MentorcliQ raises over $80 million to grow its employee mentoring software and services

For years, Phil George was the executive sponsor of a mentoring program at McMaster-Carr, an industrial hardware supplier, where he spent weeks trying to match program participants with only scant information about them to go on. Employees often requested resources while mentors asked for training, and mentees wanted more guidance on goals. And as the program progressed, there weren’t reliable methods in place to measure success.

“The program was highly inefficient, which made it impossible to scale to the rest of the company in order to leverage the benefits of mentoring across the organization,” George told TechCrunch in an email interview.

Informed by the experience at McMaster-Carr and mentorship conversations with other companies, George left his role in 2012 to team up with his brother, Andy George, and former colleague Miles Ulrich to found an employee mentoring software and white glove service startup. It came to be known as MentorcliQ, and — within a few years, with the pandemic as an accelerant — it grew its customer base to hundreds of companies.

MentorcliQ today closed an “over-$80 million” growth investment from PSG with participation from Rev1 Ventures and Plymouth Growth, bringing its total raised to more than $100 million. George says that the funding will be put toward product development and ramping up MentorcliQ’s customer acquisition efforts.

“MentorcliQ is a mentoring software platform that helps companies solve exceedingly common and expensive employee engagement, development and retention challenges,” George said. “Recent headlines tell a bleak story: quiet quitting, sweeping layoffs and falling short on DEI promises. All of this leads to employee disengagement for those left behind … MentorcliQ helps companies navigate these challenges by giving employees a way to develop their careers, hone their skills and build a community at work through mentoring.”


Image Credits: MentorcliQ

MentorcliQ occupies the increasingly crowded space of upskilling vendors, which VCs have patronized with great enthusiasm in light of the so-called Great Resignation. (From February 2021 to last February, investors have poured more than $2.1 billion into an assortment of companies in the skilling space, according to CrunchBase.) For example, GrowthSpace recently raised $25 million for its platform that leverages algorithms to match individual employees and groups of employees with experts for development sprints.

What sets MentorcliQ apart, George claims, is that it guides customers through the entire mentoring process. This includes designing and executing mentoring strategies, building and running mentoring programs, engaging mentoring participants and measuring the impact.

On the software side, MentorcliQ allows companies to run multiple mentoring programs from a single interface and control which users participate in the programs, as well as create participant profiles for each program. Companies can decide how mentor and mentee matches will be made in individual programs and see metrics like participation numbers, participant engagement and mentoring activity.

George drew attention to MentorcliQ’s matching algorithm, which he believes to be best-in-class. While most mentoring tools offer “bulk matching” options, which match all participants in a program at the same time, George explained, MentorcliQ’s algorithm attempts to optimize mentoring matches for an entire population of participants.

“MentorcliQ’s matching engine calculates match scores for every relationship combination while also factoring in matching rules, suggested matches, the timing of mentoring programs, employee turnover and new hires and other program-configurable variables,” George said. “The algorithm then looks at the landscape to find an optimal set of matches.”

While the tech industry’s outlook seems bleak, George — when asked about MentorcliQ’s growth strategy — said he believes companies will continue to invest in mentoring particularly as they search for cost-effective ways to leveraging existing talent.

He might be right. According to a recent study by Gartner and Capital Analytics, retention rates for mentees are 72% higher compared to 49% for employees who don’t participate in a mentorship program. Eighty-nine percent of mentees feel their colleagues value their work, moreover, versus 75% of employees without mentors, the same survey found.

“While companies often experience layoffs during times like these where there are economic headwinds, mentoring remains even more important to engage, develop and retain the employees who remain,” George said. “In tough times, it’s a feel-good ask of employees which leads to an incredibly high return on investment. Building culture while delivering return on investment is a winning combination during more challenging economic times.”

Signaling its expansion intentions, MentorcliQ recently hired a new chief revenue officer and plans to increase the size of its roughly 120-person team over the next 12 months.

MentorcliQ raises over $80 million to grow its employee mentoring software and services by Kyle Wiggers originally published on TechCrunch

Area 120, Google’s in-house incubator, severely impacted by Alphabet mass layoffs

Area 120, the Google in-house incubator responsible for products such as Checks, Tables, Stack and ThreadBite, has been significantly affected by broader layoffs at Google parent company Alphabet. A spokesperson tells TechCrunch via email that the majority of the Area 120 team has been “winded down,” and that only three projects from the division will graduate later this year into core Google product areas.

The spokesperson wouldn’t say which specific projects were being shuttered or graduating. Previously, Area 120 was incubating pilots like the workplace video platform ThreadIt, spectrum marketplace Oriondocument scanner Stack, and more. At any given time, it usually had around 20 projects underway, though not all of them were made public.

“Employees in the U.S. who were affected have been notified [of layoffs at Area 120], but in other countries this process will take longer, and is subject to local laws and practices,” the spokesperson added. “Our managing partner of Area 120 remains at the company.”

Area 120 was created by Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai in March 2016 with the goal of creating experimental apps and services that could be later folded into established profit drivers. Over the years, the division has launched a number of successful products including the HTML5 gaming platform GameSnacks (now integrated with Google Chrome), AI-powered conversational ads platform AdLingo (which exited to Google Cloud), and video platforms Tangi and Shoploop (which exited to Google Search and Shopping).

Area 120 underwent a reorg in 2021 that saw the group moved into a new Google Labs division led by Clay Bavor, where it lived alongside other forward-looking efforts at Google having to do with augmented reality, virtual reality and videoconferencing. Then came cuts. Last September, Google canceled half the projects at Area 120 and majorly reduced the program’s staffing.

A source previously told TechCrunch that Area 120 had under 100 employees after the previous round of cuts. Google declined to confirm the number.

Area 120, Google’s in-house incubator, severely impacted by Alphabet mass layoffs by Kyle Wiggers originally published on TechCrunch

Nucleus aims to simplify the process of managing microservices

An increasing number of organizations are adopting microservices, the loosely-coupled, independently-deployable services that together make up an app. According to a 2020 O’Reilly survey, 77% of organizations had adopted microservices as of then, with 29% reporting that they were migrating or implementing a majority of their systems using microservices.

The widespread microservices adoption has spawned new problems in app development, however. According to the same O’Reilly survey, company culture and integrating with holdover systems have become major challenges in the microservices arena.

Startups have rushed in to fill the void of solutions. There’s Helios, a microservices management platform that helps developers understand how their code interacts with the rest of their apps. Vendors like OpsLevel and Temporal compete with Helios for business, offering platforms that organize microservices in a centralized portal. A newer entrant in the space is Nucleus, which aims to let devs spin up microservices architectures using a range of infrastructure, security and observability tools. Backed by Y Combinator, Nucleus has raised $2.1 million in VC money to date.

Nucleus was co-founded by Evis Drenova and Nick Zelei in 2021, after the two spent roughly seven years building infrastructure platforms both at large enterprise companies (e.g. IBM, Garmin) and startups (Skyflow, Newfront). The inspiration for Nucleus came after Drenova and Zelei realized they often had to rebuild the same platform to help developers create, test and deploy their microservices.

“We noticed that more companies were trying to move to [microservices] and break apart their monoliths but really struggled to do this well,” Drenova said via email. “Some companies that have tried to move to microservices have gotten their fingers burned because they didn’t have the right tooling, and, more importantly, the right people … We want to make it easy and reliable for companies to move to not just microservices but service-oriented architectures without having to be security, infrastructure and observability experts.”

With Nucleus, developers define microservices and deploy them on the Nucleus platform, which automatically configures aspects of their security, observability and more. Nucleus is delivered through a command-line interface designed to fit into existing developer workflows and comes with prebuilt integrations, including tools such as Hashicorp, Cloudflare and Okta.


Image Credits: Nucleus

“Nucleus is an infrastructure platform that allows you complete freedom over your code,” Drenova said. “As a developer, you can write your code in any language that you want and we support it out of the box. We don’t interfere with your business logic — one way to think about it is that we’ve built a cage you can put your code into and that cage is integrated with your infrastructure and your third-party tools and is extremely secure.”

Drenova acknowledges the many rivals in the microservices orchestration space. But he sees the “do-it-yourself” crowd as Nucleus’ primary competition, .

“Before we wrote any code, we interviewed 55 chief technology officers and 90% said that they’ve built something like this in the past and it took on average 8-12 months, cost over $1 million and took three full-time senior engineers,” Drenova said. “We believe that we can deliver a better product in 10% of the time it would take to DIY and at 10% of cost. That’s pretty compelling.”

Those are lofty promises. But to Drenova’s credit, Nucleus — whose platform is still in beta — already has “a few” early customers and eight design partners. Investors, too, were won over, with backers including Soma Capital, Y Combinator, LombardStreet Ventures and “dozens” of angels throwing capital in Nucleus’ direction.

“Nucleus is a critical piece of software. We run and manage all of your services,” Drenova added. “It’s bigger than any one developer, meaning that chief technology officers are always our buyers … Our target market is companies with 20-plus developers who are moving to a service-oriented architecture. But any company that uses services can use us.”

Nucleus is focused on organic growth at the moment, sticking with a small team of four employees including the co-founders. Drenova is considering hiring 1-2 engineers next year, but he’s leaning conservative, waiting for stronger signs of product-market fit.

“In a downturn, the playing field is more level towards early-stage companies, and while larger competitors are focused on reducing cash burn and staying alive, we’re putting the pedal to the metal and going after the opportunity,” Drenova said. “We have plenty of cash in the bank and have runway for the next few years.”

Nucleus aims to simplify the process of managing microservices by Kyle Wiggers originally published on TechCrunch

Microsoft 365 Basic launches with 100 GB of storage, Outlook and more for $1.99 per month

Microsoft will introduce a new, lower-cost tier of Microsoft 365, its product family of productivity software, collaboration and cloud-based services, starting on January 30. Called Microsoft 365 Basic and priced at $1.99 per month or $19.99 per year, the plan will initially include 100 GB of storage, Outlook email, and access to support experts for help with Microsoft 365 and Windows 11.

Existing OneDrive 100 GB subscribers will be transitioned to Microsoft 365 Basic beginning January 30 as well, Microsoft says. And in the coming months, Microsoft 365 Basic plan members will get “advanced security features” like ransomware recovery and password-protected sharing links in OneDrive.

Importantly, Microsoft 365 Basic is not replacing the free Microsoft 365 tier. That’s here to stay along with the same benefits it offers today, including access to the web-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, OneDrive, Clipchamp and more and 5 GB of cloud storage. Microsoft 365 Personal, meanwhile, will remain $6.99 per month or $69.99 per year.


Microsoft 365 plans.

Microsoft 365 Basic compares favorably in terms of pricing to rival Google Workspace, whose Individual plan starts at $9.99 per month for 1TB of storage, professional support and Google’s standard productivity software (e.g. Google Drive, Calendar, Meet and Gmail). It’s also cheaper than Zoho’s Standard Workplace plan, which costs $3 per user per month billed annually and tops out at 10GB of storage.

To coincide with the introduction of the new tier, Microsoft today announced the general availability of the Microsoft 365 app, which replaces the Microsoft Office app with a new design and new features. As previewed earlier this year during Microsoft’s Ignite conference, the Microsoft 365 app — now live on the web  — provides quick access to apps including Word, Excel and PowerPoint in addition to file templates, “smart” recommendations, to-do list functionality and syncing across different devices.

The Microsoft 365 app will launch on Windows, Android and iOS later this month, Microsoft says.

Rounding out the raft of new apps and services, Microsoft 365 users will soon be able to view, manage and upgrade cloud storage across devices via a new “simplified view,” says the company. Starting February 1 from a Microsoft account, Windows settings or app settings, subscribers can mange and upgrade their cloud file and photo storage.

The investment in Microsoft 365 makes sense. It’s is a growing revenue item for Microsoft, which has bet much of its future on the cloud and, by extension, cloud-driven subscriptions. In its Q4 2022 earnings call, Microsoft reported that Microsoft 365 Consumer subscribers grew 15% to 59.7 million, driving revenue in the company’s Office Consumer products and cloud services segment to $136 million — a 9% year-over-year increase.

In a potential niggle, legal trouble may be brewing over Microsoft 365 in the European Union, my colleague Natasha Lomas reports, where a recent assessment by a working group of German data protection regulators found that Microsoft still hasn’t able to resolve any of the compliance problems they’ve raised with it. The working group’s update could crank up the pressure on Microsoft 365 customers in Germany and elsewhere in the European Union to reassess usage of Microsoft’s software and/or seek out less compliance-challenged alternatives.

Microsoft 365 Basic launches with 100 GB of storage, Outlook and more for $1.99 per month by Kyle Wiggers originally published on TechCrunch

Plaid adds read-only support for thousands of crypto exchanges

Plaid, the company building data transfer technologies to power fintech and digital finance products like smartphone-based wallets, today announced that it’s adding support for thousands of crypto exchanges to its data network. While Plaid previously integrated with large exchanges on an ad hoc basis, the move is an indication that the company sees crypto as important to its growth.

“This is something many customers have asked for, particularly companies offering wealth management and financial planning services,” Alain Meier, head of identity at Plaid, told TechCrunch in a recent email interview. He pointed out that 16% of Americans reported investing in, using or trading cryptocurrency in 2021, according to the Pew Research Center. “With high volatility in the markets, we think it’s even more important for people to have a clear, real-time picture of their finances digitally, including what is in their crypto accounts for planning and to make important financial decisions.”

As of today, through Plaid, users can share crypto account information, including asset types, balances and transactions with other services they use. Developers can incorporate the data through the Plaid Investments API, which now supports crypto accounts for use cases like tax advisory services, financial planning and net worth calculations.

Binance, Kraken and Gemini are among the newly integrated exchanges. Support for additional platforms including and BitGo is planned for later this year, Meier said.

Plaid isn’t the first provider to aggregate various cryptocurrency accounts through an API. That distinction belongs to startups such as CoinAPI, BitCombine and Zabo. But Meier makes the case that Plaid is one of the few to offer support for crypto exchanges alongside bank account information and data from other fintech platforms.

Plaid crypto

Image Credits: Plaid

“If you’re working with a platform like SoFi for financial planning, you’ll be able to see your crypto assets alongside your other investments, giving you a more comprehensive and unified view of your finances,” Meier said. “Once an account is permissioned through Plaid, the service can retrieve read-only information from the connected account.”

The crypto market is fraught with risk — and criminal activity. Binance processed transactions totaling at least $2.35 billion stemming from hacks, investment frauds and illegal drug sales between 2017 and 2021, according to a Reuters report. In June, retirement firm IRA Financial filed a lawsuit against Gemini alleging that lax cybersecurity led to millions of dollars’ worth of clients’ assets being stolen from Gemini’s platform.

Meier noted that Plaid’s newly introduced support for crypto accounts is read-only, meaning developers don’t have access to move money on behalf of users. In addition, he said, all crypto exchanges had to go through a due diligence and risk assessment process by Plaid’s risk team before joining the Plaid network.

“More people are delving into crypto each year and it’s becoming more mainstream. We don’t see this trend slowing down, and we want to help all customers, not just those in traditional finance. That’s why we want to build the services that will drive the most impact for everyone, regardless of market conditions,” Meier said. “We’re extremely bullish on the long-term potential of cryptocurrencies and digital assets to improve the transparency and efficiency of financial services.”

The rollout of crypto exchange support comes after Plaid’s growth into identity and income verification, fraud prevention and account funding in May — the company’s first major expansion in years. Putting the pressure on is Stripe, one of Plaid’s chief rivals, which encroached on Plaid’s territory this spring with the launch of financial data connections to bank accounts.

Google Photos update adds a handy import option alongside other organizational changes

Google today announced a number of changes ahead for its popular Google Photos app for mobile devices. With the update, the company plans to make it easier to organize, import and sort through your albums, as well as access shared content and screenshots, the company says. Some of the new features are designed to make the Google Photos app work better with on-device folders, while others are focused on sorting through larger libraries that have grown over the years and may have become unwieldy.

For example, the app’s Library tab is getting a redesign that will allow you to view your photos organized in a grid or list where you can now filter by type — including albums, shared albums, favorites or on-device folders — then sort them as you’d like. This design tweak will likely be welcomed by those who now have far too many galleries to keep track of, and need a way to narrow things down when hunting for photos.

Image Credits: Google

Another feature is designed to help Google Photos become your centralized photo storage location, if it’s not already. Below the album grid, Google Photos is adding a new “import photos” section alongside the buttons for the (newer) Locked Folder, utilities, archive and trash features. This import option will allow users to copy photos from rival services including iCloud, Facebook and others; digitize their photos, videos and film; back up from device folders; move photos into Google Photos from a camera; or scan photos using Google’s PhotoScan.

Not all these import options are new — PhotoScan, for instance, used to be under Utilities. And previously, users could set their app to back up the photos on their device. IOS users could even sync their Favorites from their iPhone’s photo gallery to Google Photos’ favorites. But there wasn’t a dedicated destination where you could find all the different ways to fully import photos into Google Photos. And the addition of Facebook here is an added perk for those looking to retrieve their photos from the social network.

Image Credits: Google

Meanwhile, the app’s Sharing tab is also getting an update. It will now include sections for sharing photos with a partner, shared albums and conversations. This will make it easier to find, view and manage your various shared photos and videos, Google notes. This update will roll out today on Android and will come in the near future to users on iOS.

For Android users, Google Photos will also offer access to your screenshots saved on your device. Many Google Photos users don’t back up their device screenshots, in order to save on storage space, but still need to reference those photos at times. They’ll soon be able to tap on a new shortcut that appears at the top of their main photo grid to go directly to their screenshots, Google says.

Image Credits: Google

Another Android-only feature will present users with contextual suggestions to copy text, crop or use Google Lens when viewing a screenshot. This follows the launch of Apple’s Live Text feature, which now allows users to copy and paste text from photos.

While Google Photos would often make suggestions of how to improve photos, its tips would be buried in the Utilities menu and wouldn’t be focused on screenshots, generally, beyond recommending their removal in the app’s clean-up suggestion to “clear the clutter.” But this feature acknowledges that users are saving screenshots because they actually want to do something with them, and don’t necessarily consider them all disposable. This particular feature is “coming soon” to Android, Google says.

Except where noted otherwise, the new features will roll out gradually to Google Photos users on iOS and Android over the weeks ahead.

India’s Cars24, a used-vehicle sales platform, raises $400M, now at a $3.3B valuation, to double down on growth

With supply chains in the automotive industry continuing to be disrupted due to Covid-19, demand has surged in the used-car market. Today, one of the startups that’s seeing a lot of growth as a result of that is announcing a big round of funding to further tap the opportunity.

Cars24, a startup out of India that has built an app and website for selling used cars and motorbikes, has raised $400 million: a Series G of $300 million in equity and a further $100 million in debt. The fundraise is coming just three months after Cars24 last closed a round — $450 million, with $340 million as a Series F and a further $110 million in debt — and as a mark of how heated the market is right now, Cars24’s valuation has nearly doubled in that short time: it’s now $3.3 billion, versus $1.84 billion three months ago.

Alpha Wave Global (which co-led the last round under its previous brand, Falcon Edge Capital) is leading this Series G, with participation from other existing investors. Cars24 is not disclosing who those investors are, but other backers include DST Global, SoftBank Vision Fund 2, Alibaba, Tencent, Moore Strategic Ventures, Exor Seeds, Raptor Group and around 20 others.

Cars24 claims to have a 90% share of India’s used-car market, and it’s gotten there by way of technology. Its tools include a search engine for people to find vehicles (its wide inventory being one of the main unique selling points versus physical used-car lots); options for financing for the vehicle; and logistics software to subsequently organize and carry out vehicle deliveries to new owners. It also has built analytics to measure demand and calibrate pricing and make online assessments of vehicles. Cars24 currently has some 13 million monthly visitors to its site and has sold over 400,000 vehicles (both cars and motorbikes) to date.

Cars24 is not only on a scaling, but also a funding, tear: it additionally raised $200 million last December, putting the total raised in the last year to about $840 million. (And rumors of this latest round were circulating a couple of weeks ago.) It’s not the only one: a month ago, Spinny, another startup in the used-car space raised $280 million.

While Cars24 plans to work on increasing new customers against rival services, it will also be investing in more hooks to extend its engagement with those already using Cars24. These will include more financing options and centers for servicing vehicles before and after purchase. It will also be continuing to add more countries to its international footprint, with its next launches expected in Southeast Asia.

“The primary use of the funding will be to continue to strengthen our presence in India, and in the countries where we have expanded,” said Gajendra Jangid, Cars24’s CMO, who co-founded the company with Vikram Chopra (the CEO), Mehul Agrawal and Ruchit Agarwal in Gurugram in 2015. Cars24 is active in some 200 cities in India, and it claims to have grown 50% in the last quarter, a record for the company.

A number of outsized startups have emerged in India with massive coffers of funding to grow domestically, with little in the way of international strategy. And with nearly 1.4 billion people, the world’s second most populous country after China, you can see why. Cars24, however, has followed a different playbook, exporting its model to several countries in the last year, starting with the UAE (July 2021), and then Australia and Thailand (both in October). It plans to add to that list with its next markets in Southeast Asia, Jangid confirmed.

Launching in more developed markets like Australia and UAE has seen Cars24 adjusting its approach based on different market factors, he added.

“In Australia and the Emirates, it’s been about getting a good global supply of cars,” he said. “Because it’s hard to get new cars right now, that’s impacting pricing and demand for used vehicles.”

In its home market of India, car ownership still lingers in the single-percentage digits — somewhere between 2% and 3%, according to estimates — so in that regard, the only way is up. Indeed, as one of the most populated markets, which is rapidly developing, and which has jumped in with both feet into digital services and mobile apps, India represents a giant amount of potential that Cars24 is hoping to tap.

While Cars24 will continue to focus on bringing on new users, it’s also investing in infrastructure to extend how it works with those who are shopping on its platform. It has built out seven so-called Mega Refurbishment Labs around the country to assess and fix up cars destined for its platform. Sitting as a complement to the company’s otherwise all-digital approach to sourcing and selling vehicles, Jangid said the idea will be to make these labs a part of how the company also provides after-care to those who have purchased vehicles with the company. Longer term, he said, these would open up to all car owners. The company is also starting to build labs in other parts of the world to extend the proposition, with the first opening in Dubai.

The other area where the company is expanding its services is in the area of finance. Jangid said. He said Cars24 was the only player in its category with a banking license and it’s been using that to create payment schemes for customers. LIke car ownership itself, this represents another area of currently-underserved opportunity.

“Less than 20% of used cars get financed, while more than 80% of new cars sold are financed, so you can see the huge gap,” Jangid said. He said that currently, more than 50% of its customer base is financing vehicle purchases by way of Cars24.

It’s not all smooth sailing for the company. Working in used vehicles, there are a number of inconsistencies in product, and the more Cars24 scales the harder it will be to ensure a consistent customer experience around that, too. We’ve seen other used-car startups crash over similar issues, so it will be worth watching whether Cars24 manages to navigate these challenges as it scales. It’s one area where building out the physical servicing centers might help.

“We are excited to back Cars24 yet again as they continue to cement their leadership positions across India, UAE, Australia and other international markets,” said Navroz D. Udwadia, co-founder and partner of Alpha Wave, in a statement. “CARS24’s robust competitive moats across in-house reconditioning, access to the widest assortment/supply and deep data science drive a delightful customer experience, and reflects in its best-in-class NPS. We believe this investment will help CARS24 fortify its moats even further and scale 10x from here over the next few years. We remain impressed by the team’s vision and execution, and are delighted to deepen our partnership with CARS24.”

Pinterest launches TwoTwenty, its own in-house incubator for new projects

Pinterest today announced a new initiative designed to help the company increase its pace of innovation. The company is introducing an in-house, experimental products team it’s called TwoTwenty — named after the address of Pinterest’s first office. The team is comprised of engineers, designers, and other product experts who will research, prototype and test new features and ideas, then identify those that gain traction. Successful products will be then handed off to other teams within the company to take to scale.

The team has already had its hand in some of Pinterest’s latest launches, the company notes. Its first exploration was with the live-streamed creator events, which later evolved to include features like the ability to rewatch livestreams and support for shopping product recommendations. These became a part of Pinterest’s recently announced product, “Pinterest TV,” a live shopping feature on the app that aims to compete with rival services from Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and other dedicated live stream shopping platforms.

The Pinterest TV lineup includes a host of “shows” from creators, where fans can interact and ask questions while participating in the live shopping event. And it offers a virtual studio to creators, which was also an idea that emerged from TwoTwenty’s work, Pinterest says.

The idea to create an in-house team now dedicated to new project ideas comes at a time when Pinterest is trying to reinvent itself for the modern era of online social, which is more focused on formats like video and live streaming amid a maturing creator economy.

In that light, the launch of Pinterest TV represented a significant pivot away from Pinterest’s original idea of an online image pinboard where users research and discover new ideas, which sometimes translate into an online purchase. With video and live shopping, Pinterest aims to better attract a younger demographic who has grown up with social apps like Instagram and TikTok, where video and live content is core to the experience. If it fails to successfully make this shift, it could be on its way out as a top social platform. (In fact, reports that Pinterest was discussing an exit by way of PayPal have been circulating, but PayPal said it’s not pursuing an acquisition at this time.).

Pinterest explained its new incubation team will field ideas from an online submission portal called the “Idea Factory” as well as from its company-wide “Makeathons” (hackathon events). The team will then further experiment with the ideas and prototypes to see if any gain traction. At any time, there will be one to two projects underway — some of which will see the light of day, and others which will be pulled back if not successful — more like how a startup would experiment.

Initially, the team includes Product Lead David Temple, who’s been heading up creator products; early engineer Ryan Probasco; and Content Lead Meredith Arthur, previously of CBS; Albert Pereta, who joined Pinterest by way of its 2014 Iceberg acquisition; among others. In total there are 15 people working full-time on the team now and it’s actively recruiting new members.

Other large tech companies also formalize their efforts to drive innovation through dedicated teams.

Facebook, for instance, launched its “NPE Team” in 2019 to test out new ideas and features, to see how users would react. But over the years, none have scaled to become their own, new Facebook (now Meta) brand — they’ve instead informed the development of other Facebook and Instagram features. Meanwhile, Google had been allowing its more entrepreneurial-minded employees to experiment within its Area 120 in-house incubator. By comparison, this group has launched a number of successful products that have exited to other areas of Google’s business, like Search, Shopping, Commerce, and Cloud. That team has now been elevated with the recent reorg that sees it under new leadership and paired alongside other long-term-focused innovations, like the holographic videoconferencing project known as Project Starline.

“With TwoTwenty, we prioritize a collaborative approach and accelerate ideas from employees around the company,” said Temple, in an announcement. “With the resources of an established brand, we’re able to explore and invest in new solutions to help people find inspiration to live a life they love,” he added.

YouTube TV expands its live TV service with more Spanish-language networks

Google’s streaming TV service, YouTube TV, announced today it’s adding more Spanish-language networks to its base membership package and is preparing to launch an add-on package that will include even more Spanish-language content. Starting today, all subscribers will gain access to three new TV networks at no additional cost: Univision, UniMás, and Galavisión. These will join YouTube TV’s existing lineup of over 85 live TV channels, which today include top networks like Fox, ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and others, in addition to entertainment networks like those from Discovery and ViacomCBS.

The additions will bring to YouTube TV members a range of new Spanish-language content, including primetime series like “La Desalmada” and “Vencer El Pasado” arriving this fall, reality competition series “Nuestra Belleza Latina” on September 26, plus the 22nd Annual Latin Grammy Awards on November 18. The additions also bring sports programming like the Campeones Cup on September 29, and ongoing match-ups from Liga MX, UEFA Champions League, MLS, and the Mexican National Team, the company says.

Univision also noted that subscribers in top Hispanic markets, including Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, and others, will be able to access Univision and UniMás’ local news, weather, and other programming. Plus, YouTube TV will carry Univision’s video-on-demand content library at launch, and subscribers will be able to use their YouTube TV credentials to authenticate with the company’s “TV everywhere”-powered Univision app.

The companies did not disclose the financial terms of their new agreement, but the deal hasn’t come with a price increase. YouTube TV, however, has been steadily hiking prices since its debut. It increased the service’s pricing to $64.99 last summer, following the new additions of 14 ViacomCBS networks, for example. But last month, YouTube Chief Product Officer Neal Mohan said there would be no new price increases in the near-term.

While the new channels will reach all subscribers, YouTube TV also announced plans to introduce a new add-on package that will be available for an additional monthly cost. This will include other Spanish-language networks like Sony Cine, CNN Español, Discovery en Español, Estrella TV, Cinelatino, Fox Deportes, and others. YouTube TV is not yet sharing the full lineup nor the price of the add-on just yet, but said it would offer more details in the “coming months.”

The Spanish-language network Pantaya will also be offered in the weeks ahead for an additional $5.99 per month, providing access to Spanish-language movies and exclusive original series, all of which are on-demand.

“We are delighted to partner with YouTube TV to expand Univision’s robust portfolio of networks and stations to include YouTube TV,” said Hamed Nasseri, Univision Vice President, Content Distribution, in a statement. “Amid the popularity of streaming services as well as the growing influence of our Hispanic community, this is an important step to ensure that our audience has access to our leading Spanish-language news, sports, and entertainment wherever they consume content. We are excited for today’s launch and recognize YouTube TV’s continued commitment to serving our growing and influential Hispanic audience.”

YouTube TV is not the first streamer to cater to an audience looking for Spanish-language content. In 2018, Hulu added its own Spanish-language bundle called ‘Español,’ which now gives subscribers live programming from networks including ESPN Deportes, NBC Universo, CNN En Español, History Channel En Español, Discovery en Español, and Discovery Familia. Hulu, however, doesn’t carry Univision but does offer Telemundo. Fubo TV, meanwhile, offers Univision and Telemundo and provides an Español plan with dozens of Spanish-language channels.

If anything, YouTube TV had been behind in terms of catering to Spanish speakers until now, and this offering will make it more competitive with rival services.


Sendcloud nabs $177M led by SoftBank to double down on SaaS — shipping as a service

E-commerce has undoubtedly seen a huge boost in growth in the last year and a half of Covid-19 living, with people turning to the web and apps to shop for essentials and not-so-essentials to keep their social distance, and using delivery services to receive their goods rather than picking things up in person.

Today, a Dutch startup called Sendcloud that has built a service to help retailers with the latter of these — providing a cloud-based to easily organize and carry out shipping services by choosing from a wide range of carriers and other options — is announcing $177 million in funding, a major investment that speaks not just to Sendcloud’s recent growth, but of the demand in the market for what it does: provide an efficient and viable alternative to simply turning to Amazon for fulfillment, or going through the manual and costly process of sorting out shipping directly with the companies that provide it.

“We try to provide Amazon-level logistics to all the other merchants out there,” Rob van den Heuvel, Sendcloud’s CEO and co-founder, said in an interview. Pre-lock down, he said the company — which now has 23,000 customers — was seeing on average between 70% and 80% growth each year. During lockdown that went up to 120%, with 133% increases in parcel volumes, “And we have not seen volumes going down since,” he added.

Softbank Vision Fund 2 — a prolific investor in the many parts of the e-commerce ecosystem — is leading this Series C, with L Catterton and HPE Growth also participating. This by far the biggest investment Sendcloud has ever had: the Eindhoven, Netherlands-based startup has been around since 2012 and before now had raised just over $23 million ($23 million, 23,000 customers has a nice ring to it.)

Van den Heuvel confirmed that the startup is not disclosing its valuation with this round although a source very close to the deal tells us it’s around $750 million.

As a point of reference, Shippo — a U.S. company operating in a similar space but with 100,000 customers to Sendcloud’s 23,000 — in June raised money at a $1 billion valuation. Shippo has, however, also raised significantly more money and will have had its valuation ratcheting up as a result of that, too. On Sendcloud’s side, our source pointed out that it’s demonstrated a very strong amount of capital efficiency in its growth.

The gap in the market that Sendcloud (and would-be rivals like Shippo and is addressing is a very clear one. E-commerce is now a major channel for retailers of all sizes, and as the market continues to mature, customers buying online or in-person but still getting their goods delivered are getting more sophisticated in terms of what they expect in service levels.

The issue is that smaller retailers — realistically, anyone that is not Amazon, but especially those new to the e-commerce arena — typically don’t have systems in place to manage that delivery process in an efficient way. The very smallest, Van den Heuvel said, physically go to post offices to mail packages; and the bigger ones may order pick-up and shipping directly from specific carriers but find it costly to scale up from there, and to do so in a flexible way that ensures that they are getting the best prices and the best levels of service and the most options in terms of timings.

Amazon has in many ways set the bar for how shipping and delivery work, and in terms of what customers expect. It makes it easy for customers to expect and get fast and free shipping by way of its Prime membership club. It has a vast network of operations for itself and third parties it works with, and is increasingly directly controlling the different parts of that machine.  And, critically, it already provides shipping as a service, plus a wider range of warehousing and other options — wrapped up in the company’s Fulfillment By Amazon (FBA) product.

Sendcloud essentially is an aggregator and integrator that brings together the longer tail of e-commerce technology providers used by retailers — it has over 50 integrations with the likes of Shopify, Magento, WooCommerce, Amazon and so on — with the range of companies that carry out shipping and delivery services — the DHL, UPS, FedEx, DPD and so on, more than 35 in all currently (and growing). It’s a very fragmented market on both ends of that, and so this is about bringing that together in a seamless way so that retailers can just search for and pick services that work for their needs. And this is all automated and integrated into their check-out: picking shippers and organising it ceases to be a manual effort.

It provides its tools in freemium tiers: a no-cost “essentials” for the smallest users, with the next tier at €40 per month, then €89 and €179 per month depending on the size of business.

Sendcloud sits in the same category as startups that have been addressing the physical aspect of e-commerce in other areas like freight forwarding and warehousing, by building cloud-based platforms to knit the many providers of those services together in a way that hadn’t been digitized previously. Doing so in the area of shipping and delivery, an area that is only getting more ubiquitous and expected by consumers, represents a massive opportunity: the delivery market is expected to grow from $475 billion today to $591 billion in 2024, the company estimates. It may be a pain point that that the average consumer never has to deal with on an organizational level as much as retailers do, but as e-commerce continues to grow, so too will the need for this to work correctly, to keep consumers happy.

“Growing parcel volume and demand for flexible delivery have increased the need for smart shipping solutions amongst online merchants,” said Yanni Pipilis, managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement. “Sendcloud has built a leading all-in-one shipping platform that aims to help merchants easily integrate functionalities such as checkout, shipping, tracking, returns, and analytics. We are pleased to partner with Rob and the Sendcloud team to support their mission of fueling the next wave of e-commerce enablement.” 

“Sendcloud’s scalable, intuitive, and highly localized platform is at the forefront of enabling sophisticated shipping for online merchants across Europe,” added Christopher North, managing partner at L Catterton. “We are excited to partner with the exceptional Sendcloud team to leverage our consumer-focused e-commerce experience and deep expertise working with high-growth technology and software businesses to drive continued innovation and position the Company for growth globally.” 

Sendcloud said that SoftBank Investment Advisors’ Neil Cunha-Gomes and Monika Wilk, and L Catterton’s Ido Krakowsky, are all joining its board.