The Slack origin story

Let’s rewind a decade. It’s 2009. Vancouver, Canada.

Stewart Butterfield, known already for his part in building Flickr, a photo-sharing service acquired by Yahoo in 2005, decided to try his hand — again — at building a game. Flickr had been a failed attempt at a game called Game Neverending followed by a big pivot. This time, Butterfield would make it work.

To make his dreams a reality, he joined forces with Flickr’s original chief software architect Cal Henderson, as well as former Flickr employees Eric Costello and Serguei Mourachov, who like himself, had served some time at Yahoo after the acquisition. Together, they would build Tiny Speck, the company behind an artful, non-combat massively multiplayer online game.

Years later, Butterfield would pull off a pivot more massive than his last. Slack, born from the ashes of his fantastical game, would lead a shift toward online productivity tools that fundamentally change the way people work.

Glitch is born

In mid-2009, former TechCrunch reporter-turned-venture-capitalist M.G. Siegler wrote one of the first stories on Butterfield’s mysterious startup plans.

“So what is Tiny Speck all about?” Siegler wrote. “That is still not entirely clear. The word on the street has been that it’s some kind of new social gaming endeavor, but all they’ll say on the site is ‘we are working on something huge and fun and we need help.’”

Siegler would go on to invest in Slack as a general partner at GV, the venture capital arm of Alphabet .

“Clearly this is a creative project,” Siegler added. “It almost sounds like they’re making an animated movie. As awesome as that would be, with people like Henderson on board, you can bet there’s impressive engineering going on to turn this all into a game of some sort (if that is in fact what this is all about).”

After months of speculation, Tiny Speck unveiled its project: Glitch, an online game set inside the brains of 11 giants. It would be free with in-game purchases available and eventually, a paid subscription for power users.

Why ICS security startup Dragos’ CEO puts a premium on people not profits

Written in its company’s handbook, there’s one rule for working at Dragos. “Don’t be an asshole.”

“The first key to our success is our people and that we hire good people,” said Robert Lee, the company’s founder and chief executive, in an interview with TechCrunch. “I think building a successful team is about having a standard and saying that I expect you all to be adults and not need a million HR policies,” he said.

Lee’s management approach revolves around his company’s greatest asset — his staff. With 125 employees, the company has seen rapid growth since its founding in 2016 but puts great importance on maintaining the company’s relaxed but productive culture.

Lee said he doesn’t want to change its culture dynamics by growing too fast, micromanaging, or burdening his staff with strict expense policies. “If you’re stuck laid over at night, but you see there’s one seat left on a redeye and it’s a first class seat that’s going to cost six times more but it gets you home — go for it,” he said.

But he doesn’t compromise on his “don’t be an asshole” rule. “Say something sexist and a Slack channel? Yeah, you’re fired,” he said.

Lee founded Dragos after working as a former cyber warfare operations officer at the National Security Agency. Dragos works to secure industrial control systems (ICS), the necessary devices crucial to the continued operations of power plants, energy suppliers and other critical infrastructure.

Lee described ICS security as “all of the things in I.T. plus physics.” In other words, it’s about finding the threats targeting critical infrastructure facilities and understanding how the hackers work in order to stop hackers from controlling the gas turbines in power facility, for example.

Once a plot from a science fiction film, powerful malware like Stuxnet and Triton have emerged in recent years and targeted facilities — with near-disastrous consequences.

Alibaba pumps $100 million into Vmate to grow its video app in India

Chinese tech giant Alibaba is doubling down on India’s burgeoning video market, looking to fight back local rival ByteDance, Google and Disney to gain its foothold in the nation. The company said today that it is pumping $100 million into Vmate, a three-year-old social video app owned by subsidiary UC Web.

Vmate was launched as a video streaming and short-video-sharing app in 2016. But in the years since, it has added features such as video downloads and 3-dimensional face emojis to expand its use cases. It has amassed 30 million users globally, and will use the capital to scale its business in India, the company told TechCrunch. Alibaba Group did not respond to TechCrunch’s questions about its ownership of the app.

The move comes as Alibaba revives its attempts to take on the growing social video apps market, something on which it has missed out completely in China. Vmate could potentially help it fill the gap in India. Many of the features Vmate offers are similar to those offered by ByteDance’s TikTok, which currently has more than 120 million active users in India. ByteDance, with a valuation of about $75 billion, has grown its business without taking money from either Alibaba or Tencent, the latter of which has launched its own TikTok-like apps with limited success.

Alibaba remains one of the biggest global investors in India’s e-commerce and food-tech markets. It has heavily invested in Paytm, BigBasket, Zomato and Snapdeal. It was also supposedly planning to launch a video streaming service in India last year — a rumor that was fueled after it acquired a majority stake in TicketNew, a Chennai-based online ticketing service.

UC Web, a subsidiary of Alibaba Group, also counts India as one of its biggest markets. The browser maker has attempted to become a super app in India in recent years by including news and videos. In the last two years, it has been in talks with several bloggers and small publishers to host their articles directly on its platform, many people involved in the project told TechCrunch.

UC Web’s eponymous browser rose to stardom in the days of feature phones, but has since lost the lion’s share to Google Chrome as smartphones become more ubiquitous. Chrome ships as the default browser on most Android smartphones.

The major investment by Alibaba Group also serves as a testament to the growing popularity of video apps in India. Once cautious about each megabyte they spent on the internet, thrifty Indians have become heavy video consumers online as mobile data gets significantly cheaper in the country. Video apps are increasingly climbing up the charts on Google Play Store.

In an event for marketers late last year, YouTube said that India was the only nation where it had more unique users than its parent company Google. The video juggernaut had about 250 million active users in India at the end of 2017. The service, used by more than 2 billion users worldwide, has not revealed its India-specific user base since.

T-Series, the largest record label in India, became the first YouTube channel this week to claim more than 100 million subscribers. What’s even more noteworthy is that T-Series took 10 years to get to its first 10 million subscribers. The additional 90 million subscribers signed up to its channel in the last two years. Also fighting for users’ attention is Hotstar, which is owned by Disney. Earlier this month, it set a new global record for most simultaneous views on a live-streaming event.

Password manager Dashlane raises $110M in Series D, adds CMO

Password manager maker Dashlane has raised $110 million in its latest round of funding, the company said Thursday.

The company said Sequoia Capital led the Series D round, with partner Jim Goetz joining the board. Dashlane also said Lyft executive Joy Howard was appointed as its new chief marketing officer and will start in August.

Dashlane said it will invest its latest funds back into its core product and will focus on addressing the needs of its consumer and business customers.

Chief executive Emmanuel Schalit said the company is “only scratching the surface” of its security opportunities.

“Billions of people and millions of businesses around the world feel the pain of digital identity — from breaches to stolen identities and the nuisance of remembering passwords,” said Schalit.

“With this new capital and the addition of Joy to our leadership team, we have the resources to increase our product leadership, grow the team and build the brand that will define the future of digital identity protection,” he added.

Password managers have become all the rage in recent years following a spate of credential stuffing attacks, where hackers take breached usernames and passwords from sites and reuse them on other site accounts. By storing passwords in a single place protected by a master password or a biometric — such as a fingerprint — users can take their strong and uniquely generated passwords with them wherever they go.

Dashlane has raised more than $185 million to date.

OpenAI’s Sam Altman and Greg Brockman will tell Disrupt about tomorrow’s jobs

OpenAI’s co-founders Greg Brockman and Sam Altman aren’t afraid of Terminator robots. At TechCrunch Disrupt SF in October, they’ll tell our audience why it’s the more subtle repercussions of artificial general intelligence — like its impact on employment, cyberwarfare and concentration of power — that shake the duo.

But the epic potential for the technology to generate wide-scale abundance for humanity led Altman to leave his gig as the head of iconic accelerator Y Combinator to become CEO of OpenAI.

“I really do believe that the work we’re doing at OpenAI…will not only far eclipse the work I did at YC but the work that anyone in the tech industry does,” Altman said recently.

Brockman and Altman will join us onstage at Disrupt to talk about why they’re building potentially the most lucrative startup of all time, yet plan to cap returns for investors at 100X and donate the rest. They’ll reveal the challenges of hiring and raising capital when OpenAI has no idea how it will earn money. And we’ll discuss how humans will derive a sense of purpose and how capitalism will function if we manage to distribute the resources born from AI to provide for everyone… or if we don’t.

These are heady questions beyond the scope of most founders who are just trying sell something right now. Luckily, OpenAI’s founders are ridiculously smart. Brockman dropped out of both Harvard and MIT before becoming Stripe’s first CTO and built it up from four employees to a 250-person fintech powerhouse. Altman, meanwhile, dropped out of Stanford to demo his location-sharing app Loopt on Steve Jobs’ stage at WWDC 2008. And as the president of Y Combinator, he reviewed and mentored a thousand startups while turning the accelerator into an epicenter of innovation.

At Disrupt, expect an exciting chat filled with ideas that sound like science fiction jokes until you realize Brockman and Altman are actually serious. For example, to OpenAI’s investors, “We have made a soft promise that once we build a generally intelligent system, that basically we will ask it to figure out a way to make an investment return for you,” Altman said at a Strictly VC event this month.

We’ll ask about fellow OpenAI co-founder Elon Musk and why he stepped back from the company. Brockman will reveal what the latest in AI research means for the startup ecosystem. And Altman will give his reflections on YC as well as the big picture about how the world must prepare for the arrival of computers that are smarter than us, regardless of the timeline.

Disrupt isn’t merely about the unicorn businesses of today. We strive to give you an edge on tomorrow. And whether OpenAI invents general artificial intelligence or the company moves to support and safeguard whoever does, this panel will make sure you’re not stuck in yesterday.

Tickets are available here.