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How Salesforce paved the way for the SaaS platform approach

When we think of enterprise SaaS companies today, just about every startup in the space aspires to be a platform. That means they want people using their stack of services to build entirely new applications, either to enhance the base product, or even build entirely independent companies. But when Salesforce launched Force.com, the company’s Platform as a Service, in 2007, there wasn’t any model.

It turns out that Force.com was actually the culmination of a series of incremental steps after the launch of the first version of Salesforce in February, 2000, all of which were designed to make the software more flexible for customers. Company co-founder and CTO Parker Harris says they didn’t have this goal to be a platform early on. “We were a solution first, I would say. We didn’t say ‘let’s build a platform and then build sales-force automation on top of it.’ We wanted a solution that people could actually use,” Harris told TechCrunch.

The march toward becoming a full-fledged platform started with simple customization. That first version of Salesforce was pretty basic, and the company learned over time that customers didn’t always use the same language it did to describe customers and accounts — and that was something that would need to change.

Customizing the product

HoneyBook, a client management platform for creative businesses, raises $28M Series C led by Citi Ventures

HoneyBook co-founders Oz and Naama Alon

HoneyBook, a customer-relationship management platform aimed at small businesses in creative fields, announced today it has raised a $28 million Series C led by Citi Ventures. All of its existing investors, including Norwest Venture Partners, Aleph, Vintage Investment Partners and Hillsven Capital, also returned for the round. Citi is a strategic partner for HoneyBook and this will enable it to offer new financial products to freelancers, its co-founder and CEO Oz Alon told TechCrunch.

This brings HoneyBook’s total raised so far to $72 million. It is using the funds to grow its teams in San Francisco and Tel Aviv and build new features for its user base, including small companies, people who work by themselves (“solopreneurs”) and freelancers. Like other CRMs, HoneyBook helps them develop relationships with potential new clients, manage projects, send invoices and accept payments, but with tools scaled for their business’ needs.

Alon told TechCrunch in an email that one segment HoneyBook is focused on is millennials (he cites a survey that found 49 percent of people under 40 plan to start their own business). HoneyBook currently claims tens of thousands of customers and has passed $1 billion in business booked using its software, along with 75,000 members in Rising Tide, the company’s online community for creative entrepreneurs.

Other management software platforms competing for the attention of entrepreneurs and freelancers include Tave, Dubsado and 17hats. One of the main ways HoneyBook differentiates is by enabling its users to accept online payments without integrating with a third-party service. Thanks to this, its users “transact more than 80 percent of their business online, significantly more than any other payments platform serving this audience, Alon said. Its partnership with Citi will also allow the company to develop more unique services for its target customers, he added.

In a prepared statement, Citi Ventures’ Israel director and venture investing lead Omit Shinar said, “We are in the midst of a period of extensive changes in societal structures and economic models. The fintech ecosystem is producing more and more breakthrough innovations that serve the needs of modern consumers, and we believe, as a pioneer in its space, HoneyBook can become a market leader in the U.S.”

Movius raises $45M for its business communications service

Atlanta-based Movius, a company that allows companies to assign a separate business number for voice calls and texting to any phone, today announced that it has raised a $45 million Series D round led by JPMorgan Chase, with participation from existing investors PointGuard Ventures, New Enterprise Associates and Anschutz Investment company. With this, the company has now raised a total of $100 million.

In addition to the new funding, Movius also today announced that it has brought on former Adobe and Sun executive John Loiacono as its new CEO. Loiacono was also the founding CEO of network analytics startup Jolata.

“The Movius opportunity is pervasive. Almost every company on planet Earth is mobilizing their workforce but are challenged to find a way to securely interact with their customers and constituents using all the preferred communication vehicles – be that voice, SMS or any other channel they use in their daily lives,” said Loiacono. “I’m thrilled because I’m joining a team that features highly passionate and proven innovators who are maniacally focused on delivering this very solution. I look forward to leading this next chapter of growth for the company.”

Sanjay Jain, the chief strategy officer at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, and Larry Feinsmith, the head of JPMorgan Chase’s Technology Innovation, Strategy & Partnerships office, are joining the company’s board.

Movius currently counts more than 1,400 businesses as its customers, and its carrier partners include Sprint, Telstra and Telefonica. What’s important to note is that Movius is more than a basic VoIP app on your phone. What the company promises is a carrier-grade network that allows businesses to assign a second number to their employees’ phones. That way, the employer remains in charge, even as employees bring their own devices to work.

Microsoft Defender comes to the Mac

Microsoft today announced that it is bringing its Microsoft Defender Advanced Threat Protection (ATP) to the Mac. Previously, this was a Windows solution for protecting the machines of Microsoft 365 subscribers and assets the IT admins that try to keep them safe. It was also previously called Windows Defender ATP, but given that it is now on the Mac, too, Microsoft decided to drop the ‘Windows Defender’ moniker in favor or ‘Microsoft Defender.’

“For us, it’s all about experiences that follow the person and help the individual be more productive,” Jared Spataro, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Office and Windows, told me. “Just like we did with Office back in the day — that was a big move for us to move it off of Windows-only — but it was absolutely the right thing. So that’s where we’re headed.”

He stressed that this means that Microsoft is moving off its “Windows-centric approach to life.” He likened it to bringing the Office apps to the iPad and Android. “We’re just headed in that same direction of saying that it’s our intent that we can secure every endpoint so that this Microsoft 365 experience is not just Windows-centric,” Spataro said. Indeed, he argued that the news here isn’t even so much the launch of this service for the Mac but that Microsoft is reorienting the way it thinks about how it can deliver value for Microsoft 365 clients.

Given that Microsoft Defender is part of the Microsoft 365 package, you may wonder why those users would even care about the Mac, but there are plenty of enterprises that use a mix of Windows machines and Mac, and which provide all of their employees with Office already. Having a security solution that spans both systems can greatly reduce complexity for IT departments — and keeping up with security vulnerabilities on one system is hard enough to begin with.

In addition to the launch of the Mac version of Microsoft Defender ATP, the company also today announced the launch of new threat and vulnerability management capabilities for the service. Over the last few months, Microsoft had already launched a number of new features that help businesses proactively monitor and identify security threats.

“What we’re hearing from customers now, is that the landscape is getting increasingly sophisticated, the volume of alerts that we’re starting to get is pretty overwhelming,” Spataro said. “We really don’t have the budget to hire the thousands of people required to sort through all this and figure out what to do.”

So with this new tool, Microsoft uses its machine learning smarts to prioritize threads and present them to its customers for remediation.

To Spataro, these announcements come down to the fact that Microsoft is slowly morphing into more of a security company than ever before. “I think we’ve made a lot more progress than people realize,” he said. “And it’s been driven by the market.” He noted that its customers have long asked Microsoft to help them protect their endpoints. Now, he argues, customers have realized that Microsoft is now moving to this person-centric approach (instead of a Windows-centric one) and that the company may now be able to help them protect large parts of their systems. At the same time, Microsoft realized that it could use all of the billions of signals it gets from its users to better help its customers proactively.

Skedulo raises $28M for its mobile workforce management service

Skedulo, a service that helps businesses manage their mobile employees, today announced that it has raised a $28 million Series B funding round led by M12, Microsoft’s venture fund. Existing investors Blackbird and Castanoa Ventures also participated in this round.

The company’s service offers businesses all the necessary tools to manage their mobile employees, including their schedules. A lot of small businesses still use basic spreadsheets and email to do this, but that’s obviously not the most efficient way to match the right employee to the right job, for example.

“Workforce management has traditionally been focused on employees that are sitting at a desk for the majority of their day,” Skedulo CEO and co-founder Matt Fairhurst told me. “The overwhelming majority — 80 percent — of workers will be deskless by 2020 and so far, there has been no one that has addressed the needs of this growing population at scale. We’re excited to help enterprises confront these challenges head-on so they can compete and lean into rapidly changing customer and employee expectations.”

At the core of Skedulo, which offers both a mobile app and web-based interface, is the company’s so-called “Mastermind” engine that helps businesses automatically match the right employee to a job based on the priorities the company has specified. The company plans to use the new funding to enhance this tool through new machine learning capabilities. Skedulo will also soon offer new analytics tools and integrations with third-party services like HR and financial management tools, as well as payroll systems.

The company also plans to use the new funding to double its headcount, which includes hiring at least 60 new employees in its Australian offices in Brisbane and Sydney.

As part of this round, Priya Saiprasad, principal of M12, will join Skedulo’s board of directors. “We found a strong sense of aligned purpose with Priya Saiprasad and the team at M12 — and their desire to invest in companies that help reduce cycles in a person’s working day,” Fairhurst said. “Fundamentally, Skedulo is a productivity company. We help companies, the back-office and mobile workforce, reduce the number of cycles it takes to get work done. This gives them time back to focus on the work that matters most.”

Windows Virtual Desktop is now in public preview

Last year, Microsoft announced the launch of its Windows Virtual Desktop service. At the time, this was a private preview, but starting today, any enterprise user who wants to try out what using a virtual Windows 10 desktop that’s hosted in the Azure cloud looks like will be able to give it a try.

It’s worth noting that this is very much a product for businesses. You’re not going to use this to play Apex Legends on a virtual machine somewhere in the cloud. The idea here is that a service like this, which also includes access to Office 365 ProPlus, makes managing machines and the software that runs on them easier for enterprises. It also allows employers in regulated industries to provide their mobile workers with a virtual desktop that ensures that all of their precious data remains secure.

One stand-out feature here is that businesses can run multiple Windows 10 sessions on a single virtual machine.

It’s also worth noting that many of the features of this service are powered by technology from FSLogix, which Microsoft acquired last year. Specifically, these technologies allow Microsoft to give the non-persistent users relatively fast access to applications like their Outlook and OneDrive applications, for example.

For most Microsoft 365 enterprise customers, access to this service is simply part of the subscription cost they already pay — though they will need an Azure subscription and pay for the virtual machines that run in the cloud.

Right now, the service is only available in the US East 2 and US Central Azure regions. Over time, and once the preview is over, Microsoft will expand it to all of its cloud regions.

Vonage brings number programmability to its business service

Chances are you still mostly think of Vonage as a consumer VOIP player, but in recent years, the company also launched its Vonage Business Cloud (VBC) platform and acquired Nexmo, an API-based communications service that competes directly with many of Twilio’s core services. Today, Vonage is bringing its VBC service and Nexmo a bit closer with the launch of number programmability for its business customers.

What this means is that enterprises can now take any VBC number and extend it with the help of Nexmo’s APIs. To enable this, all they have to do is toggle a switch in their management console and then they’ll be able to programmatically route calls, create custom communications apps and workflows, and integrate third-party systems to build chatbots and other tools.

“About four years ago we made a pretty strong pivot to going from residential — a lot of people know Vonage as a residential player — to the business side,” Vonage senior VP of product management Jay Patel told me. “And through a series of acquisitions [including Nexmo], we’ve kind of built what we think is a very unique offering.” In many ways, those different platforms were always separated from each other, though. With all of the pieces in place now, however, the team started thinking about how it could use the Nexmo APIs to allow its customers in the unified communications and contact center space to more easily customize these services for them.

About a year ago, the team started working on this new functionality that brings the programmability of Nexmo to VBC. “We realized it doesn’t make sense for us to create our own new sets of APIs on our unified communications and contact center space,” said Patel. “Why don’t we use the APIs that Nexmo has already built?”

As Patel also stressed, the phone number is still very much linked to a business or individual employee — and they don’t want to change that just for the sake of having a programmable service. By turning on programmability for these existing numbers, though, and leveraging the existing Nexmo developer ecosystem and the building blocks those users have already created, the company believes that it’s able to offer a differentiated service that allows users to stay on its platform instead of having to forward a call to a third-party service like Twilio, for example, to enable similar capabilities.

In terms of those capabilities, users can pretty much do anything they want with these calls — and that’s important because every company has different processes and requirements. Maybe that’s logging info into multiple CRM systems in parallel or taking a clip of a call and pushing it into a different system for training purposes. Or you could have the system check your calendar when there are incoming calls and then, if it turns out you are in a meeting, offer the caller a callback whenever your calendar says you’re available again. All of that should only take a few lines of code or, if you want to avoid most of the coding, a few clicks in the company’s GUI for building these flows.

Vonage believes that these new capabilities will attract quite a few new customers. “It’s our value-add when we’re selling to new customers,” he said. “They’re looking for this kind of capability or are running into brick walls. We see a lot of companies that have an idea but they don’t know how to do it. They’re not engineers or they don’t have a big staff of developers, but because of the way we’ve implemented this, it brings the barrier of entry to create these solutions much lower than if you had a legacy system on-prem where you had to be a C++ developer to build an app.

Teams, Microsoft’s Slack competitor, says it’s signed up over 500k organizations, adds whiteboard and live events support

Microsoft Teams, the collaboration platform that Microsoft built to complement its Office 365 suite of productivity apps for workers — which also ensures a way of keeping those workers staying within its own ecosystem — is hitting a milestone on its second birthday.

Today, the company announced that over 500,000 organizations are now using Teams. The company is not spelling out what that works out to in total users but notes that 150 of them have more than 10,000 users apiece, putting its total user numbers well over 1.5 million.

Alongside this, Microsoft also announced a number of new features that will be coming to Teams as it works on native integrations of more of Microsoft’s own tools to give Teams more functionality and more relevance for a wider range of use cases.

“The rigid hierarchy of the workplace has evolved, and environments are now about inclusivity and transparency,” said Lori Wright, General Manager of Workplace Collaboration at Microsoft, in an interview. “We see these trends playing out all over the world, and this is giving rise to new forms of technology.”

The new features indeed speak to that trend of inclusivity and making platforms more personalised to users. They include customized backgrounds; and support for cameras to capture content to bring in new ways of interacting in Teams beyond text — something that will be further explored with the eventual integration Microsoft Whiteboard, for people to create and ingest presentations that are hand-written into the system.

For those who are either hearing-impaired or cannot use or hear the audio, Microsoft’s adding live captions. And to speak to the purview of CSOs, it’s adding secure channels for private chats as well as “information barriers” that can be put in place for compliance purposes and to make sure that any potential conflicts of interest between channels are kept out; screening for data-loss prevention to prevent sensitive information from being shared.

Finally, it is adding live events support, which will let users create broadcasts on Teams for up to 10,000 people (who do not need to be registered Teams users to attend).

All in all, this is a significant list of product updates. The company kicked off its service as very much a Slack-style product for “knowledge workers” but has since emphasized a more inclusive approach, for all kinds of employees, from front line to back-office.

No updates today to the number of third-party applications that are being incorporated into Teams — an area where Slack has particularly excelled — but Microsoft is focused on making sure that as many users as it has already captured in Office 365, which today number 155 million — eventually also turn on to Teams. “We using as many as the Microsoft services as we can, tapping the Microsoft Graph to feed in services and structure information,” Wright said.

Microsoft is somewhat of a late comer to the collaboration space, coming in the wake of a number of other efforts, but these user figures put the company’s effort well within striking distance of notable, and large, competitors. Last month, Facebook noted that Workplace, its own Slack rival, had 2 million users, also with 150 organizations with more than 10,000 users each included in the number. Slack, meanwhile, in January said it had over 10 million daily active users with the number of organizations on the platform at 85,000.

(Notably, just yesterday Slack made a timely announcement in its bid to court more large enterprises: they will now give regulated customers access to their encrypted keys, an important component to win more business in those sectors.)

 

Trello aims for the enterprise

Trello, Atlassian’s project management tool, is doubling down on its efforts to become a better service for managing projects at work. To do so, the team is launching thirteen new features in Trello Enterprise today, making this one of the company’s biggest feature releases since the launch of the enterprise version in 2015.

As the company also announced today, one million teams now actively use the service.

Most of these new features are for paying users, but even Trello’s free users are getting access to a few new goodies. In return, though, Trello is taking away the ability to create an unlimited number of boards for free Teams users (not regular users outside of a team). Going forward, they can only have 10 boards open in Trello at any given time. Teams without a subscription that already use more than 10 boards will continue to use them but will have to subscribe to a paid plan to add more. To help make all of this a bit easier, Trello will let existing free teams add up to 10 additional boards until May 1, 2019 — and they’ll be able to keep them going forward.

“We’re making this change to accelerate our ability to bring world-class business features to market, and Trello Business Class and Enterprise will get more useful and powerful to address our customers’ pain points in the workplace,” the company’s co-founder and today’s head of Trello Michael Pryor writes in today’s announcement — and to do bring those feature to market, it surely helps to convert a few more free users into paying ones.

One of the main new feature announcements here is that the Power-Up Butler is now available for free, for both paying and free users (though with some limitations if you aren’t on a subscription plan). Power-Up Butler is an automation extension for Trello that the company acquired in December. It makes it easier to automate workflows and other repetitive tasks in Trello — and that’s clearly something the service’s enterprise users were asking for.

With this update, Trello is also now getting a new board setting beyond ‘private,’ ‘team’ and ‘public.’ This new setting, ‘organization,’ allows you to share a board with the entire company, including those who are not on a particular team. Until now, that wasn’t really an option and creating a public board was obviously not an option for many companies.

Since IT admins love nothing more than access controls, the new version of Trello Enterprise also features a lot of new ways for them to create visibility controls, membership restrictions, board creation restrictions and more. Admins now also get tools to enforce the use of single sign-on solutions and new ways to manage public boards and users, as well as which power-up extensions employees can use.

The company also today announced that it has received SOX and SOC2 Type 1 compliance.

AI has become table stakes in sales, customer service and marketing software

Artificial intelligence and machine learning has become essential if you are selling sales, customer service and marketing software, especially in large enterprises. The biggest vendors from Adobe to Salesforce to Microsoft to Oracle are jockeying for position to bring automation and intelligence to these areas.

Just today, Oracle announced several new AI features in its sales tools suite and Salesforce did the same in its customer service cloud. Both companies are building on artificial intelligence underpinnings that have been in place for several years.

All of these companies want to help their customers achieve their business goals by using increasing levels of automation and intelligence. Paul Greenberg, managing principal at The 56 Group, who has written multiple books about the CRM industry, including CRM at the Speed of Light, says that while AI has been around for many years, it’s just now reaching a level of maturity to be of value for more businesses.

“The investments in the constant improvement of AI by companies like Oracle, Microsoft and Salesforce are substantial enough to both indicate that AI has become part of what they have to offer — not an optional [feature] — and that the demand is high for AI from companies that are large and complex to help them deal with varying needs at scale, as well as smaller companies who are using it to solve customer service issues or minimize service query responses with chatbots,” Greenberg explained.

This would suggest that injecting intelligence in applications can help even the playing field for companies of all sizes, allowing the smaller ones to behave like they were much larger, and for the larger ones to do more than they could before, all thanks to AI.

The machine learning side of the equation allows these algorithms to see patterns that would be hard for humans to pick out of the mountains of data being generated by companies of all sizes today. In fact, Greenberg says that AI has improved enough in recent years that it has gone from predictive to prescriptive, meaning it can suggest the prospect to call that is most likely to result in a sale, or the best combination of offers to construct a successful marketing campaign.

Brent Leary, principle at CRM Insights, says that AI, especially when voice is involved, can make software tools easier to use and increase engagement. “If sales professionals are able to use natural language to interact with CRM, as opposed to typing and clicking, that’s a huge barrier to adoption that begins to crumble. And making it easier and more efficient to use these apps should mean more data enters the system, which result in quicker, more relevant AI-driven insights,” he said.

All of this shows that AI has become an essential part of these software tools, which is why all of the major players in this space have built AI into their platforms. In an interview last year at the Adobe Summit, Adobe CTO Abhay Parasnis had this to say about AI: “AI will be the single most transformational force in technology,” he told TechCrunch. He appears to be right. It has certainly been transformative in sales, customer service and marketing.