Zoom looks beyond video conferencing as triple-digit 2020 growth begins to slow

It’s been a heady 12-18 months for Zoom, the decade-old company that experienced monster 2020 growth and more recently, a mega acquisition with the $14.7 billion Five9 deal in July. That addition is part of a broader strategy the company has been undertaking the last couple of years to move beyond its core video conferencing market into adjacencies like phone, meeting management and messaging, among other things. Here’s a closer look at how the plan is unfolding.

As the pandemic took hold in March 2020, everyone from businesses to schools to doctors and and places of worship moved online. As they did, Zoom video conferencing became central to this cultural shift and the revenue began pouring in, ushering in a period of sustained triple-digit growth for the company that only recently abated.


By Ron Miller

Defy Partners leads $3M round into sales intelligence platform Aircover

Aircover raised $3 million in seed funding to continue developing its real-time sales intelligence platform.

Defy Partners led the round with participation from Firebolt Ventures, Flex Capital, Ridge Ventures and a group of angel investors.

The company, headquartered in the Bay Area, aims to give sales teams insights relevant to closing the sale as they are meeting with customers. Aircover’s conversational AI software integrates with Zoom and automates parts of the sales process to lead to more effective conversations.

“One of the goals of launching the Zoom SDK was to provide developers with the tools they need to create valuable and engaging experiences for our mutual customers and integrations ecosystem,” said Zoom’s CTO Brendan Ittelson via email. “Aircover’s focus on building sales intelligence directly into the meeting, to guide customer-facing teams through the entire sales cycle, is the type of innovation we had envisioned when we set out to create a broader platform.”

Aircover’s founding team of Andrew Levy, Alex Young and Andrew’s brother David Levy worked together at Apteligent, a company co-founded and led by Andrew Levy, that was sold to VMware in 2017.

Chatting about pain points on the sales process over the years, Levy said it felt like the solution was always training the sales team more. However, by the time everyone was trained, that information would largely be out-of-date.

Instead, they created Aircover to be a software tool on top of video conferencing that performs real-time transcription of the conversation and then analysis to put the right content in front of the sales person at the right time based on customer issues and questions. This means that another sales expert doesn’t need to be pulled in or an additional call scheduled to provide answers to questions.

“We are anticipating that knowledge and parsing it out at key moments to provide more leverage to subject matter experts,” Andrew Levy told TechCrunch. “It’s like a sales assistant coming in to handle any issue.”

He considers Aircover in a similar realm with other sales team solutions, like Chorus.ai, which was recently scooped up by ZoomInfo, and Gong, but sees his company carving out space in real-time meeting experiences. Other tools also record the meetings, but to be reviewed after the call is completed.

“That can’t change the outcome of the sale, which is what we are trying to do,” Levy added.

The new funding will be used for product development. Levy intends to double his small engineering team by the end of the month.

He calls what Aircover is doing a “large interesting problem we are solving that requires some difficult technology because it is real time,” which is why the company was eager to partner with Bob Rosin, partner at Defy Partners, who joins Aircover’s board of directors as part of the investment.

Rosin joined Defy in 2020 after working on the leadership teams of Stripe, LinkedIn and Skype. He said sales and customer teams need tools in the moment, and while some are useful in retrospect, people want them to be live, in front of the customer.

“In the early days, tools helped before and after, but in the moment when they need the most help, we are not seeing many doing it,” Rosin added. “Aircover has come up with the complete solution.”

 


By Christine Hall

Virtual meeting platform Vowel raises $13.5M, aims to cure meeting fatigue

Meetings are an inevitable part of the work day, but as workplaces became more distributed over the past 18 months, Vowel CEO Andy Berman says we are steadily moving toward “death by meeting.”

His virtual meeting platform is the latest to receive venture capital funding — $13.5 million — with the goal of making meetings more useful before, during and after.

Vowel is launching a meeting operating system with tools like real-time transcription; integrated agendas, notes and action items; meeting analytics; and searchable, on-demand recordings of meetings. The company has a freemium business model and will also be rolling out a business plan this fall for $16 per user per month. Extra features will include advanced integrations, security and admin controls.

The Series A was led by David Hornik of Lobby Capital, who was joined by existing investors Amity Ventures and Box Group and a group of individual investors, including Calendly CEO Tope Awotona, Intercom co-founder Des Traynor, Slack VP Ethan Eismann, former Yammer executive Viviana Faga, former InVision president David Fraga and Okta co-founder Frederic Kerrest.

Prior to starting Vowel, Berman was one of the founders of baby monitor company Nanit. The company had teams spread out around the world, and communication was tough as a result. In 2018, the company went looking for a tool that would work for synchronous and asynchronous meetings, but there were still a lot of time zones to manage, he said.

Taking a cue from Nanit’s own baby monitors that were streaming video over 17 hours a day, the idea for Vowel was born, and the company began to focus on the hypothesis that distributed work would be prevalent.

“People initially thought we were crazy, but then the pandemic hit, and everyone was learning how to work remotely,” Berman told TechCrunch. “As we now go back to hybrid work, we see this as an opportunity.”

In 2017, Harvard Business Review reported that executives spent 23 hours in meetings each week. Berman now estimates that the average worker spends half of their time each week in meetings.

Vowel is out to bring Slack, Figma and GitHub components to meetings by recording audio and video that can be paused at any time. Users can add notes and see where those notes fall within a real-time transcription that enables people who arrive late or could not make the meeting to catch up easily. After meetings are over, they can be shared, and Vowel has a search function so that users can go back and see where a particular person or topic was discussed.

The new funding will enable the company to grow its team in product, design and engineering. Vowel plans to hire up to 30 new people over the next year. The company recently closed its beta test and has amassed a 10,000-person waitlist. The public launch will happen in the fall, Berman said.

Workplace productivity and office communication tools are not new concepts, but as Berman explained, became increasingly important when homes became offices over the past 18 months.

Competitors took different approaches to solving these problems: focusing on video conferencing or audio or meeting management with plugins. Berman says an area where many have not succeeded yet is integrating meetings into the typical workflow. That’s where Vowel comes in with its “meeting OS,” he added.

“Our goal is to make meetings more inclusive and worthwhile, which includes the prep, the meeting and the follow-up,” Berman said. “We see the future will be about knowledge management, so the difference between what we are doing is ensuring you can catch up quickly and keep that knowledge base. A Garner report said that 75% of workplace meetings will be recorded by 2025, and that is a trend we are reinventing from the ground up.”

David Hornick, founding partner at Lobby Capital, said he became acquainted with Vowel from its existing investor Amity Ventures. Hornick, who sits on the GitLab board, said GitLab was one of the largest distributed companies in the tech space, prior to the pandemic, and saw first-hand the challenge of making distributed teams functionable.

When Hornick heard about Vowell, he said he “jumped quickly” on the opportunity. His firm typically invests in platform businesses that have the capacity to transform business spaces. Many are pure software, like Splunk or GitLab, while others are akin to Bill.com, which transformed how small businesses manage financial operations, he added.

All of those combine into a company, like Vowel, especially given the company’s vision for a meeting OS to transform a meeting space that hadn’t moved forward in decades, he said.

“This was quickly obvious to me because my day is meetings — an eight-Zoom day is a normal day — I just wish I could remember everything,” Hornick said. “Speaking with early customers using the product, when I asked them what they would do if this ever went away, the first thing they said was ‘cry,’ and, because there was no alternative, would return to Zoom or other tools, but it would be a big setback.”


By Christine Hall

Zoom announces first startups receiving funding from $100M investment fund

For more than year now, Zoom has been on a mission to transform from an application into a platform. To that end it made three announcements last year: Zoom Apps development tools, the Zoom Apps marketplace and a $100 million development fund to invest in some of the more promising startups building tools on top of their platform. Today, at the closing bell, the company announced it has made its first round of investments.

Ross Mayfield, product lead for Zoom Apps and integrations spoke to TechCrunch about the round of investments. “We’re in the process of creating this ecosystem. We felt it important, particularly to focus on the seed stage and A stage of partnering with entrepreneurs to create great things on this platform. And I think what you see in the first batch of more than a dozen investments is representative of something that’s going to be a significant ongoing undertaking,” he explained.

He said while they aren’t announcing exact investment amounts, they are writing checks for between $250,000 and $2.5 million. They are teaming with other investment partners, rather than leading the rounds, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t working with these startups using internal resources for advice and executive backing, beyond the money.

“Every one of these investments has an executive or senior sponsor within the company. So there’s another person inside that knows the lay of the land, can help them advance and spend more personal time with them,” Mayfield said.

The company is also running several Zoom chat channels for the startups receiving investments to learn from one another and the Zoom Apps team. “We have a shared chat channel between the startup and my team. We have a channel called Announcements and a channel called Help, and another one that the startups created called Community,” he said.

Every week they use these channels to hold a developer office hour, business office hour which Mayfield runs, and then there’s a community hour where the startups can gather and talk amongst themselves about whatever they want.

Among the specific categories receiving funding are collaboration and productivity, community and charity, DE&I and PeopleOps, and gaming and entertainment. In the collaboration and productivity category, Warmly is a sales tool that provides background and information about each person participating in the meeting ahead of time, while allowing the meeting organizer to create customized Zoom backgrounds for each event.

Another is Fathom, which alleviates the need to take notes during a meeting, but it’s more than recording and transcription. “It gives you this really simple interface where you can just tag moments. And then, as a result you have this transcript of the video recording, and you can click on those tagged moments as highlights, and then share a clip of the meeting highlights to Salesforce, Slack and other tools,” Mayfield said.

Pledge enables individuals or organizations to request and collect donations inside a Zoom meeting instantly, and Canvas is a hiring and interview tool that helps companies build diverse teams with data that helps them set and meet DEI goals.

These and the other companies represent the first tranche of investments from this fund, and Mayfield says the company intends to continue looking for startups using the Zoom platform to build their startup or integrate with Zoom.

He says that every company starts as a feature, then becomes a product and then aspires to be a line of products. The trick is getting there.  The goal of the investment program and the entire set of Zoom Apps tools is about helping these companies take the first step.

“The art of being an entrepreneur is working with that risk in the absence of resources and pushing at the frontier of what you know.” Zoom is trying to be a role model, a mentor and an investor on that journey.


By Ron Miller

Zoom fatigue no more: Rewatch raises $20M to index, transcribe and store enterprise video content

We don’t hear as much these days about “Zoom fatigue” as we did in the first months after the Covid-19 pandemic kicked off last year, but what’s less clear is whether people became more tolerant to the medium, or if they’d found ways of coping with it better, or if they were hopeful that tools for coping would soon be around the corner.

Today, a startup that has come up with a solution to handling all that video is announcing some funding to grow, on the understanding that whatever people are doing with video today, there will be a lot more video to handle in the future, and they will need more than just a good internet connection, microphone and video camera to deal with it.

Rewatch, which has built a set of tools for organizations to create a “system of record” for their internal video archives — not just a place to “rewatch” all of their older live video calls, but to search and organise information arising from those calls — has closed a $20 million round of funding.

Along with this, Rewatch from today is opening up its platform from invite-only to general availability.

This latest round is a Series A and is being led by Andreessen Horowitz, with Semil Shah at Haystack and Kent Goldman at Upside Partners, as well as a number of individuals, also participating.

It comes on the heels of Rewatch announcing a $2 million seed round only in January of this year. But it’s had some buzz in the intervening months: customers that have started using Rewatch include GitHub (where co-founders Connor Sears and Scott Goldman previously worked together), Brex, Envoy, and The Athletic.

The issue that Rewatch is tackling is the fact that a lot more of our work communications are happening over video. But while video calling has been hailed as a great boost to productivity — you can work wherever you are now, as long as you have a video connection — in fact, it’s not.

Yes, we are talking to each other a lot, but we are also losing information from those calls because they’re not being tracked as well as they could be. And, by spending all of our time talking, many of us are working on other things less, or are confined into more rigid times when we can.

Rewatch has built a system that plugs into Zoom and Google Meet, two of the most-used video tools in the workplace, and automatically imports all of your office’s or team’s video chats into a system. This lets you browse libraries of video-based conversations or meetings to watch them on-demand, on your time. It also provides transcripts and search tools for finding information in those calls.

You can turn off the automatic imports, or further customize how meetings are filed or accessibility. Sears said that Rewatch can be used for any video created on any platform, for now those require manually importing the videos into the Rewatch system.

Sears also said that over time it will also be adding in ways to automatically turn items from meetings into, say, work tickets to follow them up.

While there are a number of transcription services available on tap these days, as well as any number of cloud-based storage providers where you can keep video archives, what is notable about Rewatch’s is that it’s identified the pain point of managing and indexing those archives and keeping them in a single place for many to use.

In this way, Rewatch is highlighting and addressing what I think of as the crux of the productivity paradox.

Essentially, it is this: the tech industry has given us a lot of tools to help us work better, but actually, the work required to use those tools can outweigh the utility of the tools themselves.

(And I have to admit, this is one of the reasons why I’ve grown to dislike Slack. Yes, we all get to communicate on it, and it’s great to have something to connect all of us, but it just takes up so much damn time to read through everything and figure out what’s useful and what is just watercooler chat.)

“We go to where companies already are, and we automate, pull in video so that you don’t have to think about it,” Sears said. “The effort around a lot of this takes a lot of diligence to make sure people are recording and transcribing and distributing and removing. We are making this seamless and effortless.”

It sometimes feels like we are on the cusp, technologically, of leaning on tools by way of AI and other innovations that might finally cross that chasm and give us actual productivity out of our productivity apps. Dooly, which raised funding last week, is looking to do the same in the world of sales software (automatically populating various sales software with data from your phone, video and text chats, and other sources), is another example of how this is playing out.

Similarly, we’re starting to see an interesting wave of companies emerge that are looking for better ways to manage and tap into all that video content that we now have swimming around us. AnyClip, which announced funding yesterday, is also applying better analytics and search to internal company video libraries, but also has its sights on a wider opportunity: organizing any video trove. That points, too, to the bigger opportunity for Rewatch.

For now, though, enterprises and businesses are an opportunity enough.

“As investors we get excited about founders first and foremost, and Connor and Scott immediately impressed us with their experience, clear articulation of the problem, and their vision for how Rewatch could be the end-all solution for video and knowledge management in an organization,” noted David Ulevitch, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, in a blog post. “They both worked at GitHub in senior roles from the early days, as a Senior Director of Product Design and a Principal Engineer, respectively, and have first-hand experience scaling a product. Since founding Rewatch in early 2020, they have very quickly built a great product, sold it to large-scale customers, and hired top-tier talent, demonstrating rapid founder and company velocity that is key to building an enduring company.”


By Ingrid Lunden

Will Zoom Apps be the next hot startup platform?

When Zoom announced Zapps last month — the name has since been wisely changed to Zoom Apps — VC Twitter immediately began speculating that Zoom could make the leap from successful video conferencing service to becoming a launching pad for startup innovation. It certainly caught the attention of former TechCrunch writer and current investor at Signal Fire Josh Constine, who tweeted that “Zoom’s new ‘Zapps’ app platform will crush or king-make lots of startups.”

As Zoom usage exploded during the pandemic and it became a key tool for business and education, the idea of using a video conferencing platform to build a set of adjacent tooling makes a lot of sense. While the pandemic will come to an end, we have learned enough about remote work that the need for tools like Zoom will remain long after we get the all-clear to return to schools and offices.

We are already seeing promising startups like Mmhmm, Docket and ClassEdu built with Zoom in mind, and these companies are garnering investor attention. In fact, some investors believe Zoom could be the next great startup ecosystem.

Moving beyond video conferencing

Salesforce paved the way for Zoom more than a decade ago when it opened up its platform to developers and later launched the AppExchange as a distribution channel. Both were revolutionary ideas at the time. Today we are seeing Zoom building on that.

Jim Scheinman, founding managing partner at Maven Ventures and an early Zoom investor (who is credited with naming the company) says he always saw the service as potentially a platform play. “I’ve been saying publicly, before anyone realized it, that Zoom is the next great open platform on which to build billion-dollar businesses,” Scheinman told me.

He says he talked with Zoom leadership about opening up the platform to external developers several years ago before the IPO. It wasn’t really a priority at that point, but COVID-19 pushed the idea to the forefront. “Post-IPO and COVID, with the massive growth of Zoom on both the enterprise and consumer side, it became very clear that an app marketplace is now a critical growth area for Zoom, which creates a huge opportunity for nascent startups to scale,” he said.

Jason Green, founder and managing director at Emergence Capital (another early investor in Zoom and Salesforce) agreed: “Zoom believes that adding capabilities to the core Zoom platform to make it more functional for specific use cases is an opportunity to build an ecosystem of partners similar to what Salesforce did with AppExchange in the past.”

Building the platform

Before a platform can succeed with developers, it requires a critical mass of users, a bar that Zoom has clearly passed. It also needs a set of developer tools to connect to the various services on the platform. Then the substantial user base acts as a ready market for the startup. Finally, it requires a way to distribute those creations in a marketplace.

Zoom has been working on the developer components and brought in industry veteran Ross Mayfield, who has been part of two collaboration startups in his career, to run the developer program. He says that the Zoom Apps development toolset has been designed with flexibility to allow developers to build applications the way that they want.

For starters, Zoom has created WebViews, a way to embed functionality into an application like Zoom. To build WebViews in Zoom, the company created a JS Kit, which in combination with existing Zoom APIs enables developers to build functionality inside the Zoom experience. “So we’re giving developers a lot of flexibility in what experience they create with WebViews plus using our very rich set of API’s that are part of the existing platform and creating some new API’s to create the experience,” he said.


By Ron Miller

Cisco acquiring BabbleLabs to filter out the lawn mower screeching during your video conference

We’ve all been in a video conference, especially this year, when the neighbor started mowing the lawn or kids were playing outside your window — and it can get pretty loud. Cisco, which owns the WebEx video conferencing service wants to do something about that, and late yesterday it announced it was going to acquire BabbleLabs, a startup that can help filter out background noise.

BabbleLabs has a very particular set of skills. It uses artificial intelligence to enhance the speaking voice, while filtering out those unwanted background noises that seem to occur whenever you happen to be in a meeting.

Interestingly enough, Cisco also sees this as a kind of privacy play by removing background conversation. Jeetu Patel, senior vice president and general manager in the Cisco Security and Applications Business Unit, says that this should go a long way toward improving the meeting experience for Cisco users.

“Their technology is going to provide our customers with yet another important innovation — automatically removing unwanted noise — to continue enabling exceptional Webex meeting experiences,” Patel, who was at Box for many years before joining Cisco recently, said in a statement.

In a blog post, BabbleLabs CEO and co-founder Chris Rowen wrote that conversations about being acquired by Cisco began just recently, and the deal came together pretty quickly. “We quickly reached a common view that merging BabbleLabs into the Cisco Collaboration team could accelerate our common vision dramatically,” he wrote.

BabbleLabs, which launched three years ago and raised $18 million, according to Crunchbase, had an interesting, but highly technical idea. That can sometimes be difficult to translate into a viable commercial product, but makes a highly attractive acquisition target for a company like Cisco.

Brent Leary, founder and principal analyst at CRM Essentials, says this acquisition could be seen as part of a broader industry consolidation. “We’re seeing consolidation taking place as the big web conferencing players are snapping up smaller players to round out their platforms,” he said.

He added, “WebEx may not be getting the attention that Zoom is, but it still has a significant presence in the enterprise, and this acquisition will allow them to keep improving their offering,”

The deal is expected to close in the current quarter after regulatory approval. Upon closing, BabbleLabs employees will become part of Cisco’s Collaboration Group.


By Ron Miller

Zoom introduces all-in-one home communications appliance for $599

Zoom has become the de facto standard for online communications during the pandemic, but the company has found that it’s still a struggle for many employees to set up the equipment and the software to run a meeting effectively. The company’s answer is an all-in-one communications appliance with Zoom software ready to roll in a simple touch interface.

The device dubbed the Zoom for Home – DTEN ME, is being produced by partner DTEN. It consists of a stand-alone 27 inch screen, essentially a large tablet equipped with three wide-angle cameras designed for high-resolution video and 8 microphones. Zoom software is pre-loaded on the device and the interface is designed to provide easy access to popular Zoom features.

Zoom for Home – DTEN ME with screen sharing on. Image Credit: Zoom

Jeff Smith, head of Zoom Rooms, says that the idea is to offer an appliance that you can pull out of the box and it’s ready to use with minimal fuss. “Zoom for Home is an initiative from Zoom that allows any Zoom user to deploy a personal collaboration device for their video meetings, phone calls, interactive whiteboard annotation — all the good stuff that you want to do on Zoom, you can do with a dedicated purpose-built device,” Smith told TechCrunch.

He says this is designed with simplicity in mind, so that you pull it out of the box and launch the interface by entering a pairing code on a website on your laptop or mobile phone. Once the interface appears, you simply touch the function you want such as making a phone call or starting a meeting and it connects automatically.

Image Credits: Zoom

You can link it to your calendar so that all your meetings appear in a sidebar, and you just touch the next meeting to connect. If you need to share your screen it includes ultrasonic pairing between the appliance and your laptop or mobile phone. This works like Bluetooth, but instead of sending out a radio signal, it sends out a sound between 18 and 22 kHz, which most people can’t hear, to connect the two devices, Smith said.

Smith says Zoom will launch with two additional partners including the Neat Bar and the Poly Studio X Series, and could add other partners in the future.

The DTEN appliance will cost $599 and works with an existing Zoom license. The company is taking pre-orders and the devices are expected to ship next month.


By Ron Miller

Is Zoom the next Android, or the next BlackBerry?

In business, there’s nothing so valuable as having the right product at the right time. Just ask Zoom, the hot cloud-based video conferencing platform experiencing explosive growth thanks to its sudden relevance in the age of sheltering in place.

Having worked at BlackBerry in its heyday in the early 2000s, I see a lot of parallels to what Zoom is going through right now. As Zooming into a video meeting or a classroom is today, so too was pulling out your BlackBerry to fire off an email or check your stocks circa 2002. Like Zoom, the company then known as Research in Motion had the right product for enterprise users that increasingly wanted to do business on the go.

Of course, BlackBerry’s story didn’t have a happy ending.

From 1999 to 2007, BlackBerry seemed totally unstoppable. But then Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, Google launched Android and all of the chinks in the BlackBerry armor started coming undone, one by one. How can Zoom avoid the same fate?

As someone who was at both BlackBerry and Android during their heydays, my biggest takeaway is that product experience trumps everything else. It’s more important than security (an issue Zoom is getting blasted about right now), what CIOs want, your user install base and the larger brand identity.

When the iPhone was released, many people within BlackBerry rightly pointed out that we had a technical leg up on Apple in many areas important to business and enterprise users (not to mention the physical keyboard for quickly cranking out emails)… but how much did that advantage matter in the end? If there is serious market pull, the rest eventually gets figured out… a lesson I learned from my time at BlackBerry that I was lucky enough to be able to immediately apply when I joined Google to work on Android.


By Walter Thompson

Verizon wraps up BlueJeans acquisition lickety split

When Verizon (which owns this publication) announced it was buying video conferencing company BlueJeans for around $500 million last month, you probably thought it was going take awhile to bake, but the companies announced today that they has closed the deal.

While it’s crystal clear that video conferencing is a hot item during the pandemic, all sides maintained that this deal was about much more than the short-term requirements of COVID-19. In fact, Verizon saw an enterprise-grade video conferencing platform that would fit nicely into its 5G strategy around things like tele-medicine and online learning.

They believe these needs will far outlast the current situation, and BlueJeans puts them in good shape to carry out a longer-term video strategy, especially on the burgeoning 5G platform. As BlueJean’s CEO Quentin Gallivan and co-founders, Krish Ramakrishnan and Alagu Periyannan reiterated in a blog post today announcing the deal has been finalized, they saw a lot of potential for growth inside the Verizon Business family that would have been difficult to achieve as a stand-alone company.

“Today, organizations are relying on connectivity and digital communications now more than ever. As Verizon announced, adding BlueJeans’ trusted, enterprise-grade video conferencing and event platform to the company’s Advanced Communications portfolio is critical to keep businesses, from small organizations to some of the world’s largest multinational brands, operating at the highest level,” the trio wrote.

As Alan Pelz-Sharpe, founder and principal analyst at Deep Analysis told TechCrunch at the time of the acquisition announcement, Verizon got a good deal here.

Verizon is getting one of the only true enterprise-grade online conferencing systems in the market at a pretty low price,” he told TechCrunch. “On one level, all these systems do pretty much the same thing, but BlueJeans has always prided itself on superior sound and audio quality. It is also a system that scales well and can handle large numbers of participants as well, if not better, than its nearest competitors.

BlueJean brings with it 15,000 enterprise customers. It raised $175 million since its founding in 2009.


By Ron Miller

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

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

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

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

How do these games work?

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

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


    By Walter Thompson

Okta COVID-19 app usage report finds it’s not just collaboration seeing a huge uptick

Okta released a special COVID-19 edition of its app usage report today, and you don’t need a Ph. D. in statistics to guess what they found. Indeed, Zoom surged 110% on the Okta network, leading the way in usage growth just as you would expect, but another whole class of tools besides collaboration also saw huge increases in usage.

As Okta wrote in the report, “We see growth in two major areas: collaboration tools, especially video conferencing apps, and network security tools such as VPNs that extend secure access to remote workers.”

These plumbing tools might not be as sexy as the collaboration tools or boast triple digit growth like Zoom did, but they are seeing a substantial increase in usage as company IT departments try to bring some order to a widely distributed workforce.

As Okta pointed out in the report, bad actors have been looking to take advantage of the situation, as they tend to do, and these folks do love to sew some chaos.

Image Credit: Okta

The biggest winners here beyond collaboration tools were VPN businesses with Palo Alto Networks GlobalProtect and Cisco AnyConnect coming in at 94% and 86% usage increases respectively. But they weren’t the only tools growing, as Okta reported the Citrix ADC load balancing tool and ProofPoint’s security training apps also showed strong gains.

It’s probably not surprising that these kinds of tools are seeing an increase in usage with so many employees working from home, but it is interesting to see which vendors are benefiting from the move.

It’s also worth noting that Okta can point to a clear demarcation date when usage began to tick up. It’s easy to forget now, but March 6th was the last day of “normal” app usage before we started to see usage of these tools start to surge.

Image Credit: Okta

While reports of this kind are somewhat limited because of the focus on a particular set of customers and the tools they use, it does give you a sense of general trends in technology involving 8,000 Okta customers and 6,500 app integrations.


By Ron Miller

Verizon’s BlueJeans acquisition is about more than the work-from-home trend

It would be easy to assume that Verizon’s purchase last week of video-conferencing tool BlueJeans was an opportunistic move to capitalize on the sudden shift to remote work, but the ball began rolling last June and has implications far beyond current work-from-home requirements.

The video-chat darling of the moment is Zoom, but BlueJeans is considered by many to be the enterprise tool of choice. The problem, it seems, is that it had grown as far as it could on its own and went looking for a larger partner to help it reach the next level.

BlueJeans started working with Verizon (which owns this publication) as an authorized reseller before the talks turned toward a deeper relationship that culminated in the acquisition. Assuming the deal passes regulatory scrutiny, Verizon will use its emerging 5G technology to produce much more advanced video-conferencing scenarios.

We spoke to the principals involved in this deal and several industry experts to get a sense of where this could lead. As with any large company buying a startup, outcomes are uncertain; sometimes the acquired company gets lost in the larger corporate bureaucracy, and sometimes additional resources will help grow the company much faster than it could have on its own.

What is BlueJeans?


By Ron Miller

Verizon is buying b2b videoconferencing firm BlueJeans

US carrier Verizon* has splashed out to buy veteran b2b videoconferencing platform, BlueJeans Network — shelling out less than $500 million on the acquisition, according to the Wall Street Journal which first reported the news.

A Verizon spokeswoman confirmed to TechCrunch that the price-tag is sub-$500M but did not provide a more exact figure. Videoconferencing platform BlueJeans has raised ~$175M since being founded around a decade ago, per Crunchbase, with US investor NEA leading a Series E round back in 2015.

In a press release announcing the deal, Verizon said it has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire the enterprise-grade videoconferencing and event platform in order to expand its “immersive unified communications portfolio”.

“Customers will benefit from a BlueJeans enterprise-grade video experience on Verizon’s high-performance global networks. In addition, the platform will be deeply integrated into Verizon’s 5G product roadmap, providing secure and real-time engagement solutions for high growth areas such as telemedicine, distance learning and field service work,” it wrote.

“As the way we work continues to change, it is absolutely critical for businesses and public sector customers to have access to a comprehensive suite of offerings that are enterprise ready, secure, frictionless and that integrate with existing tools,” added Tami Erwin, CEO of Verizon Business, in a supporting statement. “Collaboration and communications have become top of the agenda for businesses of all sizes and in all sectors in recent months. We are excited to combine the power of BlueJeans’ video platform with Verizon Business’ connectivity networks, platforms and solutions to meet our customers’ needs.”

The acquisition comes at a time when videoconferencing has been seeing a massive uptick in usage as white collar workers around the world log on to meetings from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Although it’s BlueJeans’ rival, Zoom, that’s been the most high profile name linked to the viral videoconferencing boom in recent weeks. The latter recently revealed that daily meeting participants on its platform jumped from a modest 10M in December to 200M in March.

However such booming growth and consumer usage has brought increased scrutiny for Zoom — leading to a spate of warnings (and even some bans), related to security and privacy concerns. And earlier this month the company said it would freeze product dev to focus on the laundry list of issues that have surfaced as users have piled in and kicked its tires, taking a little of the shine off of surging growth. 

On the sheer usage front BlueJeans is certainly small fish in comparison to Zoom — having remained b2b focused. A BlueJeans spokeswoman told us it has more than $100M ARR and over 15,000 customers at this point. (Some notable users include Facebook and Disney.)

But it’s paying users that are likely of most interest to Verizon, hence talk of telemedicine, distance learning and field service work — areas ripe for coronavirus-accelerated digitization.

Carriers generally, meanwhile, haven’t been able to translate increased usage during the pandemic into a revenue growth story — as a result of a combination of fixed costs, debt and market disruption that’s been hitting their shares during the coronavirus crisis, per Reuters.

“The combination of BlueJeans’ world class enterprise video collaboration platform and trusted brand with Verizon Business’ next generation edge computing innovation will deliver highly differentiated and compelling solutions to our joint customers,” said Quentin Gallivan, BlueJeans CEO, in a statement. “We are very excited about joining the Verizon team and we truly believe the future of business communications starts today!”

BlueJeans co-founder Krish Ramakrishnan has a history of exits, selling a couple of his previous startups to networking giant Cisco — where he has also worked, in between spinning out his own companies.

Verizon said today that said BlueJeans founders and “key management” will join the company as part of the acquisition, with BlueJeans employees set to become Verizon employees immediately following the close of the deal — which is expected in the second quarter, pending customary closing conditions.

*Disclosure: Verizon is also TechCrunch’s parent company


By Natasha Lomas

How Facebook does IT

If you have ever worked at any sizable company, the word “IT” probably doesn’t conjure up many warm feelings. If you’re working for an old, traditional enterprise company, you probably don’t expect anything else, though. If you’re working for a modern tech company, though, chances are your expectations are a bit higher. And once you’re at the scale of a company like Facebook, a lot of the third-party services that work for smaller companies simply don’t work anymore.

To discuss how Facebook thinks about its IT strategy and why it now builds most of its IT tools in-house, I sat down with the company’s CIO, Atish Banerjea, at its Menlo Park headquarter.

Before joining Facebook in 2016 to head up what it now calls its “Enterprise Engineering” organization, Banerjea was the CIO or CTO at companies like NBCUniversal, Dex One and Pearson.

“If you think about Facebook 10 years ago, we were very much a traditional IT shop at that point,” he told me. “We were responsible for just core IT services, responsible for compliance and responsible for change management. But basically, if you think about the trajectory of the company, were probably about 2,000 employees around the end of 2010. But at the end of last year, we were close to 37,000 employees.”

Traditionally, IT organizations rely on third-party tools and software, but as Facebook grew to this current size, many third-party solutions simply weren’t able to scale with it. At that point, the team decided to take matters into its own hands and go from being a traditional IT organization to one that could build tools in-house. Today, the company is pretty much self-sufficient when it comes to running its IT operations, but getting to this point took a while.

“We had to pretty much reinvent ourselves into a true engineering product organization and went to a full ‘build’ mindset,” said Banerjea. That’s not something every organization is obviously able to do, but, as Banerjea joked, one of the reasons why this works at Facebook “is because we can — we have that benefit of the talent pool that is here at Facebook.”

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The company then took this talent and basically replicated the kind of team it would help on the customer side to build out its IT tools, with engineers, designers, product managers, content strategies, people and research. “We also made the decision at that point that we will hold the same bar and we will hold the same standards so that the products we create internally will be as world-class as the products we’re rolling out externally.”

One of the tools that wasn’t up to Facebook’s scaling challenges was video conferencing. The company was using a third-party tool for that, but that just wasn’t working anymore. In 2018, Facebook was consuming about 20 million conference minutes per month. In 2019, the company is now at 40 million per month.

Besides the obvious scaling challenge, Facebook is also doing this to be able to offer its employees custom software that fits their workflows. It’s one thing to adapt existing third-party tools, after all, and another to build custom tools to support a company’s business processes.

Banerjea told me that creating this new structure was a relatively easy sell inside the company. Every transformation comes with its own challenges, though. For Facebook’s Enterprise  Engineering team, that included having to recruit new skill sets into the organization. The first few months of this process were painful, Banerjea admitted, as the company had to up-level the skills of many existing employees and shed a significant number of contractors. “There are certain areas where we really felt that we had to have Facebook DNA in order to make sure that we were actually building things the right way,” he explained.

Facebook’s structure creates an additional challenge for the team. When you’re joining Facebook as a new employee, you have plenty of teams to choose from, after all, and if you have the choice of working on Instagram or WhatsApp or the core Facebook app — all of which touch millions of people — working on internal tools with fewer than 40,000 users doesn’t sound all that exciting.

“When young kids who come straight from college and they come into Facebook, they don’t know any better. So they think this is how the world is,” Banerjea said. “But when we have experienced people come in who have worked at other companies, the first thing I hear is ‘oh my goodness, we’ve never seen internal tools of this caliber before.’ The way we recruit, the way we do performance management, the way we do learning and development — every facet of how that employee works has been touched in terms of their life cycle here.”

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Facebook first started building these internal tools around 2012, though it wasn’t until Banerjea joined in 2016 that it rebranded the organization and set up today’s structure. He also noted that some of those original tools were good, but not up to the caliber employees would expect from the company.

“The really big change that we went through was up-leveling our building skills to really become at the same caliber as if we were to build those products for an external customer. We want to have the same experience for people internally.”

The company went as far as replacing and rebuilding the commercial Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system it had been using for years. If there’s one thing that big companies rely on, it’s their ERP systems, given they often handle everything from finance and HR to supply chain management and manufacturing. That’s basically what all of their backend tools rely on (and what companies like SAP, Oracle and others charge a lot of money for). “In that 2016/2017 time frame, we realized that that was not a very good strategy,” Banerjea said. In Facebook’s case, the old ERP handled the inventory management for its data centers, among many other things. When that old system went down, the company couldn’t ship parts to its data centers.

“So what we started doing was we started peeling off all the business logic from our backend ERP and we started rewriting it ourselves on our own platform,” he explained. “Today, for our ERP, the backend is just the database, but all the business logic, all of the functionality is actually all custom written by us on our own platform. So we’ve completely rewritten our ERP, so to speak.”

In practice, all of this means that ideally, Facebook’s employees face far less friction when they join the company, for example, or when they need to replace a broken laptop, get a new phone to test features or simply order a new screen for their desk.

One classic use case is onboarding, where new employees get their company laptop, mobile phones and access to all of their systems, for example. At Facebook, that’s also the start of a six-week bootcamp that gets new engineers up to speed with how things work at Facebook. Back in 2016, when new classes tended to still have less than 200 new employees, that was still mostly a manual task. Today, with far more incoming employees, the Enterprise Engineering team has automated most of that — and that includes managing the supply chain that ensures the laptops and phones for these new employees are actually available.

But the team also built the backend that powers the company’s more traditional IT help desks, where employees can walk up and get their issues fixed (and passwords reset).

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To talk more about how Facebook handles the logistics of that, I sat down with Koshambi Shah, who heads up the company’s Enterprise Supply Chain organization, which pretty much handles every piece of hardware and software the company delivers and deploys to its employees around the world (and that global nature of the company brings its own challenges and additional complexity). The team, which has fewer than 30 people, is made up of employees with experience in manufacturing, retail and consumer supply chains.

Typically, enterprises offer their employees a minimal set of choices when it comes to the laptops and phones they issue to their employees, and the operating systems that can run on them tend to be limited. Facebook’s engineers have to be able to test new features on a wide range of devices and operating systems. There are, after all, still users on the iPhone 4s or BlackBerry that the company wants to support. To do this, Shah’s organization actually makes thousands of SKUs available to employees and is able to deliver 98% of them within three days or less. It’s not just sending a laptop via FedEx, though. “We do the budgeting, the financial planning, the forecasting, the supply/demand balancing,” Shah said. “We do the asset management. We make sure the asset — what is needed, when it’s needed, where it’s needed — is there consistently.”

In many large companies, every asset request is double guessed. Facebook, on the other hand, places a lot of trust in its employees, it seems. There’s a self-service portal, the Enterprise Store, that allows employees to easily request phones, laptops, chargers (which get lost a lot) and other accessories as needed, without having to wait for approval (though if you request a laptop every week, somebody will surely want to have a word with you). Everything is obviously tracked in detail, but the overall experience is closer to shopping at an online retailer than using an enterprise asset management system. The Enterprise Store will tell you where a device is available, for example, so you can pick it up yourself (but you can always have it delivered to your desk, too, because this is, after all, a Silicon Valley company).

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For accessories, Facebook also offers self-service vending machines, and employees can walk up to the help desk.

The company also recently introduced an Amazon Locker-style setup that allows employees to check out devices as needed. At these smart lockers, employees simply have to scan their badge, choose a device and, once the appropriate door has opened, pick up the phone, tablet, laptop or VR devices they were looking for and move on. Once they are done with it, they can come back and check the device back in. No questions asked. “We trust that people make the right decision for the good of the company,” Shah said. For laptops and other accessories, the company does show the employee the price of those items, though, so it’s clear how much a certain request costs the company. “We empower you with the data for you to make the best decision for your company.”

Talking about cost, Shah told me the Supply Chain organization tracks a number of metrics. One of those is obviously cost. “We do give back about 4% year-over-year, that’s our commitment back to the businesses in terms of the efficiencies we build for every user we support. So we measure ourselves in terms of cost per supported user. And we give back 4% on an annualized basis in the efficiencies.”

Unsurprisingly, the company has by now gathered enough data about employee requests (Shah said the team fulfills about half a million transactions per year) that it can use machine learning to understand trends and be proactive about replacing devices, for example.

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Facebooks’ Enterprise Engineering group doesn’t just support internal customers, though. Another interesting aspect to Facebook’s Enterprise Engineering group is that it also runs the company’s internal and external events, including the likes of F8, the company’s annual developer conference. To do this, the company built out conference rooms that can seat thousands of people, with all of the logistics that go with that.

The company also showed me one of its newest meeting rooms where there are dozens of microphones and speakers hanging from the ceiling that make it easier for everybody in the room to participate in a meeting and be heard by everybody else. That’s part of what the organization’s “New Builds” team is responsible for, and something that’s possible because the company also takes a very hands-on approach to building and managing its offices.

Facebook also runs a number of small studios in its Menlo Park and New York offices, where both employees and the occasional external VIP can host Facebook Live videos.

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Indeed, live video, it seems, is one of the cornerstones of how Facebook employees collaborate and help employees who work from home. Typically, you’d just use the camera on your laptop or maybe a webcam connected to your desktop to do so. But because Facebook actually produces its own camera system with the consumer-oriented Portal, Banerjea’s team decided to use that.

“What we have done is we have actually re-engineered the Portal,” he told me. “We have connected with all of our video conferencing systems in the rooms. So if I have a Portal at home, I can dial into my video conferencing platform and have a conference call just like I’m sitting in any other conference room here in Facebook. And all that software, all the engineering on the portal, that has been done by our teams — some in partnership with our production teams, but a lot of it has been done with Enterprise Engineering.”

Unsurprisingly, there are also groups that manage some of the core infrastructure and security for the company’s internal tools and networks. All of those tools run in the same data centers as Facebook’s consumer-facing applications, though they are obviously sandboxed and isolated from them.

It’s one thing to build all of these tools for internal use, but now, the company is also starting to think about how it can bring some of these tools it built for internal use to some of its external customers. You may not think of Facebook as an enterprise company, but with its Workplace collaboration tool, it has an enterprise service that it sells externally, too. Last year, for the first time, Workplace added a new feature that was incubated inside of Enterprise Engineering. That feature was a version of Facebook’s public Safety Check that the Enterprise Engineering team had originally adapted to the company’s own internal use.

“Many of these things that we are building for Facebook, because we are now very close partners with our Workplace team — they are in the enterprise software business and we are the enterprise software group for Facebook — and many [features] we are building for Facebook are of interest to Workplace customers.”

As Workplace hit the market, Banerjea ended up talking to the CIOs of potential users, including the likes of Delta Air Lines, about how Facebook itself used Workplace internally. But as companies started to adopt Workplace, they realized that they needed integrations with existing third-party services like ERP platforms and Salesforce. Those companies then asked Facebook if it could build those integrations or work with partners to make them available. But at the same time, those customers got exposed to some of the tools that Facebook itself was building internally.

“Safety Check was the first one,” Banerjea said. “We are actually working on three more products this year.” He wouldn’t say what these are, of course, but there is clearly a pipeline of tools that Facebook has built for internal use that it is now looking to commercialize. That’s pretty unusual for any IT organization, which, after all, tends to only focus on internal customers. I don’t expect Facebook to pivot to an enterprise software company anytime soon, but initiatives like this are clearly important to the company and, in some ways, to the morale of the team.

This creates a bit of friction, too, though, given that the Enterprise Engineering group’s mission is to build internal tools for Facebook. “We are now figuring out the deployment model,” Banerjea said. Who, for example, is going to support the external tools the team built? Is it the Enterprise Engineering group or the Workplace team?

Chances are then, that Facebook will bring some of the tools it built for internal use to more enterprises in the long run. That definitely puts a different spin on the idea of the consumerization of enterprise tech. Clearly, not every company operates at the scale of Facebook and needs to build its own tools — and even some companies that could benefit from it don’t have the resources to do so. For Facebook, though, that move seems to have paid off and the tools I saw while talking to the team definitely looked more user-friendly than any off-the-shelf enterprise tools I’ve seen at other large companies.


By Frederic Lardinois