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Come see Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi at TC Disrupt

2018, July 12 - 5:45am

In the days of Uber 1.0, the ethos seemed to be about doing all the wrong things. Now, with former Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi at the helm, Uber is clearly on its way to becoming a sort of Expedia for transportation. Though, Khosrowshahi has previously likened Uber’s business to aligning more with the idea of an Amazon for transportation.

At TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco in September, Khosrowshahi will join me to discuss Uber’s big plan to own the entire transportation experience for people, the highs and lows of his first year on the job, Uber’s upcoming initial public offering and much more.

Under Khosrowshahi’s leadership, Uber officially became a multi-modal transportation platform with its acquisition of JUMP Bikes for about $200 million, the launch of UberRENT and a public transportation partnership with Masabi.

Oh, and Uber is also working on electric scooters, as well as flying cars via its Elevate program. Just like residential and buildings have gone three-dimensional, Khosrowshahi said at a tech conference in May, “you’re going to have to build a third-dimension in terms of transportation.”

For Uber, Elevate is its “big bet” on that third-dimension of transportation, he said. The big plan with all of these modes of transportation — whether that’s bike sharing, electric scooter sharing, ride sharing, flight sharing or whatnot — is to become a multi-modal transportation service.

Under the leadership of Khosrowshahi, Uber also seems to be moving into an era where the company works with governments, instead of in spite of them. This is quite the 180 for Uber. Before the days of Khosrowshahi, Uber was reluctant to share data with cities. Now, Uber is expanding Movement, a platform that anonymizes and aggregates Uber data to map travel times, to 12 new cities across five continents. The intent is to help urban planners, local leaders and civic communities make more informed decisions.

While Khosrowshahi is making positive moves in a business direction, it’s worth noting the company is still in need of a chief financial officer, and there have been some high-level departures that have continued under his leadership. In June, for example, Uber’s chief brand officer, Bozoma Saint John, left a little after one year of joining the company.

At the time, Saint John told me that while “nothing horrible or terrible happened,” Uber’s corporate culture has not “righted itself 100 percent.” At Disrupt, Khosrowshahi and I will also discuss Uber’s corporate culture and what it’s going to take to fully recover from its 2017, which entailed reports of sexual harassment, mismanagement and a toxic work environment. Then, just this month, Uber’s chief people officer, Liane Hornsey, resigned following an internal racial discrimination investigation.

This should go without saying, but there will be a lot to discuss. In order to see him in person you’ll need to grab your passes to Disrupt SF, which runs September 5-7, are available here.

Categories: Business News

Real estate platform Nestio raises $4.5 million

2018, July 12 - 3:45am

Real estate platform Nestio is getting new funding as it continues to expand its footprint beyond New York City into other large U.S. markets. The startup’s software gives real estate owners and managers a hub to handle things like leasing and marketing.

The round, which they announced today, was led by Camber Creek and Trinity Ventures, with participation from other real estate firms, including Rudin Ventures, Currency M, The Durst Organization, LeFrak Ventures and Torch Venture Capital. The startup has raised around $16 million to date.

Nestio is building up its unit count in new markets, including Boston, Chicago, Houston and Dallas, and is seeking to expand operations with existing customers in NYC. The startup says that it’s grown the amount of units on its platform by 250 percent in the past 12 months.

“We now have hundreds of thousands of listings on the platform that people are now managing,” Nestio CEO Caren Maio told TechCrunch. “Part of that growth is net new logos, but also expansion. So we’ve seen a lot of growth — particularly in New York — although I think the same behavior will replicate itself once we have some longevity in some of those other cities.”

The company says they will use this new capital and strategic partnerships to “deliver advanced leasing and marketing solutions even faster.”

Categories: Business News

Alan introduces Alan Blue, a high-end health insurance product

2018, July 12 - 2:04am

French startup Alan has been mostly focused on its main health insurance product — a standard package for companies of all sizes and shapes. The company is launching a second offering on this market with Alan Blue.

Companies can now choose between two levels of insurance — Alan Green and Alan Blue. Alan Green is the existing health insurance product with a new name. It still costs the same and offers the same level of coverage. Alan Blue is a higher-end product with better coverage for companies who want to retain talent using better benefits.

French employees automatically get basic coverage from the national healthcare system. But companies also need to provide a health insurance from a private company to pay for part of the health expenses. It’s a hybrid system with a strong legal framework.

This is where Alan comes along as your employer signs a deal with an insurance company to cover all their employees. Usually, insurance companies provide multiple offerings. But Alan has historically focused on a single plan.

With Alan Green, you get good coverage starting at $59 (€50) per month per employee if you’re under 36 years old. It gets more expensive if you’re over 36, and then over 45, and then over 56 years old. Plans for employees over 56 cost $100 per month (€85).

Companies have to pay at least 50 percent of those plans. The rest is deducted from your pay. Some companies also choose to pay 100 percent of everyone’s health insurance to show that they really care about their employees.

Employees can also choose to cover their spouse and kids with Alan. Plans for a second adult cost the same as plans for employees. And you can cover all your kids for a $47 flat monthly fee (€40).

While you won’t pay anything if you see a normal medial practitioner, Alan Green couldn’t necessarily cover an expensive pair of glasses or extensive dental work.

Alan Blue is a second option for companies looking for a premium health insurance product. Companies now have to decide between the two plans for the entire staff. You can’t let employees decide between one plan or the other.

Alan Blue starts at $82 per month (€70) for young employees and also gets more expensive depending on the age of the employee. While there’s only a €20 difference between the two offerings for employees under 36 years old, the price difference is higher the older you get. Similarly, you can cover all your kids for a slightly more expensive $64 flat monthly fee (€55).

For companies that choose to fully pay for health insurance, it depends if you’re willing to spend more to provide better insurance. But some companies only pay part of the health insurance package. Employees will end up paying more if their companies switch from Alan Green to Alan Blue.

“Overall, companies that are growing rapidly tend to invest a lot for their employees and switch to Alan Blue,” co-founder and CEO Jean-Charles Samuelian told me. “We already noticed that with companies in our existing clients. Some companies are also switching to Alan because they wanted something very high end before switching.”

Alan still plans to target small companies. The startup thinks that small companies are underserved by big insurance companies and tend to pay more for health insurance.

Alan Green is not going away anytime soon. Samuelian thinks you can combine Alan Green with Alan Map to find the perfect doctor around you and get fully reimbursed.

Alan Blue is already available to selected Alan customers. All companies will be able to sign up in September. You can already view all pricing and insurance details on Alan’s website.

Categories: Business News

Facial recognition startup Kairos acquires Emotion Reader

2018, July 12 - 12:38am

Kairos, the face recognition technology used for brand marketing, has announced the acquisition of EmotionReader.

EmotionReader is a Limerick, Ireland-based startup that uses algorithms to analyze facial expressions around video content. The startup allows brands and marketers to measure viewers emotional response to video, analyze viewer response via an analytics dashboard, and make different decisions around media spend based on viewer response.

The acquisition makes sense considering that Kairos core business is focused on facial identification for enterprise clients. Knowing who someone is, paired with how they feel about your content, is a powerful tool for brands and marketers.

The idea for Kairos started when founder Brian Brackeen was making HR time-clocking systems for Apple. People were cheating the system, so he decided to implement facial recognition to ensure that employees were actually clocking in and out when they said they were.

That premise spun out into Kairos, and Brackeen soon realized that facial identification as a service was much more powerful than any niche time clocking service.

But Brackeen is very cautious with the technology Kairos has built.

While Kairos aims to make facial recognition technology (and all the powerful insights that come with it) accessible and available to all businesses, Brackeen has been very clear about the fact that Kairos isn’t interested in selling this technology to government agencies.

Brackeen recently contributed a post right here on TechCrunch outlining the various reasons why governments aren’t ready for this type of technology. Alongside the outstanding invasion of personal privacy, there are also serious issues around bias against people of color.

From the post:

There is no place in America for facial recognition that supports false arrests and murder. In a social climate wracked with protests and angst around disproportionate prison populations and police misconduct, engaging software that is clearly not ready for civil use in law enforcement activities does not serve citizens, and will only lead to further unrest.

As part of the deal, EmotionReader CTO Dr. Stephen Moore will run Kairos’ new Singapore-based R&D center, allowing for upcoming APAC expansion.

Kairos has raised approximately $8 million from investors New World Angels, Kapor Capital, 500 Startups, Backstage Capital, Morgan Stanley, Caerus Ventures, and Florida Institute, and is now closing on its $30 million crowd sale.

Categories: Business News

Timehop admits that additional personal data was compromised in breach

2018, July 12 - 12:06am

Timehop is admitting that additional personal information was compromised in a data breach on July 4.

The company first acknowledged the breach on Sunday, saying that users’ names, email addresses and phone numbers had been compromised. Today it said it that additional information, including date of birth and gender, was also taken.

To understand what happened, and what Timehop is doing to fix things, I spoke to CEO Matt Raoul, COO Rick Webb and the security consultant that the company hired to manage its response. (The security consultant agreed to be interviewed on-the-record on the condition that they not be named.)

To be clear, Timehop isn’t saying that there was a separate breach of its data. Instead, the team has discovered that more data was taken in the already-announced incident.

Why didn’t they figure that out sooner? In an updated version of its report (which was also emailed to customers), the company put it simply: “Because we messed up.” It goes on:

In our enthusiasm to disclose all we knew, we quite simply made our announcement before we knew everything. With the benefit of staff who had been vacationing and unavailable during the first four days of the investigation, and a new senior engineering employee, as we examined the more comprehensive audit on Monday of the actual database tables that were stolen it became clear that there was more information in the tables than we had originally disclosed. This was precisely why we had stated repeatedly that the investigation was continuing and that we would update with more information as soon as it became available.

In both the email and my interviews, the Timehop team noted that the service does not have any financial information from users, nor does it perform the kinds of detailed behavioral tracking that you might expect from an ad-supported service. The team also emphasized that users’ “memories” — namely, the older social media posts that people use Timehop to rediscover — were not compromised.

How can they be sure, particularly since some of the compromised data was overlooked in the initial announcement? Well, the breach affected one specific database, while the memories are stored separately.

“That stuff is what we cared about, that stuff was protected,” Webb said. The challenge is, “We have to make a mental note to think about everything else.”

The breach occurred when someone accessed a database in Timehop’s cloud infrastructure that was not protected by two-factor authentication, though Raoul insisted that the company was already using two-factor quite broadly — it’s just that this “fell through the cracks.”

It’s also worth noting that while 21 million accounts were affected, Timehop had varying amounts of data about different users. For example, it says that 18.6 million email addresses were compromised (down from the “up to 21 million” addresses first reported), compared to 15.5 million dates of birth. In total, the company says 3.3 million records were compromised that included names, email addresses, phone numbers and DOBs.

None of those things may seem terribly sensitive (anyone with a copy of my business card and access to Google could probably get that information about me), but the security consultant acknowledged that in the “very, very small percentage” of cases where the records included full names, email addresses, phone numbers and DOBs, “identity theft becomes more likely,” and he suggested that users take standard steps to protect themselves, including password-protecting their phones.

Meanwhile, the company says that it worked with the social media platforms to detect activity that used the compromised authorization tokens, and it has not found anything suspicious. At this point, all of the tokens have been deauthorized (requiring users to re-authorize all of their accounts), so it shouldn’t be an ongoing issue.

As for other steps Timehop is taking to prevent future breaches, the security consultant told me the company is already in the process of ensuring that two-factor authentication is adopted across the board and encrypting its databases, as well as improving the process of deploying code to address security issues.

In addition, the company has shared the IP addresses used in the attack with law enforcement, and it will be sharing its “indicators of compromise” with partners in the security community.

Everyone acknowledged that Timehop made real mistakes, both in its security and in the initial communication with customers. (As the consultant put it, “They made a schoolboy mistake by not doing two-factor authentication.”) However, they also suggested that their response was guided, in part, by the accelerated disclosure timeline required by Europe’s GDPR regulations.

The security consultant told me, “We haven’t had the time to do the fine-toothed comb kinds of things we normally want to do,” like an in-depth forensic analysis. Those things will happen, he said — but thanks to GDPR, the company needed to make the announcement before it had all the information.

And overall, the consultant said he’s been impressed by Timehop’s response.

“I think it really says a lot to their integrity that they decided to go fully public the second they knew it was a breach,” he said. “I want to point out these guys responded within 24 hours with a full-on incident response and secured their environments. That’s better than so many companies.”

Categories: Business News

Pinterest is adding a way for users to collaborate on boards

2018, July 11 - 11:00pm

Pinterest is trying to further tap its popularity as a place to plan events, this time adding ways for users to collaborate across boards that are baked directly into the app.

Group boards will have their own designated feed, where users will be able to communicate with others collaborating on that board and also get updates on new member additions or added pins. There are also the other typical social structures you’d expect on an app these days, including @-mentions or liking comments. It’s another step to get people onto Pinterest and sticking around as they look to plan events, and create more ways to make the platform more and more sticky. It’s also another quality-of-life improvement that Pinterest seems to have needed for quite some time.

It’s those kinds of events — weddings, parties and others — that propelled Pinterest initially to become one of the larger social networks in the early 2010s. The company late last year said it had more than 200 million monthly active users, which while small compared to the likes of Instagram or Facebook, serves as a hub for a different kind of user behavior than you might find on those other platforms. The majority of the content on Pinterest is high-resolution products from businesses, where people will search for or save those products as they look to plan future life events.

Pinterest has tried to position itself as one of the best ways to discover new ideas, whether that’s stumbling upon something in a primary feed or finding something through searching. Over time, it’s added more and more tools to try to get people to come back more regularly, and if it continues to improve those recommendation engines, it can continue to run that feedback loop and keep users more and more attached to the platform. Adding a sort of light social pressure from friends that are sharing ideas and looking for feedback is one way to do that, in addition to it generally being useful.

All that is good for its pitch to advertisers as well. Pinterest, in addition to trying to cater to that unique kind of user behavior, is also trying to sell itself to advertisers as a platform where they can reach potential customers through ways they wouldn’t be able to with primary advertising channels like Facebook or Google. By making the platform more sticky, it can go back to those advertisers and offer them better engagement metrics and show that users stick around and are paying closer attention to content on Pinterest, which can in turn drive that additional value to advertisers.

Categories: Business News

Next Insurance, an insurtech targeting small businesses, scores $83M Series B led by Redpoint

2018, July 11 - 10:00pm

Next Insurance, the Israeli digital insurance startup that helps small businesses get cover, has raised a significant new funding round, adding another $83 million to its balance sheet.

The Series B round is led by Silicon Valley’s Redpoint Ventures, and will be used by the company to continue expanding across the U.S., where it now operates as a full service insurance carrier. It will also increase headcount in both its Israel and U.S. offices.

Founded in 2016 with the aim of becoming a one-stop insurance shop for micro and small business insurance needs, Next Insurance designs insurance plans for business sectors that are often overlooked by more general insurers.

Small business owners often rely on price comparison websites to figure out what kind of coverage they need and where to buy it, though that means the plans they get don’t always cover all their needs. The other option is to use a broker but that also adds another middle person.

“The complexity of the small business insurance market is very significant and this leads to a situation where even the largest insurance providers own less than 10 percent of the small business market,” founder and CEO Guy Goldstein told TechCrunch when the company raised its Series A. “This offers us huge growth potential as we aim to specialize in and become a market leader in each small business vertical”.

The small business sectors where Next Insurance offers general and professional liability insurance currently includes contractors, fitness, cleaning, beauty, therapy, entertainment, and education. It lets you buy insurance instantly at what it claims is very competitive prices and with no hidden fees. In addition, now that Next Insurance is a licensed carrier, it is able to write policies independently, with what it says is more freedom over underwriting, setting prices, and configuring policies.

Moving forward, the company plans on adding further lines of insurance, on-demand coverage, and ensuring that claims are paid within 48 hours. It is also hoping to develop more sophisticated uses of AI and machine learning to improve the customer experience and streamline the insurance purchasing process.

To that end, Goldstein says Next Insurance’s Series B is a “monumental turning point” in the company’s history, describing growth over the last two years as exponential. Hyperbole aside, the company does appear to have found market fit, as evidenced by the size of the round and how many previous backers followed on.

The Series B Round brings Next Insurance’s total funding to $131 Million in just two years. Other investors that participated in this round include Nationwide Insurance, Munich Re, American Express Ventures, Ribbit Capital, TLV Ventures, and Zeev Ventures. Elliot Geidt, Managing Director of Redpoint Ventures, will join the board of Next Insurance.

More broadly, the insurtech space is rapidly heating up in recognition that the insurance sector, both consumer and B2B, is still yet to be fully digitised, especially in a mobile-first world. In the U.S., consumer home insurance app Lemonade has been grabbing most of the headlines, not least after it raised $120 million in a round led by Softbank.

“Gone are the days of complicated, unreadable policies, exclusions that leave entrepreneurs vulnerable, and endless meetings and phone calls with insurance agents who don’t understand the nuances and needs of different classes of business,” adds Goldstein in a statement. “Small businesses are the backbone of the U.S. economy, and they deserve insurance policies that are simple to access, affordable to own, and which provide them the support and confidence they need to thrive”.

Categories: Business News

Xara Cloud is an easy to use design tool to help businesses create better looking content

2018, July 11 - 9:31pm

Xara is on a mission to help businesses create better looking content, and in turn save us all from having to consume visually unappealing marketing and comms material. The German startup has developed Xara Cloud, a design tool that resides in the cloud and attempts to bridge the gap between professional design and business content created by non-design professionals.

Specifically, Xara Cloud consists of a drag and drop browser-based editor that lets you create designs using text, shapes, icons, charts and imported images, but with a few extra tricks up its sleeve. These include the ability to use off-the-shelf professionally created colour schemes or have the software create a new colour scheme based on an image, such as your company logo, that you’ve uploaded.

As you’d expect, you can also choose from a library of pre-made templates ranging from social media graphics to flyer and brochures to presentations. These can be designed on top of or tweaked ad nauseam, and in addition you can create your own templates to function as reusable assets.

The editor adheres to a smart grid system, too, which helps non-designers create more disciplined and visually appealing layouts. There are also collaboration features so you can easily create content as part of a team.

“The problem being solved is that there is a massive software gap between basic document editors like Word, PowerPoint, etc. and professional design software like Adobe,” Xara co-founder and CEO Matt Bolton tells me. “Xara Cloud is a robust suite of rich design and editing tools packaged in a drag and drop editing platform that allows anyone to create designer-quality documents… It is 100 percent browser-based with a consistent UI across all desktop and touch devices”.

Bolton says the business case for using Xara Cloud is that brand inconsistency impacts business revenue. “The estimated average revenue attributed to always presenting the brand consistently is 23 percent,” he says, citing a report by Zimmer Communication.

“Repetition and consistency are critical pillars of any branding effort. By a business presenting a brand consistently, over time, consumers will internalize the brand values and be more likely to purchase”.

To mitigate brand inconsistency, Xara Cloud lets you add your logo, fonts, and brand colours, which are then automatically applied to any of Xara Cloud’s templates. “This ensures that any document, no matter the type, will have the current and consistent brand when it reaches the customer,” adds the Xara co-founder.

Meanwhile, the Berlin-based startup is disclosing that it has raised €3 million in funding. Backing the young company is investment group Bellevue Investments & Co.

Categories: Business News

Aurora Labs raises $8.4 million to bring its self-healing software to cars

2018, July 11 - 9:00pm

Aurora Labs, a company that has created predictive tools that will automatically fix problems with software in cars, has raised $8.4 million in a Series A round of financing led by Fraser McCombs Capital.

Previous investor MizMaa Ventures also joined the round. The Tel Aviv-based company just came out of stealth a few months ago.

Aurora Labs plans to use the additional funds to expand its presence beyond its new offices in Munich, Germany and Tel Aviv headquarters. The company has 17 employees and plans to add a handful more by the end of the year, as well as open sales offices in Detroit and San Francisco, CEO and co-founder of Aurora Labs Zohar Fox told TechCrunch.

Vehicles today have millions of lines of code. As the automotive industry becomes increasingly reliant on software, the risk of glitches impacting the operation of vehicles grows. And it’s already proving to be a costly problem for automakers. Some 15 million vehicles globally were recalled in 2017 for software flaws, according to Aurora Labs.

Aurora Labs developed a platform designed to detect (and even predict) problems and then fix any issues on the fly. It also can provide over-the-air software updates to allow automakers the ability to make swift changes to electronic control unit software.

The company already has a few takers of its tech; Aurora Labs has locked in three unnamed automakers as customers and pilots are underway.

The company’s tech might be useful for today’s connected cars. But Aurora’s co-founders Fox and Ori Lederman see an opportunity with the wave of autonomous vehicles that will be deployed in the future.

“The number of lines of code in vehicles is already roughly 150 million and is only expected to climb,” Fox said, adding that quality assurance misses about 15 percent of the average 15 to 50 errors for every thousand lines of code. This stat highlights the need for solutions that can predict downtime events before they cause safety issues, he added. 

Categories: Business News

Olio, the app that lets you share unwanted food items with your neighbours, picks up £6M Series A

2018, July 11 - 5:00pm

Olio, the hyperlocal food sharing app that wants to help tackle the world’s food waste epidemic, has picked up $6 million in Series A funding.

The U.K. startup offers a location-based app and website that lets you list and post a photo of unwanted food items to be shared with other people in the same neighbourhood. That is, food that you might otherwise throw away.

The company, Olio co-founder and CEO Tessa Clarke told me in a call earlier this week, was born out of the idea that a bottom-up, community approach — driven by individual behaviour — is the most scalable way to cut down on the amount of food households typically waste. She says about a third of food production is thrown away and/or allowed to perish, which mostly ends up in landfill, and that food in the home represents about half of this.

The startup helps businesses tackle the problem, too. Dubbed the “Food Waste Heroes Programme,” Olio is enabling companies, such as retailers or those operating events and corporate canteens, to utilise the Olio platform and community to become “zero food waste” organisations.

This sees companies charged a fee and in return Olio will dispatch its thousands of volunteers, who have been vetted and are trained in food hygiene, to come to their stores or outlets and collect unwanted food items. The volunteers then photograph and list the items on the app and offer themselves up as hyperlocal collection points. Most items are made available for sharing and picked up/distributed in just a few hours.

Clarke says the startup is also exploring the possibility of moving to a premium model, where the most active users of the platform pay for a subscription that gives them access to additional value-add features. The Holy Grail of hyperlocal advertising is an untapped opportunity, too, given that the app already boasts over half a million users.

What is most striking when hearing the Olio co-founder talk about the young company is how mission-driven she, her team and the app’s community are. That’s because not only is food waste an expensive problem — over $1 trillion per year, apparently — but the environmental dent food production and distribution makes is huge, while a growing population means that food shortages will realistically become an issue in the future. Factor in that Olio can and, to a certain extent, already is helping to alleviate food poverty, and it’s easy to understand why.

I also questioned Clarke on Olio’s reliance on volunteers and she said that the company currently receives far more volunteer applications than it can process. More broadly, since the time spent being active on the platform is unlikely to translate into a full-time job, since it only works by being very distributed and remaining steadfastly hyperlocal. Volunteers also get to keep up to 10 percent of the food they collect.

Meanwhile, Olio’s Series A round was led by Octopus Ventures, with existing investors including Accel, Quadia, and Quentin Griffiths (co-founder of ASOS & Achica) following on. Other new investors joining Octopus include Lord Waheed Alli’s Silvergate Investments 2, Bran Investments, Julien Codorniou (Facebook) and Jason Stockwood (Match.com, Simply Business).

Categories: Business News

GrubMarket gobbles up $32M led by GGV for its healthy grocery ordering and delivery service

2018, July 11 - 9:27am

As consumers become more discerning about the food they eat, a wave of startups has emerged that is catering to that demand with convenient alternatives to the more ubiquitous options that are available today. One of these, GrubMarket — which sources organic and healthy food directly from producers and then delivers it to other businesses (Whole Foods is a customer) as well as consumers at a discount of 20-60 percent over other channels — is today announcing a $32 million round to grow its already profitable business, including making acquisitions and expanding on its own steam as it eyes a public listing.

“We are looking to buy companies to make more revenues ahead of an upcoming IPO,” said Mike Xu, the founder and CEO. He said GrubMarket is “in proactive steps” to expand from its home base in California to the East Coast, starting in New York and New Jersey, by October this year. The plan, he said, will be to file with the SEC sometime between the end of this year and early 2019, with the IPO taking place in the second half of 2019.

E-commerce, and in particular food-related businesses with perishable items and associated waste, can be tricky when it comes to margins, and indeed, there have been many casualties in the world of food startups. Xu said in an interview that GrubMarket is already profitable and working at a $100 million run rate.

One of the reasons it’s profitable may also be the same reason you may have never heard of GrubMarket. Currently, between 60 and 70 percent of its business is in the B2B space. Xu says that customers number in the thousands and include offices, grocery stores and restaurants across the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego.

And so, if you don’t know GrubMarket, you might know some of its customers, which include all WeWorks between San Diego and San Francisco, Whole Foods, Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and Chipotle. GrubMarket has also cornered some very specific niches: It has become the biggest mushroom supplier in all of Northern California, and it’s the biggest supplier of Hawaiian farm produce in the Bay Area.

Another point in the company’s favor is the technology it uses. Working directly with farmers and other producers, GrubMarket has built apps that allow it and its partners to manage the logistics of the business in an efficient way. The idea will be to bring more AI to the platform over time: for example, to be able to run better modelling to figure out how much fruit and veg might sell during a given season, and how to price items.

GrubMarket also is dabbling in areas that you might not normally associate with a grocery-on-demand delivery company: it built an educational app called Farmbox, which — when you play it — can be used to collect points to spend on GrubMarket; and it’s also exploring how blockchain technology can be used in a “next-generation open platform for direct farm-to-table.”

Xu says that as the company continues to grow, it will shift more into direct-to-consumer deliveries to complement its wholesale business.

This latest round is a mixture of equity and debt and is being led by GGV with other previous investors Fusion Fund (formerly New Gen Capital) and Great Oaks Venture Capital participating, along with new investors Max Ventures, Castor Ventures, Bascom Ventures, Millennium Technology Value Partner, Trinity Capital Investment, Investwide Capital and others. The company is not publicly disclosing its valuation; it has raised around $64 million to date.

Many eyes are on Amazon these days, and what moves it might make next in groceries after acquiring Whole Foods, ramping up its own Pantry offerings, courting restaurants for delivery and making its own meal kits. This is not a question that keeps up Xu at night, however.

“Food is the largest and biggest opportunity in e-commerce,” he said, estimating that today the total value for the global food and agricultural industry is around $9 trillion (versus $8 trillion in 2017), with only about one percent of buying done online. “That’s a big enough opportunity to have a few giant companies, and not just Amazon.”

It’s also an opportunity that could sustain some slightly smaller companies, too: One of my favorite e-commerce businesses in England is a service that I’ve been using for years, an organic grocery delivery called Abel & Cole that brings us a box of organic fruit and vegetables (and whatever else I order on top of that) each week. Like GrubMarket, it’s working directly with smaller producers who might have otherwise found it hard-going to find a way of selling their produce directly to buyers (and buyers would have found it hard-going to ever buy directly from these producers). Unlike GrubMarket, it takes a more modest approach that doesn’t involve eventually becoming a leviathan itself. May they all be around for years to come.

Categories: Business News

The Nudge is a planner app packaged as an SMS subscription service

2018, July 11 - 9:00am

How do you fix digital information overload and the resulting life-attention deficit that’s apparently afflicting smartphone owners everywhere — and even leading some very large tech giants to unbox “digital wellness” tools lately?

San Francisco-based startup The Nudge reckons the answer to getting millennials to spend less time sucked into screens, and more time out and about actually doing things, is — you guessed it — another technology service! Albeit one that delivers inspirational plan ideas for stuff to do in your free time, delivered via the traditional text message conduit of SMS.

The sibling duo behind the startup, John and Sarah Peterson, have bagged $540,000 in pre-seed funding for their text planner idea, after running a year-long public beta of the service in San Francisco. The investment is led by seed-stage VC firm NextView Ventures, with Sequoia’s scout fund also participating.

Peterson says the idea to send plans via SMS evolved out of his earlier (and first) startup, called Livday: Also a planner app for friends to share their favorite ideas for weekend hikes and so on. But being just another app meant having to compete for attention with noisy social content, so the siblings hit on the idea of using SMS — as a sort of artisanal reversion of current state consumer tech — to “find a way to rise above the noise,” as they put it. Or, well, attempt to circumvent app notification fatigue/mute buttons.

As is often the case in fashion-led consumer tech, old ways can get polished up to feel shiny and new again once whatever displaced them has lost enough sheen to start to look old.

The Nudge has garnered around 10,000 active weekly users at this point, launching out of its year-long public beta. Peterson describes the typical user as “an active millennial woman,” with the community skewing 70 percent female at this point.

For the active user metric the team defines an active user as someone who is reading and engaging with the text messages they’re sending — either by clicking a link or replying.

They further claim to have signed up 5 percent of San Francisco’s millennials to their lifestyle “nudges.”

“While our new rebrand has a somewhat feminine aesthetic it’s interesting that we initially were targeting men. It just really resonated with millennial women,” says Peterson.

“They need this because taking the initiative is the essential yet hardest part of living our lives to the fullest, and that’s what we give them,” he adds. “A nudge. We’re laser-focused on that demo right now but have plans to help other demographics long-term. My empty nest parents badly need this.”

Nudges take the form of — initially — an SMS text message, containing a handwritten brunch idea or a hike plan, or details of a hip coffee venue or volunteering opportunity which the startup reckons will appeal to its SF community.

The texts may also contain a link to a more fully fledged plan (with photos, address, logistics etc.). You can see some of their sample plans here.

While the core delivery mechanism is SMS, there also is a Nudge app where plans can be saved for later perusal, and subscribers to the service can mark Nudges as “done” (presumably to avoid being spammed with the same plan later).

Currently, the startup has an editorial team of three people coming up with plan ideas to inspire subscribers — writing in a friendly, narrative style that’s intended to complement the cozy SMS delivery medium.

They’re also working with local social media influencers to hit on trendy ideas that resonate with their target millennial users.

Convincing information-overloaded consumers to willingly hand over their mobile digits to get random texts might seem a bit of a counter-intuitive “fix” for digital information overload. But Peterson reckons it boils down to getting the tone of voice right. (And, clearly, being careful not to send too many texts that you end up coming across as spam.)

“We want people to really feel like The Nudge is just another one of their (ridiculously resourceful and fun) friends texting them, and I think we’ve succeeded there so far,” he tells TechCrunch. “Nearly all of our growth has come from word of mouth. You’re right that text messaging is a sacred space, and we’re very sensitive about that.”

Peterson claims that unsubscribe rates are less than 1 percent each week — though they’re also limiting themselves to sending three “personalized” lifestyle “nudges” per week at this point.

On the personalization front, they say plan ideas are customized based on factors such as the current weather and local trends. They are not, as a rule, customized per user though — beyond being personalized with the subscriber’s name. So it’s more “Nudge Club” than VIP personalized lifestyle advisor.

“In general, everyone is getting the same content, as we’ve found that there’s a lot of power in the shared experience (you know your friend just got the same text at that moment),” he says. “That said, we do sometimes create a dialogue where we ask you a question and depending upon your answer, we recommend something specific for you.

“We’re carefully not taking this part too far, as we really don’t view ourselves as a bot.”

Given they are (usually) sending ~10,000 people pretty much the same idea of what to do at the weekend or of an evening, Peterson admits that venue overcrowding has been a problem they inadvertently ended up creating — for example he says they recommended a free event that ended up getting 10x overbooked and had to cancel some tickets.

“Our answer is to only recommend small venues as a general suggestion (do this date idea this summer), and recommend larger venues specifically (do this hike tomorrow),” he says, explaining how they’ve tweaked the service to try to workaround creating unintended flash mobs of demand.

On the business model side, the plan is to make The Nudge a subscription service. Though they’re not going into details at this stage as they’re still experimenting with different options. (And they’re not currently charging for the service.)

But Peterson says the intention is not to make money via the specific things they’re recommending — which, in theory, frees them from needing to operate a creepy, privacy-hostile data-harvesting surveillance operation to determine whether an SMS can be linked to a specific bar bill or restaurant check for them to take a cut, for example.

Though, to be clear, Peterson says they’re gathering “as much data as we can about people doing a Nudge” — presumably so the team can better tailor the content and recommendations they’re making by figuring out what their users really like doing.

“We don’t promote any products or services,” he emphasizes. “Selling tickets or products or ads is tempting, and a lot of lifestyle services do that, but it would ruin or credibility. This is ultimately a subscription service based on trust.”

Despite that reassuring claim, it is worth noting that their current privacy policy states they “may periodically send promotional emails about new products/special offers/info etc via provided email addresses.” So be aware you are at least agreeing to theoretical email spam if you hand over your details.

What’s next for The Nudge now that the team has raised their first tranche of VC? Peterson says they’re planning to expand the service to LA this year — which he confirms will mean hiring a team on the ground to produce the custom content needed to power the service.

Albeit, he concedes, “right now our process is very manual.” And it’s not at all clear whether their concept could sustain much automation-based scaling — at least not if they don’t want to risk generating yet more impersonal noise versus the friendly digital lifestyle advisor tone they’re aiming to strike as a strategy to stand out.

Beyond LA, Peterson says they plan to expand “pretty aggressively” in 2019. “The Nudge as it stands now would work in any urban market as I believe it’s a solution to a fundamental human problem,” he says.

The Nudge’s spare time plans by text is by no means the only SMS-based lifestyle subscription service hoping to cut itself a slice of the attention economy.

In 2016 a startup called Shine launched on-demand life coaching by text messaging, for example.

And let’s not forget Magic — the “get anything via a text message” service that had a viral moment in 2015 — and now bills itself as a “24/7 virtual assistant.”

Google has also tried texting people shopping deals. And Microsoft has dabbled in event planning specifically — outing an iMessage app for social event planning last year.

Meanwhile Facebook added “M,” a text-based assistant app (which was itself human-assisted), to its Messenger platform back in 2015 — but went on to shutter the service in January this year, apparently never having found a way to scale M into a fully fledged AI assistant.

Categories: Business News

Is insurance a rich enough game to disrupt?

2018, July 11 - 5:00am
Martha Notaras Contributor Martha Notaras is a partner at XL Innovate.

For the last decade, the largest technology companies have increasingly looked outside of tech to grow their operations. From automotive to retail to groceries, these companies use massive competitive advantages in the form of data, consumer relationships and software engineers to fundamentally change markets.

Now, companies like Apple and Google and Amazon are eyeing innovation across the insurance landscape. For example, Amazon is teaming with JPMorgan and Berkshire Hathaway to create a new way to approach health insurance, focusing first on the group’s own employees. On the retail side, Amazon is selling product insurance and extended warranties at the point of sale and investing in insurtech startups. Meanwhile, Tesla is developing an insurance product specific to the Model S. Waymo, Uber and Lyft are certainly having similar conversations internally.

Obviously, these are all preliminary steps. Insurance is a complex, multifaceted and, yes, risky business. In the end, whether or not companies like Amazon become insurers themselves depends on their appetite for risk, their ability to innovate and the potential pay off.

To start, let’s look at the reasons why tech giants are well-suited to upend the space.

They have direct consumer relationships

Like many businesses, a large aspect of a successful insurance business is distribution. Just look at brokers, which are a major means of distribution for insurers today — their cut can be up to 30 percent of the cost of an insurance policy. Brokers also see better margins than insurers themselves, usually around 10 percent net margins. Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google (FAAMG) possess direct relationship with billions of consumers and could, over time, disrupt the broker business.

They have deep data and analytics

The big secret in insurance is that insurers are actually terrible at using their data. Different departments (marketing, underwriting, claims) rarely work together, and their data tends to be siloed. FAAMG, on the other hand, has put data at the core of their offering; they know how to leverage analytics and AI to create better products.

Tech giants may be tempted to use their troves of data to compete with insurers directly.

They also have access to data that insurers can only dream of having: global geospatial imagery of homes, infrastructure and buildings; location, browsing and advertising data; even real-world behavioral data from smartphones and IoT devices. Combining all these signals can create a very complete picture of human behavior, interests and risk profile.

They have an army of software engineers and a monopoly of AI talent

Tech innovation has long been a challenge for insurance incumbents. Old systems are difficult to displace in any industry, but the complexity of insurance, tradition of relying on the past to predict the future and silos of data can make it a Herculean effort. Tech giants, on the other hand, regularly cannibalize their own revenue with new products and can enlist tens of thousands of engineers to develop fantastic digital customer experiences and bring large-scale efficiencies to back-end insurance systems through better software and AI.

So, yes, FAAMG has a number of major advantages over insurance incumbents. But for tech giants, new verticals and initiatives are also longer-term decisions around margins and market scope. It’s an obvious point, but if FAAMG wants to jump into insurance, they’ll want a decent return. Can they find that in insurance?

There are a number of reasons why it might be a tough sell.

Ultra-low margins

Average insurance net margins are 3-8 percent, and 25-30 percent gross margins, which are meager for tech standards. Software companies average around 80 percent gross margins and around 15 percent net margins. Even consumer hardware like the iPhone — a costly endeavor by software standards — sees 55-60 percent gross margins.

Within insurance, health tends to have the highest margins, followed by property and casualty (i.e. home and auto insurance), followed by life insurance. So if anything, healthcare is probably the closest thing to “low-hanging fruit” — but it’s not exactly attractive to most companies outside insurance.

High risk

Such low margin also means that one major event can destroy a company’s balance sheet for an entire fiscal year (think disasters like hurricanes, fire, flood, etc.). In addition, tech companies don’t have the historical data and actuarial scientists that insurers have spent decades building up, so they might be more prone to misjudging their overall risk exposure.

Complex administration

For insurers, evaluating and underwriting policies is an expensive endeavor. Claims, customer support and back-end are costly and complex. That said, most insurance companies are already outsourcing the development of core administration software to companies like GuideWire and Duck Creek, and then customizing the software to meet their specific needs at the last mile. So it’s not as huge of a leap as it once was to think that the likes of Amazon or Google could develop similar infrastructure in-house to rival incumbent systems. Or, they could easily buy one of the development companies outright and subsume that expertise.

Amazon makes a big move

Still, the creation and underwriting of policies is something tech giants have avoided to date. Amazon has been working on warranties for certain products as an add-on to their margins — but these were backed and administered by The Warranty Group rather than Amazon itself. Before that, Amazon acted as a sales channel for SquareTrade and built up an understanding of the warranty business before diving in deeper. Tesla, as another example, announced it was selling Tesla-branded tailor-made policies for its vehicle owners, but those policies were backed by Liberty Mutual.

What role will tech giants in the U.S. play in the insurance landscape?

Then, in January, Amazon made a well-publicized announcement, in tandem with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan, around its intention to create a private healthcare option for their workers. We don’t know much about the initiative, but Amazon has been working on a healthcare technology project codenamed 1492 for some time. Rumors point to a “platform for electronic medical record data, telemedicine, and health apps.” Amazon’s technology paired with Berkshire Hathaway’s insurance knowledge and JPMorgan’s financial expertise makes the creation of a new health insurance entity more likely. If so, this would be a significant shot across the bow of U.S. healthcare insurers.

Of all the tech giants, it would not be a surprise if Amazon were the first to jump into insurance. Amazon has mastered the art of building massive businesses off of razor-thin margins. They’re also targeting health insurance, which presents the best margin opportunity. They can test their offering within the company first and then scale across their massive consumer base. Finally, they have a history of building out complex back-end services for their own purposes before offering it to their customers — just look at AWS.

Will other tech companies follow Amazon’s lead?

Signs point to yes. Recently, Google’s sister company, Verily, “has been in talks with insurers about jointly bidding for contracts that would involve taking on risk for hundreds of thousands of patients.” In addition, Apple will be opening a network of medical clinics for its employees.

It may not stop at health insurance. There’s no question technology is changing human behavior and society, and as the developers of much of this new tech, FAAMG will inevitably be pushed closer to other sectors of insurance, as well, including home and auto.

Autonomous vehicle fleets will make companies like Tesla, Google and Uber the owners of tens of thousands of cars, subjecting them to the risk that comes with that. Meanwhile, IoT hardware and accompanying services are bringing tech giants into the living room. That’s a literal statement when it comes to Amazon Key. Nest, Google Home and Amazon Echo are more innocuous, but provide all sorts of data about what’s going on inside the home and could, someday, help inform the creation of real-time home insurance policies.

East Asia as a leading indicator?

It also can be instructive to look at markets outside the U.S. In East Asia, businesses are taking a more aggressive posture vis-à-vis insurance. BaiduAlibabaRakutenTencent and LINE have all shown some level of appetite for offering their own insurance products. These companies can verify identities, enforce trust and access the behavioral and financial data necessary to provide better policies than many insurance incumbents in those countries.

They also are exploring new ways of looking at risk and changing user behavior: Tencent’s WeSure is paying users to stay healthy by walking more, while Yongqianbao, a lending company, tracks unconventional digital data to determine credit risk, such as phone brand (iPhone users are less likely to default) and whether they let their phone batteries run down.

Still, the question remains: What role will tech giants in the U.S. play in the insurance landscape? Will they act as a channel for existing insurers, as a provider of data and analytics to those insurers or even as a provider of direct insurance themselves?

Insurance may not be lucrative-enough for tech giants in the short-term, but as real-time data and analytics are used to create insurance policies, tech giants may be tempted to use their troves of data to compete with insurers directly. Until then, we can expect insurers and tech giants to form alliances, as they have in East Asia, with tech companies using insurance and warranties as a value-add for their customers, and insurers using tech companies as a sales channel. Regardless, the story of FAAMG (and others) in insurance is undoubtedly just getting started, and we’ll have to check back in as the landscape develops.

Categories: Business News

SolarWinds acquires real-time threat-monitoring service Trusted Metrics

2018, July 11 - 3:36am

SolarWinds, the company behind tools like Pingdom, Papertrail, Loggly and a number of other IT management tools, today announced it has acquired Trusted Metrics, a company that helps businesses monitor incoming threats to their networks and servers. This move follows SolarWinds’ acquisition of Loggly earlier this year. Among other things, Loggly also provides a number of security tools for enterprises.

Today’s acquisition of Trusted Metrics is clearly part of the company’s strategy to build out its security portfolio, and SolarWinds is actually rolling Trusted Metrics into a new security product called SolarWinds Threat Monitor. Like Trusted Metrics, SolarWinds Threat Monitor helps businesses protect their networks by automatically detecting suspicious activity and malware.

“When we look at the rapidly changing IT security landscape, the proliferation of mass-marketed malware and the non-discriminatory approach of cybercriminals, we believe that real-time threat monitoring and management shouldn’t be a luxury, but an affordable option for everyone,” said SolarWinds CEO Kevin Thompson in today’s announcement. “The acquisition of Trusted Metrics will allow us to offer a new product in the SolarWinds mold—powerful, easy to use, scalable—that is designed to give businesses the ability to more easily protect IT environments and business operations.”

SolarWinds did not disclose the financial details of the transaction. Trusted Metrics was founded in 2010; although it received some seed funding, it never raised any additional funding rounds after that.

Categories: Business News

Ledger finally has a good app for its crypto wallet

2018, July 11 - 1:35am

French startup Ledger has been working for a while on a brand new app to manage your crypto assets on your computer. The company is designing and manufacturing one of the most secure hardware wallets out there.

While it’s clear that security has always been the first focus of the company, the user experience has been lacking, especially on the software front. The company launched a new app called Ledger Live to handle everything you used to do with Chrome apps before.

That’s right, before today, the company relied on Google Chrome for its desktop apps. You had to install the browser first, and then install a new app for each cryptocurrency. There was also a main app to update the firmware. It could quickly become a mess.

Now, everything is centralized in a single app. After downloading and installing the app on Windows, macOS or Linux, you can either configure the app with an existing Ledger device or configure a new Ledger wallet.

The app first checks the integrity of your device and then lets you manage the device. You can upgrade the firmware and install apps on your Ledger Nano S or Ledger Blue from the “Manager” tab.

More interestingly, you can now add all your wallets to the Ledger Live app. You won’t have to switch from one app to another to view your wallets. When you click the add button, the app will try to retrieve existing wallets on your device. You can also generate a new set of keys (and a new wallet) from there.

Once you’ve added all your wallets, you can get an overview of your entire portfolio. The app gets historical pricing information from popular exchanges, such as Kraken and Bitfinex. You can also click on individual accounts to see how a specific cryptocurrency has evolved over time.

The portfolio interface looks like a Coinbase account. It’s well-designed and it’s a great way to get a quick look of your accounts.

Many Ledger users have been using tracker websites and apps. These services let you enter a cryptocurrency and the amount you own to get an overview of everything you own independently of the wallet.

Ledger’s new app partially replace tracker services. If you don’t need to check your balance from your phone, you can get enough information with the Ledger app. You can see your balance without having to plug your Ledger device.

The company is already working on new features. You’ll be able to view and manager ERC20 tokens in the future. So if you invested in a bunch of obscure ICOs, your tokens will be there too.

Ledger also told me that you could imagine an integration with decentralized exchanges eventually. This way, you would be able to send tokens to an address and get another set of tokens back on another Ledger-generated address. It would be a great way to exchange cryptocurrencies without signing up to a centralized exchange and leaving the Ledger app.

Categories: Business News

ANGLR raises $3.3 million to create a Fitbit for fishing

2018, July 11 - 1:32am

ANGLR, a tracking system for fisherpersons, has raised a $3.3 million Series A to add AR and wearables to their already impressive package of fishing trip management and devices to help record fishing data. That’s right… they caught a big one!

Nic Wilson and Landon Bloomer started this Pittsburgh-based company to build an app that can help record and plan your fishing trips. The system has been around for five years and they’ve logged thousands of catches. They’re releasing “patent-pending connected tracking accessories” to record catch locations so you don’t have to pull out your phone while in the middle of reeling in a real beauty.

“Most fishing apps let users record catches. Our platform is built around trips,” said Wilson. “Mid-July our users will be sharing the first comprehensive summaries of fishing trips. The catch is only the result of many variables coming into alignment. Our system quantifies them We work with the top weather and water data providers and have spent years mastering GPS and pathing under many fishing scenarios.”

The cash, raised from KB Partners with participation from Brunswick Corporation, will help them grow their selection of wearable devices .

“All fishing apps require some form of manual data entry. We’re automating it with the word’s first connected accessories and third party integrations,” said Wilson.

The team started with some pretty basic technology and are now expanding past their modest beginnings.

“Our first prototype was an android phone mounted to a fishing rod, which spurred a network of resources in Western PA who wanted to help get it done,” said Wilson. Over the past few years they’ve perfected their app and they’re looking to create software and hardware to “become the center of fishing intelligence.” A noble goal, especially if they can get the one that got away.

Categories: Business News

Box acquires Butter.ai to make search smarter

2018, July 11 - 1:01am

Box announced today that it has acquired Butter.ai, a startup that helps customers search for content intelligently in the cloud. The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but the Butter.AI team will be joining Box.

Butter.AI was started by two ex-Evernote employees, Jack Hirsch and Adam Walz. The company was partly funded by Evernote founder and former CEO Phil Libin’s Turtle Studios. The latter is a firm established with a mission to use machine learning to solve real business problems like finding the right document wherever it is.

Box has been adding intelligence to its platform for some time, and this acquisition brings the Butter.AI team on board and gives them more machine learning and artificial intelligence known-how while helping to enhance search inside of the Box product.

Photo: Box

“The team from Butter.ai will help Box to bring more intelligence to our Search capabilities, enabling Box’s 85,000 customers to more easily navigate through their unstructured information — making searching for files in Box more contextualized, predictive and personalized,” Box’s Jeetu Patel wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition.

That means taking into account the context of the search and delivering documents that make sense given your role and how you work. For instance, are if you are a salesperson and you search for a contract, you probably want a sales contract and not a one for a freelancer or business partnership.

For Butter, the chance to have access to all those customers was too good to pass up. “We started Butter.ai to build the best way to find documents at work. As it turns out, Box has 85,000 customers who all need instant access to their content. Joining Box means we get to build on our original mission faster and at a massive scale,” company CEO and co-founder Jack Hirsch said.

The company launched in September, 2017, and up until now it has acted as a search assistant inside Slack you can call upon to search for documents and find them wherever they live in the cloud. The company will be winding down that product as it becomes part of the Box team.

As is often the case in these deals, the two companies have been working closely together and it made sense for Box to bring the Butter.AI team into the fold where it can put its technology to bear on the Box platform.

“After launching in September 2017 our customers were loud and clear about wanting us to integrate with Box and we quickly delivered. Since then, our relationship with Box has deepened and now we get to build on our vision for a MUCH larger audience as part of the Box team,” the founders wrote in a Medium post announcing the deal.

The company raised $3.3 million over two seed rounds. Investors included Slack and General Catalyst.

Categories: Business News

CodeFights becomes CodeSignal and launches a new ratings system for developers

2018, July 11 - 1:00am

CodeFights started out as a competitive coding platform, but has since morphed to focus more on interview prep and helping businesses recruit developers. To better reflect this focus, the service today announced that it is changing its name to CodeSignal. In addition to this, the company also today officially launched its Coding Score, a credit score-like ratings system for developers with scores that — just like today’s credit scores — range from 300 to 850. To round out its set of announcements, the company also announced that FICO CEO William Lansing is joining the CodeSignal advisory board.

“Our core strength and the tech we built is the ability to assess technical ability and to do it at scale,” CodeSignal CEO Tigran Sloyan told me. “The crown jewel of that is the Coding Score. The Coding Score is our equivalent of a credit score for developers because you need an easy way for the industry to agree on a standard for skills.”

I’m not sure everybody will agree with his assessment, but Sloyan is right that today’s methods of rating a developer’s skill based on what school somebody went to, resumes, GitHub projects and coding interviews doesn’t present a full picture of an applicant’s abilities. He also notes that this process, where the actual hiring decision is often based on the preferences of only a few people, can lead to biased decisions. The Coding Score, Sloyan argues, takes away many of these biases and purely focuses on an applicant’s abilities.

How does CodeSignal calculate this score? Sloyan tells me that a developer only has to solve three challenges on the site to get a score — and that first score is accurate to about 85 percent. As developers solve more challenges, the service starts refining the score. Developers are ranked based on their speed and accuracy (which are weighted according to the difficulty of the challenge), and how they solve those problems. CodeSignal benchmarks developers against each other. To do all of this this, the team trained a machine learning model on the vast trove of data the company has collected since it launched its first coding challenges in 2014.

CodeSignal started pitching the Coding Score to recruiters at major tech firms over the course of the last few months. Sloyan admitted that it took a while before these recruiters trusted these scores, but today a number of these companies use the scores to bypass phone interviews and move right to in-person interviews for some candidates.

Developers, it’s worth noting, can choose to share their scores publicly or keep them private until they want to share them with recruiters.

Looking ahead, CodeSignal wants the Coding Score to become the de facto standard in the developer hiring market. While this model is surely applicable to other fields, Sloyan noted that CodeSignal isn’t all that interested in branching out right now, but he left the door open for adding scores for other technical fields as well. “I do believe the model scales,” he told me. “What you need is a platform for people to practice and learn a certain skill. That platform needs to have an automatic assessment engine behind it.” And with enough data from that, it can then analyze those scores and calculate a score.

Bonus: To launch the new scoring system, CodeSignal calculated and ranked the average scores of users from a number of companies and colleges.

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Categories: Business News

Slack wants to make search a little easier with search filters

2018, July 11 - 12:55am

Slack’s search functions are getting another little quality-of-life update today with the introduction of filters, which aims to make search a little more granular to find the right answers.

The company also says searches are going to be more personalized. All of this is an attempt to get to the right files or conversations quickly as Slack — a simple collection of group chats and channels that can get out of hand very fast — something a little more palatable. As companies get bigger and bigger, the sheer amount of information that ends up in it will grow faster and faster. That means that the right information will generally be more difficult to access, and if Slack is going to stick to its roots as a simple internal communications product, it’s going to have to lean on improvements under the hood and small changes in front of users. The company says search is now 70 percent faster on the back end.

Users in Slack will now be able to filter search results by channels and also the kinds of results they are looking for, like files. You can go a little more granular than that, but that’s the general gist of it, as Slack tries to limit the changes to what’s happening in front of users. Slack threads, for example, were in development for more than a year before the company finally rolled out the long-awaited feature. (Whether that feature successfully changed things for the better is still not known.)

Slack now has around 8 million daily active users, with 3 million paid users, and is still clearly pretty popular with smaller companies that are looking for something simpler than the more robust — and complex — communications tools on the market. But there are startups trying to pick away at other parts of the employee communications channels, like Slite, which aims to be a simpler notes tool in the same vein as Slack but for different parts of the employee experience. And there are other larger companies looking to tap the demand for these kinds of simpler tools, like Atlassian’s Stride and Microsoft’s Teams.

Categories: Business News

WeWork competitor Convene raises a $152 million Series D

2018, July 11 - 12:35am

New York-based meeting room booking startup Convene announced a $152 million Series D this week. The round is led by ArrowMark Partners, along with a number of real estate-related organizations, including Steve Case’s Revolution Growth.

It’s probably telling that the company simply refers to itself as a “WeWork competitor” in the pitch email that was sent on its behalf. Convene doesn’t exactly spur a lot of brand name recognition, but the company’s certainly got the fundraising cache. This round brings its total raise up to $260 million.

The well-funded startup certainly isn’t as ubiquitous as WeWork, but it’s got a number of the U.S.’s largest cities covered, including Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston Chicago and its home court, New York. Convene currently lays claim to 23 locations totaling 700,000 square feet of office space.

This round will no doubt go a ways toward snapping up some key real estate, as well. The startup has plans to expand globally and add around one million additional square feet in a total of 10 locations by the end of next year.

As for how it distinguishes itself from the competition, here’s CEO and co-founder Ryan Simonetti, from a press release tied to the news,

Unlike many players in the flexible office or space-as-a-service category, Convene’s landlord partnership model goes far beyond coworking, and we are proud to partner with the world’s most respected office owners to create inspiring workplace environments for today’s top companies. We will use our new funding to expand our alliance with landlords and increase the value of traditional commercial office buildings by putting the human experience above all else.

Categories: Business News

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