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

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

WhatsApp is finally going after outside firms that are abusing its platform

WhatsApp has so far relied on past dealings with bad players within its platform to ramp up its efforts to curtail spam and other automated behavior. The Facebook -owned giant has now announced an additional step it plans to take beginning later this year to improve the health of its messaging service: going after those whose mischievous activities can’t be traced within its platform.

The messaging platform, used by more than 1.5 billion users, confirmed on Tuesday that starting December 7 it will start considering signals off its platform to pursue legal actions against those who are abusing its system. The company will also go after individuals who — or firms that — falsely claim to have found ways to cause havoc on the service.

The move comes as WhatsApp grapples with challenges such as spam behavior to push agendas or spread of false information on its messaging service in some markets. “This serves as notice that we will take legal action against companies for which we only have off-platform evidence of abuse if that abuse continues beyond December 7, 2019, or if those companies are linked to on-platform evidence of abuse before that date,” it said in an FAQ post on its site.

A WhatsApp spokesperson confirmed the change to TechCrunch, adding, “WhatsApp was designed for private messaging, so we’ve taken action globally to prevent bulk messaging and enforce limits on how WhatsApp accounts that misuse WhatsApp can be used. We’ve also stepped up our ability to identify abuse, which helps us ban 2 million accounts globally per month.”

Earlier this year, WhatsApp said (PDF) it had built a machine learning system to detect and weed out users who engage in inappropriate behavior such as sending bulk messages or creating multiple accounts with intention to harm the service. The platform said it was able to assess the past dealings with problematics behaviors to ban 20% of bad accounts at the time of registration itself.

But the platform is still grappling to contain abusive behavior, a Reuters report claimed last month. The news agency reported about tools that were readily being sold in India for under $15 that claimed to bypass some of the restrictions that WhatsApp introduced in recent months.

TechCrunch understands that with today’s changes, WhatsApp is going after those same set of bad players. It has already started to send cease and desist letters to marketing companies that claim to abuse WhatsApp in recent months, a person familiar with the matter said.


By Manish Singh

Facebook’s new Study app pays adults for data after teen scandal

Facebook shut down its Research and Onavo programs after TechCrunch exposed how the company paid teenagers for root access to their phones to gain market data on competitors. Now Facebook is relaunching its paid market research program, but this time with principles — namely transparency, fair compensation and safety. The goal? To find out which other competing apps and features Facebook should buy, copy or ignore.

Today Facebook releases its “Study from Facebook” app for Android only. Some adults 18+ in the U.S. and India will be recruited by ads on and off Facebook to willingly sign up to let Facebook collect extra data from them in exchange for a monthly payment. They’ll be warned that Facebook will gather which apps are on their phone, how much time they spend using those apps, the app activity names of features they use in other apps, plus their country, device and network type.

Facebook promises it won’t snoop on user IDs, passwords or any of participants’ content, including photos, videos or messages. It won’t sell participants’ info to third parties, use it to target ads or add it to their account or the behavior profiles the company keeps on each user. Yet while Facebook writes that “transparency” is a major part of “Approaching market research in a responsible way,” it refuses to tell us how much participants will be paid.

“Study from Facebook” could give the company critical insights for shaping its product roadmap. If it learns everyone is using screensharing social network Squad, maybe it will add its own screensharing feature. If it finds group video chat app Houseparty is on the decline, it might not worry about cloning that functionality. Or if it finds Snapchat’s Discover mobile TV shows are retaining users for a ton of time, it might amp up teen marketing of Facebook Watch. But it also might rile up regulators and politicians who already see it as beating back competition through acquisitions and feature cloning.

An attempt to be less creepy

TechCrunch’s investigation from January revealed that Facebook had been quietly operating a research program codenamed Atlas that paid users ages 13 to 35 up to $20 per month in gift cards in exchange for root access to their phone so it could gather all their data for competitive analysis. That included everything the Study app grabs, but also their web browsing activity, and even encrypted information, as the app required users to install a VPN that routed all their data through Facebook. It even had the means to collect private messages and content shared — potentially including data owned by their friends.

Facebook pays teens to install VPN that spies on them

Facebook’s Research app also abused Apple’s enterprise certificate program designed for distributing internal use-only apps to employees without the App Store or Apple’s approval. Facebook originally claimed it obeyed Apple’s rules, but Apple quickly disabled Facebook’s Research app and also shut down its enterprise certificate, temporarily breaking Facebook’s internal test builds of its public apps, as well as the shuttle times and lunch menu apps employees rely on.

In the aftermath of our investigation, Facebook shut down its Research program. It then also announced in February that it would shut down its Onavo Protect app on Android, which branded itself as a privacy app providing a free VPN instead of paying users while it collected tons of data on them. After giving users until May 9th to find a replacement VPN, the Onavo Protect was killed off.

This was an embarrassing string of events that stemmed from unprincipled user research. Now Facebook is trying to correct its course and revive its paid data collection program but with more scruples.

How Study from Facebook works

Unlike Onavo or Facebook Research, users can’t freely sign up for Study. They have to be recruited through ads Facebook will show on its own app and others to both 18+ Facebook users and non-users in the U.S. and India. That should keep out grifters and make sure the studies stay representative of Facebook’s user base. Eventually, Facebook plans to extend the program to other countries.

If users click through the ad, they’ll be brought to Facebook’s research operations partner Applause’s website, which clearly identifies Facebook’s involvement, unlike Facebook Research, which hid that fact until users were fully registered. There they’ll be informed how the Study app is opt-in, what data they’ll give up in exchange for what compensation and that they can opt out at any time. They’ll need to confirm their age, have a PayPal account (which are only supposed to be available to users 18 and over) and Facebook will cross-check the age to make sure it matches the person’s Facebook profile, if they have one. They won’t have to sign and NDA like with the Facebook Research program.

Anyone can download the Study from Facebook app from Google Play, but only those who’ve been approved through Applause will be able to log in and unlock the app. It will again explain what Facebook will collect, and ask for data permissions. The app will send periodic notifications to users reminding them they’re selling their data to Facebook and offering them an opt-out. Study from Facebook will use standard Google-approved APIs and won’t use a VPN, SSL bumping, root access, enterprise certificates or permission profiles you install on your device like the Research program that ruffled feathers.

Different users will be paid the same amount to their PayPal account, but Facebook wouldn’t say how much it’s dealing out, or even whether it was in the ball park of cents, dollars or hundreds of dollars per month. That seems like a stern departure from its stated principle of transparency. This matters, because Facebook earns billions in profit per quarter. It has the cash to potentially offer so much to Study participants that it effectively coerces them to give up their data; $10 to $20 per month like it was paying Research participants seems reasonable in the U.S., but that’s enough money in India to make people act against their better judgement.

The launch shows Facebook’s boldness despite the threat of antitrust regulation focusing on how it has suppressed competition through its acquisitions and copying. Democrat presidential candidates could use Study from Facebook as a talking point, noting how the company’s huge profits earned from its social network domination afford it a way to buy private user data to entrench its lead.

At 15 years old, Facebook is at risk of losing touch with what the next generation wants out of their phones. Rather than trying to guess based on their activity on its own app, it’s putting its huge wallet to work so it can pay for an edge on the competition.


By Josh Constine

The Ticket Fairy is tech’s best hope against Ticketmaster

Ticketmaster’s dominance has led to ridiculous service fees, scalpers galore, and exclusive contracts that exploit venues and artists. The moronic approval of venue operator and artist management giant Live Nation’s merger with Ticketmaster in 2010 produced an anti-competitive juggernaut. It pressures venues to sign ticketing contracts under veiled threat that artists would otherwise be routed to different concert halls. Now it’s become difficult for venues, artists, and fans to avoid Ticketmaster, which charges fees as high as 50% that many see as a ripoff.

But The Ticket Fairy wants to wrestle control of venues away from Ticketmaster while giving fans ways to earn tickets for referring their friends. The startup is doing that by offering the most technologically advanced ticketing platform that not only handle sales and checkins, but acts as a full-stack Salesforce for concerts that can analyze buyers and run ad campaigns while thwarting scalpers. Co-founder Ritesh Patel says The Ticket Fairy has increased revenue for event organizers by 15% to 25% during its private beta focused on dance music festivals.

Now after 850,000 tickets sold, it’s officially launching its ticketing suite and actively poaching venues from EventBrite as it moves deeper into esports and conventions. With a little more scale, it will be ready to challenge Ticketmaster for lucrative clients.

Ritesh’s combination of product and engineering skills, rapid progress, and charismatic passion for live events after throwing 400 of his own has attracted an impressive cadre of angel investors. They’ve delivered a $2.5 million seed round for Ticket Fairy adding to its $485,000 pre-seed from angels like Twitch/Atrium founder Justin Kan, Twitch COO Kevin Lin, and Reddit CEO Steve Huffman. The new round includes YouTube founder Steve Chen, former Kleiner Perkins partner and Mark’s sister Arielle Zuckerberg, and funds like 500 Startups, ex-Uber angels Fantastic Ventures, G2 Ventures, Tempo Ventures, and WeFunder. It’s also scored music industry angels like Serato DJ hardware CEO AJ Bertenshaw, Spotify’s head of label licensing Niklas Lundberg, and celebrity lawer Ken Hertz who reps Will Smith and Gwen Stefani.

“The purpose of starting The Ticket Fairy was not to be another EventBrite, but to reduce the risk of the person running the event so they can be profitable. We’re not just another shopping cart” Patel says. The Ticket Fairy charges a comparable rate to EventBrite’s $1.59 + 3.5% per ticket plus payment processing that brings it closer to 6%, but Patel insists it offers far stronger functionality.

Constantly clad in his golden disco hoodie over a Ticket Fairy t-shirt, Patel lives his product, spending late nights dancing and taking feedback at the events his clients host. He’s been a savior of SXSW the past two years, injecting the aging festival that shuts down at 2am with multi-night after-hours raves. Featuring top DJs like Pretty Lights in creative locations cab drivers don’t believe are real, The Ticket Fairy’s parties have won the hearts of music industry folks.

The Ticket Fairy co-founders. Center and inset left: Ritesh Patel. Inset right: Jigar Patel

Now the Y Combinator startup hopes its ticketing platform will do the same thanks to a slew of savvy features:

Earn A Ticket – The Ticket Fairy supercharges word of mouth marketing with a referral system that lets fans get a rebate or full-free ticket if they get enough friends to buy a ticket. 30% of ticket buyers are now sharing a Ticket Fairy referral link, and Patel says the return on investment is $30 in revenue for each $1 paid out in rewards, with 10% to 25% of all ticket sales coming from referrals. A public leaderboard further encourages referrals, with those at the top eligible for backstage passes, free merch, and bar tabs. And to prevent mass spamming, only buyers, partners, and street teamers get a referral code.

Creative Payment Options – The startup offers “FreeFund” tickets for free events that otherwise see huge no-show rates. Users pay a small deposit that’s refunded when they scan their ticket for entry, discouraging RSVPs from those who won’t come. Buyers can also pay on layaway with Affirm or LayBuy and then earn a ticket before their debt is due.

Anti-Scalping – The Ticket Fairy offers identity-locked tickets that must be presented with the buyer’s ID on arrival, which means customers can’t scalp them. Instead, the startup offers a waitlist for sold out events, and buyers can sell their tickets back to the company which then redistributes them at face value with a new QR code to a specific friend or whoever’s at the top of the waitlist. Patel says client SunAndBass Festival hasn’t had a scalped ticket in five years of working with the ticketer.

Clever Analytics – Never wasting an opportunity, The Ticket Fairy lets events collect contact info and demand before ticket sales start with its pre-registration system. It can ceate multiple variants of ticketing sites designed for different demographics like rock vs dance fans for a festival, track sales and demographics in real-time, and relay instant stats about checkins at the door. Integration of email managers like MailChimp and sales pixels like Facebook plus the ability to instantly retarget people who abandoned their shopping via Facebook Custom Audience ads makes marketing easier. And all the metrics, budgets, and expenses are automatically organized into financial reports to eliminate spreadsheet busywork.

Still, the biggest barrier to adoption remains the long exclusive contracts Ticketmaster and other giants like AEG coerce venues into in the US. Abroad, venues typically work with multiple ticket promoters who sell from the same pool, which is why 80% of The Ticket Fairy’s business is international right now. In the US, ticketing is often handled by a single company except for the 8% of tickets artists can sell however they want. That’s why The Ticket Fairy has focused on signing up non-traditional venues for festivals, trade convention halls, newly built esports arenas, as well as concert halls.

“Coming from the event promotion background, we understand the risk event organizers take in creating these experiences” The Ticket Fairy’s co-founder and Ritesh’s brother Jigar Patel explains. “The odds of breaking even are poor and many are unable to overcome those challenges, but it is sheer passion that keeps them going in the face of financial uncertainty and multi-year losses.” As competitors’ contracts expire, The Ticket Fairy hopes to swoop in by dangling its sales-boosting tech. “We get locked out of certain things because people are locked in a contract, not because they don’t want to use our system.”

The live music industry can brutal, though. Events can have slim margins, organizers are loathe to change their process, it’s a sales heavy process convincing them to try new software. But while record business has been redefined by streaming, ticketing looks a lot like it did a decade ago. That makes it ripe for disruption.

“The events industry is more important than ever, with artists making the bulk of their income from touring instead of record sales, and demand from fans for live experiences is increasing at a global level” Jigar concludes. “When events go out of business, everybody loses, including artists and fans. Everything we do at The Ticket Fairy has that firmly in mind – we are here to keep the ecosystem alive.”


By Josh Constine

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

AntiToxin sells safetytech to clean up poisoned platforms

The big social networks and video games have failed to prioritize user well-being over their own growth. As a result, society is losing the battle against bullying, predators, hate speech, misinformation and scammers. Typically when a whole class of tech companies have a dire problem they can’t cost-effectively solve themselves, a software-as-a-service emerges to fill the gap in web hosting, payment processing, etc. So along comes AntiToxin Technologies, a new Israeli startup that wants to help web giants fix their abuse troubles with its safety-as-a-service.

It all started on Minecraft. AntiToxin co-founder Ron Porat is cybersecurity expert who’d started popular ad blocker Shine. Yet right under his nose, one of his kids was being mercilessly bullied on the hit children’s game. If even those most internet-savvy parents were being surprised by online abuse, Porat realized the issue was bigger than could be addressed by victims trying to protect themselves. The platforms had to do more, research confirmed.

A recent Ofcom study found almost 80% of children had a potentially harmful online experience in the past year. Indeed, 23% said they’d been cyberbullied, and 28% of 12 to 15-year-olds said they’d received unwelcome friend or follow requests from strangers. A Ditch The Label study found of 12 to 20-year-olds who’d been bullied online, 42% were bullied on Instagram.

Unfortunately, the massive scale of the threat combined with a late start on policing by top apps makes progress tough without tremendous spending. Facebook tripled the headcount of its content moderation and security team, taking a noticeable hit to its profits, yet toxicity persists. Other mainstays like YouTube and Twitter have yet to make concrete commitments to safety spending or staffing, and the result is non-stop scandals of child exploitation and targeted harassment. Smaller companies like Snap or Fortnite-maker Epic Games may not have the money to develop sufficient safeguards in-house.

“The tech giants have proven time and time again we can’t rely on them. They’ve abdicated their responsibility. Parents need to realize this problem won’t be solved by these companies” says AntiToxin CEO Zohar Levkovitz, who previously sold his mobile ad company Amobee to Singtel for $321 million. “You need new players, new thinking, new technology. A company where ‘Safety’ is the product, not an after-thought. And that’s where we come-in.” The startup recently raised a multimillion-dollar seed round from Mangrove Capital Partners and is allegedly prepping for a double-digit millions Series A.

AntiToxin’s technology plugs into the backends of apps with social communities that either broadcast or message with each other and are thereby exposed to abuse. AntiToxin’s systems privately and securely crunch all the available signals regarding user behavior and policy violation reports, from text to videos to blocking. It then can flag a wide range of toxic actions and let the client decide whether to delete the activity, suspend the user responsible or how else to proceed based on their terms and local laws.

Through the use of artificial intelligence, including natural language processing, machine learning and computer vision, AntiToxin can identify the intent of behavior to determine if it’s malicious. For example, the company tells me it can distinguish between a married couple consensually exchanging nude photos on a messaging app versus an adult sending inappropriate imagery to a child. It also can determine if two teens are swearing at each other playfully as they compete in a video game or if one is verbally harassing the other. The company says that beats using static dictionary blacklists of forbidden words.

AntiToxin is under NDA, so it can’t reveal its client list, but claims recent media attention and looming regulation regarding online abuse has ramped up inbound interest. Eventually the company hopes to build better predictive software to identify users who’ve shown signs of increasingly worrisome behavior so their activity can be more closely moderated before they lash out. And it’s trying to build a “safety graph” that will help it identify bad actors across services so they can be broadly deplatformed similar to the way Facebook uses data on Instagram abuse to police connected WhatsApp accounts.

“We’re approaching this very human problem like a cybersecurity company, that is, everything is a Zero-Day for us” says Levkowitz, discussing how AntiToxin indexes new patterns of abuse it can then search for across its clients. “We’ve got intelligence unit alums, PhDs and data scientists creating anti-toxicity detection algorithms that the world is yearning for.” AntiToxin is already having an impact. TechCrunch commissioned it to investigate a tip about child sexual imagery on Microsoft’s Bing search engine. We discovered Bing was actually recommending child abuse image results to people who’d conducted innocent searches, leading Bing to make changes to clean up its act.

AntiToxin identified publicly listed WhatsApp Groups where child sexual abuse imagery was exchanged

One major threat to AntiToxin’s business is what’s often seen as boosting online safety: end-to-end encryption. AntiToxin claims that when companies like Facebook expand encryption, they’re purposefully hiding problematic content from themselves so they don’t have to police it.

Facebook claims it still can use metadata about connections on its already encrypted WhatApp network to suspend those who violate its policy. But AntiToxin provided research to TechCrunch for an investigation that found child sexual abuse imagery sharing groups were openly accessible and discoverable on WhatsApp — in part because encryption made them hard to hunt down for WhatsApp’s automated systems.

AntiToxin believes abuse would proliferate if encryption becomes a wider trend, and it claims the harm that it  causes outweighs fears about companies or governments surveiling unencrypted transmissions. It’s a tough call. Political dissidents, whistleblowers and perhaps the whole concept of civil liberty rely on encryption. But parents may see sex offenders and bullies as a more dire concern that’s reinforced by platforms having no idea what people are saying inside chat threads.

What seems clear is that the status quo has got to go. Shaming, exclusion, sexism, grooming, impersonation and threats of violence have started to feel commonplace. A culture of cruelty breeds more cruelty. Tech’s success stories are being marred by horror stories from their users. Paying to pick up new weapons in the fight against toxicity seems like a reasonable investment to demand.


By Josh Constine

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

LinkedIn integrates and updates jobs and hiring platforms, hits 20M job postings

LinkedIn, the social networking platform for the working world that’s now owned by Microsoft, has leveraged its role as a repository for people’s work profiles into making itself a job hunting and recruitment powerhouse.

The company today has amassed more than 20 million job listings — up from a mere 300,000  five years ago — and sees its 600 million users collectively apply to jobs 25 million times per week. That activity also translates to big business: paid subscriptions specifically aimed at recruiters, paid tiers for average users who want to have more access to contacting people for jobs, job ads and more all contribute to LinkedIn’s bottom line, a business that is projected to hit $6.4 billion in revenues for 2019, growing 27 percent in the last quarter.

Now, LinkedIn is stepping up a gear in the operation. After a two-year effort, LinkedIn is today announcing that it has finally integrated its jobs and hiring efforts and announcing a raft of new features for both.

On the jobs front, they include instant job alerts, a redesign of the Jobs home page, and more salary insights available to all users (including free users), with skills assessments coming soon.

On the recruitment front, LinkedIn Jobs, Recruiter, and Pipeline Builder are all coming together to create a more seamless way to manage how you post ads, source candidates and other leads and ultimately  interact with them in the process of hiring them.

“This will mean higher quality candiates, better jobs and a better fit,” VP of product John Jersin said in an interview. When asked why it took so long to integrate these tools — and why the process didn’t happen five years ago, for example, he answered that it was more of a consequence of how expectations have evolved as tech has evolved to question some of the silos that are incumbent to how we do business.

“We designed these systems in a way that worked well, but no one foresaw what we needed,” he said. “Advancements in AI have driven the strategy, and integrating all this means we can all learn better from each other.”

The new features that LinkedIn is bringing to jobseekers are responses to how our communications have evolved with the rise of the smartphone. It notes that jobseekers who respond to ads faster are more likely  to get the job, so now when a job gets posted that meet your search criteria, you can get a ping within minutes of the posting. Meanwhile, the redesign of the Jobs homepage is more mobile friendly, with added search features that take into account how you navigate on handheld devices.

The skill assessments, meanwhile, seems to me to be a direct response to the many new innovations we’ve seen among e-learning and recruitment startups, where companies like Coursera and Triplebyte are offering more tools to people to figure out where the best fit might be for their skills in the working world. LinkedIn notes that these can both be used by individuals to verify their skills — tackling a perennial problem with people putting empty claims on their resumes — and also recruiters to source people for jobs.

Important steps for the company, but there remain a lot of opportunities for smaller and newer upstarts to take bites out of LinkedIn’s business in areas where it is still being slow to develop.

For example, we’ve seen the emergence of interesting, more targeted recruitment startups that focus on, say, recruiting with racial diversity in mind (as in the case of Handshake) or focusing on, say, women returning to work after having children (as in the case of the Mom Project). While LinkedIn has made some baby steps (no pun intended) in this area, there is still a ways to go, opening the door to others to come in.

“This is a challenging and multifaceted problem,” admitted Jersin, “but LinkedIn is committed to trying to solve it.” He said the company has quietly started to work on ways of picking up more information that “could be more useful” in addressing questions like these. “One thing that is important is a sense of trust,” he noted as one of the challenges that needs to be tackled online. “I think we are very lucky to be one of the few companies out there that can say that we would use this information responsibly, in the interests of jobseeker.”


By Ingrid Lunden

Takeaways from F8 and Facebook’s next phase

Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch’s Josh Constine and Frederic Lardinois discuss major announcements that came out of Facebook’s F8 conference and dig into how Facebook is trying to redefine itself for the future.

Though touted as a developer-focused conference, Facebook spent much of F8 discussing privacy upgrades, how the company is improving its social impact, and a series of new initiatives on the consumer and enterprise side. Josh and Frederic discuss which announcements seem to make the most strategic sense, and which may create attractive (or unattractive) opportunities for new startups and investment.

“This F8 was aspirational for Facebook. Instead of being about what Facebook is, and accelerating the growth of it, this F8 was about Facebook, and what Facebook wants to be in the future.

That’s not the newsfeed, that’s not pages, that’s not profiles. That’s marketplace, that’s Watch, that’s Groups. With that change, Facebook is finally going to start to decouple itself from the products that have dragged down its brand over the last few years through a series of nonstop scandals.”

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Josh and Frederic dive deeper into Facebook’s plans around its redesign, Messenger, Dating, Marketplace, WhatsApp, VR, smart home hardware and more. The two also dig into the biggest news, or lack thereof, on the developer side, including Facebook’s Ax and BoTorch initiatives.

For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 


By Arman Tabatabai

Facebook Messenger will get desktop apps, co-watching, emoji status

To win chat, Facebook Messenger must be as accessible as SMS, yet more entertaining than Snapchat. Today, Messenger pushes on both fronts with a series of announcements at Facebook’s F8 conference, including that it will launch Mac and PC desktop apps, a faster and smaller mobile app, simultaneous video co-watching and a revamped Friends tab, where friends can use an emoji to tell you what they’re up to or down for.

Facebook is also beefing up its tools for the 40 million active businesses and 300,000 businesses on Messenger, up from 200,000 businesses a year ago. Merchants will be able to let users book appointments at salons and masseuses, collect information with new lead generation chatbot templates and provide customer service to verified customers through authenticated m.me links. Facebook hopes this will boost the app beyond the 20 billion messages sent between people and businesses each month, which is up 10X from December 2017.

“We believe you can build practically any utility on top of messaging,” says Facebook’s head of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky. But he stresses that “All of the engineering behind it is has been redone” to make it more reliable, and to comply with CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s directive to unite the backends of Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram Direct. “Of course, if we didn’t have to do all that, we’d be able to invest more in utilities. But we feel that utilities will be less functional if we don’t do that work. They need to go hand-in-hand together. Utilities will be more powerful, more functional and more desired if built on top of a system that’s interoperable and end-to-end encrypted.”

Here’s a look at the major Messenger announcements and why they’re important:

Messenger Desktop – A stripped-down version of Messenger focused on chat, audio and video calls will debut later this year. Chudnovsky says it will remove the need to juggle and resize browser tabs by giving you an always-accessible version of Messenger that can replace some of the unofficial knock-offs. Especially as Messenger focuses more on businesses, giving them a dedicated desktop interface could convince them to invest more in lead generation and customer service through Messenger.

Facebook Messenger’s upcoming desktop app

Project Lightspeed – Messenger is reengineering its app to cut 70 mb off its download size so people with low-storage phones don’t have to delete as many photos to install it. In testing, the app can cold start in merely 1.3 seconds, which Chudnovsky says is just 25 percent of where Messenger and many other apps are today. While Facebook already offers Messenger Light for the developing world, making the main app faster for everyone else could help Messenger swoop in and steal users from the status quo of SMS. The Lightspeed update will roll out later this year.

Video Co-Watching – TechCrunch reported in November that Messenger was building a Facebook Watch Party-style experience that would let users pick videos to watch at the same time as a friend, with reaction cams of their faces shown below the video. Now in testing before rolling out later this year, users can pick any Facebook video, invite one or multiple friends and laugh together. Unique capabilities like this could make Messenger more entertaining between utilitarian chat threads and appeal to a younger audience Facebook is at risk of losing.

Watch Videos Together on Messenger

Business Tools – After a rough start to its chatbot program a few years ago, where bots couldn’t figure out users’ open-ended responses, Chudnovsky says the platform is now picking up steam with 300,000 developers on board. One option that’s worked especially well is lead-generation templates, which teach bots to ask people standardized questions to collect contact info or business intent, so Messenger is adding more of those templates with completion reminders and seamless hand-off to a live agent.

To let users interact with appointment-based businesses through a platform they’re already familiar with, Messenger launched a beta program for barbers, dentists and more that will soon open to let any business handle appointment booking through the app. And with new authenticated m.me links, a business can take a logged-in user on their website and pass them to Messenger while still knowing their order history and other info. Getting more businesses hooked on Messenger customer service could be very lucrative down the line.

Appointment booking on Messenger

Close Friends and Emoji Status – Perhaps the most interesting update to Messenger, though, is its upcoming effort to help you make offline plans. Messenger is in the early stages of rebuilding its Friends tab into “Close Friends,” which will host big previews of friends’ Stories, photos shared in your chats, and let people overlay an emoji on their profile pic to show friends what they’re doing. We first reported this “Your Emoji” status update feature was being built a year ago, but it quietly cropped up in the video for Messenger Close Friends. This iteration lets you add an emoji like a home, barbell, low battery or beer mug, plus a short text description, to let friends know you’re back from work, at the gym, might not respond or are interested in getting a drink. These will show up atop the Close Friends tab as well as on location-sharing maps and more once this eventually rolls out.

Messenger’s upcoming Close Friends tab with Your Emoji status

Facebook Messenger is the best poised app to solve the loneliness problem. We often end up by ourselves because we’re not sure which of our friends are free to hang out, and we’re embarrassed to look desperate by constantly reaching out. But with emoji status, Messenger users could quietly signal their intentions without seeming needy. This “what are you doing offline” feature could be a whole social network of its own, as apps like Down To Lunch have tried. But with 1.3 billion users and built-in chat, Messenger has the ubiquity and utility to turn a hope into a hangout.


By Josh Constine

Meet the first judges for The Europas Awards (27 June) and enter your startup now!

I’m excited to announce that The Europas Awards for European Tech Startups is really shaping up! The awards will be held on 27 June 2019, in London, UK on the front lawn of the Geffrye Museum in Hoxton, London — creating a fantastic and fun, garden party atmosphere in the heart of London’s tech startup scene.

TechCrunch is once more the exclusive media sponsor of the awards and conference, alongside new ‘tech, culture & society’ event creator The Pathfounder.

Here’s how to enter and be considered for the awards.

You can nominate a startup, accelerator or venture investor which you think deserves to be recognized for their achievements in the last 12 months.

*** The deadline for nominations is 1 May 2019. ***

For the 2019 awards, we’ve overhauled the categories to a set that we believe better reflects the range of innovation, diversity and ambition we see in the European startups being built and launched today. There are now 20 categories including new additions to cover AgTech / FoodTech, SpaceTech, GovTech and Mobility Tech.

Attendees, nominees and winners will get discounts to TechCrunch Disrupt in Berlin, later this year.

The Europas “Diversity Pass”

We’d like to encourage more diversity in tech! That’s why, for the upcoming invitation-only “Pathfounder” event held on the afternoon before The Europas Awards, we’ve reserved a tranche of free tickets to ensure that we include more women and people of colour who are “pre-seed” or “seed stage” tech startup founders to join us. If you are a woman or a person of colour, apply here for a chance to be considered for one of the limited free diversity passes to the event.

The Pathfounder event will feature premium content and invitees, designed be a ‘fast download’ into the London tech scene for European founders looking to raise money or re-locate to London.

The Europas Awards

The Europas Awards results are based on voting by expert judges and the industry itself.

But key to it is that there are no “off-limits areas” at The Europas, so attendees can mingle easily with VIPs.

The complete list of categories is here:

  1. AgTech / FoodTech
  2. CleanTech
  3. Cyber
  4. EdTech
  5. FashTech
  6. FinTech
  7. Public, Civic and GovTech
  8. HealthTech
  9. MadTech (AdTech / MarTech)
  10. Mobility Tech
  11. PropTech
  12. RetailTech
  13. Saas/Enterprise or B2B
  14. SpaceTech
  15. Tech for Good
  16. Hottest Blockchain Project
  17. Hottest Blockchain Investor
  18. Hottest VC Fund
  19. Hottest Seed Fund
  20. Grand Prix
    Timeline of The Europas Awards deadlines:

* 6 March 2019 – Submissions open
* 1 May 2019 – Submissions close
* 10 May 2019 – Public voting begins
* 18 June 2019 – Public voting ends
* 27 June 2019 – Awards Bash

Amazing networking

We’re also shaking up the awards dinner itself. Instead of a sit-down gala dinner, we’ve taken on your feedback for more opportunities to network. Our awards ceremony this year will be in the setting of a garden lawn party where you’ll be able to meet and mingle more easily with free-flowing drinks and a wide-selection of street food (including vegetarian/vegan). The ceremony itself will last approximately 75 minutes, with the rest of the time dedicated to networking. If you’d like to talk about sponsoring or exhibiting, please contact [email protected]

Instead of thousands and thousands of people, think of a great summer event with the most interesting and useful people in the industry, including key investors and leading entrepreneurs.

The Europas Awards have been going for the last ten years and we’re the only independent and editorially driven event to recognise the European tech startup scene. The winners have been featured in Reuters, Bloomberg, VentureBeat, Forbes, Tech.eu, The Memo, Smart Company, Cnet, many others and of course, TechCrunch.

• No secret VIP rooms, which means you get to interact with the Speakers

• Key Founders and investors attending

• Journalists from major tech titles, newspapers and business broadcasters

Meet the first set of our 20 judges:


Brent Hoberman
Executive Chairman and Co-Founder
Founders Factory


Videesha Böckle
Founding Partner
signals Venture Capital


Bindi Karia
Innovation Expert + Advisor, Investor
Bindi Ventures


Christian Hernandez
Christian Hernandez Gallardo
Co-Founder and Venture Partner at White Star Capital


By Mike Butcher

Slack integration with Office 365 one more step toward total enterprise integration

Slack’s goal of integrating enterprise tools in the chat interface has been a major differentiator from the giant companies it’s competing with like Microsoft and Facebook. Last year, it bought Astro, specifically with the goal of integrating enterprise productivity tools inside Slack, and today it announced new integrations with Microsoft OneDrive and Outlook.

Specifically, Slack is integrating calendar, files and calls and bringing in integrations with other services including Box, Dropbox and Zoom.

Andy Pflaum, director of project management at Slack, came over in the Astro deal and he says one of the primary goals of the acquisition was to help build connections like this to Microsoft and Google productivity tools.

“When we joined Slack, it was to build out the interoperability between Slack and Microsoft’s products, particularly Office and Office 365 products, and the comparable products from from Google, G Suite. We focused on deep integration with mail and calendar in Slack, as well as bringing in files and calls in from Microsoft, Google and other leading providers like Zoom, Box and Dropbox,” Pflaum, who was co-founder and CEO at Astro, told TechCrunch.

For starters, the company is announcing deep integration with Outlook that enables users to get and respond to invitations in Slack. You can also join a meeting with a click directly from Slack, whether that’s Zoom, WebEx or Skype for Business. What’s more, when you’re in a meeting your status will update automatically in Slack, saving users from manually doing this (or more likely forgetting to and getting a flurry of Slack questions in the middle of a meeting).

Another integration lets you share emails directly into Slack. Instead of copying and pasting or forwarding the email to a large group, you can click a Slack button in the Outlook interface share it as a direct message, with a group or to your personal Slack channel.

File sharing is not being left behind here either, whether from Microsoft, Box or Dropbox; users will be able to share files inside of Slack easily. Finally, users will be able to view full Office document previews inside of Slack, another step in avoiding tasking switching to get work done.

Screenshot: Slack

Mike Gotta, an analyst at Gartner who has been following the collaboration space for many years, says the integration has done a good job of preserving the user experience, while allowing for a seamless connection between email, calendar and files. He says that this could give them an edge in the highly competitive collaboration market, and more importantly allow users to maintain context.

“The collaboration market is highly fragmented with many vendors adding “just a little” collaboration to products designed for specific purposes. Buyers can find that this type of collaboration in context to the flow of work is more impactful than switching to a generalized tool that lacks situational awareness of the task at hand. Knowledge-based work often involves process and project related applications so the more we can handle transitions across tools the more productive the user experience becomes. More importantly there’s less context fragmentation for the individual and team,” Gotta told TechCrunch.

These updates are about staying one step ahead of the competition, and being able to run Microsoft tools inside of Slack gives customers another reason to stick with (or to buy) Slack instead of Microsoft’s competing product, Teams.

All of this new functionality is designed to work in both mobile and desktop versions of the product and is available today.


By Ron Miller

German LinkedIn rival Xing is rebranding as ‘New Work’ acquires recruitment platform Honeypot for up to $64M

Xing, the business networking platform that has been described as Germany’s answer to LinkedIn, has made an acquisition to beef up its recruitment business ahead of a rebrand of the business as “New Work.” The company has acquired Honeypot, a German startup that has built a job-hunting platform for tech people, for up to €57 million ($64 million). Xing tells us that Honeypot is its biggest acquisition to date.

The figure includes the acquisition (€22 million) plus a potential earn-out of up to €35 million if certain targets are met in the next three years.

Xing said that it plans to rebrand as New Work in the second half of 2019, bringing together a number of other assets it has acquired and built over the years.

“This acquisition is an excellent addition to our New Work portfolio,” Thomas Vollmoeller, CEO at Xing, said in a statement. “Honeypot focuses on candidates by helping them to find a job matching their individual preferences… With subsidiaries and brands such as kununu and HalloFreelancer, Xing is far more than just a single network. New Work is the umbrella spanning all our business activities.” Xing said that all the smaller companies will keep their branding.

Xing already offered job listings as part of its platform, with 20,000 businesses as customers; but Honeypot will add a few different things to the mix.

First, it will give Xing more traction specifically in the tech vertical, since Honeypot first started out in 2015 targeting developers although it later expanded to other tech jobs.

Second, Honeypot’s structure is a natural fit for a social recuitment platform: as with a lot of social recruiting, Honeypot lets recruiters use platforms, profile pages and social graphics to find and approach candidates, rather than candidates reaching out in response to specific opportunities.

Honeypot adds additional features to help make this process more accurate and less of a waste of time on both sides. Those doing the recruiting have to provide specific details around salary and, say, programming languages required, as part of their outreach. On the other side, individuals go through a “brief expertise check” to vet them, and they too have to be a bit more specific on what they can and what they want to do, and what they want to earn, to help weed out opportunities that might not be suitable.

Third, the acquisition will help Xing make a bigger push into building its profile outside of Germany into more of Europe, as New Work.

This is no small thing. Xing years ago was considered a would-be rival to LinkedIn. But — and this was perhaps even more true in the past, and Xing was founded in 2003 — scaling startups to be global players out of Europe can be a challenge, even more so when there is a formidable direct competitor growing quickly as well.

In the end, Xing developed as a much more modest operation, relatively speaking. While LinkedIn today has some 600 million users and was acquired by Microsoft in 2016 for $26.2 billion, Xing is publicly traded and currently valued at around $2 billion (€1.81 billion), with some 15 million members.

Xing says that today Honeypot’s current emphasis is German-speaking countries and the Netherlands, which together cover some of the biggest startup hubs in Europe, including Berlin and Amsterdam.

The company is still relatively small but growing, adding 1,000 IT specialists to its books each week, with some 100,000 individuals and 1,500 businesses currently registered. Xing said that it will be investing in the company to expand to more markets in Europe, as well as to grow its business by tapping Xing’s own customer base.

Although there have been some notable exceptions like payments startup Adyen from the Netherlands, Farfetch from the UK and Spotify (originally from Stockholm, grown in London and now increasingly a US company), scaling startups in Europe has proven to be challenging.

One of the big reasons why has to do with a shortage of talent to build these companies: in Germany alone — home to the buzzy startup city of Berlin — there are 82,000 unfilled tech jobs. In other words, there is an opportunity for more user-friendly platforms to help connect those dots.

XING and Honeypot both have the vision of helping people to further their career. We want Honeypot to offer the world’s largest work-life community for IT specialists by giving candidates the power to decide on their next career step,” said Kaya Taner, CEO who founded Honeypot with Emma Tracey. “We will continue to pursue this vision with XING. Going forward, around 100,000 IT specialists from all over the world who are registered on Honeypot will be able to connect with the many first-rate employers in German-speaking countries. This will enable Honeypot to continue developing its domestic market, while also further expanding its international community.”


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