Slack releases Clips video tool, announces 16 Salesforce integrations

Slack has been talking about expanding beyond text-based messaging for some time. Today at Dreamforce, the Salesforce customer conference taking place this week, it announced Clips, a way to leave short video messages that people can watch at their leisure.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield sees Clips as a way to communicate with colleagues when a full 30 minutes meeting isn’t really required. Instead, you can let people know what’s going on through a brief video. “Clips are a way to record yourself on your screen. And the idea is that a lot of the meetings shouldn’t require us to be together in real time,” Butterfield said at a Dreamforce press event yesterday.

He added that these video clips provide more value because you can still get the point that would have been delivered in a full meeting without having to actually attend to get access to that information. What’s more, he says the videos create an audit trail of activity for archival purposes.

“It’s easily shareable with people who weren’t in attendance, but [still] get the update. It’s available in the archive, so you can go back and find the answers to questions you have or trace back the roots of a decision,” he said. It’s worth noting that Slack first introduced this idea last October, and announced an early customer beta last March, at which point they hadn’t even named it yet.

He admitted that this may require people to rethink how they work, and depending on the organization that may be harder in some places than others, but he believes that value proposition of freeing up employees to meet less and work more will eventually drive people and organizations to try it and then incorporate into the way that they work.

Clips builds on the Huddles tool released earlier this year, which is a way via audio to have serendipitous water cooler kinds of conversations, again as a way to reduce the need for a full-fledged meeting when people can get together for a few minutes, resolve an issue and get back to work. Butterfield says that Huddles has had the fastest adoption of any new capability since he first launched Slack.

In March, in a Clubhouse interview with SignalFire investor Josh Constine (who is also a former TechCrunch reporter), Butterfield said that the company was also working on a Clubhouse tool for business. The company did not announce any similar tool this week though.

The company also announced 16 integrations with Salesforce that span the entire Salesforce platform. These include the sales-focussed deal room and the customer support incident response called swarms announced earlier this month, as well as new connections to other tools in the Salesforce family of product including Mulesoft and Tableau and industry-specific integrations for banking, life sciences and philanthropy.

In case you had forgotten, Salesforce bought Slack at the end of last year in a mega deal worth almost $28 billion. Today, as part of the CRM giant, the company continues to build on the platform and product roadmap it had in place prior to the acquisition, while building in integrations all across the Salesforce platform.


By Ron Miller

Sendbird raises $100M at a $1B+ valuation, says 150M+ users now interact using its chat and video APIs

Messaging is the medium these days, and today a startup that has built an API to help others build text and video interactivity into their services is announcing a big round to continue scaling its business. Sendbird, a popular provider of chat, video and other interactive services to the likes of Reddit, Hinge, Paytm, Delivery Hero and hundreds of others by way of a few lines of code, has closed a round of $100 million, money that it plans to use to continue expanding the functionalities of its platform to meet our changing interactive times. Sendbird has confirmed that the funding values the company at $1.05 billion.

Today, customers collectively channel some 150 million users through Sendbird’s APIs to chat with each other and large groups of users over text and video, a figure that has seen a lot of growth in particular in the last year, where people were spending so much more time in front of screens as their primary interface to communicate with the world.

Sendbird already provides some services around that core functionality such as moderation and text search. John Kim, Sendbird’s CEO and founder, said that additional developments like moderation has seen a huge take-up, and services it plans to add into the mix include payments and logistics features, and that it is looking at adding in group audio conversations for customers to build their own Clubhouse clones.

“We are getting enquiries,” said Kim. “We will be setting it up in a personalized way. Voice chat has certainly picked up due to Clubhouse.”

The funding — oversubscribed, the company says — is being led by Steadfast Financial, with Softbank’s Vision Fund 2 also participating, along with previous backers ICONIQ Capital, Tiger Global Management, and Meritech Capital. It comes about two years after Sendbird closed its Series B at $102 million, and the startup appears to have nearly doubled its valuation since then: PitchBook estimates it was around $550 million in 2019.

That growth, in a sense, is not a surprise, given not just the climate right now for virtual interaction, but the fact that Sendbird itself has tripled the number of customers using its tools since 2019. The company, co-headquartered in Seoul, Korea and San Mateo, has now raised around $221 million.

The market that Sendbird has been pecking away at since being founded in 2013 is a hefty one.

Messaging apps have become a major digital force, with a small handful of companies overtaking (and taking on) the primary features found on the most basic of phones and finding traction with people by making them easier to use and full of more interesting features to use alongside the basic functionality. That in turn has led a wave of other companies to build in their own communications features, a way both to provide more community for their users, and to keep people on their own platforms in the process.

“It’s an arms race going on between messaging and payment apps,” Sid Suri, Sendbird’s marketing head, said to me in describing the competitive landscape. “There is a high degree of urgency among all businesses to say we don’t have to lose users to any of them. White label services like ours are powering the ability to keep up.”

Sendbird is indeed one of a wave of companies that have identified both that trend and the opportunity of building that functionality out as a commodity of sorts that can be embedded anywhere a developer chooses to place it by way of an API. It’s not the only one: others in the same space include publicly-listed Twilio, the similarly-named competitor MessageBird (which is also highly capitalised and has positioned itself as a consolidator in the space), PubNub, Sinch, Stream, Firebase and many more.

That competition is one reason why Sendbird has raised money. It gives it more capital to bring on more users, and critically to invest in building out more functionality alongside its core features, to address the needs of its existing users, and to discover new opportunities to provide them with features they perhaps didn’t know they needed in their messaging channels to keep users’ attention.

“We are doing a lot around transactions and payments, as well as logistics,” Kim said in an interview. “We are really building out the end to end experience [since that] really ties into engagement. A couple of new features will be heavily around transactions, and others will be around more engagement.”

Karan Mehandru, a partner at Steadfast, is joining the board with this round, and he believes that there remains a huge opportunity especially when you consider the many verticals that have yet to adopt solid and useful communications channels within their services, such as healthcare.

“The channel that Sendbird is leveraging is the next channel we have come to expect from all brands,” he said in an interview. “Sendbird may look the same as others but if you peel the onion, providing a scalable chat experience that is highly customized is a real problem to solve. Large customers think this is critical but not a core competence and then zoom back to Sendbird because they can’t do it. Sendbird is a clear leader. Sendbird is permeating many verticals and types of companies now. This is one of those rare companies that has been at the right place at the right time.”


By Ingrid Lunden

Sinch announces Conversation API to bring together multiple messaging tools

As communicating with customers across the world grows ever more challenging due to multiple channels, tools and networking providers, companies are looking for a way to simplify it all. Sinch, a company that makes communications APIs, announced a new tool this morning called the Conversation API designed to make it easier to interact with customers across the planet using multiple messaging products.

Sinch chief product officer Vikram Khandpur says that business is being conducted in different messaging channels such as SMS, WhatsApp or Viber depending on location, and businesses have to be able to communicate with their customers wherever they happen to be from a technology and geographic standpoint. What’s more, this need has become even more pronounced during a pandemic when online communication has become paramount.

Khandpur says that up until now, Sinch has concentrated on optimizing the SMS experience for actions like customer acquisition, customer engagement, delivery notifications and customer support. Now the company wants to take that next step into richer omni-channel messaging.

The idea is to provide a set of tools to help marketing teams communicate across these multiple channels by walking them through the processes required by each player. “By writing to our API, what we can provide is that we can get our customers on all these platforms if they are not already on these platforms,” he said.

He uses WhatsApp as an example because it has a very defined process for brands to work with it. “On WhatsApp, there is this concept of creating these pre-approved templates, and they need to be reviewed, curated and finally approved by the WhatsApp team. We help them with that process, and then do the same with other channels and platforms, so we take that complexity away from the brand,” Khandpur explained.

He adds, “By giving us that message once, we take care of all of [the different tools] behind the scenes transcoding when needed. So if you give us a very rich message with images and videos, WhatsApp may want to render it in a certain way, but then Viber renders that in a different way, and we take care of that.

Sinch Conv API Transcoding

Examples of transcoding across messaging channels. Image Credits: Sinch

Marketers can use the Conversation API to define parameters like using WhatsApp first in India, but if the targeted customer doesn’t open WhatsApp, then fall back to SMS.

The company has made four acquisitions in the last year including ACL Mobile in India and SAP’s Interconnect Messaging business to enhance its presence across the world.

Sinch, which competes with Twilio in the communications API space, may be one of the most successful companies you never heard of, generating over $500 million in revenue last year while processing over 110 billion messages.

The company launched in Sweden in 2008 and has never taken a dime of venture capital, yet has been profitable since early days. In fact, it’s publicly traded on the NASDAQ Exchange in Stockholm and will be reporting earnings next week.


By Ron Miller

Slack introduces new features to ease messaging between business partners

Slack is holding its Frontiers conference this week — virtually like everyone else in 2020 — and it’s introducing some new features to make it easier to message between partners. At the same time, it’s talking about some experimental features that could appear in the platform at some point (or not).

Let’s start with some features to help communicate with partners outside of your company in a secure way. This is always a tough nut to crack whether it’s collaboration or file sharing or any of the things that trusted partners do when they are working closely together.

To help solve that, the company is creating the notion of trusted partners, and this has a few components. The first is Slack Connect DMs (direct messages), which allows users inside an organization to collaborate with anyone outside their company simply by sending an invite.

“You can now direct message anyone in the Slack ecosystem. That means that anyone that has a Slack license can connect to one another,” Ilan Frank, VP of product at Slack told TechCrunch. While the company is introducing the new capability this week, it won’t be widely available until next year as the company wants to make sure this is used for business purposes only in a secure and non-spammy way.

“We’re going to be focused on, before we make this widely available, a lot of different information privacy and security [components] to make sure that we account for things like spam and phishing attacks and all that. This should not be a LinkedIn or Facebook Messenger where anyone can connect with you. This is [going to focus on] business for business work,” Frank explained.

Slack is introducing a couple of concepts to help ensure that happens. For starters, it’s adding Verified Organizations, which works a bit like verified users on Twitter, to help ensure you are dealing with someone from an organization you trust and work with before you start exchanging information on Slack.

“So if someone connects to you through direct message or through a channel, before you even make that connection, [you can ensure] if they are [from] a verified Slack organization versus someone who has just signed up on the internet, and you have not heard them, don’t have a relationship with them and don’t know who they are,” Frank said.

The last piece is called Managed Connections, which lets Slack admins control which organizations and individuals can connect with people inside your organization on Slack in a streamlined manner, which helps ensure that the other two new features are used in a responsible way.

“Organizations have told us that they want to go even deeper into the granularity of control, and they want to have different policies by external organizations that they’re connected to,” he said. Managed Connections lets admins set policies around different types of relationships with outside organizations.

All of these new tools are being introduced this week, but will be released later this year or early next year.

Among the other things the company working on in is enabling customers to embed video or audio in a Slack channel, extending it beyond a pure text messaging tool. The company was careful to point out that these features are just experiments for now and may or may not end up in the product  in the future.


By Ron Miller

Sinch acquires SAP’s Digital Interconnect messaging business for $250M

M&A activity has generally slowed down in the weeks since the novel coronavirus took a grip on the world, but there have been some pockets of activity in the tech industry when the price is right or when the divestment/acquisition just makes sense.

The world of messaging brings us the latest development in that theme: SAP, the CRM and enterprise software giant, is selling its Digital Interconnect messaging business to Sinch, a Swedish cloud voice, video and messaging company that originally spun out from low-cost IP calling company Rebtel and is now public.

Sinch is paying €225 million (around $250 million) on a cash and debt-free basis for the business, which has 1,500 enterprise customers that use it for various messaging services, such as “omnichannel” conversations with customers over SMS, push, email, WhatsApp, WeChat and Viber; and messaging technology for carriers.

The deal will give Sinch, based in Sweden, a foothold in the US market — the Digital Interconnect business is headquartered in Silicon Valley — and access to a trove of customers using the kind of messaging technology that Sinch develops and sells.

Messaging continues to be a very high-volume, low-margin (or even no-margin in some cases) business, and so a bigger strategy for more economy of scale that will continue to play out. As a case in point: Sinch has been on an acquisition spree in the last month. Other deals have included Latin American messaging provider Wavy ($119 million, announced March 26), and ChatLayer ($6 million, announced April 20).

“With SAP Digital Interconnect now becoming a part of Sinch, we build on our scale, focus and capabilities to truly redefine how businesses engage with their customers, throughout the world,” comments Oscar Werner, Sinch CEO, in a statement. “The transaction strengthens our direct connectivity globally. Plus, it enables us to expand and accelerate a range of business-critical services to mobile operators, including products for person-to-person messaging, reporting and analytics.”

The news caps off nearly a month of speculation that SAP was gearing up for a sale of the legacy unit as part of a bigger strategy to focus more squarely on its CRM and newer enterprise IT services — SAP acquired Qualtrics in November 2018 for $8 billion, spearheading a stronger move into employee and customer experience, surveys and research — in a particularly challenging economic environment.

And between then and now SAP has seen a very notable personnel change: its co-CEO Jennifer Morgan stepped away from the company by mutual agreement with the board, leaving Christian Klein as sole CEO (the two had been in the co-CEO roles for only six months). At the time, the company said that the abrupt change — a mere 10 days between announcement and departure — was in response to “the current environment [which] requires companies to take swift, determined action which is best supported by a very clear leadership structure.”

It would appear that this sale is an example of the kind of swift and determined action that the board was hoping to see.

SAP’s messaging unit has been around in one form or another for years. It became a part of SAP in 2010 as part of its acquisition of Sybase, but even before that Sybase acquired Mobile 365, which had developed the messaging technology, back in 2006.

At the time, the messaging business was the primary part of Mobile 365, and Sybase paid $417 million for the company. In that regard, it might look like SAP is selling it for a loss, although you could also argue that 15+ year-old technology in the fast-moving world of messaging would have depreciated at this point.

The business itself is very typical of messaging: huge volumes but not huge revenues.

In 2019, SAP said that the enterprise messaging business processed 18 billion messages, while its carrier services processed 292 billion carrier messages. The Bloomberg report that broke the news about the intent to sell the division said that it made $50 million in EBITDA and $250 million in revenue last year, but actually this is small relatively speaking: SAP altogether had revenues of nearly $30 billion in the same period. In other words, it’s an okay business but not really core to SAP and where it’s going. 

On the other hand, it’s a better fit for Sinch, which is a much smaller company — market cap of about $3.1 billion (30.82 billion Swedish krona), versus SAP’s market cap of $139 billion — but is squarely focused on messaging services similar to those that the former SAP division offers.

“SAP Digital Interconnect is a leader in its area showing profitable growth and reaching 99 percent of the world’s mobile subscribers. Looking at Sinch’s innovation and investment strategy in the area of cloud communication platforms, we welcome them as the new owner of SDI. Sinch is perfectly positioned to unleash further growth potential we see in SDI,” said Thomas Saueressig, member of the Executive Board of SAP SE, responsible for SAP Product Engineering, in a statement.

M&A continues on in the wider European region even while so much else has slowed down or stopped in the current market. This deal follows on the heels of Intel acquiring Israel’s Moovit for $900 million, and Avira in Germany getting acquired by Investcorp at a $180 million valuation.


By Ingrid Lunden

Swit, a collaboration suite that offers “freedom from integrations,” raises $6 million in seed funding

A marketplace dominated by Slack and Microsoft Teams, along with a host of other smaller workplace communication apps, might seem to leave little room for a new entrant, but Swit wants to prove that wrong. The app combines messaging with a roster of productivity tools, like task management, calendars and Gantt charts, to give teams “freedom from integrations.” Originally founded in Seoul and now based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Swit announced today that it has raised a $6 million seed round led by Korea Investment Partners, with participation from Hyunadi Venture Investment Corporation and Mirae Asset Venture Investment.

Along with an investment from Kakao Ventures last year, this brings Swit’s total seed funding so far to about $7 million. Swit’s desktop and mobile apps were released in March and since then more than 450 companies have adopted it, with 40,000 individual registered users. The startup was launched last year by CEO Josh Lee and Max Lim, who previously co-founded auction.co.kr, a Korean e-commerce site acquired by eBay in 2001.

While Slack, which recently went public, has become so synonymous with the space that “Slack me” is now part of workplace parlance at many companies, Lee says Swit isn’t playing catch up. Instead, he believes Swit benefits from “last mover advantage,” solving the shortfalls of other workplace messaging, collaboration and productivity apps by integrating many of their functions into one hub.

“We know the market is heavily saturated with great unicorns, but many companies need multiple collaboration apps and there is nothing that seamlessly combines them, so users don’t have to go back and forth between two platforms,” Lee tells TechCrunch. Many employees rely on Slack or Microsoft Teams to chat with one another, on top of several project management apps, like Asana, Jira, Monday and Confluence, and email to communicate with people at other companies (Lee points to a M.io report that found most businesses use at least two messaging apps and four to seven collaboration tools).

Lee says he used Slack for more than five years and during that time, his teammates added integrations from Asana, Monday, GSuite and Office365, but were unsatisfied with how they worked.

“All we could do with the integrations was receive mostly text-based notifications and there were also too many overlapping features,” he says. “We realized that working with multiple environments reduced team productivity and increased communication overhead.” In very large organizations, teams or departments sometimes use different messaging and collaboration apps, creating yet more friction.

Swit’s goal is to covers all those needs in one app. It comes with integrated Kanban task management, calendars and Gantt charts and at the end of this year about 20 to 30 bots and apps will be available in its marketplace. Swit’s pricing tier currently has free and standard tiers, with a premium tier for enterprise customers planned for fall. The premium version will have full integration with Office365 and GSuite, allowing users to drag-and-drop emails into panels or convert them into trackable tasks.

While being a late-mover gives Swit certain advantages, it also means it must convince users to switch from their current apps, which is always a challenge when it comes to attracting enterprise clients. But Lee is optimistic. After seeing a demo, he says 91 percent of potential users registered on Swit, with more than 75 percent continuing to use it every day. Many of them used Asana or Monday before, but switched to Swit because they wanted to more easily communicate with teammates while planning tasks. Some are also gradually transitioning over from Slack to Swit for all their messaging (Swit recently released a Slack migration tool that enables teams to move over channels, workspaces and attachments. Migration tools for Asana, Trello and Jira are also planned).

In addition to “freedom from integrations,” Lee says Swit’s competitive advantages include being developed from the start for small businesses as well as large enterprises that still frequently rely on email to communicate across different departments or locations. Another differentiator is that all of Swit’s functions work on both desktop and mobile, which not all integrations in other collaboration apps can.

“That means if people integrate multiple apps into a desktop app or web browser, they might not be able to use them on mobile. So if they are looking for data, they have to search app by app, channel by channel, product by product, so data and information is scattered everywhere, hair on fire,” Lee says. “We provide one centralized command center for team collaboration without losing context and that is one of our biggest sources of customer satisfaction.”
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By Catherine Shu

Slack opens at $38.50, a pop of 48% on its first day of trading on NYSE as WORK

Slack, the workplace messaging platform that has helped define a key category of enterprise IT, made its debut as a public company today with a pop. Trading as “WORK” on the New York Stock Exchange, it opened at $38.50 after setting a reference price last night of $26, valuing it at $15.7 billion, and then setting a bid/asking price of $37 this morning.

The trading climbed up quickly in its opening minutes and went as high as $42 and is now down to $38.95. We’ll continue to update this as the day goes on. These prices are pushing the market cap to around $20 billion.

Note: there was no “money raised” with this IPO ahead of today because Slack’s move into being a publicly traded company is coming by way of a direct listing — meaning the shares went directly on the market with no pre-sale. This is a less conventional route that doesn’t involve bankers underwriting the listing (nor all the costs that come along with the roadshow and the rest). It also means Slack does not raise a large sum ahead of public trading. But it does let existing shareholders trade shares without dilution and is an efficient way of going public if you’re not in need of an immediate, large cash injection. It’s a route that Spotify also took when it went public last year, and, from the front-page article on NYSE.com, it seems that there might be growing interest in this process — or at least, that the NYSE would like to promote it as an option.

Slack’s decision to go slightly off-script is in keeping with some of ethos that it has cultivated over the last several years as one of the undisputed juggernauts of the tech world. Its rocket ship has been a product that has touched on not one but three different hot growth areas: enterprise software-as-a-service, messaging apps and platform plays that, by way of APIs, can become the touchstone and nerve center for a seemingly limitless number of other services.

What’s interesting about Slack is that — contrary to how some might think of tech — the journey here didn’t start as rocket science.

Slack was nearly an accidental creation, a byproduct that came out of how a previous business, Tiny Speck, was able to keep its geographically spread-out team communicating while building its product, the game Glitch. Glitch and Tiny Speck failed to gain traction, so after they got shut down, the ever-resourceful co-founder Stewart Butterfield did what many founders who still have some money in the bank and fire in their bellies do: a pivot. He took the basic channel they were using and built it (with some help) into the earliest public version of what came to be known as Slack.

But from that unlikely start something almost surprising happened: the right mix of ease of use, efficient responsiveness and functionality — in aid of those already-important areas of workplace communication, messaging and app integration — made Slack into a huge hit. Quickly, Slack became the fastest-growing piece of enterprise software ever in terms of adding users, with a rapid succession of funding rounds (raising over $1.2 billion in total), valuation hikes, and multiple product improvements along the way to help it grow.

Today, like many a software-as-a-service business that is less than 10 years old and investing returns to keep up with its fast-growing business, Slack is not profitable.

In the fiscal year that ended January 31, 2019, it reported revenues in its S-1 of $400.6 million, but with a net loss of $138.9 million. That was a slight improvement on its net loss from the previous fiscal of $140.1 million, with a big jump on revenue, which was $220.5 million.

But its growth and the buzz it has amassed has given it a big push. As of January 31, it clocked up over 10 million daily active users across 600,000 organizations, with 88,000 of them on paid plans and 550,000 using the free version of the app. It will be interesting to see how and if that goodwill and excitement outweigh some of those financial bum notes.

Or, in some cases, possibly other bum notes. The company has made “Work” not just its ticker but its mantra. Its slogan is “Where work happens” and it focuses on how its platform helps make people more productive. But as you might expect, not everyone feels that way about it, with the endless streams of notifications, the slightly clumsy way of handling threaded conversations, and certain other distracting features raising the ire of some people. (Google “Slack is a distraction” and you can see some examples of those dissenting opinions.)

Slack has had its suitors over the years, unsurprisingly, and at least one of them has in the interim made a product to compete with it. Teams, from Microsoft, is one of the many rival platforms on the market looking to capitalise on the surge of interest for chat and collaboration platforms that Slack has helped to usher in. Other competitors include Workplace from Facebook, Mattermost and Flock, along with Threads and more.


By Ingrid Lunden

Zendesk acquires Smooch, doubles down on support via messaging apps like WhatsApp

One of the bigger developments in customer services has been the impact of social media — both as a place to vent frustration or praise (mostly frustration), and — especially over messaging apps — as a place for businesses to connect with their users.

Now, customer support specialist Zendesk has made an acquisition so that it can make a bigger move into how it works within social media platforms, and specifically messaging apps: it has acquired Smooch, a startup that describes itself as an “omnichannel messaging platform,” which companies’ customer care teams can use to interact with people over messaging platforms like WhatsApp, WeChat, Line and Messenger, as well as SMS and email.

Smooch was in fact one of the first partners for the WhatsApp Business API, alongside VoiceSageNexmoInfobip, Twilio, MessageBird and others are already advertising their services in this area.

It had also been a longtime partner of Zendesk’s, powering the company’s own WhatsApp Business integration and other features. The two already have some customers in common, including Uber. Other Smooch customers include Four Seasons, SXSW, Betterment, Clarabridge, Harry’s, LVMH, Delivery Hero and BarkBox.

Terms of the deal are not being disclosed, but Zendesk SVP  class=”il”>Shawna Wolverton said in an interview that that the startup’s entire team of 48, led by co-founder and CEO Warren Levitan, are being offered positions with Zendesk. Smooch is based out of Montreal, Canada — so this represents an expansion for Zendesk into building an office in Canada.

Its backers included iNovia, TA Associates and Real Ventures, who collectively had backed it with less than $10 million (when you leave in inflated hills surrounding Silicon Valley, numbers magically decline). As Zendesk is publicly traded, we may get more of a picture of the price in future quarterly reports. This is the company’s fifth acquisition to date.

The deal underscores the big impact that messaging apps are making in customer service. While phone and internet are massive points of contact, messaging apps is one of the most-requested features Zendesk’s customers are asking for, “because they want to be where their customers are,” with WhatsApp — now at 1.5 billion users — currently at the top of the pile, Wolverton said. (More than half of Zendesk’s revenues are from outside the US, which speaks to why WhatsApp — which is bigger outside the US than it is in it — is a popular request.)

That’s partly a by-product of how popular messaging apps are full-stop, with more than 75 percent of all smartphone users having at least one messaging app in use on their devices.

“We live in a messaging-centric world, and customers expect the convenience and interactivity of messaging to be part of their experiences,” said Mikkel Svane, Zendesk founder, CEO and chairman, in a statement. “As long-time partners with Smooch, we know first hand how much they have advanced the conversational experience to bring together all forms of messaging and create a continuous conversation between customers and businesses.”

 

While the two companies were already working together, the acquisition will mean a closer integration.

That will be in multiple areas. Last year, Zendesk launched a new CRM play called Sunshine, going head to head with the likes of Salesforce in helping businesses better organise and make use of customer data. Smooch will build on that strategy to bring in data to Sunshine from messaging apps and the interactions that take place on them. Also last year, Zendesk launched an omnichannel play, a platform called The Suite, which it says “has become one of our most successful products ever,” with a 400 percent rise in its customers taking an omnichannel approach. Smooch already forms a key part of that, and it will be even more tightly so.

On the outbound side, for now, there will be two areas where Smooch will be used, Wolverton said. First will be on the basic level of giving Zendesk users the ability to see and create messaging app discussions within a dashboard where they are able to monitor and handle all customer relationship contacts: a conversation that was inititated now on, say, Twitter, can be easily moved into WhatsApp or whatever more direct channel someone wants to use.

Second, Wolverton said that customer care workers can use Smooch to send on “micro apps” to users to handle routine service enquiries, for example sending them links to make or change seat assignments on a flight.

Over time, the plan will be to bring in more automated options into the experience, which opens the door for using more AI and potentially bots down the line.


By Ingrid Lunden

PubNub nabs $23M as its IaaS network hits 1.3T messages sent each month

There’s been a huge boom in the last decade of applications and services that rely on on real-time notifications and other alerts as a core part of how they operate, and today one of the companies that powers those notifications is announcing a growth round. PubNub, an infrastructure-as-a-service provider that provides a real-time network to send and manage messaging traffic between companies, companies and apps, and betweeninternet-of-things devices — has raised $23 million in a Series D round of funding to ramp up its business internationally, with an emphasis on emerging markets.

The round adds another strategic investor to PubNub’s cap table: Hewlett Packard Enterprise is coming on as an investor, joining previous backers Sapphire Ventures (backed by SAP), Relay Ventures, Scale Venture Partners, Cisco Investments, Bosch and Ericsson in this round.

Todd Greene, the CEO of PubNub (who co-founded it with Stephen Blum), said the startup is not disclosing its valuation with this round except to say that “we are happy with it, and it’s a solid increase on where we were the last time.” That, according to PitchBook, was just under $155 million back in 2016 in a small extension to its Series C round. The company has raised around $70 million to date.

PubNub’s growth — along with that of competing companies and technologies, which includes the likes of Pusher, RabbitMQ, Google’s Firebase and others — has come alongside the emergence of a number of use cases built on the premise of real-time notifications. These include a multitude of apps, for example, for on-demand commerce (eg, ride hailing and online food ordering), medical services, entertainment services, IoT systems and more.

That’s pushed PubNub to a new milestone of enabling some 1.3 trillion messages per month for customers that include the likes of Peloton, Atlassian, athenahealth, JustEat, Swiggy, Yelp, the Sacramento Kings and Gett, who choose from some 70 SDKs to tailor what kinds of notifications and actions are triggered around their specific services.

Greene said that while some of the bigger services in the world have largely built their own messaging platforms to manage their notifications — Uber, for example, has taken this route — that process can result in “death by 1,000 paper cuts,” in Greene’s words. Others will opt for a PubNub-style alternative from the start.

“About 50 percent of our customers started by building themselves and then got to scale, and then decided to turn to PubNub,” Greene said.

It’s analogous to the same kind of decision businesses make regarding public cloud infrastructure: whether it makes sense to build and operate their own servers, or turn to a third-party provider — a decision that PubNub itself ironically is also in the process of contemplating.

Today the company runs its own business as an overlay on the public cloud, using a mixture of AWS and others, Greene said — the company has partnerships with Microsoft Azure, AWS, and IBM Watson — but “every year we evaluate the benefits of going into different kinds of data centres and interesting opportunities there. We are evaluating a cost and performance calculation,” he added.

And while he didn’t add it, that could potentially become an exit opportunity for PubNub down the line, too, aligning with a cloud provider that wanted to offer messaging infrastructure-as-a-service as an additional feature to customers.

The strategic relationship with its partners, in fact, is one of the engines for this latest investment. “Edge computing and realtime technologies will be at the heart of the next wave of technology innovation,” commented Vishal Lall, COO of Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, said in a statement. “PubNub’s global Data Stream Network has demonstrated extensive accomplishments powering both enterprise and consumer solutions. HPE is thrilled to be investing in PubNub’s fast-growing success, and to accelerate the commercial and industrial applications of PubNub’s real time platform.”


By Ingrid Lunden

Threads emerges from stealth with $10.5M from Sequoia for a new take on enabaling work conversations

The rapid rise of Slack has ushered in a new wave of apps, all aiming to solve one challenge: creating a user-friendly platform where coworkers can have productive conversations. Many of these are based around real-time notifications and “instant” messaging, but today a new startup called Threads coming out of stealth to address the other side of the coin: a platform for asynchronous communication that is less time-sensitive, and creating coherent narratives out of those conversations.

Armed with $10.5 million in funding from Sequoia, the company is launching a beta of its service today.

Roussau Kazi, the startup’s CEO who co-founded threads with Jon McCord, Mark Rich and Suman Venkataswamy, cut his social teeth working for six years at Facebook (with a resulting number of patents to his name around the mechanics of social networking), says that the mission of Threads is to become more inclusive when it comes to online conversations.

“After a certain number of people get involved in an online discussion, conversations just break and messaging becomes chaotic,” he said. (McCord and Rich are also Facebook engineering alums, while Venkataswamy is a Bright Roll alum who worked with McCord on another startup before this.)

And if you have ever used Twitter, or even been in a popular channel in Slack, you will understand what he is talking about. When too many people begin to talk, the conversation gets very noisy and it can mean losing the “thread” of what is being discussed, and seeing conversation lurch from one topic to another, often losing track of important information in the process.

And there is an argument to be made for whether a platform that was built for real-time information is capable of handling a difference kind of cadence. Twitter, as it happens, is trying to figure that out right now. Slack, meanwhile, has itself introduced threaded comments to try to address this too — although the practical application of its own threading feature is not actually very user friendly.

Threads answer is to view its purpose as addressing the benefit of “asynchronous” conversation.

To start, those who want to start threads first register as organizations on the platform. Then, those who are working on a project or in a specific team creates a “space” for themselves within that org. You can then start threads within those spaces. And when a problem has been solved or the conversation has come to a conclusion, the last comment gets marked as the conclusion.

The idea is that topics and conversations that can stretch out over hours, days or even longer, around specific topics. Threads doeesn’t want to be the place you go for red alerts or urgent requests, but where you go when you have thoughts about a work-related subject and how to tackle it.

These resulting threads, when completed or when in progress, can in turn be looked at as straight conversations, or as annotated narratives.

For now, it’s up to users themselves to annotate what might be important to highlight for readers, although when I asked him, Kazi told me he would like to incorporate over time more features that might use natural language processing to summarize and pull out what might be worth following up or looking at if you only want to skim read a longer conversation. Ditto the ability to search threads. Right now it’s all based around keywords but you can imagine a time when more sophisticated and nuanced searches to surface conversations relevant to what you might be looking for.

Indeed, in this initial launch, the focus is all about what you want to say on Threads itself — not lots of bells and whistles, and not trying to compete against the likes of Slack, or Workplace (Facebook’s effort in this space), or Yammer or Teams from Microsoft, or any of the others in the messaging mix.

There are no integrations of other programs to bring data into Threads from other places, but there is a Slack integration in the other direction: you can create an alert there so that you know when someone has updated a Thread.

“We don’t view ourselves as a competitor to Slack,” Kazi said. “Slack is great for transactional conversation but for asynchronous chats, we thought there was a need for this in the market. We wanted something to address that.”

It’s may not be a stated competitor, but Threads actually has something in common with Slack: the latter’s launched with the purpose of enabling a certain kind of conversation between co-workers in a way that was easier to consume and engage with than email.

You could argue that Threads has the same intention: email chains, especially those with multiple parties, can also be hard to follow and are in any case often very messy to look at: something that the conversations in Threads also attempt to clear up.

But email is not the only kind of conversation medium that Threads thinks it can replace.

“With in-person meetings there is a constant tension between keeping the room small for efficiency and including more people for transparency,” said Sequoia partner Mike Vernal in a statement. “When we first started chatting with the team about what is now Threads, we saw an opportunity to get rid of this false dichotomy by making decision-making both more efficient and more inclusive. We’re thrilled to be partnering with Threads to make work more inclusive.”

The startup was actually formed in 2017, and for months now it has been running a closed, private version of the service to test it out with a small amount of users. So far, the company sizes have ranged between 5 and 60 employees, Kazi tells me.

“By using Threads as our primary communications platform, we’ve seen incredible progress streamlining our operations,” said one of the testers, Perfect Keto & Equip Foods Founder and CEO, Anthony Gustin. “Internal meetings have reduced by at least 80 percent, we’ve seen an increase in participation in discussion and speed of decision making, and noticed an adherence and reinforcement of company culture that we thought was impossible before. Our employees are feeling more ownership and autonomy, with less work and time that needs to be spent — something we didn’t even know was possible before Threads.”

Kazi said that the intention is ultimately to target companies of any size, although it will be worth watching what features it will have to introduce to help handle the noise, and continue to provide coherent discussions, when and if they do start to tackle that end of the market.

 


By Ingrid Lunden

Microsoft’s latest Teams features take aim at shift workers

Collaboration tools tend to be geared towards workers who are sitting at a desk for much of the day, but there are plenty of shift workers, also known as first line workers, who rarely use a computer, but still need to communicate with one another and management. Microsoft released several new features today aimed at including these workers.

In a blog post announcing the new features, Emma Williams, Microsoft corporate vice president for modern workplace verticals, wrote that there are two billion such workers. By making the product more mobile-friendly and linking to existing enterprise employee management systems, Microsoft can make Teams more relevant for shift employees.

For starters, Microsoft is making mobile Teams more flexible to meet the needs of a variety of shift worker jobs. Some might need to record and share audio messages, while others might need to share their location or access the camera. Whatever the requirements, Microsoft has started with a Firstline Worker configuration policy template, which IT can customize to meet the needs of various worker types.

The mobile tool also includes a navigation bar, which allows workers to add the tools they use most often for easy access. The idea is to make it as simple as possible to access the tools they need, given that these workers tend to be on their feet or on the move a good part of the day.

Photo: Microsoft

Next, the company has released a new API to help IT connect Teams to existing workforce management systems. The Graph API for Shifts enables first line managers, who are responsible for setting up worker schedules to share data between a company’s workforce management system and Teams, allowing employees to get all of their shift information in one tool. This will be available in public preview later in the quarter, according to the company.

Finally, the tool now includes a new Praise feature, designed to let managers recognize good work by their employees by issuing badges with messages like “Thank you” and “Problem solver.”

The company wants Teams to be more than a tool for knowledge workers. These new features provide a way to include workers that are sometimes left out of these kinds of collaboration tools. The new features also help Microsoft compete with a number of startups who trying to attack the same problem.

These include Crew, a startup that scored a $35 million Series C round just last month, and has raised almost $60 million, and Zinc, which also takes aim at the deskless worker, and has raised $16 million, according to Crunchbase.

Whether Microsoft can appeal to both the knowledge worker and the first-line variety in the same tool remains to be seen, but these updates are clearly an effort to take on this space.


By Ron Miller