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Leverage AI to optimize customer service outcomes – TechCrunch


The interplay between tech and human insight is a virtuous cycle

As offices worldwide shift to remote work, our interactions with customers and colleagues have evolved in tandem. Professionals who once relied on face-to-face communication and firm handshakes must now close deals in a world where both are rare. Coworkers we once sat beside every day are now only available over Slack and Zoom, changing the nature of internal communication as well.

While this new reality presents a challenge, the advancement of key technologies allows us to not just adapt, but thrive. We are now on the precipice of the biggest revolution in workplace communication since the invention of the telephone.

It’s not enough to simply accept the new status quo, particularly as the overall economic climate remains tenuous. Artificial intelligence has much to offer in improving the way we speak to one another in the social distance era, and has already seen wide adoption in certain areas. Much of this algorithmic work has gone on behind the scenes of our most-used apps, such as Google Meet’s noise-canceling technology, which uses an AI to mute certain extraneous sounds on video calls. Other advances work in real-time right before our eyes — like Zoom’s myriad virtual backgrounds, or the automatic transcription and translation technology built into most video conferencing apps.

This kind of technology has helped employees realize that, despite the unprecedented shift to remote work, digital conversations do not just strive to recreate the in-person experience — rather, they can improve upon the way we communicate entirely.

It’s estimated that 65% of the workforce will be working remotely within the next five years. With a more hands-on approach to AI — that is, using the technology to actually augment everyday communications — workers can gain insight into concepts, workflows and ideas that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Your customer service experience

Roughly 55% of the data companies collect falls into the category of “dark data”: information that goes completely unused, kept on an internal server until it’s eventually wiped. Any company with a customer service department is invariably growing their stock of dark data with every chat log, email exchange and recorded call.

When a customer phones in with a query or complaint, they’re told early on that their call “may be recorded for quality assurance purposes.” Given how cheap data storage has become, there’s no “maybe” about it. The question is what to do with this data.

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Investment in AI startups slips to three-year low – TechCrunch


Q2 2020 saw 458 deals worth $7.2 billion

The fortunes of startups that leverage artificial intelligence have soared dramatically in recent years.

These AI-powered startups have seen quarterly investment totals rise from a few hundred rounds and a few billion dollars each quarter to 1,245 rounds and $17.3 billion in the second and third quarters of 2019, according to data from CB Insights. The rise in dollars chasing AI startups has been huge, demonstrating strong venture capital interest in the cohort.

But in recent quarters, the trend has slowed as VC deals for AI-powered startups fell off.

The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.

A new report from the business-data company looking at the second quarter of venture capital results for global AI startups shows historically strong but declining investing rates for the upstart firms. During a pandemic and widespread recession, this is not a complete surprise; other areas of VC investment have also fallen in recent quarters. This is The Exchange’s second look at quarterly data in the startup category, something partially spurred by our interest in the economics of the startups that make up the group.

The scale of decline is notable, however, as is the national breakdown of VC investment into AI. (The United States is doing better than you probably guessed, if you have only listened to politicians lately.)

Let’s unpack the latest results, determine how investing patterns have changed by stage and examine how different countries compare when it comes to deal and dollar volume for AI-powered startups.

Global declines, US dominance

In the second quarter of 2020, global investment into AI startups fell to 458 deals worth $7.2 billion. According to the CB Insights dataset, the deal volume is the lowest for 12 quarters, or since Q2 2017 when 387 investments into AI startups were worth $4.7 billion.

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How to time your Series A fundraise – TechCrunch


Emergence Capital’s Jake Saper walks through the basics

When founders start fundraising is as important as how they make their pitch to investors.

Timing matters and it’s more complicated than founders might realize, but it’s not just about picking the right month or time of day. Finding the right time to fundraise requires a micro- and macro-level strategy, according to Jake Saper of Emergence Capital, who joined TechCrunch’s virtual Early Stage event last week.

“There are really two angles to think about,” Saper said. The first is the macro perspective that takes into account the general flow of deals in the industry. Then there’s the micro timing that is specific — and different — for every startup, he added.

While Saper was particularly focused on giving advice to startup founders who have already raised a seed round and are preparing to raise a Series A, he said that most of his guidance can be applied to companies at a variety of funding stages. Let’s get started with the basics.

Peak pitch deck

The reality is that founders fundraise in all times of the year. However, there are certain times of the year when investors are more actively reviewing pitch decks.

January and February, followed by September, are the most active months for investors, based on data from DocSend that measured visits per pitch deck sent out by entrepreneurs each month.

Emergence Capital pitch deck data Early Stage

Image Credits: Jake Saper/Emergence Capital

This fits with Emergence’s anecdotal evidence. The firm sees founders who spend a lot of December preparing for a big launch or fundraise in January and February, Saper said. By the time founders begin sending decks out in January, VCs are back from holiday vacations or other tech-related events, like CES. The same rhythm begins in summer with founders using these months to prep for fundraising in the fall.

While this is a common time to pitch VCs, keep in mind that you’re also fighting for their attention, Saper said.

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Spotify users are streaming again, but ad revenues still suffer due to COVID crisis – TechCrunch


The COVID-19 pandemic’s continued impact on Spotify’s business was apparent in the results of the company’s Q2 2020 earnings today. On some fronts, Spotify had good news. As more users turned to streaming services to keep themselves entertained while social distancing, Spotify grew its active monthly users by 29% to reach 299 million in the quarter. Its paid subscriber growth also topped Wall St. expectations with 138 million paid users, versus estimates of 136.4 million. However, the pandemic took a negative toll on Spotify’s advertising business, with ad revenue down 21% year-over-year to €131 million in Q2.

Spotify’s Premium subscriptions, which still account for the majority (~90%) of its revenues, grew by 17% to reach €1.76 billion in the quarter. The company attributed this growth to a range of factors, including growth in more expensive Family Plan subscriptions and its new Duo option for two users, as well as the expansion of those plans to new markets, like Russia.

Meanwhile, the company touted that users’ listening hours are also now returning to levels near what they were before the COVID-19 health crisis.

In the first quarter, the pandemic had initially led to declines in daily active users and listening hours as consumers coped with their sudden lifestyle changes,. like working from home and homeschooling children. Spotify today said that as of June 30, global consumption hours have since recovered to “pre-COVID levels” in all markets except Latin America, which is still around 6% below peak levels prior to the global health crisis.

This recovery in listening hours was led by those areas where the COVID-19 spread is slowing, including the E.U. and Asia-Pacific regions, the company noted. Spotify is also now seeing growth in other areas where listening had slowed due to government lockdowns and the work-from-home shift, like in-car listening. This is now less than 10% below pre-COVID levels, up from a 50% decline at its lowest point in April.

On the downside, Spotify’s ad revenue suffered in the quarter due to an overall more conservative market than before the COVID crisis — a trend the company expects to continue throughout the year. This drove Spotify to miss on revenue expectations in the quarter. The company reported revenue growth of 13% to 1.89 billion euros, but this fell short of analyst estimates of 1.93 billion.

“Last quarter we noted a marked deceleration in sales brought on by the global health crisis where the last three weeks in March were down more than 20% relative to our forecast,” the company said in its shareholder letter. “Performance continued to lag our expectations through April and May, but we significantly outperformed expectations in the month of June. [Quarter to date] through May, ad-supported revenues were down 25% year-over-year, but performance in the month of June showed significant improvement and was only down 12% year-over year.”

Though advertising is not a main revenue driver at this time, it’s still a key part of Spotify’s strategy with regard to its podcasting business. The company is investing heavily in bringing in new and exclusive deals, including recently Kim Kardashian West, Joe Rogan, Michelle Obama, DC & Warner Bros., TikTok star Addison Rae, and others. And it’s willing to spend — Joe Rogan’s deal reportedly cost the company more than $100 million, for instance.

It’s also selling its own podcast ads and building out other tools for podcast creation, editing, and distribution as part of its investment in this space. For instance, Spotify is developing new ad technology aimed at better monetizing podcasts, like its latest test of in-app offers, which will allow users to view and use coupon codes and other offers made in audio ads at any time from the Spotify app.

More recently, the company invested in video podcasts as well. Spotify also says its Streaming Ad Insertion technology will also become more broadly available to U.S. advertisers this summer and announced a $20 million ad partnership with Omnicom Media Group, which Spotify claims is the largest, global, strategic podcast ad partnership to date.

Overall, Spotify said its podcasting advertising outperformed in the quarter and is continuing into July.




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Hearsay, maker of compliant tools for financial services, deepens ties with Salesforce – TechCrunch


Financial services companies like banks and insurance tend to be heavily regulated. As such they require a special level of security and auditability. Hearsay, which makes compliant communications tools for these types of companies, announced a new partnership with Salesforce today, enabling smooth integration with Salesforce CRM and marketing automation tools.

The company also announced that Salesforce would be taking a minority stake in Hearsay, although company co-founder and CEO Clara Shih, did not provide any details on that part of the announcement.

Shih says the company created the social selling category when it launched 10 years ago. Today, it provides a set of tools like email, messaging and websites along with a governance layer to help financial services companies interact with customers in a compliant way. Their customers are primarily in banking, insurance, wealth management and mortgages.

She said that they realized if they could find a way to share the data they were collecting with the Hearsay toolset with CRM and marketing automation software in an automated way, it would make greater use of this information than it could on its own. To that end, they have created a set of APIs to enable that with some built-in connectors. The first one will be to connect Hearsay to Salesforce with plans to add other vendors in the future.

“It’s about being able to connect [data from Hearsay] with the CRM system of record, and then analyzing it across thousands, if not tens of thousands of advisors or bankers in a single company, to uncover best practices. You could then use that information like GPS driving directions that help every advisor behave in the moment and reach out in the moment like the very best advisor would,” Shih explained.

In practice, this means sharing the information with the customer data platform (CDP), the CRM and marketing automation tooling to deliver more intelligent targeting based on a richer body of information. So the advisor can use information gleaned from everything he or she knows about the client across the set of tools to deliver more meaningful personal message instead of a targeted ad or an email blast. As Shih points out, the ad might even make sense, but could be tone deaf depending on the circumstances.

“What we focus on is this human-client experience, and that can only be delivered in the last mile because it’s only with the advisor that many clients will confide in these very important life events and life decisions, and then conversely, it’s only in the last mile that the trusted advisor can deliver relationship advice,” she said.

She says what they are trying to do by combining streams of data about the customer is build loyalty in a way that pure technology solutions just aren’t capable of doing. As she says, nobody says they are switching banks because it has the best chat bot.

Hearsay was founded in 2009 and has raised $51 million, as well as whatever other money Salesforce will be adding to the mix with today’s investment. Other investors include Sequoia and NEA Associates. Its last raise was way back in 2013, a $30 million Series C.

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Remitly raises $85M at a $1.5B valuation, says money transfer business has surged – TechCrunch


Remittances — when people send money internationally to family and friends, or as a payment — has long been one of the most important levers for getting funds to people in developing economies.

However, the persistent spread of the coronavirus is having a tough impact on that, with the World Bank estimating that remittances to low and middle-income countries will fall 20% this year to $445 billion (down a record $554 billion in 2019). That’s due in part to the economic slowdown (and job and wage loss) in sending countries, and in part to a general shift away from using cash and spending time in shops to make physical transactions.

That trend is not universal, though: remittance companies that are building solutions based on technology are seeing a surge in business. And one of them, Remitly, is today announcing that it has raised $85 million in equity to double down on its growth.

The round is being led by PayU, the payments business owned by Prosus (Naspers’ technology holdings), with participation from DN Capital, Generation Investment Management, Owl Rock Capital, Princeville, Stripes, Threshold Ventures, and Top Tier. All are previous backers, and Remitly’s valuation with the deal is now $1.5 billion — an upround compared to its Series E last year.

Matt Oppenheimer, Remitly’s co-founder and CEO, said in an interview this week that customer growth has increased by 200% compared to a year ago, with 300 million customers served in aggregate spread evenly across the 17 send-from markets and the 57 send-to countries where Remitly operates. He attributes that to Remitly offering not just competitive rates, but its focus on doing it virtually — that is, without requiring people to come into physical shops to send or receive money, as they might more typically do with Western Union or MoneyGram.

(I’d also argue that the connection might be a little more direct: it may also be that Remitly is used by migrants who are in better economic circumstances themselves, less impacted by job and wage losses than others, and this has also helped its business to thrive.)

“We aren’t seeing that downturn in remittances,” he said. “Over half of global remittances these days  are sent via physical cash locations, and during a pandemic, many don’t feel as safe doing that, and so that will impact numbers.” He added that the amounts might seem modest in the developed world, but even incremental transactions are meaningful. “$200-$300 goes an incredibly long way.”

Just before the pandemic really started to take hold in the US and Western Europe, Remitly launched Passbook, a “neobank” in partnership with Greendot, as part of its strategy to expand into a wider range of financial services for immigrants.

In retrospect, given how events unfolded globally — where people who were not being forced into new economic situations were likely going to stay put and hold tight until things returned to normal — it was a challenging launch, to say the least.

Oppenheimer said that the company is not disclosing the number of users but “have gotten a lot of customer feedback about offering basic banking and more, and we are excited to scale it.”

The funding being announced today will also go towards the company working on expanding the range of services, with credit a likely next candidate for services.

“We have seen how the business is evolving, and the focus of its customers. Passbook is not just about digital banking. If you are a migrant worker without a social security number, this is the only way to open a bank account,” said Laurent le Moal, PayU’s CEO and a member of the board. “Remitly is doing well on every metric, and being mission driven means something. It was easy for us to say we want to double down and lead this round. This is the time and moment for a new story and a new leg to that business.”

Notably, PayU has continued on as a member of Facebook’s Libra project, where a kind of crypto/virtual currency is being developed to run financial services on Facebook’s own rails and those of its partners. Le Moal says PayU continues to be very optimistic for how this will evolve, although nothing to announce yet on that front. Currently, Remitly is not a member, nor does it have any strategy at the moment around blockchain, although Oppenheimer notes that it’s something it’s watching.

Although PayU is a strategic investor insofar as it is focused on financial services and developing markets, it’s not directly interested per se in remittances as it is about the wider financial opportunity and how it can support it as an investor, he added.

“We have not tried to acquire Remitly, and the reason is very simple: PayU is about payments and credit and so this is about integrating remittances, which are important in the markets where we are but we are not in [remittances] directly. This is a fantastic story and this is an IPO type of company for sure. If we can help in that, that’s great.”

On the subject of IPOs, Oppenheimer declined to comment. But given some of the large investments we’ve seen into fintech in the last several months — Robinhood’s raised $320 million; Revolut added $80 million to a $580 million round; Scalable raised $58 million; True Link raised $36 million; TransferWise closed $319 million in secondary sales; and those were just in the last couple of weeks — there is no shortage of money in the private markets for promising ideas being well executed, so there will continue to be multiple options for companies like Remitly.

And as the economy makes its recovery in line with that of the global population’s physical recovery from the pandemic, it’s putting itself in a position to be ready for the rebound.

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Elon Musk says Tesla is open to licensing Autopilot, supplying powertrains and batteries to other automakers – TechCrunch


Tesla CEO Elon Musk noted on Twitter on Tuesday night that the automaker would be “open to licensing software and supplying powertrains & batteries” to other automakers. Musk added that that would even include Autopilot, the advanced driver assistance software that Tesla offers to provide intelligent cruise control in a number of different driving scenarios.

Musk was addressing a Teslerati article about how German automakers are looking to close the technology gap between themselves and Tesla when it comes to producing EVs. Volkswagen Chairman Herbert Diess has in past comments expressed admiration for Musk and Tesla’s accomplishments on multiple occasions.

VW has created its own EV platform, which it intends to use as the base for a number of different electric cars, ranging from sport sedans to SUVs. The company is also openly pursuing licensing its MEB platform to other automakers, and struck such a deal with Ford last July for the American automaker’s European business.

Musk says that Tesla’s interest in licensing stems from its underlying goal, which is “to accelerate sustainable energy, not crush competitors” according to his tweet. This isn’t the first time the automaker has indicated a willingness to be more open in pursuit of that goal, either: In 2014, Musk penned a blog post announcing that Tesla would be making its intellectual property freely available to “anyone who, in good faith, wants to use [its] technology.”

Of course, that hasn’t stopped Tesla from taking aim at potential competitors via legal action on occasion – it filed suit against electric automaker Rivian and four of its former employees last week, alleging theft of trade secrets and poaching key talent.

A platform licensing or supplier relationship would be an entirely different arrangement, of course, and one with plenty of precedent in the automaker industry. Nor would it necessarily negatively impact Tesla’s own auto sales, since the company offers a number of other selling points above and beyond its underlying powertrain and battery tech.

At the time of Volkswagen’s announcement, the German automaker said it expects it could make up to $20 billion in revenue through the MEB deal with Ford, with a significant chunk of that coming from MEB parts and components supply. Tesla could realize similar gains but perhaps amplified globally, especially if it can ramp powertrain and battery production beyond the capacity needs of its own vehicle demand capacity.

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With Robinhood’s UK launch delayed, eToro to bring out UK debit card following acquisition – TechCrunch


Investment app eToro is to launch a debit card, following its acquisition of Marq Millions Ltd, the UK based e-money business. Marq Millions will now trade as eToro Money and will be the issuer for eToro’s card. The acquisition was for an undisclosed amount, and the Marq Millions management team stays on.

The card will initially be available to eToro Club members in the UK, then Europe, and will later be extended to non-eToro users. eToro has over 14 million registered users and expects take-up of the card to be strong.

A spokesperson said the card could now provide instant ‘cash-out and cash-in’ functionality to customers, a feature which their user-base has been requesting for a while.

The debit cards won’t launch immediately but will launch first in the UK, followed by other markets. eToro Money has a Principal Membership with VISA and an EMI License permission from the Financial Conduct Authority . This means they are likely to hit the ground running, subject to approval from the FCA.

Commenting on the acquisition, co-founder and CEO of eToro, Yoni Assia, said in a statement: “The launch of a debit card is a natural next step for eToro as we broaden the range of services that we provide to our users… The debit card will provide instant cash-out and cash-in functionality, greatly improving the user experience. We expect to see a strong take-up of the card – initially from our client base.”

eToro allows customers to invest in stocks and commodities, as well as crypto assets like Bitcoin. It claims to have 14 million registered users, all of whom share their investment strategies, similar to a social network. It’s regulated in Europe by the Cyprus Securities and Exchange Commission, by the Financial Conduct Authority in the UK and by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.

Mahmood Kamran, former COO of Marq Millions and now Managing Director of eToro Money, commented: “We are incredibly excited to become part of the eToro Group. The backing of this leading global fintech, will allow us to issue a debit card which we are confident will become a market leader globally.”

The context to this is that eToro is racing to build up it’s UK user-base ahead of a potential launch by competitor Robinhood . The US-based investment platform , which has made waves in the US, has had to delay its UK launch “indefinitely” after one of its customers killed himself in the US, with the consequent regulatory interest in its activities.

Robinhood previously said it had a waiting list of more than 250,000 people in the UK ahead of a launch planned for this year, showing that there will likely be strong demand for eToro’s services, given it now has a ‘head start’.

eToro has had over 256,000 new registrations in the UK since it launched zero commission stocks in May last year, (over 3 million globally), and says it can afford to offer zero commission as it is multi-asset and global.

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Disrupt 2020 early-bird savings vanish in just 4 days – TechCrunch


Disrupt 2020 doesn’t arrive until September, but the countdown clock to early-bird savings winds to a halt in just four days. Grab this opportunity to attend one of the best tech conferences for all-things startup, cross this task off your to-do list and save up to $300. Simply buy your pass before the offer expires on July 31 at 11:59 p.m. PT.

What can you expect from attending Disrupt 2020? Opportunity and lots of it. It starts with five days of non-stop programming focused on — and delivered by — the people determined to shape the future of technology. This event draws thousands of entrepreneurs, founders, investors, developers and other players across the startup ecosystem and around the world looking to connect, collaborate, invest and drive their businesses forward.

You’ll hear leading voices from the tech, business and investment worlds share their insight and experience from the Main Stage. Folks like pioneering CRISPR researcher Jennifer Doudna, Zoom founder Eric Yuan and Sequoia Capital’s Roelof Botha. That’s just a taste of what’s on tap, and along with the agenda we’re announcing more speakers every week.

Take part in dozens of workshops and smaller breakout sessions that offer in-depth, knowledge-building experiences. Check out the Extra Crunch Stage for information every early-stage startup founder needs to know, like how to pivot in the face of a crisis and how to build a sales team. Engage in interactive Q&As and come away with actionable tips and tricks from experts in marketing, business development and investing.

Our virtual Disrupt platform lets you explore Digital Startup Alley where you’ll find hundreds of early-stage startups showcasing their tech products, platforms and services. Connect with the founders, ask questions, check out their pitch decks and use CrunchMatch, our AI-powered networking platform to schedule 1:1 video meetings.

Digital Startup Alley is also home to the TC Top Picks — a group of outstanding startups representing a range of technologies. They earned this coveted designation in our highly selective pre-conference competition. We’ll announce which companies made the grade this year soon, but take a look at last year’s TC Top Picks.

And of course, you’ll want to watch the cadre of the world’s best startups compete in the Startup Battlefield pitch competition. All of them will receive global investor and media exposure, but only one will win the $100,000, serious bragging rights and the Disrupt Cup. More than 900 companies have competed over the year including Vurb, Trello, Mint, Dropbox, Yammer and Tripit to name just a few.

This is your shot to access every opportunity Disrupt 2020 offers and save up to $300. The early-bird deal ends in just four days at 11:59 p.m. (PT) on July 31. What are you waiting for? Go buy your pass right now.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

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Why aren’t Rackspace and BigCommerce worth more? – TechCrunch


Unpacking their initial IPO prices in light of today’s market conditions

This week has brought with it two tasty pieces of IPO news — Rackspace’s return to the public markets and BigCommerce’s debut will be far more interesting now that we know what a first-draft valuation for each looks like.

But amidst the numbers is a question worth answering: Why aren’t cloud-focused Rackspace and e-commerce-powering BigCommerce worth more?

Using a basic share count and the top end of their initial ranges, Rackspace is targeting a roughly $4.8 billion valuation, and BigCommerce a $1.3 billion price tag. Given that Rackspace had $652.7 million in Q1 2020 revenue and BigCommerce reaped $33.2 million in the same period, we have a puzzle on our hands.

Let me explain. At its IPO price, Rackspace is worth around 2x its current revenue run rate. For a company we associate with the cloud, that feels cheap at first glance. BigCommerce is targeting a valuation of around a little under 10x its current annual run rate, which feels light compared to its competitor Shopify’s current price/sales ratio of of 66.4x (per YCharts data).

We did some maths to hammer away at what’s going on in each case. The mystery boils down to somewhat mundane margin and growth considerations. Let’s dive into the data, figure out what’s going on and ask ourselves if these companies aren’t heading for a second, higher IPO price range before they formally price and begin trading.

Margins and growth

Let’s unpack Rackspace’s IPO pricing first and BigCommerce’s own set of numbers second.


While Rackspace has a public cloud component, its core business is service-driven, so it isn’t a major cloud platform that competes with Microsoft’s Azure, Google’s GCP or Amazon’s AWS.  This isn’t a diss, mind, but a point of categorization.

The company has three reporting segments:

  • Multicloud Services
  • Apps & Cross Platform
  • OpenStack Public Cloud

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