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Five stories that shook up the enterprise in 2021



There is often a mistaken impression that covering the enterprise is kind of dull when compared to the consumer side of the house, but having followed the space for a couple of decades now, I can tell you that nothing could be further from the truth.

For one thing, there’s big money in the enterprise, like Oracle buying Cerner last week for $28 billion and shaking up the healthcare vertical while they were at it, or UiPath going from obscure startup to $35 billion RPA juggernaut earlier this year, before falling back a bit after going public.

There’s intrigue, like when activist investors try to force companies to make moves they normally wouldn’t want to make, and battles for control of the board like we saw at Box this year.

There’s drama, like the three-year battle among the biggest enterprise cloud infrastructure companies in the world for the $10 billion Department of Defense JEDI cloud contract, a procurement process that had everything from lawsuits to repeated internal reviews to presidential interference.

So you can say a lot of things about the enterprise… but boring? Definitely not — and this year was no different. So I decided to close out 2021 with a look at five stories that rocked the enterprise. It’s hard to narrow 12 months of news down to the five biggest stories, but here are my choices.

The Bezos-Jassy-Selipsky musical chairs at Amazon

Perhaps the biggest news this year involved Jeff Bezos deciding to step back as CEO, taking on the chairman role. Now that in itself did not have a huge enterprise impact because Amazon is an e-commerce company, which doesn’t necessarily fall within my purview, but then there was what happened next.

That February day when Bezos made his announcement, he also indicated he had chosen his replacement, Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy. He had helped build the cloud infrastructure business at Amazon into a massive business, surpassing a $64 billion run rate in the most recent quarter.

Replacing him wouldn’t be easy, but they turned to an old friend when they hired Tableau CEO Adam Selipsky to take over for Jassy. Selipsky had previously been at AWS from its inception until 2016, when he left to take over Tableau. Now it’s his job to keep the train moving. He has momentum in his favor, but competition is getting ever more fierce, and it bears watching what happens next year under Selipsky’s leadership.

Bret Taylor’s totally excellent week

One of the other top stories involved Salesforce executive Bret Taylor getting a couple of big jobs in the same week at the end of November, making for a pretty sweet week for him. For starters he was named chairman of the board at Twitter. If that weren’t enough, he was also named co-CEO at Salesforce, where he had moved rapidly up the ladder since his company, Quip was acquired in 2016 for $750 million.

While Twitter had turmoil of its own with long-time CEO Jack Dorsey stepping down and Parag Agrawal taking over, the move to co-CEO at the CRM giant was clearly the bigger news from an enterprise perspective. While The Information reported that Taylor would still be reporting to company co-founder, chairman and co-CEO Marc Benioff, the promotion put Taylor in line to be Benioff’s heir apparent should Benioff decide to step back into the chairman role in the same way that Bezos did earlier this year. Another storyline to consider in 2022 is whether Salesforce revisits its desire to buy Twitter, a move it thought of making in 2016 before walking away.

Box-Starboard Value proxy fight

Box beat back an attempt by activist investor Starboard Value to take over the board, a move that likely would have resulted in the removal of co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie, the sale of the company, or both. It was the culmination of months of drama and it made it a major enterprise story line for 2021.

Starboard Value, an activist investor, bought a 7.5% stake in the cloud content management company in 2019, which would grow to 8.8%, giving the firm considerable influence over the company. They remained quiet for a time, but last year they decided to make a move and put Box on notice that they wanted to take over the board, which resulted in a proxy battle.

Along the way, Box answered with a $500 million investment from KKR, further angering Starboard, filed a document with the SEC pushing back against Starboard’s slate of board candidates and issued their earnings report early to give voters a chance to see their latest results. As luck would have it, the company scored two decent quarters following Starboard’s action and easily won the proxy battle, leaving the status quo for now. What happens in 2022? As I wrote, perhaps it’s time for Box to make some bold moves, and use some of KKR’s money to buy some adjacent functionality.

DoD kills JEDI and announces new cloud initiative

The $10 billion, decade-long JEDI cloud contract has been drama-filled from the day it was announced in 2018. Over those years, I wrote more than 30 articles on it, so when the Pentagon decided to kill it finally this year, that was big news.

From the start, conventional wisdom said that it was Amazon’s contract to win. There were complaints that the RFP was written with Amazon in mind, but in the end it was Microsoft that won the deal. Amazon went to court though, stating that the previous president had directly interfered with the procurement process because of his personal dislike for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also happens to own The Washington Post newspaper. Amazon also argued that it should have won on merit.

Regardless, it succeeded in convincing a judge to put the project on hold in February 2020. It would never restart, and the DoD decided to move on to a new project in July, stating that technology had changed since 2018 (which is true) and wisely deciding to go with a multi-vendor approach with its new initiative, instead of the winner-take-all approach it had pursued with JEDI.

Dell spins out VMware

When Dell bought EMC in 2015 for $67 billion (later amended to $58 billion), it was the largest deal in tech history, and another doozy of a story to follow and write about over the years. VMware was always the crown jewel of the deal, and so enterprise reporters like me kept a close eye on what Dell was going to do with it. For a long time it stood pat, but it was a huge story in the early part of the year when it announced it was spinning out the company in a deal valued at $9 billion.

It seemed a little light perhaps given the amount of money that’s still on the books for the EMC deal. What happens next year? Could someone make a run to acquire VMware now that it’s free of Dell? Dell remains a major shareholder and still has plenty of debt left over from that EMC deal, so it is definitely something to watch in 2022.

It’s hard to choose just five because inevitably I’ve left out some worthy storylines. What would you have included? Leave a comment and let me know.


Tesla more than tripled its Austin gigafactory workforce in 2022



Tesla’s 2,500-acre manufacturing hub in Austin, Texas tripled its workforce last year, according to the company’s annual compliance report filed with county officials. Bloomberg first reported on the news.

The report filed with Travis County’s Economic Development Program shows that Tesla increased its Austin workforce from just 3,523 contingent and permanent employees in 2021 to 12,277 by the end of 2022. Bloomberg reports that just over half of Tesla’s workers reside in the county, with the average full-time employee earning a salary of at least $47,147. Outside of Tesla’s factory, the average salary of an Austin worker is $68,060, according to data from ZipRecruiter.

TechCrunch was unable to acquire a copy of the report, so it’s not clear if those workers are all full-time. If they are, Tesla has hired a far cry more full-time employees than it is contracted to do. According to the agreement between Tesla and Travis County, the company is obligated to create 5,001 new full-time jobs over the next four years.

The contract also states that Tesla must invest about $1.1 billion in the county over the next five years. Tesla’s compliance report shows that the automaker last year invested $5.81 billion in Gigafactory Texas, which officially launched a year ago at a “Cyber Rodeo” event. In January, Tesla notified regulators that it plans to invest another $770 million into an expansion of the factory to include a battery cell testing site and cathode and drive unit manufacturing site. With that investment will come more jobs.

Tesla’s choice to move its headquarters to Texas and build a gigafactory there has helped the state lead the nation in job growth. The automaker builds its Model Y crossover there and plans to build its Cybertruck in Texas, as well. Giga Texas will also be a model for sustainable manufacturing, CEO Elon Musk has said. Last year, Tesla completed the first phase of what will become “the largest rooftop solar installation in the world,” according to the report, per Bloomberg. Tesla has begun on the second phase of installation, but already there are reports of being able to see the rooftop from space. The goal is to generate 27 megawatts of power.

Musk has also promised to turn the site into an “ecological paradise,” complete with a boardwalk and a hiking/biking trail that will open to the public. There haven’t been many updates on that front, and locals have been concerned that the site is actually more of an environmental nightmare that has led to noise and water pollution. The site, located at the intersection of State Highway 130 and Harold Green Road, east of Austin, is along the Colorado River and could create a climate catastrophe if the river overflows.

The site of Tesla’s gigafactory has also historically been the home of low-income households and has a large population of Spanish-speaking residents. It’s not clear if the jobs at the factory reflect the demographic population of the community in which it resides.

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Launch startup Stoke Space rolls out software tool for complex hardware development



Stoke Space, a company that’s developing a fully reusable rocket, has unveiled a new tool to let hardware companies track the design, testing and integration of parts. The new tool, Fusion, is targeting an unsexy but essential aspect of the hardware workflow.

It’s a solution born out of “ubiquitous pain in the industry,” Stoke CEO Andy Lapsa said in a recent interview. The current parts tracking status quo is marked by cumbersome, balkanized solutions built on piles of paperwork and spreadsheets. Many of the existing tools are not optimized “for boots on the ground,” but for finance or procurement teams, or even the C-suite, Lapsa explained.

In contrast, Fusion is designed to optimize simple inventory transactions and parts organization, and it will continue to track parts through their lifespan: as they are built into larger assemblies and go through testing. In an extreme example, such as hardware failures, Fusion will help teams connect anomalous data to the exact serial numbers of the parts involved.

Image credit: Stoke Space

“If you think about aerospace in general, there’s a need and a desire to be able to understand the part pedigree of every single part number and serial number that’s in an assembly,” Lapsa said. “So not only do you understand the configuration, you understand the history of all of those parts dating back to forever.”

While Lapsa clarified that Fusion is the result of an organic in-house need for better parts management – designing a fully reusable rocket is complicated, after all – turning it into a sell-able product was a decision that the Stoke team made early on. It’s a notable example of a rocket startup generating pathways for revenue while their vehicle is still under development.

Fusion offers particular relevance to startups. Many existing tools are designed for production runs – not the fast-moving research and development environment that many hardware startups find themselves, Lapsa added. In these environments, speed and accuracy are paramount.

Brent Bradbury, Stoke’s head of software, echoed these comments.

“The parts are changing, the people are changing, the processes are changing,” he said. “This lets us capture all that as it happens without a whole lot of extra work.”

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Amid a boom in AI accelerators, a UC Berkeley-focused outfit, House Fund, swings open its doors



Companies at the forefront of AI would naturally like to stay at the forefront, so it’s no surprise they want to stay close to smaller startups that are putting some of their newest advancements to work.

Last month, for example, Neo, a startup accelerator founded by Silicon Valley investor Ali Partovi, announced that OpenAI and Microsoft have offered to provide free software and advice to companies in a new track focused on artificial intelligence.

Now, another Bay Area outfit — House Fund, which invests in startups with ties to UC Berkeley — says it is launching an AI accelerator and that, similarly, OpenAI, Microsoft, Databricks, and Google’s Gradient Ventures are offering participating startups free and early access to tech from their companies, along with mentorship from top AI founders and executives at these companies.

We talked with House Fund founder Jeremy Fiance over the weekend to get a bit more color about the program, which will replace a broader-based accelerator program House Fund has run and whose alums include an additive manufacturing software company, Dyndrite, and the managed app development platform Chowbotics, whose most recent round in January brought the company’s total funding to more than $60 million.

For founders interested in learning more, the new AI accelerator program runs for two months, kicking off in early July and ending in early September. Six or so companies will be accepted, with the early application deadline coming up next week on April 13th. (The final application deadline is on June 1.) As for the time commitment involved across those two months, every startup could have a different experience, says Fiance. “We’re there when you need us, and we’re good at staying out of the way.”

There will be the requisite kickoff retreat to spark the program and founders to get to know one another. Candidates who are accepted will also have access to some of UC Berkeley’s renowned AI professors, including Michael Jordan, Ion Stoica, and Trevor Darrell. And they can opt into dinners and events in collaboration with these various constituents.

As for some of the financial dynamics, every startup that goes through the program will receive a $1 million investment on a $10 million post-money SAFE note. Importantly, too, as with the House Fund’s venture dollars, its AI accelerator is seeking startups that have at least one Berkeley-affiliated founder on the co-founding team. That includes alumni, faculty, PhDs, postdocs, staff, students, dropouts, and other affiliates.

There is no demo day. Instead, says Fiance, founders will receive “directed, personal introductions” to the VCs who best fit with their startups.

Given the buzz over AI, the new program could supercharge House Fund, the venture organization, which is already growing fast. Fiance launched it in 2016 with just $6 million and it now manages $300 million in assets, including on behalf of Berkeley Endowment Management Company and the University of California.

At the same time, the competition out there is fierce and growing more so by the day.

Though OpenAI has offered to partner with House Fund, for example, the San Francisco-based company announced its own accelerator back in November. Called Converge, the cohort was to be made up of 10 or so founders who received $1 million each and admission to five weeks of office hours, workshops and other events that ended and that received their funding from the OpenAI Startup Fund.

Y Combinator, the biggest accelerator in the world, is also oozing with AI startups right now, all of them part of a winter class that will be talking directly with investors this week via demo days that are taking place tomorrow, April 5th, and on Thursday.

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