October 14, 2019 News Magazine

Meet your new chief of staff: An AI chatbot

Years ago, a mobile app for email launched to immediate fanfare. Simply called Mailbox, its life was woefully cut short — we’ll get to that. Today, its founders are back with their second act: An AI-enabled assistant called Navigator meant to help teams work and communicate more efficiently.

With the support of $12 million in Series A funding from CRV, #Angels, Designer Fund, SV Angel, Dropbox’s Drew Houston and other angel investors, Aspen, the San Francisco and Seattle-based startup behind Navigator, has quietly been beta testing its tool within 50 organizations across the U.S.

“We’ve had teams and research institutes and churches and academic institutions, places that aren’t businesses at all in addition to smaller startups and large four-figure-person organizations using it,” Mailbox and Navigator co-founder and chief executive officer Gentry Underwood tells TechCrunch. “Pretty much anywhere you have meetings, there is value for Navigator.”

The life and death of Mailbox

Mailbox, a mobile email management system, was responsible for many of the features both Apple Mail and Gmail use today, including swipe to archive or delete.

It launched in 2013, as mentioned, to quick success. At the time, Apple’s App Store was much newer and there were few available options for mobile email, especially ones that prioritized design and efficiency, as Mailbox did.

As a result, Mailbox, created by a venture-capital backed Palo Alto startup by the name of Orchestra, exploded. Mere weeks after its launch, it attracted 1.25 million people to its waitlist. Shortly after that, it hit another milestone: It was acquired.

Dropbox paid $100 million to bring Mailbox and its 13 employees on board, including Underwood and his co-founder Scott Cannon. Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, still years away from leading his company through a successful IPO, told The Wall Street Journal his plan was to “help Mailbox reach a much different audience much faster.”

“That was a very special time,” Underwood said. “There were still a lot of opportunities for improvements for how email was being used on these tiny little devices.”

Two years later, in 2015, the worst happened. Dropbox made the unpopular decision to shut down Mailbox, despite its cult following, in order to focus more on its own core product and the development of other new productivity tools.

“That was a hard time for us and Mailbox users,” Underwood said. “It was a tough decision for Dropbox as well … Ultimately, Mailbox didn’t meet the focus criteria for Dropbox and I understood the decision. It was in every sense their right to do with it what they thought was best.”

Act two

About a year later, in 2016, the Mailbox team had licked their wounds and begun work on an entirely new venture.

Much like Slack disrupted the frequency and efficiency of workplace communication, Navigator hopes to reimagine meetings, an essential element of business that’s often dreaded the most.

“What we saw with Mailbox was that really great processes were an effective way to help teams be creative; yet, lots of teams don’t make use of great processes,” Underwood explained. “After Mailbox, we really wanted to find a way to help teams be more effective and Navigator is a teamwork assistant whose job is really to help teams basically make the most of working together.”

According to Doodle’s 2019 state of the meeting report, 71% of working professionals lose time every week because of unnecessary meetings, most often because those meetings are ineffective or poorly organized. This is a cause of frustration and a loss of time and money; in fact, Doodle estimates nearly $400 billion is lost annually as a consequence of botched meetings.

Still, meetings aren’t going away. Workers in corporate America spend roughly five hours per week in meetings and another four hours per week preparing for meetings. Managers spend double that. There’s a big opportunity here to leverage technology to improve, even eliminate, this pain point.

The video conferencing business Zoom, for example, is hyperfocused on refining the video meeting, specifically for the remote worker. Its recent initial public offering and subsequent performance on the public markets has proven its value and the demand for technology that makes doing business easier. Slack’s direct listing today, which saw the business tripling in value at its debut, is further proof of the market opportunity for productivity tech.

Similar to Slack, which began as an artful online game, Aspen has prioritized design in building Navigator, the first of many products it plans to launch.

“We approached the problem of helping teams work together as a design problem,” Underwood said. “We tried over 200 different prototypes of different ways to encode and distribute best practices within a team. The concept of a virtual teammate was the one that finally began to show signs of working.”

Underwood says nothing was directly imported from Mailbox, aside from a dedication to human-centered design.

“We are solving a different problem but the way we are going about solving it, in trying to build something that resonates with people, is certainly consistent,” he said. “As a team, we seem to gravitate toward these ubiquitous, uncomfortable, painful problems, like email and meetings, and try to build solutions that transform people’s experiences of them.”

Making meetings suck less

Navigator focuses on team meetings and one-on-ones, requesting information from meeting attendees before and after the meeting takes place.

First, it learns the topic of the meeting from participants and organizes them into a clear agenda complete with discussion topics. During the meeting, workers can use Navigator to quickly capture key takeaways that are later shared with every member of the meeting afterward. Later, the assistant checks in with attendees to learn whether they’ve completed their tasks.

“It’s sort of like a chief of staff focused on helping meetings run effectively,” Underwood said. “It helps people show up. They feel invited and welcome and like their voice is valued, which changes how it feels for them to enter that room.”

Currently, Navigator works with Google’s G suite, Microsoft’s Office 365 and Slack. Soon, it will offer task integration with Asana, Jira, Trello and others.

For now, it comes without a cost as the team continues to work out bugs with its first cohort of customers. Underwood says later this year they will begin to incorporate subscription-based feeds for the product.

“Navigator is another teammate, not another tool,” Underwood said. “It’s about turning meetings from painful, expensive wastes of time, to effective, meaningful moments of deep collaboration. They have that potential. When done well, they can be exceedingly powerful.”

Slack’s value rockets as stock closes up 48.5% in public debut

Banner
Related Posts

IP strategy: How should startups decide whether to file patents

July 3, 2019

July 3, 2019

Bryant Lee, Ed Steakley & Saleh Kaihani Contributor Bryant Lee is the co-founder and managing partner of Cognition IP, a YC-backed IP law firm for startups. Ed Steakley was the Head of IP at Airware and Senior Patent Counsel at Apple. Saleh Kaihani is a partner at Cognition IP. Deciding what to patent can be a confusing process but by creating a formal process it is something that every startup can manage. Intellectual property (IP) is one of the most valuable assets of a startup and patents are often chief among IP in terms of value. Patents allow the startup to prevent competitors from using their technology, which is a powerful feature that can grant unique advantages in the marketplace. From a business perspective, patents can help with driving investment and acquisitions, provide protection during partnerships and business deals, and help defend itself against patent lawsuits by others. However, startups also often have a hard time determining when and wh..

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s artist-collaboration platform HitRecord raises $6.4M

February 1, 2019

February 1, 2019

In the early 2000s, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt was frustrated with the roles he was being offered. Instead of starring in critically acclaimed indies, he was typecast as “the funny kid on TV” due to roles like Tommy from “3rd Rock from the Sun.” So like anyone who matured alongside the internet, he created a website where he could ideate, produce and share his work. More than 10 years later, he wants to turn that pet project, called HitRecord, into a full-fledged technology company. Onstage at Upfront Venture’s annual summit outside of Los Angeles, Gordon-Levitt announced a $6.4 million Series A funding to do just that. Javelin Venture Partners has led the round, with participation from Crosslink Capital, Advancit Capital, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen, Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin and MasterClass co-founder David Rogier. Gordon-Levitt, known for starring in “Inception,” “Snowden” and, my personal favorite, “10 Things I Hate About You,” tells TechCrunch that HitRecord has a team of 2..

Why commerce companies are the advertising players to watch in a privacy-centric world

July 15, 2019

July 15, 2019

Justin Choi Contributor Share on Twitter Justin Choi is the founder and CEO of Nativo, which empowers brands and publishers through its advanced platform for content. More posts by this contributor Snapchat will make Los Angeles a stronger tech hub Adtech isn’t dead, it just has a lot of dead weight The unchecked digital land grab for consumers’ personal data that has been going on for more than a decade is coming to an end, and the dominoes have begun to fall when it comes to the regulation of consumer privacy and data security. We’re witnessing the beginning of a sweeping upheaval in how companies are allowed to obtain, process, manage, use and sell consumer data, and the implications for the digital ad competitive landscape are massive. On the backdrop of evolving privacy expectations and requirements, we’re seeing the rise of a new class of digital advertising player: consumer-facing apps and commerce..

Agritech startup TaniGroup raises $10M to help Indonesia’s farmers grow

May 29, 2019

May 29, 2019

In 2016, former World Bank analyst Eka Pamitra teamed up with five friends to start a business that would help farmers in their native Indonesia. Today their company — TaniGroup — closed a $10 million Series A round that’s aimed at expanding its service nationwide with the support of the government. TaniGroup works for more than 25,000 farmers in Indonesia to help them get fairer rates for their crops, and grow their businesses. It does that in two ways. It operates a B2B platform that helps farmers sell their produce direct to retailers, which reaches a registered user base of 400 SMEs and 10,000 consumers. The company also manages a microloan fund that grants farmers access to working capital for growth. TaniHub is the sales service and TaniFund is, as the name suggests, the microloan fund. The fund arrived in 2017 when the product had landed initial traction, and it is registered with the Financial Services Authority (OJK) and is a member of Indonesian Fintech Lenders Association ..

Juul launches a pilot program that tracks how Juul devices get in the hands of minors

April 12, 2019

April 12, 2019

Juul Labs is today launching a pilot for its new Track & Trace program, which is meant to use data to identify exactly how Juul devices wind up in the hands of minors. Juul vaporizers all have a serial number down at the bottom, by the Juul logo. However, it wasn’t until recently that Juul had the capability to track those serial numbers through every step of the process, from manufacture to distribution to retail to sale. With Track & Trace, Juul is calling upon parents, teachers and law enforcement officials to come to the Juul Report web portal when they confiscate a device from a minor and input the serial number. Each time a device is input in the Track & Trace system, Juul will open an investigation to understand how that minor wound up with that device. In some cases, it may be an issue with a certain retail store knowingly selling to minors. In others, it may be a case of social sourcing, where someone over 21 years of age buys several devices and pods to then sell to minors..

Dilution: The good, the bad and the ugly

June 4, 2019

June 4, 2019

Bernard Moon Contributor Bernard Moon is co-founder and partner at SparkLabs Group, a network of accelerators and venture capital funds. More posts by this contributor Fintech is playing the long game What’s trending in the IoT space Since 2013, SparkLabs Group has invested in more than 230 companies, and my general advice to our founders and portfolio companies hasn’t changed: I always tell them not to overthink valuation, know what they need in terms of capital for their seed round and how there is “good dilution” and “bad dilution.” Whether your dilution ends up being good or bad (or ugly) generally depends on how well you execute. To solidify my advice, I sometimes go through the math of possible seed rounds and how future rounds can play out. To keep the discussion simple and focus on my core points, I keep the amount of investment the same and assume the company is starting with a 20% stock option pool, which venture capital fir..

The Brave browser launches ads that reward users for viewing

April 24, 2019

April 24, 2019

With the latest desktop version of the Brave browser, users can now opt-in to the Brave Ads program. Brave is an ad-blocking web browser startup led by Brendan Eich, creator of JavaScript programming language and former Mozilla CEO. He’s long maintained that the vision is “bigger than an ad blocker,” with a goal of finding new ways to compensate online publishers. Brave Ads are a crucial part of that vision. The company says users who choose to participate in the program will receive 70 percent of the revenue generated by the ads they see. Their rewards will take the form of Basic Attention Tokens (BAT), a cryptocurrency that the users can, in turn, share with the creators of the content that they’re watching. Eich told me that the browser is set by default to donate a user’s BAT at the end of the month to their most-visited sites, but the company also plans to let users exchange BAT for rewards like hotel rooms and restaurant vouchers (through the TAP Network created by the startup..

Foodles raises another $10 million for its cloud canteen

June 11, 2019

June 11, 2019

French startup Foodles is raising a $10 million funding round (€9 million). The company provides canteen-like services using connected fridges and daily deliveries. Creadev, DN capital and Adelie are participating in today’s round. This isn’t just fresh capital as existing shareholder Elior is selling its shares in the company. Elior is a large catering and foodservice company — in some way, Elior and Foodles are competitors at a very different scale. Foodles solves a specific issue for the French market. French companies have to subsidize lunch for their employees. They have two options — they can either open a canteen in the office or hand out meal vouchers to financially contribute to everyone’s lunch. While big public companies usually work with a foodservice company, such as Elior, the upfront investment is too important for most small companies. Foodles addresses small companies with its full-stack solution. When you sign up to Foodles, the company delivers connected fridges ..

Nexkey raises $6M Series A round to make your company’s doors smarter

October 10, 2019

October 10, 2019

Nexkey, a company that provides a mobile access control solution for commercial buildings and workspaces, today announced that it has raised a $6 million Series A round led by Upfront Ventures. K9 Ventures, Mark IV Capital and Anand Chandrasekaran, the former Head of Platform for Messenger at Facebook, also participated in the round. Upfront also led Nexkey’s $4.8 million seed round. The company can turn your smartphone into your door key and replaces the badge you probably use at work to get in and out of buildings. Nexkey offers an end-to-end solution that includes the app, as well as hardware controllers and lock cylinders for your doors that can replace There is also an API to allow its solutions to connect to other applications and devices inside a workspace. In many ways, Nexkey is similar to Openpath, which raised $7 million in a seed round that was also led by Upfront Ventures. “We launched our platform into the market a little over 9 months ago and brought over 8,500 activ..

Canada’s True North conference is not your typical tech event

June 19, 2019

June 19, 2019

From the venue and the flashy event website, Waterloo, Ontario’s True North conference (in its second year) doesn’t seem all that distinct from a laundry list of other major tech events that take place each year across North America. But from the moment its main stage programming kicked off on the first day, it was clear this wasn’t your typical gathering place for the tech industry faithful. The main stage track kicked off with Communitech CEO Iain Klugman. The event is produced by Communitech, an entrepreneurial support and resource organization founded in 1997 to foster the Waterloo region’s technology industry. Communitech sprung out of BlackBerry and the University of Waterloo and the world-class innovation community that surrounds both. Klugman, a former communications executive and current board member at a number of Communitech-fostered startups and academic institutions, sounded a cautionary and urgent note that continued throughout the day. Tech conferences, in general, te..

GradJoy is a Y Combinator-backed fintech to help you knock out your student loans

August 15, 2019

August 15, 2019

The right people to solve the trillion-dollar student debt crisis might be the ones who are suffering from it the hardest. If you’re a recent college graduate, there’s a 50% chance you took on debt when you moved off campus. If you’re like the average student borrower, you graduated with $29,800 of loan debt, and are making a monthly re-payment of between $200 and $300, according to a recent report from the New York Fed. GradJoy is a new Y Combinator-backed startup that wants to help the 45 million student debt borrowers in the U.S. manage their repayment plans. Within seven days of being a live platform and a marketing strategy that consisted of reaching out to a few universities, GradJoy is already managing $20 million in loans. Co-founders Jose Bethancourt and Marco del Carmen turned down roles at Cloudflare and MongoDB, respectively, upon learning they’d been accepted to Y Combinator’s Summer 2019 class. GradJoy bills itself as a “student loan co-pilot,” and currently exists as ..

Can the law be copyrighted?

April 9, 2019

April 9, 2019

UpCodes wants to fix one of the building industry’s biggest headaches by streamlining code compliance. But the Y Combinator-backed startup now faces a copyright lawsuit filed against it by the International Code Council, the nonprofit organization that develops the code used or adopted in building regulations by all 50 states. The case may have ramifications beyond the building industry, including for compliance technology in other sectors and even individuals who want to reproduce the law. At its core are several important questions: Is it possible to copyright the law or text that carries the weight of law? Because laws and codes are often written by private individuals or groups instead of legislators, what rights do they continue to have over their work? Several relevant cases, including ones involving building codes, have been decided by different circuits in the United States Court of Appeals, which means the UpCodes lawsuit may potentially be heard by the Supreme Court. Brothe..

We’ll have self-flying cars before self-driving cars, Thrun says

October 3, 2019

October 3, 2019

Once you get up high enough, you don’t have to worry about a lot of the obstacles like pedestrians and traffic jams that plague autonomous cars. That’s why Sebastian Thrun, Google’s self-driving team founder turned CEO of flying vehicle startup Kitty Hawk, said onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF today that we should expect true autonomy to succeed in the air before the road. “I believe we’re going to be done with self-flying vehicles before we’re done with self-driving cars,” Thrun told TechCrunch reporter Kirsten Korosec. Why? “If you go a bit higher in the air then all the difficulties with not hitting stuff like children and bicycles and cars and so on just vanishes . . . Go above the buildings, go above the trees, like go where the helicopters are!” Thrun explained, but noted personal helicopters are so noisy they’re being banned in some places like Napa, Calif. That proclamation has wide-reaching implications for how cities are planned and real estate is bought. We may need more..

Zeus raises $24M to make you a living-as-a-service landlord

March 15, 2019

March 15, 2019

Cookie-cutter corporate housing turns people into worker drones. When an employee needs to move to a new city for a few months, they’re either stuck in bland, giant apartment complexes or Airbnbs meant for shorter stays. But Zeus lets any homeowner get paid to host white-collar transient labor. Through its managed ownership model, Zeus takes on all the furnishing, upkeep, and risk of filling the home while its landlords sit back earning cash. Zeus has quietly risen to a $45 million revenue run rate from renting out 900 homes in 23 cities. That’s up 5X in a year thanks to Zeus’ 150 employees. With a 90 percent occupancy rate, it’s proven employers and their talent want more unique, trustworthy, well-equipped multi-month residences that actually make them feel at home. Now while Airbnb is distracted with its upcoming IPO, Zeus has raised $24 million to steal the corporate housing market. That includes a previous $2.5 million seed round from Bowery, the new $11.5 million Series A led by..

Honest Company co-founder Christopher Gavigan has a new, and newly funded, CBD startup called Prima

February 7, 2019

February 7, 2019

Christopher Gavigan, sitting in a crisp white shirt inside a small TechCrunch conference room, radiates energy, even in a late-day interview just hours before he’s scheduled to fly home from San Francisco to L.A. We’re meeting to talk about Prima, a new startup that Gavigan began developing seven months ago with two co-founders. One of them is a former beauty and marketing executive, Jessica Assaf, who was until recently running a company called Cannabis Feminist to sell marijuana wellness products at her L.A. home. The other is Laurel Angelica Myers, who’d spent six years working alongside Gavigan at his last startup, The Honest Company, the now eight-year-old brand that sells nontoxic personal care and household products at Target, Whole Foods, Nordstrom and many other places. Gavigan is still Honest’s “chief purpose officer” and its most effective evangelist, one quickly gathers. But he’s gotten excited in recent months about a new opportunity that many others are beginning to cha..

Comments
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *