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Dropbox CEO Drew Houston says the pandemic forced the company to reevaluate what work means

Dropbox CEO and co-founder Drew Houston, appearing at TechCrunch Disrupt today, said that COVID has accelerated a shift to distributed work that we have been talking about for some time, and these new ways of working will not simply go away when the pandemic is over.

“When you think more broadly about the effects of the shift to distributed work, it will be felt well beyond when we go back to the office. So we’ve gone through a one-way door. This is maybe one of the biggest changes to knowledge work since that term was invented in 1959,” Houston told TechCrunch Editor-In-Chief Matthew Panzarino.

That change has prompted Dropbox to completely rethink the product set over the last six months, as the company has watched the way people work change in such a dramatic way. He said even though Dropbox is a cloud service, no SaaS tool in his view was purpose-built for this new way of working and we have to reevaluate what work means in this new context.

“Back in March we started thinking about this, and how [the rapid shift to distributed work] just kind of happened. It wasn’t really designed. What if you did design it? How would you design this experience to be really great? And so starting in March we reoriented our whole product road map around distributed work,” he said.

He also broadly hinted that the fruits of that redesign are coming down the pike. “We’ll have a lot more to share about our upcoming launches in the future,” he said.

Houston said that his company has adjusted well to working from home, but when they had to shut down the office, he was in the same boat as every other CEO when it came to running his company during a pandemic. Nobody had a blueprint on what to do.

“When it first happened, I mean there’s no playbook for running a company during a global pandemic so you have to start with making sure you’re taking care of your customers, taking care of your employees, I mean there’s so many people whose lives have been turned upside down in so many ways,” he said.

But as he checked in on the customers, he saw them asking for new workflows and ways of working, and he recognized there could be an opportunity to design tools to meet these needs.

“I mean this transition was about as abrupt and dramatic and unplanned as you can possibly imagine, and being able to kind of shape it and be intentional is a huge opportunity,” Houston said.

Houston debuted Dropbox in 2008 at the precursor to TechCrunch Disrupt, then called the TechCrunch 50. He mentioned that the Wi-Fi went out during his demo, proving the hazards of live demos, but offered words of encouragement to this week’s TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield participants.

Although his is a public company on a $1.8 billion run rate, he went through all the stages of a startup, getting funding and eventually going public, and even today as a mature public company, Dropbox is still evolving and changing as it adapts to changing requirements in the marketplace.

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Fiverr Business helps teams manage freelance projects

Freelance marketplace Fiverr launched a new service today designed to help teams at larger companies manage their work with freelancers.

CEO Micha Kaufman told me via email that Fiverr had already begun working with larger clients, but that Fiverr Business is better-designed to meet their needs.

“Organizations require tools to manage their team accounts, defining projects, assigning budgets, tracking progress and collaborating internally,” Kaufman wrote. “Fiverr Business provides all of that and much more, including exclusive access to Fiverr’s personal executive assistants which are always available to Fiverr Business customers to help with administrative account tasks, general project management, talent matching, and more.”

He also suggested that with the pandemic forcing companies to adopt remote work and placing pressure on their bottom lines, many of them are increasingly turning to freelancers, and he claimed, “2020 marks the beginning of a decade where businesses will invest and learn how to truly integrate freelancers into their workflows.”

Image Credits: Fiverr

Fiverr Group Product Manager Meidad Hinkis walked me through the new service, showing me how users can create projects, assign team members and set freelance budgets, then actually hire freelancers, as well as offer internal and external feedback on the work that comes in.

He also noted there’s a special pool of curated freelancers available through Fiverr Business, and like Kaufman, emphasized that customers will also have access to assistants to help them find freelancers and manage projects. (On the freelancer side, payments and the rest of the experience should be pretty similar.)

On top of the freelancer fees, Fiverr Business will cost $149 per year for teams of up to 50 users, and Hinkis said the company is offering the first year for free.

“We so believe in product and the direction that we want people to get real value before they decide,” he said.

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The $10B JEDI contract is locked, loaded and still completely stuck

The other day I took a moment to count the number of stories we’ve done on TechCrunch on the DoD’s $10 billion, decade-long, winner-take-all, JEDI cloud contract. This marks the 30th time we’ve written about this deal over the last two years, and it comes after a busy week last week in JEDI cloud contract news.

That we’re still writing about this is fairly odd if you consider the winner was announced last October when the DoD chose Microsoft, but there is no end in sight to the on-going drama that is this procurement process.

Government contracts don’t typically catch our attention at TechCrunch, but this one felt different early on. There was the size and scope of the deal of course. There was the cute play on the “Star Wars” theme. There was Oracle acting like a batter complaining to the umpire before the first pitch was thrown. There was the fact that everyone thought Amazon would win until it didn’t.

There was a lot going on. In fact, there’s still a lot going on with this story.

Oracle doth protest too much

Let’s start with Oracle, which dispatched CEO Safra Catz to the White House in April 2018 even before the RFP had been written. She was setting the stage to complain that the deal was going to be set up to favor Amazon, something that Oracle alleged until the day Microsoft was picked the winner.

Catz had been on the Trump transition team and so had the ear of the president. While the president certainly interjected himself in this process, it’s not known how much influence that particular meeting might have had. Suffice to say that it was only the first volley in Oracle’s long war against the JEDI contract procurement process.

It would include official complaints with the Government Accountability Office and a federal lawsuit worth not coincidentally $10 billion. It would claim the contract favored Amazon. It would argue that the one-vendor approach wasn’t proper. It would suggest that because the DoD had some former Amazon employees helping write the RFP, that it somehow favored Amazon. The GAO and two court cases found otherwise, ruling against Oracle every single time.

It’s worth noting that the Court of Appeals ruling last week indicated that Oracle didn’t even meet some of the basic contractual requirements, all the while complaining about the process itself from the start.

Amazon continues to press protests

Nobody was more surprised that Amazon lost the deal than Amazon itself. It still believes to this day that it is technically superior to Microsoft and that it can offer the DoD the best approach. The DoD doesn’t agree. On Friday, it reaffirmed its choice of Microsoft. But that is not the end of this, not by a long shot.

Amazon has maintained since the decision was made last October that the decision-making process had been tainted by presidential interference in the process. They believe that because of the president’s personal dislike of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post, he inserted himself in the process to prevent Bezos’ company from winning that deal.

In January, Amazon filed a motion to stop work on the project until this could all be sorted out. In February, a judge halted work on the project until Amazon’s complaints could be heard by the court. It is September and that order is still in place.

In a blog post on Friday, Amazon reiterated its case, which is based on presidential interference and what it believes is technical superiority. “In February, the Court of Federal Claims stopped performance on JEDI. The Court determined AWS’s protest had merit, and that Microsoft’s proposal likely failed to meet a key solicitation requirement and was likely deficient and ineligible for award. Our protest detailed how pervasive these errors were (impacting all six technical evaluation factors), and the Judge stopped the DoD from moving forward because the very first issue she reviewed demonstrated serious flaws,” Amazon wrote in the post.

Microsoft for the win?

Microsoft on the other hand went quietly about its business throughout this process. It announced Azure Stack, a kind of portable cloud that would work well as a field operations computer system. It beefed up its government security credentials.

Even though Microsoft didn’t agree with the one-vendor approach, indicating that the government would benefit more from the multivendor approach many of its customers were taking, it made clear if those were the rules, it was in it to win it — and win it did, much to the surprise of everyone, especially Amazon.

Yet here we are, almost a year later and in spite of the fact that the DoD found once again, after further review, that Microsoft is still the winner, the contract remains in limbo. Until that pending court case is resolved, we will continue to watch and wait and wonder if this will ever be truly over, and the JEDI cloud contract will actually be implemented.

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DoD reaffirms Microsoft has won JEDI cloud contract, but Amazon legal complaints still pending

We have seen a lot of action this week as the DoD tries to finally determine the final winner of the $10 billion, decade-long DoD JEDI cloud contract. Today, the DoD released a statement that after reviewing the proposals from finalists Microsoft and Amazon again, it reiterated that Microsoft was the winner of the contract.

“The Department has completed its comprehensive re-evaluation of the JEDI Cloud proposals and determined that Microsoft’s proposal continues to represent the best value to the Government. The JEDI Cloud contract is a firm-fixed-price, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract that will make a full range of cloud computing services available to the DoD,” the DoD said in a statement.

This comes on the heels of yesterday’s Court of Appeals decision denying Oracle’s argument that the procurement process was flawed and that there was a conflict of interest because a former Amazon employee helped write the requirements for the RFP.

While the DoD has determined that it believes that Microsoft should still get the contract, after selecting them last October, that doesn’t mean this is the end of the line for this long-running saga. In fact, a federal judge halted work on the project in February pending a hearing on an ongoing protest from Amazon, which believes it should have won based on merit, and the fact it believes the president interfered with the procurement process to prevent Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, from getting the lucrative contract.

The DoD confirmed that the project could not begin until the legal wrangling was settled. “While contract performance will not begin immediately due to the Preliminary Injunction Order issued by the Court of Federal Claims on February 13, 2020, DoD is eager to begin delivering this capability to our men and women in uniform,” the DoD reported in a statement.

A Microsoft spokesperson said the company was ready to get to work on the project as soon as it got the OK to proceed. “We appreciate that after careful review, the DoD confirmed that we offered the right technology and the best value. We’re ready to get to work and make sure that those who serve our country have access to this much needed technology,” a Microsoft spokesperson told TechCrunch .

Meanwhile, in a blog post published late this afternoon, Amazon made it clear that it was unhappy with today’s outcome and will continue to pursue legal remedy for what they believe to be presidential interference that has threatened the integrity of the procurement process. Here’s how they concluded the blog post:

We strongly disagree with the DoD’s flawed evaluation and believe it’s critical for our country that the government and its elected leaders administer procurements objectively and in a manner that is free from political influence. The question we continue to ask ourselves is whether the President of the United States should be allowed to use the budget of the Department of Defense to pursue his own personal and political ends? Throughout our protest, we’ve been clear that we won’t allow blatant political interference, or inferior technology, to become an acceptable standard. Although these are not easy decisions to make, and we do not take them lightly, we will not back down in the face of targeted political cronyism or illusory corrective actions, and we will continue pursuing a fair, objective, and impartial review.

While today’s statement from DoD appears to take us one step closer to the end of the road for this long-running drama, it won’t be over until the court rules on Amazon’s arguments. It’s clear from today’s blog post that Amazon has no intention of stepping down.

Note: We have  updated this story with content from an Amazon blog post responding to this news.

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Google Cloud lets businesses create their own text-to-speech voices

Google launched a few updates to its Contact Center AI product today, but the most interesting one is probably the beta of its new Custom Voice service, which will let brands create their own text-to-speech voices to best represent their own brands.

Maybe your company has a well-known spokesperson for example, but it would be pretty arduous to have them record every sentence in an automated response system or bring them back to the studio whenever you launch a new product or procedure. With Custom Voice, businesses can bring in their voice talent to the studio and have them record a script provided by Google. The company will then take those recordings and train its speech models based on them.

As of now, this seems to be a somewhat manual task on Google’s side. Training and evaluating the model will take “several weeks,” the company says and Google itself will conduct its own tests of the trained model before sending it back to the business that commissioned the model. After that, the business must follow Google’s own testing process to evaluate the results and sign off on it.

For now, these custom voices are still in beta and only American English is supported so far.

It’s also worth noting that Google’s review process is meant to ensure that the result is aligned with its internal AI Principles, which it released back in 2018.

Like with similar projects, I would expect that this lengthy process of creating custom voices for these contact center solutions will become mainstream quickly. While it will just be a gimmick for some brands (remember those custom voices for stand-alone GPS systems back in the day?), it will allow the more forward-thinking brands to distinguish their own contact center experiences from those of the competition. Nobody likes calling customer support, but a more thoughtful experience that doesn’t make you think you’re talking to a random phone tree may just help alleviate some of the stress at least.

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Box CEO Aaron Levie says thrifty founders have more control

‘Get as close to revenue being equal to your expenses as you can possibly get to’

Once upon a time, Box’s Aaron Levie was just a guy with an idea for a company: 15 years ago as a USC student, he conceived of a way to simply store and share files online.

It may be hard to recall, but back then, the world was awash with thumb drives and moving files manually, but Levie saw an opportunity to change that.

Today, his company helps enterprise customers collaborate and manage content in the cloud, but when Levie appeared on an episode of Extra Crunch Live at the end of May, my colleague Jon Shieber and I asked him if he had any advice for startups. While he was careful to point out that there is no “one size fits all” advice, he did make one thing clear:

“I would highly recommend to any company of any size that you have as much control of your destiny as possible. So put yourself in a position where you spend as little amount of dollars as you can from a burn standpoint and get as close to revenue being equal to your expenses as you can possibly get to,” he advised.

Don’t let current conditions scare you

Levie also advised founders not to be frightened off by current conditions, whether that’s the pandemic or the recession. Instead, he said if you have an idea, seize the moment and build it, regardless of the economy or the state of the world. If, like Levie, you are in it for the long haul, this too will pass, and if your idea is good enough, it will survive and even thrive as you move through your startup growth cycle.

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Zoom UX teardown: 5 fails and how to fix them

Valued at over $60 billion and used by millions each day for work and staying in touch with friends and family, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped make Zoom one of the most popular and relevant enterprise applications.

On one level, its surge to the top can be summed up in three words: “It just works.” However, that doesn’t mean Zoom’s user experience is perfect — in fact, far from it.

With the help of Built for Mars founder and UX expert Peter Ramsey, we dive deeper into the user experience of Zoom on Mac, highlighting five UX fails and how to fix them. More broadly, we discuss how to design for “empty states,” why asking “copy to clipboard” requests are problematic and other issues.

Always point to the next action

This is an incredibly simple rule, yet you’d be surprised how often software and websites leave users scratching their heads trying to figure what they’re expected to do next. Clear signposting and contextual user prompts are key.

The fail: In Zoom, as soon as you create a meeting, you’re sat in an empty meeting room on your own. This sucks, because obviously you want to invite people in. Otherwise, why are you using Zoom? Another problem here is that the next action is hidden in a busy menu with other actions you probably never or rarely use.

The fix: Once you’ve created a meeting (not joined, but created), Zoom should prompt and signpost you how to add people. Sure, have a skip option. But it needs some way of saying “Okay, do this next.”

Steve O’Hear: Not pointing to the next action seems to be quite a common fail, why do you think this is? If I had to guess, product developers become too close to a product and develop a mindset that assumes too much prior knowledge and where the obvious blurs with the nonobvious?

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Figma CEO Dylan Field discusses fundraising, hiring and marketing in stealth mode

You’d be hard pressed to hang out with a designer and not hear the name Figma.

The company behind the largely browser-based design tool has made a huge splash in the past few years, building a massive war chest with more than $130 million from investors like A16Z, Sequoia, Greylock, Kleiner Perkins and Index.

The company was founded in 2012 and spent several years in stealth, raising both its seed and Series A without having any public product or user metrics.

At Early Stage, we spoke with co-founder and CEO Dylan Field about the process of hiring and fundraising while in stealth and how life at the company changed following its launch in 2016. Field, who was 20 when he founded the company, also touched on the lessons he’s learned from his team about leadership. Chief among them: the importance of empowering the people you hire.

You can check out the full conversation in the video embedded below, as well as a lightly edited transcript.

Raising a Series A a year behind schedule while still in stealth

I actually had approached John Lilly from Greylock in our seed round. For those who don’t know, John Lilly was the CEO of Mozilla and an amazing guy. He’s on a lot of really cool boards and has a bunch of interesting experience for Figma, with very deep roots in design. I had approached him for the seed round, and he basically said to us, “You know, I don’t think you guys know what you’re doing, but I’m very intrigued, so let’s keep in touch.” This is the famous line that you hear from every investor ever. It’s like “Yeah, let’s keep in touch, let me know if I can be helpful.” Sometimes, they actually mean it. In John’s case, he actually would follow up every few months or I would follow up with him. We’d grab coffee, and he helped me develop the strategy to a point that got us to what we are today. And that was a collaboration. I could really learn a lot from him on that one.

When we started off the idea was: Let’s have this global community around design, and you’ll be able to use the tool to post to the community and someday we’ll think about how people can pay us. Talking with John got me to the point where I realized we need to start with a business tool. We’ll build the community later. Now, we’re starting to work toward that.

At some point, John told me, “Hey, if you ever think about raising again, let me know.” A few weeks later, I told him maybe we would raise because I just wanted to work with him. We talked to a few other investors. I think it’s pretty important that there’s always a competitive dynamic in the round. But really, it was just him that we were really considering for that round. He really did us a solid. He really believed in us. At the time, it wasn’t like there were metrics to look at. He had conviction in the space, a conviction in the attack, and he had conviction in me and Evan, which I feel very, very honored by. He’s a dear mentor to this day, and he’s on our board. And it’s been a really deep relationship.

How to recruit while in stealth mode

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Just what would an enterprise company like Microsoft or Oracle do with TikTok?

By now you’ve probably heard that under pressure from the current administration, TikTok owner ByteDance is putting the viral video service up for sale, and surprisingly a couple of big name enterprise companies are interested. These organizations are better known for the kind of tech that would bore the average TikTok user to tears. Yet, stories have persisted that Microsoft and even Oracle are sniffing around the video social network.

As TechCrunch’s Danny Crichton pointed out last week, bankers involved in the sale have a lot of motivation to leak rumors to the press to drive up the price of TikTok. That means none of this might be true, yet the rumors aren’t going away. It begs the question: Why would a company like Oracle or Microsoft be interested in a property like TikTok?

For starters, Oracle is a lot more than the database company it was known for in the past. These days, it has its fingers in many, many pies, including marketing automation and cloud infrastructure services. In April, as the pandemic was just beginning to heat up, Zoom surprised just about everyone when it announced a partnership with Oracle’s cloud arm.

Oracle isn’t really even on the board when it comes to cloud infrastructure market share, where it is well behind rivals AWS, Microsoft, Google, Alibaba and IBM, wallowing somewhere in single-digit market share. Oracle wants to be a bigger player.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has successfully transitioned to the cloud as well as any company, but still remains far behind AWS in the cloud infrastructure market. It wants to close the gap with AWS, and owning TikTok could get it closer to that goal faster.

Simply put, says Holger Mueller, an analyst at Constellation Research, if Oracle combined Zoom and TikTok, it could have itself a couple of nice anchor clients. Yes, like the proverbial mall trying to attract Target and Nordstrom, apparently Oracle wants to do the same with its cloud service, and if it has to buy the tenant, so be it.

“TikTok will add plenty of load to their infrastructure service. That’s what matters to them with viral loads preferred. If Microsoft gets TikTok it could boost their usage by between 2% and 5%, while for Oracle it could be as much 10%,” he said. He says the difference is that Oracle has a much smaller user base now, so it would relatively boost its usage all the more.

As Mueller points out, with the government helping push TikTok’s owner to make the sale, it’s a huge opportunity for a company like Oracle or Microsoft, and why the rumors have weight. “It’s very plausible from a cloud business perspective, and plausible from a business opportunity perspective created by the U.S. government,” he said.

While it could make sense to attract a large user base to your systems to drive up usage and market share in that way, Brent Leary, founder and principal analyst at CRM Essentials, says that just by having a large U.S. tech company buy the video app could make it less attractive to the very users Microsoft or Oracle is hoping to capture.

“An old-guard enterprise tech company buying Tiktok would likely lessen the appeal of current users. Younger people are already leaving Facebook because the old folks have taken it over,” Leary said. And that could mean young users, who are boosting the platform’s stats today, could jump ship to whatever is the next big social phenomenon.

It’s worth pointing out that just today, the president indicated support for Oracle, according to a Wall Street Journal report. The publication also reported that Oracle’s billionaire owner Larry Ellison is a big supporter of the president, having thrown him a fundraiser for his reelection bid at his house earlier this year. Oracle CEO Safra Catz also has ties to the administration, having served on the transition team in 2016.

It’s unclear whether these companies have a genuine interest, but the general feeling is someone is going to buy the service, and whoever does could get a big boost in users simply by using some percentage of their cash hordes to get there. By the way, another company with reported interest is Twitter. Certainly putting the two social platforms together could create a mega platform to compete more directly with Facebook.

You might see other big names trying to boost cloud infrastructure usage, like IBM or Google, enter the fray.  Perhaps even Amazon could make an offer to cement its lead, although if the deal has to go through the federal government, that makes it less likely, given the tense relationship between Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and the president that surfaced during the Pentagon JEDI cloud contract drama.

Apple has already indicated that in spite of having the largest cash on hand of any company, with over $193 billion, give or take, it apparently isn’t interested. Apple may not be, but somebody surely is, even some companies you couldn’t imagine owning a property like this.

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Microsoft launches Open Service Mesh

Microsoft today announced the launch of a new open-source service mesh based on the Envoy proxy. The Open Service Mesh is meant to be a reference implementation of the Service Mesh Interface (SMI) spec, a standard interface for service meshes on Kubernetes that has the backing of most of the players in this ecosystem.

The company plans to donate Open Service Mesh to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) to ensure that it is community-led and has open governance.

“SMI is really resonating with folks and so we really thought that there was room in the ecosystem for a reference implementation of SMI where the mesh technology was first and foremost implementing those SMI APIs and making it the best possible SMI experience for customers,” Microsoft partner program manager (and CNCF board member) Gabe Monroy told me.

Image Credits: Microsoft

He also added that, because SMI provides the lowest common denominator API design, Open Service Mesh gives users the ability to “bail out” to raw Envoy if they need some more advanced features. This “no cliffs” design, Monroy noted, is core to the philosophy behind Open Service Mesh.

As for its feature set, SMI handles all of the standard service mesh features you’d expect, including securing communications between services using mTLS, managing access control policies, service monitoring and more.

Image Credits: Microsoft

There are plenty of other service mesh technologies in the market today, though. So why would Microsoft launch this?

“What our customers have been telling us is that solutions that are out there today, Istio being a good example, are extremely complex,” he said. “It’s not just me saying this. We see the data in the AKS support queue of customers who are trying to use this stuff — and they’re struggling right here. This is just hard technology to use, hard technology to build at scale. And so the solutions that were out there all had something that wasn’t quite right and we really felt like something lighter weight and something with more of an SMI focus was what was going to hit the sweet spot for the customers that are dabbling in this technology today.”

Monroy also noted that Open Service Mesh can sit alongside other solutions like Linkerd, for example.

A lot of pundits expected Google to also donate its Istio service mesh to the CNCF. That move didn’t materialize. “It’s funny. A lot of people are very focused on the governance aspect of this,” he said. “I think when people over-focus on that, you lose sight of how are customers doing with this technology. And the truth is that customers are not having a great time with Istio in the wild today. I think even folks who are deep in that community will acknowledge that and that’s really the reason why we’re not interested in contributing to that ecosystem at the moment.”

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