Turbo Systems hires former Looker CMO Jen Grant as CEO

Turbo Systems, a three-year old, no-code mobile app startup, announced today it has brought on industry veteran Jen Grant to be CEO.

Grant, who was previously vice president of marketing at Box and chief marketing officer at Elastic and Looker, brings more than 15 years of tech company experience to the young startup.

She says that when Looker got acquired by Google last June for $2.6 billion, she began looking for her next opportunity. She had done a stint with Google as a product manager earlier in her career and was looking for something new.

She saw Looker as a model for the kind of company she wanted to join, one that had a founder focused on product and engineering, who hired an outside CEO early on to run the business, as Looker had done. She found that in Turbo where founder Hari Subramanian was taking on that type of role. Subramanian was also a successful entrepreneur, having previously founded ServiceMax before selling it to GE in 2016.

“The first thing that really drew me to Turbo was this partnership with Hari,” Grant told TechCrunch. While that relationship was a key component for her, she says even with that, before she decided to join, she spoke to customers and she saw an enthusiasm there that drew her to the company.

“I love products that actually help people. And so Box is helping people collaborate and share files and work together. Looker is about getting data to everyone in the organization so that everyone could be making great decisions, and at Turbo we’re making it easy for anyone to create a mobile app that helps run their business,” she said.

Grant has been on the job for just 30 days, joining the company in the middle of a global pandemic. So it’s even more challenging than the typical early days for any new CEO, but she is looking forward and trying to help her 36 employees navigate this situation.

“You know, I didn’t know that this is what would happen in my first 30 days, but what inspires me, what’s a big part of it is that I can help by growing this company, by being successful and by being able to hire more and more people, and contribute to getting our economy back on track,” Grant said.

She also recognizes that there is a lack of diversity in her new CEO role, and she hopes to be a role model. “I have been fortunate to get to a position where I know I can do this job and do it well. And it’s my responsibility to do this work, my responsibility to show it can be done and shouldn’t be an anomaly.”

Turbo Systems was founded in 2017 and has raised $8 million, according to Crunchbase. It helps companies build mobile apps without coding, connecting to 140 different data sources such as Salesforce, SAP and Oracle.


By Ron Miller

Tech giants should let startups defer cloud payments

Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are the landlords. Amidst the Coronavirus economic crisis, startups need a break from paying rent. They’re in a cash crunch. Revenue has stopped flowing in, capital markets like venture debt are hesitant, and startups and small-to-medium sized businessesf are at risk of either having to lay off huge numbers of employees and/or shut down.

Meanwhile, the tech giants are cash rich. Their success this decade means they’re able to weather the storm for a few months. Their customers cannot.

Cloud infrastructure costs area amongst many startups’ top expenses besides payroll. The option to pay these cloud bills later could save some from going out of business or axing huge parts of their staff. Both would hurt the tech industry, the economy, and the individuals laid off. But most worryingly for the giants, it could destroy their customer base.

The mass layoffs have already begun. Soon we’re sure to start hearing about sizable companies shutting down, upended by COVID-19. But there’s still an opportunity to stop a larger bloodbath from ensuing.

That’s why I have a proposal: cloud relief.

The platform giants should let startups and small businesses defer their cloud infrastructure payments for three to six months until they can pay them back in installments. Amazon AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, these companies’ additional infrastructure products, and other platform providers should let customers pause payment until the worst of the first wave of the COVID-19 economic disruption passes. Profitable SAAS providers like Salesforce could give customers an extension too.

There are plenty of altruistic reasons to do this. They have the resources to help businesses in need. We all need to support each other in these tough times. This could protect tons of families. Some of these startups are providing important services to the public and even discounting them, thereby ramping up their bills while decreasing revenue.

Then there are the PR reasons. After years of techlash and anti-trust scrutiny, here’s the chance for the giants to prove their size can be beneficial to the world. Recruiters could use it as a talking point. “We’re the company that helped save Silicon Valley.” There’s an explanation for them squirreling away so much cash: the rainy day has finally arrived.

But the capitalistic truth and the story they could sell to Wall Street is that it’s not good for our business if our customers go out of business. Look at what happened to infrastructure providers in the dotcom crash. When tons of startups vaporized, so did the profits for those selling them hosting and tools. Any government stimulus for businesses would be better spent by them paying employees than paying the cloud companies that aren’t in danger. Saving one future Netflix from shutting down could cover any short-term loss from helping 100 other businesses.

This isn’t a handout. These startups will still owe the money. They’d just be able to pay it a little later, spread out over their monthly bills for a year or so. Once mass shelter-in-place orders subside, businesses can operate at least a little closer to normal, and investors get less cautious, customers will have the cash they need to pay their dues. Plus interest if necessary.

Meanwhile, they’ll be locked in and loyal customers for the foreseeable future. Cloud vendors could gate the deferment to only customers that have been with them for X amount of months or that have already spent Y amount on the platform. The vendors could also offer the deferment on the condition that customers add a year or more to their existing contracts. Founders will remember who gave them the benefit of the doubt.

cloud ice cream cone imagine

Consider it a marketing expense. Platforms often offer discounts or free trials to new customers. Now it’s existing customers that need a reprieve. Instead of airport ads, the giants could spend the money ensuring they’ll still have plenty of developers building atop them by the end of 2020.

Beyond deferred payment, platforms could just push the due date on all outstanding bills to three or six months from now. Alternatively, they could offer a deep discount such as 50% off for three months if they didn’t want to deal with accruing debt and then servicing it. Customers with multi-year contracts could offered the opportunity to downgrade or renegotiate their contracts without penalties. Any of these might require giving sales quota forgiveness to their account executives.

It would likely be far too complicated and risky to accept equity in lieu of cash, a cut of revenue going forward, or to provide loans or credit lines to customers. The clearest and simplest solution is to let startups skip a few payments, then pay more every month later until they clear their debt. When asked for comment or about whether they’re considering payment deferment options, Microsoft declined, and Amazon and Google did not respond.

To be clear, administering payment deferment won’t be simple or free. There are sure to be holes that cloud economists can poke in this proposal, but my goal is to get the conversation startup. It could require the giants to change their earnings guidance. Rewriting deals with significantly sized customers will take work on both ends, and there’s a chance of breach of contract disputes. Giants would face the threat of customers recklessly using cloud resources before shutting down or skipping town.

Most taxing would be determining and enforcing the criteria of who’s eligible. The vendors would need to lay out which customers are too big so they don’t accidentally give a cloud-intensive but healthy media company a deferment they don’t need. Businesses that get questionably excluded could make a stink in public. Executing on the plan will require staff when giants are stretched thin trying to handle logistics disruptions, misinformation, and accelerating work-from-home usage.

Still, this is the moment when the fortunate need to lend a hand to the vulnerable. Not a hand out, but a hand up. Companies with billions in cash in their coffers could save those struggling to pay salaries. All the fundraisers and info centers and hackathons are great, but this is how the tech giants can live up to their lofty mission statements.

We all live in the cloud now. Don’t evict us. #CloudRelief

Thanks to Falon Fatemi, Corey Quinn, Ilya Fushman, Jason Kim, Ilya Sukhar, and Michael Campbell for their ideas and feedback on this proposal


By Josh Constine

Kaizo raises $3M for its AI-based tools to improve customer service support teams

CRM has for years been primarily a story of software to manage customer contacts, data to help agents do their jobs, and tools to manage incoming requests and outreach strategies. Now to add to that we’re starting to see a new theme: apps to help agents track how they work and to work better.

Today comes the latest startup in that category, a Dutch company called Kaizo, which uses AI and gamification to provide feedback on agents’ work, tips on what to do differently, and tools to set and work to goals — all of which can be used remotely, in the cloud. Today, it is announcing $3 million in a seed round of funding co-led by Gradient — Google’s AI venture fund — and French VC Partech. 

And along with the seed round, Kaizo (which rebranded last week from its former name, Ticketless) is announcing that Christoph Auer-Welsbach, a former partner at IBM Ventures, is joining the company as a co-founder, alongside founder Dominik Blattner. 

Although this is just a seed round, it’s coming after a period of strong growth for the company. Kaizo has already 500 companies including Truecaller, SimpleSurance, Miro, CreditRepairCloud, Justpark, Festicket and Nmbrs are using its software, covering “thousands” of customer support agents, which use a mixture of free and paid tools that integrate with established CRM software from the likes of Salesforce, Zendesk and more.

Customer service, and the idea of gamifying it to motivate employees, might feel like the last thing on people’s minds at the moment, but it is actually timely and relevant to our current state in responding to and living with the coronavirus.

People are spending much more time at home, and are turning to the internet and remote services to get what they need, and in many cases are finding that their best-laid plans are now in freefall. Both of these are driving a lot of traffic to sites and primarily customer support centers, which are getting overwhelmed with people reaching out for help.

And that’s before you consider how customer support teams might be impacted by coronavirus and the many mandates we’ve had to stay away from work, and the stresses they may be under.

“In our current social climate, customer support is an integral part of a company’s stability and growth that has embraced remote work to meet the demands of a globalized customer-base,” said Dominik Blattner, founder of Kaizo, in a statement. “With the rise of support teams utilizing a digital workplace, providing standards to measure an agent’s performance has never been more important. KPIs provide these standards, quantifying the success, achievement and contribution of each team member.”

On a more general level, Kaizo is also changing the conversation around how to improve one’s productivity. There has been a larger push for “quantified self” platforms, which has very much played out both in workplaces and in our personal lives, but a lot of services to track performance have focused on both managers and employees leaning in with a lot of input. That means if they don’t set aside the time to do that, the platforms never quite work the way they should.

This is where the AI element of Kaizo plays a key role, by taking on the need to proactively report into a system.

“This is how we’re distinct,” Auer-Welsbach said in an interview. “Normally KPIs are top-down. They are about people setting goals and then reporting they’ve done something. This is a bottom-up approach. We’re not trying to change employees’ behaviour. We plug into whatever environment they are using, and then our tool monitors. The employee doesn’t have to report or measure anything. We track clicks on the CRM, ticketing, and more, and we analyse all that.” He notes that Kaizo is looking at up to 50 datapoints in its analysis.

“We’re excited about Kaizo’s novel approach to applying AI to existing ticket data from platforms like Zendesk and Salesforce to optimize the customer support workflow,” said Darian Shirazi, General Partner at Gradient Ventures, in a statement. “Using machine learning, Kaizo understands which behaviors in customer service tickets lead to better outcomes for customers and then guides agents to replicate that using ongoing game mechanics. Customer support and service platforms today are failing to leverage data in the right way to make the life of agents easier and more effective. The demand Kaizo has seen since they launched on the Zendesk Marketplace shows agents have been waiting for such a solution for some time.”

Kaizo is not the only startup to have identified the area of building new services to improve the performance of customer support teams. Assembled earlier this month also raised $3.1 million led by Stripe for what it describes as the “operating system” for customer support.


By Ingrid Lunden

Spotinst rebrands as Spot and announces new cloud spend dashboard

Spotinst, the startup that helps companies find lower cost spot instances in the cloud, announced today that it was rebranding as Spot. It also announced a brand new cloud usage dashboard to help companies get a detailed view of their cloud spend.

Amiram Shachar, co-founder and CEO at Spot, says the new product is designed to give customers much greater insight and visibility into cloud usage and spending.

“With this new product we’re providing a more holistic platform that lets customers see all of their cloud spending in one place — all over their usage, all of their costs, what they are spending and doing across multiple clouds — and then what they can actually do [to deploy resources more efficiently],” Shachar told TechCrunch.

The visibility means that customers can see across cloud vendors and get a big picture view of how they are deploying cloud resources to optimize their usage, which could be useful for the financial side of the house and IT.

“We’re basically bifurcating all of our customers’ cloud infrastructure and telling them this is what you should run on spot instances, this is what you should run on reserved instances and this is why you should keep on on-demand instances,” he said.

The new product builds on the company’s core competency: helping customers deploy cheaper spot and reserved instances from cloud infrastructure vendors in an automated fashion.

Spot instances are a product where cloud vendors deploy their unused resources for much lower cost, while reserved instances provide a discounted rate for buying resources in advance for a set price. However, spot instances have a big catch: when the cloud vendor needs those resources, you get kicked off. Spot helps in this regard by safely moving the workload to another available spot instance automatically.

Spot was founded in 2015 and has raised over $52 million, according to Crunchbase. Shachar says the company is in the $30 million revenue range and this new product should help drive that higher.


By Ron Miller

Humio announces $20M Series B to advance unlimited logging tool

Humio, a startup that has built a modern unlimited logging solution, announced a $20 million Series B investment today.

Dell Technologies Capital led the round with participation from previous investor Accel. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $32 million, according to the company.

Humio co-founder and CEO Geeta Schmidt says the startup wanted to build a solution that would allow companies to log everything, while reducing the overall cost associated with doing that, a tough problem due to the resource and data volume involved. The company deals with customers who are processing multiple terabytes of data per day.

“We really wanted to build an infrastructure where it’s easy to log everything and answer anything in real time. So we built an index-free logging solution which allows you to ask […] ad hoc questions over large volumes of data,” Schmidt told TechCrunch.

They are able to ingest so much data by using streaming technology, says company EVP of sales Morten Gram. “We have this real time streaming engine that makes it possible for customers to monitor whatever they know they want to be looking at. So they can build dashboards and alerts for these [metrics] that will be running in real time,” Gram explained.

What’s more, because the solution enables companies to log everything, rather than pick and choose what to log, they can ask questions about things they might not know, such as an on-going security incident or a major outage, and trace the answer from the data in the logs as the incident is happening.

Perhaps more importantly, the company has come up with technology to reduce the cost associated with processing and storing such high volumes of data. “We have thought a lot about trying to do a lot more with a lot less resources. And so, for example, one of our customers, who moved from a competitor, has gone from 80 servers to 14 doing the same volumes of data,” she said.

Deepak Jeevankumar, managing director and lead investor at Dell Technologies Capital, says that his firm recognized that Humio was solving these issues in a creative and modern way.

“Humio’s team has created a new log analysis architecture for the microservices age. This can support real-time analysis at full-speed ingest, while decreasing cost of storage and analysis by at least an order of magnitude,” he explained. “In a short-period of time, Humio has won the confidence of many Fortune 500 customers who have shifted their log platforms to Humio from legacy, decade-old architectures that do not scale for the cloud world.”

The company’s customers include Netlify, Bloomberg, HP Aruba and Michigan State University. It offers on-prem, cloud and hosted SaaS products. Today, the company also announced it was introducing an unlimited ingest plan for hosted SaaS customers.


By Ron Miller

Espressive lands $30M Series B to build better help chatbots

Espressive, a four-year-old startup from former ServiceNow employees, is working to build a better chatbot to reduce calls to company help desks. Today, the company announced a $30 million Series B investment.

Insight Partners led the round with help from Series A lead investor General Catalyst along with Wing Venture Capital. Under the terms of today’s agreement, Insight founder and managing director Jeff Horing will be joining the Espressive Board. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $53 million, according to the company.

Company founder and CEO Pat Calhoun says that when he was at ServiceNow he observed that, in many companies, employees often got frustrated looking for answers to basic questions. That resulted in a call to a Help Desk requiring human intervention to answer the question.

He believed that there was a way to automate this with AI-driven chatbots, and he founded Espressive to develop a solution. “Our job is to help employees get immediate answers to their questions or solutions or resolutions to their issues, so that they can get back to work,” he said.

They do that by providing a very narrowly focused natural language processing (NLP) engine to understand the question and find answers quickly, while using machine learning to improve on those answers over time.

“We’re not trying to solve every problem that NLP can address. We’re going after a very specific set of use cases which is really around employee language, and as a result, we’ve really tuned our engine to have the highest accuracy possible in the industry,” Calhoun told TechCrunch.

He says what they’ve done to increase accuracy is combine the NLP with image recognition technology. “What we’ve done is we’ve built our NLP engine on top of some image recognition architecture that’s really designed for a high degree of accuracy and essentially breaks down the phrase to understand the true meaning behind the phrase,” he said.

The solution is designed to provide a single immediate answer. If, for some reason, it can’t understand a request, it will open a help ticket automatically and route it to a human to resolve, but they try to keep that to a minimum. He says that when they deploy their solution, they tune it to the individual customers’ buzzwords and terminology.

So far they have been able to reduce help desk calls by 40% to 60% across customers with around 85% employee participation, which shows that they are using the tool and it’s providing the answers they need. In fact, the product understands 750 million employee phrases out of the box.

The company was founded in 2016. It currently has 65 employees and 35 customers, but with the new funding, both of those numbers should increase.


By Ron Miller

TripActions reportedly lays off hundreds amid COVID-19 travel freeze

The coronavirus demand crunch has taken another bite: Palo Alto-based corporate travel-focused unicorn, TripActions, reportedly laid off hundreds of staff yesterday.

Per this post on Blind — written by someone with a verified TripActions email address — the company fired 350 people. Business Insider reported the same figure yesterday. While the Wall Street Journal said the layoffs amount to between one-quarter to one-fifth of the startup’s total staff, citing a person familiar with the situation.

In an email to CrunchBase News TripActions confirmed it has axed jobs in response to the COVID-19 global health crisis — saying it has “cut back on all non-essential spend”. Although it did not confirm exactly how many employees it has fired.

“[We] made the very difficult decision to reduce our global workforce in line with the current climate,” TripActions wrote in the statement. “We look forward to when the strength of the global economy and business travel inevitably return and we can hire back our colleagues to rejoin us in our mission to make business travel effortless for our customers and users.”

“This global health crisis is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes, and our hearts go out to everyone impacted around the world, including our own customers, partners, suppliers and employees,” it added. “The coronavirus has had [a] wide-reaching effect on the global economy. Every business has been impacted including TripActions. While we were fortunate to have recently raised funding and secured debt financing, we are taking appropriate steps in our business to ensure we are here for our customers and their travelers long into the future.”

Per the post on Blind, TripActions is providing one week of severance to sacked staff and medical cover until end of month. “With [the coronavirus pandemic] going on you think they would do better,” the OP wrote. The layoffs were made by Zoom call, they also said.

We’ve reached out to TripActions for comment.

Travel startups are facing an unprecedented nuclear winter as demand has fallen off a cliff globally — with little prospect of a substantial change to the freeze on most business travel in the coming months as rates of COVID-19 infections continue to grow exponentially outside China.

However TripActions is one of the highest valued and best financed of such startups — securing a $500M credit facility for a new corporate product only last month, when we noted Crunchbase had more than $480M in tracked equity funding for the company, including a $250M Series D TripActions raised in June from investors including a16z, Group 11, Lightspeed and Zeev Ventures.

Ahead of making the layoffs the company had already paused all hiring, per one former technical sourcer for the company writing on LinkedIn.


By Natasha Lomas

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

Ceros launches MarkUp, a design collaboration tool for live websites

When designers need to collaborate with other teams, they can currently turn to products like InVision and Zeplin. But Ceros creative director Jack Dixon said there’s a “pretty interesting gap in the market” — once you move beyond prototypes and start working with websites that are either live or in staging, the process starts to become fragmented, relying on screenshots and email/phone/Google Docs.

That’s why the company (which focuses on powering interactive content “experiences”) is launching a new product called MarkUp. The product was created by a team led by Greg DiNardo and Alex Bullington, who joined Ceros last August through the acquisition of their polling and market research startup Arbit.

Dixon, DiNardo and Bullington gave me a quick demo, showing off how users can mark areas of interest on a website, leave comments and tasks, then mark revisions as completed.

It all looked pretty simple and straightforward, but DiNardo suggested that it’s a real technical challenge — even more than he and Bullington had expected — to provide those kinds of features on top of a live site.

He added that the product’s simplicity was very much by design: “I don’t think we’re going to add a million features … The goal is honestly simplicity, something that graphic designers can kind of live in.”

Eventually, MarkUp could be used not just to solicit design feedback across teams, but also from the public at-large.

Ceros says MarkUp will function separately from the core Ceros Studio platform, but it will be available for free to Studio customers. In fact, it’s already being used by designers at the Huffington Post, Cushman & Wakefield and Informa.

“As of today we want to remove any friction or barrier to entry, so it’s 100 percent free to Ceros customers,” Dixon said. “Getting the  involvement of the broadest community and user bas is going to be critical for this. What we’re learning is that some of the enterprise clients might pay for bigger, more grown-up features [like white labeling]. We can figure out how to monetize later.”


By Anthony Ha

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

Spectro Cloud launches with $7.5M investment to help developers build Kubernetes clusters their way

By now, we know that Kubernetes is a wildly popular container management platform, but if you want to use it, you pretty much have to choose between having someone manage it for you or building it yourself. Spectro Cloud emerged from stealth today with a $7.5 million investment to give you a third choice which falls somewhere in the middle.

The funding was led by Sierra Ventures with participation from Boldstart Ventures.

Ed Sim, founder at Boldstart says he liked the team and the tech. “Spectro Cloud is solving a massive pain that every large enterprise is struggling with; how to roll your own Kubernetes service on a managed platform without being beholden to any large vendor.” Sim told TechCrunch.

Spectro co-founder and CEO Tenry Fu says that an enterprise should not have to compromise between control and ease of use. “We want to be the first company that brings an easy-to-use managed Kubernetes experience to the enterprise, but also gives them the flexibility to define their own Kubernetes infrastructure stacks at scale,” Fu explained.

Fu says that the stack in this instance consists of the base operating system to the Kubernetes version to the storage, networking and other layers like security, logging, monitoring, load balancing or anything that’s infrastructure related around Kubernetes.

“Within an organization in the enterprise you can serve the needs of your various groups, down to pretty granular level with respect to what’s in your infrastructure stack, and then you don’t have to worry about lifecycle management,” he explained. That’s because they handle that for you, while still giving you that control.

That not only gives enterprise developers greater deployment flexibility, it gives them the ability to move between cloud infrastructure providers more easily, something that is top of mind today as companies don’t want to be locked into a single vendor.

“There’s an infrastructure control continuum that forces enterprises into trade offs against these needs. At one extreme, the managed offerings offer a kind of nirvana around ease of use, but it’s at the expense of control over things like the cloud that you’re on or when you adopt new ecosystem options like updated versions of Kubernetes.”

Fu and his co-founders have a deep background in this, having previously been part of CliQr, a company that helped customers manage applications across hybrid cloud environments. They sold that company to Cisco in 2016, and began developing Spectro Cloud last spring.

It’s early days, but the company has been working with 16 Beta customers.


By Ron Miller

Addapptation snares $1.3M seed to build a better UX for Salesforce

Addapptation, a startup that wants to build a practical design layer on top of Salesforce and other enterprise tools, announced a $1.3 million seed investment today.

2048 Ventures led the round with participation from East Coast Angles, The Millworks II Fund and additional angel investors from New Hampshire, where the firm is located

Co-founder Sumner Vanderhoof says the startup’s goal is to build a user experience platform for enterprise tools like Salesforce . “Our goal is to help make simple, easy to use Salesforce.com solutions built on the addapptation UX platform.

“At the end of the day, we’re really helping transform the way companies work, making their employees more efficient, making the job they do easier and more consistent, so they have a bigger impact on the companies that they work for,” Vanderhoof told TechCrunch.

He says they do this by looking at the company workflow and what issue the customer is trying to solve — such as a problem converting deals through the sales cycle. They will then help build tools and an interface to make it easier to pinpoint this information with the goal of being able to reuse whatever solutions they create for other customers.

He says the platform is template-driven and designed to quickly go from idea to solution. A typical solution takes no longer than two weeks to build and implement. Once a customer is using addapptation, employees can log into the addapptation platform or it can be a layer built into Salesforce providing a more guided experience.

The company has built around 40 plug-ins for the platform, including a heat map that identifies where sales is likely to find the best opportunities to close a deal. The solutions they build are designed to work online or on mobile devices as needed.

Photo: addapptation

Vanderhoof says that the company has a good relationship with Salesforce, and it doesn’t compete directly with the company. “Their main focus is providing tools for a wide audience. Ours is extending the platform beyond what it can do,” he said.

The two founders, Vanderhoof and his wife Carla, took three years building the platform, essentially bootstrapping before taking today’s funding.  The company has 15 employees in its Exeter, NH, headquarters and has 20 customers including Comcast and Ingram Micro.


By Ron Miller

Torch & Everwise merge into affordable exec coaching for all

While companies might pay for a CEO coach, lower level employees often get stuck with lame skill-building worksheets or no mentorship at all. Not only does that limit their potential productivity, but it also makes them feel stagnated and undervalued, leading them to jump ship.

Therapy…err…executive coaching is finally becoming destigmatized as entrepreneurs and their teams realize that everyone can’t be crushing it all the time. Building a business is hard. It’s okay to cry sometimes. But the best thing you can do is be vulnerable and seek help.

Torch emerged from stealth last year with $18 million in funding to teach empathy to founders and C-suite execs. Since 2013, Everwise has raised $26 million from Sequoia and others for its peer-to-peer mentorship marketplace that makes workplace guidance accessible to rank-and-file staffers.  Tomorrow they’ll official announce their merger under the Torch name to become a full-stack career coach for every level of employee.

“As human beings, we face huge existential challenges in the form of pandemics, climate change, the threats coming down the pipe from automation and AI” says Torch co-founder and CEO Cameron Yarbrough. “We need to create leaders at every single level of an organization and ignite these people with tools and human support in order to level up in the world.”

Startup acquisitions and mergers can often be train wrecks because companies with different values but overlapping products are jammed together. But apparently it’s gone quite smoothly since the products are so complementary, with all 70 employees across the two companies keeping their jobs. “Everwise is much more bottom up whereas Torch is about the upper levels, and it just sort of made sense” says Garry Tan, partner and co-founder of Initialized Capital that funded Torch’s Series A and is also a client of its coaching.

How does each work? Torch goes deep, conducting extensive 360-interviews with an executive as well as their reports, employees, and peers to assess their empathy, communication, vision, conflict resolution, and collaboration.  clients’ executives do extensive 360-interviews. It establishes quantifiable goals that executives work towards through video call sessions with Torch’s coaches. They learn about setting healthy workplace boundaries, stay calm amidst arguments, motivating staff without seeming preachy, and managing their own ego.

This coaching can be exceedingly valuable for the leaders setting a company’s strategy and tone. But the one-on-one sessions are typically too expensive to buy for all levels of employees. That’s where Everwise comes in.

Everwise goes wide, offers a marketplace with 6000 mentors across different job levels and roles that can provider more affordable personal guidance or group sessions with 10 employees all learning from each other. It also provides a mentorship platform where bigger companies can let their more senior staffers teach junior employees exactly what it takes to succeed. That’s all stitched together with a curated and personalized curriculum of online learning materials. Meanwhile, a company’s HR team can track everyone’s progress and performance through its Academy Builder dashboard.

“We know Gen Z has grown up with mentors by their side from SAT prep” says Torch CMO Cari Jacobs. Everwise lets them stay mentored, even at early stages of their professional life. “As they advance through their career, they might notch up to more executive private coaching.” Post-merger, Torch can keep them sane and ambitious throughout the journey. 

“It really allows us to move up market without sacrificing all the traction we’ve built working with startups and mid-market companies” Yarbrough tells me. Clients have included Reddit and ZenDesk, but also giants like Best Buy, Genentech, and T-Mobile.

The question is whether Everwise’s materials are engaging enough to not become just another employee handbook buried on an HR site that no one ever reads. Otherwise, it could just feel like bloat tacked onto Torch. Meanwhile, scaling up to bigger clients pits Torch against long-standing pillars of the executive coaching industry like Aon and Korn Ferry that have been around for decades and have billions in revenue. Meanwhile, new mental health and coaching platforms are emerging like BetterUp and Sounding Board.

But the market is massive since so few people get great coaching right now. “No one goes to work and is like ‘man, I wish my boss was less mindful’” Tan jokes. When Yarbrough was his coach, the Torch CEO taught the investor that while many startup employees might think they thrive on flexibility, “people really want high love and high structure.” In essence, that’s what Torch is trying to deliver — a sense of emotional comradery mixed with a prod in the direction of fulfilling their destiny.


By Josh Constine

Hashicorp soars above $5B valuation in new $175M venture round

The rise of the cloud over the past decade has forced software developers and DevOps engineers to completely rearchitect the modern web application, ensuring scalability, performance, and security. That’s a really painful proposition when done manually, which is where Hashicorp comes in to play. The company’s suite of products helps everyone in the tech workforce from IT admins to software developers operate in the cloud (mostly) effortlessly and natively.

The company’s products have long garnered rave reviews from technical staffs, and now the company is looking at a brand new massive valuation.

The SF-based startup announced today that it has raised $175 million in Series E financing from Franklin Templeton Investments at a scorching $5.1 billion valuation. For context, when we last covered the company back in late 2018, its valuation was only a “paltry” $1.9 billion following a $100 million round led by growth investor IVP.

The company in its release today touted its success in doubling revenues and customers every year for four straight years as the key reason behind the flush valuation. The company is making a (not so) subtle point that David McJannet, who joined the company as CEO in mid-2016 following a stint as an EIR at Greylock, has seen some success in his new role.

Hashicorp CEO David McJannet. Photo via Hashicorp

The company, founded by Mitchell Hashimoto and Armon Dadgar in 2012, is one of the major pioneers in helping companies build high-quality infrastructure that’s a mix of multi-cloud providers, private cloud, and even legacy systems.

It’s most well-known product is Terraform, which allows developers to write repeatable rules around enterprise infrastructure rather than a patchwork of different scripts that might not work as its writers intended. The idea is that with a consistent framework, Hashicorp’s product can help companies reduce costs (by protecting against, say, over-provisioning of resources) while also helping to balance scale and performance. The company’s other products include Consul around network automation, Vault for security, and Nomad for application deployment.

Hashicorp touches on a bunch of competitive products, but its cohesive set of tools and strong outreach to the developer community has set itself apart from the competition in recent years.

Franklin Templeton is a fairly late stage investor that has funded such enterprise companies as Cloudflare, which went public last year, logs management platform SumoLogic, and cybersecurity business Tanium, all according to Crunchbase.

With a hefty $5.1 billion valuation, the company narrowly missed the catastrophic decline of SaaS stocks over the past few weeks, which have been buffeted by the rapidly spreading global pandemic. But with a new war chest and a focus on a popular and growing enterprise market, the company seems poised to continue its growth.


By Danny Crichton

To make locks touchless, Proxy bluetooth ID raises $42M

We need to go hands-off in the age of coronavirus. That means touching fewer doors, elevators, and sign-in iPads. But once a building is using phone-based identity for security, there’s opportunities to speed up access to WIFI networks and printers, or personalize conference rooms and video call set-ups. Keyless office entry startup Proxy wants to deliver all of this while keeping your phone in your pocket.

The door is just a starting point” Proxy co-founder and CEO Denis Mars tells me. “We’re . . . empowering a movement to take back control of our privacy, our sense of self, our humanity, our individuality.”

With the contagion concerns and security risks of people rubbing dirty, cloneable, stealable key cards against their office doors, investors see big potential in Proxy. Today it’s announcing here a $42 million Series B led by Scale Venture Partners with participation from former funders Kleiner Perkins and Y Combinator plus new additions Silicon Valley Bank and West Ventures.

The raise brings Proxy to $58.8 million in funding so it can staff up at offices across the world and speed up deployments of its door sensor hardware and access control software. “We’re spread thin” says Mars. “Part of this funding is to try to grow up as quickly as possible and not grow for growth sake. We’re making sure we’re secure, meeting all the privacy requirements.”

How does Proxy work? Employers get their staff to install an app that knows their identity within the company, including when and where they’re allowed entry. Buildings install Proxy’s signal readers, which can either integrate with existing access control software or the startup’s own management dashboard.

Employees can then open doors, elevators, turnstiles, and garages with a Bluetooth low-energy signal without having to even take their phone out. Bosses can also opt to require a facial scan or fingerprint or a wave of the phone near the sensor. Existing keycards and fobs still work with Proxy’s Pro readers. Proxy costs about $300 to $350 per reader, plus installation and a $30 per month per reader subscription to its management software.

Now the company is expanding access to devices once you’re already in the building thanks to its SDK and APIs. Wifi router-makers are starting to pre-provision their hardware to automatically connect the phones of employees or temporarily allow registered guests with Proxy installed — no need for passwords written on whiteboards. Its new Nano sensors can also be hooked up to printers and vending machines to verify access or charge expense accounts. And food delivery companies can add the Proxy SDK so couriers can be granted the momentary ability to open doors when they arrive with lunch.

Rather than just indiscriminately beaming your identity out into the world, Proxy uses tokenized credentials so only its sensors know who you are. Users have to approve of new networks’ ability to read their tokens, Proxy has SOC-2 security audit certification, and complies with GDPR. “We feel very strongly about where the biometrics are stored . . . they should stay on your phone” says Mars.

Yet despite integrating with the technology for two-factor entry unlocks, Mars says “We’re not big fans of facial recognition. You don’t want every random company having your face in their database. The face becomes the password you were supposed to change every 30 days.”

Keeping your data and identity safe as we see an explosion of Internet Of Things devices was actually the impetus for starting Proxy. Mars had sold his teleconferencing startup Bitplay to Jive Software where he met his eventually co-founder Simon Ratner, who’d joined after his video annotation startup  Omnisio was acquired by YouTube. Mars was frustrated about every IoT lightbulb and appliance wanting him to download an app, set up a profile, and give it his data.

The duo founded Proxy in 2013 as a universal identity signal. Today it has over 60 customers. While other apps want you to constantly open them, Proxy’s purpose is to work silently in the background and make people more productive. “We believe the most important technologies in the world don’t seek your attention. They work for you, they empower you, and they get out of the way so you can focus your attention on what matters most — living your life.”

Now Proxy could actually help save lives. “The nature of our product is contactless interactions in commercial buildings and workplaces so there’s a bit of an unintended benefit that helps prevent the spread of the virus” Mars explains. “We have seen an uptick in customers starting to set doors and other experiences in longer-range hands-free mode so that users can walk up to an automated door and not have to touch the handles or badge/reader every time.”

The big challenge facing Proxy is maintaining security and dependability since it’s a mission-critical business. A bug or outage could potentially lock employees out of their workplace (when they eventually return from quarantine). It will have to keep hackers out of employee files. Proxy needs to stay ahead of access control incumbents like ADT and Honeywell as well as smaller direct competitors like $10 million-funded Nexkey and $28 million-funded Openpath.

Luckily, Proxy has found a powerful growth flywheel. First an office in a big building gets set up, then they convince the real estate manager to equip the lobby’s turnstiles and elevators with Proxy. Other tenants in the building start to use it, so they buy Proxy for their office. Then they get their offices in other cities on board…starting the flywheel again. That’s why Proxy is doubling down on sales to commercial real estate owners.

The question is when Proxy will start knocking on consumers’ doors. While leveling up into the enterprise access control software business might be tough for home smartlock companies like August, Proxy could go down market if it built more physical lock hardware. Perhaps we’ll start to get smart homes that know who’s home, and stop having to carry pointy metal sticks in our pockets.


By Josh Constine