Index Ventures launches web-app to help founders calculate employee stock options

The ability to offer stock options is utterly essential to startups. They convince talented people to join when the startup is unlikely to be capable of matching the high salaries that larger, established tech firms can offer.

However, it’s a complex business developing a competitive stock option plan. Luckily, London-based VC Index Ventures today launches both a handy web app to calculate all this, plus new research into how startups are compensating their key hires across Europe and the US.

OptionPlan Seed, is a web-app for seed-stage founders designing ESOPs (Employee Stock Ownership Plans). 
The web app is based on Index’s analysis of seed-stage option grants, drawing on data from over 1,000 startups.

The web app covers a variety of roles; 6 different levels of allocation benchmarks; calculates potential financial upside for each team member (including tax); and adjusts according to policy frameworks in the US, Canada, Israel, Australia, and 20 European countries.

It also builds on the OptionPlan for Series A companies that Index launched a few years ago.

As part of its research for the new tool, Index said it found that almost all seed-stage employees receive stock options. However, while this reaches 97% of technical hires at seed-stage startups and 80% of junior non-technical hires for startups in the US, in Europe only 75% of technical hires receive options, dropping to 60% for junior non-technical hires.

That said, Index found stock option grant sizes are increasing, particularly among startups “with a lot of technical DNA, and weighted towards the Bay Area”. In less tech-heavy sectors such as e-commerce or content, grant sizes have not shifted much. Meanwhile, grants are still larger overall as seed valuations have grown in the last few years.

Index found the ESOP size is increasing at seed stage, following a faster rate of hiring, and larger grants per employee. Index recommends an ESOP size at seed stage is set at 12.5% or 15%, rather than the more traditional 10% in order to retain and attract staff.

The research also found seed fundraise sizes and valuations have doubled, while valuations have risen by 2.5x, in Europe and the US. 


Additionally, salaries at seed have “risen dramatically” with average salaries rising in excess of 60%. Senior tech roles at seed-stage startups in the US now earn an average $185,000 salary, a 68% increase over 3 years, and can rise to over $220,000. But in Europe, the biggest salary increases have been for junior roles, both technical and non-technical.



That said, Index found that “Europe’s technical talent continues to have a compensation gap” with seed-stage technical employees in Europe still being paid 40-50% less on average than their US counterparts. Indeed, Index found this gap had actually widened since 2018, “despite a narrowing of the gap for non-technical roles”.


Index also found variations in salaries across Europe are “much wider than the US”, reflecting high-cost hubs like London, versus lower-cost cities like Bucharest or Warsaw.

The war for talent is now global, with the compensation gap for technical hires narrowing to 20-25% compared to the US.


Index’s conclusion is that “ambitious seed founders in Europe should raise the bar in terms of who they hire, particularly in technical roles” as well as aiming for more experienced and higher-caliber candidates, larger fundraises to be competitive on salaries.

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MaxRewards banks $3M to reveal best payment methods that reap the most rewards

When Anik Khan graduated from college, his first job was working on credit cards and business expenses at Accenture. There, he found that someone could bring in a couple of thousand dollars just by having the right credit cards and following the rewards and promotions.

It was back in 2017 when he and David Gao got the idea for his company MaxRewards, a digital wallet app that manages credit cards and automatically activates benefits like rewards, cashback offers and monthly credits. It also makes recommendations at the point of purchase on which card would yield the best reward for that purchase.

Going after the some 83% of Americans that have a credit card, the app version was officially launched in 2019, and now the Atlanta-based company is announcing a $3 million seed round co-led by Dundee Venture Capital and Calano Ventures. Also backing the company are Techstars, Fintech Ventures Fund, Service Provider Capital and Fleetcor president Nick Izquierdo.

Tracking his own credit cards manually prior to MaxRewards, Khan recalled in one year, getting $16,000 in rewards. However, utilizing those benefits was time-consuming and difficult, because the rewards and savings aren’t always made evident by the credit card companies.

“Other companies have tried to do something similar, but the issue is you don’t have the reward information or the offers,” Khan told TechCrunch. “If you were to aggregate this information, you still would have to activate all of these things and use them before they expired.”

Users connect their accounts and when they make a purchase, their location is cross-referenced with the merchant and an algorithm is applied to tell the user which card to use. The average app user has six credit cards.

MaxRewards is free to download and use, and the majority of the app’s functionalities are free. Users who want additional features, like the auto activation or rewards, can join MaxRewards Gold and are given the opportunity to choose their own monthly price — the average is over $25 per month — based on the value they expect to gain, Khan said.

MaxRewards offers and benefits. Image Credits: MaxRewards

Ron Watson, partner at Dundee, said his firm invests in seed-stage companies between the coasts and is interested in consumer and e-commerce companies. Watson said he was impressed with what MaxRewards has been able to do with a team of three. He also relates to the company’s mission, having grown up in a lower, middle-class family that did not frequently go on vacations.

When he got his first job and was suddenly flying everywhere, he recalls building up so many rewards to the point where he was able to go on a vacation to Hawaii and only spend maybe $100, he said.

“I used to put my points into a spreadsheet, but as I got older and had kids, I realized how hard it was for the average person to do that and how important it is to have automation,” Watson said. “I downloaded the app, and on the first day, saved $20.”

The company is often compared to NerdWallet or Mint, but in terms of functionality, Khan said he feels MaxRewards is unique due to its credit card system connectors. Rather than rely on third-party aggregators to discover the rewards, MaxRewards leverages its own proprietary connectors to card systems.

There are hundreds of thousands of offers to be discovered, and consumers are asking for even more features, so Khan decided it was time to go after seed funding. He had raised a small seed, about $200,000, from his time at Techstars, but the new funding will enable him to add to his team of three people. He expects to be at 20 by the end of the year. Khan also wants to accelerate its user acquisition, product improvement and compliance.

Next up, the company is going to automate rewards and savings across additional platforms like debit cards, payment apps and cashback apps, as well as create browser extensions and a web app. Khan also wants to do more on the education side with regard to using credit cards in a smart manner.

Arron Solano, managing partner at Calano, met Khan through Techstars and said he is an advocate for using credit cards in the right way. His firm was looking for a company like MaxRewards.

“During our first call, I remember telling my partner that Anik was a bulldog who knew what he was talking about, especially at that stage,” Solano added. “He had strong team members, his vision lined up well and that checked off a massive box for us. He energized us and showed he could find a market with insanely high ‘super users.’ ”

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Microsoft acquires video creation and editing software maker Clipchamp

Video editing software may become the next big addition to Microsoft’s suite of productivity tools. On Tuesday, Microsoft announced it’s acquiring Clipchamp, a company offering web-based video creation and editing software that allows anyone to put together video presentations, promos or videos meant for social media destinations like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. According to Microsoft, Clipchamp is a “natural fit” to extend its exiting productivity experiences in Microsoft 365 for families, schools, and businesses.

The acquisition appealed to Microsoft for a few reasons. Today, more people are creating and using video, thanks to a growing set of new tools that allow anyone — even non-professionals — to quickly and easily perform advanced edits and produce quality video content. This, explains Microsoft, has allowed video to establish itself as a new type of “document” for businesses to do things like pitch an idea, explain a process, or communicate with team members.

The company also saw Clipchamp as an interesting acquisition target due to how it combined “the simplicity of a web app with the full computing power of a PC with graphics processing unit (GPU) acceleration,” it said. That makes the software a good fit for the Microsoft Windows customer base, as well.

Clipchamp itself had built a number of online tools in the video creation and editing space, including its video maker Clipchamp Create, which offers features for trimming, cutting, cropping, rotating, speed control, and adding text, audio, images, colors, and filters. It also provides other tools that make video creation easier, like templates, free stock video and audio libraries, screen recorders, text-to-speech tools, and others for simplifying a brand’s fonts, colors and logos for use in video. A discontinued set of utilities called Clipchamp Utilities had once included a video compressor and converters, as well as an in-browser webcam recorder. Some of this functionality was migrated over to the new Clipchamp app, however.

After producing the videos with Clipchamp, creators can choose between different output styles and aspect ratios for popular social media networks, making it a popular tool for online marketers.

Image Credits: Clipchamp

Since its founding in 2013, Clipchamp grew to attract over 17 million registered users and has served over 390,000 companies, growing at a rate of 54% year-over-year. As the pandemic forced more organizations towards remote work, the use of video has grown as companies adopted the medium for training, communication, reports, and more. During the first half of 2021, Clipchamp saw a 186% increase in video exports. Videos using the 16:9 aspect ratio grew by 189% while the 9:16 aspect ratio for sharing to places like Instagram Stories and TikTok grew by 140% and the 1:1 aspect ratio for Instagram grew 72%. Screen recording also grew 57% and webcam recording grew 65%.

In July, Clipchamp CEO Alexander Dreiling commented on this growth, noting the company had nearly tripled its team over the past year.

“We are acquiring two times more users on average than we did at the same time a year ago while also doubling the usage rate, meaning more users are creating video content than ever before. While social media videos have always been at the forefront of business needs, during the past year we’ve also witnessed the rapid adoption of internal communication use cases where there is a lot of screen and webcam recording taking place in our platform,” he said.

Microsoft didn’t disclose the acquisition price, but Clipchamp had raised over $15 million in funding according to Crunchbase.

This is not Microsoft’s first attempt at entering the video market.

The company was recently one of the suitors pursuing TikTok when the Trump administration was working to force a sale of the China-owned video social network which Trump had dubbed a national security threat. (In order to keep TikTok running in the U.S., ByteDance would have needed to have divested TikTok’s U.S. operations. But that sale never came to be as the Biden administration paused the effort.) Several years ago, Microsoft also launched a business video service called Stream, that aimed to allow enterprises to use video as easily as consumers use YouTube. In 2018, it acquired social learning platform Flipgrid, which used short video clips for collaboration. And as remote work became the norm, Microsoft has been adding more video capabilities to its team collaboration software, Microsoft Teams, too.

Microsoft’s deal follows Adobe’s recent $1.28 acquisition of the video review and collaboration platform Frame.io, which has been used by over a million people since its founding in 2014. However, unlike Clipchamp, whose tools are meant for anyone to use at work, school, or home, Frame.io is aimed more directly at creative professionals.

Dreiling said Clipchamp will continue to grow at Microsoft, with a focus on making video editing accessible to more people.

“Few companies in tech have the legacy and reach that Microsoft has. We all grew up with iconic Microsoft products and have been using them ever since,” he explained. “Becoming part of Microsoft allows us to become part of a future legacy. Under no other scenario could our future look more exciting than what’s ahead of us now. At Clipchamp we have always said that we’re not suffering from a lack of opportunity, there absolutely is an abundance of opportunity in video. We just need to figure out how to seize it. Inside Microsoft we can approach seizing our opportunity in entirely new ways,” Dreiling added.

Microsoft did not say when it expected to integrate Clipchamp into its existing software suite, saying it would share more at a later date.

 

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Playbyte’s new app aims to become the ‘TikTok for games’

A startup called Playbyte wants to become the TikTok for games. The company’s newly launched iOS app offers tools that allow users to make and share simple games on their phone, as well as a vertically scrollable, fullscreen feed where you can play the games created by others. Also like TikTok, the feed becomes more personalized over time to serve up more of the kinds of games you like to play.

While typically, game creation involves some aspect of coding, Playbyte’s games are created using simple building blocks, emoji and even images from your Camera Roll on your iPhone. The idea is to make building games just another form of self-expression, rather than some introductory, educational experience that’s trying to teach users the basics of coding.

At its core, Playbyte’s game creation is powered by its lightweight 2D game engine built on web frameworks, which lets users create games that can be quickly loaded and played even on slow connections and older devices. After you play a game, you can like and comment using buttons on the right-side of the screen, which also greatly resembles the TikTok look-and-feel. Over time, Playbyte’s feed shows you more of the games you enjoyed as the app leverages its understanding of in-game imagery, tags and descriptions, and other engagement analytics to serve up more games it believes you’ll find compelling.

At launch, users have already made a variety of games using Playbyte’s tools — including simulators, tower defense games, combat challenges, obbys, murder mystery games, and more.

According to Playbyte founder and CEO Kyle Russell — previously of Skydio, Andreessen Horowitz, and (disclosure!) TechCrunch — Playbyte is meant to be a social media app, not just a games app.

“We have this model in our minds for what is required to build a new social media platform,” he says.

What Twitter did for text, Instagram did for photos and TikTok did for video was to combine a constraint with a personalized feed, Russell explains. “Typically. [they started] with a focus on making these experiences really brief…So a short, constrained format and dedicated tools that set you up for success to work within that constrained format,” he adds.

Similarly, Playbyte games have their own set of limitations. In addition to their simplistic nature, the games are limited to five scenes. Thanks to this constraint, a format has emerged where people are making games that have an intro screen where you hit “play,” a story intro, a challenging gameplay section, and then a story outro.

In addition to its easy-to-use game building tools, Playbyte also allows game assets to be reused by other game creators. That means if someone who has more expertise makes a game asset using custom logic or which pieced together multiple components, the rest of the user base can benefit from that work.

“Basically, we want to make it really easy for people who aren’t as ambitious to still feel like productive, creative game makers,” says Russell. “The key to that is going to be if you have an idea — like an image of a game in your mind — you should be able to very quickly search for new assets or piece together other ones you’ve previously saved. And then just drop them in and mix-and-match — almost like Legos — and construct something that’s 90% of what you imagined, without any further configuration on your part,” he says.

In time, Playbyte plans to monetize its feed with brand advertising, perhaps by allowing creators to drop sponsored assets into their games, for instance. It also wants to establish some sort of patronage model at a later point. This could involve either subscriptions or even NFTs of the games, but this would be further down the road.

The startup had originally began as a web app in 2019, but at the end of last year, the team scrapped that plan and rewrote everything as a native iOS app with its own game engine. That app launched on the App Store this week, after previously maxing out TestFlight’s cap of 10,000 users.

Currently, it’s finding traction with younger teenagers who are active on TikTok and other collaborative games, like Roblox, Minecraft, or Fortnite.

“These are young people who feel inspired to build their own games but have been intimidated by the need to learn to code or use other advanced tools, or who simply don’t have a computer at home that would let them access those tools,” notes Russell.

Playbyte is backed by $4 million in pre-seed and seed funding from investors including FirstMark (Rick Heitzmann), Ludlow Ventures (Jonathon Triest and Blake Robbins), Dream Machine (former Editor-in-Chief at TechCrunch, Alexia Bonatsos), and angels such as Fred Ehrsam, co-founder of Coinbase; Nate Mitchell, co-founder of Oculus; Ashita Achuthan, previously of Twitter; and others.

The app is a free download on the App Store.

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Clay debuts a new tool to help people better manage their business and personal relationships

A new startup called Clay, backed by $8 million in seed funding, has built a system designed to help you be more thoughtful with the people in your life, which operates somewhat like a personal CRM. With Clay, you build a collection of the people you meet by connecting your email and calendar with social apps, including Twitter and LinkedIn. Clay then populates each person’s entry with all the relevant information you would need to recall for any future meeting — ranging from their work history to latest tweets to the details on how you met and when you last communicated, among other things.

You also can add notes of your own to each entry, click to activate reminders to follow up with certain people and organize entries into groups. The app supports a command bar, keyboard shortcuts and home screen widgets, as well.

The end result is something that’s not exactly an address book but also not necessarily as sales and pipeline-focused as a CRM system.

Clay’s founders instead refer to their app as a “home for your people,” as it’s attempting to carve out a new space in the market for a more personal system of tracking who you know and how.

Image Credits: Clay

The idea for the startup comes from entrepreneurs Matthew Achariam and Zachary Hamed, Clay’s co-founders and co-CEOs, who met back in their early days of working with startups. Prior to starting Clay, Achariam helped lead product at Y Combinator-backed analytics company, Custora, and Hamed led the product management team for Goldman Sachs’ web platform, Marquee.

“We think that people and relationships have played such an important role in our own career trajectories. And we wanted to dive into that,” Hamed explains, when speaking about what prompted their interest in building Clay.

To get started with Clay — which is available as a web, desktop and mobile app — you’ll first connect your accounts. At present, Clay supports Microsoft Outlook/Office 365, Google Calendar, Gmail/Google Mail and Twitter. You also can add other services via Zapier integrations. After setup, Clay will then automatically track your meetings and personal connections, and augment people’s entries with other details pulled from the web, like their background and work experience listed on LinkedIn and latest tweets.

People’s entries will also detail how you met the person — something people tend to forget over time. For example, they may be noted as a connection you made on LinkedIn, or someone you met in person or in an online meeting.

Through Clay’s desktop app, you also can optionally connect Clay with iMessage, which allows it to augment its people entries with phone numbers and details about when you last communicated. However, this feature should be met with some caution. While Clay doesn’t import the content of your messages, the company says, it has to work around the lack of an official API or SDK to perform this integration. That means the feature requires full disk access in order to function. That’s an elevated security permission some will not feel comfortable using.

Image Credits: Clay

The founders, however, say they’ve built Clay to respect people’s privacy and security. The company’s privacy policy is human-readable and each integration is explained in terms of what data is pulled, what’s not pulled and how the data is used. Currently, data is encrypted on Clay’s servers and in transit, but the goal — and part of what the funding round is going toward — is to make Clay work fully locally on users’ devices.

“We want it to work fully on your machine. We don’t want to be storing any data at all,” says Hamed. “To do that is a very technically complex task, so it was prohibitively out of reach for Matt and I as we were building Clay in the beginning. But now that we have resources, that is our eventual goal.”

Still, Clay may face a difficult time convincing users that it’s safe, due to how many times people have been burned in the past over “smart” address books that abused users’ private data. Only last year, a new startup in this space, Sunshine Contacts, was found to be distributing people’s home addresses, even though these people hadn’t signed up for the app. Many other prior efforts also failed because they overstepped user privacy concerns in order to generate revenue.

Achariam believes the problem with these earlier products was often the business model they adopted.

“That was one of the things we really were thinking about when we started going into the space — because we, ourselves, wanted something like this — and every product that we saw kind of rubbed us the wrong way or exploded because of those reasons,” notes Achariam, of the smart address market’s history. “A lot of these things started off with making the user the product. And then you weren’t paying for it. There was no sustainable business model and at some point, they had to balance those trade-offs,” he says.

Image Credits: Clay

Clay is doing things differently. It’s starting from day one with a pricing plan that will allow it to self-sustain. Right now, that’s a fairly steep $20 per month, but the goal is to bring that down over time and introduce a free plan. (It’s also offering cheaper access to certain groups, like students and nonprofits, if a request is emailed.)

During testing, Clay was adopted by a number of different types of users, including teachers who wanted to remember students and their parents; a congressional candidate who wanted to track their constituents; and a veterinarian who wanted to remember customers and their pets.

“We intentionally made it really cross-industry, cross-disciplinary. We didn’t think that this was a tech problem or investor problem. We went broader,” notes Hamed.

The startup has raised a total of $8 million in seed funding from 2019 through 2020. The funding was led by Forerunner Ventures, with participation from General Catalyst.

Angel investors include Shannon Brayton, former CMO at LinkedIn; Kevin Hartz, former CEO of Eventbrite; Kelvin Beachum, an NFL player, philanthropist and investor; Lindsay Kaplan, co-founder of Chief and former VP of Communications and Brand at Casper; Zoelle Egner, former marketing lead at Airtable; Adam Evans, former CTO of RelateIQ; Charlie Songhurst, former head of corporate strategy at Microsoft; Sam Lessin, former VP of product management at Facebook; Jonah Goodhart, former CEO of Moat and SVP at Oracle; Jeff Morris Jr., Chapter One Ventures and others.

“Emerging from COVID, people are recognizing what had already become true. Relationships are increasingly digital, formed through online interaction and honed through messaging apps. So, how is it that we can be continuously connected, yet increasingly lonely at the same time?” stated Forerunner GP Brian O’Malley, about his firm’s investment. “The problem is that existing social products don’t serve you as the end user. You are just a pawn for some other customer, like a recruiter or some unknown advertiser. Clay is the first relationship software company built to understand all the signals that drive your connections, helping you form better ones with a broader set of people. Clay understands that your network is yours, so you should be empowered to own it,” he added.

Clay is currently opened to sign-ups through its website.

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ProtonMail gets a slick new look, as privacy tech eyes the mainstream

End-to-end encrypted email service ProtonMail has refreshed its design, updating with a cleaner look and a more customizable user interface — including the ability to pick from a bunch of themes (dark and contrasting versions are both in the mix).

Last month the Swiss company officially announced passing 50M users globally, as it turned seven years old. Over those years privacy tech has come a long way in terms of usability — which in turn has helped drive adoption.

ProtonMail’s full integration of PGP, for example, makes the gold standard of e2e encryption invisibly accessible to a mainstream Internet user, providing them with a technical guarantee that it cannot poke around in their stuff.

Its new look (see screenshot gallery below) is really just a cherry on the cake of that underlying end-to-end encryption — but as usage of its product continues to step up it’s necessarily paying more attention to design and user interface details…

Proton has also been busy building out a suite of productivity tools which it can cross-promote to webmail users, using the same privacy promise as its sales pitch (it talks about offering an “encrypted ecosystem”).

And while ProtonMail is a freemium product, which can be a red flag for digital privacy, Proton’s business has the credibility of always having had privacy engineering at its core. Its business model is to monetize via paying users — who it says are subsidizing the free tier of its tools.

One notable change to the refreshed ProtonMail web app is an app switcher that lets users quickly switch between (or indeed discover) its other apps: Proton Calendar and Proton Driver (an e2e encrypted cloud storage offering, currently still in beta).

The company also offers a VPN service, although it’s worth emphasizing that while Proton’s pledge is that it doesn’t track users’ web browsing, the service architecture of VPNs is different so there’s no technical ‘zero access’ guarantee here, as there is with Proton’s other products.

A difference of color in the icons Proton displays in the app switcher — where Mail, Calendar and Drive are colored purple like its wider brand livery and only the VPN is tinted green — is perhaps intended to represent that distinction.

Other tweaks to the updated ProtonMail interface include redesigned keyboard shortcuts which the company says makes it easier to check messages and quick filters to sort mails by read or unread status.

The company’s Import-Export app — to help users transfer messages to they can make the switch from another webmail provider — exited beta back in November.

Zooming out, adoption of privacy tech is growing for a number of reasons. As well as the increased accessibility and usability that’s being driven by developers of privacy tech tools like Proton, rising awareness of the risks around digital data breaches and privacy-hostile ad models is a parallel and powerful driver — to the point where iPhone maker Apple now routinely draws attention to rivals’ privacy-hostile digital activity in its marketing for iOS, seeking to put clear blue water between how it treats users’ data vs the data-mining competition.

Proton, the company behind ProtonMail, is positioned to benefit from the same privacy messaging. So it’s no surprise to see it making use of the iOS App Privacy disclosures introduced by Apple last year to highlight its own competitive distinction.

Here, for example, it’s pointing users’ attention to background data exchanges which underlie Google-owned Gmail and contrasting all those direct lines feeding into Google’s ad targeting business with absolutely no surveillance at all of ProtonMail users’ messages…

Comparison of the privacy disclosures of ProtonMail’s iOS app vs Gmail’s (Image credits: Proton)

Commenting on ProtonMail’s new look in a statement, Andy Yen, founder and CEO, added: “Your email is your life. It’s a record of your purchases, your conversations, your friends and loved ones. If left unprotected it can provide a detailed insight into your private life. We believe users should have a choice on how and with whom their data is shared. With the redesigned ProtonMail, we are offering an even easier way for users to take control of their data.”

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Ditto raises $1.5 million to help teams collaborate on copy

Even as remote software uptake has boomed during the pandemic, certain workflows have gotten prioritized for specialized toolsets while other team members have been left piecemealing their productivity. Employees designing the copy that directs users and encapsulates company messaging have been particularly forgotten at times, say the founders of Ditto, a young startup building software focused on finding a “single source of truth” for copy.

The startup was in Y Combinator’s winter 2020 batch (we selected it as one of our favorites from the class), now Ditto’s founders tell TechCrunch the team has raised a $1.5 million seed round from investors including Greycroft, Y Combinator, Soma Capital, Decent Capital, Twenty Two VC, Holly Liu and Scott Tong, among others.

While copy workflows are often very messy when it comes to design and implementation, even the most-organized teams are often left scouring through meandering email threads, screenshot dumps and slack DMs with disparate teams. The founders behind Ditto hope that their software can give copy teams the home they deserve to keep everything organized and synced across projects and applications, ensuring that language is actually finalized and ready to ship when the time comes.

The company’s founders Jessica Ouyang and Jolena Ma were Stanford roommates who saw a lingering opportunity to build a toolset that prioritized copy as its own vertical.

“It’s so easy to couple text with where it lives, like you may think of it as part of the design so a lot of writers have to manage it inside toolsets for design or you may already think of it as part of development so writers end up having to go into the codebase and figure out how to code or manage JSON even though they’re content designers,” Ouyang tells TechCrunch.

Out of the gate, Ditto has been built for Figma, meaning users can easily export text blocks from designs in the app and rework them inside the Ditto web app, pushing updates without having to dig through the designs themselves. The founders say they are currently working on building out integrations for Sketch and Adobe XD as well. Inside the Ditto web app users can access change logs and update the status of particular pieces of text inside a project so that approvals are always certain.

“We find there’s a lot more opportunity to integrate into all of the places where copy is being worked on,” Ma tells us. “We have a lot more we’re hoping to do with our developer integrations and just integrating to all of those places where copy lives, places like A/B testing, internationalization, localization and other workflows.”

Copy development has plenty of stakeholders and the team is looking to experiment with pricing tiers that address that. For now they split up users into editors and commenters paying $15 and $10 monthly (priced annually) respectively on the startup’s Teams plan. Ditto has a free tier for teams of two as well and pricing designed for larger enterprise clients.

 

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Telegram to add group video calls next month

Group video calls will be coming to Telegram’s messaging platform next month with what’s being touted as a fully featured implementation, including support for web-based videoconferencing.

Founder Pavel Durov made the announcement via a (text) message posted to his official Telegram channel today where he wrote “we will be adding a video dimension to our voice chats in May, making Telegram a powerful platform for group video calls”.

“Screen sharing, encryption, noise-cancelling, desktop and tablet support — everything you can expect from a modern video conferencing tool, but with Telegram-level UI, speed and encryption. Stay tuned!” he added, using the sorts of phrases you’d expect from an enterprise software maker.

Telegram often taunts rivals over their tardiness to add new features but on video calls it has been a laggard, only adding the ability to make one-on-one video calls last August — rather than prioritizing a launch of group video calls, as it had suggested it would a few months earlier.

In an April 2020 blog post, to mark passing 400M users, it wrote that the global lockdown had “highlighted the need for a trusted video communication tool” — going on to dub video calls in 2020 “much like messaging in 2013”.

However it also emphasized the importance of security for group video calling — and that’s perhaps what’s caused the delay.

(Another possibility is the operational distraction of needing to raise a large chunk of debt financing to keep funding development: Last month Telegram announced it had raised over $1BN by selling bonds — its earlier plan to monetize via a blockchain platform having hit the buffers in 2020.)

In the event, rather than rolling out group video calls towards the latter end of 2020 it’s going to be doing so almost half way through 2021 — which has left videoconferencing platforms like Zoom to keep cleaning up during the pandemic-fuelled remote work and play boom (even as ‘Zoom fatigue’ has been added to our lexicon).

How secure Telegram’s implementation of group video calls will be, though, is an open question.

Durov’s post mades repeat mention of “encryption” — perhaps to make a subtle dig at Zoom’s own messy security claims history — but doesn’t specify whether it will use end-to-end encryption (we’ve asked).

Meanwhile Zoom does now offer e2e — and also has designs on becoming a platform in its own right, with apps and a marketplace, so there are a number of shifts in the comms landscape that could see the videoconferencing giant making deeper incursions into Telegram’s social messaging territory.

The one-to-one video calls Telegram launched last year were rolled out with its own e2e encryption — so presumably it will be replicating that approach for group calls.

However the MTProto encryption Telegram uses is custom-designed — and there’s been plenty of debate among cryptography experts over the soundness of its approach. So even if group calls are e2e encrypted there will be scrutiny over exactly how Telegram is doing it.

Also today, Durov touted two recently launched web versions of Telegram (not the first such versions by a long chalk, though) — adding that it’s currently testing “a functional version of web-based video calls internally, which will be added soon”.

He said the Webk and Webz versions of the web app are “by far the most cross-platform versions of Telegram we shipped so far”, and noting that no downloads or installs are required to access your chats via the browser.

“This is particularly good for corporate environments where installing native apps is now always allowed, but also good for users who like the instant nature of web sites,” he added, with another little nod toward enterprise users.

#cryptography, #e2e-encryption, #encryption, #end-to-end-encryption, #group-video-calls, #noise-cancelling, #pavel-durov, #social, #telegram, #video-conferencing, #web-app, #zoom

Grid AI raises $18.6M Series A to help AI researchers and engineers bring their models to production

Grid AI, a startup founded by the inventor of the popular open-source PyTorch Lightning project, William Falcon, that aims to help machine learning engineers more efficiently, today announced that it has raised an $18.6 million Series A funding round, which closed earlier this summer. The round was led by Index Ventures, with participation from Bain Capital Ventures and firstminute. 

Falcon co-founded the company with Luis Capelo, who was previously the head of machine learning at Glossier. Unsurprisingly, the idea here is to take PyTorch Lightning, which launched about a year ago, and turn that into the core of Grid’s service. The main idea behind Lightning is to decouple the data science from the engineering.

The time argues that a few years ago, when data scientists tried to get started with deep learning, they didn’t always have the right expertise and it was hard for them to get everything right.

“Now the industry has an unhealthy aversion to deep learning because of this,” Falcon noted. “Lightning and Grid embed all those tricks into the workflow so you no longer need to be a PhD in AI nor [have] the resources of the major AI companies to get these things to work. This makes the opportunity cost of putting a simple model against a sophisticated neural network a few hours’ worth of effort instead of the months it used to take. When you use Lightning and Grid it’s hard to make mistakes. It’s like if you take a bad photo with your phone but we are the phone and make that photo look super professional AND teach you how to get there on your own.”

As Falcon noted, Grid is meant to help data scientists and other ML professionals “scale to match the workloads required for enterprise use cases.” Lightning itself can get them partially there, but Grid is meant to provide all of the services its users need to scale up their models to solve real-world problems.

What exactly that looks like isn’t quite clear yet, though. “Imagine you can find any GitHub repository out there. You get a local copy on your laptop and without making any code changes you spin up 400 GPUs on AWS — all from your laptop using either a web app or command-line-interface. That’s the Lightning “magic” applied to training and building models at scale,” Falcon said. “It is what we are already known for and has proven to be such a successful paradigm shift that all the other frameworks like Keras or TensorFlow, and companies have taken notice and have started to modify what they do to try to match what we do.”

The service is now in private beta.

With this new funding, Grid, which currently has 25 employees, plans to expand its team and strengthen its corporate offering via both Grid AI and through the open-source project. Falcon tells me that he aims to build a diverse team, not in the least because he himself is an immigrant, born in Venezuela, and a U.S. military veteran.

“I have first-hand knowledge of the extent that unethical AI can have,” he said. “As a result, we have approached hiring our current 25 employees across many backgrounds and experiences. We might be the first AI company that is not all the same Silicon Valley prototype tech-bro.”

“Lightning’s open-source traction piqued my interest when I first learned about it a year ago,” Index Ventures’ Sarah Cannon told me. “So intrigued in fact I remember rushing into a closet in Helsinki while at a conference to have the privacy needed to hear exactly what Will and Luis had built. I promptly called my colleague Bryan Offutt who met Will and Luis in SF and was impressed by the ‘elegance’ of their code. We swiftly decided to participate in their seed round, days later. We feel very privileged to be part of Grid’s journey. After investing in seed, we spent a significant amount with the team, and the more time we spent with them the more conviction we developed. Less than a year later and pre-launch, we knew we wanted to lead their Series A.”

#artificial-intelligence, #bain-capital-ventures, #cloud, #deep-learning, #developer, #enterprise, #free-software, #github, #grid-ai, #helsinki, #index-ventures, #machine-learning, #ml, #neural-network, #pytorch, #recent-funding, #sarah-cannon, #startups, #tc, #torch, #united-states, #venezuela, #web-app, #william-falcon

A SonicWall cloud bug exposed corporate networks to hackers

A newly discovered bug in a cloud system used to manage SonicWall firewalls could have allowed hackers to break into thousands of corporate networks.

Enterprise firewalls and virtual private network appliances are vital gatekeepers tasked with protecting corporate networks from hackers and cyberattacks while still letting in employees working from home during the pandemic. Even though most offices are empty, hackers frequently look for bugs in critical network gear in order to break into company networks to steal data or plant malware.

Vangelis Stykas, a researcher at security firm Pen Test Partners, found the new bug in SonicWall’s Global Management System (GMS), a web app that lets IT departments remotely configure their SonicWall devices across the network.

But the bug, if exploited, meant any existing user with access to SonicWall’s GMS could create a user account with access to any other company’s network without permission.

From there, the newly created account could remotely manage the SonicWall gear of that company.

In a blog post shared with TechCrunch, Stykas said there were two barriers to entry. Firstly, a would-be attacker would need an existing SonicWall GMS user account. The easiest way — and what Stykas did to independently test the bug — was to buy a SonicWall device.

The second issue was that the would-be attacker would also need to guess a unique seven-digit number associated with another company’s network. But Stykas said that this number appeared to be sequential and could be easily enumerated, one after the other.

Once inside a company’s network, the attacker could deliver ransomware directly to the internal systems of their victims, an increasingly popular tactic for financially driven hackers.

SonicWall confirmed the bug is now fixed. But Stykas criticized the company for taking more than two weeks to patch the vulnerability, which he described as “trivial” to exploit.

“Even car alarm vendors have fixed similar issues inside three days of us reporting,” he wrote.

A SonicWall spokesperson defended the decision to subject the fix to a “full” quality check before it was rolled out, and said it is “not aware” of any exploitation of the vulnerability.

#cloud, #computer-security, #computing, #cyberattack, #cybercrime, #cyberwarfare, #enterprise, #hacker, #pen-test-partners, #ransomware, #security, #security-breaches, #sonicwall, #spokesperson, #vpn, #web-app

Jeff Lawson on API startups, picking a market and getting dissed by VCs

Last week TechCrunch sat down virtually with Jeff Lawson, the CEO and co-founder of Twilio as part of our long-running Extra Crunch Live series. As I expected, the chat was a good use of time.

Why? Lawson was early on the idea that software companies could deliver their features not through a web app, but through an API . Back when Twilio was getting started, the world was still uncertain on the future of cloud. But Twilio was already skating past that puck toward a more distant target.

And his company has been largely proven right in its view of the future. While cloud software is now the de facto position for startups and legacy providers alike, API-powered startups are having one hell of a year according to founders and investors.

The growing wave of API -delivered software is not looking set to slow down, with Lawson telling TechCrunch during our chat that “the world is getting broken down into APIs,” as “every part of the stack of business that a developer might need to build is eventually turning into APIs that developers can use.”

So, expect more startups to ask you to snag an API key instead of signing up for a 12-month commitment. That said, don’t get too excited, yet, as Lawson was also clear during our chat that “not everything that can be broken down into an API will end up being a huge business.”

As Salesforce helped set the stage for SaaS startups in year’s past, Twilio’s $40 billion market cap today could prove a similar North Star for API startups.

A big thanks to the Extra Crunch crew for showing up and helping us ask some fun questions. I’ve snagged some favorite quotes below and embedded the YouTube clip of the whole chat. Let’s go!

#alex, #api, #cloud-software, #computing, #developer, #extra-crunch-live, #jeff-lawson, #salesforce, #software, #startup-company, #startups, #tc, #twilio, #web-app

Digitizing Burning Man

For decades, Burning Man has represented an escape from the current reality. An event for free-er spirits to rethink new age ideals inside a stateless entity where art, music and partying reign supreme on the desert plains.

Over the years, the Bay Area-founded event has dealt with an internal clash as the gathering has grown larger and attracted a heavy presence from Silicon Valley’s wealthy tech class, with tales of turnkey experiences, air-conditioned camps, helicopters and lobster dinners. Now, under the shadow of a historic pandemic, the organization behind the massive, iconic event is desperately working to stick to its roots while avoiding financial ruin as it pivots the 2020 festival to a digital format with the pro bono help of some of its tech industry attendees.

With just a few weeks before the event is set to kick off, the organization is bringing together a group of technologists with backgrounds in virtual reality, blockchain, hypnotism and immersive theatre to create a web of hacked-together social products that they hope will capture the atmosphere of Burning Man.

Going virtual is an unprecedented move for an event that’s mere existence already seems to defy precedent.

Burning Man is held in late August every year inside Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. For nine days, the attendees, who refer to themselves as Burners, fill up the desolate landscape with massive art installations, stages and camps. Attendance has been climbing over the past several decades, to the point that the federal government got involved, creating a more than 170-page report arguing why the event’s attendance should be capped. More than 78,000 people attended in 2019.

It’s an escape from society in a shared social experience that doesn’t seem to be replicable elsewhere.

The Multiverse

Steven Blumenfeld became the CTO of Burning Man days before the org’s leaders publicly announced that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the physical event was being abruptly canceled and the team was going all-in on a virtual gathering. Though the serial CTO expected the position to largely involve crusty tasks maintaining the event’s media infrastructure, he soon was pressed to rethink the front-end of a sprawling event that’s decades old and steeped in lore.

“My first inclination is, ‘Great! Let’s go build a big 3D VR world blah blah blah… So then I spent the first two weeks looking at what I had for staff, what I had for time frame, and what we could actually do,” Blumenfeld says. “There was just no way. And you know, I actually still wanted to do it. I wanted a challenge… but the reality was it just wasn’t going to happen.”

Burning Man is a massive undertaking, with a particularly deep emotional hold inside San Francisco, where it was first held in 1986, and by extension Silicon Valley. It isn’t all that surprising that when the Burning Man Project announced the event was making the move to a digital format, there was a rapid influx of community input to help decipher what an on-the-grid virtual Burning Man might look like.

“We had 14,000 people tell us they wanted to contribute in some way to a virtual Black Rock City,” said Kim Cook, the org’s director of art and civic engagement. “Some of them said what they wanted to contribute was love; so that’s cool. We also had around a thousand of them say they wanted to do developer-type work.”

Some of the groups that reached out to the Burning Man Project were companies that were willing to build a Burning Man experience but wanted official branding present. Despite a precarious financial position, Burning Man’s organizers declined help from these sponsors, citing the org’s adherence to “de-commodification” — a desire to prevent corporate infiltration of the event, eschewing advertising, branded stages and corporate partnerships.

Turning away from the professional studios, Blumenfeld and others settled on a network of small indie teams filled with Burners that were willing to develop the official digital experiences for the event on their own time.

A new moment for social networking

Eight projects eventually emerged as official “recognized universes,” each taking drastically different approaches to what a virtual Burning Man should look like. While some focus their efforts on virtual reality, others add social layers to video chat or build 3D environments on top of existing platforms like Second Life or Microsoft’s AltspaceVR .

During the pandemic, revamped developer conferences and trade shows have been able to port keynote addresses or panels to a Zoom format fairly seamlessly, but there are plenty of elements of the Burning Man experience that the teams involved realize might be impossible to replicate with online platforms. The developers creating the event’s virtual worlds are determined to rethink the conventions of online social networking to ensure that Burners make new friends this year.

“The sense of awe and scale is tricky,” says Ed Cooke, who is building one of the official apps. “One way of explaining Burning Man is that it’s a state of mind that you access as a side effect of all the things that happen on the way there.”

Cooke, a London startup founder who also boasts the title of Grand Memory Master, earned for — among other things — memorizing the order of 10 decks of cards in less than an hour, has been building SparkleVerse with his friend Chris Adams, whose daytime gig is as a senior software manager at Airbnb.

Their web app, which pairs a 2D map interface with video chat windows, is primarily focused on advancing how shared context can facilitate and better frame social relationships.

Amid quarantine, the pair tells TechCrunch they have been creating deeply complicated video chat parties for their friends. One example is a moon-themed party where they created a clickable map of the lunar surface that guided the 200 attendees through 16 separate virtual spaces with their own themes. Before the party kicked off, the hosts walked people through the “experience of traveling to the moon” by guiding them through the effects of zero gravity and instructing them to play along with experiencing it. Another hot tub-themed party invited guests to jump into their bath tub before firing up Zoom.

Cooke and Adams are leaning on some of these mechanics to create a Burning Man theme, hoping that taking cues from immersive theatre will enable people to commit more deeply to the experience. The acts of driving, losing your phone connection and growing tired and hungry on the way to the physical event add to a “spaciousness in your consciousness” that allows people to act more freely, Cooke says. He wants participants to replicate these experiences by taking steps outside their normal life in the run-up to the event, whether that’s sitting through an obscenely long video chat session to simulate a drive to the desert or setting up a tent in their living room, or cutting off their water line and avoiding showers during the nine days.

“All of this is embedding you further and further into this distant context, miles away from your normal life, where effectively in the course of this, you’re just becoming a radically less boring person,” Cooke explains in a nine-minute video outlining the platform.

Many of the apps are building on the idea of how spatial interfaces can feed greater social context and make it easier to approach people and make new friends.

Another official app, Build-a-Burn, takes the idea of a stylized 2D interface for video chat even further with a sketched-out grayscale map of Black Rock City that users can navigate little stick figures across. As a user moves through different camps and their avatars get physically close to each other, new video chat screens fade in and users can gain the experience of venturing into a new social bubble.

A screenshot of Build-a-Burn

While Build-a-Burn and SparkleVerse are leaning more heavily on video chat, other experiences hope that creating massive 3D landscapes that match the scale of the real-world event will help people get into the spirit of the event.

Other than Burn2, which is wholly contained within the Second Life platform, most of the 3D-centric apps integrate some level of virtual reality support. Projects that support VR headsets include The Infinite Playa, The Bridge Experience, MysticVerse, BRCvr (which taps into Microsoft’s AltspaceVR platform) and Multiverse.

Each of the VR experiences will also allow users to join on mobile or desktop, an effort to ensure that the apps are more widely accessible.


Over on Extra Crunch, read about how a new generation of chat apps are leaning on game-like interfaces


Multiverse creator Faryar Ghazanfari, who runs an AR startup and previously worked on Tesla’s legal team, says that the motivations for building his app were a bit on the selfish side, telling TechCrunch that he became “extremely sad” after the physical event’s cancellation and felt the need to help build a place where he could reunite with his own camp.

Screenshot from a demo of Multiverse.

Ghazanfari tells TechCrunch he feels a responsibility in creating the environment that other Burners will experience; he says his chief concern is capturing the event’s complexity. Compared to the other apps, Multiverse focuses primarily on providing a photorealistic 3D playground where avatars can zoom around.

“As Burners, we don’t think of Burning Man as just a music festival or art festival; it is much more than that. Burning Man is a social experiment of creating a community out of a shared struggle,” Ghazanfari says.

Each of the Burning Man-approved apps seem to engage with evoking that shared struggle differently, which appears to be the most looming challenge of moving this event to a virtual format. While the apps hope to bring elements of the physical event into their virtual spaces, the creators also seem to realize that aiming to compete with attendees’ past memories is unwise. It’s a challenge that has been faced by dozens of startups in the virtual reality space over the past several years.

“I think the main challenge is taking something that exists in reality and then porting it into a different platform,” said Adam Arrigo, CEO of Wave, a venture-backed startup that initially launched a VR app for music concerts but has since shifted focus to mobile and desktop experiences. “When you’re in these digital spaces, the agency that you have as a user and the experiences you can create are so different than something that could exist, even at a concert.”

Financial uncertainty

Perhaps the biggest unknown, as the organization readies for Burning Man’s August 30 start date, is that nobody really has any idea how many people are going to show up. While Blumenfeld pointed me to suggestions the entire digital event could attract up to 30,000 people over its nine-day run, Ghazanfari hopes that hundreds of thousands or millions of users will come into the fold of his experience.

Another point of contention internally is how exactly the groups plan to monetize these digital experiences.

In 2020, the standard ticket price for Burning Man was $475. The organization postponed the “main sale” of tickets prior to this year’s physical event’s cancellation, but they had already sold tens of thousands of tickets. Ticket holders will have the option of being refunded, but the organization has encouraged those who “have the means” to consider making a full or partial donation of the ticket price instead.

In 2018, Burning Man cost $44 million for the organization to produce, according to tax documents. The Burning Man Project reported about $43 million in ticket sales from that event, with other donations and revenue streams bringing the nonprofit’s total revenue for that fiscal year to about $46 million. In a blog post, the event’s organizers noted that though the group had event insurance, they were not covered for a cancellation caused by a pandemic. Burning Man Project says it has $10 million in cash reserves, but that it anticipates draining through that funding by the end of the year to stay afloat. The organization is listed as having received a loan from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program for between $2-5 million.

While some like Ghazanfari are pushing to make their experiences free to access with the option of giving a donation later, others expressed desire for a single digital ticket that would give attendees access to all eight digital experiences. Cooke says users will need to pay a $50 entrance fee to access the SparkleVerse.

The disparate nature of the experience being built this year — with some being shipped as native apps, others in HTML5 and others inside existing tech platforms — meant that a unified ticketing platform just wouldn’t work, Blumenfeld told TechCrunch. Not all of the developers were thrilled with this outcome, which they fear could fracture attendance at events on certain platforms. The biggest concern seemed to be ensuring that all of this effort pays off in some way for the organization so that they can continue to host the Burning Man event post-pandemic.

“One of the biggest reasons we’re all doing this is to help Burning Man survive, because the Burning Man organization unfortunately was really badly hit because of COVID,” Ghazanfari says. “The organization is in kind of a precarious situation financially.”

The organization has attracted criticism in recent years for the event’s inclusiveness. Some of the developers acknowledge that planning for a nine-day trip to the middle of the desert can be daunting and prohibitively expensive for people that want to join the community, and they hope that this year’s shift to a digital format will open up the event to more people and that these apps can be a less intimidating way for skeptics to get a taste of the community.

Thinking of the future

None of the developers behind the digital experiences are being paid for their efforts building these apps. However, the Burning Man Project has given at least some of them perpetual licenses to continue operating these digital platforms with the Burning Man name and an option to monetize, though a percentage of proceeds will be kicked back to the organization.

While getting this event across the finish line by the end of the month is daunting enough, the Burning Man Project is also trying to consider how its rapid learnings will apply to next year, though they hope that the physical event returns for 2021.

Blumenfeld says he plans to spend the next year working on the background infrastructure so that items like gating and ticketing functions for a virtual Burning Man can all be centralized.

While having eight distinct experiences this year could complicate the goal of getting one big group together, developers concerned about troubleshooting their new apps or having a sudden influx of virtual Burners overwhelm their infrastructures view multiple entry points to the festival as a necessary logistical move. Organizers hope the diversity of options will keep things interesting for attendees.

“I think we’ve got a good mix, and part of it is, we want to learn,” Blumenfeld says. “What we’re trying very hard to avoid is being in Zoom meeting hell.”

Whether users are connecting via video chat or as avatars inside a large virtual world, the developers building Burning Man’s virtual experiences believe they are operating on the cutting edge of virtual interaction and that they are rethinking elements of modern social networking to create a virtual Burning Man where people will be able to form new social bonds.

“I’ve fallen in love with this idea that at some point in the future, some Ph.D. student in 300 years time is going to write a thesis on the first online Burning Man, because it does feel like an extraordinary moment of avant garde imagineering for what the future of human online interaction looks like,” Cooke tells TechCrunch.

#altspacevr, #burning-man, #chat-room, #computing, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #culture, #digital-media, #events, #federal-government, #london, #man, #nevada, #online-platforms, #san-francisco, #second-life, #social, #social-networking, #tc, #virtual-reality, #virtual-world, #web-app

Layer gets $5.6M to make joint working on spreadsheets less hassle

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.” 

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Google brings Meet to Gmail on mobile

Google today announced a deeper integration between Gmail on mobile and its Meet video conferencing service. Now, if you use Gmail on Android or iOS and somebody sends you a link to a Meet event, you can join the meeting right from your inbox.

That obviously isn’t radically different from how things work today, where Gmail will take you right into the Meet app, but the major difference here is that you won’t have to install the dedicated Meet app anymore to join a call from Gmail.

The second and maybe bigger update — and this one won’t launch until a few weeks from now — is that the mobile Gmail app will also get a new Meet tab at the bottom of the screen. This new tab will show you all your upcoming Meet meetings in Google Calendar and will allow you to start a meeting, get a link to share or schedule a meeting in Calendar.

If you’re not a Meet power user, then you can turn this tab off, too, which I assume a lot of people will do, given that not everybody will want to give up screen estate in their email app for a dedicated Meet button.

It’s interesting to see that Google is trying to bring Gmail and Meet so closely together. The act of moving between two different apps for email and meetings never felt like a burden, but Google clearly wants more people to be aware of Meet (especially now that it offers a free tier) and remove any friction that could keep potential users from using it. The company already integrated Meet into the Gmail web app, where it felt pretty natural given that Gmail on the web long featured support for Hangouts (RIP, I guess?) and its predecessors. On mobile, though, it feels a bit forced. Hangouts, after all, was never a built-in part of Gmail on mobile either.

#android, #apps, #computing, #gmail, #google, #google-hangouts, #google-calendar, #meet, #operating-systems, #web-app, #webmail