Alibaba has acquired Teambition, a China-based Trello and Asana rival, in its enterprise push

Alibaba has made an acquisition as it continues to square up to the opportunity in enterprise services in China and beyond, akin to what its U.S. counterpart Amazon has done with AWS. TechCrunch has confirmed that the e-commerce and cloud services giant has acquired Teambition, a Microsoft and Tencent-backed platform for co-workers to plan and collaborate on projects, similar to Trello and Asana.

There were rumors of an acquisition circulating yesterday in Chinese media. Alibaba has now confirmed the acquisition to TechCrunch but declined to provide any other details.

Teambition had raised about $17 million in funding since 2013, with investors including Tencent, Microsoft, IDG Capital and Gobi Ventures. Gobi also manages investments on behalf of Alibaba, and that might have been one route to how the two became acquainted. Alibaba’s last acquisition in enterprise was German big data startup Data Artisans for $103 million.

As with others in the project management and collaboration space, Teambition provides users with mobile and desktop apps to interact with the service. In addition to the main planning interface, there is one designed for CRM, called Bingo, as well as a “knowledge base” where businesses can keep extra documentation and other collateral.

The deal is another sign of how Alibaba has been slowly building a business in enterprise powerhouse over the last several years as it races to keep its pole position in the Chinese market, as well as gain a stronger foothold in the wider Asian region and beyond.

In China alone, it has been estimated that enterprise services is a $1 billion opportunity, but with no clear leader at the moment across a range of verticals and segments that fall under that general umbrella, there is a lot to play for, and likely a lot more consolidation to come. (And it’s not the only one: ByteDance — more known for consumer services like TikTok — is rumored to be building a Slack competitor, and Tencent also has its sights on the sector, as does Baidu.)

As with AWS, Alibaba’s enterprise business stems out of the cloud-based infrastructure Alibaba has built for its own e-commerce powerhouse, which it has productised as a service for third parties that it calls Alibaba Cloud, which (like AWS) offers a range of cloud-storage and serving tiers to users.

On top of that, Alibaba has been building and integrating a number of apps and other services that leverage that cloud infrastructure, providing more stickiness for the core service as well as the potential for developing further revenue streams with customers.

These apps and services range from the recently launched “A100” business transformation initiative, where Alibaba proposes working with large companies to digitise and modernize (and help run) their IT backends, through to specific products, such as Alibaba’s Slack competitor DingTalk.

With Alibaba declining to give us any details beyond a confirmation of the acquisition, and Teambition not returning our requests for comment, our best guess is that this app could be a fit in either area. That is to say, one option for Alibaba would be to integrate it and use it as part of a wider “business transformation” and modernization offering, or as a standalone product, as it currently exists.

Teambition today counts a number of Chinese giants, and giants with Chinese outposts, as customers, including Huawei, Xiaomi, TCL and McDonald’s in its customer list. The company currently has nothing on its site indicating an acquisition or any notices regarding future services, so it seems to be business as usual for now.

The opportunity around collaboration and workplace communication has become a very hot area in the last few years, spurred by the general growth of social media in the consumer market and people in business environments wanting to bring in the same kinds of tools to help them get work done. Planning and project management — the area that Teambition and its competitors address — is considered a key pillar in the wider collaboration space alongside cloud services to store and serve files and real-time communication services.

Slack, which is now valued at more than $7 billion, has said it has filed paperwork for a public listing, while Asana is now valued at $1.5 billion and Trello’s owner Atlassian now has a market cap of nearly $26 billion.

Abstract, a versioning platform that helps designers work like developers, raises $30M

Design and engineering are two sides of the same coin when it comes to building software and hardware, and yet — unlike engineers, who can use services like GitHub, Bitbucket, GitLab or many others to help manage their development process — it’s traditionally been slim pickings for designers when it comes to tools to manage the iterations and collaborations that are a part of their workflow.

Now, we are seeing a rising wave of startups responding to that vacuum in the market. In the latest development, Abstract, which has built a platform to help manage versioning and workflow for design projects, is announcing $30 million in funding led by Lightspeed Venture Partners with participation from previous investors Scale Venture Partners, Amplify Partners, and Cowboy Ventures.

Abstract is not disclosing valuation but I understand from sources that it is now $190 million, a decent leap from the $76 million valuation (according to PitchBook) it reached in its last round. Abstract has raised around $55 million since 2016.

This latest round, a Series C, comes at a time when we are seeing a number of other startups that are building tools for designers — some competing with Abstract, and some significantly larger — also raising big money.

In December, InVision (which has an ambition to be the “Salesforce of design”), raised $115 million at a $1.9 billion valuation. Last month, Figma (building both design development and collaboration tools) raised $40 million at a $440 million valuation. Last week, Sketch (which also makes design tools) raised its first outside round of $20 million after a long track record as a very popular bootstrapped startup.

Abstract fits very much in the middle of this spread. The problem that it has identified is that many designers still work in an inefficient way compared to their engineering counterparts (as well as those in other parts of an operation, including people who collaborate on creating documents or presentations). Designers still typically sling around multiple versions of the same file, or try to handle all passing around and working on one single file. That loose structure makes for many errors and lost changes, not to mention an inability to track who has done what and when.

To address this, Abstract offers a number of features. First and foremost, it provides a way for designers to track versions of files — it automatically uploads the most recent copy even if you are working locally, so that whoever works next will use the most updated version. It also lets a project manager task different people with different parts of a project and manage the reviewing system. When a project is in progress or already completed, there is a way to present it and also gather feedback. And then, importantly, the design team can also use Abstract to interface with engineering teams who are building the tech underneath and around that design.

The funding is going to help Abstract expand that with more features, including a better and more streamlined way to export the most current files, as well as more security integrations for better control over who can access materials and when.

It started with a hashtag…

Abstract was co-founded by Josh Brewer and Kevin Smith — the former a designer, the latter an engineer who has also headed up design teams. Brewer, the CEO, said in an interview that his own past experience — his track record includes a period as Twitter’s principal designer — was the kindling that eventually led to the building of Abstract. One example he gave was the rebuild of Twitter’s hashtag back in 2011, which needed to be redesigned across web, mobile web, iOS and Android with a consistent navigation pattern, and new behavioral/usage patterns. (Not a small task, considering how key the hashtag has been to how Twitter has grown both as a viral social platform, and as a commercial business.)

“We had only 12 designers at that time, a relatively small crew, but also a short timeline,” he recalled. “We decided to try to standardize on one tool to manage everything, but didn’t really have much to work with.” He and the team decided to “hack some of the tools we were using at the time,” which included Apache Subversion and GitHub for software development, “to solve the problem.” This helped him identify that there was a clear opportunity to build something that spoke specifically to designers’ needs.

That something has indeed started to find some traction: there are now over 5,000 design teams using Abstract, with companies using it including Shopify, Cisco, Intuit, Spotify, Salesforce, Zappos and Instacart.

“As design becomes an increasingly significant competitive advantage, the tools designers use have to become more sophisticated, collaborative, and transparent to the broader organization. At Lightspeed, we invest in the sort of exceptional teams that are poised to transform a market,” said Nakul Mandan, who is also joining the board. “Josh, Kevin and the rest of the Abstract team have reimagined a design workflow that is quickly becoming the professional standard for how growing design teams work together and with functional stakeholders. We are excited to partner with Abstract to help the company continue its explosive growth.”

Abstract’s first efforts have been to support Sketch, the design tool that raised money just last week. The two are often associated with each other, it seems: many tend to use Abstract and Sketch together as an alternative to using Figma. But in addition to adding more versioning tools, the plan will be to add more design software to the list Abstract supports, starting with Adobe XD and Illustrator (it’s currently opened early-access waitlists for both). But even in the effort to be the go-platform for all kinds of design projects, there are lines being drawn. It seems there are no plans, for example, to support Figma.

Another thing Abstract does not plan to do, Smith added, is to start building and offering many of those design tools itself.

“We are focused on expanding support for other file formats and bringing all your design files, whether its for a font or data to populate a design,” he said. There might be exceptions down the line, however: the company launched an SDK last fall, which Smith described as “our first step to exposing data to developers and design engineers, and that is part of our vision, which may or may not involve other kinds of tooling on the Abstract platform.”

He noted that “one of the things we’re been hearing about is the need for light-weight editing,” so that might be one area where Abstract might build or offer a third-party tool. “If we understand the data we are storing it’s not outside the realm of possibility to expose that. From a tooling perspective, it would be coming from the needs of our customers.”

Salesforce finally embedding Quip into platform, starting with Sales and Service Cloud

When Salesforce bought Quip in 2016 for $750 million, it was fair to wonder what it planned to do with it. While company founder Bret Taylor has moved up the ladder to chief product officer, Quip remained a standalone product. Today that changed when the company announced it was embedding Quip directly into its sales and customer service clouds.

Quip is a collaboration tool with built-in office suite functionality, including word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software. As a standalone product, it enables teams to collaborate around a rich set of documents. Quip for Salesforce is embedding that kind of functionality at the platform level.

Alan Lepofsky, who recently joined Salesforce as VP of Salesforce Quip, says the announcement is the culmination of a desire to embed the tool into Salesforce. “By bringing productivity directly into the context of business workflows, sales and customer support teams can collaborate in brand new ways, enabling them to be better aligned and more efficient, ultimately providing a better customer experience,” Lepofsky told TechCrunch.

Quip appears as a tab in the Sales or Service Cloud interface. There, employees can collaborate on documents and maintain all of their information in a single place without switching between multiple applications or losing context, an increasingly important goal for collaboration tools, including Slack.

Photo: Salesforce

Administrators can build templates to quickly facilitate team building. The templates enable you to start a page pre-populated with information about a specific account or set of accounts. You can take this a step further by creating templates with a set of filters to refine each one to meet the needs of a particular team, based on factors like deal size, industry or location.

In the service context, customer service agents can set up pages to discuss different kinds of issues or problems and work together to get answers quickly, even while chatting with a customer.

Salesforce has various partnerships with Microsoft, Dropbox, Google, Slack and others that provide a similar kind of functionality, and those customers that want to continue using those tools can do that, but 2.5 years after the Quip acquisition, Salesforce is finally putting it to work as a native productivity and collaboration tool.

“As an industry analyst, I spent years advising vendors on the importance of purpose and context as two key drivers for getting work done. Salesforce is delivering both by bringing productivity from Quip directly to CRM and customer service,” Lepofsky said.

The idea of providing a single place to collaborate without task switching is certainly attractive, but it remains to be seen if customers will warm to the idea of using Quip instead of one of the other tools out there. In the meantime, Quip will still be sold as a standalone tool.

Google+ for G Suite lives on and gets new features

You thought Google+ was dead, didn’t you? And it is — if you’re a consumer. But the business version of Google’s social network will live on for the foreseeable future — and it’s getting a bunch of new features today.

Google+ for G Suite isn’t all that different from the Google+ for consumers, but its focus is very much on allowing users inside a company to easily share information. Current users include the likes of Nielsen and French retailer Auchan.

The new features that Google is announcing today give admins more tools for managing and reviewing posts, allow employees to tag content and provide better engagement metrics to posters.

Recently Google introduced the ability for admins to bulk-add groups of users to a Google+ community, for example. And soon, those admins will be able to better review and moderate posts made by their employees. Soon, admins will also be able to define custom streams so that employees could get access to a stream with all of the posts from a company’s leadership team, for example.

But what’s maybe more important in this context is that tags now make it easy for employees to route content to everybody in the company, no matter which group they work in. “Even if you don’t know all employees across an organization, tags makes it easier to route content to the right folks,” the company explains in today’s blog post. “Soon you’ll be able to draft posts and see suggested tags, like #research or #customer-insights when posting customer survey results.”

As far as the new metrics go, there’s nothing all that exciting going on here, but G Suite customers who keep their reporting structure in the service will be able to provide analytics to employees so they can see how their posts are being viewed across the company and which teams engage most with them.

At the end of the day, none of these are revolutionary features. But the timing of today’s announcement surely isn’t a coincidence, given that Google announced the death of the consumer version of Google+ — and the data breach that went along with that — only a few days ago. Today’s announcement is clearly meant to be a reminder that Google+ for the enterprise isn’t going away and remains in active development. I don’t think all that many businesses currently use Google+, though, and with Hangouts Chat and other tools, they now have plenty of options for sharing content across groups.

Dropbox drops some enhancements to Paper collaboration layer

When you’re primarily a storage company with enterprise aspirations, as Dropbox is, you need a layer to to help people use the content in your system beyond simple file sharing. That’s why Dropbox created Paper, to act as that missing collaboration layer. They announced some enhancements to Paper to keep people working in their collaboration tool without having to switch programs.

“Paper is Dropbox’s collaborative workspace for teams. It includes features where users can work together, assign owners to tasks with due dates and embed rich content like video, sound, photos from Youtube, SoundCloud, Pinterest and others,” a Dropbox spokesperson told TechCrunch.

With today’s enhancements you can paste a number of elements into Paper and get live previews. For starters, they are letting you link to a Dropbox folder in Paper, where you can view the files inside the folder, even navigating any sub-folders. When the documents in the folder change, Paper updates the preview automatically because the folder is actually a live link to the Dropbox folder. This one seems like a table stakes feature for a company like Dropbox.

Gif: Dropbox

In addition, Dropbox now supports Airtables, a kind of souped up spreadsheet. With the new enhancement, you just grab an Airtable embed code and drop it into Paper. From there, you can see a preview in whatever Airtable view you’ve saved the table.

Finally, Paper now supports LucidCharts. As with Airtables and folders, you simply paste the link and you can see a live preview inside Paper. If the original chart changes, updates are reflected automatically in the Paper preview.

By now, it’s clear that workers want to maintain focus and not be constantly switching between programs. It’s why Box created the recently announced Activity Stream and Recommended Apps. It’s why Slack has become so popular inside enterprises. These tools provide a way to share content from different enterprise apps without having to open a bunch of tabs or separate apps.

Dropbox Paper is also about giving workers a central place to do their work where you can pull live content previews from different apps without having to work in a bunch of content silos. Dropbox is trying to push that idea along for its enterprise customers with today’s enhancements.

The great enterprise chat race

Track sprinters lined up at starting The competitive deck appears nearly stacked against the startup, and it seems that every other month a new product launches from a major tech company that’s billed in the tech press as the next “Slack Killer.” What Slack does isn’t actually all that original as startup ideas go. It merely provides an environment for teams to share information inside a chat client. Yet… Read More

Giving corporate innovation a jolt

lightning storm Today’s competitive business world demands innovation. Corporations need to innovate to inspire, compete and survive. However, the burden of innovation has largely rested on startups. Large corporations and established businesses are expected to out-think their rivals, but more often we see that they rely on minor product updates or acquisitions in place of home-grown innovation. Read More

Atlassian keeps one foot in the data center and one in the cloud with new products

This photo taken on December 8, 2015 shows flags adorning the head office of Australian tech start-up Atlassian . Atlassian wants the best of both the cloud and data center worlds, and it announced at the Atlassian Summit today that it was expanding its data center-cloud strategy with new products. At a time when companies are shifting their business to the cloud, it may seem like an odd approach to offer both cloud and on-prem products, but Atlassian sees it as hedging its best in a world that remains… Read More

After more than a decade, the fire still burns for Box CEO Aaron Levie

Aaron Levie at TechCrunch Disrupt Box CEO Aaron Levie has been at it for more than a decade. For a guy barely past 30, that means it’s all he’s done professionally for his entire adult life. You could forgive him if he were thinking about another challenge, but even after all this time, the fire still clearly burns for Levie. When I asked him about possibly getting bored in an in-person interview this week at… Read More