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September 24, 2018
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Managing the music business from a mobile phone, Jammber is making the industry sing

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The music business is littered with stories about songwriters or studio contributors and session musicians who never get the credit — or money — they’re often due for their work on hit songs.

And for every storied session musician in “The Wrecking Crew” there are perhaps hundreds of other contributors who aren’t getting their just desserts.

That’s where Jammber comes in. The five-year-old company co-founded by serial entrepreneur Marcus Cobb has developed a suite of tools to manage everything from songwriting credits and rights management to ticketing and touring all from a group of apps on a mobile phone. And has just raised $2.4 million in funding to take those tools to a broader market.

Jammber “Muse” gives collaborators a single platform to exchange lyrics and song ideas, while the company’s “Splits” app tracks ownership and credits of any eventual product from a collaboration. The company’s nStudio tracks songwriting credits to assist with chart and Grammy submission — through a partnership with Nielsen Music — and its “PinPoint” helps organize touring. The recording applications even have a presence feature so session musicians, songwriters and artists can actually be tagged in the studio while they’re working. 

“I think we need to get attribution and monetization closer to the creators,” Cobb has said. “Why aren’t we doing that? The industry is growing and thriving. Are we making sure that performers and creators of all different tiers are being equally compensated?”

The answer, sadly, for many in the music industry is no. In fact, while Cobb had originally set out to make a networking tool for creatives with Jammber he wound up shifting the service to the management toolkit after visiting the offices of a music label.

Jammber chief executive Marcus Cobb

“I saw stacks and stacks of payroll checks that were returned to sender,” Cobb, told Crain’s Chicago Business. “These checks were taking three months to two years to print, and they were wrong addresses, or there were stage names instead of legal names.”

That experience convinced Cobb of the demand, but it was Nashville that gave the serial entrepreneur the crucible within which to develop the full suite of tools that now make up Jammber’s soup-to-nuts platform.

Cobb likes to say that Jammber was conceived in Chicago (where the company spun up from the city’s massively influential 1871 entrepreneurship center) and born in Nashville — the home of the multi-billion dollar American country music industry. All of the tools in Jammber, Cobb says, were created with input from a local musician, producer, artist and repertoire person or a label executive.

In 2015, the company came down to Nashville as part of the first batch of companies in Project Music, a joint venture between the Country Music Association and the Nashville Entrepreneur Center meant to encourage the development of technology for the music industry.

For the 41-year-old Cobb, programming and entrepreneurship has literally been a life saver. Growing up in Texas and Nevada with an abusive, drug-addicted stepfather took a toll on Cobb and programming became an outlet — thanks to a particularly well-equipped computer lab at his high school. “I had moved 24 times,” Cobb said in an interview. “My stepfather was a full-blown crack addict. He would disappear with money; we got evicted a lot.”

But the experience with computers led to an early job out of high school, which launched Cobb’s tech career. He sold his first company, Eido Software in 2007 a year after launching it and has used that money to pursue other endeavors.

And while Cobb is a gifted programmer, that’s not his only interest. His next big foray into business was as the owner and lead designer of Marc Wayne Intimates, a boutique lingerie company that also provided the business-savvy Cobb with his first window into the music business — outfitting dancers in music videos for artists like Pitbull.

Cobb has invested $300,000 of his own money into Jammber and raised roughly $400,000 in early seed funding. The $2.3 million that the company raised in its most recent round came from a who’s who of music executives including former Sony Nashville, chief executive Joe Galante; Hootie and the Blowfish manager Clarence Spalding; and Kings of Leon manager Ken Levitan.

These investors know the tension at the heart of the music business better than anyone, Cobb says. Which is that the creative act of making music can often be at odds with the mundanity of organizing and running an effective business to ensure that the music getting made is actually heard by an audience that then pays the musician for their work.

“The irony about making a living in a copyright industry like the music industry is you have to be very organized to make money in a timely manner or even get credit for your work,” said Cobb. “Over 40% of the money creators are owed is tied up by bad or wrong data because it’s very difficult to be organized while you create. These tools finally change that.”

Jammber’s services are currently in a closed, invite-only beta that will be capped at 10,000 users. There’s a basic set of services that will be available for free, with pricing for “unlimited” access to the toolkit starting at $10 per month. In addition to the applications, the company also has an online platform that integrates with the mobile suite. Pricing for that service starts at $25 per month.

“This is an ecosystem play for us. I’ve been in software for a long time and the realization for me is that it’s not just mobile-first or cloud-first anymore, it’s simplicity-first. Independent artists and record labels generated $5.2 billionin revenues last year and the sector continues to grow — all while largely using paper and spreadsheets for their back office tools,” said Cobb. “This is a massive, underserved market and we believe we’ve figured out how to provide the value they’ve been waiting for.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Startups should read this checklist before they go “whale hunting” for big partners

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A top four tech company recently approached the CEO of one of our B2B portfolio companies with a tremendous offer. This company, with buy-in from its world-famous CEO, believes the startup’s core technology could help them catch up to a rival in an incredibly important space and wanted to discuss a $20M investment on extremely favorable terms. This partnership would allow the startup to grow 10X in a year and would provide invaluable validation.

The founder was elated. I was terrified. This kind of deal is a classic “whale hunt,” and most of the startups who engage in them are doomed to end up like Captain Ahab.

While it’s immensely gratifying to receive this kind of validation from a market leader, the startup is at an early and important developmental stage. I’ve seen many promising startups blown up by ill-advised business development deals that swelled teams in a bout of euphoria only to see them wither if interest and focus from their partner wanes.

In my experience, arrangements that pair a behemoth megacorp with a Seed/Series A stage startup have a success rate well below 50%. I didn’t tell the founder to decline the offer outright, but I did suggest that the management team consider a few questions before pursuing it.

How much MRR will it add to your business? The project with the large company is in line with the startup’s long-term vision, but it’s a departure from their current focus. A $20M investment is very nice indeed, but once that money is spent, what will the ongoing revenue be? And what is the opportunity cost of not supporting the current business plan? What discount rate will you apply to compensate for the small probability of this deal working out? My advice was that if he couldn’t satisfactorily answer those questions, it was probably the right move to turn the deal down. Even if the deal was structured as $20M in revenue rather than equity I’d hesitate.

How, in detail, will this project help your core business? There’s an argument for entering into an agreement like this even if the immediate revenue contribution is low. If the project will allow the startup to speed up the development of a core technology that is generally applicable to other customers, it would seem far more worthy of consideration but beware our human ability to rationalize (first and foremost to ourselves).

These projects more often end up as bespoke development engagements where despite the initial intention, the startup is producing a custom application for the big co. Founders will rationalize the deviations from their product roadmap, but ultimately sell out their future for a long-shot opportunity to integrate with a worldwide leader.

My advice is to not think magically about product/market fit, and instead, to try pre-selling it to other customers as a form of market development. If you can sell the product, great! If not, you’re probably using venture capital to subsidize the R&D budget of a company worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

What happens if this doesn’t work out? It’s easy to visualize success, but what happens if the deal doesn’t lead anywhere? In this scenario, imagine the big tech company decides to change its priorities and abandons the initiative. SaaS startups face a similar failure mode when they go to great lengths to impress big companies during pilot programs only to see their project die due to lack of interest. When considering a high-risk, high-reward partnership, founders need to spend time envisioning a gruesome demise.

● What will your pitch be for a bridge round of financing when you have no revenue, you just came up short during a prolonged engagement with the best possible customer in your industry?

● How will you reassure your most talented team members that you know what you’re doing when the deal fails, and capital is running short?

● How quickly can you reorient the company to focus on other customers and how quickly will you start generating revenue from them?

Image courtesy of Flickr/Felipe Campos

How well do you understand the Big Company? Founders with little exposure to big companies are susceptible to misreading cues. My partner Eric Paley wrote about how entrepreneurs regularly misread their likelihood of getting funding from VCs, and the pattern is similar with this kind of business development deal.

When I started an ISP in South Africa in the 1990s, I had the chance to pitch the executive team at the country’s equivalent to Walmart . We were talking about the upcoming Olympic Games, which they were sponsoring. I asked if they were bringing their biggest customers to the events. One of the VPs looked at me, bewildered, and said: “Your mother may well be our biggest customer.”

I instantly realized they didn’t have big customers; they were a big customer. Their suppliers took them to the Games and fancy dinners. I felt silly at the moment but learned a valuable lesson about B2B power dynamics. Here are some other dynamics to be cautious of:

Are You Aware of the Work Pace Differential?

Startups measure their survival quarter to quarter while big companies plan in five-year increments. It’s often shocking how slowly big company partners move on everything from email to product roll-outs. Decisions made by gut feel at startups have to navigate a maze of meetings and committees at a big company. Startups often drown in the number of process leviathans require to make the smallest of improvements.

Who are the Internal Champions?

Promising projects can die on the vine because the internal champion gets reassigned or leaves the company. Successful partnerships will involve multiple high-level people from the larger organization. They also typically involve the startup being paid a fair market rate or are paired with a strategic investment to help defray the burden of non-recurring expenses. If not, beware.

Most sponsors will say their project is critical to the company, but it’s the startups CEO’s job to check that out. Founders should reference the opportunity in the same way they would reference an investor. This kind of deal is often an all or nothing bet on your company, don’t make it too blithely.

Is the Project a Priority for the CXO/VP?

Partnerships between startups and big companies work best when it solves the problem of a VP or CXO level executive. Below that level, we’ve seen startups spend large sums and risk their future on what amounts to a proof of concept project for a mid-level director with no real juice.

This is especially common with startups who sell to retailers. Theoretically, the brick and mortar shops need a bulwark against Amazon, but in reality, we’ve seen many of them default to more focused on protecting their physical retail turf rather than truly investing in online sales. They’ll run pilots to assure investors that they have their eye on the future when in reality the efforts are more PR than a business plan.

Do you Understand Big Company Logic?

A $20M investment to a small startup is a massive deal. For a big company, it’s essentially the size of an acquihire and can be shut down with no repercussions. In the context of a half-billion dollar company, $20M bets actually fail far more than a startup may appreciate.

Are you competing with another startup?

Is this project a “bake-off” where multiple companies are competing? The most dangerous kind of whale hunting is when a startup is competing with one or more competitors to win a large book of business. Founders considering this kind of arrangement should give serious thought to skipping the process and building out a less concentrated revenue base with fewer impediments while your competitors fight to the death.

Do you have a deep bench of vetted candidates ready to be hired? Founders often underestimate the challenge of growing 3-5X in short order. Every successful startup has to do this, but it usually happens more organically over time. The kind of business development deal our portfolio CEO is considering will change the company overnight.

Entrepreneurs need to ask if they have a long list of former co-workers, peers, vetted candidates eager to join their company? If not, massively scaling the company to meet the demands of a major partner will likely lead to sub-par hires to fill an urgent need while slowly poisoning the company’s culture. Money is rarely the most challenging part of hiring. Hiring fast when you control your destiny is hard enough, doing so in an uncertain arrangement can be very detrimental.

Beyond hiring, it’s important to view a partnership through the lens of Activity Based Costing.

How much time will this take up? 50%? 80%? More? Will you have to drop existing customers or products to make the project work? Are you still able to grow the business outside of this partnership or is it genuinely all-consuming?

Are You Ready for the Hunt?

If you can answer these questions confidently, then you may be ready to go whale hunting. When these projects work, they can be the first domino in a cascade that leads to growth and good places. More often, it results in a startup spending a year and a large chunk of its capital on a high-risk business development deal that more often fails to pan out. Chart your course accordingly.

News Source = techcrunch.com

AI training and social network content moderation services bring TaskUs a $250 million windfall

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TaskUs, the business process outsourcing service that moderates content, annotates information and handles back office customer support for some of the world’s largest tech companies, has raised $250 million in an investment from funds managed by the New York-based private equity giant, Blackstone Group.

It’s been ten years since TaskUs was founded with a $20,000 investment from its two co-founders, and the new deal, which values the decade-old company at $500 million before the money even comes in, is proof of how much has changed for the service in the years since it was founded.

The Santa Monica-based company, which began as a browser-based virtual assistant company — “You send us a task and we get the task done,” recalled TaskUs chief executive Bryce Maddock — is now one of the main providers in the growing field of content moderation for social networks and content annotation for training the algorithms that power artificial intelligence services around the world.

“What I can tell you is we do content moderation for almost every major social network and it’s the fastest growing part of our business today,” Maddock said.

From a network of offices spanning the globe from Mexico to Taiwan and the Philippines to the U.S., the thirty two year-old co-founders Maddock and Jaspar Weir have created a business that’s largest growth stems from snuffing out the distribution of snuff films; child pornography; inappropriate political content and the trails of human trafficking from the user and advertiser generated content on some of the world’s largest social networks.

(For a glimpse into how horrific that process can be, take a look at this article from Wiredwhich looked at content moderation for the anonymous messaging service, Whisper.)

Maddock estimates that while the vast majority of the business was outsourcing business process services in the company’s early days (whether that was transcribing voice mails to texts for the messaging service PhoneTag, or providing customer service and support for companies like HotelTonight) now about 40% of the business comes from content moderation.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

Indeed, it was the growth in new technology services that attracted Blackstone to the business, according to Amit Dixit, Senior Managing Director at Blackstone.

“The growth in ride sharing, social media, online food delivery, e-commerce and autonomous driving is creating an enormous need for enabling business services,” said Dixit in a statement. “TaskUs has established a leadership position in this domain with its base of marquee customers, unique culture, and relentless focus on customer delivery.”

While the back office business processing services remain the majority of the company’s revenue, Maddock knows that the future belongs to an increasing automation of the company’s core services. That’s why part of the money is going to be invested in a new technology integration and consulting business that advises tech companies on which new automation tools to deploy, along with shoring up the company’s position as perhaps the best employer to work for in the world of content moderation and algorithm training services.

It’s been a long five year journey to get to the place it’s in now, with glowing reviews from employees on Glassdoor and social networks like Facebook, Maddock said. The company pays well above minimum wage in the market it operates in (Maddock estimates at least a 50% premium); and provides a generous package of benefits for what Maddock calls the “frontline” teammates. That includes perks like educational scholarships for one child of employees that have been with the company longer than one year; healthcare plans for the employee and three beneficiaries in the Philippines; and 120 days of maternity leave.

And, as content moderation is becoming more automated, the TaskUs employees are spending less time in the human cesspool that attempts to flood social networks every day.

“Increasingly the work that we’re doing is more nuanced. Does this advertisement have political intent. That type of work is far more engaging and could be seen to be a little bit less taxing,” Maddock said.

But he doesn’t deny that the bulk of the hard work his employees are tasked with is identifying and filtering the excremental trash that people would post online.

“I do think that the work is absolutely necessary. The alternative is that everybody has to look at this stuff. it has to be done in a way thats thoughtful and puts the interests of the people who are on the frontlines at the forefront of that effort,” says Maddock. “There have been multiple people who have been involved in sex trafficking, human trafficking and pedophilia that have been arrested directly because of the work that TaskUs is doing. And the consequence of someone not doing that is a far far worse world.”

Maddock also said that TaskUs now shields its employees from having to perform content moderation for an entire shift. “What we have tried to do universally is that there is a subject matter rotation so that you are not just sitting and doing that work all day.”

And the company’s executive knows how taxing the work can be because he said he does it himself. “I try to spend a day a quarter doing the work of our frontline teammates. I spend half my time in our offices,” Maddock said.

Now, with the new investment, TaskUs is looking to expand into additional markets in the UK, Europe, India, and Latin America, Maddock said.

“So far all we’ve been doing is hiring as fast as we possibly can,” said Maddock. “At some point in the future, there’s going to be a point when companies like ours will see the effects of automation,” he added, but that’s why the company is investing in the consulting business… so it can stay ahead of the trends in automation.

Even with the threat that automation could pose to the company’s business, TaskUs had no shortage of other suitors for the massive growth equity round, according to one person familiar with the company. Indeed, Goldman Sachs and Softbank were among the other bidders for a piece of TaskUs, the source said.

Currently, the company has over 11,000 employees (including 2,000 in the U.S.) and is looking to expand.

“We chose to partner with Blackstone because they have a track record of building category defining businesses. Our goal is to build TaskUs into the world’s number one provider of tech enabled business services.  This partnership will help us dramatically increase our investment in consulting, technology and innovation to support our customer’s efforts to streamline and refine their customer experience,” said Maddock in a statement.

The transaction is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2018, subject to regulatory approvals and customary closing conditions.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Your vegetables are going to be picked by robots sooner than you think

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In the very near future, robots are going to be picking the vegetables that appear on grocery store shelves across America.

The automation revolution that’s arrived on the factory floor will make its way to the ag industry in the U.S. and its first stop will likely be the indoor farms that are now dotting the U.S.

Leading the charge in this robot revolution will be companies like Root AI, a young startup which has just raised $2.3 million to bring its first line of robotic harvesting and farm optimization technologies to market.

Root AI is focused on the 2.3 million square feet of indoor farms that currently exist in the world and is hoping to expand as the number of farms cultivating crops indoors increases. Some estimates from analysis firms like Agrilyst put the planned expansions in indoor farming at around 22 million square feet (much of that in the U.S.).

While that only amounts to roughly 505 acres of land — a fraction of the 900 million acres of farmland that’s currently cultivated in the U.S. — those indoor farms offer huge yield advantages over traditional farms with a much lower footprint in terms of resources used. The average yield per acre in indoor farms for vine crops like tomatoes, and leafy greens, is over ten times higher than outdoor farms.

Root AI’s executive team thinks their company can bring those yields even higher.

Founded by two rising stars of the robotics industry, the 36 year old Josh Lessing and 28 year old Ryan Knopf, Root is an extension of work the two men had done as early employees at Soft Robotics, the company pioneering new technologies for robotic handling.

Spun out of research conducted by Harvard professor George Whiteside, the team at Soft Robotics was primarily comprised of technologists who had spent years developing robots after having no formal training in robot development. Knopf, a lifetime roboticist who studied at the University of Pennsylvania was one of the sole employees with a traditional robotics background.

“We were the very first two people at Soft developing the core technology there,” says Lessing. “The technology is being used for heavily in the food industry. What you would buy a soft gripper for is… making a delicate food gripper very easy to deploy that would help you maintain food quality with a mechanical design that was extremely easy to manage. Like inflatable fingers that could grab things.”

Root AI co-founders Josh Lessing and Ryan Knopf

It was radically different from the ways in which other robotics companies were approaching the very tricky problem of replicating the dexterity of the human hand. “From the perspective of conventional robotics, we were doing everything wrong and we would never be able to do what a conventional robot was capable of. We ended up creating adaptive gripping with these new constructs,” Lessing said.

While Soft Robotics continues to do revolutionary work, both Knopf and Lessing saw an opportunity to apply their knowledge to an area where it was sorely needed — farming. “Ag is facing a lot of complicated challenges and at the same time we have a need for much much more food,” Lessing said. “And a lot of the big challenges in ag these days are out in the field, not in the packaging and processing facilities. So Ryan and I started building this new thesis around how we could make artificial intelligence helpful to growers.”

The first product from Root AI is a mobile robot that operates in indoor farming facilities. It picks tomatoes and is able to look at crops and assess their health, and conduct simple operations like pruning vines and observing and controlling ripening profiles so that the robot can cultivate crops (initially tomatoes) continuously and more effectively than people.

Root AI’s robots have multiple cameras (one on the arm of the robot itself, the “tool’s” view, and one sitting to the side of the robot with a fixed reference frame) to collect both color images and 3D depth information. The company has also developed a customized convolutional neural network to detect objects of interest and label them with bounding boxes. Beyond the location of the fruit, Root AI uses other, proprietary, vision processing techniques to measure properties of fruit (like ripeness, size, and quality grading).  All of this is done on the robot, without relying on remote access to a data-center. And it’s all done in real time.

Tools like these robots are increasingly helpful, as the founders of Root note, because there’s an increasing labor shortage for both indoor and outdoor farming in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the mounting pressures on the farm industry increasingly make robotically assisted indoor farming a more viable option for production. Continuing population growth and the reduction of arable land resulting from climate change mean that indoor farms, which can produce as much as twenty times as much fruit and vegetables per square foot while using up to 90% less water become extremely attractive.

Suppliers like Howling Farms, Mucci Farms, Del Fresco Produce and Naturefresh are already producing a number of fruits and vegetables for consumers, said Lessing. “They’ve really fine tuned agriculture production in ways that are meaningful to broader society. They are much more sustainable and they allow you to collocate farms with urban areas [and] they have a much more simplified logistics network.”

That ability to pare down complexity and cost in a logistics supply chain is a boon to retailers like Walmart and Whole Foods that are competing to provide fresher, longer lasting produce to consumers, Lessing said. Investors, apparently agreed. Root AI was able to enlist firms like First Round CapitalAccompliceSchematic Ventures, Liquid2 Ventures and Half Court Ventures to back its $2.3 million round.

“There are many many roles at the farm and we’re looking to supplement in all areas,” said Lessing. “Right now we’re doing a lot of technology experiments with a couple of different growers. assessment of ripeness and grippers ability to grab the tomatoes. next year we’re going to be doing the pilots.”

And as global warming intensifies pressures on food production, Lessing sees demand for his technologies growing.

“On a personal level I have concerns about how much food we’re going to have and where we can make it,” Lessing said. “Indoor farming is focused on making food anywhere. if you control your environment you have the ability to make food…. Satisfying people’s basic needs is one of the most impactful things i can do with my life.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Glasswing Ventures closes its artificial intelligence-focused fund with $112 million

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One year after receiving a whopping $75 million commitment to invest in early stage companies applying artificial intelligence to various industries, Glasswing Ventures has closed its debut fund with $112 million. 

It’s a significant milestone for a firm that purports to be the largest early stage investor focused on machine learning on the East Coast, and one of the largest early stage funds to be led by women.

Founded by Rudina Seseri alongside her longtime investing partner Rick Grinnell and bolstered by the addition of former portfolio executive Sarah Fay, Glasswing so far has invested in three startups: BotChain (a company spun up from Glasswing’s early investment in the AI management company, Talla); Allure Security, a threat detection company; and Terbium Labs, whose service alerts companies when sensitive or stolen information of theirs appears on the Internet.

For Seseri and Glasswing, the close is actually just the beginning. As she said in a statement:

“Raising an AI-focused fund on the East Coast is just the beginning for Glasswing Ventures. As we embark on a journey to shape the future, we are laser-focused on investing in exceptional founders who leverage AI to build disruptive companies and transform markets. Beyond providing smart capital, we are firmly committed to supporting our entrepreneurs with all facets of building and scaling their businesses.”

The story, for Seseri and her co-founder Grinnell actually begins nearly a decade ago at the venture firm Fairhaven Capital, the rebranded investment arm of the TD Bank Group.

At the time of the firm’s launch in 2016, Glasswing was targeting $150 million for its first fund, with a 2.5% management fee and 20% carried interest (pretty standard terms for a venture fund), according to reporting by Dan Primack back when he was at Fortune.

In a pitchdeck seen by Primack the firm was touting 4.25x return multiple on its investments including 6x realized and 1.8x unrealized in deals like Grinnell’s exit from EqualLogic (which was sold to Dell for $1.46 billion) and Seseri’s investments in Jibo (which is now basically worthless) and SocialFlow (which isn’t).

Fay, who worked at a portfolio investment of Fairhaven’s, was brought on soon after the two partners launched their new venture.

Glasswing definitely benefits from the firm’s proximity to Boston’s stellar universities. And Seseri, a Harvard University graduate maintains close ties with the research community at both Harvard and MIT — tapping luminaries like Tim Berners-Lee to sit on the firm’s advisory council for networking. 

Chase Martin, Marketing and Events Manager, Emma Marty, Operations and Support Coordinator, Rick Grinnell, Founder and Managing Partner, Rudina Seseri, Founder and Managing Partner, Sarah Fay, Managing Director, and Andre Rocha, Investment Associate 

News Source = techcrunch.com

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