcend.io and DataGrail.io specialize in the management of consent agreements and the enforcement of their terms. These tools enable individuals to exercise their consensual data rights, such as the right to view, edit or delete personal information they’ve provided in the past.
Scott Kinka serves as CTO for Evolve IP. An award-winning, 20-year technology veteran with expertise in virtualization, cloud security and telecommunications, he designs the Evolve IP roadmap, leads its project team and works closely with customers and partners.
Ryan Easter couldn’t believe he was being asked to run a pandemic business continuity test.
It was late October, 2019 and Easter, IT Director and a principal at Johnson Investment Counsel, was being asked by regulators to ensure that their employees could work from home with the same capabilities they had in the office. In addition, the company needed to evaluate situations where up to 50% of personnel were impacted by a virus and unable to work, forcing others to pick up their internal functions and workload.
“I honestly thought that it was going to be a waste of time,” said Easter. “I never imagined that we would have had to put our pandemic plan into action. But because we had a tested strategy already in place, we didn’t miss a beat when COVID-19 struck.”
In the months leading up to the initial test, Johnson Investment Counsel developed a work anywhere blueprint with their technology partner Evolve IP. The plan covered a wide variety of integrated technologies including voice services, collaboration, virtual desktops, disaster recovery and remote office connectivity.
“Having a strategy where our work anywhere services were integrated together was one of the keys to our success,” said Easter. “We manage about $13 billion in assets for clients across the United States and provide comprehensive wealth and investment management to individual and institutional investors. We have our own line of mutual funds, a state-chartered trust company, a proprietary charitable gift fund, with research analysts and traders covering both equity and fixed income markets. Duct taping one-off solutions wasn’t going to cut it.”
Easter continued, “It was imperative that our advisors could communicate with clients, collaborate with each other and operate the business seamlessly. That included ensuring we could make real-time trades and provide all of our other client services.”
Five months later, the novel coronavirus hit the United States and Johnson Investment Counsel’s blueprint test got real.
Miro is a company in the right place at the right time. The makers of a digital whiteboard are seeing usage surge right now as businesses move from the workplace and physical whiteboards. Today, the company announced a hefty $50 million Series B.
Iconiq Capital led the round with help from Accel and a slew of individual investors. Today’s investment brings the total raised to around $75 million, according to the company. Among the company’s angel investors was basketball star Steph Curry.
What’s attracting this level of investment is that this is a product made for a moment when workers are forced to stay home. One of the primary complaints about working at home is the inability to sit in the same room with colleagues and brainstorm around a whiteboard. This reproduces that to an extent.
What’s more, Miro isn’t simply light-weight add-in like you might find built into a collaboration tool like Zoom or Microsoft Teams; it’s more of a platform play designed to integrate with many different enterprise tools, much like Slack does for communications.
Miro co-founder and CEO Andrey Khusid said the company planned the platform idea from its earliest days. “The concept from day one was building something for real-time collaboration and the platform thing is very important because we expect that people will build on top of our product,” Khusid told TechCrunch.
Image Credit: Miro
That means that people can build integrations to other common tools and customize the base tool to meet the needs of an individual team or organization. It’s an approach that seems to be working as the company reports it’s profitable with more than 21,000 customers including 80% of the Fortune 100. Customers include Netflix, Salesforce, PwC, Spotify, Expedia and Deloitte.
Khusid says usage has been skyrocketing among both business and educational customers as the pandemic has forced millions of people to work at home. He says that has been a challenge for his engineering team to keep up with the demand, but one that the company has been able to meet to this point.
The startup just passed the 300 employee mark this week, and it will continue to hire with this new influx of money. Khusid expects to have another 150 employees before the end of the year to keep up with increasing demand for the product.
“We understand that we need to come out strong from this situation. The company is growing much faster than we expected, so we need to have a very strong team to maintain the growth at the same pace after the crisis ends.”
Meet Leverice: A team messenger and collaboration platform that’s aiming to compete with b2b giants like Slack by tackling an issue that continues to plague real-time messaging — namely, ‘always-on’ information overload. This means these tools can feel like they’re eating into productivity as much as aiding it. Or else leave users stressed and overwhelmed about how to stay on top of the work comms firehose.
Leverice’s pitch is that it’s been built from the ground up to offer a better triage structure so vital bits of info aren’t lost in rushing rivers of chatter than flow across less structured chat platforms.
It does this by giving users the ability to organize chat content into nested subchannels. So its theory is that hyper structured topic channels will let users better direct and navigate info flow, freeing them from the need to check everything or perform lots of searches in order to find key intel. Instead they can just directly drill down to specific subchannels, tuning out the noise.
The overarching aim is to bring a little asynchronicity to the world of real-time collaboration platforms, per co-founder and COO Daniel Velton.
“Most messaging and collaboration tools are designed for and built around synchronous communications, instant back-and-forth. But most members of remote teams communicate at their own pace — and there was no go-to messaging tool built around asynchronous communications,” he tells TechCrunch.
“We set out to solve that problem, to build a messenger and collaboration platform that breaks rivers down into rivulets. To do that, we needed a tech stack and unique architecture that would allow teams to efficiently work with hundreds of channels and subchannels distributed between scores of channel branches of varying depths. Having that granularity ensures that each little shelf maintains topical integrity.
“We’re not discussing Feature 2.1.1 and 2.1.2 and 2.1.3 and 2.1.4 inside a single ‘Features’ channel, where the discussions would blend together. Each has its own little home.”
Of course Slack isn’t blind to the info-overload issues its platform can generate. Last month it announced “a simpler, more organized Slack”, which includes the ability for users to organize channels, messages and apps into “custom, collapsible sections”. Aka folders.
So how is Leverice’s subchannel architecture a great leap forward on the latest version of Slack — which does let users organize themselves (and is now in the process of being rolled out across its user-base)?
“All structuring (including folders) on other popular messengers is essentially an individual preference setting,” says Velton. “It does not reflect on a teamwide channel tree. It’s definitely a step in the right direction but it’s about each user adding a tiny bit of structure to their own private interface, not having a structure that affects and improves the way an entire team communicates.
“Leverice architecture is based on structuring of channels and subchannels into branches of unlimited depth. This kind of deep structuring is not something you can simply ‘overlay’ on top of an existing messenger that was designed around a single layer of channels. A tremendous number of issues arise when you work with a directory-like structure of infinite depth, and these aren’t easily solved or addressed unless the architecture is built around it.”
“Sure, in Leverice you can build the ‘6-lane autobahns’,” he adds, using an analogy of vehicle traffic on roads to illustrate the concept of a hierarchy of topic channels. “But we are the only messenger where you can also construct a structured network of ‘country roads’. It’s more ‘places’ but each ‘place’ is so narrow and topical that working through it all becomes more manageable, quick and pleasant, and it’s something you can do at your own pace without fear of missing important kernels of information as they fly by on the autobahn.”
To be clear, while Slack has now started letting users self-organize — by creating a visual channel hierarchy that suits them — Leverice’s structure means the same structured tree of channels/subchannels applies for the whole team.
“At the end of the day, for communications to work, somebody on a team needs to be organized,” argues Velton. “What we allow is structuring that affects the channel tree for an entire team, not just an individual preference that reflects only on a user’s local device.”
Leverice has other features in the pipeline which it reckons will further help users cut through the noise — with a plan to apply AI-powered prioritization to surface the most pressing inbound comms.
There will also be automated alerts for conversation forks when new subchannels are created. (Though generating lots of subchannel alerts doesn’t sound exactly noise-free…)
“We have features coming that alert users to forks in a conversation and nudge the user toward those new subchannels. At this stage those forks are created manually, although our upcoming AI module will have nudges based on those forks,” says Velton.
“The architecture (deep structuring) also opens the door to scripting of automated workflows and open source plug-ins,” he adds.
Leverice officially launched towards the end of February after a month-long beta which coincided with the coronavirus-induced spike in remote work.
At this stage they have “members of almost 400 teams” registered on the platform, per Velton, with initial traction coming from mid-size tech companies — who he says are either unhappy with the costs of their current messaging platform or with distraction/burnout caused by “channel fatigue”; or who are facing info fragmentation as internal teams are using different p2p/messaging tools and lack a universal choice.
“We have nothing but love and respect for our competitors,” he adds. “Slack, Teams, WhatsApp, Telegram, Skype, Viber, etc.: each have their own benefits and many teams are perfectly content to use them. Our product is for teams looking for more focus and structure than existing solutions offer. Leverice’s architecture is unique on the market, and it opens the door to powerful features that are neither technically nor practically feasible in a messenger with a single layer containing a dozen or two dozen channels.”
Other differentiating features he highlights as bringing something fresh to the team messaging platform conversation are a whiteboard feature that lets users collaborate in the app for brainstorming or listing ideas, prorities; and a Jira integration for managing and discussing tasks in the project- and issue-tracking tool. The team is planning further integrations including with Zoom, Google Docs and “other services you use most”.
The startup — which was founded by CEO Rodion Zhitomirsky in Minsk but is now headquartered in San Jose, California, also with offices in Munich, Germany — has been bootstrapping development for around two years, taking in angel investment of around $600,000.
“We are three friends who managed complex project-based teams and personally felt the pains of all the popular messengers out there,” says Velton, discussing how they came to set up the business. “We used all the usual suspects, and even tried using p2p messengers as substitutes. They all led us and our teams to the same place: we couldn’t track large amounts of communications unless we were in “always-on” mode. We knew there had to be a better way, so we set out to build Leverice.”
The third co-founder is Dennis Dokutchitz.
Leverice’s business model is freemium, with a free tier, a premium tier, and a custom enterprise tier. As well as offering the platform as SaaS via the cloud, they do on-premise installations — for what Velton describes as “the highest level of security and privacy”.
On the security front the product is not end-to-end encrypted but he says the team is developing e2e encrypted channels to supplement the client-server encryption it applies as standard.
Velton notes these forthcoming channels would not support the usual search features, while AI analysis would be limited to “meta-information analysis”, i.e. excluding posts’ content.
With remote work the order of the day across most of the globe because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems likely there will be a new influx of collaboration tools being unboxed to help home workers navigate a new ‘professionally distant’ normal.
“We’ve only been on the market for 6 weeks and have no meaningful revenue to speak of as of yet,” adds Velton.