‘The Operators’: Experts from Airbnb and Carta on building and managing your company’s customer support

Welcome to this transcribed edition of The Operators. TechCrunch is beginning to publish podcasts from industry experts, with transcriptions available for Extra Crunch members so you can read the conversation wherever you are.

The Operators features insiders from companies like Airbnb, Brex, Docsend, Facebook, Google, Lyft, Carta, Slack, Uber, and WeWork sharing their stories and tips on how to break into fields like marketing and product management. They also share best practices for entrepreneurs on how to hire and manage experts from domains outside their own.

This week’s edition features Airbnb’s Global Product Director of Customer and Community Support Platform Products, Andy Yasutake, and Carta’s Head of Enterprise Relationship Management, Jared Thomas.

Airbnb, one of the most valuable private tech companies in the world, has millions of hosts who trust strangers (guests) to come into their homes and hundreds of millions of guests who trust strangers (hosts) to provide a roof over their head. Carta, a $1 Billion+ company formerly known as eShares, is the leading provider of cap table management and valuation software, with thousands of customers and almost a million individual shareholders as users. Customers and users entrust Carta to manage their investments, a very serious responsibility requiring trust and security.

In this episode, Andy and Jared share with Neil how companies like Airbnb, Carta, and LinkedIn think about customer service, how to get into and succeed in the field and tech generally, and how founders should think about hiring and managing the customer support. With their experiences at two of tech’s trusted companies, Airbnb and Carta, this episode is packed with broad perspectives and deep insights.

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Neil Devani and Tim Hsia created The Operators after seeing and hearing too many heady, philosophical podcasts about the future of tech, and not enough attention on the practical day-to-day work that makes it all happen.

Tim is the CEO & Founder of Media Mobilize, a media company and ad network, and a Venture Partner at Digital Garage. Tim is an early-stage investor in Workflow (acquired by Apple), Lime, FabFitFun, Oh My Green, Morning Brew, Girls Night In, The Hustle, Bright Cellars, and others.

Neil is an early-stage investor based in San Francisco with a focus on companies building stuff people need, solutions to very hard problems. Companies he’s invested in include Andela, Clearbit, Kudi, Recursion Pharmaceuticals, Solugen, and Vicarious Surgical.

If you’re interested in starting or accelerating your marketing career, or how to hire and manage this function, you can’t miss this episode!

The show:

The Operators brings experts with experience at companies like Airbnb, Brex, Docsend, Facebook, Google, Lyft, Carta, Slack, Uber, WeWork, etc. to share insider tips on how to break into fields like marketing and product management. They also share best practices for entrepreneurs on how to hire and manage experts from domains outside their own.

In this episode:

In Episode 5, we’re talking about customer service. Neil interviews Andy Yasutake, Airbnb’s Global Product Director of Customer and Community Support Platform Products, and Jared Thomas, Carta’s Head of Enterprise Relationship Management.


Neil Devani: Hello and welcome to the Operators, where we talk to entrepreneurs and executives from leading technology companies like Google, Facebook, Airbnb, and Carta about how to break into a new field, how to build a successful career, and how to hire and manage talent beyond your own expertise. We skip over the lofty prognostications from venture capitalists and storytime with founders to dig into the nuts and bolts of how it all works here from the people doing the real day to day work, the people who make it all happen, the people who know what it really takes. The Operators.

Today we are talking to two experts in customer service, one with hundreds of millions of individual paying customers and the other being the industry standard for managing equity investments. I’m your host, Neil Devani, and we’re coming to you today from Digital Garage in downtown San Francisco.

Joining me is Jared Thomas, head of Enterprise Relationship Management at Carta, a $1 billion-plus company after a recent round of financing led by Andreessen Horowitz. Carta, formerly known as eShares, is the leading provider of cap table management and valuation software with thousands of customers and almost a million individual shareholders as users. Customers and users trust Carta to manage their investments, a very serious responsibility requiring trust and security.

Also joining us is Andy Yasutake, the Global Product Director of Customer and Community Support Platform Products at Airbnb, one of the most valuable private tech startups today. Airbnb has millions of hosts who are trusting strangers to come into their homes and hundreds of millions of guests who are trusting someone to provide a roof over their head. The number of cases and types of cases that Andy and his team have to think about and manage boggle the mind. Jared and Andy, thank you for joining us.

Andy Yasutake: Thank you for having us.

Jared Thomas: Thank you so much.

Devani: To start, Andy, can you share your background and how you got to where you are today?

Yasutake: Sure. I’m originally from southern California. I was born and raised in LA. I went to USC for undergrad, University of Southern California, and I actually studied psychology and information systems.

Late-90s, the dot com was going on, I’d always been kind of interested in tech, went into management consulting at interstate consulting that became Accenture, and was in consulting for over 10 years and always worked on large systems of implementation of technology projects around customers. So customer service, sales transformation, anything around CRM, as kind of a foundation, but it was always very technical, but really loved the psychology part of it, the people side.

And so I was always on multiple consulting projects and one of the consulting projects with actually here in the Bay Area. I eventually moved up here 10 years ago and joined eBay, and at eBay I was the director of product for the customer services organization as well. And was there for five years.

I left for Linkedin, so another rocket ship that was growing and was the senior director of technology solutions and operations where I had all the kind of business enabling functions as well as the technology, and now have been at Airbnb for about four months. So I’m back to kind of my, my biggest passion around products and in the customer support and community experience and customer service world.


By Arman Tabatabai

Grasshopper’s Judith Erwin leaps into innovation banking

In the years following the financial crisis, de novo bank activity in the US slowed to a trickle. But as memories fade, the economy expands and the potential of tech-powered financial services marches forward, entrepreneurs have once again been asking the question, “Should I start a bank?”

And by bank, I’m not referring to a neobank, which sits on top of a bank, or a fintech startup that offers an interesting banking-like service of one kind or another. I mean a bank bank.

One of those entrepreneurs is Judith Erwin, a well-known business banking executive who was part of the founding team at Square 1 Bank, which was bought in 2015. Fast forward a few years and Erwin is back, this time as CEO of the cleverly named Grasshopper Bank in New York.

With over $130 million in capital raised from investors including Patriot Financial and T. Rowe Price Associates, Grasshopper has a notable amount of heft for a banking newbie. But as Erwin and her team seek to build share in the innovation banking market, she knows that she’ll need the capital as she navigates a hotly contested niche that has benefited from a robust start-up and venture capital environment.

Gregg Schoenberg: Good to see, Judith. To jump right in, in my opinion, you were a key part of one of the most successful de novo banks in quite some time. You were responsible for VC relationships there, right?

…My background is one where people give me broken things, I fix them and give them back.

Judith Erwin: The VC relationships and the products and services managing the balance sheet around deposits. Those were my two primary roles, but my background is one where people give me broken things, I fix them and give them back.

Schoenberg: Square 1 was purchased for about 22 times earnings and 260% of tangible book, correct?

Erwin: Sounds accurate.

Schoenberg: Plus, the bank had a phenomenal earnings trajectory. Meanwhile, PacWest, which acquired you, was a “perfectly nice bank.” Would that be a fair characterization?

Erwin: Yes.

Schoenberg: Is part of the motivation to start Grasshopper to continue on a journey that maybe ended a little bit prematurely last time?

Erwin: That’s a great insight, and I did feel like we had sold too soon. It was a great deal for the investors — which included me — and so I understood it. But absolutely, a lot of what we’re working to do here are things I had hoped to do at Square 1.

Image via Getty Images / Classen Rafael / EyeEm

Schoenberg: You’re obviously aware of the 800-pound gorilla in the room in the form of Silicon Valley Bank . You’ve also got the megabanks that play in the segment, as well as Signature Bank, First Republic, Bridge Bank and others.


By Gregg Schoenberg

Tara.ai, which uses machine learning to spec out and manage engineering projects, nabs $10M

Artificial intelligence has become an increasingly important component of how a lot of technology works; now it’s also being applied to how technologists themselves work. Today, one of the startups building such a tool has raised some capital, Tara.ai, a platform that uses machine learning to help an organization get engineering projects done — from identifying and predicting the work that will need to be tackled, to sourcing talent to execute that, and then monitoring the project of that project — has raised a Series A of $10 million to continue building out its platform.

The funding for the company cofounded by Iba Masood (she is now CEO) and Syed Ahmed comes from an interesting group of investors that point to Tara’s origins, as well as how it sees its product developing over time.

The round was led by Aspect Ventures (the female-led firm that puts a notable but not exclusive emphasis on female-founded startups) with participation also from Slack, by way of its Slack Fund. Previous investors Y Combinator and Moment Ventures also participated in the round. (Y Combinator provides an avenue to companies from its cohorts to help them source their Series A rounds, and Tara.ai went through this process.)

Tara.ai was originally founded as Gradberry out of Y Combinator, with its initial focus on using an AI platform for organizations to evaluate and help source engineering talent: Tara.ai was originally that name of its AI engine.

(The origin of how Masood and Ahmed identified this problem was through their own direct experience: both were engineering grads from the American University of Sharjah in the U.A.E. that had problems getting hired because no one had ever heard of their university. Even so, they had won an MIT-affiliated startup competition in Morocco and relocated to Boston. The idea with Gradberry was to cut through the big names and focus just on what people could do.)

Masood and Syed (who eventually got married) eventually realised that using that engine to evaluate the wider challenges of executing engineering projects came as a natural progression once the team started digging into the challenges and identifying what actually needed to be solved.

A study that Tara conducted across some 5,000 projects found that $66 billion dollars were identified as “lost” due to projects running past the expected completion time, lack of adequate talent and just overall poor planning.

“We realised that recruiting was actually the final decision you make, not the first, and we wanted to be involved earlier in the decision-making process,” Masood said in an interview. “We saw a much bigger opportunity looking not at the people, but the whole project.”

In action, that means that Tara.ai is used not just to scope out the nature of the problem that needed to be solved, or the goal that an organization wanted to achieve; it is also used to suggest which frameworks will need to be used to execute on that goal, and then suggest a timeline to follow.

Then, it starts to evaluate a company’s own staff expertise, along with that from other recruiting platforms, to figure out which people to source from within the company. Eventually, that will also be complemented with sourcing information from outside the organization — either contractors or new hires.

Masood noted that a large proportion of users in the tech world today use Jira and platforms like it to manage projects. While there are some tools in Jira to help plan out projects better, Tara is proposing its platform as a kind of virtual project manager, or an assistant to an existing project manager, to conceive of the whole project, not just help with the admin of getting it done.

Notably, right now she says that some 75% of Tara.ai’s users — customers include Cisco, Orange Silicon Valley and Mower Digital — are “not technical,” meaning they themselves do not ship or use code. “This helps them understand what could be considered and the dependencies that can be expected out of a project,” she notes.

Lauren Kolodny, the partner at Aspect who led the investment, said that one of the things that stood out for her, in fact, with Tara.ai, was precisely how it could be applied exactly in those kinds of scenarios.

Today, tech is such a fundamental part of how a lot of businesses operate, but that doesn’t mean that every business is natively a technology one (think here of food and beverage companies as an example, or government agencies). In those cases, these companies would have traditionally had to turn to outside consultants to identify opportunities, and then build and potentially long-term operate whatever the solutions become. Now there is an opportunity to rethink how technology is used in these kinds of organizations.

“Projects have been hacked together from multiple systems, not really built in combination,” Kolodny said of how much development happens at these traditional businesses. “We are really excited about the machine learning scoping and mapping of internal and external talent, which is looking to be particularly important as traditional enterprises are required to get level with newer businesses, and the amount of talent they need to execute on these projects becomes challenging.”

Tara.ai’s next steps will involve essentially taking the building blocks of what you can think of as a very power talent and engineering project search engine, and making it more powerful. That will include integrating databases of external consultants and figuring out how best to have these in tandem with internal teams while keeping them working well together. And soon to come also will be bug prediction: how to identify these before they arise in a project.

The Slack investment is also a notable nod to what direction Tara.ai will take. Masood said that Slack was one of three “big tech” companies interested in investing in this round, and she and Syed chose Slack because from what they could see of its existing and target customers, many were already using it and some have already started requesting closer collaboration so that events in one could come up as updates in the other.

“Our largest customers are heavy Slack users and they are already having conversations in Slack related to projects in Tara.ai,” she said. “W are tackling the scoping element and now seeing how to link up even command line interfaces between the two.”

She noted that this does not rule out closer integrations with communications and other platforms that people use on a daily basis to get their work done: the idea is to become a tool to work better overall.


By Ingrid Lunden

Transitioning from engineering to product with Adobe’s Anjul Bhambhri

Many roles inside of startups and tech companies are clear: marketers market, salespeople sell, engineers engineer. Then there are the roles like “product manager” that seem obvious on the surface (product managers “product,” right?) but in reality are very fuzzy roles that can be highly variable across different companies.

A few weeks ago, TechCrunch editor Jordan Crook interviewed J Crowley, who is head of product for Airbnb Lux and was formerly at Foursquare. Crowley came up in the consumer product world without a technical background, and he spoke to overcoming some of his own insecurities to become a leading product thinker in the Valley.

This week, I wanted to offer another perspective on product from Anjul Bhambhri, who is Vice President, Platform Engineering at Adobe, where she and her team conceived Adobe’s new Experience Platform for real-time customer experience management.

Across Bhambhri’s more than two decade career straddling the line between software engineering and product, she has worked on deeply technical, enterprise projects at Sybase and Informix as startups, big data infrastructure at IBM, and now at Adobe.

We discuss the challenges and opportunities of moving from an engineering career into product (and management more generally) as well as the ways she thinks about building compelling products that are sold B2B.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity

Scaling out product after product

Danny Crichton: Anjul, thanks for joining us. One of the major initiatives that we’ve been doing as part of Extra Crunch is to interview experts in their fields, talking about how they go about doing their job, and how you think about the decisions that come up on a day-to-day basis in the work that you do. So to start, I would love to talk a little about your background.

Anjul Bhambhri: Very nice to meet you, and happy to share my journey, Danny. I have been in the software industry now for really almost 30 years. I’m an electrical engineer, and basically, my entire career has been in data, databases, and big data analytics.


By Danny Crichton

Verified Expert Growth Marketing Agency: Growth Pilots

Growth Pilots is one of the more exclusive performance marketing agencies in San Francisco, but they know how to help high-growth startups excel at paid marketing. CEO and founder Soso Sazesh credits his personal experiences as an entrepreneur along with his team’s deep understanding of high-growth company needs and challenges as to what sets Growth Pilots apart. Whether you’re a founder of a seed or Series D stage startup, learn more about Growth Pilots’ approach to growth and partnerships.

Advice to early-stage founders

“I think a lot of times, especially at the early stage, founders don’t have a lot of time so they’re willing to find the path of least resistance to get their paid acquisition channels up and running. If things are not properly set up and managed, this can lead to a false negative in terms of writing off a channel’s effectiveness or scalability. It’s worth talking to an expert, even if it’s just for advice, to ensure you don’t fall into this trap.”

On Growth Pilots’ operations

[pullquote align=”right” author=”Guillaume McIntyre, SF, Head of Acquisition Marketing, Instacart”]“They have good business acumen, move fast and work as an extension to your internal team.”[/pullquote]
“Something we pride ourselves on is working with relatively few clients at a time so we can really focus all of our team’s efforts and energy on doing the highest quality work. Each of our team members works on a maximum of two to three accounts, and therefore they’re able to get very invested in each client’s business and integrated into their team. We really try to simulate the internal team dynamics as much as possible and pairing that with our external capabilities and expertise.”

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup growth marketing agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already.


Interview with Growth Pilots Founder and CEO Soso Sazesh

Yvonne Leow: Tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into growth.

Soso Sazesh: I grew up in northern Minnesota where there is no tech industry whatsoever and then after high school, I came out to Silicon Valley and got exposed to the epicenter of the technology industry. I became very interested in startups and hustled to find startup internships so I could get experience and learn how they operated.

After a couple of startup internships, I got accepted to UC Berkeley and that gave me even more exposure to the startup ecosystem with all of the startup events and resources that UC Berkeley had to offer. I worked on a couple of startup projects while I was at UC Berkeley, and I taught myself scrappy product management and how to get software built using contract developers.

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As I was graduating, I had just launched my second startup project and it was growing organically but very slowly, and I realized I didn’t know how to acquire users. So I joined an SEM agency and that’s where I learned and fell in love with digital marketing. I helped companies successfully acquire users at scale using Google AdWords and finally solved for the missing skills I needed. After a couple of years, I ventured off to try my hand at starting a company again, this time with more experience and a co-founder.

We went through the AngelPad accelerator and raised a small round of capital – what would be called a pre-seed round nowadays. It was an eye-opening experience. I gained a lot of appreciation for what it meant to be a startup operator hustling to build a product people wanted and trying to acquire customers.

Startups are a roller coaster and we had a lot of ups and downs. We ultimately we’re not able to raise our next round of funding due to lack of traction and decided to shut the company down. As we were winding down, people in my network started coming to me looking for help with their digital marketing channels.

I started consulting for a few startups and identified an interesting opportunity, which was that very few startups knew how to do paid acquisition well and very few agencies were well-suited to work with startups. There was a huge gap in the market.

Some of these founders would come to me after trying to get paid acquisition to work on their own, but they didn’t have the time or expertise to do it properly. Some of them would hire an agency and not see results, because most agencies don’t understand the needs and grow-or-die nature of fast-moving startups. These agencies wouldn’t allocate the time and resources needed to really understand these startups and work closely with them to make their paid channels work.

So that’s exactly what I did and I was able to achieve results for them. I combined my previous expertise as a digital marketer with my recent startup operator experience and this allowed me to successfully help the startups I was consulting for. Due to the network effects in the startup community, I soon had more companies who wanted to work with me than I could take on alone and that’s what led me to start Growth Pilots.

Yvonne Leow: Awesome. How does Growth Pilots differentiate itself from other agencies?

Soso Sazesh: Growth Pilots is “the” performance marketing agency for high-growth companies. We’ve worked with over 120 venture-backed companies over the past five and a half years, and we have really tailored our service offering around the unique needs and challenges of high-growth companies as they move from stage to stage. We’ve had this internal framework that breaks down paid acquisition needs based on company stage.

The first is what we call the early stage. At the early stage, companies are looking to establish and validate their paid marketing channels. These companies are typically seed stage or Series A startups looking to find channels that allow them to hit their metrics to achieve their goals for their next round of funding. These companies require a lot of time and attention, which is a bit paradoxical because their budgets are not very large.

The second stage is what we call the scaling stage. This is when companies are trying to achieve escape velocity and growth matters above everything else. This typically happens at the Series A through Series C stage. Their business model is working and ideally within sight of positive unit economics if not already there, but the main focus is acquiring customers at the fastest rate possible and less so on efficiency or profitability. This stage requires all hands on deck and non-stop testing and optimization to squeeze out as much velocity as possible from each channel. The stakes are very high at this stage and category-leading companies often emerge here.

Finally is the late stage. These companies are typically Series C or Series D and beyond and preparing for an exit or IPO. Growth often becomes slightly less important at this stage and the focus shifts to efficiency and improved unit economics. Optimization becomes even more critical at this stage and measurement and attribution get a lot more sophisticated to fully measure the impact of the paid channels.

The needs of companies are vastly different at each of these stages. Our focus is on helping companies achieve their goals within each stage and helping them move to the next stage.

Yvonne Leow: Cool. If I’m a founder and I’d like to work with Growth Pilots, what can I expect are our next steps?

Soso Sazesh: The first step is understanding the business and assessing if there’s a mutual fit. We’re very selective about the companies we take on because over the course of the five and a half years we’ve been able to establish which business models and verticals are conducive to paid marketing success.

For instance, marketplaces, e-commerce, B2B SaaS, mobile apps, and other business models where there is a transactional component is typically a good candidate for paid acquisition. We want to know what the goals are and we want to be able to confidently say that we believe we can achieve the goals at hand. If we can’t say that, we won’t take the company on.

Step two is determining what stage of our framework the company falls into and what the opportunity looks like. If it’s an early stage company, it’s more about assessing the product, the market, and how reachable their target customers are online.

For scaling-stage and late-stage companies that are already up and running, we’ll dive into their current accounts and assess what the opportunity looks like and put together a strategy proposal based on our findings and outlook.

Yvonne Leow: What’s the typical length for each project or partnership?

Soso Sazesh: We’re not project-based so when a company comes to work with us we effectively become an extension of their marketing team. There’s no set duration. We’ve worked with some companies for five years and some companies we’ve worked with for 12 months.

If we work with a company less than 12 months, something is wrong and we probably shouldn’t have taken that company on as a client but you don’t always know how things will play out. Overall our goal is to work with companies in a long-term capacity as an integrated partner.  Something we pride ourselves on is working with relatively few clients at a time so we can really focus all of our team’s efforts and energy into doing the highest quality work.

Each of our team members only works on a maximum of two to three accounts, and therefore they’re able to get very invested in each client’s business and integrated into their team. We really try to simulate the internal team dynamics as much as possible while balancing and pairing that with our external capabilities and expertise.

Yvonne Leow: Are you at the point in your experience that you can apply certain growth strategies and guarantee success?

Soso Sazesh: Guarantee is a tough word, but having worked with more than 120 startups we are definitely at the point where we have enough data points where we can look at a given business and assess the viability of whether they’ll likely see success on paid channels. Success being a combination of scale and efficiency.

Yvonne Leow: Can you talk a little bit about how you and your team assess that?

Soso Sazesh: The first things we look at are business model, product quality, and whether or not product market fit exists or is likely to be achieved. Even a great business model in a large market combined with a poor product or lack of product market fit is unlikely to succeed with paid acquisition. In the absence of having a live product, or if a company is too early to assess product-market fit, we look at other data points that we have found to be good indicators of viability. Some of these include competitor success with paid marketing, the founders’ backgrounds, amount of capital raised, and who their investors are.

Yvonne Leow: What were some of your greatest lessons learned when you started Growth Pilots?

Soso Sazesh: In the early days of Growth Pilots, there was so much activity and growth that we ignored important things like team infrastructure and people operations. We saw the effects of this in the form of team morale taking a hit and people not seeing a future with us. We eventually took notice and course corrected by investing heavily in people operations and employee development. In an ideal world, we would have done this much earlier.

Another interesting reflection is how critical the work we do is. I think this is what a lot of agencies get wrong. You need the commitment to work with startups. You can’t be one foot in and one foot out when a company may live or die by the work you are doing. A lot of the companies that we work with explicitly outline what goals they need to hit in order to raise their next round of funding and it becomes very clear what part we play in that.

Yvonne Leow: What advice would you give to early-stage founders who are deciding whether or not to work with an agency?

Soso Sazesh: When you work with an agency it’s really important to have clear goals and expectations established up front. A lot of times early-stage companies hire agencies, and agencies will gladly take their money, but the agency isn’t really investing the time that’s needed to get results. So asking “What does it look like to work with your agency? Who’s going to be working on my account? How much attention can I expect to receive?” Those types of questions are really important to clarify and especially at the early stage.

Yvonne Leow: What’s a common mistake you see founders make when it comes to growth?

Soso Sazesh: The most common mistake I see is not doing the upfront work and investment required to get optimal results with paid acquisition. A lot of times you see the founder mentality of move fast and figure things out later kicks in, but this can be dangerous when it comes to paid marketing when you’re directly paying for traffic and customers. This leads to companies not seeing the performance and scalability that they actually could and it contributes to the negative perception of channels like Google Ads and Facebook Ads. VCs, for example, love to bash paid marketing channels as being too expensive or too saturated. There is certainly some truth to the channels getting more crowded but at the same time, you would be surprised how poorly setup and managed some of the accounts are that we look at, including companies that have raised tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Yvonne Leow: Thanks for sharing. Last question: what is your payment structure?

Soso Sazesh: We charge based on a tiered percentage of ad spend managed with a monthly minimum retainer fee of $10,000 at the lowest level. Our minimum fee is frankly much higher than a lot of other agencies and that’s by design. This goes back to what I was saying before about early-stage companies requiring a disproportionate amount of work relative to their budgets in order to be successful with paid acquisition. We apply a lot more focus and resources than other agencies and this allows us to achieve success where other agencies can’t. The tradeoff is that we need to charge more to deliver this higher quality of service.


Founder Recommendations:

“They helped me raise $5M+ and ran one of the most successful pre-order campaigns in 2017.” – Roderick De Rode, Venice, CA, Founder & CEO, Spinn, Inc.

“They have helped us dramatically accelerate our growth and act as an extension of our internal team.” – Digital Advertising Manager in Corte Madera

“They helped us establish a low customer acquisition cost before we were even able to ship product and help us convert site visitors to customers when we had influxes of traffic from press we received.” – Stephen Kuhl, NYC, Co-founder & CEO, Burrow

“Largely instrumental in the way we optimize and measure success of our mobile app install campaigns.” – User Acquisition & Growth Strategist in Denver

“Growth Pilots is a great partner. I on-boarded them to build out, optimize and scale all paid search and social campaigns for Instacart. In a few months, paid search and social became some of our best performing channels. They have good business acumen, move fast and work as an extension to your internal team.” – Guillaume McIntyre, SF,  Head of Acquisition Marketing, Instacart


By Yvonne Leow

How we scaled our startup by being remote first

Startups are often associated with the benefits and toys provided in their offices. Foosball tables! Free food! Dog friendly! But what if the future of startups was less about physical office space and more about remote-first work environments? What if, in fact, the most compelling aspect of a startup work environment is that the employees don’t have to go to one?

A remote-first company model has been Seeq’s strategy since our founding in 2013. We have raised $35 million and grown to more than 100 employees around the globe. Remote-first is clearly working for us and may be the best model for other software companies as well.

So, who is Seeq and what’s been the key to making the remote-first model work for us?  And why did we do it in the first place?

Seeq is a remote-first startup – i.e. it was founded with the intention of not having a physical headquarters or offices, and still operates that way – that is developing an advanced analytics application that enables process engineers and subject matter experts in oil & gas, pharmaceuticals, utilities, and other process manufacturing industries to investigate and publish insights from the massive amounts of sensor data they generate and store.

To succeed, we needed to build a team quickly with two skill sets: 1) software development expertise, including machine learning, AI, data visualization, open source, agile development processes, cloud, etc. and 2) deep domain expertise in the industries we target.

Which means there is no one location where we can hire all the employees we need: Silicon Valley for software, Houston for oil & gas, New Jersey for fine chemicals, Seattle for cloud expertise, water utilizes across the country, and so forth. But being remote-first gives has made recruiting and hiring these high-demand roles easier much easier than if we were collocated.

Image via Seeq Corporation

Job postings on remote-specific web sites like FlexJobs, Remote.co and Remote OK typically draw hundreds of applicants in a matter of days. This enables Seeq to hire great employees who might not call Seattle, Houston or Silicon Valley home – and is particularly attractive to employees with location-dependent spouses or employees who simply want to work where they want to live.

But a remote-first strategy and hiring quality employees for the skills you need is not enough: succeeding as a remote-first company requires a plan and execution around the “3 C’s of remote-first”.

The three requirements to remote-first success are the three C’s: communication, commitment and culture.


By Arman Tabatabai

CEO Howard Lerman on building a public company and the future of Yext

It’s just over two years since Yext debuted on the New York Stock Exchange, and to mark the occasion, I sat down with co-founder and CEO Howard Lerman for an interview.

As Lerman noted, Yext — which allows businesses to manage their profiles and information across a wide variety of online services — actually presented onstage at the TechCrunch 50 conference back in 2009. Now, it boasts a market capitalization of nearly $2.3 billion, and it just revealed plans to take over a nine-floor building in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, turning it into Yext’s global headquarters.

My interview with Lerman actually came before the announcement, though he managed to drop in a few veiled hints about the company making a big move in real estate.

More concretely, we talked about how Lerman’s management style has evolved from scrappy startup founder to a public company CEO — he described holding five-minute meetings with every Yext employee as “one of the best management techniques” he’s ever adopted.

Lerman also argued that as online misinformation has become a big issue, Yext has only become more important: “Our founding principle is that the ultimate authority on how many calories are in a Big Mac is McDonald’s. The ultimate authority on where Burger King is open is Burger King.”

Vowing that he will remain CEO of Yext for “as long as this board will have me,” Lerman ended our conversation with a passionate defense of the idea that “a company is the ultimate vehicle in America to effect good in the world.”

You can read a transcript of our conversation below, edited and condensed for clarity.

TechCrunch: To start with a really broad question, how do you think Yext is different now than it was two years ago?

Howard Lerman: One of the things that’s defined Yext over the years is our continuous willingness to reinvent ourselves. You started covering us in 2009 [at] TechCrunch 50, we were a launch company there.

And here we are now. One of the cool things about being public is: It’s a total gamechanger. It’s a gamechanger not just for access to capital, but it’s particularly important in global markets. And I’m not talking about capital markets, I’m talking about the markets in which we sell software. We have offices now from Berlin to Shanghai.


By Anthony Ha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Ingrid Lunden

Diving into Google Cloud Next and the future of the cloud ecosystem

Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch’s Frederic Lardinois and Ron Miller offered up their analysis on the major announcements that came out of Google’s Cloud Next conference this past week, as well as their opinions on the outlook for the company going forward.

Google Cloud announced a series of products, packages and services that it believes will improve the company’s competitive position and differentiate itself from AWS and other peers. Frederic and Ron discuss all of Google’s most promising announcements, including its product for managing hybrid clouds, its new end-to-end AI platform, as well as the company’s heightened effort to improve customer service, communication, and ease-of-use.

“They have all of these AI and machine learning technologies, they have serverless technologies, they have containerization technologies — they have this whole range of technologies.

But it’s very difficult for the average company to take these technologies and know what to do with them, or to have the staff and the expertise to be able to make good use of them. So, the more they do things like this where they package them into products and make them much more accessible to the enterprise at large, the more successful that’s likely going to be because people can see how they can use these.

…Google does have thousands of engineers, and they have very smart people, but not every company does, and that’s the whole idea of the cloud. The cloud is supposed to take this stuff, put it together in such a way that you don’t have to be Google, or you don’t have to be Facebook, you don’t have to be Amazon, and you can take the same technology and put it to use in your company”

Image via Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Frederic and Ron dive deeper into how the new offerings may impact Google’s market share in the cloud ecosystem and which verticals represent the best opportunity for Google to win. The two also dig into the future of open source in cloud and how they see customer use cases for cloud infrastructure evolving.

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


By Arman Tabatabai

Peter Kraus dishes on the market

During my recent conversation with Peter Kraus, which was supposed to be focused on Aperture and its launch of the Aperture New World Opportunities Fund, I couldn’t help veering off into tangents about the market in general. Below is Kraus’ take on the availability of alpha generation, the Fed, inflation vs. Amazon, housing, the cross-ownership of US equities by a few huge funds and high-frequency trading.

Gregg Schoenberg: Will alpha be more available over the next five years than it has been over the last five?

To think that at some point equities won’t become more volatile and decline 20% to 30%… I think it’s crazy.

Peter Kraus: Do I think it’s more available in the next five years than it was in the last five years? No. Do I think people will pay more attention to it? Yes, because when markets are up to 30%, if you get another five, it doesn’t matter. When markets are down 30% and I save you five by being 25% down, you care.

GS: Is the Fed’s next move up or down?

PK: I think the Fed does zero, nothing. In terms of its next interest rate move, in my judgment, there’s a higher probability that it’s down versus up.


By Gregg Schoenberg

Torch takes $10M to teach empathy to executives

When everyone always tells you ‘yes’, you can become a monster. Leaders especially need honest feedback to grow. “If you look at rich people like Donald Trump and you neglect them, you get more Donald Trumps” says Torch co-founder and CEO Cameron Yarbrough about our gruff president. His app wants to make executive coaching (a polite word for therapy) part of even the busiest executive’s schedule. Torch conducts a 360 interview with a client and their employees to assess weaknesses, lays out improvement goals, and provides one-on-one video chat sessions with trained counselors.

“Essentially we’re trying to help that person develop the capacity to be a more loving human being in the workplace” Yarbrough explains. That’s crucial in the age of ‘hustle porn’ where everyone tries to pretend they’re working all the time and constantly ‘crushing it’. That can leave leaders facing challenges feeling alone and unworthy. Torch wants to provide a private place to reach out for a helping hand or shoulder to cry on.

Now Torch is ready to lead the way to better management for more companies, as it’s just raised  $10 million Series A round led by Norwest Ventures along with Initialized Capital, Y Combinator, and West Ventures. It already has 100 clients including Reddit and Atrium, but the new cash will fuel its go-to market strategy. Rather than trying to democratize access to coaching, Torch is doubling-down on teaching founders, C-suites, and other senior executives how to care…or not care too much.

“I came out of a tough family myself and I had to do a ton of therapy and a ton of meditation to emerge and be an effective leader myself” Yarbrough recalls. “Philosophically, I care about personal growth. It’s just true all the way down to birth for me. What I’m selling is authentic to who I am.”

Torch’s co-founders met when they were in grad school for counseling psychology degrees, practicing group therapy sessions together. Yarbrough went on to practice clinically and start Well Clinic in the Bay Area while Keegan Walden got his PhD. Yarbrough worked with married couples to resolve troubles, and “the next thing i know I was working with high profile startup founders, who like anybody have their fair share of conflicts.”

Torch co-founders (from left): Cameron Yarbrough and Keegan Walden

Coaching romantic partners to be upfront about expectations and kind during arguments translated seamlessly to keep co-founders from buckling under stress. Yarbrough outlines how “I was noticing that they were consistently having problems with 5 different things:

1. Communication – Surfacing problems early with kindness

2. Healthy workplace boundaries – Making sure people don’t step on each other’s toes

3. How to manage conflict in a healthy way – Staying calm and avoiding finger-pointing

4. How to be positively influential – Being motivational without being annoying or pushy

5. How to manage one’s ego, whether that’s insecurity or narcissism – Seeing the team’s win as the first priority

To address those, companies hire Torch to coach one or more of their executives. Torch conducts extensive 360 interviews with the exec, as well as their reports, employees, and peers. It seeks to score them on empathy, visionary thinking, communication, conflict, management and collaboration, Torch then structures goals and improvement timelines that it tracks with follow-up interviews the team and quantifiable metrics that can all be tracked by HR through a software dashboard.

To make progress on these fronts, execs do video chat sessions through Torch’s app with coaches trained in these skills. “These are all working people with by nature very tight schedules. They don’t have time to come in for a live session so we come to them in the form of video” Yarbough tells me. Rates vary from $500 per month to $1500 per month for a senior coach in the US, Europe, APAC, or EMEA with Torch scoring a significant margin. “We’re B2B only. We’re not focused on being the most affordable solution. We’re focused on being the most effective. And we find that there’s less price sensitivity for senior leaders where the cost of their underperformance is incredibly high to the organization.” Torch’s top source of churn is clients’ going out of business, not ceasing to want its services.

Here are two examples of how big-wigs get better with Torch. “Let’s say we have a client who really just wants to be liked all the time, so much so that they have a hard time getting things done. The feedback from the 360 would come back like ‘I find that Cameron is continually telling me what I want to hear but I don’t know what the expectations are of me and I need him to be more direct.’” Yarbrough explains. “The problem is those leaders will eventually fire those people who are failing, but they’ll say they had no idea they weren’t performing because he never told them.” Torch’s coaches can teach them to practice tough-love when necessary and be more transparent. Meanwhile, a boss who storms around the office and “is super direct and unkind” could be instructed on how to “develop more empathic attunement.”

Yarbrough specifically designed Torch’s software to not be too prescriptive and leave room for the relationship between the coach and client to unfold. And for privacy, coaches don’t record notes and HR only sees the performance goals and progress, not the content of the video chats. It wants execs to feel comfortable getting real without the worry their personal or trade secrets could leak. “And if someone is bringing in something about trauma or that’s super sensitive about their personal life, their coach will refer them out to psychotherapists” Yarbrough assures me.

Torch’s direct competition comes from boutique executive coaching firms around the world, while on the tech side BetterUp is trying to make coaching scale to every type of employee. But its biggest foe is the stubborn status quo of stiff upper lipping it.

The startup world has been plagued by too many tragic suicides, deep depression, and paralyzing burnout. It’s easy for founders to judge their own worth not by self-confidence or even the absolute value of their accomplishments, but by their status relative to yesterday. That means one blown deal, employee quitting, or product delay can make an executive feel awful. But if they turn to their peers or investors, it could hurt their partnership and fundraising prospects. To keep putting in the work, they need an emotional outlet.

“We ultimately have to create this great software that super-powers human beings. People are not robots yet. They will be someday, but not yet” Yarbrough concludes with a laugh. IQ alone doesn’t make people succeed. Torch can help them develop the EQ, or emotional intelligence quotient, they need to become a boss that’s looked up to.


By Josh Constine

Goodly replaces lame office perks with student loan repayment

There are better employee perks than a ping-pong table. 70 percent of Americans graduate college with student loan debt. That’s 45 million people who owe $1.6 trillion. So when employers use Goodly to offer $100 per month in student loan payback for a $6 fee, talent sticks around. The startup found 86 percent of employees said they’d stay with a company for at least five years if their employer helped pay down their student loans. Yet employers break even if workers stay just two extra months, and get a 5X return if they stay an extra year since it costs so much to hire and train replacement staff.

Now, Y Combinator-backed Goodly has raised a $1.3 million seed round led by Norwest. The startup hopes capitalize on corporate America waking up to student loan payback as a benefit, which is expected grow from being offered by 4 percent of companies today to 32 percent by 2021.

Goodly co-founder and CEO Greg Poulin knows the student loan crisis personally. “When I was in school, my father passed away very unexpectedly due to a heart attack. I had to borrow $80,000 to for college at Dartmouth” he tells me. His monthly payment is now $900. The stress that debt creates can poison the rest of life. He says 21 percent of employees with student loan debt have delayed marriage, 28 percent have put off starting a family, and 1 out of 8 divorces is now directly attributed to student loan debt. “I’ve seen first-hand how challenging it is for employees to save for retirement or start a family” when they’re strapped with debt, Poulin says.

He met his co-founder and CTO Hemant Verma when they started working at Zenefits’ founder Parker Conrad’s new employee onboarding startup Rippling in 2017. That tought them how simplifying the benefits sign-up process could become its own business. Typically it requires that benefits be integrated with a company’s financial software like payroll and be set up with proper provisioning access. It’s enough of a chore that companies don’t go to the trouble of offering student loan repayment.

Poulin and Hemant started Goodly to create a “set it and forget it” system that automates everything. They charge $6 per month per participating employee and typically see adoption by 30 percent to 40 percent of employees. Rather than help with their monthly payment that includes interest, Goodly clients pay down their employees’ core debt so they can escape more quickly. Employees get a dashboard where they can track their debt and all of the contributions their company has made. Goodly hasn’t had a single customer churn since launch, demonstrating how badly employers want to keep job-hopping talent in their roles.

“We found that our people put off contributing to their 401Ks and buying a house because of their student loan debt. We thought that offering a Student Loan Repayment Benefit would be a great low-cost and high-impact benefit to attract and retain talent while alleviating some of the stress and the financial burden on our employees.” says Kim Alessi, an HR Generalist.

Goodly’s founders and first employees

The business opportunity here is relatively young but there are a few competitors. Boston-based Gratify was acquired by First Republic, which Santa Monica’s Tuition.io pivoted to offering student loan benefits. But Goodly’s connection to so many potential clients plus its new funding could help it make student loan repayment a ubiquitous perk. Along with Norwest and YC, the funding comes from ACE & Company, Arab Angel, Zeno Ventures, and angel investors including Optimizely’s Pete Koomen, DreamHost’s Josh Jones, ShipStation’s Jason Hodges, Fairy’s Avlok Kohli, and Telly’s Mo Al Adham.

Beyond improving talent retention, Goodly may also help erase some of the systematic discrimination against minorities in our country. Women hold 66 percent of all student loan debt, black and Latinx Americans have 31 percent more student debt than their peers, and LGBTQ borrowers owe $16,000 more than an average member of the population. Convincing employers to address student loan debt could give everyone more freedom of choice when it comes to what they work on and how they live their lives.


By Josh Constine

At cobotics startup Formant, ex-Googlers team up humans & machines

Our distinct skillsets and shortcomings mean people and robots will join forces for the next few decades. Robots are tireless, efficient, and reliable, but in a millisecond through intuition and situational awareness, humans can make decisions machine can’t. Until workplace robots are truly autonomous and don’t require any human thinking, we’ll need software to supervise them at scale. Formant comes out of stealth today to “help people speak robot” says co-founder and CEO Jeff Linnell. “What’s really going to move the needle in the innovation economy is using humans as an empowering element in automation.”

Linnell learned the grace of uniting flesh and steel while working on the movie Gravity. “We put cameras and Sandra Bullock on dollies” he bluntly recalls. Artistic vision and robotic precision combined to create gorgeous zero-gravity scenes that made audiences feel weightless. Google bought his startup Bot & Dolly, and Linnell spent 10 years there as a director of robotics while forming his thesis.

Now with Formant, he wants to make hybrid workforce cooperation feel frictionless.

The company has raised a $6 million seed round from SignalFire, a data driven VC fund with software for recruiting engineers. Formant is launching its closed beta that equips businesses with cloud infrastructure for collecting, making sense of, and acting on data from fleets of robots. It allows a single human to oversee 10, 20, or 100 machines, stepping in to clear confusion when they aren’t sure what to do.

“The tooling is 10 years behind the web” Linnell explains. “If you build a data company today, you’ll use AWS or Google Cloud, but that simply doesn’t exist for robotics. We’re building that layer.”

A Beautiful Marriage

“This is going to sound completely bizarre” Formant co-founder and CTO Anthony Jules warns me. “I had a recurring dream [as a child] in which I was a ship captain and I had a little mechanical parrot on my should that would look at situations and help me decide what to do as we’d sail the seas trying to avoid this octopus. Since then I knew that building intelligent machines is what I do in this world.”

So he went to MIT, left a robotics PhD program to build a startup called Sapient Corporation that he built into a 4000-employee public company, and worked on the Tony Hawk video games. He too joined Google through an acquisition, meeting Linnell after Redwood Robotics where he was COO got acquired. “We came up with some similar beliefs. There are a few places where full autonomy will actually work, but it’s really about creating a beautiful marriage of what machines are good at and what humans are good at” Jules tells me

Formant now has SAAS pilots running with businesses in several verticals to make their “robot-shaped data” usable. They range from food manufacturing to heavy infrastructure inspection to construction, and even training animals. Linnell also foresees retail increasingly employing fleets of robots not just in the warehouse but on the showroom floor, and they’ll require precise coordination.

What’s different about Formant is it doesn’t build the bots. Instead, it builds the reins for people to deftly control them.

First, Formant connects to sensors to fill up a cloud with Lidar, depth imagery, video, photos, log files, metrics, motor torques, and scalar values. The software parses that data and when something goes wrong or the system isn’t sure how to move forward, Formant alerts the human ‘foreman’ that they need to intervene. It can monitor the fleet, sniff out the source of errors, and suggest options for what to do next.

For example, “when an autonomous digger encounters an obstacle in the foundation of a construction site, an operator is necessary to evaluate whether it is safe for the robot to proceed or stop” Linnell writes. “This decision is made in tandem: the rich data gathered by the robot is easily interpreted by a human but difficult or legally questionable for a machine. This choice still depends on the value judgment of the human, and will change depending on if the obstacle is a gas main, a boulder, or an electrical wire.”

Any single data stream alone can’t reveal the mysteries that arise, and people would struggle to juggle the different feeds in their minds. But not only can Formant align the data for humans to act on, it can also turn their choices into valuable training data for artificial intelligence. Formant learns, so next time the machine won’t need assistance.

The industrial revolution, continued

With rockstar talent poached from Google and tides lifting all automated boats, Formant’s biggest threat is competition from tech giants. Old engineering companies like SAP could try to adapt to new real-time data type, yet Formant hopes to out-code them. Google itself has built reliable cloud scaffolding and has robotics experience from Boston Dynamics plus buying Linnell’s and Jules’ companies. But the enterprise customization necessary to connect with different clients isn’t typical for the search juggernaut.

Linnell fears that companies that try to build their own robot management software could get hacked. “I worry about people who do homegrown solutions or don’t have the experience we have from being at a place like Google. Putting robots online in an insecure way is a pretty bad problem.” Formant is looking to squash any bugs before it opens its platform to customers in 2019.

With time, humans will become less and less necessary, and that will surface enormous societal challenges for employment and welfare. “It’s in some ways a continuation of the industrial revolution” Jules opines. “We take some of this for granted but it’s been happening for 100 years. Photographer — that’s a profession that doesn’t exist without the machine that they use. We think that transformation will continue to happen across the workforce.”


By Josh Constine

The Mom Project, a job site for moms returning to work, nabs $8M from Initialized and more

If you are a mother who has taken a break from full-time employment to raise kids, you may have also experienced the challenge that is jumping back into the working world after your break.

You may find you need more time flexibility; you have been out of the job market for years and so your confidence is knocked; your skills are no longer as relevant as they were before; or you just want to rethink your career; plus many employers — whether they say it or not — seem less interested in you because of all of the above, and no level of burnishing your resume on LinkedIn will help. It can be tough (and I say that from first-hand experience).

Now, Chicago-based startup The Mom Project, a platform specifically built to help female knowledge workers find jobs after pausing to raise kids, has raised a little egg of its own to take on this challenge. It’s picked up a Series A of $8 million that it plans to use to bring its job marketplace to more cities — it’s currently in Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco — and to expand the kinds of services it offers to make the challenge of juggling work and parenthood easier.

The funding is being led by Grotech Ventures and Initialized Capital, with another new investor, Aspect Ventures, and previous backers Atlanta Seed Company, Engage Ventures, OCA Ventures, BBG Ventures, IrishAngels and Wintrust Financial also participating.

This brings the total raised by The Mom Project to $11 million, and with 75,000 registered moms and 1,000 companies including Procter & Gamble, BP, Miller Coors and AT&T, the startup claims it’s now the largest platform of its kind in the US.

From selling diapers to changing diapers

Allison Robinson, the founder and CEO of The Mom Project, said she came up with the idea for the startup in 2016, when she was on maternity leave from a strategy role at Pampers.

“I started realising a lot about moms before I became one,” she says about her last role before striking out as an entrepreneur. “But what I hadn’t understood until I was on maternity leave myself was that your priorities can change after having a child.” (She’s pictured up above with her son.)

Citing a study she’d seen in the Harvard Business Review that estimated 43 percent of skilled women exit the workforce after having children, Robinson realised there was a gap in the market for those among them who had timed out from returning to their previous roles, but still wanted to make the leap back into working at some point.

And she has a point: not only do people who decide they want to return to work face all of the usual issues of newly needing more time flexibility, wondering whether their skills are still current enough, general confidence, and so on; but the average recruitment process, and job sites overall, do not really have ways to account for any of that very well.

And the gap exists on the employer side of the marketplace, too. Businesses — both large corporates very much in the public eye as well as smaller businesses that are not — are rethinking how they hire and keep good people in the overall competition for talent. (Just this week, the UK’s Office of National Statistics said that the number of unfilled positions in the information and communication technology sector rose by 24.3 percent compared to last year in the country, a shortage that’s reflected in other markets.)

Having a diverse workforce — including more women and women from different walks of life — is key not only to helping counteract that, but to contribute to better overall work culture. That’s a fact that many employers have realised independently or have simply been thrown into the spotlight unwittingly and now are trying to repair.

And yet, there haven’t been many opportunities for them to pursue more diverse hiring practices.

LinkedIn recently made a tiny move into exploring diversity in hiring by at least allowing recruiters to search their job candidate results by gender, but this is a far cry from actually addressing the specific predicaments that particular segments of the working population have, and how to help them connect better with employers who might be keen to bring more of them on through recruitment.

In fact, the idea of providing improved job search for knowledge workers in specific cases is actually a very interesting one that shows there is definitely still room for innovation in the world of recruitment: Handshake earlier this year raised $40 million for its own take on this, which is providing a better LinkedIn-style platform to connect minority university graduates with interesting job opportunities at companies keen to make their workforces more diverse.

“Companies have started to realize the value in building a diverse workforce, but we still have a long way to go in achieving equal representation and opportunities,” said Julia Taxin, a partner at Grotech and new Mom Project board member. “Allison and her team have built an incredible marketplace of diverse talent for companies and I look forward to working with The Mom Project to execute on their vision of helping to close the gender gap in the workplace.”

The Mom Project, Robinson said, is tackling the challenges at both ends of the spectrum.

On the employer side, she said there is a lot of educating going on, talking to HR people and getting them to understand the opportunity they could unlock by hiring more parents — which tend to be almost entirely all-women, but sometimes men, too.

“We want to provide more data to these companies,” she said, pointing out that it’s not just a matter of providing a job opportunity, but also giving parents options in areas like childcare, or flexible working schedules. “We want to showg them ‘here is where you are doing well, and here is where you are not. Fixes don’t cost a lot of money, but a lot of companies are just not aware.”

“We’ve got 75,000 women on our platform, and currently around 1,000 companies posting jobs,” she said. “The goal is to have 75,000-plus jobs. We want to make sure that all the moms signing up on the platform are getting work.”

“The Mom Project is determined to create a future where women aren’t forced to choose between their families and their careers,”said Alda Dennis, partner at Initialized Capital and new Mom Project board member, in a statement. “There is a huge pool of experienced talent, parents and non-parents, that is sometimes overlooked because companies haven’t created the kind of diverse, flexible workplace culture that attracts and retains them. Initialized wants to be part of making this cultural shift happen.”

On the parent side, not only is it also about making the platform known to people who are considering a return to work, but it’s also about some fundamental, but very important basics, such as giving would-be jobseekers the flexibility to go to interviews. Robinson said that one campaign it’s about to launch, in partnership with Urban Sitter, is to provide free childcare credits to Mom Project jobseekers so that they can get to their interview.

“Sometimes you have to go to an interview with 24 hours notice, and lining up a sitter can be stressful,” she said. “We want to alleviate that.”

Parents also know that this isn’t just an issue for the interview: many towns and regions have what Robinson called “childcare deserts,” where there is a scarcity of affordable options to replace the parent on a more daily basis.

Contract work is king (and queen)

For now, Robinson said that the majority of jobs on the platform are focused on fixed-term employment — that is, not permanent, full-time work.

This is due to a number of reasons. For example, parents coming back to working after a break may be more inclined to ease in with shorter roles and less long-term commitment. And employers are still testing out how this demographic of workers will work out, so to speak. Equally, though, we have seen a huge swing in more general employment trends, where businesses are hiring fixed-term workers rather than full-time employees to account for seasonality and to give themselves more flexibility (not to mention less liability on the benefits front).

While Robinson said that the aim is definitely to bring more full-time job opportunities to the platform over time, this has nonetheless presented an interesting business opportunity to The Mom Project. The startup acts like Airbnb, Amazon and a number of other marketplaces, where it not only connects job-seekers and employers, but it then also then handles all the transactions around the job. When the job is fixed-term, the Mom Project essentially becomes like the job agency paying the employee, and that is how it makes a cut. And it also becomes the provider of benefits and more.

In other words, while there is an immediate opportunity for The Mom Project to compete against (or at least win some business off) the likes of LinkedIn to target the specific opportunity of providing jobs for women returning to work, there is potentially and equally big one in becoming a one-stop employment shop to handle customers other needs as employers or workers, providing a range of other services, from payroll through to childcare listings and more.

 


By Ingrid Lunden

Our 3 favorite startups from Morgan Stanley’s 2nd Multicultural Innovation Lab Demo Day

The Morgan Stanley Multicultural Innovation LabMorgan Stanley’s in-house accelerator focused on companies founded by multicultural and female entrepreneurs, hosted its second Annual Showcase and Demo Day.  The event also featured companies from accelerators HearstLab, Newark Venture Partner Labs and PS27 Ventures.  (Note: I was formerly employed by Morgan Stanley and have no financial ties.)

The showcase represented the culmination of the program’s second year, which followed an initial five company class that has already seen two acquisitions.  Through the six-month program, Morgan Stanley provides early-stage companies with a wide range of benefits including an equity investment from Morgan Stanley, office space at Morgan Stanley headquarters, access to Morgan Stanley’s extensive network, and others.  Applications are now open for its third cohort of companies with the application window closing on January 4th, 2019.

The 16 presenting startups, all led by a female or multicultural founder, offered solutions to structural inefficiencies across a wide array of categories including fintech, developer tools, and health.  Though all of the companies offered impressive presentations and strong value propositions, here are three of the companies that stood out to us.

Hatch Apps

In hopes of democratizing software and app development, Hatch Apps provides a platform that allows users and companies to build iOS, Android and web applications without any code through pre-built templates and custom plug-and-play functions.  In essence, Hatch Apps provides a solution for application building similar to what Squarespace or Wix provide for websites.

In the modern economy, every company is in one way or another a tech or tech-enabled company.  Now the demand for strong engineers has made the fight for talent increasingly competitive and has made engineering quite costly, even when only needed for simple tasks. 

For an implementation and subscription fee, Hatch Apps allows companies with less sophisticated engineering DNA to reduce entering costs by launch native apps on their own, across platforms, and often on faster timelines than those seen through third-party developers.  Once an app is launched, Hatch Apps provides customers with detailed analytics and allows them to send targeted push notifications, export data and make in-app changes that can automatically go live in app stores.

The company initially took a bootstrapping approach to financing and raised funds by selling a 2016 election-themed “Cards Against Humanity”-style game created on the platform.  Since then, Hatch Apps has already received funding from the Y Combinator Fellowship, Morgan Stanley, and a number of other investors.

FreeWill

While estate planning is a topic many don’t like to think about, it’s a critical issue for managing cross-generational wealth. But will drafting can often be very complex, time-consuming, and costly, requiring hours of legal consultation and coordination between various parties.

Founded by two former classmates at Stanford Business School, FreeWill looks to simplify the estate planning process by providing a free online platform that automates will drafting, in a similar function to what TurboTax does for taxes.  Using FreeWill, users can quickly set allocations for their estate and select personal recipients, charitable donations, executor specifications, and other ancillary requests.  The platform then creates a finalized legal document that is legally valid in all 50 states, which users can also quickly make changes to and replace without incurring expensive legal costs.

FreeWill is able to provide the platform to consumers for free due to the proceeds it receives from its non-profit customers, who pay to be featured on the platform as a partner organization.  FreeWill offers a compelling value proposition for partnering companies.  By acting as a channel to funnel user donations to listed organizations, FreeWill has been able to drive a 600% increase in charitable giving to partner organizations on average.  FreeWill also provides partner organizations with backing analytics that allow non-profits to track bequests and donors through monthly reports. 

FreeWill currently boasts an impressive roster of 75 paying non-profit partners that include American Red Cross, Amnesty International and many others.  In the long-run hopes to be the go-to solution financial and legal end of life planning for investment advisors, life insurance and employee benefits providers.

Shoobs

Shoobs is looking to be the go-to platform for local “urban” events, which the company defined as events centered on local nightlife, comedy and concerts in the hip-hop, R&B, and reggae genres to name a few.  But unlike the genre-agnostic, transaction-focused event management platforms that can make the space seem pretty crowded, Shoobs focused on providing genre-specific even discovery.  Shoobs matches urban event goers with artists of their choice and related smaller scale events that can be harder to discover, acting as a form of curation, quality control and discovery.

For event organizers, Shoobs helps provide digital ticketing and promotion services, with event recommendation capabilities that target the most promising potential customers.  Through its offering to event organizers, Shoobs is able to monetize its services through ticket sale commission, advertising and brand partnerships.

Since its initial launch in London, Shoobs notes it has become one of the top urban events platforms in the city, with an extensive base of recurring registered users and event organizers.  After previously working with AEG for its London launch, Shoobs is looking to expand stateside with the help of organizers like Live Nation.  Shoobs joins a long list of promising Y Combinator alumni companies with YC also acting as one of Shows initial investors

Other presenting companies included:

Morgan Stanley Multicultural Innovation Lab

  • BeautyLynk “is an on-demand hair and makeup service provider, specializing in customizable services for women.”
  • Broadway Roulette “is an events marketplace that pairs consumers with surprise cultural events, beginning with Broadway theater.”
  • CariClub “is an enterprise software platform to connect young professionals with nonprofit opportunities.”
  • COI Energy Services “is an integrated platform for electric utilities and business users to optimize and manage energy usage.”
  • CoSign “is an API and application that allows anyone to create, distribute and monetize visual content.”
  • Goalsetter “is a goals-based gifting, savings, and investing platform designed for children.”
  • myLAB Box “offers customizable at home health-test kits and relevant telemedicine consultations / prescription services.”

Hearst Labs

  • Priori “is a global legal marketplace changing the way in-house teams find, hire, and manage outside counsel.”
  • TRENCH “is an online fashion marketplace that makes use of the unworn items in every woman’s closet.”

Newark Venture Partners Labs

  • Floss Bar “is a new type of preventive brand for oral health care. The company offers high-quality, routine dental care across flexible locations at thoughtful prices.”
  • Upsider “is a software solution allowing recruiters to leverage AI technology to identify a comprehensive set of candidates who align with their business and role requirements, resulting in a more strategic understanding of the best possible talent for the job.”

PS27 Ventures

  • BlueWave Technologies “is a cleantech company and the creators of the BlueWave™ Cleaning System — a water free, detergent free, and chemical free plasma device that cleans items that are extremely hard or impossible to clean with a washer and dryer.”
  • OnPay Solutions “focuses exclusively on business-to-business payments. They create payment software and offer payment web services to enhance efficiency and productivity for Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivable.”


By Arman Tabatabai