Rackspace acquires Salesforce specialist RelationEdge

Rackspace today announced that it has acquired RelationEdge, a Salesforce implementation partner and digital agency. The companies did not disclose the financial details of the acquisition.

At first, this may sound like an odd acquisition. Rackspace is still best known for its hosting and managed cloud and infrastructure services, after all, and RelationEdge is all about helping businesses manage their Salesforce SaaS implementations. The company clearly wants to expand its portfolio, though, and add managed services for SaaS applications to its lineup. It made the first step in this direction with the acquisition of TriCore last year, another company in the enterprise application management space. Today’s acquisition builds upon this theme.

Gerard Brossard, the executive VP and general manager of Rackspace Application Services, told me that the company is still in the early days of its application management practice, but that it’s seeing good momentum as it’s gaining both new customers thanks to these offerings and as existing customers look to Rackspace for managing more than their infrastructure. “This allows us to jump into that SaaS management practice, starting with the leaders in the market,” he told me.

Why sell RelationEdge, a company that has gained some good traction and now has about 125 employees? “At the end of the day, we’ve accomplished a tremendous amount organically with very little funding,” RelationEdge founder and CEO Matt Stoyka told me. “But there is a huge opportunity in the space that we can take advantage of. But to do that, we needed more than was available to us, but we needed to find the right home for our people and our company.” He also noted that the two companies seem to have a similar culture and mission, which focuses more on the business outcomes than the technology itself.

For the time being, the RelationEdge brand will remain and Rackspace plans to run the business “with considerable independence under its current leadership.” Brossard noted that the reason for this is RelationEdge’s existing brand recognition.

Sprinklr hires former fed CIO Vivek Kundra as COO

Sprinklr, the unicorn startup best known for helping customers interpret social signals has been moving into the broader customer experience market in the last year. Today it announced is was hiring a heavy hitter as Chief Operating Officer, bringing in former federal CIO and Salesforce executive Vivek Kundra. He began working at his new position just this week.

Kundra says that he sees a company that is in a good position and poised for growth. It will be part of his job to work with CEO Ragy Thomas to make sure that happens. “When I look at the 1200 customers we have today, I see a massive opportunity to provide technology to change the way [our users] interact with customers,” Kundra told TechCrunch.

He says that, with his background, whether working under President Obama or with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, the focus has always been on the customer, however you defined that, whether in the context of delivering government services or selling cloud software.

He said that to achieve that you have to be ruthlessly focused on execution. “Ideas are cheap, but how do you bring them to life in a way that inspires and motivates? I think that’s really important,” he said.

It’s worth noting that Kundra is not the first COO, however. The company hired Tim Page, who was a founder and COO at VCE before joining Sprinklr in 2016. That was apparently not a good fit.

Thomas says that landing Kundra was part of an extensive 9-month executive search where they looked at people who had worked at SaaS companies that had scaled over a billion dollars in revenue, concentrating on Salesforce, Workday and ServiceNow. “If you look at people in the driver’s seat at those companies, there is a finite number of people. Salesforce is a great company and a great partner. That experience is relevant and unique,” Thomas said.

Kundra pointed out that as part of his responsibilities at Salesforce he built a business unit from scratch that included driving adoption for the company’s Government Cloud and other verticals. “Now I have ability to draw on those experiences,” he said.

Firming up the COO position, much like the CFO, is crucial ahead of going public. With the company valued at $1.8 billion in 2016, they would seem to be of sufficient size to make that move, but Thomas wasn’t ready to commit to anything definitive (much as you would expect).

Instead, he talked of building a strong foundation as preparation to become a public company at some point. “It’s a question of when, not if [we go public], but for a company of our size and scale, it’s logical for us to go public. We aren’t talking about when and how, and we are trying to pour a strong foundation [before we do]” he said. Bringing in Kundra appears to be part of that.

Pluralsight prices its IPO at $15 per share, raising over $300M

Pluralsight priced the shares in its IPO at $15 this afternoon, above its previously set target range of between $12 and $14, and will raise as much as $357 million ahead of its public debut tomorrow morning.

Pluralsight offers software development courses, specifically ones targeting employees that are looking to advance in their careers by acquiring new skills in order to transition to higher-level roles. As knowledge workers become increasingly valuable, especially in larger enterprises with sprawling workforces, companies like Pluralsight have found a sweet spot in building tools that enable companies to help identify talent in their own workforce and train them, rather than have to aggressively search outside the company to satisfy their needs. The company has raised $310.5 million in its IPO, with underwriters having the option to purchase an additional 3.1 million shares and bring that up to $357 million.

The company is one of a continuing wave of enterprise IPOs this year, including multiple successful ones like zScalar and Dropbox — the latter of which was more of a flagship as both a hotly-anticipated one and as a company that possesses a unique business model. But nonetheless, it’s shown that there’s an appetite for enterprise startups looking to go public, which offers those companies a way to raise capital in addition to offering their employees liquidity.

Pluralsight will be another of an increasing pack of unicorns in the Utah tech scene that are on their way to going public. Founded in 2004, Pluralsight was largely bootstrapped until its first financing round in 2013 where it raised $27.5 million from Insight Venture Partners. That firm is the company’s largest shareholder, and since then Pluralsight has raised nearly $200 million in financing.

Its The company’s IPO tomorrow will once again test the appetite for fresh IPOs among public investors. Enterprise companies generally offer a more stable batch for venture portfolios, with predictable and reliable growth that eventually carries it to an IPO with varying levels of success. They’re smaller than blockbuster consumer-ish IPOs, but they are the ones that can provide a stable return for funds like IVP.

Parsable secures $40M investment to bring digital to industrial workers

As we increasingly hear about automation, artificial intelligence and robots taking away industrial jobs, Parsable, a San Francisco-based startup sees a different reality, one with millions of workers who for the most part have been left behind when it comes to bringing digital transformation to their jobs.

Parsable has developed a Connected Worker platform to help bring high tech solutions to deskless industrial workers who have been working mostly with paper-based processes. Today, it announced a $40 million Series C cash injection to keep building on that idea.

The round was led by Future Fund with help from B37 and existing investors Lightspeed Venture Partners, Airbus Ventures and Aramco Ventures. Today’s investment brings the total to nearly $70 million.

The Parsable solution works on almost any smartphone or tablet and is designed to enter information while walking around in environments where a desktop PC or laptop simply wouldn’t be practical. That means being able to tap, swipe and select easily in a mobile context.

Photo: Parsable

The challenge the company faced was the perception these workers didn’t deal well with technology. Parsable CEO Lawrence Whittle says the company, which launched in 2013, took its time building its first product because it wanted to give industrial workers something they actually needed, not what engineers thought they needed. This meant a long period of primary research.

The company learned, it had to be dead simple to allow the industry vets who had been on the job for 25 or more years to feel comfortable using it out of the box, while also appealing to younger more tech-savvy workers. The goal was making it feel as familiar as Facebook or texting, common applications even older workers were used to using.

“What we are doing is getting rid of [paper] notebooks for quality, safety and maintenance and providing a digital guide on how to capture work with the objective of increasing efficiency, reducing safety incidents and increasing quality,” Whittle explained.

He likens this to the idea of putting a sensor on a machine, but instead they are putting that instrumentation into the hands of the human worker. “We are effectively putting a sensor on humans to give them connectivity and data to execute work in the same way as machines,” he says.

The company has also made the decision to make the platform flexible to add new technology over time. As an example they support smart glasses, which Whittle says accounts for about 10 percent of its business today. But the founders recognized that reality could change and they wanted to make the platform open enough to take on new technologies as they become available.

Today the company has 30 enterprise customers with 30,000 registered users on the platform. Customers include Ecolab, Schlumberger, Silgan and Shell. They have around 80 employees, but expect to hit 100 by the end of Q3 this year, Whittle says.

Aircall raises another $29 million

French startup Aircall has raised a founding round of $29 million for its cloud based call center solution. Draper Esprit led the round with NextWorld Capital, Balderton Capital and Newfund also participating.

The company has raised $40.5 million in total. Aircall participated in the Startup Battlefield at TechCrunch Disrupt SF a few years ago. The company first started at eFounders.

Aircall is following the software-as-a-service playbook. First, you take a boring industry like phone systems for large support and sales teams. Second, you bet everything on software. And third, you keep adding new features and integrations, and chasing new customers.

The company now has two offices in New York and Paris and handles millions of calls every day. With today’s funding round, the company plans to hire more people in both offices.

When you sign up to Aircall, you get virtual phone numbers in one or multiple countries. You can then configure a greeting message, add business hours and handle your call queue.

But the magic happens when you have multiple people handling sales or support calls. When someone calls, it can call multiple people at once or call someone first, then a second person if the first person isn’t available, etc. You get an overview of all your calls so you can assign them, tag them and more.

Aircall doesn’t work in a vacuum. So you can integrate Aircall with CRMs and other solutions like Salesforce, Zendesk and Zoho. The startup also launched a deep integration with Intercom that lets you switch from a text conversation to a phone call from the popup window.

It’s hard to list all the features right here. But chances are that if you’re running a call center, you’ll have everything you need for your team. Aircall currently costs $30 to $50 per user and per month to access all of this.

Xage introduces fingerprinting to protect industrial IoT devices

As old-school industries like oil and gas increasingly network entities like oil platforms, they become more vulnerable to hacking attacks that were impossible when they were stand-alone. That requires a new approach to security and Xage (prounounced Zage), a security startup that launched last year thinks it has the answer with a concept called ‘fingerprinting’ combined with the blockchain.

“Each individual fingerprint tries to reflect as much information as possible about a device or controller,” Duncan Greenwood, Xage’s CEO explained. They do this by storing configuration data from each device and controller on the network. That includes the hardware type, the software that’s installed on it, the CPU ID, the storage ID and so forth.

If someone were try to inject malware into one of these controllers, the fingerprint identification would notice a change and shut it down until human technicians could figure out if it’s a legitimate change or not.

Whither blockchain?

You may be wondering where the blockchain comes into this, but imagine a honey pot of these fingerprints were stored in a conventional database. If that database were compromised, it would mean hackers could have access to a company’s entire store of fingerprints, completely neutering that idea. That’s where the blockchain comes in.

Greenwood says it serves multiple purposes to prevent such a scenario from happening. For starters, it takes away that centralized honey pot. It also provides a means of authentication making it impossible to insert a fake fingerprint without explicit permission to do so.

But he says that Xage takes one more precaution unrelated to the blockchain to allow for legitimate updates to the controller. “We have a digital replica (twin) of the system we keep in the cloud, so if someone is changing the software or plans to change it on a device or controller, we will pre-calculate what the new fingerprint will be before we update the controller,” he said. That will allow them to understand when there is a sanctioned update happening and not an external threat agent trying to mimic one.

Checks and balances

In this way they check the validity of every fingerprint and have checks and balances every step of the way. If the updated fingerprint matches the cloud replica, they can be reasonably assured that it’s authentic. If it doesn’t, he says they assume the fingerprint might have been hacked and shut it down for further investigation by the customer.

While this sounds like a complex way of protecting this infrastructure, Greenwood points out that these devices and controllers tend to be fairly simple in terms of their configuration, not like the complexities involved in managing security on a network of workstations with many possible access points for hackers.

The irony here is that these companies are networking their devices to simplify maintenance, but in doing so they have created a new set of issues. “It’s a very interesting problem. They are adopting IoT, so they don’t have to do [so many] truck rolls. They want that network capability, but then the risk of hacking is greater because it only takes one hack to get access to thousands of controllers,” he explained.

In case you are thinking they may be overstating the actual problem of oil rigs and other industrial targets getting hacked, a Department of Homeland Security report released in March suggests that the energy sector has been an area of interest for nation-state hackers in recent years.

Adobe CTO leads company’s broad AI bet

There isn’t a software company out there worth its salt that doesn’t have some kind of artificial intelligence initiative in progress right now. These organizations understand that AI is going to be a game-changer, even if they might not have a full understanding of how that’s going to work just yet.

In March at the Adobe Summit, I sat down with Adobe executive vice president and CTO Abhay Parasnis, and talked about a range of subjects with him including the company’s goal to build a cloud platform for the next decade — and how AI is a big part of that.

Parasnis told me that he has a broad set of responsibilities starting with the typical CTO role of setting the tone for the company’s technology strategy, but it doesn’t stop there by any means. He also is in charge of operational execution for the core cloud platform and all the engineering building out the platform — including AI and Sensei. That includes managing a multi-thousand person engineering team. Finally, he’s in charge of all the digital infrastructure and the IT organization — just a bit on his plate.

Ten years down the road

The company’s transition from selling boxed software to a subscription-based cloud company began in 2013, long before Parasnis came on board. It has been a highly successful one, but Adobe knew it would take more than simply shedding boxed software to survive long-term. When Parasnis arrived, the next step was to rearchitect the base platform in a way that was flexible enough to last for at least a decade — yes, a decade.

“When we first started thinking about the next generation platform, we had to think about what do we want to build for. It’s a massive lift and we have to architect to last a decade,” he said. There’s a huge challenge because so much can change over time, especially right now when technology is shifting so rapidly.

That meant that they had to build in flexibility to allow for these kinds of changes over time, maybe even ones they can’t anticipate just yet. The company certainly sees immersive technology like AR and VR, as well as voice as something they need to start thinking about as a future bet — and their base platform had to be adaptable enough to support that.

Making Sensei of it all

But Adobe also needed to get its ducks in a row around AI. That’s why around 18 months ago, the company made another strategic decision to develop AI as a core part of the new  platform. They saw a lot of companies looking at a more general AI for developers, but they had a different vision, one tightly focussed on Adobe’s core functionality. Parasnis sees this as the key part of the company’s cloud platform strategy. “AI will be the single most transformational force in technology,” he said, adding that Sensei is by far the thing he is spending the most time on.”

Photo: Ron Miller

The company began thinking about the new cloud platform with the larger artificial intelligence goal in mind, building AI-fueled algorithms to handle core platform functionality. Once they refined them for use in-house, the next step was to open up these algorithms to third-party developers to build their own applications using Adobe’s AI tools.

It’s actually a classic software platform play, whether the service involves AI or not. Every cloud company from Box to Salesforce has been exposing their services for years, letting developers take advantage of their expertise so they can concentrate on their core knowledge. They don’t have to worry about building something like storage or security from scratch because they can grab those features from a platform that has built-in expertise  and provides a way to easily incorporate it into applications.

The difference here is that it involves Adobe’s core functions, so it may be intelligent auto cropping and smart tagging in Adobe Experience Manager or AI-fueled visual stock search in Creative Cloud. These are features that are essential to the Adobe software experience, which the company is packaging as an API and delivering to developers to use in their own software.

Whether or not Sensei can be the technology that drives the Adobe cloud platform for the next 10 years, Parasnis and the company at large are very much committed to that vision. We should see more announcements from Adobe in the coming months and years as they build more AI-powered algorithms into the platform and expose them to developers for use in their own software.

Parasnis certainly recognizes this as an ongoing process. “We still have a lot of work to do, but we are off in an extremely good architectural direction, and AI will be a crucial part,” he said.

HubSpot adds customer service tools to its marketing platform

HubSpot is expanding beyond sales and marketing with the official launch of its Service Hub for managing customer service.

The product was first announced last fall, but now it’s moved out of beta testing.

HubSpot President and COO JD Sherman said this was a logical next step for the company. He argued that the Internet has “democratized” the ability of businesses to attract customers by creating their own content (using tools like HubSpot’s, natch), and while “that opportunity still exists, frankly, it’s getting harder due to the sheer volume of what’s going on.”

“It makes sense to take care of your customer,” Sherman said — both to keep them loyal and also to turn them into an advocate who might help you attract new customers.

Service Hub General Manager Michael Redbord and Go To Market Leader David Barron gave me a quick tour of the Service Hub. It includes an universal inbox for all your customer communications, a bot-builder to automate some of those customer interactions, tools for building a company knowledge base (which can then be fed into the bot-builder, which Redbord described as a more “customer-centric” way to present your content), tools for creating surveys and a dashboard to track how your service team is doing.

ServiceHub dashboard

Redbord said he previously worked on HubSpot’s own service and support team, so every feature in ServiceHub has “a one-to-one relationship” with an issue that HubSpot has faced, or that he personally has faced, while trying to support customers.

Barron added that ServiceHub benefits from being integrated with HubSpot’s existing products, allowing businesses to track their interactions with a customer across sales, marketing and support.

“We’re a platform company,” he said. “When any of these conversations happens, whether it’s a chat with a human or a chat with a bot, that’s all logged on [a single record] in HubSpot, so there’s no data leakage between different teams.”