All posts in “workflow”

Clara Labs nabs $7M Series A as it positions its AI assistant to meet the needs of enterprise teams


Clara Labs, creator of the Clara AI assistant, is announcing a $7 million Series A this morning led by Basis Set Ventures. Slack Fund also joined in the round, alongside existing investors Sequoia and First Round. The startup will be looking to further differentiate within the crowded field of email-centric personal assistants by building in features and integrations to address the needs of enterprise teams.

Founded in 2014, Clara Labs has spent much of the last three years trying to fix email. When CC-ed on emails, the Clara assistant can automatically schedule meetings — reasoning around preferences like location and time.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve probably come across x.ai or Fin. But while all three startups look similar on paper, each has its own distinct ideology. Where Clara is running toward the needs of teams, Fin embraces the personal pains of travel planning and shopping. Meanwhile, x.ai opts for maximum automation and lower pricing.

That last point around automation needs some extra context. Clara Labs prides itself in its implementation of a learning strategy called human-in-the-loop. For machines to analyze emails, they have to make a lot of decisions — is that date when you want to grab coffee, or is it the start of your vacation when you’ll be unable to meet?

In the open world of natural language, incremental machine learning advances only get you so far. So instead, companies like Clara convert uncertainty into simple questions that can be sent to humans on demand (think proprietary version of Amazon Mechanical Turk). The approach has become a tech trope with the rise of all things AI, but Maran Nelson, CEO of Clara Labs, is adamant that there’s still a meaningful way to implement agile AI.

The trick is ensuring that a feedback mechanism exists for these questions to serve as training materials for uncertain machine learning models. Three years later, Clara Labs is confident that its approach is working.

Bankrolling the human in human-in-the-loop does cost everyone more, but people are willing to pay for performance. After all, even a nosebleed-inducing $399 per month top-tier plan costs a fraction of a real human assistant.

Anyone who has ever experimented with adding new email tools into old workflows understands that Gmail and Outlook have tapped into the dark masochistic part of our brain that remains addicted to inefficiency. It’s tough to switch and the default of trying tools like Clara is often a slow return to the broken way of doing things. Nelson says she’s keeping a keen eye on user engagement and numbers are healthy for now — there’s undoubtedly a connection between accuracy and engagement.

As Clara positions its services around the enterprise, it will need to take into account professional sales and recruiting workflows. Integrations with core systems like Slack, CRMs and job applicant tracking systems will help Clara keep engagement numbers high while feeding machine learning models new edge cases to improve the quality of the entire product.

“Scheduling is different if you’re a sales person and your sales team is measured by the total number of meetings scheduled,” Nelson told me in an interview.

Nelson is planning to make new hires in marketing and sales to push the Clara team beyond its current R&D comfort zone. Meanwhile the technical team will continue to add new features and integrations, like conference room booking, that increase the value-add of the Clara assistant.

Xuezhao Lan of Basis Set Ventures will be joining the Clara Labs board of directors as the company moves into its next phase of growth. Lan will bring both knowledge of machine learning and strategy to the board. Today’s Clara deal is one of the first public deals to involve the recently formed $136 million AI-focused Basis Set fund.

Codota raises $2M from Khosla as autocomplete for developers


In recent years, GitHub has fundamentally changed developer workflows. By centralizing code on an easily accessible platform, the company was able to rapidly change the way people code. Following in these footsteps, Israeli startup Codota wants to further optimize workflows for the often neglected developer community — this time with machine intelligence. The company is announcing a $2 million seed round from Khosla Ventures for its autocomplete tool that helps engineers push better code in less time.

Codota interfaces with integrated development environments like Eclipse, expanding on intelligent code completion. Instead of just offering up brief suggestions of intended code, Codota can recommend larger chunks.

Co-founders Dror Weiss and Eran Yahav took advantage of open source code on the internet from GitHub and StackOverflow to build Codota. All of this public code was fed into machine learning models to enable them to recognize higher-level meaning across blocks of code.

The Codota team at its Tel Aviv headquarters

Programing languages share a lot of structural similarities with their distant spoken cousins. Words can be arranged in infinitely many ways to express a single thought or sentiment. Likewise, the same command can be represented in code in a number of ways. This is why it’s so critical that Codota understands the macro picture of what code is doing.

Of course natural language and code are not completely analogous. The team explained in an interview that in natural language processing, meaning is determined by looking at nearby words. Programs are more structured and meaning isn’t always strongly correlated with locality. So instead of just training on text, Codota also focused on the behaviors of a program.

Aside from improving speed and accuracy, Codota can help with discovery and education. Because Codota has been trained on millions of API implementations, it can help offer up best practices to developers. When open side-by-side with an IDE, the tool can highlight irregularities and demonstrate better ways to write code, lessons often pulled straight from the original creators of libraries.

The startup makes its money by allowing enterprises to keep their internal code private while benefitting from Codota’s insights. Right now the tool is limited to Java, but in the future additional languages will be added.

Featured Image: maciek905/Getty Images

This week in apps: Uber adds a safety feature, Gorrilaz launch an AR app and Microsoft tries social media

It’s been a busy week: Elon Musk confirmed that the Tesla Semi truck is coming soon, Instagram announced reaching 200 million daily active users on stories and Messenger reached 1.2 billion, so it’s understandable if you missed some of this weeks best apps.

Luckily, we’ve kept up for you. Each week, we round up the latest app news, along with a few of our favorite new and updated products, to keep you in the loop with everything coming to your smartphone.

SEE ALSO: Apple could kill almost 200,000 apps with iOS 11

Here’s what caught our eye this week. If you’re looking for more, make sure to check out the last installment.

Uber adds a new safety feature

Image: uber

While Uber continues to be caught up in controversy, the company has rolled out a widely requested safety feature – cross streets for pickup and destination points for users who may not be comfortable sharing exact addresses. Now, users can just enter two cross streets for pickup or drop off to keep their comings and goings a little more private.  

Gorrilaz launch an AR app

Image: gorillaz

Image: gorillaz

The tech savvy band has launched a new app that uses augmented reality technology to display objects from their recent music videos in the user’s surroundings. Users will also be able to listen to the band’s upcoming album, Humanz, which according to NME will soon be released early via an in-app “houseparty.”

Download iOS and Android.

Giphy launches “Giphy Says”

A new app from the internet’s favorite called “Giphy Says” converts words into gifs. The app is simple – just record a video of yourself or someone else saying something and Giphy will transcribe and beautify your message with “filters.” One filter even converts everything you say to emoji!

Download iOS.

Elsewhere:

Image: microsoft

Image: microsoft

Microsoft launched Sprinkles, an experimental app that can “make your photos fun in 2 seconds.” The app combines the company’s previous experiments like guessing your age or emotion with the popular Snapchat-like aesthetic of stickers and captions. You can try the iOS app here. This week the company also launched an iMessage app called “Who’s In” that aims to make it easier to meet up with your friends, but ends up making it harder than ever. 

Apple has ended all updates Workflow, the task automation app that the company acquired in March and then made free on the app store. The app is reportedly going into maintenance mode, which means that it will no longer expand functionality, though the company plans to keep supporting the existing functionality — at least for now.

Image: runtastic

Image: runtastic

Fitness app Runtastic has launched a new healthy recipe app called Runtasty. The video based app makes it easy to find and cook healthy recipes.

Download iOS and Android.

And lastly, check out Easter Egg Peg, a silly but addictive game. Download iOS.

WATCH: If you give up your seat on a Delta flight you could get almost $10,000

Lystable takes $10M top-up to tackle freelancer payments


Lystable, a startup that makes a workflow management platform aimed at businesses needing to manage lots of freelancers, has topped up its Series A again — this time with an additional $10 million, which founder and CEO Peter Johnston says will be use to fund a change of business model with a payments focus.

The TechStars London incubated and 2015 Disrupt London battlefield finalist first closed a Series A last June, taking in $11M at the time, led by Peter Thiel’s Valar Ventures and Goldcrest Capital. Spring Partners also participated; and Max Levchin joined the round soon after.

The latest expansion round — which Lystable says brings its total Series A to $21M, and total raised to date to $25M — is again led by Thiel’s Valar Ventures. Existing investors Levchin’s SciFi VC (formerly HVF Investments), Kindred Capital and Goldcrest Capital also participated, along with new investors Glynn Capital and Wilmont Ventures.

So what’s with all Lystable’s funding top-ups? In essence this is down to the startup trying to figure out its market fit, and find out what else it needs to build to get there.

Johnston says the team raised much of the earlier Series A off the back of “a couple of big enterprise deals” (Google is a customer, for example) — and while these big checks evidently excited investors, they also turned out to be “misleading” — given the core conviction driving Lystable is that work will be increasingly unchained from big centralized functions. So trying to sell an enterprise solution wasn’t where the startup felt it needed to be, certainly not at this stage of its development.

“I know the freelancer economy on the corporate side is still pretty new, and still being defined, but after we did those projects we realized we needed to become a team product,” Johnston tells TechCrunch. “We still maintain those enterprise clients but we didn’t set out with a mission to help big corporations centrally control freelancers. That’s not what the future of work is about. It’s about freedom, and it’s about not having boundaries, and not being held back by crappy HR process and un-smooth onboarding. Anyone should be able to work with whoever they need to get the task done the best way it could be done.”

So, while ultimately Lystable is banking on the rise of the gig economy generally fueling demand for its freelance management platform — and even, Johnston reckons, with potential to expand into sectors such as banking and healthcare down the line, when the market need for overhauled freelancer management software becomes more widely established — the platform still needs to mesh with the needs of the current users, in the media and tech space; aka sectors that are more free and open to early adopting new workflow tools.

Hence Lystable quickly making its platform free, and now preparing to switch to a business model that’s centered on building a payments solution for companies to more easily remit freelancers. This payments piece will be a premium add on to what Lystable now calls its “freelancer collaboration app” — with the plan being to launch a beta at the end of the year. And given payments is now its monetization focus, it’s clear why Levchin’s interest is piqued. The PayPal co-founder is also now joining Lystable’s board.

As they went about rethinking the market fit last year, Johnston says the team explored various different business models, including launching a marketplace (privately), and getting “a bunch of freelancers hired by Airbnb and Farfetch”. But ultimately, he says, they decided to steer clear of a recruitment and/or marketplace approach — given how many existing players are already at work in that space.

Instead, the business model pivot hinges on identifying an ongoing pain-point that was holding back the smooth running of the freelancer collaboration app — which he says was otherwise effectively plugging into all sorts of business functions and tools, and had been seeing usage “growing significantly”. So the missing premium piece they’re now seeking to bolt on is integrating the process for paying freelancers.

“In the app you manage profiles, you assign work and you track [and can generate] invoices, and you integrate with tonnes of tools at each level. And then what happened was it was being sent off to payroll and the finance departments in these companies,” he explains. “Because, on the team side of our product, the finance was still being taken care of traditionally, through the finance department, the freelancer experience just broke down. They would never know the status of their invoice, they would never get paid on time, it just felt like — on both sides — there was an admin problem.”

The pain of this problem is not just for the freelancers waiting for and wondering where their money is, argues Johnston, asserting there are also compliance and administration hassles for employers trying to centralize payment of (a growing number of) dispersed freelancers via a single finance department.

“Does The Economist [another Lystable customer] really want to be paying 1,500 freelancers a month in the same department that they’re paying their full-time staff? Absolutely not,” he argues. “It’s a compliance nightmare, there’s so many different… ways you need to do it to be compliant with the IRS. International transfers become another headache. You literally can’t do a direct bank transfer from an American bank into some countries.”

“Max [Levchin] had gotten more excited about the freelancer economy, and particularly the ability for us to leverage the fact that we build this freelancer workflow tool — and the position that that could put us in for potentially solving payments admin and compliance admin for both the client and the freelancers,” he adds.

Lystable launched an early version of the payments product at the end of last year — to test the idea with a few customers. But now, fueled with additional funding, it’s preparing to cement the switch. As of next month Johnston says the workflow management platform will be freely available to anyone to sign up (currently, while free, it’s gated with an invite requirement) — with the “hope” after that being a public beta of the payments product launching in December, and a full launch pegged for Q1 2018.

The question remains how large a market Lystable is going to find for this premium payments add-on. Johnston concedes that for companies managing just a small number of freelancers it will be competing with the relatively low hassle of remitting via the likes of PayPal or Stripe. And then for larger entities — say those handling 1,000 freelancer invoices per month — it will be facing the inertia of traditional business processes and the established grip of centralized finance departments.

“It’s definitely difficult,” he says. “The early adopters of our payments product are the people that just see the admin nightmare. In the same way when we first brought this new collaboration app to teams that were working with lots of freelancers, we needed the ones that experienced the pain to such an extent that they were willing to say ‘ok let’s talk about revising our workflow and investing this new workflow through the Lystable app’. And it’s that same thing.”

“I think the biggest challenge here is you can’t just go and say ‘hey let’s come and do this now’. We have to integrate,” he adds. “We need to have that backwards compatibility with the existing payments and payments systems. And a lot of reasons for the funding is to build much more of a robust payment experience product team around that. Because even if we’re responsible for the autogeneration of lots of forms and handling of admin around payments, we will still need to speak to the more dominant, full-time, employer payroll system.”

Lystable has some 2,200 customers of its freemium product at this point. On the hiring front, the now San Francisco headquartered startup is planning to ramp up from its total headcount of 42 staff currently to “probably” 75 by the end of the year — including, says Johnston, plans to add additional senior execs in the next month or so. Doubtless the hoped for two or three “heavyweights” will come with plenty of payment experience to help Lystable navigate its next set of integration challenges.