Sustainable e-commerce startup Olive now ships beauty products, in addition to apparel

Earlier this year, a startup called Olive launched its new shopping site and app with the goal of making e-commerce more efficient, convenient, and sustainable by offering a way for consumers to aggregate their orders from across retailers into single shipments that arrive in reusable packaging, not cardboard. If items need to be returned, those same packages are reused. Otherwise, Olive will return to pick them up. Since its February 2021 debut, the company has grown to include over 100 retailers, predominately in the fashion space. Today, it’s expanding again by adding support for another 25 beauty retailers.

Launch partners on the new effort include brands like Supergoop!, Kora Organics, Pai Skincare, Erno Laszlo, Jecca Blac, Sahajan, Clark’s Botanicals, NuFace, Purlisse, Cover FX, LYS Beauty, SiO Beauty, Peace Out Skincare, Koh Gen Do, Julep Beauty, In Common Beauty, Indie Lee, Glow Recipe, Ursa Major, RMS Beauty, Ceremonia, Sweet Chef, Follain, and BalmLabs.

They join Olive’s numerous apparel and accessory retailers like Adidas, Superga, Rag & Bone, Birdies, Vince, Goop, Khaite, and Veronica Beard, among others.

To support the expansion, Olive also developed a new set of reusable packaging that has protective elements for more damageable items. While before, the company had offered a variety of packages like soft-sided garment bags and various sizes of more rigid containers (see below), it’s now introducing its own alternative to the air bubble strips you’ll find in most Amazon boxes these days. Olive’s version is integrated into its reusable packaging and can be easily deflated by the customer when it’s time to return the package at pickup.

Image Credits: Olive, founder Nate Faust

The idea for Olive is a timely one. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, e-commerce adoption has soared. But so has consumers’ guilt. Multiple packages land on doorsteps every week, with cardboard and plastic to recycle — if that’s even available in your area. Delivery trucks — Amazon, UPS, FedEx, and others — are now a daily spectacle on every city street. Meanwhile, market leaders like Amazon and Walmart seem largely interested in increasing the speed of delivery, not necessarily the efficiency and sustainability. (Amazon allows shoppers to pick an Amazon Day delivery, for consolidated shipments, but it’s opt-in.)

Olive founder Nate Faust says he was inspired to build the company after realizing how little interest there was from larger e-commerce players in addressing some of the inconveniences and inefficiencies in the market. Faust had previously served as a vice president at Quidsi (which ran Diapers.com and Soap.com and sold to Amazon), then co-founder and COO at Jet, which was acquired by Walmart for $3.3 billion. Before Olive, he was a senior vice president at Walmart.

After some soul searching, he realized he wanted to build something in the e-commerce space that was focused more on the social and environmental impact, not just on driving growth and consumption.

Image Credits: Olive

“I had an epiphany one evening when taking out the trash and recycling,” Faust explains. “It’s pretty crazy that we’re this far into e-commerce and this is the status quo delivery experience —  all this waste, which is both an environmental issue and a hassle for consumers,” he says. “And the bigger issue than the packaging is actually the fact that the majority of those packages are delivered one at a time, and those last-mile emissions are actually the biggest contributor of carbon emissions in the post-purchase e-commerce supply chain.”

Consumers may not think about all the issues, because many of them are hidden, but they do struggle in other ways beyond dealing with the waste. Returns are still a hassle — so much so, that Amazon now allows customers to go to Kohl’s where it’s partnered on in-store return kiosks that also help the brick-and-mortar retailer increase their own foot traffic.

Plus, consumers who shop from different sites have to set up online accounts over and over, entering in addresses and payment information many times, which is an annoyance. Olive offers the convenience of an Amazon-like one-stop-shop experience on that front.

Meanwhile, Olive addresses the return issue by allowing consumers to simply place their unwanted items back in Olive’s packaging then leave them on their doorstep or with the building’s doorman for return. It works with both the USPS and a network of local carriers to serve the customers in its current footprint, which is about 100 million U.S. consumers on both coasts.

While customers don’t have to deal with packaging, it hasn’t been entirely eliminated from the equation at this point. Olive today partners with retailers who ship packages to its own west coast and east coast warehouses, where they repackage them into the reusable containers to deliver to customers. Right now, that means Olive is responsible for the recycling issues. But it’s working with its brand partners to have them pack orders directly into the reusable packaging from the start — before shipping to Olive’s consolidation warehouses for delivery. Today, it has a few retailers on board with this effort, but it hopes that will eventually expand to include all partners.

The company generates revenue on an affiliate commission model, which works for now. But over time, it may need to evolve that business model over time, as its customer base and partnerships grow. At present, around 10,000 consumers have used Olive, ahead of any large-scale marketing and customer acquisition efforts on the startup’s part.

For now, New York-based Olive is growing its business by way of a fundraise of around $15 million from investors including Invus, Primary Venture Partners, and SignalFire.

#adidas, #amazon, #birdies, #diapers-com, #e-commerce, #east-coast, #ecommerce, #fedex, #goop, #kohls, #marketing, #nate-faust, #new-york, #online-shopping, #primary-venture-partners, #product-management, #quidsi, #retailers, #reuse, #soap-com, #startups, #united-states, #usps, #walmart, #west-coast

Index leads $12.2M seed in Sourceful, a data play to make supply chains greener

Supply chains can be a complex logistical challenge. But they pose an even greater environmental challenge. And it’s that latter problem — global supply-chain sustainability — where UK startup Sourceful is fully focused, although it argues its approach can boost efficiency as well as shrink environmental impact. So it’s a win-win, per the pitch.

Early investors look impressed: Sourceful is announcing a $12.2 million seed funding round today, led by Europe’s Index Ventures (partner, Danny Rimer, is joining the board). Eka Ventures, Venrex and Dylan Field (Figma founder), also participated in the chunky raise.

The June 2020-founded startup says it will use the new funding to scale its operations and build out its platform for sustainable sourcing, with a plan to hire more staff across technology, sustainability, marketing and ops.

Its team has already grown fivefold since the start of 2021 — and it’s now aiming to reach 60 employees by the end of the year.

And all this is ahead of a public launch that’s programmed for early next year.

Sourceful’s platform is in pre-launch beta for now, with around 20 customers across a number of categories — such as food & beverages (Foundation Coffee House), fashion and accessories (Fenton), healthcare (Elder), and online marketplaces (Floom and Stitched) — kicking the tyres in the hopes of making better supply chain decisions.

Startup watchers will know that supply chain logistics and freight forwarding has been a hotbed of activity — with entrepreneurs making waves for years now, promising efficiency gains by digitizing legacy (and often still pretty manual) legacy processes.

Sustainability-focused supply chain startups are a bit more of a recent development (with some category-pioneering exceptions) but could be set for major uplift as the world’s attention spins toward decarbonizing. (Just this month we’ve also covered Portcast and Responsibly, for example.)

Sourceful joins the fray with a dual-sided promise to tackle sustainability and efficiency by mapping client requirements to vetted suppliers on its marketplace — handling the buying and shipping logistics piece (including a little warehousing) — and taking a commission on the overall price as its cut of the action.

At first glance it’s a curious choice of name for a sustainability startup, given the fact that sourcing (a whole lot) less is what’s ultimately going to be needed for humanity to cut its global carbon emissions enough to avert climate disaster. But maybe the intended wordplay here is ‘full’ — in the sense of ‘fully optimized’.

The UK startup is attacking the supply chain sustainability problem from the perspective of doing something right now, arguing that making a dent in consumer-driven environmental impacts of sourcing stuff (packaging, merchansize, components etc) is a lot better than letting the same old polluting status quo roll on. 

However, given all the unverifiable ‘eco’ marketing claims being attached to products nowadays — or, indeed, other forms of flagrant ‘greenwashing’ (like bogus carbon offsets) that are cynically trying to convince consumers it’s okay to keep consuming as much as ever — there are clearly pitfalls to avoid too.

If you’re talking about packaging — which is one of the products that Sourceful is deeply focused on, with a forthcoming design capability offering that will help businesses to customize packaging designs, pick materials, size etc based on real-time data, all with the goal of encouraging ‘greener’ choices — less really is more.

Ideally, zero packaging is what your business should be aiming for (where practical, ofc). Yet Sourceful’s service will, inevitably, support demand for packaging supply and manufacture. At least in the first blush. So there’s a bit of a conundrum.

“You can put a carbon footprint score on packaging in general. So you could say packaging overall is this amount so the best thing you could do is not use any packaging. But the reality is, for most brands right now, especially for ecommerce, if you’re trying to deliver your product to the customer there needs to be some packaging — and so if packaging is unavoidable in its current form or in another form then the best thing you can then do is optimize that packaging,” argues CEO and co-founder Wing Chan, when we make the point that zero packaging is the most sustainable option.

“Right now we think the best solution is to help you optimize your packaging — the next wave will be around circular forms of packaging. Packaging that you can return back to your courier, packaging that you can reuse in another form. But we wanted to start with what is the current pain point. And the pain point is: I’m buying packaging, it’s very expensive, it’s very time-consuming and if I try and get it to be ‘green’ I either put a marketing spin on it or I don’t know how to actually make it more sustainable.

“But I definitely agree with you that long term we’ve got to think about how do I get the supply chain number as close to zero and then offset whatever’s remaining.”

For now, then, Sourceful is using data — combined with its marketplace of vetted suppliers (~40 at this stage) in the UK and China — to help companies optimize sourcing logistics and shrink their supply chains’ environmental impact.

It does this by putting a “carbon footprint score” on the product choices its brand clients are making.

This means that instead of only being able to claim “qualitative things” — such as that a product uses less plastic or a different type of plastic — Sourceful’s customers can display an actual benchmarked carbon footprint score (in the form of a number), based on its lifecycle assessment of the stuff involved in making up the finished product.

“It’s a lifecycle view,” says Chan. “For example if you take packaging we look at the box, we look at what is the cardboard material, where does it come from, how far has it travelled, what type of material is it, how much material gets used, how is then transported — for example is it a manufacturer in Asia all the way to the UK — so we get an overall score. So rather than it just being comparing paper and plastic we actually help the brands to see an overall quantitive outcome.”

“We’ve built the [software] engine that allows you to make choices and see the actual output — so, for example, if you make your box bigger what does that actually do to your carbon footprint score?” he adds.

Sourceful has an internal climate science team to do this work. It is also building on publicly available data sources, per Chan — such as ecoinvent (“the market standard based data”) — but he says the public data available isn’t up-to-date, saying it’s also therefore working with researchers to update these key sources with the last five years of data.

It wants the protocol it’s devised for scoring carbon footprint via this lifecycle assessment to become a universal standard. Hence it’s currently going through an ISO certification process — hoping to have that in place before the planned public launch of its platform in Q1 next year.

“There’s two ISO standards for doing a lifecycle assessment and normally you’d get ISO approval for a specific product but we’re getting ISO approval for the whole methodology — essentially the platform that we’ve built,” explains Chan. “There’s an independent panel of people, from universities, from other consultancies, who will be reviewing this as part of that ISO review — that’s why it’s so important to us that we’re doing that.”

The vetting of the suppliers on its marketplace is something Sourceful is doing entirely by itself, though — without any outside help. So its customers still need to trust that it’s doing a proper job of monitoring all the third parties on its marketplace.

But, on this, Chan argues that’s since sustainability is core to its value proposition it is incentivized to do the vetting in a more thorough and comprehensive way than any other individual player would be.

“The key thing for us is we combine both the data capture you would do when you’re understanding a supplier — asking all the questions about how their supply chain works and all of the laws entered by the new country — but we’re coupling that with a human visit as well. So we have a team in the UK as well as a team in Asia who actually go and visit the manufacturers. So it’s an extra layer of comfort for the brands that we’ve actually spent the time to go and meet them,” he suggests.

“The second thing is, as part of our marketplace build, we’re understanding how their supply chain works — in order to build the lifecycle assessment we actually understand each stage of their manufacturing process. So we have a much deeper understanding of their way of operating than all of the other platforms would have. So, yes it’s more involved, but we think that gives better accountability and a more accurate outcome.”

“We’re taking [the vetting process] to another level,” he adds. “We didn’t find anyone that was going into the same level of depth as us — so that’s why we’ve done it ourselves.”

Pressed a little more, Chan also tells TechCrunch: “Supply chain risks never disappear but the thing is how much investment are you making to learn more about it? And for us because we’re capturing this data on lifecycle assessment it’s part of that process of understanding the supplier. So rather than it being another cost that we pay to go visit the manufacturer, we see it as part of our data gathering — a key part of the platform.

“So rather than it being a cost to minimize, which is why a lot of companies end up in trouble because they don’t visit [their suppliers] enough, we’re invested in making sure that data is as accurate and up-to-date as possible. And the manufacturers see that because they want to have a score that’s good, they also want to understand where their footprint could be improved. So it’s a partnership, rather than it just being a bunch of tick boxes to check — which is what a lot of the audits are… We’re here to try and understand their process better.”

Zooming out to look at the driving forces pressing for supply chain sustainability, Chan suggests demand for greener sourcing by businesses is being driven by consumers themselves — who are certainly more aware than ever of environmental concerns. And can, to a degree, vote with their wallet by choosing more eco products (and/or by putting direct reputational pressure on businesses, such as via social media channels).

There is some regulatory pressure, too — such as existing sustainability and carbon reporting requirements (typically for larger businesses). Along with the overarching ‘net zero’ targets which governments in Europe and elsewhere have signed up for. So there should be increasing ‘top down’ pressure on businesses to decarbonize.

Chan also points to another swathe of environmental laws coming in — such as those banning things like single use plastics — which he says are creating further momentum for businesses to re-evaluate their supply chains.

Nonetheless, he believes the biggest source of pressure for companies to decarbonize is coming from consumers themselves. So — the premise is — brands that can present the strongest story to people about what they’re doing to reduce their environmental impact — backed up by a certified lifecycle assessment (assuming Sourceful gets its ISO stamp) — stand to win the business of growing numbers of eco-minded buyers, at the same time as netting cost efficiencies by optimizing their supply chains.

(And, indeed, part of the team’s inspiration for Sourceful’s business was to challenge the idea that consumers are to blame for the world’s environmental problems — given the lack of choice people so often have over what they can buy, not to mention the paucity of information to inform purchasing choices.)

“In the absence of government regulation on [lifecycle assessment] we’re actually saying to the brand, you’ve got existing products, we’ve measured the material, production, transport, all of these things — given you a carbon footprint score, and actually when you go and look at alternatives we can quantitatively assess the difference between those options. So rather than just pandering to the latest marketing buzzword you get a quantitive view on that,” he says.

“So what we’ve been showing is you can move to a more sustainable outcome — from a quantitative point of view — but also save money. So we’re tackling both problems. The supply chain itself is not very efficient so we can save money and the supply chain is not very transparent so we can give them better visibility into their actual carbon footprint.”

“Every brand that we’ve met that has been started in the last two years, their founder or their premise of the brand had sustainability involved — it’s such a hot topic that if you start a fashion brand or a beauty brand or food brand you have to have somewhere in your mission statement/founder story about your commitment to sustainability. So we thought that’s where the market is going to be. But actually we saw more established companies had the same view — that their consumers are also asking for there to be change in how they talk about their products, how they understand their lifecycle journey. So actually I think the government drive on regulation is of course important but it’s still far behind and actually consumers are driving more of a change,” he adds.

Sourceful’s offering includes a warehousing ‘managed service’ component — where it’s using a predictive algorithm to power auto-stocking so that brands can store (non-current) inventory in its warehouses (to save space etc) and have the goods shipped to them as they need them.

Being able to source supplies like components or packaging in bulk obviously reduces purchasing costs. But depending on how it’s done, it may also mean you can optimize things like transportation requirements, which could limit shipping emissions, so there are potentially efficiency and sustainability strands here too.

“Sea freight is several times more energy efficient than air freight so if we can organize more shipments to go via sea freight than air then that’s a major win. The[n] if we can fill the container up with different client orders so that you end up with one very full container, rather than lots of containers with half of it empty, you’re also going to save a lot of energy too. And so that’s another part of the journey that we do,” says Chan. “The other thing is because were aggregating orders with the manufacturer — they actually have better utilization as well, which is more efficient for them. So all of these things are really important to driving the overall cost as well sustainability score down.”

“The more we thought about it, the more there are so many parts of the supply chain which haven’t been optimzied,” he adds. “So many times you order 2,000 boxes it comes in these air freight shipments and someone has to courier it to you in one trip — there’s so many places where aggregating and being smarter about data you can save so much footprint.”

 

#carbon-footprint, #carbon-offset, #danny-rimer, #e-commerce, #eka-ventures, #environmentalism, #europe, #fundings-exits, #greenhouse-gas-emissions, #greentech, #logistics, #product-management, #sourceful, #supply-chain, #supply-chain-management, #sustainability

Customer experience startup Clootrack raises $4M, helps brands see through their customers’ eyes

Getting inside the mind of customers is a challenge as behaviors and demands shift, but Clootrack believes it has cracked the code in helping brands figure out how to do that.

It announced $4 million in Series A funding, led by Inventus Capital India, and included existing investors Unicorn India Ventures, IAN Fund and Salamander Excubator Angel Fund, as well as individual investment from Jiffy.ai CEO Babu Sivadasan. In total, the company raised $4.6 million, co-founder Shameel Abdulla told TechCrunch.

Clootrack is a real-time customer experience analytics platform that helps brands understand why customers stay or churn. Shameel Abdulla and Subbakrishna Rao, who both come from IT backgrounds, founded the company in 2017 after meeting years prior at Jiffstore, Abdulla’s second company that was acquired in 2015.

Clootrack team. Image Credits: Clootrack

Business-to-consumer and consumer brands often use customer satisfaction metrics like Net Promoter Score to understand the customer experience, but Abdulla said current methods don’t provide the “why” of those experiences and are slow, expensive and error-prone.

“The number of channels has increased, which means customers are talking to you, expressing their feedback and what they think in multiple places,” he added. “Word of mouth has gone digital, and you basically have to master the art of selling online.”

Clootrack turns the customer experience data from all of those first-party and third-party touchpoints — website feedback, chat bots, etc. — into granular, qualitative insights that give brands a look at drivers of the experience in hours rather than months so that they can stay on top of fast-moving trends.

Abdulla points to data that show a customer’s biggest driver of brand switch is the experience they receive. And, that if brands can reduce churns by 5%, they could be looking at an increase in profits of between 25% and 95%.

Most of the new funding will go to product development so that all data aggregations are gathered from all possible touchpoints. His ultimate goal is to be “the single platform for B2C firms.”

The company is currently working with over 150 customers in the areas of retail, direct-to-consumer, banking, automotive, travel and mobile app-based services. It is growing nine times year over year in revenue. It is mainly operating in India, but Clootrack is also onboarding companies in the U.S. and Europe.

Parag Dhol, managing director of Inventus, said he has known Abdulla for over five years. He had looked at one of Abdulla’s companies for investment, but had decided against it due to his firm being a Series A investor.

Dhol said market research needs an overhaul in India, where this type of technology is lagging behind the U.S.

“Clootrack has a very complementary team with Shameel being a complete CEO in terms of being a sales guy and serial entrepreneur who has learned his lessons, and Subbu, who is good at technology,” he added. “As CMOs realize the value in their unstructured data inside of their own database of the customer reviews and move to real-time feedback, these guys could make a serious dent in the space.”

 

#advertising-tech, #artificial-intelligence, #brand-management, #clootrack, #customer-experience, #customer-satisfaction, #ecommerce, #enterprise, #funding, #india, #inventus-capital-india, #parag-dhol, #product-management, #recent-funding, #retail, #shameel-abdulla, #startups, #subbakrishna-rao, #tc

Sales experience platform Walnut raises $15M to improve product demonstrations

Walnut raised $15 million in Series A funding, led by Eight Roads Ventures, to continue developing its sales experience platform.

Founders Yoav Vilner and Danni Friedland started the company in July 2020. Vilner told TechCrunch that while at a previous company, he was building a category called technology marketing in Israel. He realized that company sales people often ran into problems when it was time to demonstrate their product — the product would break, or they would have to ask another department to open something or add a feature, none of which happened instantaneously, Vilner added.

He and Friedland’s answer to that problem is a no-code platform for teams to create customized product demonstrations quickly, be able to integrate them into their sales and marketing processes and then generate insights from the demos.

Walnut engagement example. Image Credits: Walnut

“We let the sales and marketing teams replicate the SaaS product in our cloud environment, which is disconnected from the back end,” Vilner explained. “They can create a storyline to fit their customer and the demonstration, and then following the demo, sales leaders can get insight on what was good or bad. It encourages the sharing of knowledge and what story worked best for which kind of company.”

The company’s latest round gives it $21 million raised to date, and follows a $6 million seed round that included NFX, A Capital, Liquid2 Ventures and Graph Ventures, Vilner said.

Walnut serves over 60 business-to-business clients, including Adobe, NetApp, Varonis and People AI. In addition to Tel Aviv, the company has offices in New York and London.

Vilner intends to use the new funding to grow the team across the U.S, Europe and Israel and continue developing its technology and platform, including tools to embed demos into a website for product-led growth. He also expects to double the team of 25 over the next year.

Eyal Rabinovich, an investor at Eight Roads Ventures, said his brother is a Walnut customer, and the company fits with one of the firm’s theses around broad vertically integrated brands in SaaS and deep technology.

Rabinovich was tracking the sales enablement space for a while and said many companies claim to provide something unique, but it is usually workflow and processes. In Walnut’s case, it is solving something at the core of sales.

“They make everything measurable, and the ‘holy grail’ is conversion, and even just 1% conversion could mean millions of dollars,” he added. “Every company we spoke to wanted to use this product. Customers were telling us they closed the sales cycle within two weeks.”

 

#a-capital, #artificial-intelligence, #danni-friedland, #eight-roads-ventures, #enterprise, #eyal-rabinovich, #funding, #graph-ventures, #liquid2-ventures, #nfx, #product-management, #product-marketing, #recent-funding, #saas, #sales, #startups, #tc, #walnut, #yoav-vilner

Using AI to reboot brand-client relationships

Marketing automation has usually focused on driving sales, mainly using past purchase or late funnel behavior (e.g., paid search) as a predictor of an imminent purchase. While effective at boosting sales numbers, this widely implemented strategy can result in a disservice to brands and industries that adopt it, as it promotes the perpetual devaluation of goods or services. Narrowing a brand’s focus only to aspects linked to conversions risks stripping the customer experience of key components that lay the groundwork for long-term success.

We live in a world rich with data, and insights are growing more vibrant every day. With this in mind, companies and advertisers can strategically weave together all the data they collect during the customer experience. This enables them to understand every inference available during customer interactions and learn what benefits the customer most at a given time.

But focusing exclusively on data collected from customers, brands risk falling subject to the law of diminishing returns. Even companies with meaningful consumer interactions or rich service offerings struggle to gain impactful contextual insights. Only by harnessing a broader dataset can we understand how people become customers in the first place, what makes them more or less likely to purchase again and how developments in society impact the growth or struggle a brand will experience.

Here’s a look at how we can achieve a more complete picture of current and future customers.

A critical component in re-imagining customer experience as a relationship is recognizing that brands often don’t focus enough on consumers’ wider needs and concerns.

Leverage AI to unlock new perspectives

Over the past several years, almost every industry has capitalized on the opportunity data-driven marketing presents, inching closer to the “holy grail” of real-time, direct and personalized engagements. Yet, the evolving toolset encouraged brands to focus on end-of-the-funnel initiatives, jeopardizing what really impacts a business’ longevity: relationships.

While past purchase or late-funnel behavior data does provide value and is useful in identifying habit changes or actual needs, it is relatively surface level and doesn’t offer insight into consumers’ future behavior or what led them to a specific purchase in the first place.

By incorporating AI, brands can successfully engage with their audiences in a more holistic, helpful and genuine way. Technologies to discern not just the content of language (e.g., the keywords) but its meaning as well, open up possibilities to better infer consumer interest and intentions. In turn, brands can tune consumer interactions to generate satisfaction and delight, and ultimately accrue stronger insights for future use.

#artificial-intelligence, #brand, #brand-management, #column, #customer-experience, #customer-service, #data-driven-marketing, #ec-column, #ec-ecommerce-and-d2c, #ecommerce, #marketing, #pinterest, #product-management, #social-media, #tc

India’s path to SaaS leadership is clear, but challenges remain

Software as a service is one of the most important sectors in tech today. While its transformative potential was quite clear before the pandemic, the sudden pivot to distributed workforces caused interest in SaaS products to skyrocket as medium and large enterprises embraced digital and remote sales processes, significantly expanding their utility.

This phenomenon is global, but India in particular has the opportunity to take its SaaS momentum to the next level. The Indian SaaS industry is projected to generate revenue of $50 billion to $70 billion and win 4%-6% of the global SaaS market by 2030, creating as much as $1 trillion in value, according to a report by SaaSBOOMi and McKinsey.

The Indian SaaS industry is projected to generate revenue of $50 billion to $70 billion and win 4%-6% of the global SaaS market by 2030.

There are certain important long-term trends that are fueling this expansion.

The rise of Indian SaaS unicorns

The Indian SaaS community has seen a flurry of innovation and success. Entrepreneurs in India have founded about a thousand funded SaaS companies in the last few years, doubling the rate from five years ago and creating several unicorns in the process. Together, these companies generate $2 billion to $3 billion in total revenues and represent approximately 1% of the global SaaS market, according to SaaSBOOMi and McKinsey.

These firms are diverse in terms of the clients they serve and the problems they solve, but several garnered global attention during the pandemic by enabling flexibility for newly remote workers. Zoho helped streamline this pivot by providing sales teams with apps for collateral, videos and demos; Freshworks offered businesses a seamless customer experience platform, and Eka extended its cloud platform to unify workflows from procurement to payments for the CFO office.

Other SaaS firms stayed busy in other ways. Over the course of the pandemic, 10 new unicorns emerged: Postman, Zenoti, Innovacer, Highradius, Chargebee and Browserstack, Mindtickle, Byju, UpGrad and Unacademy. There were also several instances of substantial venture funding, including a $150 million deal for Postman, bringing the total amount raised by the Indian SaaS community in 2020 to around $1.5 billion, four times the investment in 2018.

India’s path to leadership

While the Indian SaaS community has made admirable progress in recent years, there are several key growth drivers that could lead to as much as $1 trillion in revenue by 2030. They include:

The global pivot to digital go-to-market

The number of enterprises that are comfortable with assessing products and making business decisions via Zoom is increasing rapidly. This embrace of digital go-to-market fundamentally levels the playing field for Indian companies in terms of access to customers and end markets.

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Facebook brings end-to-end encryption to Messenger calls and Instagram DMs

Facebook has extended the option of using end-to-end encryption for Messenger voice calls and video calls.

End-to-end encryption (E2EE) — a security feature that prevents third-parties from eavesdropping on calls and chats — has been available for text conversations on Facebook’s flagship messaging service since 2016. Although the company has faced pressure to roll back its end-to-end encryption plans, Facebook is now extending this protection to both voice and video calls on Messenger, which means that “nobody else, including Facebook, can see or listen to what’s sent or said.”

“End-to-end encryption is already widely used by apps like WhatsApp to keep personal conversations safe from hackers and criminals,” Ruth Kricheli, director of product management for Messenger, said in a blog post on Friday. “It’s becoming the industry standard and works like a lock and key, where just you and the people in the chat or call have access to the conversation.”

Facebook has some other E2EE features in the works, too. It’s planning to start public tests of end-to-end encryption for group chats and calls in Messenger in the coming weeks and is also planning a limited test of E2EE for Instagram direct messages. Those involved in the trial will be able to opt-in to end-to-end encrypted messages and calls for one-on-one conversations carried out on the photo-sharing platform.

Beyond encryption, the social networking giant is also updating its expiring messages feature, which is similar to the ephemeral messages feature available on Facebook-owned WhatsApp. It’s now offering more options for people in the chat to choose the amount of time before all new messages disappear, from as few as 5 seconds to as long as 24 hours.

“People expect their messaging apps to be secure and private, and with these new features, we’re giving them more control over how private they want their calls and chats to be,” Kricheli added.

News of Facebook ramping up its E2EE rollout plans comes just days after the company changed its privacy settings — again.

#apps, #computing, #e2ee, #encryption, #end-to-end-encryption, #facebook, #facebook-messenger, #instagram, #messenger, #mobile-applications, #operating-systems, #product-management, #security, #social-media, #software, #whatsapp

Product School raises $25M in growth equity to scale its product training platform

Traditional MBA programs can be costly, lengthy, and often lack the application of real world skills. Meanwhile, big global brands and companies who need Product Managers to grow their businesses can’t sit around waiting for people to graduate. And the EdTech space hasn’t traditionally catered for this sector.

This is perhaps why Product School, says it has secured $25 million in growth equity investment from growth fund Leeds Illuminate (subject to regulatory approval) to accelerate its product and partnerships with client companies.

The growth funding for the company comes after bootstrapping since 2014, in large part because product managers (PMs) no longer just inside tech companies but have become sought after across almost virtually all industries.

Product School provides certificates for individuals as well as team training, and says it has experienced and upwelling of business since Covid switched so many companies into Digital ones. It also now counts Google, Facebook, Netflix, Airbnb, PayPal, Uber, and Amazon amongst its customers.

“Product managers have an outsized role in driving digital transformation and innovation across all sectors,” said Susan Cates, Managing Partner of Leeds Illuminate. “Having built the largest community of PM’s in the world validates Product School’s certification as the industry standard for the market and positions the company at the forefront of upskilling top-notch talent for global organizations.”

Carlos Gonzalez de Villaumbrosia, CEO and Founder of Product School, who started the company after moving from Spain, said: “There has never been a better time in history to build digital products and Product School is excited to unlock value for product teams across the globe to help define the future. Our company was founded on the basis that traditional degrees and MBA programs simply don’t equip PMs with the real-world skills they require on the job.”

Product school has also produced the The Product BookThe Proddy Awards and ProductCon.

It’s main competitor is MindTheProduct community and training platform, which has also boostrapped.

#airbnb, #amazon, #articles, #brand, #business, #europe, #facebook, #google, #leeds-illuminate, #management, #managing-partner, #paypal, #product-management, #product-manager, #product-marketing, #spain, #tc, #uber

How to hire and structure a growth team

Everyone at an organization should own growth, right? Turns out when everyone owns something, no one does. As a result, growth teams can cause an enormous amount of friction in an organization when introduced.

Growth teams are twice as likely to appear among businesses growing their ARR by 100% or more annually. What’s more, they also seem to be more common after product-market fit has been achieved — usually after a company has reached about $5 million to $10 million in revenue.

Graph of the prevalence of growth teams in companies, by ARR

Image Credits: OpenView Partners

I’m not here to sell you on why you need a growth team, but I will point out that product-led businesses with a growth team see dramatic results — double the median free-to-paid conversion rate.

Free-to-paid conversions in companies with growth teams are higher

Image Credits: OpenView Partners

How do you hire an early growth leader?

According to responses from product benchmarks surveys, growth teams have transitioned dramatically from reporting to marketing and sales to reporting directly to the CEO.

Some of the early writing on growth teams says that they can be structured individually as their own standalone team or as a SWAT model, where experts from various other departments in the organization converge on a regular cadence to solve for growth.

Graph showing more growth teams now report to CEOs than marketing, sales or product

Image Credits: OpenView Partners

My experience, and the data I’ve collected from business-user focused software companies, has led me to the conclusion that growth teams in business software should not be structured as “SWAT” teams, with cross-functional leadership coming together to think critically about growth problems facing the business. I find that if problems don’t have a real owner, they’re not going to get solved. Growth issues are no different and are often deprioritized unless it’s someone’s job to think about them.

Becoming product-led isn’t something that happens overnight, and hiring someone will not be a silver bullet for your software.

I put early growth hires into a few simple buckets. You’ve got:

Product-minded growth experts: These folks are all about optimizing the user experience, reducing friction and expanding usage. They’re usually pretty analytical and might have product, data or MarketingOps backgrounds.

#brand-management, #column, #digital-marketing, #ec-column, #ec-how-to, #growth-hacking, #growth-marketing, #growth-tactics, #hiring, #hiring-for-growth, #marketing, #neologisms, #personnel, #product-management, #startup-hiring, #startups, #user-experience

Former Facebook teammates raise $10.4M in Sequoia-led round to launch features development

Statsig is taking the A/B testing applications that drive Facebook’s growth and putting similar functionalities into the hands of any product team so that they, too, can make faster, data-informed decisions on building products customers want.

The Seattle-based company on Thursday announced $10.4 million in Series A funding, led by Sequoia Capital, with participation from Madrona Venture Group and a group of individual investors, including Robinhood CPO Aparna Chennapragada, Segment co-founder Calvin French-Owen, Figma CEO Dylan Field, Instacart CEO Fidji Simo, DoorDash exec Gokul Rajaram, Code.org CEO Hadi Partovi and a16z general partner Sriram Krishnan.

Co-founder and CEO Vijaye Raji started the company with seven other former Facebook colleagues in February, but the idea for the company started more than a year ago.

He told TechCrunch that while working at Facebook, A/B testing applications, like Gatekeeper, Quick Experiments and Deltoid, were successfully built internally. The Statsig team saw an opportunity to rebuild these features from scratch outside of Facebook so that other companies that have products to build — but no time to build their own quick testing capabilities — can be just as successful.

Statsig’s platform enables product developers to run quick product experiments and analyze how users respond to new features and functionalities. Tools like Pulse, Experiments+ and AutoTune allow for hundreds of experiments every week, while business metrics guide product teams to build and ship the right products to their customers.

Raji intends to use the new funding to hire folks in the area of design, product, data science, sales and marketing. The team is already up to 14 since February.

“We already have a set of customers asking for features, and that is a good problem, but now we want to scale and build them out,” he added.

Statsig has no subscription or upfront fees and is already serving millions of end-users every month for customers like Clutter, Common Room and Take App. The company will always offer a free tier so customers can try out features, but also offers a Pro tier for 5 cents per event so that when the customer grows, so does Statsig.

Raji sees adoption of Statsig coming from a few different places: developers and engineers that are downloading it and using it to serve a few million people a month, and then through referrals. In fact, the adoption the company is getting is “bottom up,” which is what Statsig wants, he said. Now the company is talking to bigger customers.

There are plenty of competitors for this product, including incumbents in the market, according to Raji, but they mostly focus on features, while Statsig provides insights and ties metrics back to features. In addition, the company has automated analysis where other products require manual set up and analysis.

Sequoia partner Mike Vernal worked at Facebook prior to joining the venture capital firm and had worked with Raji, calling him “a top 1% engineer” that he was happy to work with.

Having sat on many company boards, he has found that many companies spend a long time talking about sales and marketing, but very little on product because there is not an easy way to get precise numbers for planning purposes, just a discussion about what they did and plan to do.

What Vernal said he likes about Statsig is that the company is bringing that measurement aspect to the table so that companies don’t have to hack together a poorer version.

“What Statsig can do, uniquely, is not only set up an experiment and tell if someone likes green or blue buttons, but to answer questions like what the impact this is of the experiment on new user growth, retention and monitorization,” he added. “That they can also answer holistic questions and understand the impact on any single feature on every metric is really novel and not possible before the maturation of the data stack.”

 

#developer, #enterprise, #funding, #madrona-venture-group, #mike-vernal, #product-management, #recent-funding, #sequoia-capital, #startups, #statsig, #tc, #vijaye-raji

Dan Olsen leads a product-market fit masterclass for the Startup Alley+ cohort

Yes Virginia, there are advantages to exhibiting in (the sold-out) Startup Alley at TC Disrupt 2021. Out of all the early-stage startups ready to exhibit on September 21-23, Team TechCrunch hand-picked 50 to form the Startup Alley+ cohort.

Startup Alley+ is a VIP experience designed to help founders grow their business and increase their opportunities right now in the run-up to Disrupt.

Hold up: Don’t miss the opportunity to meet and network with all the innovative startups you’ll find in Startup Alley — including the Startup Alley+ cohort. Attend Disrupt for less than $100 — if you buy your early bird pass before prices go up on July 30 at 11:59 pm (PT).

The VIP experience includes three masterclass sessions on crucial topics that all startup founders need to, well, master. Case in point: product-market fit. It’s an elusive and yet essential first step to unlocking growth. You can’t build success without a product that quenches the demand of a thirsty market.

On August 24, Dan Olsen will conduct a masterclass on the art and science of product-market fit. Olsen, a product management trainer and consultant, works with CEOs and product leaders to build strong product teams. His clients include Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber, Box and Walmart.

A best-selling author of The Lean Product Playbook, Olsen has literally written the book on product-market fit. In his masterclass, How to Create Product-Market Fit, Dan will draw on material in the book and share his simple but effective framework. He will explain his Product-Market Fit Pyramid and The Lean Product Process, a six-step methodology that guides you through how to:

  1. Determine your target customer
  2. Identify underserved customer needs
  3. Define your value proposition
  4. Specify your MVP feature set
  5. Create your MVP prototype
  6. Test your MVP with customers

Dan will illustrate these concepts with real-world examples and a comprehensive case study.

We’re especially excited to have Dan present his masterclass because he’s firmly rooted in TechCrunch lore. Way back in 2009, a company called YourVersion — founded by Olsen — won the peoples’ choice at TechCrunch50, the precursor to Disrupt.

Olsen’s product-market fit expertise — and his personal connection to the early-stage founder experience — will help the Startup Alley+ cohort learn how to turn product management into more of a science than an art and improve their odds of success.

TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 takes place September 21-23. Don’t miss your opportunity to attend for less than $100. Buy your early bird pass here before the deal expires on July 30 at 11:59 pm (PT).

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

#articles, #author, #box, #business, #economy, #entrepreneurship, #facebook, #product-management, #product-market-fit, #startup-company, #tc, #techcrunch, #techcrunch-disrupt-2021, #uber, #virginia, #walmart, #yourversion

Box unwraps its answer to the $3.8B e-signature market: Box Sign

Box released its new native e-signature product Box Sign on Monday, providing e-signature capability and unlimited signatures as part of Box’s business and enterprise plans at no additional cost.

The launch comes five months after the Redwood City, California-based company agreed to acquire e-signature startup SignRequest for $55 million.

Box CEO Aaron Levie told TechCrunch the company is already securing content management for 100,000 businesses, and Box Sign represents “a breakthrough product for the company” — a new category in which Box can help customers with business processes.

“We are building out a content cloud that powers the lifecycle of content so customers can retain and manage it,” Levie said. “Everyday, there are more transactions around onboarding a customer, closing a deal or an audit, but these are still done manually. We are moving that to digital and enabling the request of signatures around the content.”

Here’s how it works: Users can send documents for e-signature directly from Box to anyone, even those without a Box account. Places for signature requests and approvals can be created anywhere on the document. All of this integrates across popular apps like Salesforce and includes email reminders and deadline notifications. As with Box’s offerings, the signatures are also secure and compliant.

The global e-signature software market was estimated to be around $1.8 billion in 2020, according to Prescient & Strategic Intelligence, while IDC expects it to grow to $3.8 billion by 2023.

Levie considers the market still early as less than one-third of organizations use e-signature due to legacy tool limitations and cost barriers, revealing massive future opportunities. However, that may be changing: Box worked with banks during the pandemic that were still relying on mailing, scanning and faxing documents to help them adapt to digital processes. It also surveyed its customers last year around product capabilities, and the No. 1 “ask” was e-signature, he said.

He mentioned major players DocuSign and Adobe Sign — two products it will continue to integrate with — among the array of technology within the space. He said that Box is not trying to compete with any player, but saw a need from customers and wanted to proceed with an option for them.

The e-signature offering also follows the hiring of Diego Dugatkin in June as Box’s new chief product officer. Prior to joining, Dugatkin was vice president of product management for Adobe Document Cloud and led strategy and execution for Adobe’s suite of products, including Adobe Sign.

“Our strategy has been for many years to expand our portfolio and power more advanced use cases, as well as a vision to have one platform to manage everything,” Levie said. “Diego has two decades of tremendous domain experience, and he will make a massive dent in powering this for us.”

In addition to the e-signature product, Box also introduced its Enterprise Plus plan that includes all of the company’s major add-ons, as well as advanced e-signature capabilities that will be available later this summer, the company said.

 

#aaron-levie, #adobe, #box, #cloud, #cloud-applications, #content-management, #docusign, #e-signature, #enterprise, #product-management, #salesforce, #signrequest, #tc

Demand Curve: How to double conversions on your startup’s homepage

Between our work at Demand Curve and our agency, Bell Curve, we’ve rewritten over 1,000 websites for startups across most industries.

Want to convert twice as many visitors into customers? Follow these copywriting tactics.

Everything “above the fold” must have a purpose

The section of your homepage that’s immediately visible to a visitor before they start scrolling is called “above the fold.” (Think of a print newspaper: Everything above the literal fold in the paper is the most important information.) When a visitor sees the content above the fold, they decide to either keep scrolling or exit your site.

In seconds, they’re trying to figure out what you do and whether you’re a fit for them.

The most common mistake we see startups make? Their “above the fold” is either uninteresting or confusing. This often happens when marketers attempt to squeeze too much content above the fold.

The most common mistake we see startups make? Their “above the fold” is either uninteresting or confusing.

The truth is, most of the information on your website is irrelevant to new visitors. So the area above the fold should be used to explain how you can help new visitors solve a specific problem.

For example, you might see a homepage that promotes the newest technical blog post that the company published. But that’s not useful to a visitor who doesn’t yet understand what you do.

To further confuse the visitor, many companies add an extensive navigation bar to the top of their site. In theory, this allows your visitors to easily access any part of your website. In practice, it leads to decision fatigue and low conversion rates.

Unless the content directly helps answer what you do and whether you’re a good fit for that visitor, it should be removed.

There are three things you can do to improve the conversion rate of your homepage:

  1. Craft a sharp header.
  2. Use a complementary subheader.
  3. Design with intention.

Let’s get into the tactics of these three areas of improvement.

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Write headers that speak to an individual (not a crowd)

Your header is the largest piece of text on your website. In under 10 words (about the longest we’d recommend), your header needs to accomplish three things:

1. Identify how customers get value from your product.

This is your most important value proposition. If you can’t explain how someone gets value from your product in fewer than 10 words, it’ll be a challenge to keep visitors’ attention for much longer.

Here’s how we uncover your key value proposition:

  • What bad alternative do people resort to when they lack your product?
  • How is your product better than the bad alternative?
  • Now turn the last step into an action statement — that’s your value proposition.

Take Airbnb:

  • The bad alternative is being stuck in a sterile hotel without experiencing any real culture.
  • Airbnb’s product is better than the bad alternative because it allows you to stay in a local’s home.
  • So if we turn the second question into an action statement, we’d get a value proposition like: Experience new cities like a local.

Here are some more examples from top startups:

Image Credits: Demand Curve

2. Include an enticing hook that keeps visitors reading.

Telling your visitors what you do is a good start, but now we need to get them excited about your product.

A huge missed opportunity we see a lot of startups make with their website copy? It’s not action oriented. In a world where customers can shop 24/7, there’s very little urgency for your visitors to take action now.

Adding a hook will increase the likelihood that a visitor buys from you on their first visit.

There are two ways we like to write hooks:

  • Offer a bold claim: something highly specific that triggers the thought, “Wow, I didn’t know that was possible.”

Image Credits: Demand Curve

  • Or address common objections: questions or pushback that your visitor is likely already thinking about. Addressing objections right away might seem counterintuitive, but bringing attention to your weaknesses will actually make your visitor trust your brand more. With no direct sales team, your copy is going to need to work hard to answer as many questions as possible.

Here are some value propositions of top startups that incorporate their biggest objections upfront.

Image Credits: Demand Curve

3. Speak directly to your ideal customer persona

To truly make the message in your header grab the attention of your visitor, rewrite your value proposition to speak directly to your customer personas.

To do so, list your top two to three customer personas. Rewrite your headers to address the part of your product they value most. Use their own language, not industry jargon. The best way to learn what your customers love about your product is through one-on-one customer interviews or reading customer success tickets.

Now you’ve got headers that speak directly to your ideal customer persona. You can either A/B test which header leads to a higher conversion rate or create custom landing pages using each header to drive traffic from different sources to specific pages.

For example, if you include a link to your website in a guest blog post, send that audience to the page with the most relevant header.

Here are some examples of writing multiple value propositions for the same startup:

Image Credits: Demand Curve

Use a subheader to explain how your header can be possible

We suggest spending about 50% of your time working on writing the header and 25% of your time on the subheader. Why? Because if your header isn’t interesting, your visitors won’t even bother reading the subheader.

Your subheader should be used to expand on two things:

  1. How does your product work exactly?
  2. Which of your features make our header’s bold claim believable?

You can use your top two to three features to explain how your header is achieved.

For example, let’s say Airbnb’s header is: Experience your getaway vacation like a local. No minimum stays.

To make this statement believable, we need to explain how it’s possible to vacation like a local and how “no minimum stays” is possible.

A subheader could read something like: An online rental marketplace with thousands of short-term rentals in your area.

Do not use industry jargon or technical terms in your subheader or header. Use words that a fifth-grade reader would understand. Use short sentences. Lengthy paragraphs will kill the momentum of your reader.

Here are a few more examples of using the subheader to explain the header:

Image Credits: Demand Curve

Make your homepage feel familiar and function as expected

The last aspect to consider when creating a high-converting homepage is the design. We see a lot of high-tech startups try to use their website to show off their creativity.

From our experience, your website is not the place to try to be original.

A website’s design should rarely be unique. It’s your product that should be unique. Your website is just a familiar medium for communicating your product’s uniqueness.

Functionality

Using familiar buttons and navigation that other websites have popularized will save your visitor the hassle of having to learn how your website works. For example, we’ve come to expect there to be a “home” button in the top left of the page. Attempting to place the same button in the bottom right for the sake of uniqueness will lead to confusion and possibly a lost customer. Stick with what works.

Images

Consider these goals when adding images to your homepage:

  • Remove uncertainty by showing your product in action. GIFs or looping videos are a terrific way of demonstrating how it works without taking up any additional space.

    Image Credits: Judy

  • If you sell physical goods, use images to show off various use cases and close-ups of the material and texture. This will help your visitor assess the quality of the product and further validate that the product is right for them.

Image Credits: Allbirds

Call-to-action buttons

Your call-to-action buttons (CTA) are where you’ll convert a visitor of your webpage into an active shopper. Therefore, your CTAs should be a continuation of the magic that you teased in your header copy.

Make the CTA button copy action focused and tell your visitor what will happen once they click it.

Here are some examples of CTA buttons that feel natural because they continue the narrative that began with the header copy:

Image Credits: Demand Curve

#column, #digital-marketing, #growth-marketing, #product-management, #product-marketing, #startup-company, #startups, #tc

What I learned the hard way from naming 30+ startups

There’s a lot wrapped up in a name: feelings, emotions, connotation, unconscious bias, personal history. It’s an identity — it gives something meaning and importance.

In leading marketing and brand at High Alpha, I think about naming quite a bit. As a venture studio, we co-found and launch five to 10 new software startups every year. It is my team’s responsibility to create and build out the brands for all the new companies we start, including everything from naming and domain acquisition to brand identity and websites. Over the past five years, we’ve named more than 30 software startups at High Alpha.

Over the past five years, we’ve named more than 30 software startups.

As a soon-to-be first-time parent, the idea of naming has taken on a whole new meaning and importance in my life. Even though I help name new companies for a living, I now fully understand the paralysis that often comes when faced with the task of deciding the name for someone or something that’s especially important to you.

Because of this, I’ve always tried to take an objective, pragmatic approach to naming a company with our CEOs and other startups. Naming is an incredibly difficult and nuanced process. It’s fraught with subjectiveness and personal preference. And to top it all off, most founders have zero (or very little) experience in naming.

The truth is that business names fall on a bell curve — you have a small number of outliers that actively contribute to your success and a small number of outliers that actively impair your ability to succeed. The vast majority, though, fall somewhere in the middle in their impact on your business.

So, how should a founder go about effectively naming their baby startup and not picking a name that will hurt them? I’m sharing my own criteria and lessons for how to go about naming your startup, how to evaluate a company name and what makes for a good company name.

Is the name ownable?

As a founder, one of the first criteria to look at is ownability and URL availability. Nowadays, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a name where the .com is still available. I oftentimes will look at .io, .co, get_______.com, or _____hq.com as my top alternatives to a .com, but I always still prefer if the .com is potentially attainable in the future. It may be parked by a domain investor or someone asking a ridiculous price, but that’s always better than an established business using your .com. If not, you will always be fighting a search battle with some other brand that owns your .com.

This goes much further than just the availability of the coveted .com domain, though. You should evaluate the competitiveness and search congestion around your branded keywords. A company named “Apple” or “Lumber” is going to have a really hard time competing for search placements, even if they don’t sell computers or building supplies. An established name and word is also going to come with existing connotations and previous experiences in your audience’s mind. You want a name free from as much baggage as possible so you can easily build your own connotations and memories.

#brand-management, #column, #domain-name, #ec-column, #intellectual-property-law, #marketing, #product-management, #startups, #tc, #trademark

Germany’s icon group VC bets $30M to back startups enabling traditional companies to pivot

Icon group is a new $30M VC fund being launched out of Germany’s iconmobile group, a WPP network agency. This means a reorganization of the company from a full-service innovation agency into also offering VC backing.

iconmobile has garnered a reputation as an innovative technology, design, and sustainability agency, but the turnaround means it will now, instead, back tech startups that enable traditional companies to “reinvent their business models and the way they reach their consumers.”

The icon ventures VC fund will be accompanied by new company arm: ‘icon impact’, the continuation of iconmobile’s well-established product and experience innovation arm.

Previous iconmobile properties now fall under the icon ventures umbrella include:

• D[AI]TA, a white label sustainable laundry system that filters microplastic fibers via smart washing machines, reduces chemical contaminants, and uses ‘smart grid’ washing to save energy. It also tracks what items have been washed, and worn, and sends that data to retailers.

• banbutsu, that does sustainable last-mile fulfillment

• icon incar a mobility experience company

Thomas Fellger, Founder of icon group said: “Whether it’s creating the first connected toothbrush for Oral-B or UX/UI design for the world’s leading automotive brands, icon group works to bring innovation from idea to scale…. Now, with the inclusion of a venture fund, we can create the things we believe in without waiting for permission or additional budget allocations by investing in opportunities where we have deep knowledge and proven impact, something that sets us apart from the big five firms.”

Speaking to me over a call he added: “We are more capable than most companies to convert our knowledge of R&D into a fast business opportunity. For example, we found an infrared sensor, which can be used to measure air quality in Egypt. Because we knew we needed that kind of quality of air data, we were able to create a whole new product. And that’s what we will be good at – connecting the dots of different products services across industries to create for that industry, a new way of looking at their business by changing the business model, or even extending the services which they couldn’t do before.”

#articles, #brand, #design, #economy, #egypt, #energy, #europe, #finance, #germany, #icon, #icon-ventures, #innovation, #product-management, #tc, #tech-startups, #venture-capital, #wpp

Dispense with the chasm? No way!

Jeff Bussgang, a co-founder and general partner at Flybridge Capital, recently wrote an Extra Crunch guest post that argued it is time for a refresh when it comes to the technology adoption life cycle and the chasm. His argument went as follows:

  1. VCs in recent years have drastically underestimated the size of SAMs (serviceable addressable markets) for their startup investments because they were “trained to think only a portion of the SAM is obtainable within any reasonable window of time because of the chasm.”
  2. The chasm is no longer the barrier it once was because businesses have finally understood that software is eating the world.
  3. As a result, the early majority has joined up with the innovators and early adopters to create an expanded early market. Effectively, they have defected from the mainstream market to cross the chasm in the other direction, leaving only the late majority and the laggards on the other side.
  4. That is why we now are seeing multiple instances of very large high-growth markets that appear to have no limit to their upside. There is no chasm to cross until much later in the life cycle, and it isn’t worth much effort to cross it then.

Now, I agree with Jeff that we are seeing remarkable growth in technology adoption at levels that would have astonished investors from prior decades. In particular, I agree with him when he says:

The pandemic helped accelerate a global appreciation that digital innovation was no longer a luxury but a necessity. As such, companies could no longer wait around for new innovations to cross the chasm. Instead, everyone had to embrace change or be exposed to an existential competitive disadvantage.

But this is crossing the chasm! Pragmatic customers are being forced to adopt because they are under duress. It is not that they buy into the vision of software eating the world. It is because their very own lunches are being eaten. The pandemic created a flotilla of chasm-crossings because it unleashed a very real set of existential threats.

The key here is to understand the difference between two buying decision processes, one governed by visionaries and technology enthusiasts (the early adopters and innovators), the other by pragmatists (the early majority).

The key here is to understand the difference between two buying decision processes, one governed by visionaries and technology enthusiasts (the early adopters and innovators), the other by pragmatists (the early majority). The early group makes their decisions based on their own analyses. They do not look to others for corroborative support. Pragmatists do. Indeed, word-of-mouth endorsements are by far the most impactful input not only about what to buy and when but also from whom.

#amazon, #aws, #cloud-computing, #column, #ec-column, #ec-enterprise-applications, #enterprise, #google, #healthcare, #jeff-bussgang, #microsoft, #product-development, #product-management, #software-as-a-service, #software-developers, #startups, #venture-capital

Doug Landis, Emerge Capital growth partner, will talk startup storytelling at TC Early Stage in July

How psyched are you about our TC Early Stage: Marketing & Fundraising event? Still need some convincing? Here’s another great session we’ve got planned for the show, which will span July 8 and 9.

Emerge Capital Growth Partner Doug Landis will be joining us to discuss how early stage companies can build out the proper story for pitching VCs. It’s an important, but underdiscussed aspect of helping set your company apart from countless other startups vying for the same venture funding.

Landis knows a thing or two about storytelling. Before joining Emergence as a growth partner, it was actually part of his job title, serving as the chief storyteller and VP of sales productivity and enablement at Box. Before that, he served as a skills training manager at Google and senior director of corporate sales productivity at Salesforce.

These days, Landis drives sales and go-to-market strategies for Emergence Capital’s portfolio companies, working to help develop the next major player in the SaaS world.

Landis is joining a stacked lineup for our TC Early Stage: Marketing & Fundraising event. The list includes Sequoia’s Mike Vernal (Product Market Fit Is All About Tempo), Coatue’s Caryn Marooney (formerly Facebook’s head of comms) and Superhuman’s Rahul Vohra (Growth Hacking) and Designer Fund’s Scott Tong (IFTTT co-founder and former head of product design at Pinterest). Grab your ticket now to attend Landis’s session plus 20 others (including a pitch off)!

#articles, #business, #caryn-marooney, #co-founder, #designer-fund, #early-stage, #economy, #emergence-capital, #events, #ifttt, #mike-vernal, #pinterest, #product-management, #product-marketing, #salesforce, #scott-tong, #venture-capital

5 questions startups should consider before making their first marketing hire

“Who should my first marketing hire be?”

This is (by far) the most common question I’ve received since starting as Fuel’s CMO, and for good reason. Your first marketer will have an outsized impact on team dynamics as well as the overall strategic direction of the brand, product and company.

The reality is that anyone who excels across all marketing functions is a unicorn and nearly impossible to find.

The nature of the marketing function has expanded significantly over the past two decades. So much so that when founders ask this question, it immediately prompts multiple new ones: Should I hire a brand or growth marketer? An offline or an online marketer? A scientific or a creative marketer?

Once upon a time, the number of marketing channels was fairly limited, which meant the function itself fit into a neater, tighter box. The number of ways to reach customers has since grown exponentially, as has the scope of the marketing role. Today’s startups require at least four broad functions under the umbrella of “marketing,” each with its own array of subfunctions.

Here’s a sample of the marketing functions at a typical early-stage startup:

Brand marketing: Brand strategy, positioning, naming, messaging, visual identity, experiential, events, community.

Product marketing: UX copy, website, email marketing, customer research and segmentation, pricing.

Communications: PR and media relations, content marketing, social media, thought leadership, influencer.

Growth marketing: Direct response paid acquisition, funnel optimization, retention, lifecycle, engagement, reporting and attribution, word of mouth, referral, SEO, partnerships.


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As you can imagine, that’s a lot for one person to manage, let alone be an expert in. What’s more, the skill set and experience required to excel in growth marketing is quite different from the skill set required to succeed in brand marketing. The reality is that anyone who excels across all marketing functions is a unicorn and nearly impossible to find.

So who do you hire first?

Unless you’re lucky enough to nab that unicorn, your first hire should be a generalist who can tend to the full stack of the marketing function, learn what they don’t know, and roll up their sleeves to get things done. Someone smart, savvy and super scrappy who understands how to experiment across marketing channels until they find the right mix.

#brand-management, #brand-marketing, #column, #content-marketing, #ec-column, #ec-how-to, #growth-marketing, #marketing, #product-management, #product-marketing, #startups

Growth marketing amid the pandemic: An interview with Right Side Up’s Tyler Elliston

Growth marketers are busy today helping all sorts of startups take advantage of the market boom, but it has been a hard journey through the pandemic.

We caught up with Tyler Elliston, founder of growth marketing firm Right Side Up and occasional contributor at TechCrunch, about his experiences and what he’s seeing now.

It’s part of our new initiative to find the best growth marketers for startups based on founder recommendations. (Have a recommendation to share? Please fill out the survey here.)

Keep reading for more from Tyler about maintaining focus and resources on the right kind of growth, even when the markets are rollicking.

It’s been a while since we last spoke with you. How have the trends in growth marketing shifted between the beginning of the pandemic and now, as we begin to exit lockdowns?

Tyler Elliston: It’s been a rollercoaster! Early in the pandemic, we saw plummeting CPMs and slashed budgets. The rebound started relatively quickly over the summer of 2020 and accelerated into the fall and now 2021.

First, it was e-com companies, both those with strong pre-COVID sales online and historically brick-and-mortar brands scrambling to shift online to find much-needed sales. Then many other businesses — both new and existing — emerged with new products, value propositions and positioning to survive or even thrive in the pandemic.

Now, we continue to see very high consumer demand broadly and a corresponding eagerness amongst brands to accelerate customer acquisition, including through paid advertising. Very active investors have been a strong tailwind with respect to budgets.


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We’ve talked before about how you like your team to be treated as a partner rather than a vendor. How have they been able to accomplish this during the pandemic?

The biggest thing is that we were able to lean on our reputation for being a good strategic partner that serves our clients’ best interests. Because they know we’ll tell them when we don’t think they should keep paying us for something, they also trust us when we say something like “I know this sounds crazy right now, but you should increase your budget due to a shift in your demand curve and channel economics.”

We were proactively honest with clients about what we believed the pandemic meant for their businesses, points of view we reached through a framework we outlined on our blog. For some, that meant supporting immediate termination of our partnership for them to conserve funds. In other cases, it meant pushing them to consider leaning into their performance marketing to capitalize on the changing environment and channel economics.

During the recovery, many companies have looked to external agencies and consultants to fill a temporary staffing gap in a lower-risk way. Shifting attitudes towards external resourcing and the evolution of company processes and culture to support remote workers have helped us more quickly and fully integrate with our clients’ internal teams.

In a previous conversation, you mentioned, “We regularly tell companies, ‘You don’t need any growth marketing right now. Focus on product-market fit.’” How can startups tell that it’s the right time to come work with you?

Growth marketing is an amplification tool. It shines a bright spotlight on a product or solution, believing that if only people knew about it, they would want it and love it. The “want it” and “love it” represent product-market fit. To measure these, we look at customer reviews, referral activity leading to organic growth, retention, product engagement, and ultimately realized and expected lifetime value.

Seeing good conversion rates and attractive customer acquisition costs in small-scale channel testing suggest that not only is there a group of people that love it, but that they can be reached. These are prerequisites for sustainable growth, in my view.

If an early-stage company has limited resources, how should they prioritize their funds in regards to marketing?

First, invest in the product to make it excellent, as judged by real, paying customers. Marketing plays a role in this iterative process of traffic acquisition, funnel measurement and feedback collection; it’s just not “growth marketing.” It’s better considered to be “go-to-market marketing,” typically staffed by a product marketer or similar.

Once the product is in a good place, I typically recommend at least some investment in non-paid marketing efforts and some testing of paid advertising, most often Facebook and/or Google. It’s rare for a company to find a great scalable channel if neither of these work. They serve as bellwethers for online marketing performance, generally speaking.

The best non-paid marketing investments are highly contextual on the target customer and a company’s differentiation from the competitive landscape.

What do startups continue to get wrong?

Focusing on growth before finding product/market fit is the biggest [thing that startups continue to get wrong]. Early-stage founders are under intense pressure to grow successfully. For all but the lucky few who find incredible early customer success, finding product-market fit requires an unbelievable dose of patience. I think this is one of the reasons we see a pattern of success among founders who are solving a problem they deeply care about personally. For them, it’s first and foremost about solving the problem for themselves, not others. It’s not about money or some notion of macro success. It’s about micro success. From there, it’s an easy jump to passionately share this solution you so desperately needed.

From an advertising standpoint, many companies try to run too many channels at once and expect success too quickly, leading to false negatives. Most channels are quite nuanced at this point and require both expertise and patience to crack, for most businesses.

How do your growth marketing strategies change when working with early-stage startups as opposed to mature companies?

With very early-stage companies, our work is typically not related to growth, per se. It’s more about getting a foundation in place (ex: pixels, tech stack, initial value props, early staffing), driving traffic through new funnels to gather early data, or setting up email campaigns. Once the product is in a good place, we are often working with a founder or first marketing hire to stand up their initial paid channels and try to get them from 0 to 1. Can we spend 5k, 10k, 20k/month with a good return?

On the non-paid side, it could be executing a content strategy, launching a referral program or cultivating partnerships. Once a company is spending hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars per month profitably, we are typically helping them improve channel performance, better measure the incremental impact of their spend, break through to a new level of scale, or diversify channels (paid or non-paid).

#growth-hacking, #growth-marketers, #marketing, #product-management, #product-marketing, #startup-company, #tc

Nexford University lands $10.8M pre-Series A to scale its flexible remote learning platform

Two profound problems face the higher education sector globally — affordability and relevance. Whether you live in Africa, Europe, or the U.S., a major reason why people don’t go to university or college or even drop out because they cannot afford tuition fees. On the other hand, relevance shows the huge gap between what traditional universities teach and what global employers actually look for. It’s not a secret that universities focus a bit too much on theory.

Over the past few years, there has been the emergence of a number of alternative credential providers trying to provide students with the necessary skills to earn and make a living. Nexford University is one of such platforms, and today, it has a closed $10.8 million pre-Series A funding round.

Dubai-based VC Global Ventures led the new round. Other investors include Future Africa’s new thematic fund (focused on education), angel investors, and family offices. Unnamed VCs from 10 countries, including the U.S., U.K., France, Dubai, Switzerland, Qatar, Nigeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, also took part.

To date, Nexford has raised $15.3 million, following the first tranche of $4.5 million in seed funding raised two years ago.

Fadl Al Tarzi launched Nexford University in 2019. The tech-enabled university is filling affordability and relevance gaps by providing access to quality and affordable education.

“That way, you get the best of both worlds,” CEO Al Tarzi said to TechCrunch. “You get practical skills that you can put to work immediately or for your future career while actively keeping a job. So the whole experience is designed as a learning as a service model.”

Nexford Unversity lets students study at their own pace. Once they apply and get admitted into either a degree program or a course program, they choose how fast or slow they want the program to be.

Nexford University

Fadl Al Tarzi (CEO, Nexford University)

The CEO says whatever students learn on the platform is directly applicable to their jobs. Currently, Nexford offers undergraduate degrees in business administration; 360° marketing; AI & automation; building a tech startup; business analytics; business in emerging markets; digital transformation; e-commerce; and product management. Its graduate degrees are business administration, advanced AI, e-commerce, hyperconnectivity, sustainability, and world business.

Nexford’s tuition structure is very different from traditional universities because it’s modelled monthly. Its accredited degrees cost between $3,000 to $4,000 paid in monthly instalments. In Nigeria, for instance, an MBA costs about $160 a month, while a bachelor degree costs $80 a month. But the catch for the monthly instalment structure means the faster a learner graduates, the less they pay.

What’s it like learning with Nexford University?

Nexford University doesn’t offer standardized and theoretical tests or assignments as most traditional universities do. Al Tarzi says the company employs what he calls a competency-based education model where students prove mastery by working on practical projects.

For instance, a student working on an accounting course will most likely need to create a P&L statement, analyze balance sheets and identify where the error is to correct it. The platform then gives the student different scenarios showing companies with different revenues and expense levels. The task? To analyse and extract certain ratios to help make sense of which company is profitable and the other unit economics involved.

Though Nexford plays in the edtech space, Al Tarzi doesn’t think the company is an edtech company. As a licensed and accredited online university, Nexford has a huge amount of automation across the organization and provides students with support from faculty and career advisors.

After offering degrees, Nexford puts on its placement hats by fixing its graduates with partner employers.

There’s a big shortage of jobs in Nigeria, and despite the high unemployment, it’s actually difficult to find extremely qualified entry-level graduates. So Nexford has carried out several partnerships where employers sponsor their employees or soon-to-be employees for upskilling and rescaling purposes.

An illustration is with Sterling Bank, a local bank in the country. Most Nigerian banks have yearly routines where they hire graduates and put them on weeks-long training programs. Sterling Bank employs any candidate it feels did great after the capital intensive (eight weeks in most cases) programs.

So what Nexford has done is to partner with Sterling to fund the tuition for high school leavers. When these students go through Nexford’s programs for the first year, they begin to get part-time placements at Sterling. Upon graduation, they get a job in the bank.

“That saves Sterling the training cost and our tuition fee is almost equal to the training that they provided for students. Also, students start paying back once they get placed, so it’s a win-win.”

Nexford University has learners from 70 countries, with Nigeria its biggest market yet. Nexford also has blue-chip partnerships with Microsoft, LinkedIn Learning, and IBM to provide access to tools, courses and programmes to improve the learning experience.

One of the major gains of this learning experience is how it prepares people for remote jobs. Nexford is bullish on its virtual skills grid, where people will get jobs remotely regardless of their location on the platform.

“Across Sub Saharan Africa by the year 2026, there’s gonna be a shortage of about 100 million university seats as a result of huge growth in youth population not met by growth and supply. Even if you want to build universities fast, you wouldn’t be able to meet the demand. And that spirals down to the job market. We don’t think the local economy will produce enough jobs in Nigeria, for instance. But we want to enable people to get remote jobs across the world and not necessarily have to migrate.” 

Last year, Nexford’s revenues grew by 300%. This year, the company hopes to triple the size of its enrollment from last year, the CEO said.

Nexford is big on designing students’ curriculum based on analysis of what their employer needs. Al Tarzi tells me that the company always follow the Big Data approach, asking themselves, “how do we find out what employers worldwide are looking for and keep our curriculum alive and relevant?”

“We develop proprietary technology that enables us to analyze job vacancies as well as several other data sources; use AI to understand how those data sets and build a curriculum based on those findings. So, in short, we start with the end in mind,” he answers.

The company is keen on improving its technology regardless. It wants to analyse skills more accurately and automate more functions to enhance user experience. That’s what the funding will be used for in addition to fuelling its regional expansion plans (particularly in Asia) and investing in growth and product development. Per the latter, the online university says it will be launching partner programs with more employers globally to facilitate both placement and upskilling and rescaling. 

Merging both worlds of tech and the traditional university model is no easy feat. The former is about efficiency, user-centricity, product, among others. The latter embodies rigidity and continues to lag behind fast-paced innovation. And while there’s been a boom in edtech, most startups try to circumvent the industry’s bureaucracy by launching an app or a MOOC. Nexford’s model of running a degree-granting, licensed, accredited, and regulated university is more challenging but in it lies so much opportunity.

Iyin Aboyeji, Future Africa general partner CEO, understands this. It’s one reason why the company is the first investment out of Future Africa’s soon-to-be-launched fund focused on the future of learning and why he believes the company is a game-changer for higher education in Africa.

“During the pandemic, while many universities in Nigeria were shut down due to labour disputes, Nexford was already delivering an innovative and affordable new model of online higher education designed for a skills-based economy.”  

For general partner at Global Ventures Noor Sweid, Nexford University is redressing the mismatch between the supply of talent and the demands of today’s digital economy. “We are thrilled to partner with Fadl and the Nexford team on their journey toward expanding access to universal quality higher education in emerging markets,” she said.

#africa, #artificial-intelligence, #asia, #education, #europe, #funding, #future-africa, #higher-education, #ibm, #massive-open-online-course, #microsoft, #nexford-university, #nigeria, #online-learning, #product-management, #saudi-arabia, #tc, #tech-startup, #united-states, #university

Branch raises $50M to offer bundled auto & home insurance via an API

Branch Insurance, a startup offering bundled home and auto insurance, has raised $50 million in a Series B funding round led by Anthemis Group.

Acrew, Cherry Creek Holdings and existing backers Greycroft, HSCM Bermuda, American Family Ventures, SignalFire, SCOR P&C Ventures, Foundation Capital and Tower IV also participated in the round. With this latest financing, Columbus, Ohio-based Branch has raised $82.5 million in total funding since its 2017 inception.

With so many players in the insurtech space, it can get tough distinguishing the various offerings. Branch claims that it is unique in that it is able to provide customers with “an instant insurance offer” for bundled home and auto insurance “within seconds” using just a few pieces of information.

Co-founder and CEO Steve Lekas began his career at Allstate, where he went on to hold roles in underwriting, technology and product management. He then went on to build Esurance’s first online home insurance business.

But in the back of his mind, Lekas yearned to figure out a way to make insurance more accessible for more people. And so he teamed up with Joe Emison, and Branch was born.

“The industry is structurally flawed and it harms consumers. Complicated policies, rising costs and marketing warfare all contribute to a vicious cycle that results in overpriced insurance,” said Lekas. “We are a full-stack insurance company transforming the way people think about their home and car insurance.”

Branch, he claims, is the only insurance company that he is aware of that can bind insurance through an API, and the only one that can bundle auto and home insurance in a single transaction.

Another way Branch is unique, according to Lekas, is that it can be embedded into the buying experience. In other words, the company has partnered with companies such as Rocket Mortgage and ADT to integrate insurance at the point of sale in their products. For example, if a person is closing on a home, they have the option of purchasing Branch insurance at the same time.

Branch co-founder and CEO Steve Lekas. Photo: Robb McCormick Photography

“Every home or car policy starts with another transaction,” Lekas said. “Insurance is a product that exists only because of the other transaction. It’s never before been possible to embed in that primary purchase before.”

This distribution model means that Branch shells out less to acquire customers and thus, it claims, is able to offer premiums for a lower price than competitors.

“In just two clicks, a consumer can have home and car insurance or just home and we’ll cancel the old insurance on their closing date, and transmit all the data to their existing mortgage,” Lekas said.

Branch also offers its insurance direct-to-consumer and through agencies.

The company plans to use its new capital in part to accelerate its rollout across the U.S. so that it can sign more such partnerships where it can embed its offering. Currently, Branch has more than 30 partnerships of varying sizes, and is “adding more every week” as it launches in more states.

“It’s really hard to move quickly,” Lekas said. “The system is built to make you move slowly. Every state regulator has to approve individually and independently with their own rules.”

Lekas predicts Branch will be available in more than 80% of the U.S. before the year’s out.

Branch has seen increased momentum since its $24 million Series A in July 2020.

Specifically, the startup says it has achieved a 435% growth in its partner channel, 660% growth in active policies and a 734% increase in active premium less than one year after its last raise.

Anthemis Group Partner Ruth Foxe Blader notes that Branch marks her firm’s first investment from its new growth fund.

Blader says she has invested in insurance innovation over the past decade, and is particularly attracted to insurtech businesses that represent three things: significant technology and data science innovation; significant product innovation and significant cultural innovation.

“Branch easily ticks those boxes,” Blader told TechCrunch. “Branch’s products are both embedded and bundled, making them less expensive and more convenient to purchase, and less likely to leave customers with critical protection gaps.”

The startup, she added, effectively combines data science and technology to create “unique, automatic product bundles.”

With what it describes as a “built-for-savings” structure, Branch said it has created connected home discounts as well as programs that reward members for making referrals and practicing safe driving behaviors, for example.

Branch also has formed a nonprofit, SafetyNest, to help those who are un- or underinsured.

#allstate, #american-family-ventures, #anthemis-group, #auto-insurance, #branch, #car-insurance, #columbus, #finance, #foundation-capital, #funding, #fundings-exits, #insurance, #insurtech, #ohio, #ontology, #product-management, #recent-funding, #rocket-mortgage, #ruth-foxe-blader, #startup, #startups, #tc, #united-states, #venture-capital

For SaaS startups, differentiation is an iterative process

Software as a service has been thriving as a sector for years, but it has gone into overdrive in the past year as businesses responded to the pandemic by speeding up the migration of important functions to the cloud. We’ve all seen the news of SaaS startups raising large funding rounds, with deal sizes and valuations steadily climbing. But as tech industry watchers know only too well, large funding rounds and valuations are not foolproof indicators of sustainable growth and longevity.

To scale sustainably, grow its customer base and mature to the point of an exit, a SaaS startup needs to stand apart from the herd at every phase of development. Failure to do so means a poor outcome for founders and investors.

As a founder who pivoted from on-premise to SaaS back in 2016, I have focused on scaling my company (most recently crossing 145,000 customers) and in the process, learned quite a bit about making a mark. Here is some advice on differentiation at the various stages in the life of a SaaS startup.

Launch and early years

Differentiation is crucial early on, because it’s one of the only ways to attract customers. Customers can help lay the groundwork for everything from your product roadmap to pricing.

The more you know about your target customers’ pain points with current solutions, the easier it will be to stand out. Take every opportunity to learn about the people you are aiming to serve, and which problems they want to solve the most. Analyst reports about specific sectors may be useful, but there is no better source of information than the people who, hopefully, will pay to use your solution.

The key to success in the SaaS space is solving real problems. Take DocuSign, for example — the company found a way to simply and elegantly solve a niche problem for users with its software. This is something that sounds easy, but in reality, it means spending hours listening to the customer and tailoring your product accordingly.

#as-a-service, #cloud, #cloud-applications, #column, #docusign, #ec-cloud-and-enterprise-infrastructure, #ec-column, #ec-enterprise-applications, #product-management, #saas, #software-as-a-service, #startup-company, #startups

Flush with $42M, hot AI startup Faculty plans to hoover-up more PhDs… and steer clear of politics

In the wake of the news that UK-based AI startup Faculty has raised $42.5 million in a growth funding round, I teased out more from CEO and co-founder Marc Warner on what his plans are for the company.

Faculty seems to have an uncanny knack of winning UK government contracts, after helping Boris Johnson win his Vote Leave campaign and thus become Prime Minister. It’s even helping sort out the mess that Brexit has subsequently made of the fishing industry, problems with the NHS, and telling global corporates like Red Bull and Virgin Media what to suggest to their customers. Meanwhile, it continues to hoover up Ph.D. graduates at a rate of knots to work on its AI platform.

But, speaking to me over a call, Warner said the company no longer has plans to enter the political sphere again: “Never again. It’s very controversial. I don’t want to make out that I think politics is unethical. Trying to make the world better, in whatever dimension you can, is a good thing … But from our perspective, it was, you know, ‘noisy,’ and our goal as an organization is, despite current appearances to the contrary, is not to spend tonnes of time talking about this stuff. We do believe this is an important technology that should be out there and should be in a broader set of hands than just the tech giants, who are already very good at it.”

On the investment, he said: “Fundamentally, the money is about doubling down on the UK first and then international expansion. Over the last seven years or so we have learned what it takes to do important AI, impactful AI, at scale. And we just don’t think that there’s actually much of it out there. Customers are rightly sometimes a bit skeptical, as there’s been hype around this stuff for years and years. We figured out a bunch of the real-world applications that go into making this work so that it actually delivers the value. And so, ultimately, the money is really just about being able to build out all of the pieces to do that incredibly well for our customers.”

He said Faculty would be staying firmly HQ’d in the UK to take advantage of the UK’s talent pool: “The UK is a wonderful place to do AI. It’s got brilliant universities, a very dynamic startup scene. It’s actually more diverse than San Francisco. There’s government, there’s finance, there are corporates, there’s less competition from the tech giants. There’s a bit more of a heterogeneous ecosystem. There’s no sense in which we’re thinking, ‘Right, that’s it, we’re up and out!’. We love working here, we want to make things better. We’ve put an enormous amount of effort into trying to help organizations like the government and the NHS, but also a bunch of UK corporates in trying to embrace this technology, so that’s still going to be a terrifically important part of our business.”

That said, Faculty plans to expand abroad: “We’re going to start looking further afield as well, and take all of the lessons we’ve learned to the US, and then later Europe.”

But does he think this funding round will help it get ahead of other potential rivals in the space? “We tend not to think too much in terms of rivals,” he says. “The next 20 years are going to be about building intelligence into the software that already exists. If you look at the global market cap of the software businesses out there, that’s enormous. If you start adding intelligence to that, the scale of the market is so large that it’s much more important to us that we can take this incredibly important technology and deploy it safely in ways that actually improve people’s lives. It could be making products cheaper or helping organizations make their services more efficient.”

If that’s the case then does Faculty have any kind of ethics panel overseeing its work? “We have an internal ethics panel. We have a set of principles and if we think a project might violate those principles, it gets referred to that ethics panel. It’s randomly selected from across faculty. So we’re quite careful about the projects that we work on and don’t. But to be honest, the vast majority of stuff that’s going on is very vanilla. They are just clearly ‘good for the world’ projects. The vast majority of our work is doing good work for corporate clients to help them make their businesses that bit more efficient.”

I pressed him to expand on this issue of ethics and the potential for bias. He says Faculty “builds safety in from a start. Oddly enough, the reason I first got interested in AI was reading Nick Bostrom’s work about superintelligence and the importance of AI safety. And so from the very, very first fellowship [Faculty AI researchers are called Fellows] all the way back in 2014, we’ve taught the fellows about AI safety. Over time, as soon as we were able, we started contributing to the research field. So, we’ve published papers in all of the biggest computer science conferences Neurips, ICM, ICLR, on the topic of AI safety. How to make algorithms fair, private, robust and explainable. So these are a set of problems that we care a great deal about. And, I think, are generally ‘underdone’ in the wider ecosystem. Ultimately, there shouldn’t be a separation between performance and safety. There is a bit of a tendency in other companies to say, ‘Well, you can either have performance, or you can have safety.’ But of course, we know that’s not true. The cars today are faster and safer than the Model T Ford. So it’s a sort of a false dichotomy. We’ve invested a bunch of effort in both those capabilities, so we obviously want to be able to create a wonderful performance for the task at hand, but also to ensure that the algorithms are fair, private, robust and explainable wherever required.”

That also means, he says, that AI might not always be the ‘bogeyman’ the phrase implies: “In some cases, it’s probably not a huge deal if you’re deciding whether to put a red jumper or a blue jumper at the top of your website. There are probably not huge ethical implications in that. But in other circumstances, of course, it’s critically important that the algorithms are safe and are known to be safe and are trusted by both the users and anyone else who encounters them. In a medical context, obviously, they need to be trusted by the doctors and the patients need to make sure they actually work. So we’re really at the forefront of deploying that stuff.”

Last year the Guardian reported that Faculty had won seven government contracts in 18 months. To what does he attribute this success? “Well, I mean, we lost an enormous number more! We are a tiny supplier to government. We do our best to do work that is valuable to them. We’ve worked for many many years with people at the home office,” he tells me.

“Without wanting to go into too much detail, that 18 months stretches over multiple Prime Ministers. I was appointed to the AI Council under Theresa May. Any sort of insinuations on this are just obviously nonsense. But, at least historically, most of our work was in the private sector and that continues to be critically important for us as an organization. Over the last year, we’ve tried to step up and do our bit wherever we could for the public sector. It’s facing such a big, difficult situation around COVID, and we’re very proud of the things we’ve managed to accomplish with the NHS and the impact that we had on the decisions that senior people were able to undertake.”

Returning to the issue of politics I asked him if he thought – in the wake of events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, which were both affected by AI-driven political campaigning – AI is too dangerous to be applied to that arena? He laughed: “It’s a funny old funny question… It’s a really odd way to phrase a question. AI is just a technology. Fundamentally, AI is just maths.”

I asked him if he thought the application of AI in politics had had an outsized or undue influence, on the way that political parties have operated in the last few years: “I’m afraid that is beyond my knowledge,” he says. But does Faculty have regrets about working in the political sphere?

“I think we’re just focused on our work. It’s not that we have strong feelings, either way, it’s just that from our perspective, it’s much, much more interesting to be able to do the things that we care about, which is deploying AI in the real world. It’s a bit of a boring answer! But it is truly how we feel. It’s much more about doing the things we think are important, rather than judging what everyone else is doing.”

Lastly, we touched on the data science capabilities of the UK and what the new fund-raising will allow the company to do.

He said: “We started an education program. We have roughly 10% of the UK’s PhDs in physics, maths, engineering, applying to the program. Roughly 400 or so people have been through that program and we plan to expand that further so that more and more people get the opportunity to start a career in data science. And then inside Faculty specifically, we think we’ll be able to create 400 new jobs in areas like software engineering, data science, product management. These are very exciting new possibilities for people to really become part of the technology revolution. I think there’s going to be a wonderful like new energy in Faculty, and hopefully a positive small part in increasing the UK tech ecosystem.”

Warner comes across as sincere in his thoughts about the future of AI and is clearly enthusiastic about where Faculty can take the whole field next, both philosophically and practically. Will Faculty soon be challenging that other AI leviathan, DeepMind, for access to all those Ph.D.s? There’s no doubt it will.

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Google Cloud launches Vertex AI, a new managed machine learning platform

At Google I/O today Google Cloud announced Vertex AI, a new managed machine learning platform that is meant to make it easier for developers to deploy and maintain their AI models. It’s a bit of an odd announcement at I/O, which tends to focus on mobile and web developers and doesn’t traditionally feature a lot of Google Cloud news, but the fact that Google decided to announce Vertex today goes to show how important it thinks this new service is for a wide range of developers.

The launch of Vertex is the result of quite a bit of introspection by the Google Cloud team. “Machine learning in the enterprise is in crisis, in my view,” Craig Wiley, the director of product management for Google Cloud’s AI Platform, told me. “As someone who has worked in that space for a number of years, if you look at the Harvard Business Review or analyst reviews, or what have you — every single one of them comes out saying that the vast majority of companies are either investing or are interested in investing in machine learning and are not getting value from it. That has to change. It has to change.”

Image Credits: Google

Wiley, who was also the general manager of AWS’s SageMaker AI service from 2016 to 2018 before coming to Google in 2019, noted that Google and others who were able to make machine learning work for themselves saw how it can have a transformational impact, but he also noted that the way the big clouds started offering these services was by launching dozens of services, “many of which were dead ends,” according to him (including some of Google’s own). “Ultimately, our goal with Vertex is to reduce the time to ROI for these enterprises, to make sure that they can not just build a model but get real value from the models they’re building.”

Vertex then is meant to be a very flexible platform that allows developers and data scientist across skill levels to quickly train models. Google says it takes about 80% fewer lines of code to train a model versus some of its competitors, for example, and then help them manage the entire lifecycle of these models.

Image Credits: Google

The service is also integrated with Vizier, Google’s AI optimizer that can automatically tune hyperparameters in machine learning models. This greatly reduces the time it takes to tune a model and allows engineers to run more experiments and do so faster.

Vertex also offers a “Feature Store” that helps its users serve, share and reuse the machine learning features and Vertex Experiments to help them accelerate the deployment of their models into producing with faster model selection.

Deployment is backed by a continuous monitoring service and Vertex Pipelines, a rebrand of Google Cloud’s AI Platform Pipelines that helps teams manage the workflows involved in preparing and analyzing data for the models, train them, evaluate them and deploy them to production.

To give a wide variety of developers the right entry points, the service provides three interfaces: a drag-and-drop tool, notebooks for advanced users and — and this may be a bit of a surprise — BigQuery ML, Google’s tool for using standard SQL queries to create and execute machine learning models in its BigQuery data warehouse.

We had two guiding lights while building Vertex AI: get data scientists and engineers out of the orchestration weeds, and create an industry-wide shift that would make everyone get serious about moving AI out of pilot purgatory and into full-scale production,” said Andrew Moore, vice president and general manager of Cloud AI and Industry Solutions at Google Cloud. “We are very proud of what we came up with in this platform, as it enables serious deployments for a new generation of AI that will empower data scientists and engineers to do fulfilling and creative work.”

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