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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Ingrid Lunden

Slack wants to be more than a text-based messaging platform

Last October as Slack was preparing for its virtual Frontiers conference, the company began thinking about different ways people could communicate on the platform. While it had built its name on being able to integrate a lot of services in a single place to alleviate the dreaded task-switching phenomenon, it has been largely text-based up until now.

More recently, Slack has started developing a few new features that could bring different ways of interacting to the platform. CEO Stewart Butterfield discussed them on Thursday with former TechCrunch reporter Josh Constine, now a SignalFire investor, in a Clubhouse interview.

The talk was about the future of work, and Slack believes these new ways of communicating could help employees better connect online as we shift to a hybrid work world — one which has been hastened by the pandemic over the last year. There is a general consensus that many companies will continue to work in a hybrid fashion, even when the pandemic is over.

For starters, Slack aims to add a way to communicate by video. But instead of trying to compete with Zoom or Microsoft Teams, Slack is envisioning an experience that’s more like Instagram Stories.

Think about the CEO sharing an important announcement with the company, or the kind of information that might have gone out in a company-wide email. Instead, you can skip the inbox and deliver the message directly by video. It’s taking a page from the consumer approach to social and trying to move it into the enterprise.

Writing in a company blog post earlier this week, Slack chief product officer Tamar Yehoshua was clear this was going to be an asynchronous approach, rather than a meeting kind of experience.

“To help with this, we are piloting ways to shift meetings toward an asynchronous video experience that feels native in Slack. It allows us to express nuance and enthusiasm without a meeting,” she wrote.

While it was at it, Slack decided to create a way of just chatting by voice. As Butterfield told Constine in his Clubhouse interview, this is essentially Clubhouse (or Twitter Spaces) being built for Slack.

Yeah, I’ve always believed the ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’ thing, so we’re just building Clubhouse into Slack, essentially. Like that idea that you can drop in, the conversation’s happening whether you’re there or not, you can enter and leave when you want, as opposed to a call that starts and stops, is an amazing model for encouraging that spontaneity and that serendipity and conversations that only need to be three minutes, but the only option for you to schedule them is 30 minutes. So look out for Clubhouse built into Slack.

Again, it’s taking a consumer social idea and applying it to a business setting with the idea of finding other ways to keep you in Slack when you could be using other tools to achieve the same thing, whether it be Zoom meetings, email or your phone.

Butterfield also hinted hinted that another feature — asynchronous audio, allowing you to leave the equivalent of a voicemail — could be coming some time in the future. A Slack spokesperson confirmed that it was in the works, but wasn’t ready to share details yet.

It’s impossible to look at these features without thinking about them in the context of the $27 billion Salesforce acquisition of Slack at the end of last year. When you put them all together, you have this set of tools that let you communicate in whatever way makes the most sense to you.

When you combine that Slack Connect DM, a new feature to communicate outside the organization that was released this week to some controversy, as people wanted assurances that they could control spam and harassment, it takes the concept one step further — outside the organization itself.

As part of a larger entity like Salesforce, these tools could be useful across sales, service and even marketing as a way to communicate in a variety of ways inside and outside the organization. And they greatly expand the value prop of Slack as it becomes part of Salesforce sometime later this year.

While it began talking about the new audio and video features last fall, the company has been piloting them since the beginning of this year. So far Slack is not saying when the new features will be generally available.


By Ron Miller

Dataminr raises $475M on a $4.1B valuation for real-time insights based on 100k sources of public data

Significant funding news today for one of the startups making a business out of tapping huge, noisy troves of publicly available data across social media, news sites, undisclosed filings and more. Dataminr, which ingests information from a mix of 100,000 public data sources, and then based on that provides customers real-time insights into ongoing events and new developments, has closed on $475 million in new funding. Dataminr has confirmed that this Series F values the company at $4.1 billion as it gears up for an IPO in 2023.

This Series F is coming from a mix of investors including Eldridge (a firm that owns the LA Dodgers but also makes a bunch of other sports, media, tech and other investments), Valor Equity Partners (the firm behind Tesla and many tech startups), MSD Capital (Michael Dell’s fund), Reinvent Capital (Mark Pincus and Reid Hoffman’s firm), ArrowMark Partners, IVP, Eden Global and investment funds managed by Morgan Stanley Tactical Value, among others.

To put its valuation into some context, the New York-based company last raised money in 2018 at a $1.6 billion valuation. And with this latest round, it has now raised over $1 billion in outside funding, based on PitchBook data. This latest round has been in the works for a while and was rumored last week at a lower valuation than what Dataminr ultimately got.

The funding is coming at a critical moment, both for the company and for the world at large.

In terms of the company, Dataminr has been seeing a huge surge of business.

Ted Bailey, the founder and CEO, said in an interview that it will be using the money to continue growing its business in existing areas: adding more corporate customers, expanding in international sales and expanding its AI platform as it gears up for an IPO, most likely in 2023. In addition to being used journalists and newsrooms, NGOs and other public organizations, its corporate business today, Bailey said, includes half of the Fortune 50 and a number of large public sector organizations. Over the last year that large enterprise segment of its customers doubled in revenue growth.

“Whether it’s for physical safety, reputation risk or crisis management, or business intelligence or cybersecurity, we’re providing critical insights on a daily basis,” he said. “All of the events of the recent year have created a sense of urgency, and demand has really surged.”

Activity on the many platforms that Dataminr taps to ingest information has been on the rise for years, but it has grown exponentially in the last year especially as more people spend more time at home and online and away from physically interacting with each other: that means more data for Dataminr to crawl, but also, quite possibly, more at stake for all of us as a result: there is so much more out there than before, and as a result so much more to be gleaned out of that information.

That also means that the wider context of Dataminr’s growth is not quite so clear cut.

The company’s data tools have indeed usefully helped first responders react in crisis situations, feeding them data faster than even their own channels might do; and it provides a number of useful, market-impacting insights to businesses.

But Dataminr’s role in helping its customers — which include policing forces — connect the dots on certain issues has not always been seen as a positive. One controversial accusation made last year was that Dataminr data was being used by police for racial profiling. In years past, it has been barred by specific partners like Twitter from sharing data with intelligence agencies. Twitter used to be a 5% shareholder in the company. Bailey confirmed to me that it no longer is but remains a key partner for data. I’ve contacted Twitter to see if I can get more detail on this and will update the story if and when I learn more. Twitter made $509 million in revenues from services like data licensing in 2020, up by about $45 million on the year before.

In defense of Dataminr, Bailey that the negative spins on what it does result from “misperceptions,” since it can’t track people or do anything proactive. “We deliver alerts on events and it’s [about] a time advantage,” he said, likening it to the Associated Press, but “just earlier.”

“The product can’t be used for surveillance,” Bailey added. “It is prohibited.”

Of course, in the ongoing debate about surveillance, it’s more about how Dataminr’s customers might ultimately use the data that they get through Dataminr’s tools, so the criticism is more about what it might enable rather than what it does directly.

Despite some of those persistent questions about the ethics of AI and other tools and how they are implemented by end users, backers are bullish on the opportunities for Dataminr to continue growing.

Eden Global Partners served as strategic partner for the Series F capital round.


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By Ingrid Lunden

Rocket.Chat raises $19M for its open-source approach to integrated enterprise messaging

Chat platforms like Slack have been game-changes when it comes to what business users want and expect out of their work communications. Today, a company that’s aiming to move the goalpost again with an integrated, open-source alternative is announcing some funding to fuel its growth.

Rocket.Chat, a startup and open source-based platform of the same name used by banks, the U.S. Navy, NGOs, and other organizations big and small to set up and run any variety of secure virtual communications services from one place — they can include not just team chat, but also customer service, collaboration platforms covering your staff and outside partners, school classrooms, conferences and more — has raised $19 million.

The company plans to use the funding both to continue adding more customers, but also expanding the platform’s functionality, including more security features, a way to use the service over federated blockchain architecuture, apps for marketplaces, options for bots, and more social media and omnichannel customer service integrations, and potentially facilities for virtual events.

As more business interactions have gone virtual, it has essentially opened the door for companies like Rocket.Chat building virtual communications platforms to build in an increasing number of features into what it does.

The Series A round of funding has four lead investors — Valor Capital Group, Greycroft, Monashees, and NEA — with e.ventures, Graphene Ventures, ONEVC, and DGF also participating. The Porto Alegre, Brazil-based startup (which is incorporated in Delaware) has now raised $27 million to date.

Rocket.Chat is not disclosing its valuation with this round, but it comes on the back of some significant growth in the last year. The startup now has 16 million registered users across 150 countries, with 8 million of them monthly active users. Of that 16 million, 11.3 million users registered for the service in the past six months. It’s currently installed on some 845,000 servers, the company said, and has over 1,500 developers building on its platform.

Rocket.Chat’s funding and expanding business comes as part of a bigger focus overall for open source platforms.

The promise of open source in the world of enterprise IT has been that it provides a platform to customise a service to fit with how the organization in question wants to use it, while at the same time providing tools to make sure it is robust enough in terms of security, extensibility and more for use in a business environment.

Over the years, it has become a big business opportunity, in line with organizations getting more sophisticated in terms of what they expect and need out of their IT services, where off-the-shelf apps may not always fit the bill.

Rocket.Chat positions itself as something of an all-in-one superstore for any and all communications needs, with organizations putting their own services together in whatever way works for their purposes.

It can either be hosted and managed by customers themselves, or used as a cloud-based SaaS, with its pricing ranging between free (for minimal, self-hosted services) through to $4 per user per month, or higher, depending on which services customers want to have, whether its hosted or not, and how much the platform is being used each month.

As you can see in the mock-up here, its basic platform looks a little like Slack. But if you are using it for omnichannel communications for customer service, for example, you can build a platform within Rocket.Chat where you incorporate communications from any other platforms that might use to communicate with customers.

Its work collaboration platform also starts with Rocket.Chat’s basic chat interface, but also allows you integrate alerts and links to other apps that you regularly use, as well a video calls and more. These and other functions built on Rocket.Chat can then be made to interact with each other — for example handing tickets off in customer service to internal tech support teams — or separately.

The idea is that by providing a version that can be hosted and managed by organizations themselves, it gives them more privacy and control over their electronic messaging.

Its thousands of customers reflect an interesting mix of the kinds of organizations that are looking for solutions that do just that.

Gabriel Engel, the CEO and founder, tells me the list includes several military and public sector organizations including the U.S. Navy, financial services companies like Credit Suisse and Citibank, as well as the likes of Cornell, Arizona State, UC Irvine, Bielefeld University and other educational institutions, and a number of other private companies. 

That flexibility does not always play to Rocket.Chat’s advantage, however. Controversially, it seems that the list also includes the other end of the spectrum of organizations that want to keep their messages limited to a very specific audience: Islamic State it turns out also hosts and runs a Rocket.Chat to disseminate messages.

Engel says that while this is not something that the company supports, and that it works with authorities to shut down users like these as much as it can, it’s a consequence of how the service was built:

“We are not able to track usage if they are running Rocket.Chat servers of their own,” he said. “There’s a reason why the U.S. Navy uses Rocket.Chat. And that’s because we cannot track and know what they’re doing. It’s isolated from any external influence, for better or worse.” He added that the company has policies so that if an illicit organization is using its SaaS version, these get taken down in cooperation with authorities. “But just as with Linux, if you download and run Rocket.Chat on your own computer, then obviously we it’s out of our reach.”

Hearing about how a platform built with privacy by design can be abused, with seemingly little to be done about it, does seem to offset some of the benefits. The ethics of that predicament, and whether technology can ever solve it, or whether it will be up to government authorities to address, will continue to be a question not just for Rocket.Chat but for all of us.

In the meantime, investors are interested because of the alternative it provides to those groups that need it.

“In today’s environment, organizations must have a secure communication platform to engage teams internally, communicate with customers and partners externally, and connect with safe interest-based communities,” said Dylan Pearce, Partner at Greycroft, in a statement. “Rocket.Chat’s world-class management team and open-source community lead the industry in innovation and provide a communications platform capable of serving every person on the planet.” 


By Ingrid Lunden

Salesforce buys Slack in a $27.7B megadeal

Salesforce, the CRM powerhouse that recently surpassed $20 billion in annual revenue, announced today it is wading deeper into enterprise social by acquiring Slack in a $27.7 billion megadeal. Rumors of a pending deal surfaced last week, causing Slack’s stock price to spike.

Salesforce co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff didn’t mince words on his latest purchase. “This is a match made in heaven. Together, Salesforce and Slack will shape the future of enterprise software and transform the way everyone works in the all-digital, work-from-anywhere world,” Benioff said in a statement.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield was no less effusive than his future boss. “As software plays a more and more critical role in the performance of every organization, we share a vision of reduced complexity, increased power and flexibility, and ultimately a greater degree of alignment and organizational agility. Personally, I believe this is the most strategic combination in the history of software, and I can’t wait to get going,” Butterfield said in a statement.

Every worker at every company needs to communicate, something that Slack can ably empower. What’s more, it also facilitates external communication with customers and partners, something that should be quite useful for a company like Salesforce and its family of offerings.

Ultimately, Slack was ripe for the taking. Entering 2020 it had lost around 40% of its value since it went public. Consider that after its most recent earnings report, the company lost 16% of its value, and before the Salesforce deal leaked, the company was worth only a few dollars per share more than its direct listing reference price. Toss in net losses of $147.6 million during the two quarters ending July 31, 2020, Slack’s uninspiring public valuation and its winding path to profitability and it was a sitting target for a takeover like this one. The only surprise here is the price.

Slack’s current valuation, according to both Yahoo and Google Finance is just over $25 billion, which given its very modest price change after-hours means that the market priced the company somewhat effectively. Slack is up around 48% from its valuation that preceded the deal becoming known.

The new deal also puts Salesforce more on par — and in competition — with its arch rival and sometime friend Microsoft, whose Teams product has been directly challenging Slack in the market. Microsoft, which passed on buying Slack in the past for a fraction of what Salesforce is paying today, has made Teams a key priority in recent quarters, loathe to cede any portion of the enterprise software market to another company.

What really has set Slack apart from the pack, at least initially, was its ability to integrate with other enterprise software. When you combined that with bots, those intelligent digital helpers, the company could potentially provide Salesforce customers with a central place to work without changing focus because everything they need to do can be done in Slack.

The company’s historic growth helped Slack raise over $1 billion while private, earning an impressive $7 billion valuation before going public last year. But while the Glitch-to-unicorn story appears simple, Slack has always faced entrenched competition from the likes of not only Microsoft, but also Cisco, Facebook, Google and even Asana and Monday.com.

Today’s deal comes after Salesforce’s purchase of Quip in 2016 for $750 million. Quip brought a way of socially sharing documents to the SaaS giant, and when paired with the Slack acquisition gives Salesforce a much more robust social story to tell than its internal option Chatter, an early attempt at enterprise social that never really caught on.

It’s worth noting that Salesforce was interested in Twitter in 2016, the same year that Microsoft was reportedly interested in Slack, but eventually walked away from that deal when shareholders objected, not wanting to deal with the controversial side of the social platform.

Slack was founded in 2013, but its origins go back to an online multiplayer game company called Glitch that was founded in 2009. While the game was ultimately a failure, the startup developed an internal messaging system in the process of building that company that later evolved into Slack.

For Slack, the path to the public markets was fraught with hype and outsized expectation. The company was famous, or as famous as an enterprise software company can be. At the time it felt like the its debut was the start of a long tenure as an indie company. Instead, that public life has been cut short by a huge check. Such is the dog-eat-dog world of tech.


By Ron Miller

Facebook adds hosting, shopping features, and pricing tiers to WhatsApp Business

Facebook has been making a big play to be a go-to partner for small and medium businesses that use the internet to interface with the wider world, and its messaging platform WhatsApp, with some 50 million businesses and 175 million people messaging them (and more than 2 billion users overall), has been a central part of that pitch.

Now, the company is making three big additions to WhatsApp to fill out that proposition.

It’s launching a way to shop for and pay for goods and services in WhatsApp chats; it’s going head to head with the hosting providers of the world with a new product called Facebook Hosting Services to host businesses’ online assets and activity; and — in line with its expanding product range — Facebook said it will finally start to charge companies using WhatsApp for Business.

Facebook announced the news in a short blog post light on details. We have reached out to the company for more information on pricing, availability of the services, and whether Facebook will provide hosting itself or work with third parties, and we will update this post as we learn more.

Here is what we know for now:

In-chat Shopping. Companies are already using WhatsApp to present product information and initiate discussions for transactions. One of the more recent developments in that area was the addition of QR codes and the ability to share catalog links in chats, added in July. At the same time, Facebook has been expanding the ways that businesses can display what they are selling on Facebook and Instagram, most recently with the launch in August of Facebook Shop, following a similar product roll out on Instagram before that.

Today’s move sounds like a new way for businesses in turn to use WhatsApp both to link through to those Facebook-native catalogs, as well as other products, and then purchase items, while still staying in the chat.

At the same time, Facebook will be making it possible for merchants to add “buy” buttons in other places that will take shoppers to WhatsApp chats to complete the purchase. “We also want to make it easier for businesses to integrate these features into their existing commerce and customer solutions,” it notes. “This will help many small businesses who have been most impacted in this time.”

Although Facebook is not calling this WhatsApp Pay, it seems that this is the next step ahead for the company’s ambitions to bring payments into the chat flow of its messaging app. That has been a long and winding road for the company, which finally launched WhatsApp Payments, using Facebook Pay, in Brazil, in June of this year only to have it shut down by regulators for failing to meet their requirements. (The plan has been to expand it to India, Indonesia and Mexico next.)

Facebook Hosting Services: Thse will be available in the coming months, but no specific date to share right now. “We’re sharing our plans now while we work with our partners to make these services available,” the company said in a statement to TechCrunch.

No! This is not about Facebook taking on AWS. Or… not yet at least? The idea here appears that it is specifically aimed at selling hosting services to the kind of SMBs who already use Facebook and WhatsApp messaging, who either already use hosting services for their online assets, whether that be their online stores or other things, or are finding themselves now needing to for the first time, now that business is all about being “online.”

“Today, all businesses using our API are using either an on-premise solution or leverage a solutions provider, both of which require costly servers to maintain,” Facebook said. “With this change, businesses will be able to choose to use Facebook’s own secure hosting infrastructure for free, which helps remove a costly item for every company that wants to use the WhatsApp Business API, including our business service providers, and will help them all save money.” It added that it will share more info about where data will be hosted closer to launch.

This is a very interesting move, since the SMB hosting market is pretty fragmented with a number of companies, including the likes of GoDaddy, Dream Host, HostGator, BlueHost and many others also offering these services. That fragmentation spells opportunity for a huge company like Facebook with a global profile, a burgeoning amount of connections through to other online services for these SMBs, and a pretty extensive network of data centers around the world that it’s built for itself and can now use to provide services to others — which is, indeed, a pretty strong parallel with how Amazon and AWS have done business.

Facebook already has an “app store” of sorts of partners it works with to provide marketing and related services to businesses using its platform. It looks like it plans to expand this, and will sell the hosting alongside all of that, with the kicker that hosting natively on Facebook will speed up how everything works.

“Providing this option will make it easier for small and medium size businesses to get started, sell products, keep their inventory up to date, and quickly respond to messages they receive – wherever their employees are,” it notes.

Charging tiers: As you would expect, to encourage more adoption, Facebook has not been charging for WhatsApp Business up to now, but it has charged for some WhatsApp business messages — for example when businesses send a boarding pass or e-commerce receipt to a customer over Facebook’s rails. (These prices vary and a list of them is published here.) Now, with more services coming into the mix, and businesses tying their fates more strongly to how well they are performing on Facebook’s platforms, it’s not surprise to see Facebook converting that into a pay to play scenario.

“What we’ve heard over the past couple years is how the conversational nature of business messaging is really valuable to people. So in the future we may look at ways to update how we charge businesses that better reflect how it’s used,” the company told us. Important to note that this will relate to how businesses send messages. “As always, it’s free for people to send a business a message,” Facebook added.

Frustratingly, there seems so far to be no detail on which services will be charged, nor how much, nor when, so this is more of a warning than a new requirement.

“We will charge business customers for some of the services we offer, which will help WhatsApp continue building a business of our own while we provide and expand free end-to-end encrypted text, video and voice calling for more than two billion people,” it notes.

For those who might find that annoying, on the plus side, for those who are concerned about an ever-encroaching data monster, it will, at the least, help WhatsApp and Facebook continue to stick to its age-old commitment to stay away from advertising as a business model.

Doubling-down on SMBs

The new services come at a time when Facebook is doubling down on providing services for businesses, spurred in no small part by the coronavirus pandemic, which has driven physical retailers and others to close their actual doors, shifting their focus to using the internet and mobile services to connect with and sell to customers.

Citing that very trend, last month the company’s COO Sheryl Sandberg announced the Facebook Business Suite, bringing together all of the tools it has been building for companies to better leverage Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp profiles both to advertise themselves as well as communicate with and sell to customers. And the fact that Sandberg was leading the announcement says something about how Facebook is prioritizing this: it’s striking while the iron is hot with companies using its platform, but it sees/hopes that business services can a key way to diversify its business model while also helping buffer it — since many businesses building Pages may also advertise.

Facebook has also been building more functionality across Facebook and Instagram specifically aimed at helping power users and businesses leverage the two in a more efficient way. Adding in more tools to WhatsApp is the natural progression of all of this.

To be sure, as we pointed out earlier this year, even while there is a lot of very informal use of WhatsApp by businesses all around the world, WhatsApp Business remains a fairly small product, most popular in India and Brazil. Facebook launching more tools for how to use it will potentially drive more business not just in those markets but help the company convert more businesses to using it in other places, too.

Smaller businesses have been on Facebook’s radar for a while now. Even before the pandemic hit, in many cases retailers or restaurants do not have websites of their own, opting for a Facebook Page or Instagram Profile as their URL and primary online interface with the world; and even when they do have standalone sites, they are more likely to update people and spread the word about what they are doing on social media than via their own URLs.

Facebook’s also made a video to help demonstrate how it sees these WhatsApp Business in action, which you can here:


By Ingrid Lunden

Just what would an enterprise company like Microsoft or Oracle do with TikTok?

By now you’ve probably heard that under pressure from the current administration, TikTok owner ByteDance is putting the viral video service up for sale, and surprisingly a couple of big name enterprise companies are interested. These organizations are better known for the kind of tech that would bore the average TikTok user to tears. Yet, stories have persisted that Microsoft and even Oracle are sniffing around the video social network.

As TechCrunch’s Danny Crichton pointed out last week, bankers involved in the sale have a lot of motivation to leak rumors to the press to drive up the price of TikTok. That means none of this might be true, yet the rumors aren’t going away. It begs the question why would a company like Oracle or Microsoft be interested in a property like TikTok?

For starters, Oracle is a lot more than the database company it was known for in the past. These days, it has its fingers in many, many pies including marketing automation and cloud infrastructure services. In April, as the pandemic was just beginning to heat up, Zoom surprised just about everyone when it announced a partnership with Oracle’s cloud arm.

Oracle isn’t really even on the board when it comes to cloud infrastructure market share, where it is well behind rivals AWS, Microsoft, Google, Alibaba and IBM, wallowing somewhere in single digit market share. Oracle wants to be a bigger player.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has successfully transitioned to the cloud as well as any company, but still remains far behind AWS in the cloud infrastructure market. It wants to close the gap with AWS and owning TikTok could get it closer to that goal faster.

Simply put, says Holger Mueller, an analyst at Constellation Research, if Oracle combined Zoom and TikTok, it could have itself a couple of nice anchor clients. Yes, like the proverbial mall trying to attract Target and Nordstrom, apparently Oracle wants to do the same with its cloud service, and if it has to buy the tenant, so be it.

“TikTok will add plenty of load to their infrastructure service. That’s what matters to them with viral loads preferred. If Microsoft gets TikTok it could boost their usage by between 2% and 5%, while for Oracle it could be as much 10%,” he said. He says the difference is that Oracle has a much smaller user base now, so it would relatively boost its usage all the more.

As Mueller points out with the government helping push TikTok’s owner to make the sale, it’s a huge opportunity for a company like Oracle or Microsoft, and why the rumors have weight. “It’s very plausible from a cloud business perspective, and plausible from a business opportunity perspective created by the US government,” he said.

While it could make sense to attract a large user base to your systems to drive up usage and market share in that way, Brent Leary, founder and principal analyst at CRM Essentials, says that just by having a large U.S. tech company buy the video app, it could make it less attractive to the very users Microsoft or Oracle is hoping to capture.

“An old guard enterprise tech company buying Tiktok would likely lessen the appeal of current users. Younger people are already leaving Facebook because the old folks have taken it over,” Leary said. And that could mean young users, who are boosting the platform’s stats today could jump ship to whatever is the next big social phenomenon.

It’s worth pointing out that just today, the president indicated support for Oracle, according to a Wall Street Journal report. The publication also reported that Oracle’s billionaire owner Larry Ellison is a big supporter of the president, having thrown him a fundraiser for his reelection bid at his house earlier this year. Oracle CEO Safra Catz also has ties to the administration, having served on the transition team in 2016.

It’s unclear whether these companies have a genuine interest, but the general feeling is someone is going to buy the service, and whoever does could get a big boost in users simply by using some percentage of their cash hordes to get there. By the way, another company with reported interest is Twitter. Certainly putting the two social platforms together could create a mega platform to compete more directly with Facebook.

You might see other big names trying to boost cloud infrastructure usage like IBM or Google enter the fray.  Perhaps even Amazon could make an offer to cement its lead, although if the deal has to go through the federal government, that makes it less likely given the tense relationship between Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and the president that surfaced during the Pentagon JEDI cloud contract drama.

Apple has already indicated that in spite of having the largest cash on hand of any company with over $193 billion, give or take, it apparently isn’t interested.  Apple may not be, but somebody surely is, even some companies you couldn’t imagine owning a property like this.


By Ron Miller

WhatsApp Business, now with 50m MAUs, adds QR codes and catalog sharing

The global COVID-19 health pandemic has raised the stakes for businesses when it comes to using digital channels to connect with customers, and today WhatsApp unveiled its latest tools to help businesses use its platform to do just that.

The Facebook-owned messaging behemoth is expanding the reach and use of QR codes to let customers easily connect with businesses on the platform, providing them also with a series of stickers (pictured below) to kick off “we’re open for business” campaigns; and it’s made it possible for businesses to start sharing WhatsApp-based catalogs — dynamic lists of items that can in turn be ordered by users — as links outside of the WhatsApp platform itself.

The new launches come at WhatsApp’s business efforts pass some significant milestones.

WhatsApps’ profile as a formal platform for doing business is growing, albeit slowly. The WhatsApp Business app — used by merchants to interface with customers over WhatsApp and use the platform to market themselves — now has 50 million monthly active users, with its two biggest markets for the service India at over 15 million MAUs and Brazil at over 5 million MAUs. Catalogs specifically has 40 million users.

On the other hand, WhatsApp has hit some stumbling blocks with features it’s tried to put into place to grow those numbers faster and boost usage among businesses.

Specifically, last month WhatsApp launched payments in Brazil, its first market, aimed not just at users sending each other money but merchants selling goods and services over the platform. But just nine days later, Brazilian regulators blocked the service over competition concerns, and it has yet to be restored pending further review. (India, which many had thought would be the first market for payments, is now part of a bigger global roadmap for rolling out payments.)

To put WhatsApp Business app’s usage numbers into some context, WhatsApp itself passed 2 billion users in February of this year. In that regard, hitting 50 million MAUs of the WhatsApp business app in the two years since it’s launched doesn’t sound like a whole lot (and in particular considering that it has competitors like Google offering payment services to merchants). Still, there has always been a lot of informal usage of the app, especially by smaller merchants, and that speaks to monetising potential if they can be lured into more of WhatsApps’ — and Facebook’s — products.

All the more reason that Facebook is expanding other features to make WhatsApp more useful for businesses, and especially smaller businesses — capitalising on a moment when many of them are turning to numerous digital channels (some for the first time ever) like social media, messaging services, websites and third-party delivery platforms to get their products and services out to the masses, in a period when visiting physical storefronts has been severely curtailed because of the health pandemic.

QR codes got a little boost last week from WhatsApp on the consumer side, with the company introducing a way for contacts to swap details for the first time by sharing codes rather than manually entering phone numbers — not unlike Snap Codes and shortcuts for adding contacts created on other social apps. That is now getting the business treatment.

Now, if you need to reach a business for customer support, to ask a question or order something, instead of manually entering a business phone number, you can scan a QR code from a receipt, a business display at the storefront, a product, or even posted on the web, in order to connect with the company. Businesses that are using these can also set up welcome messages to start conversations once they’ve been added by a user. (They will have to use the WhatsApp Business app or the WhatsApp Business API to do this, of course.)

The catalog sharing feature, meanwhile, is an expansion on a feature that the company first launched in November 2019, which will now allow businesses to create and share links to their catalogs to post elsewhere. To be frank, the lack of ability to share catalogs at launch felt like a feature omission, considering that businesses often use multiple channels to market themselves, although it might have been an intentional move: there has long been questions about how tight links are between Facebook and WhatsApp, so slowly introducing features that share and cross-market from the start might be the preferred route for the company.

The idea now will be the those links can now be shared on Facebook, Instagram and other places.

Although all of these services, and WhatsApp Business remain free to use, they continue to lay the groundwork for how Facebook might monetise the features in the future, not least through payments but also through stronger pushes to advertise on Facebook, now with more ways of linking a company’s WhatsApp profile to those ads.


By Ingrid Lunden

LinkedIn ads polls and live video-based events in a focus on more virtual engagement

With a large part of the working world doing jobs from home when possible these days, the focus right now is on how best to recreate the atmosphere of an office virtually, and how to replicate online essential work that used to be done in person. Today, LinkedIn announced a couple of big new feature updates that point to how it’s trying to play a part in both of these: it’s launching a new Polls feature for users to canvas opinions and get feedback; and it’s launching a new “LinkedIn Virtual Events” tool that lets people create and broadcast video events via its platform.

Despite now being owned by Microsoft, interestingly it doesn’t seem that the Virtual Events service taps into Teams or Skype, Microsoft’s two other big video products that it has been pushing hard at a time when use of video streaming for work, education and play is going through the roof.

The polls feature — you can see an example of one in the picture below, or respond to that specific poll here — is a quick-fire and low-bar way of asking a question and encouraging engagement: LinkedIn says that a poll takes only about 30 seconds to put together, and responding doesn’t require thinking of something to write, but gives the respondent more of a ‘voice’ than he or she would get just by providing a “like” or other reaction.

But as with some of the other social features that LinkedIn has implemented over the years, its timing has not been quite right. With polls, you might say it’s been frustratingly late… or you might say it left the party too early.

The feature was first spotted by developer and app digger Jane Manchun Wong a couple of weeks ago, but it comes years after Twitter and Facebook have had polls in place on their platforms. I’d say it’s taken LinkedIn years to catch up, but actually it had polls in place years ago, yet chose to sunset the feature, back in 2014.

You could argue that LinkedIn miscalled the direction that social would go with engagement, or that it took too long to resuscitate the experience, or that the novelty of the concept that now worn off. Or you might say that LinkedIn has picked just the right time to bring it back, at a time when people are spending more time online than ever and are looking for more ways of varying the experience and interacting.

Two important distinctions as you can see above, however, are that you are polling a very specific audience of people in your professional circle, and those people can both respond to the poll but also include comments and reactions. Both of these set the feature as it works on LinkedIn apart from the others and should give it some… engagement.

The polls feature is getting rolled out (again) starting today.

The LinkedIn Virtual Events feature, meanwhile, falls into a similar placement as polls: it’s a way of getting people to engage more on LinkedIn, it taps into trends that are huge outside of the platform — in this case, videoconferencing — and it’s something that is coming surprisingly late to LinkedIn, given its existing product assets.

But is also potentially going to prove very popular because it’s filling a very specific need.

LinkedIn Virtual Events is a merger of two products that LinkedIn launched last year, a live video broadcasting tool called LinkedIn Live, and its efforts to foster a sideline in offline, in person networking with LinkedIn Events. The idea here is that while physical events have been put on pause in the current climate — many cities have made group activities illegal in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus — you can continue to use LinkedIn Events to plan them, but now carry them out over the Live platform. 

Given how huge the conferencing industry has become, I am guessing that we will be seeing a lot of attempts at recreating something of those events in a virtual, online context. LinkedIn’s take on the challenge — via Virtual Events — could therefore become a strong contender to host these.

When LinkedIn first launched Events I did ask the company whether it planned to expand them online using live, and indeed that did seem to be the plan. LinkedIn now says that it “accelerated” its product roadmap — unsurprising, given the current market — to merge the two products for targeted audiences.

That’s why we accelerated our product roadmap to bring you a tighter integration between LinkedIn Events and LinkedIn Live, turning these two products into a new virtual events solution that enables you to stay connected to your communities and meet your customers wherever they are. This new offering is designed to help you strengthen relationships with more targeted audiences.

This is not a simple integration, I should point out: LinkedIn is working with third-party broadcasting partners — the initial list includes Restream, Wirecast, Streamyard and Socialive — to raise the level of production quality, which will be essential especially if you are asking people to pay for events, and if you have any hope of replicating some of the networking other features that are cornerstones of conferencing and other in-person events.

It’s also building on what has been a successful product so far for LinkedIn: the company says that Live has 23X more comments per post and 6X more reactions per post than simple native video.


By Ingrid Lunden

All product creators can learn something from Jackbox Games’ user experiences

During this period of shelter-in-place, people have had to seek out new forms of entertainment and social interaction. Many have turned to a niche party series made by a company best known for an irreverent trivia game in the ’90s called “You Don’t Know Jack.”

Since 2014, the annual release of the Jackbox Party Pack has delivered 4-5 casual party games that run on desktop, mobile and consoles that can be played in groups as small as two and as large as 10. In a clever twist, players use smartphones as controllers, which is perfect for typing in prompts, selecting options, making drawings, etc.

The games are tons of fun and perfect for playing with friends over video conference, and their popularity has skyrocketed, as indicated by Google Trends. I polled my own Twitter following and found that nearly half of folks had played in the last month, though a full third hadn’t heard of Jackbox at all.

How do these games work?

There are more than 20 unique games across Jackbox Party Packs 1-6, too many to explain — but here are three of the most popular:

  • Fibbage: A twist on the traditional trivia game, players are asked to invent an answer to a question of obscure knowledge (e.g. “a Swedish man who works as a dishwasher receives disability benefits due to his unusual addiction to ____.”) Then all the invented answers are mixed in with the truth and players must select the real answer while avoiding fakes. You earn points for guessing correctly and for tricking other players (the answer is “heavy metal”).


    By Walter Thompson

Replace non-stop Zoom with remote office avatars app Pragli

Could avatars that show what co-workers are up to save work-from-home teams from constant distraction and loneliness? That’s the idea behind Pragli, the Bitmoji for the enterprise. It’s a virtual office app that makes you actually feel like you’re in the same building.

Pragli uses avatars to signal whether co-workers are at their desk, away, in a meeting, in the zone while listening to Spotify, taking a break at a digital virtual watercoooler, or done for the day. From there, you’ll know whether to do a quick ad-hoc audio call, cooperate via screenshare, schedule a deeper video meeting, or a send a chat message they can respond to later. Essentially, it translates the real word presence cues we use to coordinate collaboration into an online workplace for distributed teams.

“What Slack did for email, we want to do for video conferencing” Pragli co-founder Doug Safreno tells me. “Traditional video conferencing is exclusive by design, whereas Pragli is inclusive. Just like in an office, you can see who is talking to who.” That means less time wasted planning meetings, interrupting colleagues who are in flow, or waiting for critical responses. Pragli offers the focus that makes remote work productive with the togetherness that keeps everyone sane and in sync.

The idea is to solve the top three problems that Pragli’s extensive interviews and a Buffer/AngelList study discovered workers hate:

  1. Communication friction
  2. Loneliness
  3. Lack of boundaries boundaries

You never have to worry about whether you’re intruding on someone’s meeting, or if it’d be quicker to hash something out on a call instead of vague text. Avatars give remote workers a sense of identity, while the Pragli watercooler provides a temporary place to socialize rather than an endless Slack flood of GIFs. And since you clock in and out of the Pragli office just like a real one, co-workers understand when you’ll reply quickly versus when you’ll respond tomorrow unless there’s an emergency.

“In Pragli, you log into the office in the morning and there’s a clear sense of when I’m working and when I’m not working. Slack doesn’t give you a strong sense if they’re online or offline” Safreno explains. “Everyone stays online and feels pressured to respond at any time of day.”

Pragli co-founder Doug Safreno

Safreno and his co-founder Vivek Nair know the feeling first-hand. After both graduating in computer science from Stanford, they built StacksWare to help enterprise software customers avoid overpaying by accurately measuring their usage. But when they sold StacksWare to Avi Networks, they spent two years working remotely for the acquirer. The friction and loneliness quickly crept in.

They’d message someone, not hear back for a while, then go back and forth trying to discuss the problem before eventually scheduling a call. Jumping into synchronous communicating would have been much more efficient. “The loneliness was more subtle, but it built up after the first few weeks” Safreno recalls. “We simply didn’t socially bond while working remotely as well as in the office. Being lonely was de-motivating, and it negatively affected our productivity.”

The founders interviewed 100 remote engineers, and discovered that outside of scheduled meetings, they only had one audio or video call with co-workers per week. That convinced them to start Pragli a year ago to give work-from-home teams a visual, virtual facsimile of a real office. With no other full-time employees, the founders built and released a beta of Pragli last year. Usage grew 6X in March and is up 20X since January 1st.

Today Pragli officially launches, and it’s free until June 1st. Then it plans to become freemium with the full experience reserved for companies that pay per user per month. Pragli is also announcing a small pre-seed round today led by K9 Ventures, inspired by the firm’s delight using the product itself.

To get started with Pragi, teammates download the Pragli desktop app and sign in with Google, Microsoft, or Github. User then customize their avatar with a wide range of face, hair, skin, and clothing options. It can use your mouse and keyboard interaction to show if you’re at your desk or not, or use your webcam to translate occasional snapshots of your facial expressions to your avatar. You can also connect your Spotify and calendar to show you’re listening to music (and might be concentrating), reveal or hide details of your meeting, and decide whether people can ask to interrupt your or that you’re totally unavailable.

From there, you can communicate by audio, video, or text with any of your available co-workers. Guests can join conversations via the web and mobile too, though the team is working on a full-fledged app for phones and tablets. Tap on someone and you can instantly talk to them, though their mic stays muted until they respond. Alternatively, you can jump into Slack-esque channels for discussing specific topics or holding recurring meetings. And if you need some downtime, you can hang out in the watercooler or trivia game channel, or set a manual away message.

Pragli has put a remarkable amount of consideration into how the little office social cues about when to interrupt someone translate online, like if someone’s wearing headphones, in a deep convo already, or if they’re chilling in the microkitchen. It’s leagues better than having no idea what someone’s doing on the other side of Slack or what’s going on in a Zoom call. It’s a true virtual office without the clunky VR headset.

“Nothing we’ve tried has delivered the natural, water-cooler-style conversations that we get from Pragli” says Storj Labs VP of engineering JT Olio. “The ability to switch between ‘rooms’ with screen sharing, video, and voice in one app is great. It has really helped us improve transparency across teams. Plus, the avatars are quite charming as well.”

With Microsoft’s lack of social experience, Zoom consumed with its scaling challenges, and Slack doubling down on text as it prioritizes Zoom integration over its own visual communication features, there’s plenty of room for Pragli to flourish. Meanwhile, COVID-19 quarantines are turning the whole world towards remote work, and it’s likely to stick afterwards as companies deemphasize office space and hire more abroad.

The biggest challenge will be making such a broad product encompassing every communication medium and tons of new behaviors comprehensible enough to onboard whole teams. How do you build a product that doesn’t feel distracting like Slack but where people can still have the spontaneous conversations that are so important to companies innovating?” Safreno asks. The Pragli founders are also debating how to encompass mobile without making people feel like the office stalks them after hours.

“Long-term, [Pragli] should be better than being in the office because you don’t actually have to walk around looking for [co-workers], and you get to decide how you’re presented” Safreno concludes. “We won’t quit because we want to work remotely for the rest of our lives.”


By Josh Constine

Zoom will enable waiting rooms by default to stop Zoombombing

Zoom is making some drastic changes to prevent rampant abuse as trolls attack publicly-shared video calls. Starting April 5th, it will require passwords to enter calls via Meeting ID, since these may be guessed or reused. Meanwhile, it will change virtual waiting rooms to be on by default so hosts have to manually admit attendees.

The changes could prevent “Zoombombing”, a term I coined two weeks ago to describe malicious actors entering Zoom calls and disrupting them by screensharing offensive imagery. New Zoombombing tactics have since emerged, like spamming the chat thread with terrible GIFs, using virtual backgrounds to spread hateful messages, or just screaming profanities and slurs. Anonymous forums have now become breeding grounds for organized trolling efforts to raid calls.

Just imagine the most frightened look on all these people’s faces. That’s what happened when Zoombombers attacked the call.

The FBI has issued a warning about the Zoombombing problem after children’s online classes, alcoholics anonymous meetings, and private business calls were invaded by trolls. Security researchers have revealed many ways that attackers can infiltrate a call.

The problems stem from Zoom being designed for trusted enterprise use cases rather than cocktail hours, yoga classes, roundtable discussions, and classes. But with Zoom struggling to scale its infrastructure as its daily user count has shot up from 10 million to 200 million over the past month due to coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, it’s found itself caught off guard.

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan apologized for the security failures this week and vowed changes. But at the time, the company merely said it would default to making screensharing host-only and keeping waiting rooms on for its K-12 education users. Clearly it determined that wasn’t sufficient, so now waiting rooms are on by default for everyone.

Zoom communicated the changes to users via an email sent this afternoon that explains “we’ve chosen to enable passwords on your meetings and turn on Waiting Rooms by default as additional security enhancements to protect your privacy.”

The company also explained that “For meetings scheduled moving forward, the meeting password can be found in the invitation. For instant meetings, the password will be displayed in the Zoom client. The password can also be found in the meeting join URL.” Some other precautions users can take include disabling file transfer, screensharing, or rejoining by removed attendees.

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 18: Zoom founder Eric Yuan reacts at the Nasdaq opening bell ceremony on April 18, 2019 in New York City. The video-conferencing software company announced it’s IPO priced at $36 per share, at an estimated value of $9.2 billion. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

The shift could cause some hassle for users. Hosts will be distracted by having to approve attendees out of the waiting room while they’re trying to lead calls. Zoom recommends users resend invites with passwords attached for Meeting ID-based calls scheduled for after April 5th. Scrambling to find passwords could make people late to calls.

But that’s a reasonable price to pay to keep people from being scarred by Zoombombing attacks. The rash of trolling threatened to sour many people’s early experiences with the video chat platform just as it’s been having its breakout moment. A single call marred by disturbing pornography can leave a stronger impression than 100 peaceful ones with friends and colleagues. The old settings made sense when it was merely an enterprise product, but it needed to embrace its own change of identity as it becomes a fundamental utility for everyone.

Technologists will need to grow better at anticipating worst-case scenarios as their products go mainstream and are adapted to new use cases. Assuming everyone will have the best intentions ignores the reality of human nature. There’s always someone looking to generate a profit, score power, or cause chaos from even the smallest opportunity. Building development teams that include skeptics and realists, rather than just visionary idealists, could keep ensure products get safeguarded from abuse before rather than after a scandal occurs.


By Josh Constine

Control each other’s apps with new screensharing tool Screen

It’s like Google Docs for everything. Screen is a free interactive multiplayer screensharing app that gives everyone a cursor so they can navigate, draw on, and even code within the apps of their co-workers while voice or video chatting. Screen makes it easy and fun to co-design content, pair program, code review or debug together, or get feedback from a teacher.

Jahanzeb Sherwani sold his last screensharing tool ScreenHero to Slack, but it never performed as well crammed inside the messaging app. Five years later, he’s accelerated the launch of Screen to today and made it free to help all the teams stuck working from home amidst coronavirus shelter-in-place orders. 

Sherwani claims that Screen is “2x-5x faster than other screen sharing tools, and has between 30ms-50ms end-to-end latency. Most other screen sharing tools have between 100ms-150ms.”

For being built by just a two-person team, Screen has a remarkable breadth of features that are all responsive and intuitive.

A few things you can do with Screen:

  • Share your screen from desktop on Mac, Windows and Linux while chatting over audio or video calling in a little overlaid window, or join a call and watch from your browser or mobile
  • Use your cursor on someone else’s shared screen so you can control or type anything just like it was your computer
  • Overlay drawing on the screenshare so you can annotate things like “this is misspelled” or “move this there”, with doodles fading away after a few second unless your hold down your mouse or turn on caps lock
  • Post ephemeral text comments so you can collaborate even if you have to be quiet
  • Launch Screen meetings from Slack and schedule them Google Calendar integration
  • Share invite links with anyone with no need to log in or be at the same company, just be careful who you let control your Screen

Normally Screen is free for joining meetings, $10 per month to host them, and $20 per person per month for enterprise teams. But Sherwani writes that for now it’s free to host too “so you can stay healthy & productive during the coronavirus outbreak.” If you can afford to pay, you should though as “We’re trying this as an experiment in the hope that the number of paid users is sufficient to pay for our running costs to help us stay break-even.”

Sherwani’s new creation could become an acquisition target for video call giants like Zoom, but he might not be so willing to sell this time around. Founded in 2013, Screenhero was incredibly powerful for its time, offering some of the collaboration tools now in Screen. But after it was acquired by Slack after raising just $1.8 million, Screenhero never got the integration it deserved.

“We finally shipped interactive screen sharing almost three years later, but it wasn’t as performant as Screenhero, and was eventually removed in 2019” Sherwani writes. “Given that it was used by a tiny fraction of Slack’s user-base, and had a high maintenance cost, this was the correct decision for Slack.” Still, he explains why a company like Screen is better off independent. “Embedding one complex piece of software in another imposes a lot more constraints, which makes it more expensive to build. It’s far easier to have a standalone app that just does one thing well.”

Screen actually does a lot of things well. I tried it with my wife, and the low latency and extensive flexibility made it downright delightful to try co-writing this article. It’s easy to imagine all sorts of social use cases springing up if teens get ahold of Screen. The whole concept of screensharing is getting popularized by apps like Squad and Instagram’s new Co-Watching feature that launched today.

The new Co-Watching feature is like screensharing just for Instagram

Eventually, Screen wants to launch a virtual office feature so you can just instantly pull co-workers into meetings. That could make it feel a lot more like collaborating in the same room with someone, where you can start a conversation at any time. Screen could also democratize the remote work landscape by shifting meetings from top-down broadcasts by managers to jam sessions where everyone has a say.

Sherwani concludes, “When working together, everyone needs to have a seat at the table”.


By Josh Constine

Around is the new floating head video chat multitasking app

You have to actually get work done, not just video call all day, but apps like Zoom want to take over your screen. Remote workers who need to stay in touch while staying productive are forced to juggle tabs. Meanwhile, call participants often look and sound far away, dwarfed by their background and drowned in noise.

Today, Around launches its new video chat software that crops participants down to just circles that float on your screen so you have space for other apps. Designed for laptops, Around uses auto-zoom and noise cancelling to keep your face and voice in focus. Instead of crowding around one computer or piling into a big-screen conference room, up to 15 people can call from their own laptop without echo — even from right next to each other.

“Traditional videoconferencing tries to maximize visual presence. But too much presence gets in the way of your work,” says Around CEO Dominik Zane. “People want to make eye contact. They want to connect. But they also want to get stuff done. Around treats video as the means to an end, not the end in itself.”

Around becomes available today by request in invite-only beta for Mac, windows, Linux, and web. It’s been in private beta since last summer, but now users can sign up here for early access to Around. The freemium model means anyone can slide the app into their stack without paying at first.

After two years in stealth, Around’s 12-person distributed team reveals that it’s raised $5.2 million in seed funding over multiple rounds from Floodgate, Initialized Capital, Credo Ventures, AngelList’s Naval Ravikant, Product Hunt’s Ryan Hoover, Crashlytics’ Jeff Seibert, and angel Tommy Leep. The plan is to invest in talent and infrastructure to keep video calls snappy.

Not Just A Picturephone

Around CEO Dominik Zane

Around was born out of frustration with remote work collaboration. Zane and fellow Around co-founder Pavel Serbajlo had built mobile marketing company M.dot that was acquired by GoDaddy by using a fully distributed team. But they discovered that Zoom was “built around decades-old assumptions of what a video call should be” says Zane. “A Zoom video call is basically a telephone connected to a video camera. In terms of design, it’s not much different from the original Picturephone demoed at the 1964 World’s Fair.”

So together, they started Around as a video chat app that slips into the background rather than dominating the foreground. “We stripped out every unnecessary pixel by building a real-time panning and zooming technology that automatically keeps callers’ faces–and only their faces–in view at all times” Zane explains. It’s basically Facebook Messenger’s old Chat Heads design, but for the desktop enterprise.

Calls start with a shared link or /Around Slack command. You’re never unexpectedly dumped into a call, so you can stay on task. Since participants are closely cropped to their faces and not blown up full screen, they don’t have to worry about cleaning their workspace or exactly how their hair looks. That reduces the divide between work-from-homers and those in the office.

As for technology, Around’s “EchoTerminator” uses ultrasonic audio to detect nearby laptops and synchronization to eliminate those strange feedback sounds. Around also employs artificial intelligence and the fast CPUs of modern laptops to suppress noise like sirens, dog barks, washing machines, or screaming children. A browser version means you don’t have to wait for people to download anything, and visual emotes like “Cool idea” pop up below people’s faces so they don’t have to interrupt the speaker.

Traditional video chat vs Around

“Around is what you get when you rethink video chat for a 21st-century audience, with 21st-century technology,” says Initialized co-founder and general partner Garry Tan. “Around has cracked an incredibly difficult problem, integrating video into the way people actually work today. It makes other video-call products feel clumsy by comparison.”

There’s one big thing missing from Around: mobile. Since it’s meant for multitasking, it’s desktop/laptop only. But that orthodoxy ignores the fact that a team member on the go might still want to chime in on chats, even with just audio. Mobile apps are on the roadmap, though, with plans to allow direct dial-in and live transitioning from laptop to mobile. The 15-participant limit also prevents Around from working for all-hands meetings.

Competing with video calling giant Zoom will be a serious challenge. Nearly a decade of perfecting its technology gives Zoom super low latency so people don’t talk over each other. Around will have to hope that its smaller windows let it keep delays down. There’s also other multitask video apps like Loom’s asynchronously-recorded video clips that prevent distraction.

With coronavirus putting a new emphasis on video technology for tons of companies, finding great engineers could be difficult. “Talent is scarce, and good video is hard tech. Video products are on the rise. Google and large companies snag all the talent, plus they have the ability and scale to train audio-video professionals at universities in northern Europe” Zane tells me. “Talent wars are the biggest risk and obstacle for all real-time video companies.”

But that rise also means there are tons of people fed up with having to stop work to video chat, kids and pets wandering into their calls, and constantly yelling at co-workers to “mute your damn mic!” If ever there was a perfect time to launch Around, it’s now.

“Eight years ago we were a team of locals and immigrants, traveling frequently, moving between locations and offices” Zane recalls. “We realized that this was the future of work and it’s going to be one of the most significant transformations of modern society over the next 30 years . . . We’re building the product we’ve wanted for ourselves.”

One of the best things about working remotely is you don’t have colleagues randomly bugging you about superfluous nonsense. But the heaviness of traditional video chat swings things too far in the other direction. You’re isolated unless you want to make a big deal out of scheduling a call. We need presence and connection, but also the space to remain in flow. We don’t want to be away or on top of each other. We want to be around.


By Josh Constine

Slack introduces simplified interface as usage moves deeper into companies

When Slack first launched in 2013, the product was quickly embraced by developers, and the early product reflected that. To get at advanced tools, you used a slash (/) command, but the company recognizes that as it moves deeper into the enterprise, it needed to simplify the interface.

Today, the company introduced a newly designed interface aimed at easing the user experience, making Slack more of an accessible enterprise communications hub.

Jaime DeLanghe, director of product management at Slack, says that the messaging application has become a central place for people to communicate about work, which has grown even more important as many of us have begun working from home as a result of COVID-19.

But DeLanghe says usage was up even before the recent work from home trend began taking off. “People are connected to Slack, on average, about nine hours a day and they’re using Slack actively for almost 90 minutes,” she told TechCrunch.

To that end, she says her team has been working hard to update the interface.

“From my team’s perspective, we want to make sure that the experience is as simple to understand and get on-boarded as possible,” she said. That also means surfacing more advanced tooling, which has been hidden behind those slash commands in previous versions of the tool.

She said that the company has been trying to address the needs of the changing audience over the years by adding many new features, but admits that has resulted in some interface clutter. Today’s redesign is meant to address that.

New Slack interface. Screenshot: Slack

Among the new features, besides the overall cleaner look, many people will welcome the new ability to nest channels to organize them better in the Channel sidebar. As your channels proliferate, it becomes harder to navigate them all. Starting today, users can organize their channels into logical groupings with labels.

New nested channel labels in Slack. Screenshot: Slack

DeLanghe is careful to point out that this channel organization is personal, and cannot be done at an administrative level. “The channels don’t actually live inside of another channel. You’re creating a label for them, so that you can organize them in the sidebar for just yourself, not for everybody,” she explained.

Other new features include an improved navigation bar at the top of the window, a centralized search and help tool also located at the top of the window and a universal compose button in the Sidebar.

All of these new features are designed to help make Slack more accessible to users, as more employees start using it across an organization.


By Ron Miller