Intercom, a startup promising to help online businesses to communicate with their customers in a more personalized way, has raised a $6 million Series A.
I wrote about the company last month, when Facebook’s Paul Adams joined Intercom as its new head of product design. At the time, Adams told me that Intercom’s work matches his own belief that businesses’ interactions with customers have to become more personal and relationship-based.
CEO Eoghan McCabe offered a similar vision this week. “Loyalty is magic,” he argued, recalling that the the personal service he received at a friend’s chain of coffee shops meant that he’d walk past competing shops and invite friends to this one.
“It became kind of clear to me that on the web, you don’t really have those relationships,” he said, aside from “a few little outliers like Zappos who have invested heavily in great service.”
In order to enable those kinds of relationships, McCabe said Intercom has a a couple of key features. For one thing, he said that businesses usually have to “stitch together” products to to run an online help desk, email marketing, customer relationship management, and marketing automation. That’s a flawed approach, because they’re all trying to accomplish the same broad goal — “to provide simple, human service.” So Intercom brings all of that functionality together in one place.
That all sounds appealing, but are businesses really going to become more personal and less spammy just because they have better tools?
“The thing is, no business inherently wants to be spammy,” McCabe said. “It’s shit for business. Even assholes know it’s a dumb thing to do.”
The problem, he said, is that there’s “so much friction in the process that you can’t afford to be very targeted and personal.” Eliminate that friction and businesses can do a better job at this stuff. That’s also why McCabe said most of the new funding will go towards improving the product, while also hiring more people to expand Intercom’s own service team.
The Series A comes from The Social+Capital Partnership, the firm founded by former Facebook vice president Chamath Palihapitiya, with participation from Freestyle Capital and David Sacks, founder and CEO of Yammer. Intercom previously raised $1 million from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, 500 Startups, and others.
The Internet isn’t lacking for sites and services where people can post their comments and thoughts, but Andrew Sider, co-founder and CEO of a startup called Bunch, argues that there’s still something missing: “How do we connect with people, not around friends, not around social networks, but around a topic that they care about deeply?”
After all, Sider said that many of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers probably aren’t passionate about the same things that you are. He acknowledged that online forums have filled this role in the past, but he said those forums are now intimidating to casual users and also kind of uncool. (Other attempts at reinventing the forum include a new startup called Discourse.)
“The new reality is, I don’t believe in 20 years our generation will use forums,” Sider said.
So Bunch tries to have to combine the accessibility of a social network with a commitment to depth and topic-based groups. When you first sign up, you have to sign in with your Facebook account, so your comments are tied to your real identity. Then you can join the communities that interest you — but you can only join three. After joining, you can view and participate in a stream of conversations around a given topic.
Sider said these features should encourage people to only join the communities that they really care about and to post substantive, civil comments there. He added that Bunch is experimenting with other features that encourage depth, such as a bigger comment box and a minimum number of characters in each comment.
I liked what I saw in the brief demo that Sider gave me, but I pointed out that it could be a big challenge to recruit a user base that comes from a number of disparate online communities. Sider said his initial strategy is integrating with other social networks — for example, users can cross-post their content between Tumblr and Bunch. (Apparently some of the early beta testers like the quality of conversation on Bunch enough that they’ve started to treat it as their default blogging platform.) Plus, users get a journal page showing their activity across different communities, and it’s visible to non-Bunch members, so you can promote it on other social networks. After all, Sider said that if you’ve got a good conversation going, you want to get other people involved, too.
After a closed beta test of about 20,000 users (who have created more than 50 communities), Bunch is opening to the public today. It’s also releasing its iPhone app and announcing that it has raised $1 million in funding from Real Ventures, 500 Startups, BDC Venture Capital, Round 13 Capital, and undisclosed angel investors.
It’s a given that startup life will often involve putting out fires, but as a founder you least expect one to be started in the board room. That appears to be what’s happened in the case of mobile commerce startup MobiCart. In a tweet earlier today the UK-based company’s founder Wladimir Baranoff-Rossine announced his resignation as CEO and with it his seat on the board.
When contacted for comment, however, Baranoff-Rossine wouldn’t be drawn on the reasons why, except to issue the following statement:
It is with deep regret that I must announce my resignation from MobiCart. It’s been an incredible journey but one I feel I can no longer be part of.
I wanted to personally thank all my customers, partners, suppliers and friends for all your support over the years. It means everything to me and I couldn’t have done this without you.
As for me, I’ll be taking a well overdue holiday before looking at starting my next venture.
However, TechCrunch understands that Baranoff-Rossine’s resignation was the result of an intense and long running board-level dispute over company strategy and the day-to-day operations of MobiCart — a dispute that has finally taken its toll on the company’s founder.
That would also explain the rather odd timing. On the outside at least, and until Baranoff-Rossine’s resignation, MobiCart was doing reasonably well, despite a bump in the road when its original CTO left last year. It claims 14,000 users of its mobile store-front builder for iOS, Android and HTML5, although a much smaller pool of these are paying users.
In addition to providing the storefront builder tools, free or charged as a monthly subscription depending on needs (e.g. number of items in the store), MobiCart has an additional revenue stream by offering to handle the relevant app store submission process, borrowing from the open source playbook.
(Update: New paying customers are complaining that their store-fronts haven’t been activated but they have been charged, and are having their support requests unanswered. Something is clearly up.)
Despite raising almost $1 million from Northstar Ventures-managed Finance for Business North East Proof of Concept Fund, and the Yorkshire Association of Business Angels, under Baranoff-Rossine’s stewardship, the startup was being run fairly lean, relying on two full-time staff and a pool of contract developers for its apps.
I also understand that Baranoff-Rossine, who remains a minority shareholder, invested quite a lot of his own money into MobiCart to found the company in 2010, money that he made from selling his previous web design business. So, again, the decision to walk away — if voluntarily — can’t have been an easy one.
Startup life really takes no prisoners, even if that’s a part of the story that isn’t always so readily told.
The mobile wave has been cresting for several years now, so when a decade-old web company is only now debuting its first ever native mobile app, it’s a little late to the game. The folks at TheLadders, which is launching its first iOS app this morning, understand that — but they are angling to make their “mobile last” strategy work in their favor in the long run.
It is indeed a beautiful app, and you can see it demonstrated by TheLadders’ co-founder and CEO Alex Douzet in the video embedded above.
First, though, a little bit of a background on TheLadders. The company was founded in New York City ten years ago in the summer of 2003 with the initial aim of being a job search site for professionals earning $100,000 and above. The company enjoyed solid growth in those early years, at one time having more than 300 employees serving an international market.
But TheLadders hit a few stumbling blocks amid a more competitive job search landscape, and has since expanded its purview beyond the six-figure salary market while cutting staff and axing its international businesses. And in the past 18 months, TheLadders, which had thus far been focused completely on the traditional web, has decided to shift much of its energy into rebuilding itself as a force on mobile devices.
The journey of TheLadders has been a varied one, and if anything it’s a testament to the benefits of how keeping some power and autonomy as a business allows you to be more flexible to change course. TheLadders is currently profitable, and has taken on only one round of venture capital funding, a $7.25 million series A back in 2004. If the company had taken on more investors or not focused on profitability, things might have come to a different end by now — it’s refreshing in a way to see a company that’s taken some hits to be still standing independent and adapting to changes on its own terms.
That leads us to today. The new app really re-thinks the way that people search for jobs in several interesting ways: There is no option for entering text, for example, and the “scout” feature that allows you to see details about who else has applied for the same position really plays nicely on the smaller screen. Once again, you can see a full demo in the video embedded above, as well as in a video produced by the company here.
TheLadders is certainly late to the mobile game, but Douzet says that has allowed it to really observe the landscape and create an offering that’s truly different. That argument makes sense, once you see the app. There is something to be said for getting something right the first time, rather than coming out of the gate with a mobile app early and then making users wait through several initial iterations. It’ll be interesting to see how this strategy ultimately plays out, and what kind of traction TheLadders is able to pick up in the crowded mobile space.
Here’s a fun comparison from Optimal, a social advertising and analytics startup: If you look at big brands on social networks, their following seems to be growing more quickly on Twitter than on Facebook.
Optimal says it looked at the data from 4,330 brands, representing a total of 3.49 billion Facebook Likes and 595 million Twitter followers. Last week, those brands added 18.5 million new Likes and 4.5 million new followers — so on a percentage basis, their following grew 55 percent more quickly on Twitter than it did on Facebook.
Now, you might quibble about whether pitting Facebook Likes against Twitter followers is a bit of an apples-and-oranges comparison, but those are, ultimately, the main ways that businesses can count their following on each service. You could also point out the Twitter audience is still smaller than it is on Facebook — so even though Optimal said Twitter grew more quickly, the brands in question actually got more Facebook Likes than new Twitter followers.
There are cases, however, where brands have a larger following on Twitter, full stop. Facebook-owned Instagram, for example, added the most Twitter followers of all the brands tracked — 279,500 new followers compared to 214,300 Likes. It has 21.3 million followers total and 4.6 million Facebook Likes. (Facebook itself came in at No. 3 on Twitter growth, adding 167,400 new followers and 217,200 Likes.)
Not that Optimal CEO Rob Leathern is really trying to pitch this as Twitter overtaking Facebook.
“I think it does show that Twitter is growing and becoming more relevant for brands, too – in a sense ‘catching up’, but also it is different as well,” he told me via email. “A smaller but often more active audience.”
Optimal also broke down the data by industry. Department and general merchandise stores had the highest growth rate on Twitter (2.01 percent, versus 0.59 percent on Facebook), while books and magazines had the lowest (0.46 percent, compared to 0.61 percent on Facebook).
Leathern said this isn’t necessarily the first time Twitter has outpaced Facebook (in this very specific measurement) — it’s just “the first time we are looking at the data this way.”