UnitedMasters releases iPhone app for DIY cross-service music distribution

Alphabet-backed UnitedMasters, the music label distribution startup and record label alternative that offers artists 100 percent ownership of everything they create, launched its iPhone app today.

The iPhone app works like the service they used to offer only via the web, giving artists the chance to upload their own tracks (from iCloud, Dropbox or directly from text messages), then distribute them to a full range of streaming music platforms, including Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and more. In exchange for this distribution, as well as analytics on how your music is performing, UnitedMasters takes a 10% share on revenue generated by tracks it distributes, but artists retain full ownership of the content they create.

UnitedMasters also works with brand partners, including Bose, the NBA and AT&T, to place tracks in marketing use across the brand’s properties and distributed content. Music creators are paid out via PayPal once they connect their accounts, and they can also tie-in their social accounts for connecting their overall online presence with their music.

UnitedMasters

Using the app, artists can create entire releases by uploading not only music tracks but also high-quality cover art, and by entering information like whether any producers participated in the music creation, and whether the tracks contain any explicit lyrics. You can also specific an exact desired release date, and UnitedMasters will do its best to distribute across services on that day, pending content approvals.

UnitedMasters was founded by former Interscope Records president Steve Stoute, and also has funding from Andreessen Horwitz and 20th Century Fox. It’s aiming to serve a new generation of artists who are disenfranchised by the traditional label model, but seeking distribution through the services where listeners actually spend their time, and using the iPhone as manage the entire process definitely fits with serving that customer base.

Corporate travel platform TripActions quadruples valuation with $250M Series D

Venture capital investors Andreessen Horowitz, Zeev Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Partners and SGVC have valued TripActions, a travel booking service tailored for large enterprises, at $4 billion with a $250 million Series D.

The round, announced this morning, brings the business’s total raised to $480 million.

TripActions co-founder and chief executive officer Ariel Cohen tells TechCrunch the company’s revenue is growing 5x year-over-year but declined to disclose 2018 revenues. Currently, it has more than 2,000 customers, including WeWork, Zoom, Dropbox and Robinhood.

Founded in 2015, TripActions is out to replace antiquated travel booking systems with a platform that integrates company HR and expense systems. Using TripActions, business travelers can arrange flights, hotels and transportation, with 24/7 global support from the startup’s staff.

“We are going after a really big industry,” Cohen said. “We are replacing something people don’t like. They don’t like the tools corporates are giving them today to book business trips.”

TripActions plans to use the cash to accelerate its international expansion. Only 18 months ago, it operated just one office out of its headquarters in Palo Alto. Today, the company has 700 employees with offices in London, Sydney, Amsterdam and more.

Co-founder and chief technology officer Ilan Twig says once they brought on large enterprise customers like Box, for example, they had no choice but to better craft the service for markets located outside the U.S.

“In a year we went from a startup with an office in Palo Alto to having more than 100 employees in Europe,” Twig tells TechCrunch. “We need to meet users where they are … We need agents and operations in the various [geographies] that we are serving. And then of course sales and marketing in all of these [geographies].”

With the latest round, TripActions is sitting on a mountain of cash. The founders tell us they’ve yet to spend a dime of their $154 million Series C. Closed in November, the financing valued the company at $1 billion, cementing its position in the unicorn club.

“We want to make sure we are equipped to take the market,” Cohen said. “Do we need the entire amount of money we’ve raised to date? The answer is no. But do we want the means to seize the opportunity in the long term? The answer is hell yes.”

Ray Dalio, Niantic, Adobe, Dropbox, remote work, Northzone, and Slack

Ray Dalio on the Extra Crunch stage at Disrupt SF 2019

This year at Disrupt SF, we will be hosting a special Extra Crunch stage focused on the issues that confront startup founders in building their companies.

I am pleased to announce that Ray Dalio of Bridgewater fame will be sitting down for a fireside chat on the Extra Crunch stage to discuss his Principles, and how to build a startup culture. Building a strong culture early on is the hallmark of almost all successful startups, and it is great to have such a leading figure to chat on this critical topic.

For tickets and more information, head over to our Disrupt SF event page.

A chat with Niantic CEO John Hanke on the launch of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite

Niantic dominated the mobile gaming world with its Pokémon Go augmented reality game. Now, the company is coming back for round two with the launch of its wizards-and-Hogwarts-themed game, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.

Three years after moving off AWS, Dropbox infrastructure continues to evolve

Conventional wisdom would suggest that you close your data centers and move to the cloud, not the other way around, but in 2016 Dropbox undertook the opposite journey. It (mostly) ended its long-time relationship with AWS and built its own data centers.

Of course, that same conventional wisdom would say, it’s going to get prohibitively expensive and more complicated to keep this up. But Dropbox still believes it made the right decision and has found innovative ways to keep costs down.

Akhil Gupta, VP of Engineering at Dropbox, says that when Dropbox decided to build its own data centers, it realized that as a massive file storage service, it needed control over certain aspects of the underlying hardware that was difficult for AWS to provide, especially in 2016 when Dropbox began making the transition.

“Public cloud by design is trying to work with multiple workloads, customers and use cases and it has to optimize for the lowest common denominator. When you have the scale of Dropbox, it was entirely possible to do what we did,” Gupta explained.

Alone again, naturally

One of the key challenges of trying to manage your own data centers, or build a private cloud where you still act like a cloud company in a private context, is that it’s difficult to innovate and scale the way the public cloud companies do, especially AWS. Dropbox looked at the landscape and decided it would be better off doing just that, and Gupta says even with a small team — the original team was just 30 people — it’s been able to keep innovating.

Meet your new chief of staff: An AI chatbot

Years ago, a mobile app for email launched to immediate fanfare. Simply called Mailbox, its life was woefully cut short — we’ll get to that. Today, its founders are back with their second act: An AI-enabled assistant called Navigator meant to help teams work and communicate more efficiently.

With the support of $12 million in Series A funding from CRV, #Angels, Designer Fund, SV Angel, Dropbox’s Drew Houston and other angel investors, Aspen, the San Francisco and Seattle-based startup behind Navigator, has quietly been beta testing its tool within 50 organizations across the U.S.

“We’ve had teams and research institutes and churches and academic institutions, places that aren’t businesses at all in addition to smaller startups and large four-figure-person organizations using it,” Mailbox and Navigator co-founder and chief executive officer Gentry Underwood tells TechCrunch. “Pretty much anywhere you have meetings, there is value for Navigator.”

The life and death of Mailbox

Mailbox, a mobile email management system, was responsible for many of the features both Apple Mail and Gmail use today, including swipe to archive or delete.

It launched in 2013, as mentioned, to quick success. At the time, Apple’s App Store was much newer and there were few available options for mobile email, especially ones that prioritized design and efficiency, as Mailbox did.

As a result, Mailbox, created by a venture-capital backed Palo Alto startup by the name of Orchestra, exploded. Mere weeks after its launch, it attracted 1.25 million people to its waitlist. Shortly after that, it hit another milestone: It was acquired.

Dropbox paid $100 million to bring Mailbox and its 13 employees on board, including Underwood and his co-founder Scott Cannon. Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, still years away from leading his company through a successful IPO, told The Wall Street Journal his plan was to “help Mailbox reach a much different audience much faster.”

“That was a very special time,” Underwood said. “There were still a lot of opportunities for improvements for how email was being used on these tiny little devices.”

Two years later, in 2015, the worst happened. Dropbox made the unpopular decision to shut down Mailbox, despite its cult following, in order to focus more on its own core product and the development of other new productivity tools.

“That was a hard time for us and Mailbox users,” Underwood said. “It was a tough decision for Dropbox as well … Ultimately, Mailbox didn’t meet the focus criteria for Dropbox and I understood the decision. It was in every sense their right to do with it what they thought was best.”

Act two

About a year later, in 2016, the Mailbox team had licked their wounds and begun work on an entirely new venture.

Much like Slack disrupted the frequency and efficiency of workplace communication, Navigator hopes to reimagine meetings, an essential element of business that’s often dreaded the most.

“What we saw with Mailbox was that really great processes were an effective way to help teams be creative; yet, lots of teams don’t make use of great processes,” Underwood explained. “After Mailbox, we really wanted to find a way to help teams be more effective and Navigator is a teamwork assistant whose job is really to help teams basically make the most of working together.”

According to Doodle’s 2019 state of the meeting report, 71% of working professionals lose time every week because of unnecessary meetings, most often because those meetings are ineffective or poorly organized. This is a cause of frustration and a loss of time and money; in fact, Doodle estimates nearly $400 billion is lost annually as a consequence of botched meetings.

Still, meetings aren’t going away. Workers in corporate America spend roughly five hours per week in meetings and another four hours per week preparing for meetings. Managers spend double that. There’s a big opportunity here to leverage technology to improve, even eliminate, this pain point.

The video conferencing business Zoom, for example, is hyperfocused on refining the video meeting, specifically for the remote worker. Its recent initial public offering and subsequent performance on the public markets has proven its value and the demand for technology that makes doing business easier. Slack’s direct listing today, which saw the business tripling in value at its debut, is further proof of the market opportunity for productivity tech.

Similar to Slack, which began as an artful online game, Aspen has prioritized design in building Navigator, the first of many products it plans to launch.

“We approached the problem of helping teams work together as a design problem,” Underwood said. “We tried over 200 different prototypes of different ways to encode and distribute best practices within a team. The concept of a virtual teammate was the one that finally began to show signs of working.”

Underwood says nothing was directly imported from Mailbox, aside from a dedication to human-centered design.

“We are solving a different problem but the way we are going about solving it, in trying to build something that resonates with people, is certainly consistent,” he said. “As a team, we seem to gravitate toward these ubiquitous, uncomfortable, painful problems, like teams and meetings, and try to build solutions that transform people’s experiences of them.”

Making meetings suck less

Navigator focuses on team meetings and one-on-ones, requesting information from meeting attendees before and after the meeting takes place.

First, it learns the topic of the meeting from participants and organizes them into a clear agenda complete with discussion topics. During the meeting, workers can use Navigator to quickly capture key takeaways that are later shared with every member of the meeting afterward. Later, the assistant checks in with attendees to learn whether they’ve completed their tasks.

It’s sort of like a chief of staff focused on helping meetings run effectively,” Underwood said. “It helps people show up. They feel invited and welcome and like their voice is valued, which changes how it feels for them to enter that room.”

Currently, Navigator works with Google’s G suite, Microsoft’s Office 365 and Slack. Soon, it will offer task integration with Asana, Jira, Trello and others. 

For now, it comes without a cost as the team continues to work out bugs with its first cohort of customers. Underwood says later this year they will begin to incorporate subscription-based feeds for the product.

“Navigator is another teammate, not another tool,” Underwood said. “It’s about turning meetings from painful, expensive wastes of time, to effective, meaningful moments of deep collaboration. They have that potential. When done well, they can be exceedingly powerful.”

MailChimp’s Ben Chestnut on bootstrapping a startup to $700M in revenue

The well-known tech startup routine of coming up with an idea, raising money from VCs in increasing rounds as valuations continue to rise, and then eventually going public or getting acquired has been around for as long as the myth of Silicon Valley itself. But the evolution of MailChimp — a notable, bootstrapped outlier out of Atlanta, Georgia, that provides email and other marketing services to small businesses — tells a very different story of tech startup success.

As the company closes in on $700 million in annual revenues for 2019, it has no intention of letting up, or selling out: No outside funding, no plans for an IPO, and no to all the companies that have tried to acquire it. As it has grown, it has been profitable from day one.

This week, the company is unveiling what is probably its biggest product update since first starting to sell email marketing services 20 years ago: It’s launching a new marketing platform that features social media management, ad retargeting, AI-based business intelligence, domain sales, web development templates and more.

I took the opportunity to speak with its co-founder and CEO, Ben Chestnut — who started Mailchimp as a side project with two friends, Mark Armstrong and Dan Kurzius, in the trough of the first dot-com bust — on Mailchimp’s origins and plans for what comes next. The startup’s story is a firm example of how there is definitely more than one route to success in tech.


Ingrid Lunden: You’re launching a new marketing platform today, but I want to walk back a little first. This isn’t your first move away from email. We discovered back in March that you quietly acquired a Canadian e-commerce startup, LemonStand, just as you were parting ways with Shopify.

Ben Chestnut: We wanted to have a tool to help small business marketers do their initial selling. The focus is not multiple products. Just one. We’re not interested in setting up full-blown e-commerce carts. This is about helping companies sell one product in an Instagram ad with a buy button, and we felt that the people at LemonStand could help us with that.

Index Ventures, Stripe back bookkeeping service Pilot with $40M

Five years after Dropbox acquired their startup Zulip, Waseem Daher, Jeff Arnold and Jessica McKellar have gained traction for their third business together: Pilot.

Pilot helps startups and small businesses manage their back office. Chief executive officer Daher admits it may seem a little boring, but the market opportunity is undeniably huge. To tackle the market, Pilot is today announcing a $40 million Series B led by Index Ventures with participation from Stripe, the online payment processing system.

The round values Pilot, which has raised about $60 million to date, at $355 million.

“It’s a massive industry that has sucked in the past,” Daher told TechCrunch. “People want a really high-quality solution to the bookkeeping problem. The market really wants this to exist and we’ve assembled a world-class team that’s capable of knocking this out of the park.”

San Francisco-based Pilot launched in 2017, more than a decade after the three founders met in MIT’s student computing group. It’s not surprising they’ve garnered attention from venture capitalists, given that their first two companies resulted in notable acquisitions.

Pilot has taken on a massively overlooked but strategic segment — bookkeeping,” Index’s Mark Goldberg told TechCrunch via email. “While dry on the surface, the opportunity is enormous given that an estimated $60 billion is spent on bookkeeping and accounting in the U.S. alone. It’s a service industry that can finally be automated with technology and this is the perfect team to take this on — third-time founders with a perfect combo of financial acumen and engineering.”

The trio of founders’ first project, Linux upgrade software called Ksplice, sold to Oracle in 2011. Their next business, Zulip, exited to Dropbox before it even had the chance to publicly launch.

It was actually upon building Ksplice that Daher and team realized their dire need for tech-enabled bookkeeping solutions.

“We built something internally like this as a byproduct of just running [Ksplice],” Daher explained. “When Oracle was acquiring our company, we met with their finance people and we described this system to them and they were blown away.”

It took a few years for the team to refocus their efforts on streamlining back-office processes for startups, opting to build business chat software in Zulip first.

Pilot’s software integrates with other financial services products to bring the bookkeeping process into the 21st century. Its platform, for example, works seamlessly on top of QuickBooks so customers aren’t wasting precious time updating and managing the accounting application.

“It’s better than the slow, painful process of doing it yourself and it’s better than hiring a third-party bookkeeper,” Daher said. “If you care at all about having the work be high-quality, you have to have software do it. People aren’t good at these mechanical, repetitive, formula-driven tasks.”

Currently, Pilot handles bookkeeping for more than $100 million per month in financial transactions but hopes to use the infusion of venture funding to accelerate customer adoption. The company also plans to launch a tax prep offering that they say will make the tax prep experience “easy and seamless.”

“It’s our first foray into Pilot’s larger mission, which is taking care of running your companies entire back office so you can focus on your business,” Daher said.

As for whether the team will sell to another big acquirer, it’s unlikely.

“The opportunity for Pilot is so large and so substantive, I think it would be a mistake for this to be anything other than a large and enduring public company,” Daher said. “This is the company that we’re going to do this with.”

On balance, the cloud has been a huge boon to startups

Today’s startups have a distinct advantage when it comes to launching a company because of the public cloud. You don’t have to build infrastructure or worry about what happens when you scale too quickly. The cloud vendors take care of all that for you.

But last month when Pinterest announced its IPO, the company’s cloud spend raised eyebrows. You see, the company is spending $750 million a year on cloud services, more specifically to AWS. When your business is primarily focused on photos and video, and needs to scale at a regular basis, that bill is going to be high.

That price tag prompted Erica Joy, a Microsoft engineer to publish this Tweet and start a little internal debate here at TechCrunch. Startups, after all, have a dog in this fight, and it’s worth exploring if the cloud is helping feed the startup ecosystem, or sending your bills soaring as they have with Pinterest.

For starters, it’s worth pointing out that Ms. Joy works for Microsoft, which just happens to be a primary competitor of Amazon’s in the cloud business. Regardless of her personal feelings on the matter, I’m sure Microsoft would be more than happy to take over that $750 million bill from Amazon. It’s a nice chunk of business, but all that aside, do startups benefit from having access to cloud vendors?

How to handle dark data compliance risk at your company

Slack and other consumer-grade productivity tools have been taking off in workplaces large and small — and data governance hasn’t caught up.

Whether it’s litigation, compliance with regulations like GDPR, or concerns about data breaches, legal teams need to account for new types of employee communication. And that’s hard when work is happening across the latest messaging apps and SaaS products, which make data searchability and accessibility more complex.

Here’s a quick look at the problem, followed by our suggestions for best practices at your company.

Problems

The increasing frequency of reported data breaches and expanding jurisdiction of new privacy laws are prompting conversations about dark data and risks at companies of all sizes, even small startups. Data risk discussions necessarily include the risk of a data breach, as well as preservation of data. Just two weeks ago it was reported that Jared Kushner used WhatsApp for official communications and screenshots of those messages for preservation, which commentators say complies with recordkeeping laws but raises questions about potential admissibility as evidence.

Former Dropbox exec Dennis Woodside joins Impossible Foods as its first President

Former Google and Dropbox executive Dennis Woodside has joined the meat replacement developer Impossible Foods as the company’s first President.

Woodside, who previously shepherded Dropbox through its initial public offering, is a longtime technology executive who is making his first foray into the food business.

The 25-year tech industry veteran most recently served as the chief operating officer of Dropbox, and previously was the chief executive of Motorola Mobility after that company’s acquisition by Google.

“I love what Impossible Foods is doing: using science and technology to deliver delicious and nutritious foods that people love, in an environmentally sustainable way,” Woodside said. “I’m equally thrilled to focus on providing the award-winning Impossible Burger and future products to millions of consumers, restaurants and retailers.”

According to a statement, Woodside will be responsible for the company’s operations, manufacturing, supply chain, sales, marketing, human resources and other functions.

The company currently has a staff of 350 divided between its Redwood City, Calif. and Oakland manufacturing plant.

Impossible Foods now slings its burger in restaurants across the United States, Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore and is expecting to launch a grocery store product later this year.