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Updated: 4 hours 52 min ago

Storytelling for B2B startups: Avoiding ‘buzzword bingo’ to make your wonky enterprise company worth talking about

5 hours 52 min ago

If there’s one thing I learned from my time as both a journalist at The Wall Street Journal and Forbes and, now, advising a global venture capital firm on communications, it’s that storytelling can make or break a company.

This is especially true the more complicated and arcane a company’s technology is. Stories about online-dating and burrito-delivery apps are easily understood by most people. But if a company specializes in making technology for hybrid-cloud data centers, or parsing specialized IT alerts and cybersecurity warnings, the storytelling task becomes much harder — but, I would argue, even more important.

Sure, a wonky company will still be able to talk easily to its customers and chat up nerdy CIOs at trade shows. But what happens when they raise a Series C or D round of financing and actually need to reach a broader audience — like really big, potential business partners, potential acquirers, public investors or high-level business reporters? Often, they’re stuck.

It can be painful to watch. When I was a reporter, I was amazed at the buzzwords thrown at me by some technology companies trying to get me to write about them. For fun, my colleagues and I would put some of these terms into online “buzzword bingo” websites just to see what indecipherable company descriptions they would spit out. (Example: “An online, cloud-based, open-source hyperconverged Kubernetes solution.”) Often, when pressed, PR representatives couldn’t explain to me what these companies actually did.

These companies obviously never made it into my stories. And I would argue that many of them suffered more broadly from their overall lack of high-profile press coverage; large business publications like the ones for which I worked target the very big-company executives and investors these later-stage startups were trying to reach.

Now, of course, I’m on the other side of that reporter/company equation — and I often feel like a big chunk of my job is working as a technology translator.

A natural-born storyteller

So why is this B2B storytelling problem so common, and arguably getting worse? Lots of reasons. Many of these hard-to-understand companies are founded by highly technical engineers for whom storytelling is (not surprisingly) not a natural skill. In many cases, their marketing departments are purely data-driven, focused on demand generation, ROI and driving prospects to an online sales funnel — not branding and high-level communications. As marketing technology has gotten more and more advanced and specialized, so have marketing departments.

As a result, many B2B and enterprise-IT companies are often laser-focused on talking about their products’ specific bells and whistles, staying in “sell mode” for a technical audience and cranking out wonky whitepapers and often-boring product press releases. They’re less adept at taking a step back to address the actual business benefits their product enables. Increasingly, this tech-talk also plays well with the legions of hyper-specialized, tech-news websites that have proliferated to serve every corner of the technology market, making some executives think there’s no need to target higher-level press.

Everyone has a story to tell. It’s up you to figure out what your company’s is, and how to tell that story in a compelling, understandable fashion.

One prominent marketing and PR consultant I know, who has worked with hundreds of Silicon Valley startups since the 1980s, says she is “shocked” by how poorly many senior tech industry CEOs today communicate their companies’ stories. Many tend to “shun” communications, considering it too “soft” in this new era of data-obsessed marketing, the consultant Jennifer Jones, recently told me. But in the end, poor communications and storytelling can create or exacerbate business problems, and often affect a company’s valuation.

So how do you get to a point where you can talk about your company in plain terms, and reach the high-level audiences you’re targeting?

One tactic, obviously, is to ditch the jargon when you need to. The pitch you use on potential customers — who likely already have an intimate understanding of your market and the specific problems you’re trying to solve — is not as relevant for other audiences.

A big fund manager at Fidelity or T. Rowe Price, or a national business journalist, probably knows, for example, that cloud computing is a big trend now, or that companies are buying more technology to battle complex cybersecurity attacks. But do they really understand the intricacies of “hybrid-cloud” data center setups? Or what a “behavioral attack detection solution” does? Probably not.

The David versus Goliath angle

Another tip is to put your company story in a larger, thematic context. People can better understand what you do if you can explain how you fit into larger technology and societal trends. These might include the rise of free, open-source software, or the growing importance of mobile computing.

It’s also helpful to talk about what you do in relation to larger, more established players. Are you nipping away at the slow-growing, legacy business of Oracle/EMC/Dell/Cisco? As a journalist, I once wrote a story about a small public networking company called F5 Networks that specialized in making “application delivery controllers.” But the story mostly focused on F5’s battle with a much larger competitor; in fact, the editors titled the story “One-Upping Cisco.” That’s the angle most readers were likely to care about. Journalists, particularly, love these David versus Goliath type stories, and national business publications are full of them.

Start focusing on high-level storytelling earlier, not when you’ve already raised $100 million in venture funding and have several hundred employees.

Another key storytelling strategy is leveraging your customers. If your business is boring to the average person, try to get one of your household-name customers to talk publicly about how they use your technology. Does your supply-chain software help L’Oréal sell more lipstick, or UPS make faster package deliveries?

One of our portfolio companies had a nice business-press hit a few years ago by talking about how their software helped HBO stream “Game of Thrones” episodes. (The service had previously crashed because too many people were trying to watch the show.) You can leverage these highly visible customers for case studies on your website. These can be great fodder for your sales team as well as later press interviews, as long as they’re well-written and understandable. Try to get more customers to agree to this type of content when you sign the contract with them.

From “Mad Men” to math men

Finally, there’s the issue of marketing leadership inside tech companies. In my experience, most smaller, B2B or enterprise IT-focused startups have CMOs or VPs of marketing who are more focused on data and analytics than brand communications — more “math men” than “Mad Men.” This isn’t surprising, as these companies often sell data-rich products and have business models where PR and general advertising don’t directly drive sales (unlike, say, a company making a food-delivery app). The CEOs of these companies value data and analytics, too.

I encourage B2B tech CEOs to focus on hiring CMOs with some brand/communications experience, or at least a willingness to outsource it to competent partners who are experts in that area. After a couple of early rounds of funding, you should be outgrowing your highly specialized PR firm (if you even have one) that focuses on a narrow brand of trade publications, for example. These firms usually don’t have contacts at the bigger, national business and technology outlets that are read by big mutual fund managers, and the business development folks at Cisco or Oracle. Hiring ex-journalists — not technical experts — to write content and develop messaging can be a good idea, too.

In other words, start focusing on high-level storytelling earlier, not when you’ve already raised $100 million in venture funding and have several hundred employees. By that point, it can simply be too late: Your company has already been typecast by the trade press and written off by higher-level reporters, and sometimes even potential business partners, as too niche-y and hard to understand.

As a journalist, I learned that everyone has a story to tell. It’s up you to figure out what your company’s is, and how to tell that story in a compelling, understandable fashion. If you do, I’m pretty sure the business benefits will follow.

Categories: Business News

Lawyaw uses AI to help lawyers draft documents faster

6 hours 4 min ago

It’s no secret that much of the legal industry is build on reusable content. Most law firms have their own customized set of standard documents (like NDAs or Wills), but lawyers or associates still have to customize these documents by hand each time a client needs them drafted.

Lawyaw, part of YC’s Winter ’18 class, is building software to automate this process by letting lawyers turn previously completed documents into smart templates.

Here’s how it works: Lawyers can drag an already customized world document into Lawyaw’s platform and it will automatically use natural language processing to first figure out what sections need to be replaced, then actually fill in those sections with the correct personalized phrases and variables. For example, software will automatically detect and replace a client’s name, contact information, location, and even more complicated things like scope of engagement.

If a variable isn’t automatically detected Lawyaw lets users manually select it, which the software will remember for future uses. Currently the platform only identifies about 50% of all variables in a document (up from 10% when it launched), but of those detected the accuracy rate for autofilling correct information is 99%. So essentially the algorithm is optimizing for quality over quantity right now, but that should equalize as the natural language processing gets better over time.

Of course Lawyaw isn’t the only solution for automatically populating legal documents. But most other solutions use complex document customization that requires knowledge of conditionals, tags and syntax. Plus, the platform has a few other useful features like integrated e-signing and a directory of over 5,000 standard court forms that can be customized.

Lawyaw charges each user $59 per month or $39 if paid annually. Interested users can just sign ups themselves instead of having to be subjected to firm-wide demos or annoying sales reps, both of which are still the status quo for legal software.

So far over 1,000 law firms have signed up, with 900 lawyers actively drafting over 24,000 total documents to date.

Categories: Business News

American Express quietly acquired UK fintech startup Cake for $13.3M

6 hours 24 min ago

Cake Technologies, the U.K. fintech startup that wanted to make it more convenient to pay your restaurant or bar bill, has been acquired by American Express — as the credit card behemoth plans to beef up its payment options for Amex members.

According to sources the deal quietly completed in October last year for a final price of $13.3 million (approx. £10.1m). However, due to an eleventh-hour preferential debt round and after fees, only some shareholders made a profit. I also understand from one source that Cake had raised a total of £4.5 million in equity and £1.4 million in debt. Part of the equity funding was a £1 million crowdfunding round on Crowdcube in 2015.

Confirming the acquisition, American Express gave TechCrunch the following statement:

Last year American Express acquired Cake Technologies. This year, we will be on-boarding Cake and their technologies to collaborate on ways to provide our Card Members with enhanced service and value in the dining space, which is an area many of our Card Members are passionate about.

A spokesperson for American Express declined to comment on the exact financial terms of the deal, but said that it was a “good outcome for Cake employees, previous investors and American Express”. They did confirm, however, that Cake employees are now employees of American Express.

This includes Cake founders Charlotte Kohlmann and Michelle Songy, who hold the positions of Vice President Global Dining Platform Solutions at American Express, and Director Global Platform Dining Solutions at American Express, respectively.

“We are excited to have Cake on board with us and look forward to collaborating on bringing our Card Members exciting new capabilities in the dining space soon,” adds the American Express spokesperson.

The back story to Cake’s eventual exit makes for interesting reading. According to a source with knowledge of the startup’s path to a sale, who spoke to TechCrunch on the condition of anonymity, it was very close to raising a £5 million Series A in the fall of 2016 before the company’s founders walked away for “ethical reasons,” although the source declined to diverge what these were. This then left Cake in a precarious situation financially as the company could not find another VC to step in quickly enough before running out of cash.

In the holidays/early 2017, the board of Cake put together a rescue round that was structured in the form of debt and designed to give the startup more runway to try to achieve a trade sale. All existing shareholders were given the chance to participate on a pro rata basis, although some declined due to the substantial risk of doubling down.

The loan was also structured so that, should the company get acquired, these eleventh hour investors would get a multiple preferential return. This, I’m told, explains why some investors made money from the exit, while others, including some Crowdcube backers, lost money, even possibly after factoring in EIS tax breaks.

In May 2017, American Express first made an offer to acquire Cake. The startup passed due diligence in late June, but American Express pulled the deal in mid-July for unknown reasons. Determined to get the sale back on track, Cake co-founder Kohlmann flew to New York unannounced and the deal eventually closed in October.

“Despite the complications and lengthy process, Amex did a really good deal here,” says my source. “It is clear that Cake is now a very important part of their digital strategy and the purchase price looks like good value in that context. Cake’s user experience will be a benefit to users of the Amex app once fully integrated and Cake’s basket level POS integrations will give Amex better insight into exactly what products their customers are buying rather than just where they go and how much they spend”.

Categories: Business News

Y Combinator’s Jessica Livingston on Dropbox IPO: “It was just a dream of ours”

7 hours 1 min ago

Dropbox, after more than a decade, finally went public this morning — and the stock soared more than 40% in its initial trading, making it a marquee success for one of the original Web 2.0 companies (at least for now).

While we still have to wait for the dust to settle, it’s been a very long road for Dropbox. From starting off as a file-sharing service, to hitting a $10 billion valuation in the middle of a massive hype cycle, to expectations dropping and then the announcement of a $1 billion revenue run rate. Dropbox has been a rollercoaster, but it’s another big moment this afternoon: it’s Y Combinator’s first big IPO. And Y Combinator still has a very deep bench of startups that are, thus far, obvious IPO candidates down the line like Airbnb and Stripe.

That isn’t to take away anything from the work of CEO Drew Houston and the rest of Dropbox’s team, but Y Combinator’s job is to basically take a bunch of shots in the dark based on good ideas and potentially savvy founders. Houston was one of the first of a firm that now takes in a hundred-odd founders per class. Y Combinator Founder and partner Jessica Livingston was there for the start of it, recalling back to the day that Houston rushed to her and Paul Graham to show him his little side project.

We caught up with Livingston this morning ahead of the IPO for a short interview. Here’s the conversation, which was lightly edited for clarity:

TC: Can you tell us a little bit about what it’s like to finally see the first Y Combinator company to go public?

JL: I feel like 13 years ago, it was just this dream of ours. It was this seemingly unattainable dream that goes, ‘maybe one of the startups we fund could go public someday.’ That was the holy grail. It’s an exciting day for Y Combinator. It shows what a long game investing is in early-stage startups. I do feel kind of validated.

TC: How did Y Combinator first end up in touch with Houston?

JL: He applied as a solo founder. We had met Drew the summer before. Back then, we were so small that we always encouraged people to bring friends to a Y Combinator dinner. [Xobni founder Adam Smith] brought [Houston], and we met him then and talked it through. When he applied, we invited him to come to an interview, and Paul [Graham] before the interview reached out to [Houston]. He said, “I see you’re a solo founder, and you should find a cofounder.” Three weeks later Drew showed up with [co-founder Arash Ferdowsi]. It was a great match that worked well.

TC: As Dropbox has grown, what’s stood out to you the most during changes in the market?

JL: They’re a classic example of founders who are programmers who built something to solve their own problem. Clearly, this is a perfect example of that. Drew gets on the bus, he forgets his files, and he can’t work on the whole trip down. He then creates something that will allow him to access files from everywhere. At the time, when he came on the scene with that, there were a lot of companies doing it but none were very good. I feel like Dropbox, regardless of market dynamics, from the very beginning was always dedicated to wanting to do well by building a better solution. They wanted to build one that actually works. I feel like they’ve stuck to that and that’s been driving them since. That’s been their guidepost.

TC: What was your first meeting with Houston like, and do you think he has changed in the past 10 years?

JL: When I first met him, he was young — he was very young — and he was always a good hacker, and very earnest. During Y Combinator he was very focused on building this product and was not distracted by other things. That’s when there were just two people. He’s really evolved over the years as an incredible leader. He’s grown this company and he’s navigated through all different parts of his life cycle. I’ve witnessed his growth as a leader and as a human being. He’s always been a great person. It’s sort of exciting to see where he is now that he’s come a long way, it’s really cool.

TC: Houston and Ferdowsi still own significant portions of the company even after raising a lot of venture capital. Do you think Y Combinator had any effect on companies looking for more founder friendly deals?

JL: I think when Y Combinator started, our goal in many ways was to empower founders. It was to level the playing field. You don’t have to have a connection in Silicon Valley to get funding. You just have to apply on our website. You don’t have to have gone to an Ivy League school. We [try to tell them], don’t let investors take advantage of you because you’re young and have never done this before. In general, times have changed over the past 15 years. Hopefully Y Combinator played a small role in some of those changes in making things a little more found friendly.

TC: What’s one of your favorite stories about Houston?

JL: He was always very calm, cool, and collected under pressure. I remember that was definitely a quality about him. His feathers didn’t get ruffled easily. One of the things I remember most clearly is from that summer when we had demo day. Back then it was, like, 40 people tops. Still, there was a lot of pressure. I remember Paul [Graham] came up with this idea that, ‘hey, Drew, during your demo day you should show people how well Dropbox actually works by deleting your presentation live and restoring it through Dropbox.’ That’s kind of risky, right? To delete your presentation. You’re just standing up there without anything. And he did it and he nailed the presentation. It sounds a little gimmicky, but it really worked and showed his product worked. I remember thinking, like, wow, he’s pretty calm. If it were me I don’t think I could hit the delete button in front of these people. That’s an important quality in someone, not to get flustered.

By the way, we funded them in 2007. If you asked me in 2008 how were they doing, I would say, well, they’re making progress. But it wasn’t like we funded them and we could say, ‘this is gonna be a great one.’ We just knew, yeah they’re making progress, but it’s always hard to know there.

TC: Back then, what were you just expecting? M&A? Did you even anticipate an IPO?

JL:  As we were formulating the idea, the hope was rather than going to work at Microsoft — I use them as an example because that was the company back then — and rather than going to get a job out of college, why not build a company and make Microsoft acquire you to get you to work for them? We had low expectations back then. We were hoping there’d be some small acquisitions. But yes, the hope was always acquisitions, but maybe someday in our wildest dreams there’d be an IPO. We didn’t even think YC would work when we started, people didn’t believe in YC’s models for many years.

TC: Looking back, what would you say is one of the biggest things you’ve learned throughout this experience?

JL: What a long road it is for startups. When we started YC back then, it wasn’t a popular thing to do a startup. Now, thank goodness, more people are starting them, and more types of people are starting them. It’s not just super high-tech companies. That’s exciting, but what I think a lot of people don’t realize is how hard startups are. You say, yeah, I know how hard, but people don’t realize how difficult they are and how long the commitment is. If you’re successful, it takes such a long time. For [someone like Houston] to make it to that point, they’ve committed a lot of their life and energy and all their intellectual capacity to making this work. To me, that’s so exciting, but I think it would surprise people to know realistically how long that could take.

TC: What would you tell startups with the hindsight of what happened with Dropbox’s valuation hype cycle?

JL: I will say, with startups, sometimes you just have to stick to what you’re doing. There’s a lot of stuff going on around you, especially now with social media and things like that. With a startup, you just have to keep moving forward with building a company and building a great product.

Categories: Business News

Researchers find a new material for quantum computing

8 hours 57 min ago

Rumors of commercial quantum computing systems have been coming hot and heavy these past few years but there are still a number of issues to work out in the technology. For example, researchers at the Moscow Institute Of Physics And Technology have begun using silicon carbine to create a system to release single photons in ambient i.e. room temperature conditions. To maintain security quantum computers need to output quantum bits – essentially single photons. This currently requires a supercooled material that proves to be unworkable in the real world. From the release:

Photons — the quanta of light — are the best carriers for quantum bits. It is important to emphasize that only single photons can be used, otherwise an eavesdropper might intercept one of the transmitted photons and thus get a copy of the message. The principle of single-photon generation is quite simple: An excited quantum system can relax into the ground state by emitting exactly one photon. From an engineering standpoint, one needs a real-world physical system that reliably generates single photons under ambient conditions. However, such a system is not easy to find. For example, quantum dots could be a good option, but they only work well when cooled below -200 degrees Celsius, while the newly emerged two-dimensional materials, such as graphene, are simply unable to generate single-photons at a high repetition rate under electrical excitation.

Researchers used silicon carbide in early LEDs and has been used to create electroluminescent electronics in the past. This new system will allow manufacturers to place silicon carbide emitters right on the quantum computer chips, a massive improvement over the complex systems used today.

“Using their theory, the researchers have shown how a single-photon emitting diode based on silicon carbide can be improved to emit up to several billion photons per second. That is exactly what one needs to implement quantum cryptography protocols at data transfer rates on the order of 1 Gbps,” the researchers write. “Silicon carbide-based single-photon sources are compatible with the CMOS technology, which is a standard for manufacturing electronic integrated circuits. This makes silicon carbide by far the most promising material for building practical ultrawide-bandwidth unconditionally secure data communication lines.”

There is no timeline for commercialization of the technology but given the interest in quantum computing we can expect these little chips to shoot out single photons sometime soon.

Categories: Business News

HBO’s Silicon Valley gets the VR treatment for Season 5

2018, March 23 - 11:44pm

For a long time, we’ve heard that VR is three to five years from becoming mainstream. While that premise remains questionable, HBO’s Silicon Valley is celebrating its fifth season with the launch of a VR experience called Silicon Valley: Inside the Hacker Hostel.

The experience will be available on the HTC Vive, and will offer users more than 700 interactive experiences, from playing foosball to taking bong rips.

The Silicon Valley VR experience takes place inside the same house where the cast has lived and worked to build a successful company for the past five years, and it all looks eerily similar to the set we’ve seen on the show, from the sloppy kitchen to the bunkbeds in the bedroom.

But it’s not just a bunch of wandering around. Silicon Valley: Inside the Hacker Hostel also includes challenges from Dinesh and Gilfoyle, as well as the opportunity to help Richard with a coding conundrum. And no Silicon Valley experience is complete without Jared, who will have a secret message that users need to track down.

The attention to detail is comes down to the fact that Rewind, the developers of the experience, took 360-degree video of the show’s real set, and worked with set blueprints, according to Fast Company.

Categories: Business News

Tapas Media aims to turn digital comics into the next big entertainment franchise

2018, March 23 - 8:19am

Tapas Media has its own platform for digital comics — but like a lot of publishers, CEO Chang Kim has ambitions beyond the comics world.

Comixology is the big name in digital comics. The company, which was acquired by Amazon in 2014, is focused on selling print comics from major publishers in web- and mobile-friendly formats. (It’s also working with publishers like Marvel to create exclusively digital content.)

That’s a very different approach from Tapas, which Kim compared to YouTube — it allows individual creators to publish their work and (hopefully) reach an audience. And unlike the superhero-dominated world of American comics, the most popular titles on Tapas seem to be more romance and fantasy themed, and are usually drawn in a style that’s closer to Japanese manga.

Tapas was founded in 2013, and it now says the platform has more than 32,000 creators who have created more than 48,000 titles. And it’s reaching an audience of 2.1 million monthly visitors.

The comics themselves are monetized through micropayments. Usually, the first few chapters of a title are free, then you have to pay to keep going.

Chang said his team is also working with some of the most popular creators on the platform to develop new intellectual property, which could be translated into movies or TV or other media. Eventually, he said he’s hoping that Tapas could launch the next Harry Potter.

That level of success is a long way off, but Tapas is already exploring ways to adapt its IP. For example, it’s announcing a partnership with Red Kraken Apps to develop a mobile puzzle game based on its Dungeon Construction Co. comic.

In addition, the company has partnered with Hachette Book Group and Ten Speed Press on titles, and it’s signed distribution deals with Tencent and Kakao.

Tapas announced earlier this month that it has raised $5 million in additional Series A funding. (The company has raised $10.8 million total.) Now it’s revealing more details about the round, which comes from ID Ventures, SBI Investment Korea, Medici Investment and EN Investment. Sean Park of ID Ventures is joining the board of directors.

“ID Ventures invested in Tapas Media because we believe in the impact their platform has on the digital and mobile publishing industries,” Park said in a statement. “Their remarkable extension into licensed content and co-development will see their continued dominance, as ID Ventures’ investment looks to help Tapas Media capitalize on their platform’s adoption and innovation as well.”

Categories: Business News

Glovo delivers anything you want

2018, March 23 - 4:19am

When you’re far from Silicon Valley a lot of weird and cool stuff happens. Take Glovo, for example. This super-lean, surprisingly popular delivery app expanded out of Spain into Italy and South America and filled the niche that Seamless and Postmates fills in bigger US cities. This startup, run by Sacha Michaud and Bartek Kunowski, is a unique service with a solid following.

I sat down with Michaud and Kunowski in Barcelona to understand what it takes to scale outside the Valley shadow and how it felt to run a popular and usable service markets that most startups ignore.

Categories: Business News

Ben is a chatbot that lets you learn about and buy Bitcoin

2018, March 23 - 3:46am

It’s generally a given that whenever a new technology takes off people rush into the space to build everything under the sun, and eventually natural selection kicks in and only the truly useful remain. For example, chatbots became trendy last year and we quickly began seeing chatbots for weather, movie recommendations, personal finance, etc. Some of these are useful, but until natural language processing improves you’re probably better just doing the task yourself.

But there are a few exceptions, with one in particular being chatbots designed for the purpose of making a very complex topic or task approachable to the average person.

Like cryptocurrencies.

Ben is a chatbot that lets anyone become familiar with cryptocurrencies via a recognizable chat interface. By talking with “Ben”, users can do things like take lessons and learn about cryptocurrency, read the latest industry news, and of course buy and sell Bitcoin.

By focusing on an underserved market (i.e people who have no idea what Bitcoin is or how to buy it) Ben has the unique advantage of not having to go head to head with established crypto titans like Coinbase or Circle.

The startup is part of Y Combinator’s Winter ’18 batch, and previously raised a $580K pre-seed from Third Kind Venture Capital and various angel investors.

After completing a KYC check (which is also done via chat) users in 21 states can buy and sell Bitcoin, with other states and support for Ethereum, Ripple, and Bitcoin Cash rolling out in the coming months. The startup charges 1% for buys and sells, which is in line or lower than most major exchanges.

The app also has a social feature where you can link with friends to see their returns (only on a percentage basis) to see who is a better investor.

User’s cryptocurrency is stored in the cloud but their private keys live only on their own personal device, which isn’t as secure as complete cold storage but does ensure that your bitcoin can’t be spent without someone having access to your phone. Ben also gives new users a backup seed to write down in case they lose their phone.

But Ben isn’t necessarily meant to support an experienced crypto user who has a high-value portfolio and needs advanced features and security.

Instead, the startup’s goal is to make buying and learning about cryptocurrency accessible to anyone, especially those without the technical knowledge or desire to spend the time learning how an exchange world. And as natural language technology evolves Ben will be able to answer more and more questions over time, making it a perfect on-ramp for people who need a little more hand holding before they open their wallet and trade their (actual) benjamins for a string of ones and zeros.

Categories: Business News

Meet the startups that pitched at EF’s 9th Demo Day in London

2018, March 23 - 3:43am

Entrepreneur First (EF), the company builder and “talent first” investor, held its ninth London Demo Day this afternoon. Once again, the pitches took place in front of a packed crowd at King’s Place in London’s King Cross area, seeing 19 startups pitch their wares to investors, press and other actors in the European tech scene.

EF stands out from the plethora of demo days that the U.K. capital city hosts because of the way the investor backs individuals “pre-team, pre-idea” — meaning that the companies pitching only came into existence over the last 6 months and perhaps may never have done so without the founders entering the programme.

As is now a tradition, prior to the pitches, EF co-founder Matt Clifford took the chance to announce some EF news of its own. Already operating in London, Singapore and Berlin, the company builder — which last year picked up backing in a $12.4 million round led by Silicon Valley’s Greylock Partners — is expanding to Hong Kong to double down on its Asia ambitions, kicking off with a local programme in July. Heading up EF’s Hong Kong office is former Airbnb and Google exec Lavina Tien — you can read my full report here.

The themes for EF’s ninth London Demo Day continued to reflect the company builder’s focus on recruiting the best technical and domain expert talent — both recent graduates and also people already working at tech companies — where they are encouraged to try their hand at entrepreneurship. The pitches spanned AI/machine learning, automation, healthtech, legal tech, financial services, new interfaces and input devices. And, being that this is 2018, the blockchain and cryptocurrency, although, thankfully, there wasn’t an ICO in sight.

Low on sleep and therefore particularly prone to pitch-lash, my picks this time around were Limbic, which wants to bring emotional intelligence to software (and therefore hardware) by measuring changes to a part of your brain called the ‘limbic system’ via your heartbeat; nPlan, which wants to use machine learning to enable major construction work schedules to be more accurate and run on or ahead of time; and Inoviv, which is developing technology based on unique insights into proteomics to help match patients with the right drugs.

The full list of presenting teams (in their own words)

Papercup translates the voice track on videos so every creator can expand their reach to seven billion people.
CreditMint is decentralising corporate lending.
nPlan accelerates the global construction industry.
Nivoda aggregates the world’s diamonds.
Headlight AI provides intelligent sensing and mapping software for harsh environments.
Octeract solves today’s unsolvable optimization problems.
Beneficiary maps the impact of the world’s philanthropic efforts and helps charities identify the most effective ways to improve lives.
Ginie AI turns term sheets into contracts.
Prime Factor Capital is a crypto asset manager.
Panopy is a performance management platform that removes workplace bias.
Mimica builds self-learning automations for digital work.
Inoviv matches patients with the right drugs.
PolyAI is democratising conversational AI to give machines a voice.
Plural AI is building a new kind of search engine: a knowledge engine.
ArrayStream Technologies helps fund providers launch next generation AI-powered mutual funds.
Limbic provides computers with vital emotional input.
Plumerai is making small machines intelligent.
TokenAnalyst is bringing transparency to the decentralized economy.
Massless is the future of three-dimensional immersive design.

Categories: Business News

Internet Association wants in on the lawsuit challenging net neutrality repeal

2018, March 23 - 12:05am

The Internet Association has filed to intervene in the ongoing lawsuit against the FCC challenging the repeal of net neutrality protections.

The Internet Association is a trade association that represents some of the world’s biggest internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Amazon, Dropbox, and Netflix. The IA’s motion focuses primarily on why the IA, and the companies it represents, should be able to participate in the lawsuit.

But let’s take a step back.

In December, the FCC voted 3-2 in favor of gutting Obama Administration-era protections against data throttling and blocking by ISPs. In other words, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a former Verizon employee, and others at the FCC, believed that ISPs should be allowed to charge extra for a fast lane, which would stifle competition.

The order became official in February of this year, opening the door for the fight against the repeal to begin.

Between the vote and the official order, a lawsuit was filed by 22 state attorney generals, seeking to block the net neutrality repeal.

In March, the 9th Circuit consolidated these various challenges (15, in total) to the FCC’s repeal. The IA said earlier this year that it wouldn’t file a lawsuit as a plaintiff, but did plan to participate in the lawsuit.

According to the filing, the IA is focusing on three major areas: the removal of rules against blocking, throttling and paid prioritization distort competition and places the burden on consumers, the removal of well-established, bright line net neutrality rules harms internet companies’ ability to reach customers across the country, and the new rules harm future growth in the internet ecosystem as a whole.

Here’s what Internet Association President and CEO Michael Beckerman had to say in a prepared statement:

The internet industry will continue to fight for net neutrality protections that help consumers, foster innovation, and promote competition for the entire online ecosystem. The entire sector is committed to preserving an open internet and will continue to defend these protections in every venue available. This is also an issue that unites Republicans and Democrats in all 50 states.

On the other side of the coin, some industry groups that support the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality have also filed to intervene.

Categories: Business News

Entrepreneur First, the London-based company builder backed by Greylock, expands to Hong Kong

2018, March 22 - 11:00pm

When Silicon Valley’s Greylock Partners led Entrepreneur First‘s $12.4 million funding round in September, Greylock’s Reid Hoffman said he could see the company builder expanding to “20 or 30 or 40 cities, maybe even 50“. Since then, EF has expanded to Berlin, in addition to existing programmes in London and Singapore, and today the so-called ‘talent first’ investor is adding Hong Kong to the list.

Heading up EF’s Hong Kong office is former Airbnb and Google exec Lavina Tien, while the Hong Kong programme, which kicks off in July, will copy the Berlin format, meaning that it will run for 3 months per cohort, not 6 months as in London and Singapore. In addition, teams formed at EF Hong Kong will be eligible to participate in its Singapore demo day.

This is part of a new EF format that aims to make the company builder’s secret sauce, which sees it recruit founders ‘pre-team, pre-idea,’ a lot more scalable. So far, EF co-founder Matt Clifford tells me, it’s working out well.

He says the Berlin program was able to set up and recruit its first cohort in 9 weeks compared to the 9 months it took to get fully operational in Singapore, sounding extremely bullish about the future potential for more expansion.

That’s because the new shorter formula is designed to let EF focus locally on the part most unique to the organisation — persuading the best technical and domain talent to try their hand at entrepreneurship and in turn matching them with a complementary co-founder so that they can form a startup that might otherwise never exist.

Clifford also says this is about doubling down on EF’s Asia ambitions. He notes that, similar to other EF outposts, Hong Kong is a burgeoning but perhaps latent tech ecosystem with good education — such as Hong Kong University for Science and Technology, the University of Hong Kong, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong — and access to capital that is beginning to turn its attention locally rather than simply investing abroad.

Adds EF co-founder Alice Bentinck: “We believe that there are a handful of exceptional technologists globally who have the skills and ambition to build the next generation of breakout technology companies. We know that we will find some of them in Hong Kong, just as we have in London, Singapore and Berlin”.

Meanwhile, Clifford won’t be drawn into where EF might expand next, although he doesn’t rule out adding a further programme this year. If I had to guess, I’d say Paris is a good bet, but in all honestly there are quite a number of cities that could tick the EF box.

Separately, I’m hearing that the company builder is raising a new investment fund so that it can continue the strategy of doing follow-on investments at seed and Series A into the most promising companies it helps build, across all of the locations it now operates. As always, watch this space.

Categories: Business News

Skyline AI raises $3M from Sequoia Capital to help real estate investors make better decisions

2018, March 22 - 10:23pm

Skyline AI, an Israeli startup that uses machine learning to help real estate investors identify promising properties, announced today that it has raised $3 million in seed funding from Sequoia Capital. The round will be used to build its tech platform and hire experts in data science and machine learning.

Founded in 2017 and headquartered in Tel Aviv, Skyline AI predicts future property values and also analyzes the real estate market to help investors make important decisions such as when to raise rents, renovate or sell. Co-founder and chief executive officer Guy Zipori told TechCrunch that Skyline AI’s founding team (who also includes chief technology officer Or Hiltch, chief revenue officer Iri Amirav and executive chairman Amir Leitersdorf) worked together for years at various artificial intelligence-based startups in sectors including security, healthcare and online video. After several of their companies exited, the four were in a position to find investment opportunities. They wanted to explore commercial real estate, but Zipori “were surprised by how limited the technology is in this space.”

Though more industries are turning to data science and artificial intelligence to save time while making complex decisions, many veteran investors still depend on Excel spreadsheets, outdated market data and their “gut feelings,” added Zipori.

Skyline AI wants to take the guesswork out of investment decisions by training its technology on what it claims is the most comprehensive dataset in the industry, drawing on more than 130 sources and analyzing over 10,000 attributes on each data asset for the last 50 years. Skyline AI’s tech then compiles all information into a data lake and cross-references everything to find discrepancies and figure out what information is the most accurate.

“As a side note, we were surprised to learn that asset data sampled from different sources is often dissimilar, meaning that in some cases decisions regarding large deals were made based on bad data,” Zipori said.

One benefit of Skyline AI’s system is that it is able to consider variables that would be difficult to include in Excel spreadsheets and other traditional methods for aggregating data, which is important in real estate because there are so many factors that can impact a property’s value and impact its rents, occupancy levels, maintenance costs and future worth.

In a statement, Sequoia Capital partner Haim Sadger said “The promise of AI to transform commercial real estate investments cannot be understated. Over the last few years, we’ve seen AI disrupt a number of traditional industries and the real estate market should be no different. The power of Skyline AI technology to understand vast amounts of data that affect real estate transactions, will unlock billions of dollars in untapped value.”

Categories: Business News

AdStage raises another $3M as it shifts focus to data

2018, March 22 - 10:00pm

AdStage is announcing that it’s raised $3 million in new funding.

That might not sound like much for a startup that raised a $6.25 million Series A back in 2014, but CEO Sahil Jain told me via email that the company has always raised “in tranches.” So when you combine this new funding with the 2014 round and the $2 million raised in 2016, “We’ve essentially raised a large Series A in total.”

Plus, he said he spent all of 2017 shifting the focus of AdStage’s business. The company continues to offer tools for automating online advertising, but the main selling point is to consolidate campaign data across networks, and then to combine that with offline conversion data.

“We went from a platform where you come to build campaigns and ads to one where you cannot do that at all, and instead, come to analyze what is working and what is not from campaigns/ads you already have running,” Jain said.

The strategy seems to be paying off, with revenue growing 150 percent last year, and the total amount of ad spend on the platform increasing 25 percent to more than $500 million.

The new funding comes from Forté Ventures, HubSpot and Verizon Ventures. (Verizon owns TechCrunch.) AdStage will also be working with HubSpot to build more CRM integrations.

“We have the option for pursuing profitability with no additional capital this year, or doubling down on growth, at which point a larger B round makes a lot of sense,” Jain said. “It is important we execute thoughtfully, which will lead us to the route we decide on as a business.”

Categories: Business News

Ansarada gets $18M in Series A funding to help companies better prepare for major deals

2018, March 22 - 9:10pm

Australian startup Ansarada, which provides tools for companies preparing for a major transaction, will expand in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Africa after raising an $18 million Series A. The funding was led by Ellerston Capital, with participation from Tempus Partners, Belay Capital and Australian Ethical Investments. A noteworthy detail about the raise is that all advisory fees from the deal will be donated to Ugandan and Nepalese charities through Ansarada’s partnership with Adara Partners, a corporate advisory firm made up of financial services experts who donate their fees to help women and children living in poverty.

Ansarada provides data rooms, or secure virtual spaces that enable companies about to undergo a complex event or transaction, like a merger or fundraising, gather all relevant data and files in one place. This allows the process of performing due diligence, legal compliance, writing contracts and other tasks to go more smoothly and also lets companies track who accesses which documents. Ansarada’s clients have included some of the biggest names in tech and financial services, including Google, VMWare, Sony, Microsoft, Deloitte, PwC and KPMG. The Sydney-based company, which claims up to 80% of deals in Australia happen through its platform, will use its new funding for sales and marketing in its target countries, especially the United States, and on product development.

Other virtual data room providers include Firmex, Intralinks and Merrill Corporation, but Ansarada chief executive officer Sam Riley says one of its competitive advantages is its recently launched Material Information Platform (MIP), which serves as a complement to its data rooms. MIP uses machine learning and natural language processing algorithms trained with a dataset gathered from more than 20,000 transactions to give companies information that can potentially reduce deal risks and improve their ongoing business operations. These include an algorithm that Riley says is “up to 97% accurate by day 21 into an M&A deal at benchmarking a bidder’s behavior, scoring their engagement levels and predicting their likelihood to submit an offer and win.” It also scores the completeness of material information and tracks if risk and compliance requirements are being met.

“We’ve seen thousands of companies find out their biggest risks and opportunities too late in their life cycle, which prevents them from performing better pre-deal and ultimately getting less-than-ideal outcomes when they sell or raise capital,” Riley told TechCrunch in an email. He added “We define readiness as being able to express the value of your company very well and very fast, especially to an investor, advisor, auditor or any party that’s critical to success in your company’s most important events. Companies get control and visibility over their most important information and ensure improvement by scorecarding and assigning accountability to their management teams.”

As one would expect, Ansarada used its own products while raising its Series A.

“We eat our own ice cream, so even using the product for our own capital raise resulted in less time by our management team to prepare for the deal and more time spent executing our strategy,” said Riley. “We are now using the platform to give our board an objective score over how well our vital information and key risks are being managed. Simultaneously we are now ready for the next event on our calendar, which is likely to be a financial audit.”

Categories: Business News

The founder of business banking startup Tide plans to step down as CEO

2018, March 22 - 5:00pm

Changes are afoot at Tide, the U.K. fintech startup that offers banking services for small businesses. TechCrunch has learned that founder George Bevis is planning to step down as CEO, and that the nearly three-year old company is actively headhunting for his replacement.

It comes at a time when Tide — which counts 30,000 small business sign ups — is said to be entering ‘scale-up’ mode, with a headcount approaching 100 employees, and ambitions to expand internationally. Earlier this week the service saw a rebrand, including a new ‘vertical’ design for the Tide card and the slogan “Do Less Banking,” a reference to the startup’s mission to make the lives of small business owners easier.

The company also announced that it had got a regulatory upgrade and is now authorised as an electronic money institution by U.K. regulator the FCA. This gives Tide more direct access to banking infrastructure and means that over time it will be less reliant on third-party providers and can have more flexibility in how it serves customers, although it still hasn’t (yet?) chosen to apply for a fully fledged bank license.

Confirming that Tide is recruiting a new CEO, founder Bevis gave TechCrunch the following statement:

“I’m a small business-focussed guy who’s had the privilege of building an amazing company serving small businesses. Now our own business isn’t small any more it’s time for me to think about bringing in someone who knows at least as much about international scale-ups as I know about U.K. startups. Tide will stay focussed on saving small business owners time — in future all across the world. I’m looking forward to continuing to play a key role, both inside the business and on the board”.

I’m told that the decision to start recruiting for a new CEO was instigated by Bevis in discussion with the Tide board, who are fully supportive. The thinking from the Tide founder is that now is a good time to look for a CEO experienced in scaling a company as the early-stage founding job is materially complete, including developing the core Tide product and finding market fit.

Meanwhile, I understand that the new CEO will be tasked with executing Tide’s growth plans, which, along with international expansion, will include evolving the startup to a full SMB banking platform play that will see it continue to plug into providers of other bank related services for small business and further commercializing through revenue-share deals. The idea is that by creating a Tide ecosystem, the company “can scale far beyond the size of any single individual provider”.

To that end, Tide has secured over $16 million in funding to date from VCs including Creandum, LocalGlobe, Passion Capital and fintech specialist, Anthemis, as well as well-known angel investors including Errol Damelin (Wonga), Alex Chesterman (Zoopla/ZPG) and William Reeve (Lovefilm, Graze, and currently CEO of Goodlord).

Categories: Business News

Revolut launches disposable virtual cards

2018, March 22 - 4:01pm

Fintech startup Revolut is launching a new type of virtual cards — disposable cards for online purchases. While you could already generate additional virtual cards for a fee, this is a different kind of virtual card as it gets destroyed after each transaction.

If you usually shop on Amazon or if you have a Spotify subscription, those services first asked you to enter your card number and they keep charging the same card.

But what if you end up on a dodgy-looking site but you really want to buy that funny pair of socks? Chances are you won’t ever purchase anything againt on this website. And you don’t want to give them your actual card information.

Now, you can generate a virtual card in Revolut and enter it on that weird site. After the transaction, Revolut will disable this card forever. If the website wants to charge you again, the transaction will fail.

And if you’re on a shopping spree, Revolut generates a new disposable card seconds after the existing one is used. So you won’t be able to use those disposable cards for online subscriptions and recurring payments. But disposable cards can be useful to prevent fraud. You need a premium subscription to access disposable cards.

There’s no change to permanent cards. When you create a Revolut account, you get a virtual card for free. You can get a physical card for £5/€6 or you can subscribe to a Revolut Premium account to get it for free. Additional cards (physical or virtual) cost £5/€6, with a maximum of five cards in total.

Categories: Business News

Our 8 favorite startups from Y Combinator W18 Demo Day 2

2018, March 22 - 7:39am

Microbiome pills, gambling for one-on-one video games and potential cancer cures were the highlights from legendary startup accelerator Y Combinator’s Winter 2018 Demo Day 2. You can read about all 64 startups that launched on Day 1 in verticals like biotech and robotics, our picks for the top 7 companies from Day 1 and our full coverage of another 64 startups from Day 2. TechCrunch’s writers huddled and took feedback from investors to create this list, so click (web) or scroll (mobile) to see our 8 picks for the top startups from Day 2.

Additional reporting by Greg Kumparak, Lucas Matney and Katie Roof

Categories: Business News

Modular sofa startup Burrow raises $14M

2018, March 22 - 7:06am

We’ve described Burrow as a startup that brings a Casper-style approach to sofas, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the company has raised funding from one of Casper’s investors.

Burrow is announcing a $14 million Series A led by New Enterprise Associates. Correlation Ventures also participated in the round, as did previous investors Red & Blue Ventures and Y Combinator Continuity. (The startup went through the YC accelerator back in 2016.)

When Burrow raised a $4.3 million seed round at the end of last year, it said it was growing 20 percent each month, and its manufacturing facilities had just moved from Mexico City to Mississippi.

Burrow’s Stephen Kuhl said that after a successful 2017, he and his co-founder Kabeer Chopra decided to start fundraising again at the end of January. One of their big goals was to enlist NEA’s Tony Florence — who also backed Casper and Now, Florence is joining Burrow’s board of directors.

“Direct-to-consumer commerce is an increasingly important category, particularly in verticals that have seen little innovation in the way products are built, marketed and distributed,” Florence said in an emailed statement. “The furniture market is ripe for disruption, and Burrow can deliver the quality, value, and convenience that consumers demand from ecommerce shopping experiences. We’re excited to partner with Stephen and his team as they tackle this tremendous opportunity.”

The startup’s main product is a sofa with a modular design, making it easy to move and adjust in different living spaces. (You can buy it in one- to four-seat configurations, with the three-seater currently priced at $1,095.) The modules are delivered in relatively compact boxes, and assembly is only supposed to take 10 minutes, with no tools required.

The lineup has expanded to include an ottoman and a chaise sectional couch, and Burrow also recently added the option to include wooden legs.

Kuhl told me the new funding will allow Burrow to hire aggressively, open additional factories and introduce new, non-sofa products — the plan is to turn the company into “an entire home lifestyle brand.”

“We want to be known for not making people compromise,” he added. “Whether it’s price, quality, convenience, experience, comfort — any of those things, we want to provide the best overall experience.”

Categories: Business News

Uber has reportedly rescinded its job offer for the Amazon exec that was its potential product lead

2018, March 22 - 6:18am

Uber appeared set to hire Assaf Ronen, the former vice president of Amazon’s voice and natural user interface shopping, to lead its products — but it looks like that isn’t going to happen due to a discrepancy in his working history, according to Recode.

Uber discovered a discrepancy related to his tenure at Amazon, where the company appeared to be under the assumption he was working at Amazon at the time of offering him the job, and rescinded its offer, according to Recode. Ronen had actually left Amazon at the very end of 2017 and was not actually working at Amazon at the time, according to Recode, which posted a memo of new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s explanation of what happened. Ronen was brought in to take over the lead product role following the departure of former Twitter product lead and Google Maps exec Daniel Graf.

Since taking over, Khosrowshahi has tried to distance himself from the Uber under former CEO Travis Kalanick . Often times, CEOs will tell you that their number-one job is recruiting. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has mentioned it on a quarterly earnings call at least once a year for the past three years, for example, usually something to the extent of “my primary focus is on recruiting.” That’s obviously going to be a big tenet that will determine Khosrowshahi’s vision for the company and, ultimately, his legacy.

Current product VP Manik Gupta will be running the company’s product operations in the mean time, according to the memo obtained by Recode. Ronen would have been a marquee hire for Uber, but as the company has gone through a myriad of blunders under Kalanick, in addition to one of its autonomous vehicles being involved in an accident with a pedestrian on Monday, it looks like Uber is facing another hiccup in its turnaround at the top.

We reached out to Uber for additional comment and will update the story when we hear back.

Categories: Business News