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Five stories that shook up the enterprise in 2021

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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.

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Mozilla acquires the team behind Pulse, an automated status updater for Slack

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Firefox developer Mozilla is making a rare foray into the world of mergers and acquisitions, with news that it has snapped up recently-shuttered California-based productivity startup Pulse.

Terms of the deal haven’t been disclosed, but the deal is tantamount to an “acqui-hire,” with Mozilla looking to deploy the Pulse team across an array of machine learning (ML) projects.

“We’re acquiring Pulse for the incredible team they have built,” Mozilla chief product officer Steve Teixeira told TechCrunch. “As we look to continue to improve user experiences across all of our products, ML will be a core part of that.”

Feel the pulse

Founded out of Menlo Park in 2019, Pulse in its initial guise was a “virtual office” platform called Loop Team, but after honing the idea for a couple of years it pivoted and rebranded last November. Pulse, essentially, was an automated status-updating tool that used signals based on pre-configured integrations and preferences set by the user.

For example, users could synchronize Pulse with their calendar and Slack, setting rules to stipulate what their status and corresponding emoji should be based on keywords in their calendar event title. If their schedule for a particular time says “hair appointment” from 12-1pm, then the person’s Slack status update might display a scissors emoji alongside the word “haircut.” Or, it might say “birthday” alongside a cake emoji if that’s what is in their calendar.

Pulse: Calendar rules

But Pulse sported myriad integrations with business tools that brought similar functionality. For example, users could link Pulse with Zoom, so that whenever they start a video meeting, a telephone emoji automatically displays in their Slack status to tell people they are unavailable.

Shutting shop

Pulse had flown largely under the radar since it started rolling out to a small group of users last December, but the company had apparently garnered some fairly big-name customers, including Netflix and 1Password, with monthly premium plans starting at around $3 per user.

The company was among TechCrunch’s Battlefield 200 startups at TC Disrupt in October, and TechCrunch interviewed Pulse cofounder and CEO Raj Singh at the event for a potential future startup profile piece. Singh said at the time that it was planning to raise a seed round of funding early in the new year, something that obviously won’t be happening now. When quizzed on whether Pulse was more like a feature that the big tech platforms could just build themselves, rather than a sustainable business in its own right, Singh was adamant that Pulse could thrive as a standalone product. While he acknowledged that companies such as Microsoft or Google might well want to develop a similar automated status update tool for their own products, they were less incentivised to make it work well as an integrated feature that plays ball with various third-party tools.

Pulse was all about communicating things to colleagues around the world passively, regardless of what tools they were using or what timezone they’re in. This is particularly important with remote work becoming the norm, and Pulse was looking to find its niche at a time when workplace culture is rapidly changing.

“A lot of people actually want to update their status, but it’s tedious,” Singh told TechCrunch in October. “But there’s hundreds of signals, and the thing we realised was status is not just ‘availability’, it’s actually a way to communicate empathy.”

While Pulse did have plans to expand beyond Slack into other workplace communication tools including Microsoft Teams and Google Workspace, the company abruptly announced in late October that it was shutting down. In an email distributed to customers at the time, the company attributed this to “market conditions,” noting that it was finding it difficult to raise fresh capital — but it did confirm that it had found a buyer, the identity of which was unknown until today. Singh also said in the email that there was a chance that the buyer could resurrect Pulse in some form, but there is little indication that Mozilla has such a plan on its radar.

What’s next

To the casual observer, Slack was probably the obvious contender to acquire Pulse. For starters, there is the fact that Pulse had been focused exclusively on Slack status updates. But on top of that, Singh had previously founded a smart calendar app called Tempo AI which he sold to Salesforce for an undisclosed sum in 2015.

Singh then joined Salesforce to help with the initial transition of Tempo AI’s technology into Salesforce’s Inbox app. And as we now know, Salesforce went on to acquire Slack in 2020, so with Singh’s connections to Salesforce and his product’s close alignment with Slack, there seemed like only one possible suitor here. 

Tempo AI Image Credits: Tempo AI

Alas, Slack hasn’t acquired Pulse — the Mozilla Corporation has. It is something of a surprise, if for no other reason than Mozilla isn’t renowned for its M&A endeavors, though it is starting to ramp up its investment efforts after launching its first venture capital fund last month. But its only known acquisition to date was back in 2017, when it snapped up Pocket, a popular read-it-later web-clipping service that Mozilla had already integrated into its Firefox browser two years previous.

As a side point, Pulse itself had been on something of an acquisition spree this year, buying rival status updating service Holopod back in January, followed by audio-based communications platform Commons in March. Then in May, news emerged that Pulse had acquired team communication startup Lounge.

“Our strategy [with M&A] is pretty straightforward — we look for opportunities to bring on talent and technology that helps us improve experiences for our customers,” Teixeira said. “With Pulse, this is about supplementing the skillsets we have here already as a way to speed up our development efforts. We have a high bar for any acquisition, but if we find teams and technologies with incredible talent that share our mission and vision for the future of the internet, we are absolutely open to pursuing a transaction.”

As it happens, Pocket may be an early beneficiary of the Pulse acquisition. While Mozilla ultimately plans to deploy the Pulse team across various projects, Teixeira says that an early focus will be on using ML to improve personalization in Pocket, which presumably means in the form of content recommendations.

It’s worth noting that Mozilla has dabbled with ML a fair bit in the past, including experimental projects inside Firefox that recommend content to users, as well as tracking prices across myriad online stores. The company is also leveraging ML across various voice and speech projects.

“We see opportunity to use ML in virtually all of our products, including Firefox, as a foundation for improving the experience for all of our customers,” Teixeira said.

Mozilla hasn’t revealed how much it’s doling out for the startup, but Pulse had only raised around $4.7 million in pre-seed funding according to Crunchbase data, and given its difficulties in raising fresh capital, it’s safe to assume that Mozilla hasn’t broken the bank here.

What Mozilla is getting for its money is six people, including Pulse’s three founders Raj Singh, Jag Srawan, and Rolf Rando, each bringing significant engineering, ML, and product execution experience to Mozilla’s ML efforts. Singh actually created his previous startup Tempo AI as a project inside SRI International, the Stanford research institute responsible for Siri. He rejoined SRI as executive in residence (EIR) after leaving Salesforce, remaining there until founding Pulse (then Loop Team) nearly four years ago.

“In building Pulse, we enabled a variety of machine learning experiences to make distributed teams feel more connected,” Singh noted. “Finding ways to use AI and machine learning to simplify tasks for users is our passion.”

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Here’s your chance to show off your expertise at TechCrunch’s founder summit

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Do you have what it takes to present at TechCrunch Early Stage on April 20 in Boston, Massachusetts? We’re looking for trendsetting, game-changing, later-stage startup founders and ecosystem experts — of every stripe — to apply for the opportunity to share their hard-won expertise at our annual founder summit.

An entrepreneurial bootcamp experience, TC Early Stage connects people in the beginning or early stages of their startup journey with top industry experts for hands-on training. Presenting at this event is an opportunity to align yourself with TechCrunch and position yourself as a thought leader for hundreds of early-stage entrepreneurs. Apply here now.

You have until January 6 to submit an application outlining the content you’d like to present. TechCrunch will vet each application and select the top contenders to participate in an Audience Choice voting round where TechCrunch readers will choose the sessions they want to see most at TC Early Stage.

Our call for outstanding content is officially open, and here are the important dates to keep in mind:

  • Application deadline: January 6
  • Notify Audience Choice participants: January 23
  • Voting period: January 30 through February 17
  • Notify winners: By February  22

If you can deliver content that elicits this kind of attendee feedback, we want to hear from you.

“Early Stage offered a great variety of sessions and speakers — top investors, founders and credible subject-matter experts — who gave unique insights based on personal experience. You get great mentorship through attending the Early Stage sessions. It’s like a mini masterclass in entrepreneurship.” — Ashley Barrington, founder, MarketPearl

Show us your content — apply today!

TC Early Stage, which takes place on April 20, 2023, in Boston, Massachusetts, provides access to essential information, resources and community connections to help nascent entrepreneurs reach their potential. Grab your ticket now — just $149 for the next 30 founders — and join us in Boston!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Early Stage 2023? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

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Amplio helps companies find components when supply chain breaks down

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When Covid shut down much of the world down in 2020, it ended up wreaking havoc on the supply chain. Suddenly companies built for just-in-time production couldn’t find parts they needed to build their products.

Even as Covid subsided, the supply chain woes continued. Veterans of supply management like the founder of startup Amplio watched, and figured there had to be a better way to guard against these kinds of disruptions in the future using software to find parts wherever they were.

Amplio launched last year with that goal in mind, and today the startup announced a $6 million seed to build a system to help track parts shortages. Trey Closson, CEO and co-founder at Amplio says his company’s goal is to build more resilience into the electronic components supply chain.

“We help our customers understand the components that are at highest risk of leading to material shortages, and then we connect our customers to alternative sources of supply to mitigate those shortages,” Closson told TechCrunch.

He knows what he’s talking about. He spent his entire career in supply chain management, and he’s seen firsthand how disruptions can have a negative impact on a business’s ability to function. He blames “Just-in-time production” techniques for the problems we are seeing today.

“The supply chains have been designed for 30 or 40 years to optimize for cost and for the best case scenario, but the reality is that we don’t live in a world of best case scenarios. We live in a world of constant disruptions,” he said.

“The way that our platform works is that we’re connected to our customers’ systems of record or their ERP solutions, and we take in in their bill of materials and their operational data, and then combine that with external datasets to be able to show the customer their ability to source their particular components over the next six to 18 months,” he said.

Amplio parts inventory screen showing which parts could be in danger of having supply issues.

Image Credits: Amplio

What’s more, in cases where the customer isn’t able to source the components, customers can go to the Amplio marketplace to find suppliers or other manufacturers who might have surplus inventory they are trying to sell.

Closson’s most recent job was working at Koch Industries, leading international supply chain for Georgia Pacific, where he was on the front line of the Covid-induced toilet paper shortages. But he decided to focus his startup on electronic components.

“So while supply chain resilience is really critical across the market, we want to focus on the electronics industry, because it has such a tremendous impact on the global economy,” he said. He conceived of and incubated the company as part of a program run by Koch and High Alpha Innovation, the program launched by former Exact Target execs to help startups with enterprise-focused ideas.

The company currently has 6 employees, but plans to expand with the funding (which closed in May). He says as he grows the company, diversity and inclusion is a core building block. “Diversity is one of the core principles for our hiring and in decision making processes. So just from a selfish standpoint, diverse organizations make better decisions and have more creative ideas, and are ultimately more successful,” he said.

Today’s round was led by Construct Capital with participation from Slow Ventures, High Alpha Capital, Flexport Ventures, Alpaca Venture Capital and various industry angels.

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