MariaDB raises $25M more to expand its SkySQL cloud database platform

Cloud services continue to be a key component of how organisations remain operational even as so much else — such as physically working in enclosed offices — is forced to change because of the COVID-19 health pandemic. Today, MariaDB Corporation, the company behind MariaDB SkySQL and one of the startups leading the charge on open source cloud databases, is announcing $25 million in funding to continue its growth.

The money is coming in the form of an extension to the company’s Series C round, and it’s being led by SmartFin Capital, a Belgian VC, with participation also from previous investor GP Bullhound.

(Side note: extensions to existing rounds seem to have become more frequent in recent months. That’s in part because extensions can be faster to close than opening and closing completely new rounds; in part because they are typically smaller amounts; and in part because fundraising has become a lot more challenging and harder to do in recent months, with people travelling and meeting in person much less, and sometimes not at all.)

Notably, however, being an extension doesn’t mean the valuation is not changing. This latest infusion brings the total raised by MariaDB Corp. to over $125 million, “doubling our valuation,” CEO Michael Howard noted in a statement.

Howard didn’t reveal the exact figure of that valuation, but for some context, the company — founded in Helsinki, Finland and now co-headquartered in Redwood City, CA — was last valued at €300 million ($340 million at today’s rates) in 2017, in a $27 million round led by Alibaba. That would put today’s round at a €600 million ($680 million), a big leap for the the startup — and for open source — in the space of three years.

Part of the boost for MariaDB’s business is coming directly as a result of the demands we’re seeing in the enterprise sector today for database-as-a-service tools built on cloud and open source architecture, Howard noted.

“Expanding MariaDB SkySQL cloud operations is our key focus,” Howard said in a statement. “There is an addressable and immediate market need with a growing number of companies who want to enable faster innovation and agility by adopting cloud technologies and shifting database management to DBaaS solutions.”

MariaDB says that DBS Bank, ServiceNow, Walgreens, Samsung and more than 75% of the Fortune 500 customers run MariaDB in both private and public clouds, speaking to the reach of the platform.

MariaDB Corp. is not disclosing its own growth numbers — we’re asking and will update as and when we learn more — but it’s likely they have been strong, judging by the valuation hike.

“MariaDB continues to exceed our expectations,” said Jürgen Ingels, founding partner, SmartFin Capital, in a statement. “The company’s innovation in cloud database technology will help support the rapid growth in IT modernization that businesses large and small are pursuing to keep up with the world around us. We feel MariaDB is well-positioned to take a large share of the growing cloud database market as companies continue to push forward into the cloud. We are proud to invest more in MariaDB to continue their exceptional growth.”

Apart from the more immediate effects of the health pandemic, MariaDB Corp’s growth speaks to other trends in enterprise IT that have been in play for years.

Gartner estimates that 75% of all databases will have migrated to cloud architectures by 2022 either with all-in or hybrid deployments, “with only 5% ever considered for repatriation to on-premises.”

While MariaDB remains committed to open source — indeed there is a MariaDB Foundation that includes members like Microsoft, Booking.com, Tencent and Alibaba — MariaDB Corp has positioned itself as something of a consolidator in terms of building commercial services on top of the open source relational database. Its acquisitions have included Clustrix and MammothDB to expand its functionality, and this funding will be used to that end as well, particularly around scaling and improving the speed of SkySQL.

“MariaDB has risen to be a household name in the IT industry,” said Per Roman, co-founder and managing partner of GP Bullhound in a statement. “We have been particularly interested in MariaDB’s focus on bringing its flexibility, security and stability to the cloud. That’s why we’re excited to invest in MariaDB, as we see enormous opportunities for its SkySQL product.”

WhatsApp Business, now with 50m MAUs, adds QR codes and catalog sharing

The global COVID-19 health pandemic has raised the stakes for businesses when it comes to using digital channels to connect with customers, and today WhatsApp unveiled its latest tools to help businesses use its platform to do just that.

The Facebook-owned messaging behemoth is expanding the reach and use of QR codes to let customers easily connect with businesses on the platform, providing them also with a series of stickers to kick off “we’re open for business” campaigns; and it’s made it possible for businesses to start sharing WhatsApp-based catalogs — dynamic lists of items that can in turn be ordered by users — as links outside of the WhatsApp platform itself.

The moves come at WhatsApp’s business efforts pass some significant milestones.

WhatsApps’ profile as a formal platform for doing business is growing, albeit slowly. The WhatsApp Business app — used by merchants to interface with customers over WhatsApp and use the platform to market themselves — now has 50 million monthly active users, with its two biggest markets for the service India at over 15 million MAUs and Brazil at over 5 million MAUs. Catalogs specifically has 40 million users.

On the other hand, WhatsApp has hit some stumbling blocks with features it’s tried to put into place to grow those numbers faster and boost usage among businesses.

Specifically, last month WhatsApp launched payments in Brazil, its first market, aimed not just at users sending each other money but merchants selling goods and services over the platform. But just nine days later, Brazilian regulators blocked the service over competition concerns, and it has yet to be restored pending further review. (India, which many had thought would be the first market for payments, is now part of a bigger global roadmap for rolling out payments.)

To put WhatsApp Business app’s usage numbers into some context, WhatsApp itself passed 2 billion users in February of this year. In that regard, hitting 50 million MAUs of the WhatsApp business app in the two years since it’s launched doesn’t sound like a whole lot (and in particular considering that it has competitors like Google offering payment services to merchants). Still, there has always been a lot of informal usage of the app, especially by smaller merchants, and that speaks to monetising potential if they can be lured into more of WhatsApps’ — and Facebook’s — products.

All the more reason that Facebook is expanding other features to make WhatsApp more useful for businesses, and especially smaller businesses — capitalising on a moment when many of them are turning to numerous digital channels (some for the first time ever) like social media, messaging services, websites and third-party delivery platforms to get their products and services out to the masses, in a period when visiting physical storefronts has been severely curtailed because of the health pandemic.

QR codes got a little boost last week from WhatsApp on the consumer side, with the company introducing a way for contacts to swap details for the first time by sharing codes rather than manually entering phone numbers — not unlike Snap Codes and shortcuts for adding contacts created on other social apps. That is now getting the business treatment.

Now, if you need to reach a business for customer support, to ask a question or order something, instead of manually entering a business phone number, you can scan a QR code from a receipt, a business display at the storefront, a product, or even posted on the web, in order to connect with the company. Businesses that are using these can also set up welcome messages to start conversations once they’ve been added by a user. (They will have to use the WhatsApp Business app or the WhatsApp Business API to do this, of course.)

The catalog sharing feature, meanwhile, is an expansion on a feature that the company first launched in November 2019, which will now allow businesses to create and share links to their catalogs to post elsewhere. To be frank, the lack of ability to share catalogs at launch felt like a feature omission, considering that businesses often use multiple channels to market themselves, although it might have been an intentional move: there has long been questions about how tight links are between Facebook and WhatsApp, so slowly introducing features that share and cross-market from the start might be the preferred route for the company.

The idea now will be the those links can now be shared on Facebook, Instagram and other places.

Although all of these services, and WhatsApp Business remain free to use, they continue to lay the groundwork for how Facebook might monetise the features in the future, not least through payments but also through stronger pushes to advertise on Facebook, now with more ways of linking a company’s WhatsApp profile to those ads.

PQShield raises $7M for quantum-ready cryptographic security solutions

A deep tech startup building cryptographic solutions to secure hardware, software, and communications systems for a future when quantum computers may render many current cybersecurity approaches useless is today emerging out of stealth mode with $7 million in funding and a mission to make cryptographic security something that cannot be hackable, even with the most sophisticated systems, by building systems today that will continue to be usable in a post-quantum future.

PQShield (PQ being short for “post-quantum”), a spin out from Oxford University, is being backed in a seed round led by Kindred Capital, with participation also Crane Venture Partners, Oxford Sciences Innovation and various angel investors, including Andre Crawford-Brunt, Deutsche Bank’s former global head of equities.

PQShield was founded in 2018, and its time in stealth has not been in vain.

The startup claims to have the UK’s highest concentration of cryptography PhDs outside academia and classified agencies, and it is one of the biggest contributors to the NIST cybersecurity framework (alongside academic institutions and huge tech companies), which is working on creating new cryptographic standards, which take into account the fact that quantum computing will likely make quick work of breaking down the standards that are currently in place.

“The scale is massive,” Dr Ali El Kaafarani, a research fellow at Oxford’s Mathematical Institute and former engineer at Hewlett-Packard Labs, who is the founder and CEO of PQShield said of that project. “For the first time we are changing the whole of public key infrastructure.”

And according to El Kaafarani, the startup has customers — companies that build hardware and software services, or run communications systems that deal with sensitive information and run the biggest risks from being hacked.

They include entities in the financial and government sectors that it’s not naming, as well as its first OEM customer, Bosch. El Kaafarani said in an interview that it is also in talks with at least one major communications and messaging provider exploring more security for end-to-end encryption on messaging networks. Other target applications could include keyless cars, connected IoT devices, and cloud services.

The gap in the market the PQShield is aiming to address is the fact that while there are already a number of companies exploring the cutting edge of cryptographic security in the market — they include large tech companies like Amazon and MicrosoftHub Security, Duality, another startup out of the UK focused on post-quantum cryptography called Post Quantum and a number of others — the concern is that quantum computing will be utilised to crack even the most sophisticated cryptography such as the RSA and Elliptic Curve cryptographic standards.

This has not been much of a threat so far since quantum computers are still not widely available and used, but there have been a number of signs of a breakthrough on the horizon.

El Kaafarani says that PQShield is the first startup to approach that predicament with a multi-pronged solution aimed at a variety of use cases, including solutions that encompass current cryptographic standards and provide a migration path the next generation of how they will look — meaning, they can be commercially deployed today, even without quantum computers being a commercial reality, but in preparation for that.

“Whatever we encrypt now can be harvested, and once we have a fully functioning quantum computer people can use that to get back to the data and the sensitive information,” he said.

For hardware applications, it’s designed a System on Chip (SoC) solution that will be licensed to hardware manufacturers (Bosch being the first OEM). For software applications, there is an SDK that secures messaging and is protected by “post-quantum algorithms” based on a secure, Signal-derived protocol.

Thinking about and building for the full spectrum of applications is central to PQShield’s approach, he added. “In security it’s important to understand the whole ecosystem since everything is about connected components.”

Some sectors in the tech world have been especially negatively impacted by the coronavirus and its consequences, a predicament that has been exacerbated by uncertainties over the future of the global economy.

I asked El Kaafarani if that translated to a particularly tricky time to raise money as a deep tech startup, given that deep tech companies so often work on long-term problems that may not have immediate commercial outcomes.

Interestingly, he said that wasn’t the case.

“We talked to VCs that were interested in deep tech to begin with, which made the discussion a lot easier,” he said. “And the fact is that we’re a security company, and that is one of the areas that is doing well. Everything has become digitised, and we have all become more heavily reliant on our digital connections. We ultimately help make the digital world more secure. There are people who understand that, and so it wasn’t too difficult to talk to them and understand the importance of this company.”

Indeed, Chrysanthos Chrysanthou, partner at Kindred Capital, echoed that sentiment:

“With some of the brightest minds in cryptography, mathematics and engineering, and boasting world-class software and hardware solutions, PQShield is uniquely positioned to lead the charge in protecting businesses from one of the most profound threats to their future,” he said. “We couldn’t be happier to support the team as it works to set a new standard for information security and defuse risks resulting from the rise of quantum.”

UK’s Farewill raises $25M for its new approach online will writing, funerals and other death services

The daily updates on COVID-19 outbreaks, tragic stories of related fatalities, and our narrowed scope of life due to lockdown have all put the concept of mortality — and for some the sad business of actually dealing with a death — squarely into focus for many people. Today, a startup that’s building out a suite of services related to that is announcing a round of funding on the back of a boost of growth in business.

Farewill, a UK startup that provides a platform for people write online wills, organise probate services (such as sorting out death duties and taxes on a person’s property) and order cremations, has raised £20 million ($25 million) in funding — money that it hopes will not only help the company grow its business but also to help in the process of coping with our own deaths and those of our loved ones.

“We want to help by destigmatising death,” said Farewill CEO Dan Garrett in an interview about the complexity of the proposition. “We all have to face death. It lives inside everyone. But for most of us, we are psychologically hardwired not to think about it, and as a process people have been largely at the behest of an industry that doesn’t think about its customers.”

The name is, as you may have guessed, a play on farewell. “Think of the pun, and you can start the company,” Garrett said with the hint of wryness in his voice that I’m not sure you can avoid at the moment, especially given the subject.

The round is being led by Highland Europe, with Keen Ventures, Rich Pierson of Headspace, Broadhaven Ventures, Venture Founders and previous investors Augmentum Fintech, Taavet Hinrikus of TransferWise and Kindred Capital also participating. It’s being described as a venture round — a Series A of just under $10 million was closed in January 2019 — and brings the total raised by Farewill to £30 million.

Farewill is currently only live in the UK but longer term has plans to expand to more. In its home market, Garrett (who co-founded the company with university friend Dan Rogers, who is the CTO and CPO) says that in the five years that Farewill has been operational, it’s become the biggest will writer in the country in what is a quite fragmented market: the startup accounts for one out of every 10 wills written, or a 10% market share.

The cremation funeral and probate services are more recent launches from December 2019. But even so, given the current state of play with lockdown, social distancing and sadly the rise in actual deaths, they too have seen a lot of activity. Garrett said that Farewill’s cremation service, where the order for cremation and other details are all carried out online and costs on average one-fifth of the typical funeral — the idea being that families can then choose how to memorialise after that process, bypassing that more traditional funeral option — is now the third/fourth-biggest cremation provider in the country. It’s not all about the last few months, however: overall growth for the startup, he added, was 800% last year (before COVID-19) on a revenue basis.

Death by design

Just as death is not an easy topic for most people, it’s a complicated one to pinpoint as a target industry for a startup to “disrupt.” Farewill’s origin story, in that context, is an interesting one.

Garrett — who studied engineering at Oxford as an undergraduate — said the the idea came to him while doing postgraduate work on a joint degree between Imperial College and the Royal College of Art on design and innovation.

He came into the degree with a lot of big ideas, inspired by companies like Airbnb. “There is just so much potential for design-led companies,” he said of his thinking at the time.

One of the remits that the course cohort was given, he said, was to think about the broader concept of aging and services to address that. As part of the course, he travelled to Japan — which has its own specific reverence for ageing and the death process — and based himself at an old people’s home in Tokyo for six months along with “a team of enthnographers and anthropologists.”

He came out of that with an insight he didn’t expect, he recalled. “I felt that at the end of my six months there, I’d failed in my role as a designer,” he said. “All we focused was on the superficiality of ageing: how can we make better cutlery, or beds or seating that helped them move around? It was all about mobility and the physical aspects. But why we didn’t get close to talking about was that most of these people were facing their mortality. And in care homes, you don’t have friends or family around.” In other words, physical details and making life more manageable or enjoyable are fine, but Garrett didn’t feel that they got to the heart of the matter.

“To my mind, if you’re a designer, your responsibility is to get to the bottom of whatever the issue is,” he said. His dissertation, about dementia care, raised questions not about cutlery per se but person-centered approaches. “So much of it is about physical amelioration, not psychological aspects.”

So when he returned to the UK, he set to work trying to understand “the death industry.” He spent two months doing what he described as “mystery shopping”, regularly visiting funeral directors, and saying he was coming to discuss a death (a hypothetical one, not a real one) to understand what process people went through when they walked through the door for a real funeral. “I made sure I didn’t waste too much of their time,” he said.

He then also got a qualification in will writing and started offering services to his friends (free) who needed help to go through the probate process — which involves sorting out death duties, organising personal effects and the estate and so on. He — and Farewill — have also tried to embody a transparent and ethical approach in the work throughout, which has also included making it easier to designate pledged legacy income in wills (that is donations to causes). The aim is to reach £1 billion in pledged legacy income by 2023, with over £200 million raised so far and the numbers accelerating.

All that hands-on experience was important, he said, to get to grips with what he wanted to build. “I may have three masters degrees, but I am terrible at learning without actually doing something,” he said.

One big conclusion Garrett found was that not only was the death industry large and complicated, not least because of the subject matter, but because it had no technical innovation at all around it.

“There is this profound human aversion to dealing with death, and that is a brilliant design challenge,” he said.

Indeed, like it or not, death is always around us, and perhaps particularly right now. In the US — itself home to a number of startups focusing on death-related services — will writing companies have seen huge spikes in their business in the last several months. And even with the economic slowdown much of the globe is now seeing as a result of COVID-19, death care services (which don’t include will writing but everything after death), is projected to be a $102 billion industry this year.

It’s numbers like that, and Farewill’s execution in what it is doing, that has attracted investors.

“How about entirely removing the administrative pain for those grieving for their loved ones? How about providing an affordable, effortless and considerate service? That’s what the Farewill team is doing – with an extraordinary blend of compassion and tech-fueled efficiency,” said Stan Laurent, Partner at Highland Europe in a statement. “For too long, the wills and funeral industry has been largely geared towards profit over purpose. Since our first meeting with Dan, we knew that Farewill had the ingredients to radically disrupt the industry. We’re excited to back them as they broaden their ambition.”

“Farewill has made phenomenal progress since our initial investment 18 months ago,” added Tim Levene, CEO of Augmentum Fintech, in a statement. “They have grown by 10x and launched a suite of successful new products. This additional capital will provide further opportunity for the company to innovate an archaic industry, and become the leading digital platform in death services.”

(Farewill also recently won a Europa award for its contribution to social innovation.)

Uber confirms it is acquiring Postmates in an all-stock, $2.65B deal

Competition continues to heat up in the food delivery wars. In the latest development, Uber today announced that it has acquired Postmates in a $2.65 billion, all-stock deal. It plans to run the business alongside its own food delivery business, Uber Eats and keep the Postmates running, it said, while merging operations at the back end.

The deal confirms reports that emerged last week, and got re-reported last night with more financial detail, that Postmates and Uber were in negotiations. That deal itself sprung up in the wake of Uber failing to acquire another competitor, Grubhub, which was instead acquired by Europe’s takeout behemoth Just Eat Takeaway for $7.3 billion.

“Uber and Postmates have long shared a belief that platforms like ours can power much more than just food delivery—they can be a hugely important part of local commerce and communities, all the more important during crises like COVID-19. As more people and more restaurants have come to use our services, Q2 bookings on Uber Eats are up more than 100 percent year on year. We’re thrilled to welcome Postmates to the Uber family as we innovate together to deliver better experiences for consumers, delivery people, and merchants across the country,” said Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi in a statement.

“Over the past eight years we have been focused on a single mission: enable anyone to have anything delivered to them on-demand. Joining forces with Uber will continue that mission as we continue to build Postmates while creating an even stronger platform that brings this mission to life for our customers. Uber and Postmates have been strong allies working together to advocate and create the best practices across our industry, especially for our couriers. Together we can ensure that as our industry continues to grow, it will do so for the benefit of everyone in the communities we serve,” said Postmates Co-Founder and CEO Bastian Lehmann in his statement.

The all-stock deal valuation that Uber is paying out is a slight bump on Postmates’ last valuation of $2.4 billion, which it reached in September 2019 on the back of a private equity round. But with the ‘money’ all in paper, it puts a lot of pressure both on Postmates and Uber to continue to deliver on growth — pun intended.

For Uber, Uber Eats has been one good news story amid what has otherwise been a very tough life as a publicly listed company. That predicament has taken on a more critical edge in recent months through the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its last quarterly earnings results, the Uber Eats business grew 52% and managed to somewhat offset a big decline in its ride-hailing revenues. In both cases, you can draw a line from the results to social distancing requirements that people have been following around the world: consumers have been staying home more and ordering take-out food to be delivered to them; and at the same time they have been staying away from shared, small spaces, such the ones that you might encounter in an Uber ride. However, with the boost at Uber Eats, the company lost $3 billion last quarter.

The trend of those numbers is one reason why Uber has been looking to expand its food delivery business. The other is the one that has been motivating the larger consolidation trend in food delivery, and that is the principle of economies of scale and how that plays out in terms of operational expenditures, with single drivers able to cover more restaurants and orders, and also the costs of operating the business.

The wider business model requires a lot of subsidising to grow, so taking out a competitor somewhat reduces that kind of costly competitive pressure. It doesn’t eradicate it completely, though: DoorDash, Grubhub (now supercharged with Just Eat Takeaway profits and financial muscle) are still around and will represent strong alternatives both for consumers and restaurants looking for delivery partners.

The public markets is a tough place to play out a growth story for a company that is still profoundly in the red like Uber. In that regard, it’s an ironic place for Postmates to land.

The latter had also been eyeing up a public listing, going so far as to confidentially file for an IPO in February 2019. “Choppy” market forces got the better of it, however, and it put off the plans. Although there were rumors even as recently as last week that the company was still considering this option, in retrospect, that was quite possibly a report planted and spun by those hoping to hedge a better deal out of Uber.

 

Extra Crunch Live: Join Jason Green of Emergence Capital for a live Q&A on July 9 at 2 pm EDT/11 am PDT

2020 may feel so far like the year of living dangerously, but for many of us it has also been the year of working remotely. Led by the stick of COVID-19 rather than the carrot of the benefits of more flexible work life, a lot of organizations, and the people who power them, have only relatively recently started to get to grips with this concept. But some have had their finger on the pulse of cloud computing and how that relates to enterprise productivity for years.

Come join us on Thursday, July 9, at Extra Crunch Live to hear from Jason Green of Emergence Capital, one of the leading investors (and VC firms) promoting and funding some of the biggest startups in this space.

Extra Crunch Live is open exclusively to Extra Crunch subscribers. If you’re not already an Extra Crunch member, you can join here.

For the uninitiated, the EC Live format is at once direct and wide-ranging, an hour-long conversation that not only covers some of the biggest issues in tech, building startups and investing today — and boy do we have a lot of issues right now — but gets to the heart of them, in a lighter format that’s actually fun to watch — as you can see from past talks with Sequoia’s Roelof Botha and Homebrew’s Hunter Walk.  (See the whole schedule of Extra Crunch Live talks here.)

July 9 should be an especially good one because, well, Green is full of beans.

That is to say, he’s been very outspoken in the last few months, leading the (reassuring? alarming?) charge for startups to just write off the last quarter and focus on the future.

Sounds flippant? Not really. Green has years of experience to draw on — a long track record backing some of the most game-changing and successful startups of the last decade+ in the areas of cloud computing, enterprise and enterprise productivity, and specifically in how they cross over. They include Box, SalesLoft, ServiceMax, SteelBrick, SuccessFactors, Gusto (formerly ZenPayroll) and Yammer, with Emergence itself also an early backer of Zoom, Salesforce, Crunchbase and Clearbanc.

For founders, other investors and anyone involved in any aspect of deal-making, especially for enterprise startups, it’s a must-watch.

Join Jason and me next week. We’re looking forward to it.

Extra Crunch Live is open exclusively to Extra Crunch subscribers, and so if you want to watch, join here. You can find the full details of the call below the jump!

Details:

The Mom Project raises $25M for its job site aimed at women returning to work

Women have long had the short end of the stick when it comes to employment, regularly finding themselves struggling to break through the glass ceiling for promotions and on average getting paid less than their male counterparts. That situation often gets compounded when the woman in question is a parent, balancing the needs of professional and home life and more.

But we’re seeing a gradual shift among companies to “do better” on inclusion, and that’s opening the door to new opportunities. And to underscore that, The Mom Project — a Chicago startup that focuses on connecting women, including parents, with jobs from organizations specifically open to employing people who meet that profile — is announcing a $25 million round of funding to expand its business.

The funding comes on the heels of some significant traction for The Mom Project . Since we first profiled the company in December 2018 (when it had raised a round of $8 million led by Initialized Capital) it has grown to 275,000 users (up from 75,000), and doubled the number of organizations posting jobs on the platform to 2,000, including several major tech companies other brands like Facebook, Nike, Uber, Apple, Google and Twitter. The company has also made an acquisition of a startup called Werk to add analytics tools to for its business customers.

The Series B round of funding brings the total raised by the startup to $36 million, and it is being led by 7CG — a VC that has backed the likes of Jio (the Indian juggernaut raising like crazy right now), Cheddar (the media platform acquired by Altice) and fintech Acorns — with participation also from Citi Ventures, Synchrony Financial, SVB and High Alpha, as well as previous investors Initialized Capital, Grotech Ventures, OCA, Aspect Ventures, Wintrust Financial, Irish Angels and Engage VC.

The Mom Project is built around a two-sided platform and both of those sides will be getting a boost with this funding.

On one side, the startup works with businesses to post job listings that specifically target women and those returning to work who might need more flexible terms in their employment engagements, as well as analyse its overall HR strategies around those efforts.

On the other side, it provides a platform to women who fit that basic profile — the average age of its users is between 28 and 44, its CEO and founder Allison Robinson (pictured above with her child) said — providing them both with job listings and other support.

The plan will be to enhance both aspects of the business: more tools for enterprises to better engage The Mom Project’s community, as well as manage the recruitment and employment of people better; and more tools for Mom users, including building out an interactive community (and forums) to better “address the pain points of family and career,” Robinson said.

While there are a lot of job boards online — indeed recruitment dot-coms were some of the earliest successful business in the earliest days of the World Wide Web, meaning there are giant legacy players out there — The Mom Project is a strong example of how that model has been evolving.

Specifically, we’re seeing a flourishing of startups, and sites, focused on identifying and cultivating job opportunities for specific segments of the market, be it specific types of jobs like engineers, or a specific demographic, or both — in ways that more general job boards like those on LinkedIn or Indeed either don’t highlight as well or simply cannot address.

These are not only connecting with specific talent groups, but speaking to the needs of businesses that are trying to make more of an effort to boost their workforce diversity as part of larger inclusion policies: they are also struggling, in their case to find effective ways to target specific kinds of candidates.

As we noted when we previously profiled The Mom Project, it was started when Robinson herself struggled to return to work — her previous career had he working as an executive at Pampers — after having a child, and it’s a problem that she is not alone in having identified, and the focus on addressing that and executing well on it is one reason The Mom Project has grown.

Needless to say, recent events have had a huge impact on how all those general employment trends, and the recruitment industry, have been going. We’ve seen unprecedented job losses, hiring freezes, a push for remote working all suddenly become the norm. All of that has had a mixed impact on The Mom Project.

In some ways, it plays into what the startup has been building all along: currently some two-thirds of all jobs posted and that people are looking to do are focused on fixed-term projects, rather than permanent positions, and so as companies slow down their normal recruiting, it leaves a space for the kind of work that people who need more flexible schedules may be able to do. That’s at the same time that the companies themselves may be reducing headcount overall for all kinds of work, however.

Another big theme of the last several months has been the big shift to inclusiveness when it comes to racial diversity, and that too has direct relevance in the female workforce, Robinson noted. “Sixty percent of the job losses in the pandemic have been women, and the statistics have been even worse for women of color,” she said. “It’s like a canary in the coalmine.”

While The Mom Project doesn’t have any tools today to surface candidates that meet more diverse profiles, Robinson said that they are considering it and how to approach that in a way that works.

Meanwhile, The Mom Project is also trying to do more to speak to the other side of its marketplace and the struggles they are having. It’s launched a $500,000 fund, distributing grants specifically to small businesses that are its customers (that is, hiring via The Mom Project) the are finding it especially tough right now. (And indeed, many have pointed to the especially hard hit that SMBs are taking at the moment.)

All of this is to say that there remains a huge market opportunity here and there is an argument to be made that companies that good at identifying clever ways of targeting gaps, and executing on that well, are strong candidates for identifying and filling other gaps in the future, one reason why investors are knocking.

“There is a material disconnect between senior female talent and executive roles at major corporations, not for lack of interest, however the difficulty to institutionalize in large enterprise. The Mom Project’s platform enables corporates to source, onboard and manage variable labor at the highest skill level, a function historically which has been offline and manual for FTEs and even more so difficult for flexible employees,” said Jack Leeney, founding partner at 7GC, in an emailed interview. “In our diligence, the value add to senior HR managers of an analytic platform which enables the oversight of a variable work force was the single most important factor to integrating The Mom Project initially and at scale. There is no other growth company, digital first HR company or large scale talent agency that is addressing the female exec population with an enterprise grade digital solution.”

Andela, which builds engineering teams tapping African talent, goes fully-remote and opens to the wider continent

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote working has become the name of the game for knowledge workers in the tech industry. Today, a startup that was an early mover on the opportunity of that model is announcing some news to double down on the concept.

Andela, the New York startup that helps tech companies build remote engineering teams while at the same time shrinking the digital divide by tapping talent out of hubs in Africa for those teams, is today announcing a big step up in its efforts. The company is itself going fully remote, and as part of that it’s widening the pool of people that it taps to work and train by extending its reach across the whole of the African continent, while also shutting down its existing physical campuses.

Jeremy Johnson, the co-founder and CEO, said that he believes that the move will extend the talent pool that it can tap to more than 500,000 engineers from the 250,000 that it could reach through its earlier model. To date some 100,000 engineers have applied to and used Andela’s skills training tools (it works in partnership with a number of other tech companies to provide these, including Google, Microsoft and Facebook) and it has connected some 1,000 people to job opportunities.

The news comes on the heels of the company laying off 135 employees in May, with senior employees taking 10%-30% pay-cuts ahead of what the company hinted would be a big change in its business — the news that’s getting announced today. Andela has confirmed that it is not making any more cuts to its staff with today’s news. (It has around 1,200 employees globally.)

We’re seeing a huge shift right now to remote working due to the persistent existence of COVID-19 and the need to keep more social distancing in place, and a byproduct of that has been people actively moving out of expensive tech hubs now that it’s been accepted that being in them isn’t a fundamental requirement to do work.

At the same time, a lot of companies have either slowed down or frozen hiring of full-time employees but are continuing to tap people for project-based work because their businesses are no less in need of talent to operate.

Both of those trends are an endorsement of the model that Andela helped to pioneer with its remote teams concept, and they more pointedly spell opportunity for companies like it that already have networks in place to speak to those demands.

All the same, it’s a major shift for the startup, not least because it’s closing down its physical campuses.

Founded in 2014 out of Lagos, Nigeria, and backed by investors like Generation (Al Gore’s fund), the Omidyar Network, Spark Capital and Chan Zuckerberg Education and valued at $700 million as of its most recent funding round last year, Andela has for the last six years focused on building a network based around the biggest tech hubs on the continent, building physical spaces in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, that helped source, vet and further train talent to become part of remote company teams for some 200 customers, with a large proportion of those in the US, including Cloudflare, Wellio, ViacomCBS, and Women Who Code.

As Andela started to scale that model, starting with a pilot in Ghana in 2018 and a second in Egypt last year, it saw that the more efficient route was to forego the physical hubs completely for virtual ones.

Indeed, Jeremy Johnson, the CEO who co-founded the company with Christina Sass, said that its move was not a direct response to the pandemic per se, although global events have definitely given a fillip to the concept

“What we’ve done historically is go and build campus in each location and in early days that made a ton of sense because that was helpful for training and from an infrastructure standpoint it was what we needed to do,” he said in an interview.

“But as we’ve transitioned to focus more on the breadth and depth of talent and diversity across the continent, we opened satellites in Egypt and Ghana where we didn’t require a campus. It’s actually worked really well and some ways feels like it’s opening opportunities for even greater growth.”

Our own interview was via Zoom, with me in London and Johnson in New Hampshire: Andela’s New York office (where he is normally based) closed for the moment.

“Our headquarters has technically been the internet, but we’ve had a big presence in NYC,” he said referring to its US base. He added that the expansion in Africa using the satellite/remote concept is the limit to how it apply the remote concept, with the question of what will happen in the future to even its US offices still not fully answered.

“We announced a few weeks ago we are going to be a remote-first company overall going forward,” he said. “It lets you think differently about where to live and more. I don’t know what it means longer term but for now we are all living on Zoom.”

While Andela is obviously expanding its talent pool with this move, and potentially giving a huge boost to providing more job opportunities for technology talent on the continent, the interesting next step for all of us will be to see how that connects with the other side of the marketplace — that is, the big tech companies themselves and how much they need to and are willing to invest in growing their own workforces. That is not a minor issue, considering the millions that have been laid off so far in the last few months.

Andela, Johnson said, has no plans to raise more capital at the moment with money in the bank and revenues continuing to come in. Last year, it confirmed that it was on an annual revenue run rate of $50 million, but it’s not updating that figure at the moment.

E-scooter firms get the green light to start trials of up to one year on UK streets

In light of COVID-19 and social distancing regulations, the UK has been working on making it easier for people to get from point A to B in cities without resorting to buses and trains or bringing more cars to congested roads, and today that strategy took an interesting leap forward.

The country’s Department for Transportation today announced that it would start allowing e-scooters, by way of e-scooter rental companies, to legally operate across the country initially in a trial phase starting no later than August. Some 50 councils and other authorities, including across London and other major cities, are working on putting together trials that could run for as long as 12 months.

The regulations come into force on July 4, the DfT said with the first trials expected to begin a week later.

“As we emerge from lockdown, we have a unique opportunity in transport to build back in a greener, more sustainable way that could lead to cleaner air and healthier communities across Great Britain,” said Transport Minister Rachel Maclean in a statement. “E-scooters may offer the potential for convenient, clean and cost-effective travel that may also help ease the burden on the transport network, provide another green alternative to get around and allow for social distancing. The trials will allow us to test whether they do these things.”

There are some restrictions in place: e-scooters will not be able to go faster than 15 miles per hour, and they will only be able to use roads and cycle lanes, not sidewalks or other areas reserved for pedestrians. Users will need a drivers license (full or provisional). The scooters themselves will not need to be registered as vehicles but will need insurance. And as with bicycles, users will be recommended — but not required — to wear helmets.

It seems that privately-owned e-scooters will not be included in the rule relaxation, but it’s not clear what steps regulators will take — if any — to avoid the cluttering that we have seen in some cities overrun with too many dock-less scooters crowding sidewalks.

The list of e-scooter hopefuls is long. From the word go, those that are looking to operate in the UK include Bird, Bolt (the ridesharing startup out of Estonia), Tier, Neuron Mobility, Lime, Voi, and Zipp Mobility.

We’re contacting the DfT with our questions and will update this post as we learn more.

Electric scooters will now join the ranks of other shared transportation options that include bikes and e-bikes, as a complement to mass transit and of course walking or using your own non-autonomotive wheels as an alternative to using cars. E-scooters have been seen both as an alternative for short distances (between 1 and 5 miles) but also as a last-mile solution in combination with 

The news today lifts restrictions that had previously been in place that classified e-scooters as motor vehicles and therefore required the e-scooters to be licensed and taxed, and for operators to have licenses to use them.

Those rules also meant that the e-scooters were illegal to use on sidewalks, with the only exception to all that being legal usage across select (and very limited) campuses on private land.

The moves comes on the heels of a consultation in March to pilot e-scooter use in three regions of the UK, along with a number of other initiatives including e-cargo carriers and using drones to transport medical supplies — the aim being to explore in quick order a number of new technologies to expand transportation options available to consumers, as well as essential businesses and the people who work in them.

The bigger trend has seen other cities also looking to relax rules to improve transportation options to people who wish to socially distance but still need to get around urban areas in ways that are quicker than walking. New York City is also expected to unveil its own roadmap for e-scooter pilots in the near future.

The news made official today had been something of a badly-kept secret, specifically among transportation startups whose businesses have been in a holding pattern waiting for the regulator to ease up on restrictions that had been in place.

Just about all of those startups have been sending out alerts to journalists for over a week now with comments on government’s widely-expected announcements.

“We welcome the DfT’s announcement and are excited to be one step closer to the starting the e-scooter trials,” said Zachary Wang, CEO of Neuron Mobility, in a statement. “We are already in discussions with quite a few councils, as no two towns or cities are the same we look forward to partnering with them to safely introduce e-scooters in a way that best suits their individual needs. COVID-19 has led to a fundamental rethink of the way we travel and e-scooters have the potential to radically improve how we get around our towns and cities. We are delighted that people in the UK will soon be able to benefit from shared e-scooters, they will allow people to continue social distancing while also providing a more efficient travel option than gas-guzzling alternatives.”

Some have been gearing up for the green light for some time.

“We welcome today’s announcement from the Government as it looks to get cities moving again safely and in an environmentally friendly way,” said Roger Hassan, COO of TIER Mobility, in a statement. “We already have more than 1,000 of our industry leading scooters in our UK warehouse, ready to be deployed and we will be shipping more over very soon. Everyone at TIER is looking forward to working with the Government and with local authorities to make e-scooters in the UK a huge success story.”

While there had been restrictions in place before now, I should point out that they were often badly enforced: in London there have always been some private e-scooter owners zooming around alongside bikes and cars on the roads, and I’ve even stopped at red lights on my bike, with an e-scooter on one side of me, and a policeman on the other, and not a word gets exchanged, just a simple shrug of “what can you do?” So decriminalising, as it has done in other industries, will hopefully mean better oversight, alongside better choice for users.

Microsoft to distribute $20M in grants to non-profits, offers free skills training via LinkedIn

The COVID-19 global health pandemic has had an almost immeasurable negative impact on the wider economy. Specifically in the job market, there have been millions of job losses, and in the US alone unemployment numbers like these have not been seen since the Great Depression. Now, tech companies are slowly stepping up to try to address the crisis, and the latest development on that front comes from Microsoft.

The company today announced a wide-ranging, global portal for free skills training for people who are out of work. And alongside that, Microsoft said it plans to disperse $20 million in grants to non-profit organizations, both which are working to help those who have lost jobs due to COVID-19 and subsequent shifts in the economy, and with a specific emphasis on those that are working with groups that are underrepresented in the tech world.

The move comes as we are seeing other tech companies try to make their own efforts to leverage their platforms to provide their own versions of relief efforts connected to COVID-19. Google has built special portals to keep people informed on local, national and global progress of COVID-19 and related news. Facebook has also built an information portal and has also created an avenue for people to offer volunteering help to those in need specifically in their community.

The money that Microsoft will be granting to non-profits is aimed at a wide swathe of organizations, not just those focused on helping groups learn new skills, but just those helping specific groups. Those that Microsoft already works with include Trust for the Americas, Fondazione Mundo Digitale in Italy, the Nasscom Foundation in India,  Tech4Dev across Africa, NPower in Canada, and the National Urban League aimed at long-term unemployed and African Americans, and Skillful.

The education and training news, meanwhile, is interesting not only because of the push that Microsoft is trying to make by leveraging the assets that it already has, but that it’s doing so in tandem with LinkedIn, the social network and professional education platform it acquired for $26.2 billion in 2016. Even though they are the same company, it’s often the case that you see less collaboration between the two than you might think would exist, but this seems to be a shift from that position.

Microsoft notes that using data from LinkedIn, it identified 10 specific tech jobs that are in particular demand right now and will continue to be in demand, offer a livable wage, and require skills that can be learned online if you don’t already have them. They are software developer, sales rep, project manager, IT admin, customer services rep, digital marketer, IT support, data analyst, financial analyst and graphic designer.

LinkedIn has designed “Learning Paths” that it offers through its online education portal for these jobs, and these will now be available to everyone free to use, globally, until the end of March 2021, in English, French, Spanish and German, with content getting updated in the tracks as needed. Alongside these, Microsoft Learn is offering supplemental technical content to these Paths, and Microsoft is also making GitHub’s Learning Lab free to practice if you’re learning software developer skills.

Alongside these, Microsoft is also giving a push to so-called “soft skills” that complement hunting for a job at the moment, including tips on looking for a job right now, learning “critical” soft skills, more on the concept and meaning of digital transformation, and a learning track focused on diversity, inclusion and allyship.

You can look at a list of all the content available and ultimately relevant jobs on LinkedIn’s purpose-built portal.

In addition to the online learning efforts, LinkedIn is also launching a separate track for those who want to either leverage LinkedIn to get spotted more easily for job opportunities, and for those who want to volunteer to help others, to offer advice and mentorship for those looking for work, or get more training to get through interviews. For those who want to signal their job seeking, they can now add an “OpenToWork” frame on their profile pictures, which links to a separate banner that runs under your profile picture which lets people see what kinds of jobs you would like to consider.

The offer to help is not unlike LinkedIn’s efforts at cultivating a mentorship program: the idea is that there are people who have the time and desire to use their skills to help others than just themselves and the companies they work for. As with the mentoring, those interested can indicate what they would like to do — making introductions, resume help or just providing advice.

LinkedIn’s interview preparations, meanwhile, are another step into working closer with Microsoft: LinkedIn’s built a set of tools that uses Microsoft’s AI platform for feedback throughout the training.