Want a job in tech? Flockjay pitches its sales training service as an on-ramp to tech careers

“Most people don’t even know that a job in tech sales is even a possibility,” says Shaan Hathiramani, the founder and chief executive of Flockjay, a company offering a tech sales training curriculum to the masses.

Hathiramani sees his startup as an onramp to the tech industry for legions of workers who have the skillsets to work in tech, but lack the network to see themselves in the business. Just like coding bootcamps have enabled thousands to get jobs as programmers in the tech business, Flockjay can get talented people who had never considered a job in tech into the industry.

The company, which had previously raised $3 million from investors including Serena Williams and Will Smith, along with tech industry luminaries like Microsoft chairman John Thompson; Airtable head of sales Liat Bycel; Gmail inventor Paul Buchheit; and former Netflix CPO Tom Willerer, has just raised new capital to expand its business in a time when accelerated onramps to new jobs have never been more important.

The healthcare response to the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic, which has closed businesses and torn through the American economy. The unemployment rate in the country sits at 6.4% and the nation lost 140,000 jobs again in December — with all of those job losses coming from women.

A former financier with the multi-billion dollar investment firm, Citadel, Hathiramani sees Flockjay, and the business of tech sales as a way for a number of people to transform their lives.

“We provide a premier sales academy,” Hathiramani said. “It costs zero dollars if you take the course and don’t get a job and costs 10% of your income for the first year if you do get a job. That nets out to 6 or 7K.”

A few hundred students have gone through the program so far, Hathiramani said, and the goal is to train 1,000 people over the course of 2021. The average income of a student before they go through Flockjay’s training program is $30,000 to $35,000 typically, Hathiramani said.

Upon graduation, those students can expect to make between $75,000 and $85,000, he said.

Increasing access among those students who have not necessarily been exposed to the tech world is critical for what Hathiramani wants to do with his sales bootcamp.

Flockjay founder Shaan Hathiramani. Image Credit: Flockjay

The entrepreneur said roughly 40% of students don’t have a four-year college degree; half of the students identify as female or non-binary, and half of the company’s students identify as Black or hispanic. About 80% of the company’s students find a job within the first six months of graduation.

These are students like Elise Cox, a former Bojangles’ manager and Flockjay graduate, who moved from Georgia to Denver to be a sales tech representative for Gusto. Tripling her salary from $13 an hour in the food service industry to a salaried position with wages and benefits.

“I enjoy being able to generate revenue for the company,” Cox, a 41-year-old grandmother, whose five-year plans include a sales leadership role, told Fast Company two years ago. “The revenue is the lifeblood of the company and being part of the team gives me sense of fulfillment.”

Partnerships with [email protected], Hidden Genius Project, Peninsula Bridge, and TechHire Oakland, help to ensure a diverse pool of applicants and a more diverse workforce for the tech industry — where diversity is still a huge problem.

As Hathiramani looks to take his company from training a couple of hundred students to over a thousand, the founder has raised new cash from previous investors including Lightspeed, Coatue, and Y Combinator, and new investors like eVentures, Salesforce Ventures, along with the Impact America Fund, Cleo Capital and Gabrielle Union.

For the New Jersey-born entrepreneur, Flockjay was a way to give back to a community that he knew intimately. After his family settled in New Jersey after immigrating to the United States, Hathiramani went first to Horace Mann on a scholarship and then attended Harvard before getting his job at Citadel.

Even while he was working at the pinnacle of the financial services world he started non-profits like the Big Shoulders Fund and taught financial literacy.

After a while, he moved to the Bay Area to begin plotting a way to merge his twin interests in education and financial inclusion.

“That led to me spending a year helping startups for free and trying to understand their problems with hiring and training” said Hathiramani. “It helped me surface this economic waste in plain sight. There were all these people talking to customers and they were spending three months on the job learning the job and they didn’t want to do the job or they weren’t very good at it.”

Tech salesforces were a point of entry in the system that almost anyone could access, if they could get in through the door, Hathiramani said. Flockjay wants to be the key to opening the door.

So, the company now has $11 million in new funding to bring its sales training bootcamp to a larger audience. Hathiramani also wants to make the bootcamp model more of a community with continuous development after a student completes the program. “I view education as a membership and not a transaction,” he said. “We focus on continuous learning and continuous up-skilling.”

Part of that is the flywheel of building up networks in a manner similar to YCombinator, the accelerator program from which Flockjay graduated in 2019.

“We went through YC to learn… how they manufacture the privilege in the world that they have afforded,” said Hathiramani. “How do you take some of that and provide it to someone who is starting their careers in tech. You get better at your job the more connections you have. As we accelerate the alumni piece… they can draw on other alums that they’re selling into.”

 

YC-backed Blabla raises $1.5M to teach English through short videos

Short, snappy, entertaining videos have become an increasingly common way for young people to receive information. Why not learn English through TikTok-like videos too? That was what prompted Angelo Huang to launch Blabla.

Originally from Taiwan, Huang relocated to Shanghai in 2019 to start Blabla after working in Silicon Valley for over a decade. A year later, Blabla was chosen as part of Y Combinator’s 2020 summer cohort. The coronavirus had begun to spread in the U.S. at the time, keeping millions at home, and interest in remote learning was reviving.

“It was my eighth time applying to YC,” Huang, who founded two companies before Blabla, told TechCrunch during an interview.

This week, Blabla announced it has raised $1.54 million in a seed round led by Amino Capital, Starling Ventures, Y Combinator, and Wayra X, the innovation arm of the Spanish telecoms giant Telefónica. While Y Combinator wasn’t particularly instrumental in Blabla’s expansion in China — one of the biggest English-learning markets — the famed accelerator was of great help introducing investors to the young company, said the founder.

The Blabla app pays native English speakers by the hour to create short, engaging videos tailored to English-learning students around the world. The content creators are aided by Blabla’s proprietary software that can recognize and tag their scenes, as well as third-party translation tools that can subtitle their videos. The students, in turn, pay a subscription fee to receive personalized video recommendations based on their level of proficiency. They can practice through the app’s built-in speech recognition, among other features like speaking contests and pop quizzes.

The startup is in a highly crowded space. In China, the online English-learning market is occupied by established companies like VIPKID, which is backed by Tencent and Sequoia Capital. Compared to VIPKID’s one-on-one tutoring model, Blabla is more affordable with its starting price of 39 yuan ($6) a month, Huang noted.

“The students [on mainstream English learning apps] might have to spend several thousands of RMB before they can have a meaningful conversation with their teachers. We instead recycle our videos and are able to offer lessons at much cheaper prices.”

The app has about 11,000 weekly users and 300-400 paid users at the moment, with 80-90% of its total users coming from China; the goal for this year is to reach 300,000 students. The funding will allow Blabla to expand in Southeast Asia and Latin America while Wayra X can potentially help it scale to Telefónica’s 340 million global users. It will be seeking brand deals with influencers on the likes of TikTok and Youtube. The new capital will also enable BlaBla to add new features, such as pairing up language learners based on their interests and profiles.

Blabla doesn’t limit itself to teaching English and has ambitions to bring in teachers of other languages. “We want to be a global online pay-for-knowledge platform,” said Huang.

Business trip platform TravelPerk buys YC-backed rival NexTravel

Barcelona-based TravelPerk has scooped up US-based rival NexTravel as the pandemic drives consolidation in one of the sector’s hardest hit by COVID-19.

It’s not disclosing how much it’s shelling out for NexTravel, which has some 700 customers globally and has processed around 300,000 trips since being founded back in 2013, but says the deal is its largest acquisition to date — with the aim of beefing up its business in the US. (Also today it’s announcing a partnership with Southwest Airlines that plugs a key gap in its US offering.)

The US has always been a top five market for TravelPerk, per CEO and co-founder, Avi Meir, but after the NexTravel acquisition it becomes its largest market.

“US customers, US know-how, [US-based] team,” he said, listing the drivers for the acquisition. “They’ve built an amazing product. It’s a Y Combinator company who started 2-3 years before us and they focused only or mostly on the US market so they have an expertise that is very complementary to what we’re doing.”

Meir confirmed NexTravel’s founders and team are joining TravelPerk as part of the deal. Existing customers include the likes of Yelp, Stripe and Harry’s.

“They’re a great company. I really think we have great execution and we got into the crisis with a much better cash position and COVID-19 is creating opportunities that didn’t exist before,” he added. “We had friendly competition and just the context of the situation was we were in a better position to acquire them vs them acquiring us.”

The plan is to migrate users of the US product onto TravelPerk’s platform over time but Meir said the NexTravel team will continue to support the product for the foreseeable future while it works on understanding and plugging any functionality gaps with the aim of ensuring a smooth, eventual transition for NexTravel customers in the future.

The acquisition is only TravelPerk’s second after it picked up risk management startup Albatross last summer — underlining how the coronavirus crisis is retooling priorities for businesses in the travel sector.

Or at least those that have enough funding to see them through the revenue crunch. And Meir confirmed TravelPerk has its eye on more acquisition targets.

“We are in the process of talking with a few more [potential acquisitions],” he said, adding: “In a moment of crisis consolidation typically happens so I think it’s fair to expect more of this.”

While a couple of years ahead of TravelPerk in starting up a business travel booking business, NexTravel has raised considerably less over its run — pulling in circa $4.5M in funding, according to Crunchbase.

The younger Spain-based startup, meanwhile, grew faster and has raised orders of magnitude more (~$134M to date) — including a $60M top-up to its Series C in 2019 when it was reporting 2,000 customers globally.

“We just happen to be in Europe,” Meir told TechCrunch, discussing how his European startup is in a position to buy a US rival (when the reverse is all too often the case in tech) — and pointing to knowledge of how to localize as a key advantage. “We were never targeting the Spanish market exclusively or not even the European market.

“To win in business travel, one of the paradoxes is you have to build a very localized product… So we never saw ourselves as a European business we just recognize that we have to really localize deeply in order to be successful anywhere. But we have to do it across the world. So this acquisition is just another step in localizing for the US.”

“[The acquisition] will obviously drive a lot of product development, of commercial investments, of partnerships,” he added. “In a way we’re doing it knowing that it will force us to do more of the US — so it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophesy — but it’s a $300BN business travel market so we should better make some moves around it.”

With the pandemic continuing to ravage much of the globe — including both the US and Europe — there’s likely to be considerably fewer billions of dollars on business travel value up for grabbed for a sizeable chunk of 2021. And Meir confirmed that TravelPerk isn’t expecting to see a revival in the market before the second half of this year.

Nonetheless, he remains bullish that once vaccinations are rolled out to the most vulnerable groups in society business travellers will be on the move once again — predicting that Zoom fatigue and the boom in remote working will rekindle demand for face-to-face human contact.

“My best guess right now is everything converges to around the second half of this year — around May-June maybe — where seasonality should hopefully hit. Meaning we’ll see the same decline in hospitalizations and deaths as we saw last year. That’s my hope,” he predicted. “On top of that we have the vaccines… Within the next 4-5 months there is reason to expect that we’ll see [vaccine rollouts] accelerating and then everything converges. We just need the at risk population to be safe for the world to be open again.”

“It doesn’t mean we’ll be completely done with corona but it won’t be as deadly as it is now so we’ll be able to open up more and remove restrictions and see travel coming back again,” he added.

Pressed on whether businesses might not have adjusted to a new, ‘more digital’ normal after 1.5 years of living with COVID-19 — having come to rely on a suite of videoconferencing and virtual meeting tools — Meir quashes the idea of a smaller business travel market replacing the pre-pandemic industry, predicting a “roaring ’20s” revival for business travel instead, fuelled by “Zoom fatigue” and networking FOMO once social distancing restrictions can be lifted.

“If you still own any Zoom shares you should sell them!” he quipped, speaking via Zoom call (obviously). “This is going down from now. Everybody is tired of this. The Zoom fatigue is real. It creates a lot of mental health concerns, social isolation… Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs is still here, and it’s even stronger than ever, I think, because we realize how bad it is when we don’t meet people in real life. When everything has to be through this weird, proxy to human connection. The virus doesn’t change human nature. We still need to meet each other face to face.”

“The first sales person who’s going to lose a sale because the competition went and took the customer to dinner and they wanted to do it via Zoom, they’re on a plane the next day. So competition will solve it — even if we put aside human nature,” he added. “I think we all recognize even more how much we need human connection.”

So even if some some “transactional meetings” do move permanently to Zoom, as Meir conceded “maybe” happens, he said they’re not the primary driver for the bulk of business travel anyway.

Furthermore, the pandemic will create new demand for business travel because of the boom in remote working creating ongoing need for distributed colleagues to travel to meet each other face to face, with Meir arguing that more flexible working is certainly here to stay.

“My team, like many other teams, used to be all in Barcelona in the same building — and now we allow them to work from anywhere in the world. Because why not? Many companies will stick to that I think,” he said. “We have recognized that people like it, the employees like it and it’s cheaper, because you don’t have to have as much office real estate — and people are more productive and they’re happier and they have a better balance between their personal and work life.

“So this requires a new type of travel because… you have to bring [your team] together for a week of work together. So I think the small decline in business travel due to this one hour transactional call that you can move to Zoom will be compensated even more — increased by — this new way of working that requires a new type of business travel.”

While TravelPerk was fortunate enough to go into the pandemic well-capitalized, having topped up its Series C in 2019, investor interest in travel startups undoubtedly went on holiday for a considerable chunk of last year. But, again, Meir suggests, an uptick on that front.

“We don’t need to raise any time soon — we have enough cash. The expectation is for the business to go back to growing year on year sometime in Q3, Q4 of this year,” he told us. “Having said that, what’s interesting — and I don’t know if I’m the only one — is we went from [being a fast-growing company] and you get a lot of inbound from investors and then COVID-19 hit and my inbox was empty for a while.

“It was pretty sad, pretty pathetic. And then the last few weeks — since the beginning of the school year — September/October, my inbox is not empty anymore. So there is some movement in the market. There’s a lot of money looking for a home — for good investments. And I think even in an industry which is suffering obviously, the good companies can raise at good terms right now. So I’m not looking to raise but I’m always open to the opportunity.”

Niantic buys competitive gaming platform Mayhem

Pokèmon Go creator Niantic has acquired a small SF gaming startup building a league and tournament organization platform to help gamers create their own communities around popular titles.

Mayhem was in Y Combinator’s winter 2018 batch and went onto raise $5.7 million in funding according to Crunchbase. Other backers include Accel, which led the startup’s Series A in 2018, Afore Capital and NextGen Venture Partners.

The startup’s focus has shifted quite a bit since its initial YC debut, when it announced a service called Visor that would analyze video of esports gameplay and coach users on how they could improve their performance. The company has seemed to shift its focus wholly to community tools to help gamers find matches and organize tournaments for games like Overwatch on its platform.

Terms of the acquisition weren’t disclosed by Niantic .

The “majority” of Mayhem’s team will be joining Niantic with the startup’s CEO Ivan Zhou landing in the company’s Social Platform Product team while the rest of the team joins Platform Engineering.

In a statement, Niantic asserts that the acquisition “reinforces our commitment to real-world social as the centerpiece of our mission.”

Read a deep dive of Niantic on Extra Crunch

Most of Niantic’s acquisitions of late have focused on augmented reality backend technologies so it’s interesting to see them buying tech that focuses on community organization.

Pokèmon Go continues to be Niantic’s cash cow though the company hasn’t seen the same levels of viral success with subsequent releases where organic growth hasn’t been quite as easy to come by. Buying a startup building community tools suggests the company is ready to bring in some outside tech to push their own efforts forward as they strive to create a broader platform for their AR ambitions and more standalone hits of their own.

Tappity raises $1.3M for its interactive and educational video library for kids

When kids today want to learn about a new topic they’re interested in, they’ll often turn to YouTube. But the quality of the educational content on the platform can be hit or miss, depending on what specific videos kids happen to come across. Tappity, a digital educational startup now backed by $1.3 million in seed funding, aims to offer an alternative. Its video library offers entertaining and interactive live-action videos kids enjoy, while also ensuring the content itself is aligned with current educational standards.

The two-year old startup was co-founded by CEO Chad Swenson, his brother and CTO Tanner Swenson, and CPO Lawrence Tran.

Image Credits: Tappity founders

As Chad explains, the idea for Tappity emerged from his interest in designing interactive learning experiences, which resulted in a senior project eight years ago where he created an interactive experience to help students learn about evolution. Over the years that followed, he began to experiment with different concepts in this area, but never planned for anything of venture scale.

However, Chad says he later realized there could be an opportunity to develop content based around the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) — the set of K-12 science content standards that were developed by a consortium of multiple U.S. states — whose adoption across the U.S. is now growing.

“A lot of parents were looking for healthier alternatives to YouTube,” Chad says. “And I really started to believe this is something that could be much bigger.”

He found also that the science-based topics kids are generally interested in are often those that are aligned with what the NGSS aims to teach — like space, dinosaurs, geology and others.

“A big inspiration was just looking at the most popular books on Amazon for kids,” Chad adds, noting that a large number of these books are focused on STEM-related subjects.

Chad met his co-founder Lawrence Tran when consulting for fintech startup Bill.com, and convinced him and his brother Tanner to work on the startup.

Over the course of a couple of years, Tappity has developed tools that make it easier and efficient to produce interactive, educational video content. Today, the library includes over 200 science lessons for kids ages 4 to 10, across thousands of videos.

While the video clips themselves are pre-recorded, they give the kids the feeling of having a one-on-one interaction with the character on the screen. For example, if the teacher is building something and needs a screwdriver, the kids can pass it to her in the app when she asks. But they’ll also have a lot of other fun options they can do instead, like passing her tape or even throwing pizza at her — and she’ll react. The teacher may also engage with kids in other ways, too, like responding to what they drew in the app, among other things.

Image Credits: Tappity

Currently, Tappity’s teacher Haley the Science Gal (Haley McHugh), a childhood entertainment expert with over 10 years of experience, is leading the lessons which span topics like space, life science, earth science and physical science.

In addition to the video lessons, kids are engaged with an in-app points system for completing activities. The app also offers follow-up emails for parents so they can track what kids are learning and further engage them.

Due to the COVID pandemic, and the resulting screen fatigue that comes from virtual schooling, Tappity adapted some lessons to include offline activities — like drawing with paper and pens, for instance. And on Sundays, Tappity offers more involved activities parents and kids can do together — like baking cookies that you turn into Pangea or making a volcano.

Tappity expects to have over 1,000 hours of video content by the end of next year, and over 4,000 hours by the year after, Chad notes.

When the team of three applied to startup accelerator Y Combinator, Tappity was small but profitable, thanks to its in-app subscription tiers that average around $9 per month. Today, the company has over 5,000 paying customers and over 20,000 weekly active users who have collectively completed 30 million lessons to date.

The company has now raised a seed round of $1.3 million from Y Combinator, Mystery Science founder Keith Schacht, Toca Boca founder Björn Jeffery, Brighter Capital (Yun-Fang Juan), former Spotify CTO Andreas Ehn, and others.

In the near-term, Tappity is working to expand its team and bring its lessons — that today are only available on iOS — to the web. Over time, the company’s goal is to create a large library of interactive educational content.

While the COVID pandemic has inspired VCs to invest in more edtech startups, the longevity of some of these businesses in the post-COVID world remains to be seen. Where Tappity is different from many of these remote learning startups or those designed for the classroom, is that its focus is not on selling into the school system.

“Teachers have picked it up organically — we give it away free to schools right now,” Chad explains. “But we’re not dedicating any resources to it because we’re focused on the parents’ and kids’ needs, which are quite a bit different,” he says.

Tappity’s app is available iOS, and includes some free content outside of the subscription.

Bandit ML helps e-commerce businesses present the most effective offer to each shopper

Bandit ML aims to optimize and automate the process of presenting the right offer to the right customer.

The startup was part of the summer 2020 class at accelerator Y Combinator . It also raised a $1.32 million seed round in September from YC, Haystack Fund, Webb Investment Network, Liquid 2 Ventures, Jigsaw Ventures, Basecamp Fund, Pathbreaker Ventures and various angels — including what CEO Edoardo Conti said are 10 current and former Uber employees.

Conti (who founded the company with Lionel Vital and Joseph Gilley) is a former Uber software engineer and researcher himself.

The idea, as he explained via email, is that one customer might be more excited about a $5 discount, while another might be more effectively enticed by free shipping, and a third might be completely uninterested because they just made a large purpose. Using a merchant’s order history and website activity data, Bandit ML is supposed to help them which offer will be most effective with which shopper.

Bandit ML screenshot

Image Credits: Bandit ML

Conti acknowledged that there’s other discount-optimizing software out there, but he suggested none of them offers what Bandit ML does: “off the shelf tools that use machine learning the way giants like Uber, Amazon, and Walmart do.”

He added that Bandit ML’s technology is unique in its support for full automation (“some stores sent their first batch of offers within 10 minutes of signing up”) and its ability to optimize for longer term metrics, like purchases over a 120-day period, rather focusing on one-off redemptions. In fact, Conti said the technology the startup uses to make these decisions is similar to the ReAgent project that he worked on at Facebook.

Bandit ML is currently focused on merchants with Spotify stores, though it also supports other e-commerce platforms like Calii. Conti said the platform has been used to send millions of dollars worth of promotions since July, with one clothing company seeing a 20% increase in net revenue.

“Starting with an always-on incentive engine for every online business, we aim to build functioning out-of-the-box machine learning tools that a small online business needs to compete with the Walmarts and Amazons of the world,” he said.

 

VergeSense raises $12M Series B for its workplace analytics service

VergeSense, a startup that uses machine vision to help businesses better understand how their office spaces are being utilized, today announced that it has raised a $12 million Series B funding round led by Tola Capital.

Including the company’s $9 million Series A round, which it raised earlier this year, VergeSense has now raised a total of $22.6 million. Previous investors include JLL Spark, Allegion Ventures, MetaProp, Y Combinator, Pathbreaker Ventures and West Ventures.

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s maybe no surprise that VergeSense would be seeing quite a bit of demand for its service and sensors. While the company was seeing strong growth since its launch in 2017, the pandemic is accelerating the move to smarter office spaces. As VergeSense CEO and co-founder Dan Ryan told me, over the course of the last few months, the company added new features to help businesses manage social distancing, for example, and to better understand where in a given office they should intensify their cleaning protocols.

VergeSense sensor

It’s also becoming increasingly clear that even after we get the pandemic under control, office spaces — and office work — will look radically different. “It’s going to be a sort of a hybrid model of working, which, pre-pandemic, was already something that was happening — companies were experimenting with this — but now it’s been turbocharged,” Ryan said. “We never anticipated any of this, but I think it’s a great example of the possibilities that you can help support when you have this intelligent infrastructure all around you that allows you to almost program the physical world.”

Another new feature the company launched this year allows its tools to register when a seat is likely occupied, even though nobody is in it right now, by looking for backpacks and other signs that would signal that a desk is in use.

VergeSense currently has customers in 29 countries. These include the likes of Shell, Quicken Loans, Roche, Cisco and Telus. In total, the company’s tools watch more than 40 million square feet of space now.

Image Credits: VergeSense

As Ryan told me, the company saw quite a bit of inbound interest from investors this year and the team wanted to capitalize on the current trends. “As we look forward to ’21, especially now that this transition to an agile hybrid seating model is going to be turbocharged, we were preparing for and planning for additional growth there as well. So this was sort of opportunistic opportunity to team up with Tola to help go to the next level,” Ryan explained.

The company plans to use the new funding to continue to work on its core computer vision capabilities and hardware, but as Ryan noted, one of the focus areas for VergeSense in 2021 will also include new partnerships and integrations with tools for booking desks and rooms, as well as building automation systems. To do so, it plans to double its headcount and hire across all departments.

VergeSense is obviously not the only company playing in this space. Swiss startup Locatee, for example, raised a Series A round for its service earlier this year, though it uses network data to measure occupancy and not the kind of dedicated sensors that VergeSense is developing. Other players include the likes of Density, Basking and SteerPath.

Roblox buys digital avatar startup Loom.ai

Roblox announced today that it’s buying a digital avatar startup called Loom.ai. Purchasing a company that has focused singularly on creating more realistic human avatars is an interesting play for a gaming platform that has made such an impact by building experiences that tend to cast realism to the wayside.

We covered the company’s $1.35 million seed round back in 2016. The company brought in additional seed funding since then, scoring $5.9 million in total capital raised. The startup’s investors include Y Combinator, Samsung Ventures, Anorak Capital and Zach Coelius.

Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.

The startup was one in a long list of avatar companies to launch during the mid 2010’s that capitalized on computer vision advancements and aimed to build out a cross-game/cross-platform network of users that relied on their tech to create in-app avatars. This field of companies aimed to capitalize on opportunities in 3D that expanded beyond what companies like Snapchat had identified following its Bitmoji acquisition.

Image via Loom.ai

Over the years, Loom.ai shifted its effort from photorealism to creating more Memoji-like representations that allowed users to upload a 2D photo and automatically create a realistic 3D avatar. In recent years, Loom.ai focused heavily on enterprise opportunities. The company’s products also included a suite of integrations to build out personalized avatar stickers that could be used on messaging platforms like Slack or WhatsApp as well as live avatars that could be used during video calls.

Though Roblox has some of the more simplistic avatars on the market, this acquisition may suggest that the company is open to building out a system that places more of a premium on realism and more life-like facial animations. In a press release announcing the deal, Roblox shared that this acquisition “will accelerate the development of next-generation avatars.”

Twitter acquires screen-sharing social app Squad

Today, Twitter announced that it is acquiring Squad and that the team from the screen-sharing social app will be joining Twitter’s ranks. Squad’s co-founders, CEO Esther Crawford and CTO Ethan Sutin, and the rest of the team will be coming aboard inside Twitter’s design, engineering, and product departments, Twitter tells us. Crawford specifically notes that she will be leading a product in the conversations space.

What isn’t coming aboard is the actual Squad app, which allowed users to share their screens on mobile or desktop and simultaneously video chat, a feature that aimed to find the friend use case in screen-sharing beyond the enterprise use case of presenting. The app will be shutting down tomorrow, Twitter confirms, an unwelcome surprise for its user base largely made up of teen girls.

Twitter declined to share further terms of the deal.

Image via Twitter

The app’s functionality seems like a natural fit for the service, thought the company did not confirm whether any tech was coming aboard as part of the deal. Twitter hasn’t been keen to keep separate apps functioning outside of the core Twitter app. Vine was infamously shut down, upsetting users who likely later rallied behind TikTok, a massive success story and perhaps one of the biggest missed opportunities for American social media companies. Meanwhile, Periscope which has largely bumbled along over the years, is in a particularly fragile place with app code emerging just today that indicates an impending shutdown for the app.

Squad was notably partnered closely with Snap and was an early adopter of many of the company’s Snap Kit developer tools. Building so much of the app using Snap’s developer tools could have made porting the tech to Twitter’s infrastructure a more complicated task, especially when considering how often Snap Kit apps are tied quite closely to the Snapchat user graph.

Squad raised $7.2 million in venture capital from First Round, Y Combinator, betaworks, ex-TechCrunch editor Alexia Bonatsos’s Dream Machine and a host of other investors. Squad was in the right place at the right time in early 2020. When the pandemic first struck, CEO Esther Crawford told TechCrunch that usage of her app spiked 1100%.

Crawford spoke at length about the challenges of scaling a modern social app while avoiding the pitfalls of toxicity that so often seem to come with reaching new heights. In an interview with TechCrunch last year, she told us her team was “trying to learn from the best in what they did but get rid of the shit.”

In a Medium post, Crawford also took the opportunity of her startup’s exit to lobby investors to start backing more diverse founders.

“I hope that our exit will tip the scale a bit more toward convincing investors to put money into diverse teams because each success is another proof point that we, the historically under-capitalized and underestimated founders, are a good bet,” Crawford wrote in a Medium post. “Invest in women and people of color because we will make you money.”

GetAccept raises $20M Series B, led by Bessemer, to expand its sales platform for SMBs

Last year all-in-one digital sales platform GetAccept raised a $7 million Series A funding round. The platform, which wraps in video, live chat, proposal design, document tracking and e-signatures, has now raised $20 million in Series B funding, led by Bessemer Venture Partners, as the company expands its platform aimed at SMBs. The funding comes as the pandemic means SMBs have largely shifted to remote, and so has their digital sales process.

Last year the funding was led by DN Capital, with participation from BootstrapLabs, Y Combinator and a number of Spotify’s early investors. This round brings GetAccept’s total financing raised to $30 million. GetAccept competes with several separate tools, including well-financed solutions like DocSend, PandaDoc, Showpad, Highspot, DocuSign and Adobe Sign.

Founded in 2015 by Swedish entrepreneurs and Y Combinator alumni Samir Smajic, Mathias Thulin, Jonas Blanck and Carl Carell, GetAccept has expanded from 30 to now 100+ employees over the last 18 months, with offices across the U.S. and EU countries.

Smajic said: “We believe in the power of relationships and want to bring personalized and engaging interactions back to the online sales process. We saw this digital sales shift and change in behavior back in 2015, which is why we founded GetAccept in the first place. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated and forced B2B buyers and sellers to go digital, which has placed digital sales models high up on the company agendas. We aim to be the online place where every B2B business happens, in a personal way.”

Alex Ferrara, partner at Bessemer Venture Partners commented: “Bessemer Venture Partners is thrilled to back the ambitious GetAccept team and their vision to empower millions of SMBs to streamline and digitize their end-to-end sales processes. They have built a world-class product, prepared for business transactions that continue to shift permanently online at a rapid pace. We look forward to partnering with GetAccept on the journey ahead.”