Education non-profit Edraak ignored a student data leak for two months

Edraak, an online education non-profit, exposed the private information of thousands of students after uploading student data to an unprotected cloud storage server, apparently by mistake.

The non-profit, founded by Jordan’s Queen Rania and headquartered in the kingdom’s capital, was set up in 2013 to promote education across the Arab region. The organization works with several partners, including the British Council and edX, a consortium set up by Harvard, Stanford, and MIT.

In February, researchers at U.K. cybersecurity firm TurgenSec found one of Edraak’s cloud storage servers containing at least tens of thousands of students’ data, including spreadsheets with students’ names, email addresses, gender, birth year, country of nationality, and some class grades.

TurgenSec, which runs Breaches.UK, a site for disclosing security incidents, alerted Edraak to the security lapse. A week later, their email was acknowledged by the organization but the data continued to spill. Emails seen by TechCrunch show the researchers tried to alert others who worked at the organization via LinkedIn requests, and its partners, including the British Council.

Two months passed and the server remained open. At its request, TechCrunch contacted Edraak, which closed the servers a few hours later.

In an email this week, Edraak chief executive Sherif Halawa told TechCrunch that the storage server was “meant to be publicly accessible, and to host public course content assets, such as course images, videos, and educational files,” but that “student data is never intentionally placed in this bucket.”

“Due to an unfortunate configuration bug, however, some academic data and student information exports were accidentally placed in the bucket,” Halawa confirmed.

“Unfortunately our initial scan did not locate the misplaced data that made it there accidentally. We attributed the elements in the Breaches.UK email to regular student uploads. We have now located these misplaced reports today and addressed the issue,” Halawa said.

The server is now closed off to public access.

It’s not clear why Edraak ignored the researchers’ initial email, which disclosed the location of the unprotected server, or why the organization’s response was not to ask for more details. When reached, British Council spokesperson Catherine Bowden said the organization received an email from TurgenSec but mistook it for a phishing email.

Edraak’s CEO Halawa said that the organization had already begun notifying affected students about the incident, and put out a blog post on Thursday.

Last year, TurgenSec found an unencrypted customer database belonging to U.K. internet provider Virgin Media that was left online by mistake, containing records linking some customers to adult and explicit websites.

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Chinese online education app Zuoyebang raises $1.6 billion from investors including Alibaba

The rivalry between China’s top online learning apps has become even more intense this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest company to score a significant funding round is Zuoyebang, which announced today (link in Chinese) that it has raised a $1.6 billion Series E+ from investors including Alibaba Group. Other participants included returning investors Tiger Global Management, SoftBank Vision Fund, Sequoia Capital China and FountainVest Partners.

Zuoyebang’s latest announcement comes just six months after it announced a $750 million Series E led by Tiger Global and FountainVest. The latest financing brings Zuoyebang’s total raised so far to $2.93 billion. The company did not disclose its latest worth, but Reuters reported in September that it was raising at a $10 billion valuation.

One of Zuoyebang’s main competitors is Yuanfudao, which announced in October that it had reached a $15.5 billion valuation after closing a $2.2 billion round led by Tencent. This pushed Yuanfudao ahead of Byju as the world’s most valuable ed-tech company. Another popular online learning app in China is Yiqizuoye, which is backed by Singapore’s Temasek.

Zuoyebang offers online courses, live lessons and homework help for kindergarten to 12th grade students, and claims about 170 million monthly active users, about 50 million of whom use the service each day. In comparison, there were about 200 million K-12 students in 2019 in China, according to the Ministry of Education (link in Chinese).

In fall 2020, the total number of students in Zuoyebang’s paid live-stream classes reached more than 10 million, setting an industry record, the company claims. While a lot of the growth was driven by the pandemic, Zuoyebang founder Hou Jianbin said in the company’s funding announcement that it expects online education to continue growing in the longer term, and will invest in K-12 classes and expand its produt categories.

 

EdTech boom continues as IntellectoKids raises $3M from Allrise Capital and others

The rush to capitalize on the shift to online learning, post-pandemic, continues. IntellectoKids, a developer of educational apps for children aged 3 to 7 years, has raised $3 million in a Series A financing led by US-based Allrise Capital and other investors, including Genesis Investments.

The platform offers parents of preschool children ‘gamified’ educational content and structured lessons available on mobile devices.

The startup will now launch a Classroom feature with learning tracks in five core Kindergarten and Grade 1 courses, including Math, Phonics, Science, Arts, and Logic.

In addition to the current B2C model, the founders expect in 2021 to offer primary schools and kindergartens IntellectoKids’ platform as an online supplement to support their offline educational process.

IntellectoKids was founded by Mike Kotlov and Andrey Kondratyuk in 2017, who each have three young children.

Kotlov said: “On the education scene, preschool education is becoming a highly vibrant market. The pandemic showed that preschool kids can effectively consume educational content online and autonomously. Clearly, there is a growing need for this type of product among parents and businesses now; however, once the pandemic is over the online education is here to stay for sure as it has already become intertwined with offline and benefited the overall educational process.”

IntellectoKids says it has more than 2 million installs across North America and Central & Northern Europe.

Filing: Online learning marketplace Udemy is raising up to $100M at a $3.32B valuation

Online education has been one of the hotspots in the tech world this year, as people turn to e-learning tools to fill in the gaps variously arising from closed schools, closed offices, social distancing, and more time on our hands at home because of the Covid-19 pandemic. And that is giving a big bump to education startups, which are raising money to capitalise on the growth opportunity.

In one of the latest developments, Udemy — which provides a marketplace currently numbering some 130,000 video-based courses across 65 languages, ranging from learning python or how to photograph better, through to mastering mindfulness and business analytics — is raising up to $100 million in a Series F round of funding that would value the company at up to $3.32 billion.

The company has filed paperwork for the fundraise in Delaware, first discovered by Justin Byers and the team at Prime Unicorn Index. It’s not clear if the round has closed, and whether the full amount was raised (or indeed, more).

Contacted for a response, Udemy didn’t deny the report but also declined to say anything for the moment. “We have a company policy where we don’t comment on speculations,” a spokesperson said to me via email. “We don’t have a comment at this time but I’ll reach out if anything changes.”

The fundraise would be a strong move for Udemy, which only closed its Series E earlier this year — a $50 million round that catapulted the company to a $2 billion+ post-money valuation.

But that was in February, before the novel coronavirus really took hold of the world. Since then, startups focused on education have been seeing a surge of business starting in the spring of this year, and as a result, also a surge of attention from investors who see a good moment to back rising stars.

Just looking at some of the most recent deals, last week, Udacity announced a $75 million debt round and said it was finally profitable. In October, Kahoot announced a $215 million round from SoftBank. And in September, Outschool raised $45 million (and is now profitable); Homer (raised $50 million from an impressive group of strategic backers); Unacademy (raised $150 million) and the juggernaut that is Byju’s picked up $500 million from Silver Lake.

And these are just some of the bigger deals; there have been many smaller fundraises, new edtech startup launches, and other signs of momentum alongside this. (And Prime Unicorn, incidentally, also noted that Duolingo is also raising money, up to $35 million at a valuation of $2.21 billion if all shares are issued. We’re still digging on that lead.)

When Udemy last raised money, earlier this year, the president of the business division told me it had clocked up 50 million students that purchase courses in an a la carte format, while enterprise customers — which include Adidas, General Mills, Toyota, Wipro, Pinterest and Lyft in a list of some 5,000 in all — use a subscription model.

It looks like its business users have grown and now number over 7,000, according to figures on its site, with total course enrollments now totalling 400 million to date. That could point to the opportunity that Udemy is now exploring with more capital.

But to be clear, the filing does not detail who is in this latest round, nor what the purpose of the fundraising is.

As we wrote at the time of the round in February, that fundraise came from a single, strategic investor, the Japanese educational publisher Benesse Holdings, which partners with Udemy in Japan. Benesse’s bigger business includes developing educational content for children and courses for adults, both online and in-person, and for other educational brands that it owns, such as Berlitz, and Udemy helps Benesse develop content for those various efforts.

Other investors in the company include Stripes, Naspers (now Prosus), Learn Capital, Insight Partners, and Norwest Venture Partners, among others.

Prime Unicorn Index notes that the terms surrounding this latest Series F include a “pari passu liquidation preference with all other preferred, and conventional convertible, meaning they will not participate with common stock if there are remaining proceeds.” It also noted that Udemy’s most recent price per share is $24.13, an upround from the Series E, which priced shares at $15.57.

We’ll update this post as we learn more.

Nana nabs $6M for an online academy and marketplace dedicated to appliance repair

A lot of the focus in online education — and, let’s face it, education overall — has been about professional development for knowledge workers, education for K-12 and how best to deliver cost-effective, engaging higher learning to those in college and beyond. But in what might be a sign of the times, today a startup that’s focused on e-learning and the subsequent job market for a completely different end of the spectrum — home services — is announcing some funding to continue building out its business in earnest.

Nana, which runs a free academy to teach people how to fix appliances, and then gives students the option of becoming a part of its own marketplace to connect them to people needing repairs — has picked up $6 million.

The seed round is being led by Shripriya Mahesh of Spero Ventures, and Next Play Ventures (ex-LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner’s new fund), Lachy Groom, Scott Belsky, Geoff Donaker of Burst Capital, and Michael Staton of Learn Capital are among those also participating.

Nana has now raised $10.7 million, with past backers including Alpha Bridge Ventures, Bob Lee, and the Uber Syndicate, an investment vehicle to back Uber alums in new ventures. Founder and CEO David Zamir is not actually an Uber alum, but one of his first employees, VP of Engineering Oliver Nicholas, is an early Uber engineer, and the company has also found a lot of traction of Uber drivers this year, after many found themselves out of work after the chilling effect that the pandemic had on ridesharing.

Nana — full name Nana Technologies (and not to be confused with Nana Technology, tech built for older adults) — is partly a labor/future of work play, partly an educational play, partly a tech/IoT play, and partly an ecological play, in the eyes of Zamir, who himself trained as an appliance repairperson, running his own successful business in the Bay Area before pivoting it into a training platform and marketplace.

“There are 5.9 million tons of municipal solid waste [which includes lots of electronics like washing machines, blenders and everything in between] in the U.S.,” he said in an interview, “and only 50% of that is capable of getting recycled. We’re in a vicious cycle with appliances, and it’s partly because there aren’t enough people with the knowledge to repair them. But what if you had the liquidity to do that? We’re talking about creating jobs, but also saving the environment.”

Nana’s proposition starts with free lessons to fix a range of appliances — currently, dishwashers, refrigerators, ovens, stoves, washers and dryers — and their typical breakdown/poor performance issues to anyone who wants to know how to repair them. These classes are available to anyone — an individual simply interested in learning how to fix a machine, but more likely someone looking to pick up a skill and then use it to make some money.

Once you take and pass a course — currently remote — you have the option (but not requirement) to register on Nana’s platform to become a repair person who picks up jobs through it to get jobs fixing that particular issue. Nana already has partnerships with major appliance and warranty companies including GE, Miele, Samsung, Assurant, Cinch and First American Home Warranty, so this is how it gets most of its work in, but it also accepts direct requests from consumers for repair of dishwashers, refrigerators, ovens, stoves, washers and dryers.

Over time, Zamir said, the plan is not just to take in jobs and send out technicians to fix things in an Uber-style dispatch service — but to expand it to fit the kinds of next-generation appliances that are being built today, with IoT diagnostic monitoring and helping also to integrate these appliances into connected homes. It also seems to be slowly expanding into other home services too, alongside appliance repair (which remains its main business).

Nana has to date registered hundreds of technicians in 12 markets across the U.S. and said it expects to expand to 20 markets by the end of 2021.

Nana has an unlikely founder story that speaks to how so much of the tech world is still about hustle and finding opportunities in the margins.

Founder and CEO David Zamir hails from Israel, but unlike many of the transplants you may come across from there to the Bay Area tech world, he’s not a tech guy by education, training or work experience. He used to run clothing stores in Tel Aviv and vaguely liked the idea of being involved in a tech business at some point — Israel loves to call itself “startup nation” and so that bug is bound to bite even those who don’t study computer science or engineering — but he didn’t know what to do or where to begin.

“The clothing business didn’t make much money,” he said. So after a period Zamir and his American wife decided to move to the U.S. and try their luck there.

While initially based on the east coast near her family and wondering about what kind of job to pursue, Zamir spoke with a friend of his in Toronto who was an working as an independent tradesperson fixing appliances, and the friend suggested this as an option, at least for a while.

“So I hopped on an airplane to shadow my friend,” he recalled. “The lightbulb went off. I thought, I should do this in San Francisco,” where he had been wanting to move to crack in to the tech world, somehow. “I thought that I’d start with fixing appliances while I figured out how to find my way into tech.”

That turned into more than a temporary income stopgap, of course. After finding that his business taking off, Zamir saw that technology would be the avenue to growing it.

He was helped in part to build the idea and the business through his grit. Josh Elman, the famous tech investor, complained about a broken dryer back in April, and asked the Twitter hive mind whether he should get a new one or go through the pain of fixing it. Someone flagged the question to Zamir, who reached out and connected Elman with one of Nana’s online teaching technicians. Twelve hours later, Elman’s drier was diagnosed (by Elman), on its way to getting fixed, and Elman signed on as an advisor to the company.

Move fast and fix things

The world of tech is all about building new things and solving problems, with “breaking” being more synonymous with disruption (=”good”) and fearlessness (see: Facebook’s old mantra to its early employees to move fast and break things). But behind that, there is an interesting disconnect between the tech version of “broken” and objects that are actually “broken” in the real world.

Many of us these days find using apps and other digital interfaces second-nature, but most of us would have no idea how to repair or work with much more basic electronic systems. And nor do most of us want to. More often than not, we give up on it, decide it’s not worth fixing, and click on Amazon et al. to get a new shiny object.

Looked at on a wider scale, this is actually a big problem.

Electronics can be recycled, but in reality only about half the materials can be usefully reused. Meanwhile, Nana estimates that the appliance repair market is a $4 billion opportunity, with some 80 million appliances in need to being serviced annually in the US. But currently there are only some 31,000 trained technicians in the market. Nana estimates that to meet the demand of growing numbers, an additional 28,000 new technicians will be needed by 2025.

At the same time, the move to automation in many skilled labor jobs is putting people out of work: research from the Brookings Institution estimates that some 30 million people will lose their jobs in coming years because of it.

The idea here is that a platform like Nana can help some of those people retrain to fill the gap for appliance technicians, while at the same time extending the life of people’s appliances in a less painful way — putting less stuff into landfill — while at the same time expanding knowledge for anyone who cares for it.

Zamir said that Nana was named after his mother, who raised David as a single parent after his father passed away, a reference to working hard and being practical.

That sentimentality seems to motivate him in a bigger way, too: Zamir himself is a guy with a lot of heart and emotion vested into the concept of his startup. When I told him an anecdote of how our dishwasher broke down earlier this year and both a customer service rep from the maker (Siemens) and a separate repair person advised me to replace it, he got visibly agitated over our video call, as if the subject was something political or significantly more graver than a story about a dishwasher.

“I am not a supporter of what they told you,” he said in an angry voice. “It’s really upsetting me.” (I calmed him down a little, I think, when I told him that myself I uninstalled the broken dishwasher and installed the new one myself, because Covid.)

Zamir said that there are no plans to charge for its academy courses, nor to tie people into signing up with Nana to work once they take the courses. The fact that it provides a lot of inbound jobs attracts enough turnover — between 40% and 60% of those taking courses stay on to work when they took in-person classes, and for now the online figures are between 15% and 35%.

“It’s still early days,” he said, “but we’re finding the take up impressive… Most want to participate in the marketplace.” He says that there are other call-out services where they could register but the tech that Nana has built makes its system more efficient, and that means better returns.

All of this has played well with those who have become Nana’s investors. People like Jeff Weiner — who in his time as CEO of LinkedIn led the company to acquire Lynda as part of a bigger emphasis on the importance of skills training and education — see the opportunity and need to provide an equivalent platform not just for knowledge workers but those who have more manual jobs, too.

“We are excited by Nana’s vision of providing training, access and opportunity for rewarding, satisfying work while also filling a critical gap in our economy,” said Shripriya Mahesh of Spero Ventures, in a statement. “Nana has created a new, scalable approach to giving people the agency, tools and support systems they need to build new skills and pursue fulfilling work opportunities.”

The round was oversubscribed in the end, and Nana shouldn’t find it too hard to raise again if it sticks to its plan and the market continues to grow as it has. That does not seem to be the motivation for Zamir, though.

“We just think it’s super important to build Nana for the people,” he said.

Nana nabs $6M for an online academy and marketplace dedicated to appliance repair

A lot of the focus in online education — and, let’s face it, education overall — has been about professional development for knowledge workers, education for K-12 and how best to deliver cost-effective, engaging higher learning to those in college and beyond. But in what might be a sign of the times, today a startup that’s focused on e-learning and the subsequent job market for a completely different end of the spectrum — home services — is announcing some funding to continue building out its business in earnest.

Nana, which runs a free academy to teach people how to fix appliances, and then gives students the option of becoming a part of its own marketplace to connect them to people needing repairs — has picked up $6 million.

The seed round is being led by Shripriya Mahesh of Spero Ventures, and Next Play Ventures (ex-LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner’s new fund), Lachy Groom, Scott Belsky, Geoff Donaker of Burst Capital, and Michael Staton of Learn Capital are among those also participating.

Nana has now raised $10.7 million, with past backers including Alpha Bridge Ventures, Bob Lee, and the Uber Syndicate, an investment vehicle to back Uber alums in new ventures. Founder and CEO David Zamir is not actually an Uber alum, but one of his first employees, VP of Engineering Oliver Nicholas, is an early Uber engineer, and the company has also found a lot of traction of Uber drivers this year, after many found themselves out of work after the chilling effect that the pandemic had on ridesharing.

Nana — full name Nana Technologies (and not to be confused with Nana Technology, tech built for older adults) — is partly a labor/future of work play, partly an educational play, partly a tech/IoT play, and partly an ecological play, in the eyes of Zamir, who himself trained as an appliance repairperson, running his own successful business in the Bay Area before pivoting it into a training platform and marketplace.

“There are 5.9 million tons of municipal solid waste [which includes lots of electronics like washing machines, blenders and everything in between] in the U.S.,” he said in an interview, “and only 50% of that is capable of getting recycled. We’re in a vicious cycle with appliances, and it’s partly because there aren’t enough people with the knowledge to repair them. But what if you had the liquidity to do that? We’re talking about creating jobs, but also saving the environment.”

Nana’s proposition starts with free lessons to fix a range of appliances — currently, dishwashers, refrigerators, ovens, stoves, washers and dryers — and their typical breakdown/poor performance issues to anyone who wants to know how to repair them. These classes are available to anyone — an individual simply interested in learning how to fix a machine, but more likely someone looking to pick up a skill and then use it to make some money.

Once you take and pass a course — currently remote — you have the option (but not requirement) to register on Nana’s platform to become a repair person who picks up jobs through it to get jobs fixing that particular issue. Nana already has partnerships with major appliance and warranty companies including GE, Miele, Samsung, Assurant, Cinch and First American Home Warranty, so this is how it gets most of its work in, but it also accepts direct requests from consumers for repair of dishwashers, refrigerators, ovens, stoves, washers and dryers.

Over time, Zamir said, the plan is not just to take in jobs and send out technicians to fix things in an Uber-style dispatch service — but to expand it to fit the kinds of next-generation appliances that are being built today, with IoT diagnostic monitoring and helping also to integrate these appliances into connected homes. It also seems to be slowly expanding into other home services too, alongside appliance repair (which remains its main business).

Nana has to date registered hundreds of technicians in 12 markets across the U.S. and said it expects to expand to 20 markets by the end of 2021.

Nana has an unlikely founder story that speaks to how so much of the tech world is still about hustle and finding opportunities in the margins.

Founder and CEO David Zamir hails from Israel, but unlike many of the transplants you may come across from there to the Bay Area tech world, he’s not a tech guy by education, training or work experience. He used to run clothing stores in Tel Aviv and vaguely liked the idea of being involved in a tech business at some point — Israel loves to call itself “startup nation” and so that bug is bound to bite even those who don’t study computer science or engineering — but he didn’t know what to do or where to begin.

“The clothing business didn’t make much money,” he said. So after a period Zamir and his American wife decided to move to the U.S. and try their luck there.

While initially based on the east coast near her family and wondering about what kind of job to pursue, Zamir spoke with a friend of his in Toronto who was an working as an independent tradesperson fixing appliances, and the friend suggested this as an option, at least for a while.

“So I hopped on an airplane to shadow my friend,” he recalled. “The lightbulb went off. I thought, I should do this in San Francisco,” where he had been wanting to move to crack in to the tech world, somehow. “I thought that I’d start with fixing appliances while I figured out how to find my way into tech.”

That turned into more than a temporary income stopgap, of course. After finding that his business taking off, Zamir saw that technology would be the avenue to growing it.

He was helped in part to build the idea and the business through his grit. Josh Elman, the famous tech investor, complained about a broken dryer back in April, and asked the Twitter hive mind whether he should get a new one or go through the pain of fixing it. Someone flagged the question to Zamir, who reached out and connected Elman with one of Nana’s online teaching technicians. Twelve hours later, Elman’s drier was diagnosed (by Elman), on its way to getting fixed, and Elman signed on as an advisor to the company.

Move fast and fix things

The world of tech is all about building new things and solving problems, with “breaking” being more synonymous with disruption (=”good”) and fearlessness (see: Facebook’s old mantra to its early employees to move fast and break things). But behind that, there is an interesting disconnect between the tech version of “broken” and objects that are actually “broken” in the real world.

Many of us these days find using apps and other digital interfaces second-nature, but most of us would have no idea how to repair or work with much more basic electronic systems. And nor do most of us want to. More often than not, we give up on it, decide it’s not worth fixing, and click on Amazon et al. to get a new shiny object.

Looked at on a wider scale, this is actually a big problem.

Electronics can be recycled, but in reality only about half the materials can be usefully reused. Meanwhile, Nana estimates that the appliance repair market is a $4 billion opportunity, with some 80 million appliances in need to being serviced annually in the US. But currently there are only some 31,000 trained technicians in the market. Nana estimates that to meet the demand of growing numbers, an additional 28,000 new technicians will be needed by 2025.

At the same time, the move to automation in many skilled labor jobs is putting people out of work: research from the Brookings Institution estimates that some 30 million people will lose their jobs in coming years because of it.

The idea here is that a platform like Nana can help some of those people retrain to fill the gap for appliance technicians, while at the same time extending the life of people’s appliances in a less painful way — putting less stuff into landfill — while at the same time expanding knowledge for anyone who cares for it.

Zamir said that Nana was named after his mother, who raised David as a single parent after his father passed away, a reference to working hard and being practical.

That sentimentality seems to motivate him in a bigger way, too: Zamir himself is a guy with a lot of heart and emotion vested into the concept of his startup. When I told him an anecdote of how our dishwasher broke down earlier this year and both a customer service rep from the maker (Siemens) and a separate repair person advised me to replace it, he got visibly agitated over our video call, as if the subject was something political or significantly more graver than a story about a dishwasher.

“I am not a supporter of what they told you,” he said in an angry voice. “It’s really upsetting me.” (I calmed him down a little, I think, when I told him that myself I uninstalled the broken dishwasher and installed the new one myself, because Covid.)

Zamir said that there are no plans to charge for its academy courses, nor to tie people into signing up with Nana to work once they take the courses. The fact that it provides a lot of inbound jobs attracts enough turnover — between 40% and 60% of those taking courses stay on to work when they took in-person classes, and for now the online figures are between 15% and 35%.

“It’s still early days,” he said, “but we’re finding the take up impressive… Most want to participate in the marketplace.” He says that there are other call-out services where they could register but the tech that Nana has built makes its system more efficient, and that means better returns.

All of this has played well with those who have become Nana’s investors. People like Jeff Weiner — who in his time as CEO of LinkedIn led the company to acquire Lynda as part of a bigger emphasis on the importance of skills training and education — see the opportunity and need to provide an equivalent platform not just for knowledge workers but those who have more manual jobs, too.

“We are excited by Nana’s vision of providing training, access and opportunity for rewarding, satisfying work while also filling a critical gap in our economy,” said Shripriya Mahesh of Spero Ventures, in a statement. “Nana has created a new, scalable approach to giving people the agency, tools and support systems they need to build new skills and pursue fulfilling work opportunities.”

The round was oversubscribed in the end, and Nana shouldn’t find it too hard to raise again if it sticks to its plan and the market continues to grow as it has. That does not seem to be the motivation for Zamir, though.

“We just think it’s super important to build Nana for the people,” he said.

Nana nabs $6M for an online academy and marketplace dedicated to appliance repair

A lot of the focus in online education — and, let’s face it, education overall — has been about professional development for knowledge workers, education for K-12 and how best to deliver cost-effective, engaging higher learning to those in college and beyond. But in what might be a sign of the times, today a startup that’s focused on e-learning and the subsequent job market for a completely different end of the spectrum — home services — is announcing some funding to continue building out its business in earnest.

Nana, which runs a free academy to teach people how to fix appliances, and then gives students the option of becoming a part of its own marketplace to connect them to people needing repairs — has picked up $6 million.

The seed round is being led by Shripriya Mahesh of Spero Ventures, and Next Play Ventures (ex-LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner’s new fund), Lachy Groom, Scott Belsky, Geoff Donaker of Burst Capital, and Michael Staton of Learn Capital are among those also participating.

Nana has now raised $10.7 million, with past backers including Alpha Bridge Ventures, Bob Lee, and the Uber Syndicate, an investment vehicle to back Uber alums in new ventures. Founder and CEO David Zamir is not actually an Uber alum, but one of his first employees, VP of Engineering Oliver Nicholas, is an early Uber engineer, and the company has also found a lot of traction of Uber drivers this year, after many found themselves out of work after the chilling effect that the pandemic had on ridesharing.

Nana — full name Nana Technologies (and not to be confused with Nana Technology, tech built for older adults) — is partly a labor/future of work play, partly an educational play, partly a tech/IoT play, and partly an ecological play, in the eyes of Zamir, who himself trained as an appliance repairperson, running his own successful business in the Bay Area before pivoting it into a training platform and marketplace.

“There are 5.9 million tons of municipal solid waste [which includes lots of electronics like washing machines, blenders and everything in between] in the U.S.,” he said in an interview, “and only 50% of that is capable of getting recycled. We’re in a vicious cycle with appliances, and it’s partly because there aren’t enough people with the knowledge to repair them. But what if you had the liquidity to do that? We’re talking about creating jobs, but also saving the environment.”

Nana’s proposition starts with free lessons to fix a range of appliances — currently, dishwashers, refrigerators, ovens, stoves, washers and dryers — and their typical breakdown/poor performance issues to anyone who wants to know how to repair them. These classes are available to anyone — an individual simply interested in learning how to fix a machine, but more likely someone looking to pick up a skill and then use it to make some money.

Once you take and pass a course — currently remote — you have the option (but not requirement) to register on Nana’s platform to become a repair person who picks up jobs through it to get jobs fixing that particular issue. Nana already has partnerships with major appliance and warranty companies including GE, Miele, Samsung, Assurant, Cinch and First American Home Warranty, so this is how it gets most of its work in, but it also accepts direct requests from consumers for repair of dishwashers, refrigerators, ovens, stoves, washers and dryers.

Over time, Zamir said, the plan is not just to take in jobs and send out technicians to fix things in an Uber-style dispatch service — but to expand it to fit the kinds of next-generation appliances that are being built today, with IoT diagnostic monitoring and helping also to integrate these appliances into connected homes. It also seems to be slowly expanding into other home services too, alongside appliance repair (which remains its main business).

Nana has to date registered hundreds of technicians in 12 markets across the U.S. and said it expects to expand to 20 markets by the end of 2021.

Nana has an unlikely founder story that speaks to how so much of the tech world is still about hustle and finding opportunities in the margins.

Founder and CEO David Zamir hails from Israel, but unlike many of the transplants you may come across from there to the Bay Area tech world, he’s not a tech guy by education, training or work experience. He used to run clothing stores in Tel Aviv and vaguely liked the idea of being involved in a tech business at some point — Israel loves to call itself “startup nation” and so that bug is bound to bite even those who don’t study computer science or engineering — but he didn’t know what to do or where to begin.

“The clothing business didn’t make much money,” he said. So after a period Zamir and his American wife decided to move to the U.S. and try their luck there.

While initially based on the east coast near her family and wondering about what kind of job to pursue, Zamir spoke with a friend of his in Toronto who was an working as an independent tradesperson fixing appliances, and the friend suggested this as an option, at least for a while.

“So I hopped on an airplane to shadow my friend,” he recalled. “The lightbulb went off. I thought, I should do this in San Francisco,” where he had been wanting to move to crack in to the tech world, somehow. “I thought that I’d start with fixing appliances while I figured out how to find my way into tech.”

That turned into more than a temporary income stopgap, of course. After finding that his business taking off, Zamir saw that technology would be the avenue to growing it.

He was helped in part to build the idea and the business through his grit. Josh Elman, the famous tech investor, complained about a broken dryer back in April, and asked the Twitter hive mind whether he should get a new one or go through the pain of fixing it. Someone flagged the question to Zamir, who reached out and connected Elman with one of Nana’s online teaching technicians. Twelve hours later, Elman’s drier was diagnosed (by Elman), on its way to getting fixed, and Elman signed on as an advisor to the company.

Move fast and fix things

The world of tech is all about building new things and solving problems, with “breaking” being more synonymous with disruption (=”good”) and fearlessness (see: Facebook’s old mantra to its early employees to move fast and break things). But behind that, there is an interesting disconnect between the tech version of “broken” and objects that are actually “broken” in the real world.

Many of us these days find using apps and other digital interfaces second-nature, but most of us would have no idea how to repair or work with much more basic electronic systems. And nor do most of us want to. More often than not, we give up on it, decide it’s not worth fixing, and click on Amazon et al. to get a new shiny object.

Looked at on a wider scale, this is actually a big problem.

Electronics can be recycled, but in reality only about half the materials can be usefully reused. Meanwhile, Nana estimates that the appliance repair market is a $4 billion opportunity, with some 80 million appliances in need to being serviced annually in the US. But currently there are only some 31,000 trained technicians in the market. Nana estimates that to meet the demand of growing numbers, an additional 28,000 new technicians will be needed by 2025.

At the same time, the move to automation in many skilled labor jobs is putting people out of work: research from the Brookings Institution estimates that some 30 million people will lose their jobs in coming years because of it.

The idea here is that a platform like Nana can help some of those people retrain to fill the gap for appliance technicians, while at the same time extending the life of people’s appliances in a less painful way — putting less stuff into landfill — while at the same time expanding knowledge for anyone who cares for it.

Zamir said that Nana was named after his mother, who raised David as a single parent after his father passed away, a reference to working hard and being practical.

That sentimentality seems to motivate him in a bigger way, too: Zamir himself is a guy with a lot of heart and emotion vested into the concept of his startup. When I told him an anecdote of how our dishwasher broke down earlier this year and both a customer service rep from the maker (Siemens) and a separate repair person advised me to replace it, he got visibly agitated over our video call, as if the subject was something political or significantly more graver than a story about a dishwasher.

“I am not a supporter of what they told you,” he said in an angry voice. “It’s really upsetting me.” (I calmed him down a little, I think, when I told him that myself I uninstalled the broken dishwasher and installed the new one myself, because Covid.)

Zamir said that there are no plans to charge for its academy courses, nor to tie people into signing up with Nana to work once they take the courses. The fact that it provides a lot of inbound jobs attracts enough turnover — between 40% and 60% of those taking courses stay on to work when they took in-person classes, and for now the online figures are between 15% and 35%.

“It’s still early days,” he said, “but we’re finding the take up impressive… Most want to participate in the marketplace.” He says that there are other call-out services where they could register but the tech that Nana has built makes its system more efficient, and that means better returns.

All of this has played well with those who have become Nana’s investors. People like Jeff Weiner — who in his time as CEO of LinkedIn led the company to acquire Lynda as part of a bigger emphasis on the importance of skills training and education — see the opportunity and need to provide an equivalent platform not just for knowledge workers but those who have more manual jobs, too.

“We are excited by Nana’s vision of providing training, access and opportunity for rewarding, satisfying work while also filling a critical gap in our economy,” said Shripriya Mahesh of Spero Ventures, in a statement. “Nana has created a new, scalable approach to giving people the agency, tools and support systems they need to build new skills and pursue fulfilling work opportunities.”

The round was oversubscribed in the end, and Nana shouldn’t find it too hard to raise again if it sticks to its plan and the market continues to grow as it has. That does not seem to be the motivation for Zamir, though.

“We just think it’s super important to build Nana for the people,” he said.

How to address inequality exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic

The novel coronavirus has accelerated the use of many digital technologies. Forced in the spring to close their doors, most K-12 schools and universities shifted to online learning where teachers lead classes virtually and students submit their assignments electronically.

According to the World Economic Forum, it is estimated that 1.2 billion students around the world this year were “out of the classroom” due to the pandemic, while in the United States, over 55 million K-12 students didn’t receive in-person instruction.

The use of telemedicine and video conferencing also has become a principal platform for medical consultations as a result of the coronavirus. For example, a Forrester analysis projected “general medical care visits to top 200 million this year, up sharply from their original expectation of 36 million visits for all of 2020.” Virtual connections allow patients to get recommendations wherever they are and draw on a broad range of medical expertise.

E-commerce is taking off as consumers abandon small retail outlets and large department stores. An industry study found that “total online spending in May 2020 reached $82.5 billion, up 77% from May of 2019” and those numbers almost surely will increase in coming months as people appreciate the convenience of online ordering and home delivery.

Yet the pandemic also has exposed dramatic inequities in technology access and utilization. Not everyone has the high-speed broadband required for online education, telemedicine and online shopping. The Federal Communications Commission has estimated it would take $40 billion to close the bulk of the broadband gap. But many people also lack laptops, notebooks, smartphones or electronic devices that allow them to stream videos and take advantage of new modes of service delivery.

It is not just that some are outside the online world, but that digital access is spread inequitably across various groups. According to an Education Week survey, 64% of American teachers and administrators in schools with a large number of low-income students said their pupils faced technology limitations, compared to only 21% of students in schools with a small number of low-income students. The problem isn’t simply broadband, but access to equipment and devices that allow pupils to make use of online resources.

There are substantial racial disparities as well. A McKinsey analysis found that 40% of African-American students and 30% of Hispanic students in U.S. K-12 schools received no online instruction during COVID-induced school shutdowns, compared to 10% of whites. These gaps in access to online education and digital services widen the already substantial educational inequalities that exist, but push them to new heights. If continued for a lengthy period of time, such differentials expose our most disadvantaged students to large barriers to advancement and a future of income deprivation or economic stagnation. Even more tragic, there may be a tipping point beyond which the gap is no longer recoverable.

These types of inequities are intolerable injustices that create nearly insoluble gaps with serious social and economic consequences. The variations noted above increase income inequality, widen the opportunity gap between social groups and doom those left behind to low-paying jobs, temporary positions without health benefits or outright unemployment. Not having access to the digital superhighway limits opportunities for online education, telemedicine and e-commerce and makes it nearly impossible to apply for jobs, request government benefits or access needed health or educational materials.

What is required right now is investment in digital infrastructure and improvements in digital access that eliminate unfair disparities based on race, income and geography. For example, the Federal Communications Commission needs to expand its current “Lifeline” program designed to promote phone connectivity for poor people to the internet. Many providers combine phone and internet usage so there is no reason to provide subsidies for phone service without also including internet service. With the availability of Voice over Internet Protocols (VoIP), it is easy for underserved people to combine phone and internet connectivity.

This FCC also should expand its “Schools and Libraries” program called “E-rate” to include home schooling and remote learning. With so many educational institutions closed and providing instruction through online education, the commission should use the millions in unexpended program funds to close the “homework gap” created by the COVID-19 pandemic. That would help impoverished students access online resources and video conferencing facilities.

The Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service seeks to improve broadband service in rural areas but its funding currently cannot be used to improve low-speed broadband. At a time when many lack sufficient speed to access online educational resources, telemedicine or video streaming, that limitation makes little sense and needs to be altered so that rural-dwellers can upgrade their internet service.

In the education sphere, states and localities must ensure that racial and income-based disparities in access to online learning are not a permanent feature of the K-12 landscape. Addressing this issue is going to require much more than distributing free laptops to needy students, as is often advocated. Rather, it will involve making sure families can afford the broadband access that will enable pupils to use the laptops in productive ways, teachers are well-trained in distance learning and educational programs equip young people with the skills needed in the 21st century economy.

As we move into the future, broadband will be as vital to social and economic advancement as highways, bridges and dams were in earlier eras. Similar to the 20th century, improving access requires national planning and public and private sector investments. Indeed, digital access should be considered a human right in the same manner as access to universal healthcare. People cannot participate in the digital economy and online learning systems without high-speed broadband.

As noted in our recent AI book, the United States requires a national plan that funds digital infrastructure, reduces racial and geographic disparities, facilitates universal medical insurance and prepares workers for the digital economy. The list of national imperatives includes closing the digital divide, expanding anti-bias rules for the digital economy, building an inclusive economy through more equitable tax policies and training the next generation of workers.

New digital services or financial transactions taxes could help fund the programs that need to be undertaken to deal with these issues. One hundred years ago, as the United States underwent industrialization, national leaders adopted an income tax to pay for needed services, and as we move into a digital economy, there will need to be new types of taxes to pay for needed expenditures. We cannot allow current inequities in access to education and healthcare to deny opportunities to African-Americans, Hispanics, immigrants and poor people. Leaving those individuals behind as the digital economy grows is not a viable option if we’re ever as a nation to achieve our full potential by empowering all Americans.

Data is the key to many emerging technologies so it is crucial to have unbiased information to develop new services, evaluate digital innovation and deal with the ramifications of current products. Much of the current digital data is proprietary in nature and therefore limits the ability of researchers to improve innovation, close the digital divide and develop remedies that address equity problems. The federal government sits on a trove of data that should be made available for commercial and research purposes on an anonymized basis so that privacy is maintained. In the same way that census data enables research, economic development and program assessment, wider access to digital data likely would spur new products and services while also helping to address equity problems.

In a country that continues to be plagued by the coronavirus, it is vital to reduce the inequities that deny opportunity to large groups of Americans and make it impossible for them to share in the benefits of the digital revolution. As we envision a post-COVID world, it is essential we build an inclusive economy that allows everyone to participate in and gain the benefits of the online world.

The fundamental shifts wrought by COVID are not going to slow even after a vaccine is developed and the effects of the coronavirus dissipate over time. Nearly all of the technological trends generated by COVID this year will remain a large part of our ongoing landscape. Due to advances in computer storage and processing power, 5G networks and the growing use of data analytics, technology innovation almost certainly will accelerate in coming years.

Having a substantial part of our fellow citizens outside the digital environment is a recipe for continued racial injustice, social conflict, economic deprivation and political division. It will ensure that cynicism, discontent and anger will remain a feature of the American social landscape for decades to come. The last four years have exposed the massive inequities in American society, made worse not only by the intentional political polarization of the American public, but also by a digital divide that is virtually certain to lock in many pernicious dimensions of inequality in America.

This is not a technology problem, it’s a leadership challenge. Leadership can solve this national crisis by demonstrating the will to wield technology in the best interests of all Americans. The next administration has it within its capacity to address these matters head on and eliminate this divide, or conversely, if it doesn’t take appropriate action, condemn our most vulnerable citizens to four more years of neglect and inequity.

Freshworks (re-)launches its CRM service

Freshworks, the customer and employee engagement company that offers a range of products, from call center and customer support software to HR tools and marketing automation services, today announced the launch of its newest product: Freshworks CRM. The new service, which the company built on top of its new Freshworks Neo platform, is meant to give sales and marketing teams all of the tools they need to get a better view of their customers — with a bit of machine learning thrown in for better predictions.

Freshworks CRM is essentially a rebrand of the company’s Freshsales service, combined with the company’s capabilities of its Freshmarketer marketing automation tool.

“Freshworks CRM unites Freshsales and Freshmarketer capabilities into one solution, which leverages an embedded customer data platform for an unprecedented and 360-degree view of the customer throughout their entire journey,” a company spokesperson told me.

The promise here is that this improved CRM solution is able to provide teams with a more complete view of their (potential) customers thanks to the unified view — and aggregated data — that the company’s Neo platform provides.

The company argues that the majority of CRM users quickly become disillusioned with their CRM service of choice — and the reason for that is because the data is poor. That’s where Freshworks thinks it can make a difference.

Freshworks CRM delivers upon the original promise of CRM: a single solution that combines AI-driven data, insights and intelligence and puts the customer front and center of business goals,” said Prakash Ramamurthy, the company’s chief product officer. “We built Freshworks CRM to harness the power of data and create immediate value, challenging legacy CRM solutions that have failed sales teams with clunky interfaces and incomplete data.”

The idea here is to provide teams with all of their marketing and sales data in a single dashboard and provide AI-assisted insights to them to help drive their decision making, which in turn should lead to a better customer experience — and more sales. The service offers predictive lead scoring and qualification, based on a host of signals users can customize to their needs, as well as Slack and Teams integrations, built-in telephony with call recording to reach out to prospects and more. A lot of these features were already available in Freshsales, too.

“The challenge for online education is the ‘completion rate’. To increase this, we need to understand the ‘Why’ aspect for a student to attend a course and design ‘What’ & ‘How’ to meet the personalized needs of our students so they can achieve their individual goals,” said Mamnoon Hadi Khan, the chief analytics officer at Shaw Academy. “With Freshworks CRM, Shaw Academy can track the entire student customer journey to better engage with them through our dedicated Student Success Managers and leverage AI to personalize their learning experience — meeting their objectives.”

Pricing for Freshworks CRM starts at $29 per user/month and goes up to $125 per user/month for the full enterprise plan with more advanced features.

Brighteye Ventures’ Alex Latsis talks European edtech funding in 2020

Brighteye Ventures, the European edtech venture capital firm, recently announced the $54 million first close of its second fund, bringing total assets under management above $112 million. Out of the new fund, the 2017-founded VC will invest in 15-20 companies over the next three years at the seed and Series A stage, writing checks up to $5 million.

Described as a thesis-driven fund investing in startups that “enhance learning” within the context of automation and other new technologies, coupled with changes in the way we live, Brighteye plans to disrupt the $7 trillion global education sector “as educators and students are adapting to distance learning en masse and millions of displaced workers are seeking to upskill,” according to a press release.

The firm’s investments to date include Ornikar, an online driving school in France and Spain serving more than 1.6 million students; Tandem, a Berlin-based peer-to-peer language learning platform with over 10 million members; and Epic!, a reading platform said to be used in more than 90% of U.S. schools.

To dig deeper into Brighteye’s thesis and the edtech sector more broadly, I caught up with managing partner Alex Latsis. We also discussed some of the findings in the firm’s recent European edtech funding report and how more venture capital than ever is set to flow into educational technology.

TechCrunch: Brighteye Ventures backs seed and Series A startups across Europe and North America that “enhance learning.” Can you elaborate a bit more on the fund’s remit, such as subsectors or specific technologies and what you look for in founders and startups at such an early stage?

Alex Latsis: We invest in startups that use technology to directly enable learning, skills acquisition or research as well as companies whose products address structural needs in the education sector. For example, Zen Educate addresses the systemic issue of teacher supply shortages in the U.K. via an on-demand platform that saves schools money whilst allowing educators to earn more. Litigate is an AI-driven coach and workflow tool improving results for legal associates, while Ironhack, the largest tech bootcamp in Europe and Latin America, gives young professionals the skills needed to enter the innovation economy and connects them to employers with a 90% job placement rate.

As education is a complex field we always seek to establish a degree of founder market fit, but more importantly that the founding teams themselves are a good fit internally. No startup succeeds on the merits of a founder alone, even if they may be driving the momentum.

In “The European EdTech Funding Report 2020,” you note that Europe is gaining momentum with a healthy increase in VC investments in local edtech startups. Specifically, you say that edtech VC investment has experienced 9.2x growth between 2014 and 2019 in terms of money invested. What is driving this and how does Europe compare to other major tech regions for edtech, such as Silicon Valley/U.S. or China?

Both Europe and the U.S. saw about 2% of venture capital invested in edtech in 2019. Growth in edtech investment in these markets to date has been driven largely by increased willingness to pay for training that is unavailable, unengaging or too expensive in legacy institutions and to a lesser extent by increased digital penetration in schools and universities that has enabled SaaS products to scale.

Given the rapid evolution of online education in the face of the pandemic, we expect funding for edtech will trend closer to 3%-5% of venture funding in the coming years on both sides of the Atlantic. This will mean billions in incremental investment, hundreds of new promising companies and incredible learning opportunities, particularly for those looking to upskill/reskill. In countries like India and China where school and university student populations are growing more rapidly, we expect 5%+ of VC funding to go into edtech as there is more growth in core demand.