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Facebook has acquired Servicefriend, which builds ‘hybrid’ chatbots, for Calibra customer service

As Facebook prepares to launch its new cryptocurrency Libra in 2020, it’s putting the pieces in place to help it run. In one of the latest developments, it has acquired Servicefriend, a startup that built bots — chat clients for messaging apps based on artificial intelligence — to help customer service teams, TechCrunch has confirmed.

The news was first reported in Israel, where Servicefriend is based, after one of its investors, Roberto Singler, alerted local publication The Marker about the deal. We reached out to Ido Arad, one of the co-founders of the company, who referred our questions to a team at Facebook. Facebook then confirmed the acquisition with an Apple-like non-specific statement:

“We acquire smaller tech companies from time to time. We don’t always discuss our plans,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

Several people, including Arad, his co-founder Shahar Ben Ami, and at least one other indicate that they now work at Facebook within the Calibra digital wallet group on their LinkedIn profiles. Their jobs at the social network started this month, meaning this acquisition closed in recent weeks. (Several others indicate that they are still at Servicefriend, meaning they too may have likely made the move as well.)

Although Facebook isn’t specifying what they will be working on, the most obvious area will be in building a bot — or more likely, a network of bots — for the customer service layer for the Calibra digital wallet that Facebook is developing.

Facebook’s plan is to build a range of financial services for people to use Calibra to pay out and receive Libra — for example, to send money to contacts, pay bills, top up their phones, buy things and more.

It remains to be seen just how much people will trust Facebook as a provider of all these. So that is where having “human” and accessible customer service experience will be essential.

“We are here for you,” Calibra notes on its welcome page, where it promises 24-7 support in WhatsApp and Messenger for its users.

Screenshot 2019 09 21 at 23.25.18

Servicefriend has worked on Facebook’s platform in the past: specifically it built “hybrid” bots for Messenger for companies to use to complement teams of humans, to better scale their services on messaging platforms. In one Messenger bot that Servicefriend built for Globe Telecom in the Philippines, it noted that the hybrid bot was able to bring the “agent hours” down to under 20 hours for each 1,000 customer interactions.

Bots have been a relatively problematic area for Facebook. The company launched a personal assistant called M in 2015, and then bots that let users talk to businesses in 2016 on Messenger, with quite some fanfare, although the reality was that nothing really worked as well as promised, and in some cases worked significantly worse than whatever services they aimed to replace.

While AI-based assistants such as Alexa have become synonymous with how a computer can carry on a conversation and provide information to humans, the consensus around bots these days is that the most workable way forward is to build services that complement, rather than completely replace, teams.

For Facebook, getting its customer service on Calibra right can help it build and expand its credibility (note: another area where Servicefriend has build services is in using customer service as a marketing channel). Getting it wrong could mean issues not just with customers, but with partners and possibly regulators.

Cloudflare co-founder Michelle Zatlyn on the company’s IPO today, its unique dual class structure, and what’s next

Shares of Cloudflare rose 20% today in its first day of trading on the public market, opening trading at $18 after it priced its IPO at $15 a share yesterday and holding steady through the day.

Put another way, the performance of the nine-year-old company — which provides cloud-based network services to enterprises — was relatively undramatic as these things go. That’s a good thing, given that first-day “pops” often signal that a company has left money on the table. Indeed, Cloudflare had initially indicated that its shares would be priced between $10 and $12, before adjusting the price upward, which suggests its underwriters, led by Goldman Sachs, fairly accurately gauged demand for the offering.

Of course, it was still a very big day for Cloudlfare’s 1,069 employees and especially for Cloudflare’s founders Matthew Prince, its CEO, and Michelle Zatlyn, its COO. We talked with Zatlyn today in the hours after the duo rang the opening bell to ask about the experience, and how the IPO impacts the company going forward. Our chat has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: Thanks for making time for us on a busy day.

MZ: Of course! [TechCrunch’s] Battlefield [competition, in which Cloudflare competed in 2011] is such an integral part of our funding story. Thank you for giving us the stage to launch our company.

TC: Did you get any sleep last night?

MZ: I was so exhausted that I got a great night’s sleep. This whole process has been so incredible, so special. I didn’t know what to expect, and it’s been way better than I could have imagined. There are 150 of our teammates, early employees, family members, board members, champions and other friends here with us [in New York at the NYSE]. We also live-streamed [our debut] to our offices around the world so they could share this moment with us.

TC: How are you feeling about today? The stock is up 20%. There’s always banter afterward about whether a listing was priced right, whether any money was left on the table.

MZ: At this point, we’ve raised almost a billion dollars between today and all of the money we’ve raised from venture investors. We have a great team. We’re really happy. The markets are going to react how they react, but it’s part of our DNA to provide more value than we capture. We think that’s the way to build an enduring company.

TC: You have a liquid currency now. Do you imagine Cloudflare might become more acquisitive as a public company?

MZ: We’ve done some acquisitions on the smaller side and of course, we have a team that’s always looking at different opportunities. But we’re really engineering-driven, and we think we have many products and services left to build, so we’ll continue to invest in our products and in R&D development, as well as in our customer relationships.

TC: Retaining employees is a challenge that some newly public companies worry about. How will you address this in the coming days and months as lock-up periods expire?

MZ: I’m so proud of where we are today and of our whole team, and we’re just getting started. [Matthew and I will] show up Monday morning and get back to work and so will our employees, because they want to make the company [an even greater business].

TC: The company went public with a dual-class structure that gives not just management but all employees 10 times the voting rights of the shares sold to the public. Why was this structure important to Cloudflare, and did it give investors pause?

MZ: There are more than 1,000 people around the world who are building the product and working with customers, and we think it’s important for them to have that 10:1 structure, so it’s something we put in place a few years ago with the encouragement of some of our earlier investors.

TC: Were you modeling this after another company? Is there a precedent for it?

MZ: I don’t know of another one — there may be — but we weren’t inspired by another company. We just felt passionately about this being the right corporate structure and [I don’t think it was harder for us to tell the story of Cloudflare because of it]. Over the last two weeks, in talking with investors across the world, it wasn’t in the top 10 topics that came up, so I think we did a good job of describing it in our S-1.

TC: What was the roadshow like? What surprised you most?

MZ: Don’t get me wrong, there’s a ton of work involved from all kinds of people, in finance, our legal teams … But roadshows have a bad rap in that people think they’re grueling and that, by the end, you’ll be exhausted. That was my expectation. But it was really fun. It was a huge privilege to represent Cloudflare to all these investors who were incredibly smart and well-prepared. We traveled all over and people told us ‘You look better than most teams.’

Michelle Zatlyn

TC: Where does one go for these roadshows?

MZ: You have the usual suspects; there’s a travel roadshow circuit, with some variations based on people’s vacation schedules, but New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Baltimore is common, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Toronto. You go in person to some places and in others, people dial in. But the whole thing gave me new insight into these pools of capital after venture capital. It was really interesting.

TC: Cloudflare said in a recent amendment to its S-1 that it was in touch with the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control back in May after determining that its products were used by individuals and entities that have been blacklisted by the U.S. Did this new revelation slow anything down?

MZ: There was no impact. Your group of advisors expands when you go through a public offering, and lawyers dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t,’ and you become a better company for it.

We deliver cybersecurity solutions that are made broadly available to businesses, entrepreneurs and nonprofits, and that’s incredible, but there are also some unsavory actors online, and we’ve always been a transparent organization [about having to grapple with this].

TC: How will Cloudflare handle requests for service by embargoed and restricted entities going forward? As a public company, does that process change in any way?

MZ: We have a really good process today. I think people think that we let anyone use Cloudflare and that’s it. But if customers are breaking the law, we remove them from our network and that’s not new and we publish transparency reports on it.

Sometimes, [you’re confronting] things that aren’t illegal but they’re gross, and the question is whose job is it to take it offline. But I work with some of the smartest minds on this and we try to be very transparent about how we figure this out. The conversation is so much better than it was a few years ago, too, with policy makers and academics and the business community engaging on this. People around the world are talking about where the lines can be drawn, but these are tricky, heady conversations.

TC: They certainly put Cloudflare in a precarious spot sometimes, as when the company banned the internet forum 8chan earlier this year after it was learned that the site was used by a gunman to post an anti-immigration rant. Can we expect that Cloudflare will continue to make decisions like this on a case-by-case basis?

MZ: Freedom of speech is such a fundamental part of this nation. Citizens should want the lawmakers to decide what the law should be, and if lawmakers could do this, it would be much better. On the other side, these are new issues that are arising so we shouldn’t rush. Lots of opinions need to be weighed and conversations are much further along than they once were, but there’s still work to be done, and Cloudflare is one [participant] in a much broader conversation.

Pivotal CEO talks IPO and balancing life in Dell family of companies

Pivotal has kind of a strange role for a company. On one hand its part of the EMC federation companies that Dell acquired in 2016 for a cool $67 billion, but it’s also an independently operated entity within that broader Dell family of companies — and that has to be a fine line to walk.

Whatever the challenges, the company went public yesterday and joined VMware as a  separately traded company within Dell. CEO Rob Mee says the company took the step of IPOing because it wanted additional capital.

“I think we can definitely use the capital to invest in marketing and R&D. The wider technology ecosystem is moving quickly. It does take additional investment to keep up,” Mee told TechCrunch just a few hours after his company rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

As for that relationship of being a Dell company, he said that Michael Dell let him know early on after the EMC acquisition that he understood the company’s position. “From the time Dell acquired EMC, Michael was clear with me: You run the company. I’m just here to help. Dell is our largest shareholder, but we run independently. There have been opportunities to test that [since the acquisition] and it has held true,” Mee said.

Mee says that independence is essential because Pivotal has to remain technology-agnostic and it can’t favor Dell products and services over that mission. “It’s necessary because our core product is a cloud-agnostic platform. Our core value proposition is independence from any provider — and Dell and VMware are infrastructure providers,” he said.

That said, Mee also can play both sides because he can build products and services that do align with Dell and VMware offerings. “Certainly the companies inside the Dell family are customers of ours. Michael Dell has encouraged the IT group to adopt our methods and they are doing so,” he said. They have also started working more closely with VMware, announcing a container partnership last year.

Photo: Ron Miller

Overall though he sees his company’s mission in much broader terms, doing nothing less than helping the world’s largest companies transform their organizations. “Our mission is to transform how the world builds software. We are focused on the largest organizations in the world. What is a tailwind for us is that the reality is these large companies are at a tipping point of adopting how they digitize and develop software for strategic advantage,” Mee said.

The stock closed up 5 percent last night, but Mee says this isn’t about a single day. “We do very much focus on the long term. We have been executing to a quarterly cadence and have behaved like a public company inside Pivotal [even before the IPO]. We know how to do that while keeping an eye on the long term,” he said.