Instagram founders join $30M raise for Loom work video messenger

Why are we all trapped in enterprise chat apps if we talk 6X faster than we type, and our brain processes visual info 60,000X faster than text? Thanks to Instagram, we’re not as camera-shy anymore. And everyone’s trying to remain in flow instead of being distracted by multi-tasking.

That’s why now is the time for Loom. It’s an enterprise collaboration video messaging service that lets you send quick clips of yourself so you can get your point across and get back to work. Talk through a problem, explain your solution, or narrate a screenshare. Some engineering hocus pocus sees videos start uploading before you finish recording so you can share instantly viewable links as soon as you’re done.

“What we felt was that more visual communication could be translated into the workplace and deliver disproportionate value” co-founder and CEO Joe Thomas tells me. He actually conducted our whole interview over Loom, responding to emailed questions with video clips.

Launched in 2016, Loom is finally hitting its growth spurt. It’s up from 1.1 million users and 18,000 companies in February to 1.8 million people at 50,000 businesses sharing 15 million minutes of Loom videos per month. Remote workers are especially keen on Loom since it gives them face-to-face time with colleagues without the annoyance of scheduling synchronous video calls. “80% of our professional power users had primarily said that they were communicating with people that they didn’t share office space with” Thomas notes.

A smart product, swift traction, and a shot at riding the consumerization of enterprise trend has secured Loom a $30 million Series B. The round that’s being announced later today was led by prestigious SAAS investor Sequoia and joined by Kleiner Perkins, Figma CEO Dylan Field, Front CEO Mathilde Collin, and Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger.

“At Instagram, one of the biggest things we did was focus on extreme performance and extreme ease of use and that meant optimizing every screen, doing really creative things about when we started uploading, optimizing everything from video codec to networking” Krieger says. “Since then I feel like some products have managed to try to capture some of that but few as much as Loom did. When I first used Loom I turned to Kevin who was my Instagram co-founder and said, ‘oh my god, how did they do that? This feels impossibly fast.’”


Systrom concurs about the similarities, saying “I’m most excited because I see how they’re tackling the problem of visual communication in the same way that we tried to tackle that at Instagram.” Loom is looking to double-down there, potentially adding the ability to Like and follow videos from your favorite productivity gurus or sharpest co-workers.

Loom is also prepping some of its most requested features. The startup is launching an iOS app next month with Android coming the first half of 2020, improving its video editor with blurring for hiding your bad hair day and stitching to connect multiple takes. New branding options will help external sales pitches and presentations look right. What I’m most excited for is transcription, which is also slated for the first half of next year through a partnership with another provider, so you can skim or search a Loom. Sometimes even watching at 2X speed is too slow.

But the point of raising a massive $30 million Series B just a year after Loom’s $11 million Kleiner-led Series A is to nail the enterprise product and sales process. To date, Loom has focused on a bottom-up distribution strategy similar to Dropbox. It tries to get so many individual employees to use Loom that it becomes a team’s default collaboration software. Now it needs to grow up so it can offer the security and permissions features IT managers demand. Loom for teams is rolling out in beta access this year before officially launching in early 2020.

Loom’s bid to become essential to the enterprise, though, is its team video library. This will let employees organize their Looms into folders of a knowledge base so they can explain something once on camera, and everyone else can watch whenever they need to learn that skill. No more redundant one-off messages begging for a team’s best employees to stop and re-teach something. The Loom dashboard offers analytics on who’s actually watching your videos. And integration directly into popular enterprise software suites will let recipients watch without stopping what they’re doing.

To build out these features Loom has already grown to a headcount of 45. It’s also hired away former head of growth at Dropbox Nicole Obst, head of design for Slack Joshua Goldenberg, and VP of commercial product strategy for Intercom Matt Hodges.


Still, the elephants in the room remain Slack and Microsoft Teams. Right now, they’re mainly focused on text messaging with some additional screensharing and video chat integrations. They’re not building Loom-style asynchronous video messaging…yet. “We want to be clear about the fact that we don’t think we’re in competition with Slack or Microsoft Teams at all. We are a complementary tool to chat” Thomas insists. But given the similar productivity and communication ethos, those incumbents could certainly opt to compete. Slack already has 12 million daily users it could provide with video tools.

Loom co-founder and CEO Joe Thomas

Hodges, Loom’s head of marketing, tells me “I agree Slack and Microsoft could choose to get into this territory, but what’s the opportunity cost for them in doing so? It’s the classic build vs. buy vs. integrate argument.” Slack bought screensharing tool Screenhero, but partners with Zoom and Google for video chat. Loom will focus on being easily integratable so it can plug into would-be competitors. And Hodges notes that “Delivering asynchronous video recording and sharing at scale is non-trivial. Loom holds a patent on its streaming, transcoding, and storage technology, which has proven to provide a competitive advantage to this day.”

The tea leaves point to video invading more and more of our communication, so I expect rival startups and features to Loom will crop up. Vidyard and Wistia’s Soapbox are already pushing into the space. As long as it has the head start, Loom needs to move as fast as it can. “It’s really hard to maintain focus to deliver on the core product experience that we set out to deliver versus spreading ourselves too thin. And this is absolutely critical” Thomas tells me.

One thing that could set Loom apart? A commitment to financial fundamentals. “When you grow really fast, you can sometimes lose sight of what is the core reason for a business entity to exist, which is to become profitable. . . Even in a really bold market where cash can be cheap, we’re trying to keep profitability at the top of our minds.”


By Josh Constine

SocialRank sells biz to Trufan, pivots to a mobile LinkedIn

What do you do when your startup idea doesn’t prove big enough? Run it as a scrawny but profitable lifestyle business? Or sell it to a competitor and take another swing at the fences? Social audience analytics and ad targeting startup SocialRank chose the latter and is going for glory.

Today, SocialRank announced it’s sold its business, brand, assets, and customers to influencer marketing campaign composer and distributor Trufan which will run it as a standalone product. But SocialRank’s team isn’t joining up. Instead, the full six-person staff is sticking together to work on a mobile-first professional social network called Upstream aiming to nip at LinkedIn.

SocialRank co-founder and CEO Alex Taub

Started in 2014 amidst a flurry of marketing analytics tools, SocialRank had raised $2.1 million from Rainfall Ventures and others before hitting profitability in 2017. But as the business plateaued, the team saw potential to use data science about people’s identity to get them better jobs.

“A few months ago we decided to start building a new product (what has become Upstream). And when we came to the conclusion to go all-in on Upstream, we knew we couldn’t run two businesses at the same time” SocialRank co-founder and CEO Alex Taub tells me. “We decided then to run a bit of a process. We ended up with a few offers but ultimately felt like Trufan was the best one to continue the business into the future.”

The move lets SocialRank avoid stranding its existing customers like the NFL, Netflix, and Samsung that rely on its audience segmentation software. Instead, they’ll continue to be supported by Trufan where Taub and fellow co-founder Michael Schonfeld will become advisors.

“While we built a sustainable business, we essentially knew that if we wanted to go real big, we would need to go to the drawing board” Taub explains.

SocialRank

Two-year-old Trufan has raised $1.8 million Canadian from Round13 Capital, local Toronto startup Clearbanc’s founders, and several NBA players. Trufan helps brands like Western Union and Kay Jewellers design marketing initiatives that engage their customer communities through social media. It’s raising an extra $400,000 USD in venture debt from Round13 to finance the acquisition, which should make Trufan cash-flow positive by the end of the year.

Why isn’t the SocialRank team going along for the ride? Taub said LinkedIn was leaving too much opportunity on the table. While it’s good for putting resumes online and searching for people, “All the social stuff are sort of bolt-ons that came after Facebook and Twitter arrived. People forget but LinkedIn is the oldest active social network out there”, Taub tells me, meaning it’s a bit outdated.

Trufan’s team

Rather than attack head-on, the newly forged Upstream plans to pick the Microsoft-owned professional network apart with better approaches to certain features. “I love the idea of ‘the unbundling of LinkedIn’, ala what’s been happening with Craigslist for the past few years” says Taub. “The first foundational piece we are building is a social professional network around giving and getting help. We’ll also be focused on the unbundling of the groups aspect of LinkedIn.”

Taub concludes that entrepreneurs can shackle themselves to impossible goals if they take too much venture capital for the wrong business. As we’ve seen with SoftBank, investors demand huge returns that can require pursuing risky and unsustainable expansion strategies.

“We realized that SocialRank had potential to be a few hundred million dollar in revenue business but venture growth wasn’t exactly the model for it” Taub says. “You need the potential of billions in revenue and a steep growth curve.” A professional network for the smartphone age has that kind of addressable market. And the team might feel better getting out of bed each day knowing they’re unlocking career paths for people instead of just getting them to click ads.


By Josh Constine

Stewart Butterfield says Microsoft sees Slack as existential threat

In a wide ranging interview with Wall Street Journal global technology editor Jason Dean yesterday, Slack CEO and co-founder Stewart Butterfield had some strong words regarding Microsoft, saying  the software giant saw his company as an existential threat.

The interview took place at the WSJ Tech Live event. When Butterfield was asked about a chart Microsoft released in July during the Slack quiet period, which showed Microsoft Teams had 13 million daily active users compared to 12 million for Slack, Butterfield appeared taken aback by the chart.

Microsoft Teams chart

Chart: Microsoft

“The bigger point is that’s kind of crazy for Microsoft to do, especially during the quiet period. I had someone say it was unprecedented since the [Steve] Ballmer era. I think it’s more like unprecedented since the Gates’ 98-99 era. I think they feel like we’re an existential threat,” he told Dean.

It’s worth noting, that as Dean pointed out, you could flip that existential threat statement. Microsoft is a much bigger business with a trillion dollar market cap versus Slack’s $400 million. It also has the benefit of linking Microsoft Teams to Office 365 subscriptions, but Butterfield says the smaller company with the better idea has often won in the past.

For starters, Butterfield noted that of his biggest customers, more than two-thirds are actually using Slack and Office 365 in combination. “When we look at our top 50 biggest customers, 70% of them are not only Office 365 users, but they’re Office 365 users who use the integrations with Slack,” he said.

He went on to say that smaller companies have taken on giants before and won. As examples, he held up Microsoft itself, which in the 80s was a young upstart taking on established players like IBM. In the late 1990s, Google prevailed as the primary search engine in spite of the fact that Microsoft controlled most of the operating system and browser market at the time. Google then tried to go after Facebook with its social tools, all of which have failed over the years. “And so the lesson we take from that is, often the small startup with real traction with customers has an advantage versus the large incumbent with multiple lines of business,” he said.

When asked by Dean if Microsoft, which ran afoul with the Justice Department in the late 1990s, should be the subject of more regulatory scrutiny for its bundling practices, Butterfield admitted he wasn’t a legal expert, but joked that it was “surprisingly unsportsmanlike conduct.” He added more seriously, “We see things like offering to pay companies to use Teams and that definitely leans on a lot of existing market power. Having said that, we have been asked many times, and maybe it’s something we should have looked at, but we haven’t taken any action.”


By Ron Miller

Facebook’s Workplace hits 3M paying users, launches Portal app in a wider push for video

The rapid rise of Slack — which has recently broken the 100,000 mark for paying businesses using its service — has ushered in a rush of competition from other companies across the worlds of social media and enterprise software, all aiming to become the go-to conversation layer for businesses. Today, Workplace, Facebook’s effort in that race, announced a milestone in its growth along with a bigger push into video services and other improvements.

The service — priced at $1.50 per month per employee — now has passed 3 million paying users, adding in 1 million workers from mostly enterprise businesses in the last eight months.

And to capitalize on Facebook’s growing focus on video in its consumer service, Workplace is announcing several steps of its own into video: it’s releasing a special app that can be used on the Portal, Facebook’s video screen; and alongside that it’s announcing new video features: captioning at the bottom of videos; auto-translating starting with 17 languages; and a new P2P architecture that will speed up video transmission for those who might be watching videos on Workplace in places where bandwidth is constrained.

The features and milestone number are all being announced today at Flock, the Workplace user conference that Facebook puts on each year. Alongside all these, Facebook also announced several other features for its enterprise app (more on the other new features below).

The push to video comes at an interesting time for Workplace on the competitive front. Karandeep Anand, who came to Facebook from Microsoft and currently heads up Facebook with Julien Codorniou managing business development, has made a point of differentiating Workplace from others in the field of workplace collaboration by emphasizing how it’s used by very large enterprises like Walmart (the world’s largest single employer) to bring together not just white-collar knowledge workers but also frontline workers on to a single communication platform.

The company says that today, its customers include 150 companies with over 10,000 active users apiece, with other names on its books including Starbucks, Spotify, AstraZeneca, Deliveroo and Kering.

The push to video follows that trajectory: it’s a way for Workplace (and Facebook) to differentiate the experience and use cases for the product to businesses, who might already be using Slack but might consider buying this as well, if not migrating away from the other product altogether. (Teams is a different ballgame, of course, since it has a strong video component of its own and also likes to position itself as a product for all kinds of employees, too.)

Workplace’s video efforts here will mark the first time that Facebook is positioning Portal as a product for businesses. This is notable, when you consider that there has been some adoption of Amazon’s Alexa in workplace scenarios, too; and that there has been some pushback from consumers about the prospect of having a Facebook video device sitting in their homes. This gives Facebook’s $179 hardware (which will be sold at the same price to businesses) a new avenue for sales.

Video has been a cornerstone of how Workplace has been developing for a while now, with companies using it as a way for, say, the big boss to send out more personalised communications to workers, and for people in workgroups to create video chats with each other. A dedicated screen for video chats takes this idea to the next level, and plays on the fact that video conferencing services like Zoom have caught on like wildfire in modern offices, where people who work together often work in disparate locations.

There is another way that Portal could find some traction with businesses: videoconferencing solutions tend to be very expensive, in part because of the hefty hardware investments that need to be made. Offering a device at $179 drastically undercuts that investment. Codorniou declined to comment on whether Facebook might make a more concerted effort to push this as a cost-effective videoconferencing alternative down the line, but he did point out that today Facebook and Zoom have a close relationship.

The other video features that Workplace is announcing today will further enhance the experience: Facebook will now give users the option to incluce automatic captions at the bottoms of videos, with the added bonus of translation, initially in 17 languages. And the improved video quality for those with limited bandwidth is significantly not something that Facebook has rolled out in its consumer app: the aim is to improve the quality of broadcasting in scenarios where bandwidth might not be as strong but there are simultaneous people watching the same event: something you could imagine applying, say, at a company all-hands or townhall event with remote participants.

Alongside all of these video features, Workplace is adding in a host of other features to expand the use cases for the product beyond basic chatting:

New learning product. This is not about e-learning per se, but Workplace is now offering a way for HR to add onboarding teaching and videos into Workplace for new employees or new services at the company. No plans right now to expand this to educational content, Codorniou said.

Surveys are also coming to Workplace. These will be set by administrators — not any worker at any time — and it seems that for now there will be no anonymity, so that will mean it’s unlikely that these will cover any sensitive topics, and might in any case see a chilling effect in how people feel they can respond.

Frontline access is getting overhauled in Workplace, where people who do not use company email addresses will now be able to create accounts using generated codes.

Those admins that are trying to track how well Workplace is actually working for them will also be able to track engagement and other metrics on the platform.

In addition to these, Workplace is also adding in some gamification features to the platform, where people can publicly thank people, set and follow workplace goals, and award badges to individuals who have achieved something in areas like sales, anniversaries or other positive milestones.

As with the video features, the idea is to bring services to Workplace that you are not necessarily getting in Slack and other competitive products. That is the maxim also when the features are replicas of features you might have seen elsewhere, but not all in one consolidated place.

Asked what he thought about the claims that Facebook is too much of a “copycat” when it came to building new features, Codorniou was defensive. “I think Workplace itself is getting to a market that has been untouched before. When it comes to badges or goals, for example, yes people have but these before, but the difference is that we are offering them to a wide network of people. If you have to use a separate app, it’s not a great experience.

“Everything that we ship is the result of customer feedback and requests. If they tell us they want these, it means they’re not finding what they needed on the market.”


By Ingrid Lunden

Why Flexport built a slick Slack SaaS for shipping

“Make their metrics your metrics” is one of Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen’s mantras. Sometimes that means building free software for your clients. It can be frustrating aligning your fates with a fellow business if they operate on email, phone and fax like much of the freight-forwarding industry that gets pallets of goods across the world from factories to retailer’s floors. So today, the new Flexport Platform launches, allowing brand clients, their factories and their Flexport logistics reps to all team up to get stuff where it belongs on time.

The software could further stoke Flexport‘s growth by locking in customers to work with the shipping startup that was valued at $3.2 billion after raising $1 billion from SoftBank in February (to bring it to $1.3 billion in funding). Flexport’s revenue was up 95%, to $441 million in 2018, Forbes’s Alex Konrad reported. Yet there’s plenty of green field to conquer given even Flexport’s largest competitor Kuehne & Nagel only holds 2.5% market share while the whole freight-forwarding industry grows 4% per year.

Flexport Dashboard

The Flexboard Platform dashboard offers maps, notifications, task lists, and chat for Flexport clients and their factory suppliers.

The Flexport Platform lets 10,000 clients, like Bombas socks, invite their suppliers to collaborate on managing shipments together. An integrated calendar makes shipping timelines clear. A map gives clients a god-view of their freight criss-crossing the globe. Pre-filled forms expedite compliance. Tagging lets users group shipments and filter or search their dashboards, and flag something for extra care — like a pallet of goods critical for a marketing launch event. Collaborators also can sync up via a Facebook Wall-style feature, or direct message the team with threaded conversations, much like Slack.

Ryan Petersen Flexport

Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen

“There’s infinite demand for a job well done,” Petersen says about his industry.The hard part has always been doing a good job.” Taking the confusion out communication scattered across email chains means clients get shipping documentation filled out 50% faster with 4X more accurate data. Flexport is on the tip of the tongue as software eats the world, with antiquated sectors suddenly leveling up.

Petersen saw the inefficiency first-hand growing up running his own import/export and customs business. He is part of a wave of entrepreneurs attacking unsexy businesses that the typical Silicon Valley enterprise exec might never stumble across. But three years after we profiled his scrappy company, when it had raised just $26 million in funding and had 700 clients, Petersen tells me “We’re trying to retire the word ‘startup.’ ”

It turns out top global brands like Sonos and Klean Kanteen don’t like the second half of “move fast and break things” when those things are boats and planes full of their products. “They want a company that will help them grow, not the fly-by-night startup,” Petersen explains. But with competitors trying to chase it and incumbents trying to adopt similar technologies, Flexport must maintain its agility to avoid being subsumed by the pack.

As his company has grown to 1,700 employees, he’s dedicated a ton of his time to keeping its culture in check — especially after a certain other logistics giant startup had some uber-painful troubles with workplace toxicity. “You either have too much bureaucracy or not enough process, and no one knows what to do. The English language lacks a positive word for bureaucracy — just the right amount of process so people can move quickly.”

That’s what Flexport wanted to give clients with the new platform. From a dedicated tasks queue to a notifications pane, it’s built to take the guesswork out of what to do next while being as approachable as consumer software for new users. That also why it’s free. It’s not supposed to be some chore you’re forced to complete, product lead Frank te Pas tells me. “As you move your first shipment you get onboarded onto this system” says te Pas. “It’s our way of helping.”

Flexport Warehouse

That’s meant a ton of personal growth, too. Petersen is still enthusiastic, curious and charmingly rough around the edges, but he carries it all with more dignity and gravity than a few years back. “The only way I get to stay in this role is if I learn faster than anybody else. Being the CEO of a 1,700-person company is not something I knew how to do four to five years ago, or even last year,” he tells me. “I’ve changed and become more self-aware. It’s been really important to take care of myself — sleeping a lot, I quit drinking alcohol, I lost 30 pounds. I feel great.”

With plenty of cash in the bank, industry talent taking it seriously and new businesses like Flexport Capital freight financing and its cargo insurance offered in partnership with Marsh, the company might not be a startup for long. It looks like a hot candidate for a coming season of IPOs. And while this company has its own plane (the leading entry for the naming contest is “Weird Flex But OK”), it’s actually part of its shipping fleet.


By Josh Constine

Meme editor Kapwing grows 10X, raises $11M

Kapwing is a laymen’s Adobe Creative Suite built for what people actually do on the internet: make memes and remix media. Need to resize a video? Add text or subtitles to a video? Trim or crop or loop or frame or rotate or soundtrack or… Then you need Kapwing. The free web and mobile tool is built for everyone, not just designers. No software download or tutorials to slog through. Just efficient creativity.

Kapwing Video Editor

In a year since coming out of stealth with 100,000 users, Kapwing has grown 10X to over 1 million. Now it going pro, building out its $20/month collaboration tools for social media managers and scrappy teams. But it won’t forget its roots with teens, so it’s dropped its pay-$6-to-remove-watermarks tier while keeping its core features free.

Eager to capitalize on the meme and mobile content business, CRV has just led an $11 million Series A round for Kapwing. It’s joined by follow-on cash from Village Global, Sinai, and Shasta Ventures plus new investors Jane VC, Harry Stebbings, Vector, and the Xoogler Syndicate. CRV partners ‘the venture twins’ Justine and Olivia Moore actually met Kapwing co-founder and CEO Julia Enthoven while they all worked at The Stanford Daily newspaper together in 2012.

“As a team, we love memes. We talk about internet fads almost every day at lunch and pay close attention to digital media trends” says Enthoven, who started the company with fellow Googler Eric Lu. “One of our cultural tenets is to respect the importance of design, art, and culture in the world, and another one is to not take ourselves too seriously.” But it is taking on serious clients.

Kapwing Tools

 

As Kapwing’s toolset has grown, it’s seen paying customers coming from Amazon, Sony, Netflix, and Spotify. Now only 13% of what’s made with it are traditional text-plus-media memes. “Kapwing will always be designed for creators first: the students, artists, influencers, entrepreneurs, etc who define and spread culture” says Enthoven. “But we make money from the creative professionals, marketers, media teams, and office workers who need to create content for work.”

That’s why in addition to plenty of templates for employing the latest trending memes, Kapwing now helps Pro subscribers with permanent hosting, saving throughout the creation process, and re-editing after export. Eventually it plans to sell enterprise licenses to let whole companies use Kapwing.

Kapwing Tools 1

Copycats are trying to chip away at its business, but Kapwing will use its new funding to keep up a breakneck pace of development. Pronounced “Ka-Pwing” like a bullet riccochet, it’s trying to stay ahead of Imgflip, ILoveIMG, Imgur’s on-site tool, and more robust apps like Canva.

If you’ve ever been stuck with a landscape video that won’t fit in an Instagram Story, a bunch of clips you want to stitch together, or the need to subtitle something for accessibility, you’ll know the frustration of lacking a purpose-built tool. And if you’re on mobile, there are even few options. Unlike some software suite you have to install on a desktop, Kapwing works right from a browser.

Trending Memes Kapwing

“‘Memes’ is such a broad category of media nowadays. It could refer to a compilation like the political singalong videos, animations like Shooting Star memes, or a change in music like the AOC Dancing memes” Enthoven explains. “Although they used to be edgy, memes have become more mainstream . . . Memes popularized new types of multimedia formats and made raw, authentic footage more acceptable on social media.”

As communication continues to shift from text to visual media, design can’t only be the domain of designers. Kapwing empowers anyone to storytell and entertain, whether out of whimsy or professional necessity. If big-name creative software from Adobe or Apple don’t simplify and offer easy paths through common use cases, they’ll see themselves usurped by the tools of the people.


By Josh Constine

Facebook has acquired Servicefriend, which builds ‘hybrid’ chatbots, for Calibra customer service

As Facebook prepares to launch its new cryptocurrency Libra in 2020, it’s putting the pieces in place to help it run. In one of the latest developments, it has acquired Servicefriend, a startup that built bots — chat clients for messaging apps based on artificial intelligence — to help customer service teams, TechCrunch has confirmed.

The news was first reported in Israel, where Servicefriend is based, after one of its investors, Roberto Singler, alerted local publication The Marker about the deal. We reached out to Ido Arad, one of the co-founders of the company, who referred our questions to a team at Facebook. Facebook then confirmed the acquisition with an Apple-like non-specific statement:

“We acquire smaller tech companies from time to time. We don’t always discuss our plans,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

Several people, including Arad, his co-founder Shahar Ben Ami, and at least one other indicate that they now work at Facebook within the Calibra digital wallet group on their LinkedIn profiles. Their jobs at the social network started this month, meaning this acquisition closed in recent weeks. (Several others indicate that they are still at Servicefriend, meaning they too may have likely made the move as well.)

Although Facebook isn’t specifying what they will be working on, the most obvious area will be in building a bot — or more likely, a network of bots — for the customer service layer for the Calibra digital wallet that Facebook is developing.

Facebook’s plan is to build a range of financial services for people to use Calibra to pay out and receive Libra — for example, to send money to contacts, pay bills, top up their phones, buy things and more.

It remains to be seen just how much people will trust Facebook as a provider of all these. So that is where having “human” and accessible customer service experience will be essential.

“We are here for you,” Calibra notes on its welcome page, where it promises 24-7 support in WhatsApp and Messenger for its users.

Screenshot 2019 09 21 at 23.25.18

Servicefriend has worked on Facebook’s platform in the past: specifically it built “hybrid” bots for Messenger for companies to use to complement teams of humans, to better scale their services on messaging platforms. In one Messenger bot that Servicefriend built for Globe Telecom in the Philippines, it noted that the hybrid bot was able to bring the “agent hours” down to under 20 hours for each 1,000 customer interactions.

Bots have been a relatively problematic area for Facebook. The company launched a personal assistant called M in 2015, and then bots that let users talk to businesses in 2016 on Messenger, with quite some fanfare, although the reality was that nothing really worked as well as promised, and in some cases worked significantly worse than whatever services they aimed to replace.

While AI-based assistants such as Alexa have become synonymous with how a computer can carry on a conversation and provide information to humans, the consensus around bots these days is that the most workable way forward is to build services that complement, rather than completely replace, teams.

For Facebook, getting its customer service on Calibra right can help it build and expand its credibility (note: another area where Servicefriend has build services is in using customer service as a marketing channel). Getting it wrong could mean issues not just with customers, but with partners and possibly regulators.


By Ingrid Lunden

LinkedIn launches skills assessments, tests that let you beef up your credentials for job hunting

LinkedIn, the social networking service for the working world, is today taking the wraps off its latest effort to provide its users with better tools for presenting their professional selves, and to make the process of recruitment on the platform more effective. It will now offer a new feature called Skills Assessments: short, multiple-choice tests that users can take to verify their knowledge in areas like computer languages, software packages and other work-related skills.

The feature is being rolled out globally today but in a small test mode, LinkedIn says that 2 million tests have already been taken and applied across the platform, a sign of how it might well be a very popular, and needed, feature. First up are English-language tests covering some 75 different skills, all free to take, but the plan, according to Emrecan Dogan, the group product manager in its talent solutions division, is to “ramp that up agressively” in the near future, both adding in different languages and more test areas.

(Important sidenote: Dogan joined LinkedIn when his company ScoreBeyond was quietly acquired by LinkedIn last year. ScoreBeyond was an online testing service to help students prep for college entrance exams. Given LinkedIn’s efforts to get closer to younger users — again, in part because of competitive pressure — I suspect that is one area where LinkedIn will likely want to expand this assessment tool longer term, if it takes off.)

The skills assessment tool is coming at an important moment for LinkedIn.

The Microsoft-owned company now has nearly 650 million people around the world using its social networking tools to connect with each other for professional purposes, most often to network, talk about work, or find work.

That makes for a fascinating and lucrative economy of scale when it comes to rolling out its products. But it comes with a major drawback, too: the bigger the platform gets, the harder it is to track and verify details about each and every individual on it. The skills assessment becomes one way of at least being able to verify certain people’s skills in specific areas, and for that information to start feeding into other channels and products on the platform.

It’s also a critical competitive move: the company is by far the biggest platform of its kind on the internet today, but smaller rivals are building interesting products to chip away at that lead in specific areas. Triplebyte, for example, has created a platform for those looking to hire engineers, and engineers looking for new roles, to connect by way of the engineers — yes — taking online tests to measure their skills and match them up with compatible job opportunities. Triplebyte is focused on just one field — software engineering — but the template is a disruptive one that, if replicated in other verticals, could slowly start to chip away at LinkedIn’s hegemony.

And testing on actual skills is just one area where verification has fallen short on LinkedIn: another big trend in recruitment is the push for more diverse workforces. The thinking is that traditionally too many of the parameters that have been used up to now to assess people — what college was attended, or where people have worked already — have been essentially cutting many already-disenfranchised groups out of the process. Given that LinkedIn currently has no way of ascertaining when people on its platform are from minority backgrounds, a skills assessment — and especially a good result on one — might potentially help tip the balance in favor of meritrocracy (if not proactive diversity focused hiring as such).

For regular users, the option to take skills assessments and add them to your profile will appear for users as a button in the skills and endorsements area of their profiles. Users take short tests — currently only multiple choice — which Dogan says are created by professionals who are subject area experts that already work with LinkedIn, for example to write content for LinkedIn learning.

These tests measure your knowledge in specific areas, and if you pass, you are given a badge that you can apply to your profile page, and potentially broadcast out to those who are looking for people with the skills you’ve just verified you have. (This is presuming that you are not cheating and having someone else take the test for you, or taking it while looking up answers elsewhere.) You can opt out of sharing the information anywhere else, if you choose.

If you fail, you have three months to wait before taking it again, and in the meantime LinkedIn will use the moment to upsell you on its other content: you get offered LinkedIn Learning tests to improve your skills.

For those who pass, they will need to retake tests every year to keep their badges and credentials.

On the side of recruiters, they are able to use the data that gets amassed through the tests as a way of better filtering out users when sourcing candidate pools for job openings. This is a huge issue on a platform like LinkedIn: while having a large group of people on there is a boost for finding matches, in fact there can be too many, and too much of a challenge and time suck to figure out who is genuinely suitable for a particular role.

There is another angle where the skills are being used to help LinkedIn monetise: those who are putting in ads for jobs can now buy ads that are targeted specifically to people with certain skills that have been verified through assessments.

There are still some shortfalls in the skills assessment tool as it exists now. For example, coding tests are all multiple choice, but that’s not how many coding environments work these days. (Triplebyte for example offers collaborative assessments.) And of course, skills is just one aspect of how people might fit into a particular working environment. (Currently there are no plans to bring in psychometric or similar assessments, Dogan said.) This is an interesting start, however, and worth testing the waters as more interesting variations in recruitment and connecting professionals online continue to proliferate.

 


By Ingrid Lunden

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