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Meet Collabio Spaces: An office suite app with a cloudless co-authoring twist that looks helpful if you need to collaborate on documents without having to worry about losing control of your data or the thread of changes.
The p2p software lets multiple people co-edit a document locally — from a mobile device or desktop computer — without A) the risk of uploading sensitive information to the cloud (i.e. as you must if you’re using a shared document function of a service like Google Docs); or B) the tedium of emailing a text to multiple recipients and then having to collate and resolve changes manually, once all the contributions trickle back.
There’s more coming down Collabio’s pipe too. Document collaborating will be possible from anywhere in the future, not only (as now) via a local network: A major release slated for next month will add p2p collaboration that works via the Internet — but still without the privacy risk of having a remote server in the loop.
Collabio’s app is MacOS and iOS only for now — but Android and Windows versions are in the works, slated for release this year.
Current supported text formats are DOCX, ODT, XLSX and ODS. Other features of Collabio’s office suite include the ability to scan and recognise texts and images using a camera; annotate and comment on PDFs (including via audio); e-sign text documents and PDFs; and view presentations.
Its maker XCDS (aka “eXtended Collaboration Document Systems”), which is headquartered in London, UK with an R&D hub in Prague in the Czech Republic, has been in business for around a decade at this point — but working on office tools for some seven years, per CTO Egor Goroshko, who says they see Collabio as a startup in its own right.
The app is being funded by (an undisclosed amount of funding from undisclosed) private investors, with the team planning to take in further funding to continue development in the near future as they build momentum for the product.
With the coronavirus supercharging remote working over the past 12 months there is certainly opportunity to improve on the current crop of collaboration and productivity tools — and help to safely break down any unwelcome workflow barriers which have been erected as a result of scores of office workers no longer being co-located. Although the current version of Collabio is designed for nearby, rather than remote collaboration — so its next major release looks the most interesting from that perspective.
The early team behind Collabio included some devs who worked on Quickoffice but didn’t go to Google as part of that 2012 acquisition. Instead they focused on thinking about how to improve the user experience around documents — finally bringing their long-developed p2p document collaboration product to market last fall.
“When we started with Collabio we were ready for the long game,” Goroshko tells TechCrunch. “We knew that we would need to implement most of the features [office suite software] users were familiar with, before we could start developing our own ideas.”
“Long story short, our cloudless collaboration works exactly the same way as a cloud one. Of course there is some difference in the way you connect to the document but after that, you have exactly the same experience as if you work in the cloud,” he continues.
“We started with an iOS app in September 2020 and introduced a macOS version in October. With our early releases, we mainly concentrate on testing the app with real users and prove our ideas. Starting from our launch, we’ve got almost 15K of installs and valuable feedback on what users need and what can be improved. We pushed intensively on the market starting in February 2021 this year and got more than one thousand users during this month.”
There are some key differences between Collabio’s p2p cloudless collaboration and the (more typical) upload-to-a-server flavor that are worth flagging.
Notably, the lack of constant access to the document that you’re co-authoring/co-editing. Although that limitation may also be desirable if you want to tightly manage collaborative access to your data.
“In Collabio we call cloudless collaborative editing ‘Ad-Hoc collaboration’, because without a cloud your peers have no constant access to the document, so this thing is essential for occasional document discussion and updates,” Goroshko notes.
Another important difference he points to is that a shared document remains on the owner host devices only — and a copy can only be saved by the owner (at least for now).
“Other peers have session document access but the application does not upload/transfer files to collaborators’ devices,” he explains. “[The] session lasts til the host keeps the document open. As soon as you close the document, peers lose their access and can’t save the document locally. This is made for reasons of privacy but we are now considering giving users the option to allow connected peers to save a copy of the document.”
Given that all document work is done on devices on a local network there’s no need for an Internet connection to be able to collaborate via Collabio — which the team argues can itself be pretty useful, such as in situations like business travel (remember it?) when a stable Internet connection may not be readily available.
For this local p2p connectivity Goroshko says Collabio uses both wi-fi and Bluetooth — “to achieve better discovering quality”. “This is a common approach used, for example, in AirDrop technology. When peers’ addresses are identified, the application establishes connection via WiFi to achieve better speed and the quality of data exchange,” he says.
“All work is done only on devices in the local network so our Ad-Hoc collaboration does not need the Internet, the same way as you do not need the Internet to exchange files via AirDrop,” he goes on. “Just like with AirDrop, you do not need any specific configuration for Collabio Spaces, everything is done automatically. You start a session and peers see it on their devices, they simply connect to a selected document, and if they know the code, they can edit the document.”
Goroshko says Collabio’s team has been inspired by Apple’s technology — and the tech giant’s ‘it just works’ philosophy. But are committed to bringing the product to non-Apple platforms, aiming for a release later this year.
“It is a large, complex and ambitious project but we believe we can introduce game-changing approaches,” he continues. “The Office software market is quite conservative and market expectations from new software are really high. This is the reason why it has taken so much time to get to a public release stage. But with such a high entrance threshold and with slow innovations in the area of office document management and editing, this creates great opportunities.”
He argues that Collabio has been able to get efficiency gains vs office suites that had to bolt collaboration onto a legacy product exactly because it was being developed from scratch — with “collaborative editing in mind from the first step of proof of concept”. Hence its implementation of collaborative editing algorithms can work “with minimal resources consumption even on mobile phones”.
Goroshko says a Collabio user can have up to five peers simultaneously connected if they launch a collaboration session via a mobile device — with all participants able to edit the document. (Desktops support more connections.)
“You launch a collaboration session with a honeycomb icon, and any nearby devices with [the] Collabio Spaces app show shared documents,” he explains. “Under the hood, it works the similar way as sharing files through AirDrop or streaming audio/video through AirPlay. People nearby can join editing, if they know the security code assigned to the session.”
These p2p connections are encrypted with “standard end-to-end encryption”, according to Goroshko — who admits to “some tricks to allow trusted connections in the local network without access to the Internet”, adding: “We believe that this is enough for the start but in the future we will probably improve this approach.”
So — as with any nascent and non-independently security-tested product — prospective users should approach with caution, weighing up the sensitivity of any data they might wish to share for co-editing purposes before trusting it to Collabio’s novel implementation.
The startup, meanwhile, sees plenty of potential growth coming from frustrated office workers trying to find smarter ways to work remotely.
“Our goal is to create an editor specifically for team work, to help people get the most from collaboration,” says Goroshko. “Working together with others gives you a lot of advantages but requires more effort to sync with others. Planning, tracking, discussions, reviews — currently most of this work is performed separately from the document or locked inside the document. We want to cover this gap and give our users the most from collaboration with each other.”
“We consider two main types of competitors on the market,” he adds. “Classical office document editing suites like MS Office, Google Docs and Libre Office. We do not consider direct competition with them because their features set is enormous. However, many people simply do not use most of these features!
“And now a few newcomers have appeared on the market like Notion or Airtable, introducing smart ways how the document editing process can be integrated into your business. We see ourselves somewhere in between these products and classical office suites.”
A subscription payment is required to use Collabio Suites but a free trial version is available for up to a week.
We’re also told there’s an option for free of charge usage where the user is able to view and edit documents as a peer but can’t be the host of a collaboration session.
The major release that’s coming in May looks set to expand Collabio’s utility greatly — enabling it to tap into the remote work boom — by adding the ability to do p2p collaboration from anywhere via the Internet, also without the need for a remote server sitting in the loop.
How will that forthcoming functionality work? In a word: Math. Goroshko says the implementation will rely on an Operations Transformation algorithm keeping the document consistent “at any moment” during co-editing — avoiding the need for true real-time operations.
“It does not matter what co-editors type for in the end they all have absolutely the same content,” he says. “The algorithm does not guarantee that the result will be meaningful. If several people type in the same place, they will get an abracadabra. But this will be exactly the same abracadabra after all changes have been synced between all participants. This is the point. Operations Transformation does not require true real-time operations, changes can come early or later, even after sufficient delays. In either case they will be transformed to become inline with other changes. So regardless of cloud or cloudless collaboration mode, you do not need specific infrastructure or high speed processing to support collaborative editing.”
A reporter who has tracked decades of gloomy trends sees things lining up for roaring growth.
A newly launched Mac app called Superpowered aims to make it easier to stay on top of all your Zoom calls and Google Meets, without having to scramble to find the meeting link in your inbox or calendar app at the last minute. Instead of relying on calendar reminders, Superpowered offers a notification inbox for the Mac menu bar that alerts you to online meetings just before they start, which you can then join with a click of a button.
To use Superpowered, you first download the app then authorize it to access to your Google Calendar. The app currently works with any Google account, including G Suite, as well as your subscribed calendars.
Once connected, Superpowered pulls all your events into the menu bar, which you can view at any time throughout the day with a click or by using the keyboard shortcut Command + Y.
When you have a meeting coming up, Superpowered will display a dropdown to alert you, or you can opt for a more subtle halo effect instead to have it get your attention. You can also configure other preferences — like whether you want a chime to sound, how far in advance you want to be alerted, whether you want a meeting reminder as text to appear in the menu bar ahead of the meeting, and so on.
When it’s time for the meeting, all you have to do is click the button it displays to join your Zoom call or Google Meet. The solution is simple, but effective. The startup plans to add support for more integrations going forward, including Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx, and others.
The idea for the app comes from four computer science and software engineering students from the University of Waterloo, who previously interned at tech companies like Google, Facebook, Asana and Spotify.
Wanting to build a startup of their own, the team applied to the accelerator Y Combinator with an idea to build a lecture platform for professors. But they soon faced issues in keeping up with their own calendar appointments as they began to conduct user research interviews.
“We were struggling to keep up with each other’s calendars and balance all these meetings throughout the day,” explains Superpowered co-founder Jordan Dearsley, who built the service alongside teammates Nikhil Gupta, Ibrahim Irfan, and Nick Yand. “We would be at lunch and be like, ‘oh shoot, we have a meeting now — I have to run!’ or just completely miss it altogether,” he says.
Irfan had the idea to just put a button in the Mac menu bar to make it easier to join Zoom meetings, and soon the team pivoted to work on Superpowered instead.
The product itself is very new. Development work began roughly two months ago and Superpowered opened up to users just last month — a quick pace that Dearsley says was possible because three of the four team members are engineers, and the other, Yand, is the designer.
Although it’s a paid product offered at $10 per month, Superpowered already has hundreds of users who are interacting with the app, on average, 10 times per day. Busier users, like product managers, are clicking on Superpowered as many as 20 to 40 times per day — an indication that it’s found a place in users’ workflows. In the month since its launch, the app has connected users with over 10,000 online meetings, the company says.
Superpowered is not the first to add calendar appointments to the Mac’s menu bar. It competes with a range of products, like MeetingBar, Meeter, Next Meeting, and others. But users have been responding to Superpowered’s sleek, clean design.
The company also has a vision for the product’s future that extends beyond meetings. After solving this particular pain point, Superpowered plans to broaden its scope to fix other annoyances for knowledge workers — like Slack notifications, for example.
“It’s really annoying to be pinged all the time when I’m while I’m coding…and I don’t know if it’s something that’s worth seeing because Slack doesn’t really give me those controls or ability to peek,” explains Dearsley. Meanwhile, Mac’s built-in Notification Center isn’t smart enough to show you just those items that you really need to know about.
To address this, the team is now working on a Slack integration that will let you quickly check your messages and reply without having to launch the Slack app. Further down the road, the team wants integrate support for other platforms — like Google Docs, JIRA and GitHub — which would all be pulled into Superpowered’s universal notification inbox.
For the time being, Superpowered is $10 per month for Mac users, or $8 per month for those who sign up with a team. Annual pricing is not yet available.
Cal Newport explains how Slack and Gmail are making us miserable — and what to do about it.
Signs of economic life are picking up, and mounds of cash are waiting to be spent as the virus loosens its grip.
Politics is grim but science is working.
One big theme in tech right now is the rise of services to help us keep working through lockdowns, office closures, and other Covid-19 restrictions. The “future of work” — cloud services, communications, productivity apps — has become “the way we work now.” And companies that have identified ways to help with this are seeing a boom.
Today comes news from a startup that has been a part of that trend: Calendly, a popular cloud-based service that people use to set up and confirm meeting times with others, has closed an investment of $350 million from OpenView Venture Partners and Iconiq.
The funding round includes both primary and secondary money (slightly more of the latter than the former, from what I understand) and values the Atlanta-based startup at over $3 billion.
Not bad for a company that before now had raised just $550,000, including the life savings of the founder and CEO, Tope Awotona, to initially get off the ground.
Calendly is a freemium software-as-a-service, built around what is essentially a very simple piece of functionality.
It’s a platform that provides a quick way to manage open spaces in your calendar for people to book appointments with you in those spaces, which then also books out the time in calendars like Google’s or Microsoft Outlook — with a growing number of tools to enhance that experience, including the ability to pay for a service in the event that your appointment is not a business meeting but, say, a yoga class. Pricing ranges from free (one calendar/one user/one event) to premium ($8/month) and pro ($12/month) for more calendars, events, integrations and features, with bigger packages for enterprises also available.
Its growth, meanwhile, has to date been based mostly around a very organic strategy: Calendly invites become links to Calendly itself, so people who use it and like it can (and do) start to use it, too.
The wide range of its use cases, and the virality of that growth strategy, have been winners. Calendly is already profitable, and it has been for years. And more recently, it has seen a boost, specifically in the last twelve months, as new Calendly users have emerged, as a result of how we are living.
We may not be doing more traditional “business meetings” per week, but the number of meetings we now need to set up, has gone up.
All of the serendipitous and impromptu encounters we used to have around an office, or a neighborhood coffee shop, or the park? Those are now scheduled. Teachers and students meeting for a remote lesson? Those also need invitations for online meetings.
And so do sessions with therapists, virtual dinner parties, and even (where they can still happen) in-person meetings, which are often now happening with more timed precision and more record-keeping, to keep social distancing and potential contact tracing in better order.
Currently, some 10 million of us are using Calendly for all of this on a monthly basis, with that number growing 1,180% last year. The army of business users from companies like Twilio, Zoom, and UCSF has been joined by teachers, contractors, entrepreneurs, and freelancers, the company says.
The company last year made about $70 million annually in subscription revenues from its SaaS-based business model and seems confident that its aggregated revenues will not long from now get to $1 billion.
So while the secondary funding is going towards giving liquidity to existing investors and early employees, Awotona said the plan will be to use the primary capital to invest in the company’s business.
That will include building out its platform with more tools and integrations — it started with and still has a substantial R&D operation in Kiev, Ukraine — expanding its operations with more talent (it currently has around 200 employees and plans to double headcount), further business development and more.
Two notable moves on that front are also being announced with the funding: Jeff Diana is coming on as chief people officer with a mission to double the company’s employee base. And Patrick Moran — formerly of Quip and New Relic — is joing as Calendly’s first chief revenue officer. Notably, both are based in San Francisco — not Atlanta.
That focus for building in San Francisco is already a big change for Calendly. The startup, which is going on eight years old, has been somewhat off the radar for years.
That is in part due to the fact that it raised very little money up to now (just $550,000 from a handful of investors that include OpenView, Atlanta Ventures, IncWell and Greenspring Associates).
It’s also based in Atlanta, an increasingly notable city for technology startups and other companies but more often than not short on being credited for its heft in that department (SalesLoft, Amex-acquired Kabbage, OneTrust, Bakkt, and many others are based there, with others like Mailchimp also not too far away).
And perhaps most of all, proactively courting publicity did not appear to be part of Calendly’s growth playbook.
In fact, Calendly might have closed this big round quietly and continued to get on with business, were it not for a short Tweet last autumn that signaled the company raising money and shaping up to be a quiet giant.
“The company’s capital efficiency and what @TopeAwotona has built deserve way more credit than they get,” it read. “Perhaps this will start to change that recognition.”
After that short note on Twitter — flagged on TechCrunch’s internal message board — I made a guess at Awotona’s email, sent a note introducing myself, and waited to see if I would get a reply.
I eventually did get a response, in the form of a short note agreeing to chat, with a Calendly link (naturally) to choose a time.
(Thanks, unnamed TC writer, for never writing about Calendly when Tope originally pitched you years ago: you may have whet his appetite to respond to me.)
In that first chat over Zoom, Awotona was nothing short of wary.
After years of little or no attention, he was getting cold-contacted by me and it seems others, all of us suddenly interested in him and his company.
“It’s been the bane of my life,” he said to me with a laugh about the calls he’s been getting.
Part of me thinks it’s because it can be hard and distracting to balance responding to people, but it’s also because he works hard, and has always worked hard, so doesn’t understand what the new fuss is about.
A lot of those calls have been from would-be investors.
“It’s been exorbitant, the amount of interest Calendly has been getting, from backers of all shapes and sizes,” Blake Bartlett, a partner at OpenView, said to me in an interview.
From what I understand, it’s had inbound interest from a number of strategic tech companies, as well as a long list of financial investors. That process eventually whittled down to just two backers, OpenView and Iconiq.
From Lagos to fixing cash registers
Yet even putting the rumors of the funding to one side, Calendly and Awotona himself have been a remarkable story up to now, one that champions immigrants as well as startup grit.
Tope comes from Lagos, Nigeria, part of a large, middle class household. His mother had been the chief pharmacist for the Nigerian Central Bank, his father worked for Unilever.
The family may have been comfortable, but growing up in Lagos, a city riven by economic disparity and crime, brought its share of tragedies. When he was 12, Awotona’s father was murdered in front of him during a carjacking. The family moved to the U.S. some time after that, and since then his mother has also passed away.
A bright student who actually finished high school at 15, Awotona cut his teeth in the world of business first by studying it — his major at the University of Georgia was management information systems — and then working in it, with jobs after college including periods at IBM and EMC.
But it seems Awotona was also an entrepreneur at heart — if one that initially was not prepared for the steps he needed to take to get something off the ground.
He told me a story about what he describes as his “first foray into business” at age 18, which involved devising and patenting a new feature for cash registers, so that they could use optical character recognition recognize which bills and change were being used for, and dispense the right amount a customer might need in return after paying.
At the time, he was working at a pharmacy while studying and saw how often the change in the cash registers didn’t add up correctly, and his was his idea for how to fix it.
He cold-contacted the leading cash register company at the time, NCR, with his idea. NCR was interested, offering to send him up to Ohio, where it was headquartered then, to pitch the idea to the company directly, and maybe sell the patent in the process. Awotona, however, froze.
“I was blown away,” he said, but also too surprised at how quickly things escalated. He turned down the offer, and ultimately let his patent application lapse. (Computer-vision-based scanning systems and automatic dispensers are, of course, a basic part nowadays of self-checkout systems, for those times when people pay in cash.)
There were several other entrepreneurial attempts, none particularly successful and at times quite frustrating because of the grunt work involved just to speak to people, before his businesses themselves could even be considered.
Eventually, it was the grunt work that then started to catch Awotona’s attention.
“What led me to create a scheduling product” — Awotona said, clear not to describe it as a calendaring service — “was my personal need. At the time wasn’t looking to start a business. I just was trying to schedule a meeting, but it took way too many emails to get it done, and I became frustrated.
“I decided that I was going to look for scheduling products that existed on the market that I could sign up for,” he continued, “but the problem I was facing at the time was I was trying to arrange a meeting with, you know, 10 or 20 people. I was just looking for an easy way for us to easily share our availability and, you know, easily find a time that works for everybody.”
He said he couldn’t really see anything that worked the way he wanted — the products either needed you to commit to a subscription right away (Calendly is freemium) or were geared at specific verticals such as beauty salons. All that eventually led to a recognition, he said, “that there was a big opportunity to solve that problem.”
The building of the startup was partly done with engineers in Kiev — a drama in itself that pivoted at times on the political situation at times in Ukraine (you can read a great unfolding of that story here).
Awotona says that he admired the new guard of cloud-based services like Dropbox and decided that he wanted Calendly to be built using “the Dropbox approach” — something that could be adopted and adapted by different kinds of users and usages.
Simplicity in the frontend, strategy at the backend
On the surface, there is a simplicity to the company’s product: it’s basically about finding a time for two parties to meet. Awotona notes that behind the scenes the scheduling help Calendly provides is the key to what it might develop next.
For example, there are now tools to help people prepare for meetings — specifically features like being able to, say, pay for something that’s been scheduled on Calendly in order to register. A future focus could well be more tools for following up on those meetings, and more ways to help people plan recurring individual or group events.
One area where it seems Calendly does not want to dabble are those meetings themselves — that is, hosting meetings and videoconferencing itself.
“What you don’t want is to start a world war three with Zoom,” Awotona joked. (In addition to becoming the very verb-ified definition of video conferencing, Zoom is also a customer of Calendly’s.)
“We really see ourselves as a leading orchestration platform. What that means is that we really want to remain extensible and flexible. We want our users to bring their own best in class products,” he said. “We think about this in an agnostic way.”
But in a technology world that usually defaults back to the power of platforms, that position is not without its challenges.
“Calendly has a vision increasingly to be a central part of the meeting life cycle. What happens before, during and after the meeting. Historically, the obvious was before the meeting, but now it’s looking at integrations, automations and other things, so that it all magically happens. But moving into the rest of the lifecycle is a lot of opportunity but also many players,” admitted Bartlett, with others including older startups like X.ai and Doodle (owned by Swiss-based Tamedia) or newer entrants like Undock but also biggies like Google and Microsoft.
“It will be an interesting task to see where there are opportunities to partner or build or buy to build out its competitive position.”
You’ll notice that throughout this story I didn’t refer to Awotona’s position as a black founder — still very much a rarity among startups, and especially those valued at over $1 billion.
That is partly because in my conversations with him, it emerged that he saw it as just another detail. Still, it is one that is brought up a lot, he said, and so he understands it is important for others.
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about being black or not black,” he said. “It doesn’t change how I approach or built Calendly. I’m not incredibly conscious of my race or color, except for the last few years through he growth of Calendly. I find that more people approach me as a black tech founder, and that there is young black people who are inspired by the story.”
That is something he hopes to build on in the near future, including in his home country.
Pending pandemic chaos, he has plans to try to visit Nigeria later this year and to get more involved in the ecosystem in that country, I’m guessing as a mentor if not more.
“I just know the country that produced me,” he said. “There are a million Topes in Nigeria. The difference for me was my parents. But I’m not a diamond in the rough, and I want to get involved in some way to help with that full potential.”
The findings point to the potential of upward mobility for people without a college degree.
He was a widely respected labor economist at Stanford who led President George W. Bush’s economic council during the financial crisis.
Not productive? No problem.
What if you are better off without the office?
Merico, a startup that gives companies deeper insights into their developers’ productivity and code quality, today announced that it has raised a $4.1 million seed round led by GGV Capital with participation from Legend Star and previous investor Polychain Capital. The company was originally funded by the open source-centric firm OSS Capital.
Merico head of business development Maxim Wheatley tells me that the company plans to use the new funding to enhance and expand its existing technology and marketing efforts. As a remote-first startup, Merico already has team members in the U.S., Brazil, France, Canada, India and China.
“In keeping with our roots and mission in open source, we will be focusing some of these new resources to engage more collaboratively with open source foundations, contributors and maintainers,” he added.
The idea behind Merico was born out of two key observations, Wheatley said. First of all, the team wanted to create a better way to analyze developer productivity and the quality of the code they generate. Some companies still simply use the number of lines of code generated by a developer to allocate bonuses for their teams, for example, which isn’t a great metric by any means. In addition, the team also wanted to find ways to better allocate income and recognition to the community members of open source projects based on the quality of their contributions.
The company’s tool is systems agnostic because it bases its analysis on the codebase and workflow tools instead of looking at lines of codes or commit counts, for example.
Urban centers, with a dynamism that feeds innovation, have long been resilient. But the pandemic could drive a shift away from density.
Layer is not trying to replace Excel or Google Sheets. Instead the Berlin-based productivity startup wants to make life easier for those whose job entails wrangling massive spreadsheets and managing data inputs from across an organization — such as for budgeting, financial reporting or HR functions — by adding a granular control access layer on top.
The idea for a ‘SaaS to supercharge spreadsheets’ came to the co-founders as a result of their own experience of workflow process pain-points at the place they used to work, as is often the case with productivity startups.
“Constantin [Schünemann] and I met at Helpling, the marketplace for cleaning services, where I was the company’s CFO and I had to deal with spreadsheets on a daily level,” explains co-founder Moritz ten Eikelder. “There was one particular reference case for what we’re building here — the update of the company’s financial model and business case which was a 20MB Excel file with 30 different tabs, hundreds of roles of assumptions. It was a key steering tool for management and founders. It was also the basis for the financial reporting.
“On average it needed to be updated twice per month. And that required input by around about 20-25 people across the organization. So right then about 40 different country managers and various department heads. The problem was we could not share the entire file with [all the] people involved because it contained a lot of very sensitive information like salary data, cash burn, cash management etc.”
While sharing a Dropbox link to the file with the necessary individuals so they could update the sheet with their respective contributions would have risked breaking the master file. So instead he says they created individual templates and “carve outs” for different contributors. But this was still far from optimal from a productivity point of view. Hence feeling the workflow burn — and their own entrepreneurial itch.
“Once all the input was collected from the stakeholders you would start a very extensive and tedious copy paste exercise — where you would copy from these 25 difference sources and insert them data into your master file in order to create an up to date version,” says ten Eikelder, adding: “The pain points are pretty clear. It’s an extremely time consuming and tedious process… And it’s extremely prone to error.”
Enter Layer: A web app that’s billed as a productivity platform for spreadsheets which augments rather than replaces them — sitting atop Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets files and bringing in a range of granular controls.
The idea is to offer a one-stop shop for managing access and data flows around multi-stakeholder spreadsheets, enabling access down to individual cell level and aiding collaboration and overall productivity around these key documents by streamlining the process of making and receiving data input requests.
“You start off by uploading an Excel file to our web application. In that web app you can start to build workflows across a feature spectrum,” says Schünemann — noting, for example, that the web viewer allows users to drag the curser to highlight a range of cells they wish to share.
“You can do granular user provisioning on top of that where in the offline world you’d have to create manual carve outs or manual copies of that file to be able to shield away data for example,” he goes on. “On top of that you can then request input [via an email asking for a data submission].
“Your colleagues keep on working in their known environments and then once he has submitted input we’ve built something that is very similar to a track changes functionality in Word. So you as a master user could review all changes in the Layer app — regardless of whether they’re coming through Excel or Google Sheets… And then we’ve built a consolidation feature so that you don’t need to manually copy-paste from different spreadsheets into one. So with just a couple of clicks you can accept changes and they will be taken over into your master file.”
Layer’s initial sales focus is on the financial reporting function but the co-founders say they see this as a way of getting a toe in the door of their target mid-sized companies.
The team believes there are wider use-cases for the tool, given the ubiquity of spreadsheets as a business tool. Although, for now, their target users are organizations with between 150-250 employees so they’re not (yet) going after the enterprise market.
“We believe this is a pretty big [opportunity],” Schünemann tells TechCrunch. “Why because back in 2018 when we did our first research we initially started out with this one spreadsheet at Helpling but after talking to 50 executives, most of them from the finance world or from the financial function of different sized companies, it’s pretty clear that the spreadsheet dependency is still to this day extremely high. And that holds true for financial use cases — 87% of all budgeting globally is still done via spreadsheets and not big ERP systems… but it also goes beyond that. If you think about it spreadsheets are really the number one workflow platform still used to this day. It’s probably the most used user interface in any given company of a certain size.”
“Our current users we have, for example, a real estate company whereby the finance function is using Layer but also the project controller and also some parts of the HR team,” he adds. “And this is a similar pattern. You have similarly structured workflows on top of spreadsheets in almost all functions of a company. And the bigger you get, the more of them you have.
“We use the finance function as our wedge into a company — just because it’s where our domain experience lies. You also usually have a couple of selective use cases which tend to have these problems more because of the intersections between other departments… However sharing or collecting data in spreadsheets is used not only in finance functions.”
The 2019 founded startup’s productivity platform remains in private beta for now — and likely the rest of this year — but they’ve just nabbed €5 million (~$5.6M) in seed funding to get the product to market, with a launch pegged for Q1 2021.
The seed round is led by Index Ventures (Max Rimpel is lead there), and with participation from earlier backers btov Partners. Angel investors also joining the seed include Ajay Vashee (CFO at Dropbox); Carlos Gonzales-Cadenaz (COO of GoCardless), Felix Jahn (founder and CEO of McMakler), Matt Robinson (founder of GoCardless and Nested) and Max Tayenthal (co-founder and CFO of N26).
Commenting in a statement, Index’s Rimpel emphasized the utility the tool offers for “large distributed organizations”, saying: “Spreadsheets are one of the most successful UI’s ever created, but they’ve been built primarily for a single user, not for large distributed organisations with many teams and departments inputting data to a single document. Just as GitHub has helped developers contribute seamlessly to a single code base, Layer is now bringing sophisticated collaboration tools to the one billion spreadsheet users across the globe.”
On the competition front, Layer said it sees its product as complementary to tech giants Google and Microsoft, given the platform plugs directly into those spreadsheet standards. Whereas other productivity startups, such as the likes of Airtable (a database tool for non-coders) and Smartsheets (which bills itself as a “collaboration platform”) are taking a more direct swing at the giants by gunning to assimilate the spreadsheet function itself, at least for certain use cases.
“We never want to be a new Excel and we’re also not aiming to be a new Google Sheets,” says Schünemann, discussing the differences between Layer and Airtable et al. “What Github is to code we want to be to spreadsheets.”
Given it’s working with the prevailing spreadsheet standard it’s a productivity play which, should it prove successful, could see tech giants copying or cloning some of its features. Given enough scale, the startup could even end up as an acquisition target for a larger productivity focused giant wanting to enhance its own product offering. Though the team claims not to have entertained anything but the most passing thoughts of such an exit at this early stage of their business building journey.
“Right now we are really complementary to both big platforms [Google and Microsoft],” says Schünemann. “However it would be naive for us to think that one or the other feature that we build won’t make it onto the product roadmap of either Microsoft or Google. However our value proposition goes beyond just a single feature. So we really view ourselves as being complementary now and also in the future. Because we don’t push out Excel or Google Sheets from an organization. We augment both.”
“Our biggest competitor right now is probably the ‘we’ve always done it like that’ attitude in companies,” he adds, rolling out the standard early stage startup response when asked to name major obstacles. “Because any company has hacked their processes and tools to make it work for them. Some have built little macros. Some are using Jira or Atlassian tools for their project management. Some have hired people to manage their spreadsheet ensembles for them.”
On the acquisition point, Schünemann also has this to say: “A pre-requisite for any successful exit is building a successful company beforehand and I think we believe we are in a space where there are a couple of interesting exit routes to be taken. And Microsoft and Google are obviously candidates where there would be a very obvious fit but the list goes beyond that — all the file hosting tools like Dropbox or the big CRM tools, Salesforce, could also be interesting for them because it very much integrates into the heart of any organization… But we haven’t gone beyond that simple high level thought of who could acquire us at some point.”
Email is a critical tool in modern-day communications, so it’s natural that many entrepreneurs have tried to overhaul it over the years.
In the last decade, email client Mailbox came and went, Slack launched to try to give people an alternative to email and Superhuman emerged to help people more easily reach the promised land of Inbox Zero.
The latest startup to tackle email is project management software maker Basecamp, which launched Hey last month. Within its first 11 days of release, Hey received 125,000 signups, Basecamp founder and CEO Jason Fried tells TechCrunch. Those initial days also included some drama with the Apple App Store, but that’s not what this story is about. Instead, it’s about Hey’s approach, why Fried felt the need to try to rebuild email from the ground up and how he approaches product development.
“The last time people were really excited about email, really, in a broad scale was 16 years ago when Gmail came out in 2004,” Fried says. “I remember it feeling different in a lot of ways. It was really fast, they had archiving, which was a new concept at the time. It worked differently than what I was coming from, which was Yahoo Mail, which was sort of stuck in the past. And I think that’s where Gmail is today — stuck in the past and we’re trying to bring out something brand new with new thinking and new philosophies and a new point of view.”
At its core, Hey is about giving people control over their email and minimizing clutter so users can hear from the people who matter most, Fried says. But control comes at a price: Hey costs $99 per year, with additional fees for three- and two-character email addresses (two-character email addresses are $999 per year and three-character addresses are $349 per year).
“We got a taste of our own medicine because it was not cheap to buy hey.com,” Fried says. “So anything that short in the domain world just costs more. It’s like beachfront property almost, because it’s scarce — more desirable. So given that we have a three-letter domain, two- and three-letter email addresses are just going to cost more. There’s fewer of them and they’re more desirable.”
Hey’s current iteration is targeted toward individual users, but by the end of the year, the plan is to launch a formal enterprise version with collaborative features like shared messages and inboxes. In this unified Imbox (not a typo), people will be able to specify that they don’t want to see work email past a certain time or on weekends.
“A lot of email is collaborative in nature,” Fried says. “People end up forwarding emails around to show someone to get their take. We think that’s totally broken and really antiquated. So we have some stuff built into Hey for work, which lets people share threads with one another in a very different way and be able to have backchannel conversations about threads without having to have those conversations in another product or somewhere that is separate from the actual thread itself.”
There’s much more to this conversation, like how Hey landed on its hypothesis, why control is so important, how email shouldn’t feel like work and more. Below are Fried’s insights.
The pandemic has shown employees and employers alike that there’s value in working from home — at least, some of the time.
As the coronavirus keeps spreading, employers are convinced remote work has a bright future. Decades of setbacks suggest otherwise.
Many claim their employees are hyper efficient while working from home. But there are social and emotional costs to ambition in isolation.
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How to make sure the rise in remote work doesn’t mean the death of work-life balance.
The move is a stark change from an office-centric culture. But there’s a catch: Salaries are likely to change to match local costs of living.
Google, Facebook, Amazon, Capital One and others are extending work-from-home policies to September and sometimes far beyond.
As we shelter in place in the pandemic, more employers are using software to track our work — and us.
“Superlist will be more than just a todo app, but never as bloated as the project management software you loathe to use,” he tweeted. “Slick, fast, and hyper-collaborative. Helping individuals or teams of any size get things done in record time.”
Today is a good day for reflection. With @Wunderlist closing down and @Pitch ramping up toward launch, I’m excited to announce a new company: @SuperlistHQ — a fresh new take on supercharged team productivity. https://t.co/YNmddyQxpP
Wunderlist was acquired in 2015 by Microsoft, which announced two years later it would shut down the app in favor of Microsoft To-Do. It finally said at the end of last year that Wunderlist to-dos will no longer sync after May 6, but users will be able to import all their content into Microsoft To-Do.
Shortly before Microsoft announced Wunderlist’s shut down date, Reber tweeted that he wanted to buy back the company. Obviously that didn’t happen, but Superlist may give him a chance to develop features he originally wanted to add to Wunderlist.
After Wunderlist’s acquisition, Reber launched Pitch, a challenger to PowerPoint that has raised more than $52 million in funding so far.
On his Twitter, Reber said he will continue focusing on Pitch, but will support the Superlist team, which is currently hiring.
Millions of Americans are taking part in an unprecedented experiment in working from home. Many are happier, more efficient and want to hang onto the benefits when the pandemic ends.
Most of us feel we’re so busy we don’t have time to start on our dream (or everyday) projects. Here’s how to find the time.
Teams will offer features for families. [credit: Microsoft ]
Starting April 21, Microsoft’s Office 365 personal and family subscription suite will be renamed Microsoft 365 in a move that heralds an effort by the company to win over more consumer users.
Seeking to make a point with the rebranding, Microsoft calls it “a subscription service for your life,” which might conjure visions of Amazon Prime. Microsoft 365 will cost $6.99 per month, and a six-user, $9.99 family plan will also be offered. Its apps will be available on Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android.
It will include Office applications like Word and Excel as Office 365 has, but it comes with a promise of new apps and services both today and in the future. In a blog post describing the new service, Microsoft wrote that Microsoft 365 will offer “new artificial intelligence (AI), rich content and templates, and cloud-powered experiences.”