Sapling, an employee management and on-boarding platform, lands $4 million in seed funding

Sapling, a three-year-old, San Francisco-based company whose employee management and onboarding software is being adopted by a small but growing number of mid-size companies with far-flung workforces, is announcing today that it has raised $4 million in funding from Gradient Ventures, which is Google’s AI fund, and Tuesday Capital, formerly known as CrunchFund.

It quietly secured the funding several months ago and has been using it to ramp up to the 50 people it currently employs.

The company’s founding team is the kind that investors like to see, meaning that in many ways, their previous work experiences led them to start Sapling .

Co-founder and CEO Bart Macdonald has spent his entire career in HR, working most recently in Melbourne, Australia, as a regional director for the global coding school General Assembly, where he hired and managed a 10-person marketing, sales and operations team.

Meanwhile, co-founder Andy Crebar (born in the same Sydney hospital as Macdonald, a day later) also knows the plight of individuals trying to seamlessly onboard new hires, having worked most recently on business development initiatives at a fintech startup called Credible Labs, where adding headcount was, as at many companies, a point of frustration.

“I liked that Bart and Andy had lived through their own experiences dealing with crappy HR software in previous positions and thus really understood how customers view the problem,” says Tuesday Capital co-founder Pat Gallagher. “The fact that neither are technical would have been an issue if we were investing pre product, but by the time we invested, they had proven they could build software that their customers loved.”

In fact, says Gallagher, his team was drawn to Sapling specifically because a handful of the firm’s portfolio companies has been using its onboarding software and “really raving about it. It’s hard to find HR software that people really like, so that was a big positive for us and helped cut through the noise of the space that they operate in.”

So what’s so special about Sapling? Mostly, it seems, its approach brings together the tools and software that HR execs are already using, including ADP for payroll, or G Suite for productivity, and Lever for recruiting, integrations that also employ a heavy dose of AI to anticipate the behaviors of employees, making it easier for managers to recruit, aid, manage and support current and future staffers.

As Macdonald explains it on the simplest level, Sapling not only provisions software for them but it connects their tools “so they don’t have to open 10 tabs. All they have to do is run their workflow inside of Sapling so that, for example, an employee can ask for time off in Slack,” and that request will automatically be reflected in the employer’s payroll and benefits systems (once approved).

Sapling currently works with companies with anywhere from 100 to 1,500 employees, including InVision, an eight-year-old commercial platform used by design teams to create digital products for mobile and desktop that is currently investing its Series F round. InVision, which has a large distributed workforce, says Sapling has saved the company 1,000 hours by speeding up communications and making employee engagement far more seamless.

What comes next for Sapling remains to be seen. It’s in an awfully crowded category, with no shortage of all-in-one HR solutions attracting venture capital. In the meantime, with low unemployment creating headaches for many outfits looking to keep its talent, Sapling is smartly positioning itself as an important tool in specifically helping companies with geographically distributed teams to retain and engage employees. Customers like InVision, along with Digital Ocean, KPMG and Kayak, say it’s working, too.

Above, left to right: founders Bart Macdonald and Andy Crebar, courtesy of Sapling.

Search marketing company Botify raises $20M

Botify, a search engine optimization company that works with customers like Expedia and Nike, announced today that it has raised $20 million in Series B funding.

Co-founder and CEO Adrien Menard said that the opportunity in SEO is “even bigger now than in the past,” and that the problem is a much broader problem than many realize.

“Most people think about SEO in terms of keyword optimization, but more than 50 percent of the pages in large websites are not being indexed,” he said. So Botify can identify which pages aren’t being crawled by Google and make recommendations on how to better organize content.

Over time, Botify has also launched a keyword product, as well as tools like a JavaScript crawler and mobile versus desktop analysis. Menard said the company now offers a platform designed for “optimization of every stage of the search process.”

The new funding was led by France’s Idinvest Partners, with participation from Ventech. Botify has now raised a total of $27 million.

The company was founded in France, launching in the United States after taking the stage at TechCrunch’s Disrupt NY conference in 2016. Next, it’s opening what it calls a “second U.S. headquarters” in Seattle (the first is in New York City), which Menard said will mostly provide sales and support for West Coast customers.

In addition to announcing the funding and the new office, Botify has also grown its leadership team, with the hiring of Christophe Frenet as senior vice president of product and Rachel Meranus as chief marketing officer, as well as the addition of Neolane co-founder Stephane Dehoche and former BuzzFeed president Greg Coleman to its board of directors.

Gradient Ventures, Google’s AI fund, leads $7M investment in English learning app Elsa

Google’s Gradient Ventures, the search giant’s dedicated AI fund, is casting its eye to Asia after it led a $7 million Series A round for Elsa, a startup that operates an app for English language learners.

The deal is Gradient’s first in Asia, and it includes participation from existing investors Monk’s Hill Ventures and SOSV. Elsa has now raised $12 million to date.

Elsa was founded in 2015 as a way to help non-English speakers improve their accent and general speaking ability. Vu Van, CEO and one half of the founding team, is a Vietnamese national who, despite being fluent in English, struggled to be understood after moving to the U.S. to study and then work. Together with speech recognition researcher Dr. Xavier Anguera — the startup’s CTO who leads its Portugal-based tech team — Van started Elsa to help people in the same predicament.

“I was very good at grammar, reading and writing but I realized people had a hard time understanding me because I had a very strong accent and my pronunciation wasn’t proper,” Van, who is based in San Francisco but travels extensively, told TechCrunch in an interview. “This impacts confidence when you apply for jobs or are even just meeting friends.”

“There are so many English learning solutions but they are mostly focused on expanding vocabulary or grammar, very few deal with pronunciation,” she added.

Elsa uses voice recognition and AI to grade a user’s speaking versus standard American English (and I thought us Brits were the global standard…) giving them a score at the end. That helps track their progress, while it focuses on pronunciation with a detailed review on how a user is speaking.

The service uses a freemium model that grants users full access to 1,000 courses for around $3-6 per month depending on the length of the package they select. That ranges from one month of access to 12 months. New content is added every week, Van said.

With this money in the bag, Elsa is going after growth in a number of its most promising markets.

The service has users in more than 100 countries, but Vietnam is its top market, with two million paying users. Partly because it is Van’s home market, Elsa has doubled down on Vietnam with a local sales team and localized payments, including the likes of bank transfers and local wallets.

That’s the blueprint for expansion in its next three target countries: Japan, Indonesia and India. Elsa has opened an office in Tokyo and is planning to introduce more localized content for Japanese users. Similar efforts will happen in Indonesia and India, where Van said the app sees strong engagement and downloads without any paid marketing efforts.

Elsa is also working on expanding its content from English to include other languages. Spanish is currently on the horizon and the company is already preparing the back-end technology to make it possible.

“We have to build the voice recognition technology to recognize those languages accurately. We have the infrastructure but now just need to collect voice data to train the model,” explained Van.

Vu Van started Elsa in 2015 with Dr. Xavier Anguera to help non-English speakers improve their accent and general speaking ability.

Beyond geographic expansion, Elsa is also going after schools and classrooms. Already, in Vietnam, it is working with a handful of schools that have added the app to their classroom work. The company allows schools to upload their specific content or curriculum to Elsa to make it part of a student’s homework or assessment. Teachers can see if a student has completed oral homework, and the app grades their efforts.

“We want to help these teachers help their students,” Van said. “Even with the best intentions, they simply can’t teach speaking.”

The model for the education push sees schools pay a licensing fee per student, which Van said is subsidized, while uploading their content is free.

Snagging investment from Gradient is a notable achievement for Elsa, but it will also allow the startup to tap into the company’s talent, too. That’s because Gradient operates a rotational program that allows Google employees to spend three to six months working at portfolio startups on secondment. That process hasn’t kicked off for Elsa just yet, but Van is hopeful of securing an engineer who might otherwise be prohibitively expensive for her company.

Gradient Ventures was founded in 2017 and this deal is the fund’s 18th, according to Crunchbase. Its previous investments include Canvass Analytics and Test.ai.

The Elsa team

New VMware Kubernetes product comes courtesy of Heptio acquisition

VMware announced a new Kubernetes product today called VMware Essential PKS, which has been created from its acquisition of Heptio for $550 million at the end of last year.

VMware already had two flavors of Kubernetes, a fully managed cloud product and an enterprise version with all of the components, such as registry and network, pre-selected by VMware. What this new version does is provide a completely open version of Kubernetes where the customer can choose all the components, giving a flexible option for those who want it, according to Scott Buchanan, senior director of product marketing for cloud-native apps at VMware.

Buchanan said the new product comes directly from the approach that Heptio had taken to selling Kubernetes prior to the acquisition. “We’re introducing a new offering called VMware Essential PKS, and that offering is a packaging of the approach that Heptio took to market and that gained a lot of traction, and that approach is a natural complement to the other Kubernetes products in the VMware portfolio,” he explained.

Buchanan acknowledged that a large part of the market is going to go for the fully managed or fully configured approaches, but there is a subset of buyers that will want more choice in their Kubernetes implementation.

“Larger enterprises with more complex infrastructure want to have a very customized approach to how they build out their architecture. They don’t want to be integrated. They just want a foundation on which to build because the organizations are larger and more complex and they’re also more likely to have an internal DevOps or SREOps team to operate the platform on a day-to-day basis,” he explained.

While these organizations want flexibility, they also require more of a consultative approach to the sale. Heptio had a 40-person field service engineering team that came over in the acquisition, and VMware is in the process of scaling that team. These folks consult with the customer and help them select the different components that make up a Kubernetes installation to fit the needs of each organization.

Buchanan, who also came over in the acquisition, says that being part of VMware (which is part of the Dell family of companies) means they have several layers of sales with VMware, Pivotal and Dell all selling the product.

Heptio is the Kubernetes startup founded by Craig McLuckie and Joe Beda, the two men who helped develop the technology while they were at Google. Heptio was founded in 2016 and raised $33.5 million prior to the acquisition, according to Crunchbase data.

OnePlus, EE and Qualcomm start a contest for 5G apps

Today at MWC Barcelona, OnePlus CEO Pete Lau unveiled an initiative to spur apps for 5G networks. The timing is right, too. With 5G launching around the world this year, carriers, phone makers and consumers alike have yet to develop a killer app for the massive increase of speed provided by 5G. Basically, OnePlus is asking for help developing uses for 5G.

OnePlus sees a lack of imagination around 5G in the long term. Speaking on a panel, CEO Pete Lau stated he does not believe people have thought enough about how 5G can change lives in the long term.

This contest will select 20 finalists, who will get OnePlus devices. The winners will get a trip to OnePlus HQ, access to 5G testing labs and support from OnePlus and EE.

Such contests were common around the launch of 4G as mobile device makers were attempting to bolster app marketplaces. But 5G apps could look much different from 4G apps, as much of the processing is offloaded to a central data center instead of happening on the device.

The promise of 5G is nearly here, but it will take initiatives and programs like this one from OnePlus to help make the possibilities clear to consumers.

Earlier this week OnePlus, along with nearly every other mobile phone maker, unveiled a 5G device.

Dipsea raises $5.5M for short-form, sexy audio stories

A new wave of female-led businesses wants to help women get off.

Dipsea, an app-based platform for short-form erotic audio stories, is the latest to grab funding from venture capital investors. The female-founded, San Francisco-headquartered startup, which officially launched in December, has raised $5.5 million in a round led by Bedrock Capital and Thrive Capital. The funding comes amid a notable explosion in interest and investment in audio content consumption and creation, as well as an uptick in AirPod sales, easily removable wireless earbuds that encourage listeners to enjoy snackable audio like Dipsea’s erotica.

In addition to Dipsea’s seed financing, podcasting platform WaitWhat secured a $4.3 million round this month. Days earlier, Himalaya nabbed $100 million to scale its podcast distribution tool and a pair of podcast startups, Gimlet and Anchor, sold to Spotify in a nine-figure deal.

Meanwhile, as the audio content space booms, more attention is being paid to female entrepreneurs eyeing venture capital. Enter Dipsea, whose founders say the business captures the zeitgeist of female empowerment.

Dipsea’s subscription-based app, available for $8.99 per month or $48 per year, offers short audio stories meant to turn women on. The app’s library, which is poised to expand with the new cash, includes narrative sexy stories and non-narrative guided audio pieces. The stories are designed to be listened to at any time, with the company’s examples including solo in bed, while getting ready for a date or to help turn off boss brain on the way home from work. The subscription business model made me wince at first, but auditory erotica doesn’t exactly lend itself to an advertising business model, after all, and once I listened to a few of Dipsea’s short stories, I understood that the service is something many women would pay for.  

Since the onset of internet porn, there’s been a gaping hole in content crafted specifically for women. Most women use “mental framing” to get turned on, meaning they imagine scenarios, often with detailed story-lines and characters to stimulate themselves, per a study by OMGYes and The Kinsey Institute. Dipsea’s sensorial audio storytelling sets the mood and sparks the listener’s imagination.

“Audio is amazing because it’s imaginative; it requires you to paint a picture in your brain that’s very stimulating and it’s super intimate and very personal,” Dipsea co-founder and chief executive officer Gina Gutierrez told TechCrunch.

The brand and design strategist started Dipsea alongside chief technical officer Faye Keegan, a former product manager at Neighborly. Gutierrez said she came up with the idea while meditating with Headspace, a wellness app.

The founders have prioritized diversity of perspective, working with freelance writers of different backgrounds on various episodes, as well as consensuality, ensuring a form of verbal consent is worked into storylines. They recently hired their first staff writer. 

“To me the future of entertainment is sensory,” Gutierrez said. “This felt like it could be a medium for women that hadn’t been harnessed or attempted before.”

 

YieldStreet raises $62M to democratise alternative investments in shipping, real estate and more

There has been a wave of fintech startups emerging that make different kinds of investing more accessible to a wider pool of people, and today one of them has raised a substantial round of money to help fill out its mission.

YieldStreet — which provides a platform for making alternative investments in areas like real estate, marine/shipping, legal finance, commercial loans and other opportunities that in the past were only open to institutional investors — is today announcing that it has raised $62 million in a Series B round of funding.

Co-founder and CEO Milind Mehere said in an interview that the money will be used to build a fundamental expansion of the platform so that any interested party can invest.

With a view to improving everyone’s financial lot in life, the name of the game is capitalism, and more specifically democratising the opportunity to invest, making it possible for more people beyond the often-cloistered and clubby environment of the investment world.

“In order for consumers to move to financial security and financial independence, they should be given access to the same products institutions have,” said Mehere. “This is about creating the most wealth out of people’s money, irrespective of their net worth.”

The round was led by Edison Partners, with participation from Greenspring Associates, Raine Ventures and a large multi-billion-dollar NY family office. YieldStreet’s valuation is not being disclosed with this round. Prior to this, the company raised around $116 million, with $100 million of that in debt, according to PitchBook.

To date, YieldStreet has seen more than $600 million invested on its platform from more than 100,000 members, with an expected 12 percent IRR and more than $300 million in principal and interest payments made to its investors. Up to now a person had to be an accredited investor to benefit from this. That was already a progression on those investments being restricted only to institutions, but it is still a relatively small pool of users. In the U.S., where YieldStreet operates, being an accredited investor has a specific set of criteria that includes individuals having a net worth of at least $1 million or with annual income of $200,000 or more.

The plan is now to use the funding to expand the funnel by creating new vehicles for investing that will not require people to be accredited to get involved. This will build on groundwork the company has already laid with YieldStreet Wallet, a savings account that provides 2.2 percent interest, which is open to everyone.

The idea will be to offer non-accredited investors investment vehicles, created by YieldStreet, where they will be able to access multiple products, Mehere said. “We are working through the legal and regulatory aspects now.” He added that the company is also looking at ways of tapping into retirement and IRA accounts for these users as well.

The Jobs Act in the U.S., and the wider growth of people shifting all of their financial services online, has created a landscape of startups that are liberalising how capital moves. Many of these are specifically freeing up the arcane and rarified world of investment. They include companies like Robinhood, which has built a platform for trading public stocks. In the area of private investment — that is, investing in businesses and opportunities that are not publicly traded — we have seen PeerStreet, which is offers a service similar to YieldStreet but focusing on real estate. In the U.K., you also have startups like LendInvest, which lets property buyers bypass traditional mortgages by letting others put up the funding for those purchases.

“The ability for individual, accredited and non-accredited, investors to access products that previously were only available to institutional investors is a key part of fintech’s promise to leverage technology to create access and reduce fees on these types of investments. In addition, lower fees can be passed on to investors to allow them to achieve a higher return,” said Chris Sugden, managing partner, Edison Partners, in an email. (Sugden will also be joining the startup’s board with this investment.) 

What’s interesting is that the sheer number of fintech startups, even if you only focus in on those centered around investing, will inevitably lead to some M&A down the line, and that is an area that YieldStreet will also be exploring ahead.

“We do see consolidation or another theme we call, ‘rebundling’ as well,” said Sugden. “Over the next few years we will hear more about the convergence of service offerings under a single platform. In my opinion, retail investors would like to get all of their financial services in a single, mobile application. Thus a key driver of consolidation will be the ability for sites such as YieldStreet, that are set up initially as a single product, to build or acquire new offerings. Whether these new offerings are by investment type, asset class, geography or structure all are critical to attracting investors at scale.”