All posts in “Business”

Microsoft takes on Google in the classroom with Flipgrid acquisition

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Microsoft is looking to solidify its position in our classrooms, and to that end, has recently acquired Flipgrid, the video discussion platform currently utilized by more than 20 million teachers and students across the United States and beyond. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but the acquisition is Microsoft’s latest attempt to improve its educational offerings. Recently, Microsoft has been updating its Office 365 for Education tools, and has also updated web versions of Office to be more collaboration friendly.

Indeed, the Flipgrid deal could help Microsoft compete more directly with Google, which is already well-loved by educators thanks to its cloud-based products and Chromebooks. Flipgrid, however, really could flip the script in favor of the Redmond-based tech giant. Flipgrid allows students to create short videos in the classroom or at home in order to participate in discussions, answer questions, or otherwise interact with their peers or teachers. Already, the platform is used in 180 countries, but with the Microsoft acquisition, Flipgrid will be free to use in schools, and anyone who has already paid for a subscription will be receiving a refund.

“We’re thrilled to see the impact Flipgrid has had in social learning thus far and look forward to helping them continue to thrive as part of the Microsoft family,” said Eran Megiddo, corporate vice president at Microsoft, in a news release. “We’re diligently committed to making sure their platform and products continue to work across the Microsoft, Google, and partner ecosystems to benefit students and teachers everywhere.”

Flipgrid prior to the acquisition had maintained a longstanding relationship with Microsoft. About 18 months ago, the two companies announced a partnership that allowed for Flipgrid to integrate with a number of Microsoft products, including Teams (which allowed Flipgrid users to chat with one another) and OneNote (which allowed users to take notes).

Even as Flipgrid joins the broader Microsoft team, the company will maintain its own brand. “Flipgrid has always been about the educator community. They are the source of our innovation and impact,” said Jim Leslie, Flipgrid CEO. “Now as a part of Microsoft, we have the opportunity to scale so we can support every educator across the globe as they empower student voices.”

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Microsoft looks to compete with Google in classrooms by acquiring Flipgrid

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Microsoft is looking to solidify its position in our classrooms, and to that end, has recently acquired Flipgrid, the video discussion platform currently utilized by more than 20 million teachers and students across the United States and beyond. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but the acquisition is Microsoft’s latest attempt to improve its educational offerings. Recently, Microsoft has been updating its Office 365 for Education tools, and has also updated web versions of Office to be more collaboration friendly.

Indeed, the Flipgrid deal could help Microsoft compete more directly with Google, which is already well-loved by educators thanks to its cloud-based products and Chromebooks. Flipgrid, however, really could flip the script in favor of the Redmond-based tech giant. Flipgrid allows students to create short videos in the classroom or at home in order to participate in discussions, answer questions, or otherwise interact with their peers or teachers. Already, the platform is used in 180 countries, but with the Microsoft acquisition, Flipgrid will be free to use in schools, and anyone who has already paid for a subscription will be receiving a refund.

“We’re thrilled to see the impact Flipgrid has had in social learning thus far and look forward to helping them continue to thrive as part of the Microsoft family,” said Eran Megiddo, corporate vice president at Microsoft, in a news release. “We’re diligently committed to making sure their platform and products continue to work across the Microsoft, Google, and partner ecosystems to benefit students and teachers everywhere.”

Flipgrid prior to the acquisition had maintained a longstanding relationship with Microsoft. About 18 months ago, the two companies announced a partnership that allowed for Flipgrid to integrate with a number of Microsoft products, including Teams (which allowed Flipgrid users to chat with one another) and OneNote (which allowed users to take notes).

Even as Flipgrid joins the broader Microsoft team, the company will maintain its own brand. “Flipgrid has always been about the educator community. They are the source of our innovation and impact,” said Jim Leslie, Flipgrid CEO. “Now as a part of Microsoft, we have the opportunity to scale so we can support every educator across the globe as they empower student voices.”

Zuora at a Crossroads

Zuora recently held its annual Subscribed user conference in San Francisco. In general, it was a good first outing since the company’s IPO, coming off some impressive first-quarter results. Year-over-year subscription revenues grew 39 percent and total revenue grew an amazing 60 percent, for example.

Zuora at a Crossroads

As good as its present situation is, now that Zuora is a public company, it has to push down the gas pedal to feed the insatiable stock market. It has responded to that need with several interesting introductions that further build out its product line and represent a good attempt at institutionalizing its growth and customer-centricity.

Zuora acknowledged that after 10 years, some of its customers were looking for the next bit of adrenaline to fuel their growth.

“The easy stuff, the low-hanging fruit” had been taken, CEO Tien Tzuo said at one point, and it was time to reach higher.

What he meant was that many successful subscription companies had gotten an initial boost from the fact of their subscription status. However, as with any innovation, commoditization has set in because initial success invited considerable competition.

Hybrid Approach

Because Zuora is a company that collects a great deal of data, Tzuo was able to say with confidence that 70 percent of customer growth was attributable to expanding footprints (upsells, cross-sells, renewals) rather than to the addition of net new customers. Zuora anonymizes customer data to derive such insights, which it publishes as the Subscription Economy Index, or SEI.

Some other interesting information from the SEI is that the more customers change or tweak their subscriptions, the faster they grow — and fewer ultimately churn. Since these numbers are indicators of use and engagement, the results make sense.

If this sounds like customer relationship management, it is — and I think Zuora’s big challenge right now is in getting the CRM-finance/billing ratio right. CRM — or as I think of it, putting the customer in the center of what a business does — might be Zuora’s highest off-label priority at the moment.

It’s easy for the company to demonstrate the value of subscriptions as customer-centricity tools, and it needs to expend more effort doing that.

Consider this: Solving the subscription-billing problem was huge, and it continues to be challenging for businesses adopting the subscription model as an adjunct to their overall business.

However, solving billing is just a way to save money and to make it possible for a business to get on the field. Both are highly important, but they aren’t enough.

CRM and customer-centricity are essential to many subscription companies, so much so that they have a hard time teasing the two apart. To the extent that many companies have been adopting a hybrid approach to customers involving new lines of subscription business side by side with conventional models, Zuora continually needs to remind them that the models are different.

In this instance, neither model is necessarily superior, but each has to be given space and neither should be confused for the other. The idea of rapidly getting through the transition phase to an all-subscription world might be a bridge too far for big vendors delivering complex products and services, so advocating that approach ultimately is self-defeating.

Running two business models in parallel is tougher than dealing with pure subscriptions, and this contributes to the sense of plateauing some customers feel. Adding customer-centricity to a business’ overall approach (where needed) may be the greatest contribution the subscription model’s advocate can offer. Some new product introductions and updates can make all this easier.

New Products

Zuora introduced Zuora Orders and enhancements to Zuora Insights, and it showed, especially with Orders, that it was dealing with the problem of its customers being too successful — a happy problem.

Orders is a product that can be used to file an initial order for renewable and nonrenewable services, like a core offering and training. It also is suitable for maintaining and updating existing customer changes to subscriptions. It thus makes it easier for customers to tweak their instances to get exactly what they need, and the data shows it’s a good approach to customer retention.

There’s also Zuora CPQ, which has suffered somewhat from an imperfect category assignment. Conventional CPQ — configure, price, quote — is a necessity for traditional sales involving a one-time purchase of a product configuration. In that light, CPQ for subscriptions is at first glance a misnomer, since subscriptions can be updated infinitely with the Orders product.

Zuora CPQ could be called “SPQ” — subscription pricing and quotation — which makes a lot more sense, but then there’s the issue of inserting yet another name into the product universe. Definitely above my pay grade.

Finally, Zuora Insights is a continuation of the company’s years-long effort to bring analytics to the subscription base. Appropriately, Insights’ presence is felt in numerous places throughout the product line — from gathering use stats to informing the revenue-recognition process.

Speaking of which, RevRec might be Zuora’s biggest opportunity as companies slowly — and retroactively — adapt the ASC 606 and other regulations. The industry has been slow to do much, according to my sources, and some companies now are spending millions to catch up when they could have spent less before. At any rate, this gives Zuora lots of new opportunities.

My Two Bits

Zuora is off and running and has made great progress in the last decade. This year’s Subscribed event was a summation of its history and a chance to point toward the next horizon.

The market has changed significantly, though, and some of that change has been due to Zuora’s successes. The big challenge now in subscriptions is rationalizing the hybrid model and giving space to it, as well as to the conventional model, throughout the industry.

That’s not a hard thing to do, but it will require rethinking customer-centricity and CRM generally. Great companies rise to such challenges.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.


Denis Pombriant is a well-known CRM industry analyst, strategist, writer and speaker. His new book, You Can’t Buy Customer Loyalty, But You Can Earn It, is now available on Amazon. His 2015 book, Solve for the Customer, is also available there.
Email Denis.

Foxconn is coming to America — more specifically, to its new Milwaukee HQ

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Craig Ferguson/Getty Images

Foxconn is coming to the United States. The Taiwan-based tech manufacturer, known for providing the requisite parts to bring many of your favorite Apple products to life, has always maintained a larger presence in Asia than in the west. And while that will likely remain the case, Foxconn is indeed extending its reach in the U.S., and is not only establishing a display factory in Wisconsin, but also setting up a brand new North American headquarters in Milwaukee. The tech firm is reportedly purchasing a seven-story building from Northwestern Mutual, and will ultimately employ 500 people to work in the new facility. Sure, that’s a whole lot fewer than the 13,000 jobs it’ll be creating at its display facility just 30 miles south, but it does indicate that Foxconn is serious about its American presence.

As Reuters reported, this recent announcement comes about a year after Foxconn revealed that it would be investing a hefty $10 billion over the course of the next four years  in order to establish its 20 million square foot LCD panel plant. It’s a big move, but at scale with what one might expect from the Taiwanese company. After all, it is the world’s most prolific contract electronics manufacturer, and has an employee roster of more than a million people.

It’s not terribly surprising that Foxconn is doubling down on Wisconsin as its home base, either. Recently, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee launched a co-op program that encourages engineering students to travel to Taiwan in order to pursue further education at Chung Yuan Christian University, while working at a Foxconn facility before attaining their final degrees. This program will kick off come fall with a fledgling class of five students,  who will first work at Foxconn in Wisconsin, and then travel to Taiwan in February. Foxconn is offering similar work-study programs to students in other midwestern universities.

Moreover, Wisconsin has been more than generous in welcoming Foxconn. In total, the state has offered $3 billion in tax breaks to play out in the next 15 years. But if Foxconn manages to bring the number of jobs it’s currently projecting into the state and increase domestic tech manufacturing, Wisconsin could have a lot to gain as a result.

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How 20th century check fraud is helping prevent 21st century data theft

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How do you prove you are who you say you are? That might seem like an easy question to answer, but in a world where your most personal of private information can be harvested from your credit agency or social networking account, that ease is a problem. Fraudsters and criminals can also prove they’re you, using surprisingly little information.

That’s the puzzle Ori Eisen is hoping to solve with the Trusona password-free authentication system. It offers middle-man validation services to companies all over the world, in hopes of improving the protection of everyone’s digital data. He’s using the expertise of 20th century fraudsters like Frank Abagnale, famously depicted in the movie Catch Me If You Can, to shore up our modern digital defenses against classic social engineering tactics.

Digital Trends: Frank Abagnale is probably known by most as the subject of the 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can based on his escapades in the ’60s with check fraud and impersonation. How did you two become involved together?

Ori Eisen: The short version is that while I was working for one of the largest credit card companies, I was asked in addition to my internet responsibilities, to learn about all about counterfeiting of cards, which I didn’t know anything about. There’s no book or university degree on that subject, so I asked, who can teach me? The name Frank Abagnale came up again and again, it’s just that he doesn’t take new students.

I begged him for months and months to meet me and help me because through me he could help curb crime because I would take his knowledge and go and beat the bad guys. Eventually he agreed to the meeting and we’ve been working together ever since.

Although today Abagnale operates a consultancy firm, his expertise comes from a time when computers were incredibly rare and incomparable to the digitally-enhanced world we enjoy today. How is his input useful in the modern age?

The word “Trusona” is a fusion of True and Persona and in order to know who the true persona is, you have to go through a process called identity proofing. First let’s establish who you are as a person [because…] there is no authentication without identity proofing. How can I authenticate it is you if I don’t prove it is you to begin with?

“There is no authentication without identity proofing.”

Frank is really good at helping us think through in that moment when you conduct identity proofing, how to spot a fake document. How a bad guy would replace a picture of Frank with a picture of Steven Spielberg. How would you beat the certificate or how would you beat the black ink on the document or all the fine microprint. He really knows a lot about those documents because governments use them in that process.

In the journey of devising a way to find out who the true persona is, in many cases where we would have come up with a solution, he basically showed us how you could beat it very easily. So it was like playing chess until you come to the point where he could not beat what we were doing.

What kind of systems did you develop that were protected against the kind of social engineering attacks that Frank Abagnale is so effective at implementing?

When Trusona debuted, we launched with a curve that says what are you trying to protect, and that is the level of service we provide. In all of them, there won’t be any kind of password.

Different service levels require different levels of reveal. Our basic level, called “Essential,” is only asking you to provide an email address that we send an email to verify you indeed have access to it. There’s no documents involved, no pictures, nothing like that. That can tie you to an account, for media streaming or similar. Because it’s good enough. It still uses our anti-replay technology, so that even if bad guys were listening in to it, they couldn’t reuse it.

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Our next level is “Executive.” That level says, ‘ok you can still be in your house, but in addition to your email, I want you to scan remotely, either a passport or a driving license.’ It’s not Trusona telling you to do it, we’re only completing the request of our partners. So, you’re trying to do something with your bank or to do something with your healthcare, and on their behalf we do it. Trusona does not store any of this data, because we don’t want to become the next hot potato for a bad guy.

The third level is called “Elite” and it asks you for an email, and to scan your document remotely, and to show yourself up in person. We only ask you to do that once, to connect you to a very strong credential. It’s not that every time you need to take a selfie or video, because that’s the only level that an underwriter will insure. It’s not for mass market, it’s for unique situations, but that is the only way to know the true persona, which is what our business is all about.

What about the growth in deepfakes and AI-driven video manipulation software that makes it possible to create lifelike video and images of people on the fly? Does that pose a threat to your “Elite” level?

Companies like Adobe released the equivalent for Photoshop for live video. It can imitate voice and face […] To go beyond that, you would have to begin with in-person identity proofing, meaning I need to meet you in real life, and with your documents, to establish that it’s you. You can not do it remotely. But not every use case requires that. It really depends what you’re trying to protect. If HBO wants to allow you to watch a movie, they don’t need that level of security. But if Goldman Sachs wants to move $50 million for Steven Spielberg, they might need that level of security.

Did you ever have Frank Abagnale try to social engineer Trusona employees?

In order to become the world’s first authenticated company – nobody else has taken these steps, because it’s not simple — we have to first protect our own data from our own employees. What if you kidnapped one of them and told us ‘I’ll only release them if you give me access to the keys?’

Right from the get go we spent a year in stealth mode and designed a system that even if you put a gun to my head I can’t help you. That includes our head of engineering and everyone else who built the system, because I explained to them, in order to protect the world from the bad guys, we can’t be the weakest link in the chain and they understand. That’s why we have to take very special people to sign up to this mission.

“[We] designed a system where even if you put a gun to my head, I can’t help you”

We also don’t store any hot potatoes. If you hacked us today, and we’ve done a lot of pen tests with different companies, all you get is one way hash of data. If I took your email, it’s one way hash. If I took anything about a transaction, it’s one way hashed, so you can never revert it back to the data because we don’t know what the raw value is.

If we were hacked by a nation state, which I expect to happen any day now, they would find something that was useless. We announced our insurance on May 6 2016 – two years ago. Ever since, 13 percent of our web hits are coming from Russia. And we don’t have a single customer there, we don’t have a single sales person there. That’s a lot for people we aren’t doing business with!

The third is training. I can tell you that even at our support guy, who takes support calls […] we train them to take calls from people like ‘Donald Trump.’ We are very adept at faking phone calls and making it look really legit, to make it seem like the president is calling you. We know how to do that because we are hackers. It’s the steps, the questions, not just saying yes to everything, that makes us as strong as we can be. Because we realize that the more pervasive we become, we are ourselves becoming a target.

What about legitimate demands from government agencies? Is Trusona data protected from the real Donald Trump?

We have had many dealings with three letter agencies, but the design is such that I can’t do it, even if you wanted me to. I don’t know what the data is. You can subpoena me today, and tell me to give you all the data on [a client]. Ok I’ll get the subpoena and I’ll reply if you can tell me which ones of our records are theirs, then you can have it, but I don’t know.

One of the most talked about digital systems in recent years has been blockchain technology. Today it’s used by governments and organizations to protect the veracity of data. Is it an effective tool for improving privacy and data protection too?

Blockchain technology is one of the most amazing inventions of our time, hard stop. However, many people make the link that if it’s mathematically correct they are immutable in real life and that’s where Frank Abagnale will just laugh at you.

Data security is failing and there has to be a better system. Blockchain creates a secure, unalterable public record and is poised to dramatically improve the world around you, from voting systems to rental contracts.

If I make a fake document of Jon Martindale and I go to a bank and apply with it and they put into a blockchain, by the time you will figure out that it wasn’t you and you’ll try to undo it, how will you expunge it from the blockchain? It’s the “GIGO” principle, garbage in garbage out.

Making a technology that’s mathematically perfect, is wonderful. I actually think that everyone who buys a house should have it on a blockchain so you can never lose your house. There’s a lot of good applications for that, but to say that that will solve the core identity problem is a falsehood. The problem was never about how to store the data, it was: How do I know who is who in the zoo?

With so many major hacks and data thefts taking place, it’s easy for people to feel powerless in protecting their data. Do you have any security recommendations for our readers that they can use to help protect themselves?

There is a very simple tip I’ll give them. Until we live in a world with no passwords, my only advice is change your passwords. It doesn’t cost you anything. Even if passwords were stolen yesterday, changing them is like changing the lock on your door. For the most important things in your life, your bank your healthcare, put a calendar entry and every month, every quarter, at a minimum once a year, change your passwords. The fact that we are creatures of habit is working against us.

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