Mobile security startup Oversecured launches after self-funding, thanks bug bounty payouts

You might not have heard of Sergei Toshin, but you should know his work.

Toshin is a 23-year-old security researcher in Moscow who focuses largely on mobile app security. With his knowledge of what different mobile security flaws looked like, Toshin built a custom Android mobile app vulnerability scanner to quickly and automatically find vulnerabilities in an app’s code, he told TechCrunch.

The scanner works by decompiling the Android app and running through the source code line-by-line — just as a human would — and detecting possible flaws in code where a vulnerability could be triggered. It takes a set of rules, which effectively describes different kinds of vulnerabilities, and searches for vulnerable code that meets those conditions, Toshin said.

Once the scanner finishes, it spits out a report describing where the vulnerabilities are in the code.

It was using this scanner, which he developed over the course of the last two years, that he was able to speed up the process of finding bugs.

“To participate in a bug bounty, I would just download the app and copy the vulnerabilities identified in the vulnerability report,” he said.

In August, he revealed details of an Android vulnerability that allowed malicious apps to steal sensitive user data from other apps on the same device. Two weeks later, he dropped details of a bug in TikTok’s Android app that could have led to hijacking of user accounts.

These are just two out of hundreds of security bugs he has reported to companies through their bug bounty programs, a way for researchers to warn companies of potential issues while getting paid for their findings.

“It occurred to me to launch a startup and begin helping other companies find vulnerabilities in their mobile apps,” Toshin told TechCrunch.

One of the vulnerability scanner’s reports for an Android app. (Image: Oversecured)

And that’s how Oversecured was founded. But how Toshin funded his startup was somewhat unconventional.

What’s unusual about Oversecured is not that it’s self-funded, but it launched out of a product that effectively paid for itself. Toshin netted more than $1 million in bug bounties in a year using his scanner, in large part thanks to Google’s security rewards program, which pays security researchers far more for security bugs found in Android apps with over 100 million installs.

Oversecured is not yet profitable, but Toshin has also not taken any venture-backed funding to date. The company now has about five developers, as well as designers and translators as all efforts focus on building and improving the scanner.

The startup so far only supports scanning Android apps. Toshin said the scanner is open to bug hunters and security researchers, who can pay to scan each app — with five scans tossed in for free.

But Toshin is betting big on allowing enterprise customers to buy access to the scanner and integrate it with their development tools. Oversecured launched its B2B offering last week, allowing app makers to integrate the scanner directly into their existing app development processes to find bugs during coding.

Toshin said that enterprise customers will soon get support for scanning Swift source code for iOS apps.

Oversecured joins a number of other established app security companies in the space. But Toshin is confident that his technology stands among the crowd.

“It’s important to find everything,” he said.

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Gaming startup Statespace raises $29 million, tops 1.5 million MAUs

Statespace, the training platform for gamers, has today announced the close of a $29 million Series B financing led by Khosla Ventures. This comes just six months after the announcement of a $15 million Series A funding, also led by Khosla.

Founder and CEO Wayne Mackey described the funding as pre-emptive as the company experiences a growth spurt alongside the broader gaming industry. Statespace has jumped from 2 million registered users and 500,000 monthly active users in May to 5 million total registered users and 1.5 million monthly active users today.

Statespace launched out of stealth in 2017 with a product called Aim Lab. Aim Lab runs on Steam and replicates the physics of popular video games to give users a training environment to practice their aim. Moreover, Aim Lab (which was developed by neuroscientists) measures visual acuity and lets users know their strengths and weaknesses.

statespace

Image Credits: Statespace

The company also has plans to launch a product called The Academy, which lets users pay for courses that are taught by top streamers and players. These players include KingGeorge (Rainbox Six Siege), SypherPK (Fortnite), Valkia (Overwatch), Drift0r (CoD) and Launders (CS:GO).

The tech behind Aim Lab can be applied to a number of use cases in the gaming world. For one, pro esports organizations don’t necessarily have the breadth of data they want to make decisions on roster formation, recruiting, etc. Statespace partnered with the Pro Football Hall of Fame to develop a “Cognitive Combine,” giving players an overall score based on a wide range of skills outside of any specific game.

There are also medical applications for the tech. The company has applied for a grant alongside several universities to work on a commercial application for stroke rehabilitation, and believes that its tech can be used to help with cerebral palsy rehabilitation.

Statespace has also grown its team to more than 40 people, and interestingly around one quarter of those people do not have a college degree.

“Internally, we talk about being like the island of misfit toys as a company,” said Mackey. “Give us all the underdogs and weirdos and people that traditionally wouldn’t have this type of career or a shot and let’s put them all together and win.”

The Statespace team is 30 percent female, 28 percent people of color and five percent Black.

Mackey explained that growth is the number one priority of the company, which has yet to determine a primary revenue channel. Statespace is currently partnering with teams and big streamers to develop skins that are for sale, but Aim Lab is free to use.

Ford unveils the 2022 E-Transit, its $45,000 electric workhorse

Ford revealed Thursday the E-Transit, a configurable all-electric cargo van that it’s betting will be the new go-to workhorse for commercial customers.

The E-Transit is just one piece of the company’s $11.5 billion investment in electrification. But it could be its most important one. Ford has largely focused its electrification efforts on the consumer market, notably the Mustang Mach-E, which will hit dealerships later this year. 

The E-Transit aims to further secure Ford’s dominance in the cargo van market. Its popular combustion engine Transit vans have a 40% market share in its category, but there’s more opportunity with EVs. Ford estimates the entire BEV commercial van market is 1.1 million commercial vans.

The E-Transit will come in eight configurations, including three roof heights and three lengths as well as a cargo van, chassis cab and cutaway models. The vehicle is also comes standard with a 12-inch touchscreen and Ford’s Sync 4 infotainment system with voice and navigation, as well as an option to provide 2.4 kilowatts of power for tools. All the vehicles have an eight-year, 100,000-mile electric vehicle component warranty. 

Ford shared details Thursday of its low-roof cargo van, which will start at under $45,000 for U.S. fleet customers. This variant will come with a 67 kilowatt-hour battery that can travel 126 miles on a single charge. tThe spec sheet shared by Ford indicates that the medium roof height, long version of the E-Transit will get 116 miles on a charge and the extended will have 108 miles of range.

Ford E-Transit_06

Image Credits: Ford

The E-Transit, which will have both AC and DC fast charging, will come standard with a Ford Mobile Charger that can plug into a normal 120-volt outlet or into a 240-volt outlet for faster charging. The automaker is also going to sell a connected charger station that will be capable of fully charging the van in 8 hours. 

The ranges may seem low for the Tesla converted. But Ford argues that commercial customers are price sensitive and know exactly what they need.

“Commercial customers stand out because they view their vehicles through the lens of total cost of ownership,” Yaro Hetman, global marketing director for electric trucks, vans and commercial vehicles told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “In other words, they want to get the job done. effectively as possible, but they don’t want to pay for capability that’s over and above that, and that applies to range as well.

Hetman said the company analyzed more than 30 million of commercial miles traveled in North America with its existing combustion engine Transit vans. Ford learned that the average commercial van in the U.S., covers 74 miles a day.

There will no doubt be customers who want more. Hetman said to expect future announcements on versions with greater range and capability.

Ford has also touted the cheaper maintenance costs of the E-Transit, which is estimates will be 40%  less than the average scheduled maintenance costs for a gas-powered 2020 Transit over eight years/100,000 miles.

Ford is betting on the dual product launches of the upcoming E-Transit cargo van and the all-electric F-150 truck will help it carve out a share of the EV market that promises to be both competitive and potentially lucrative as cities place stricter regulations on gas-powered vehicles. 

But with the all-electric F150 not arriving until mid-2022, all eyes and hopes are on Ford’s cargo van. The company has poured in details aimed at fleet customers, features like a standard driver assist with road edge detection, a drowsiness driver alert and pre-collision assist with automatic emergency braking. There are, of course, add ons, including an upgrade to its advanced driver assistance system that includes adaptive cruise control, speed sign recognition with navigation and automatic speed limiting device as well as a host parking and reversing aids.

Ford E-Transit cargo van

Image Credits: Ford

There’s also an embedded modem paired with Ford Telematics or Ford Data Services can help improve fleet operations.

Fleet management tools that help with productivity, driver safety and driver coaching are all potentially attractive to customers, according to Julius Marchwicki, COO of Ford Commercial Solutions.

“Our tools are now going to be able to help you with things like charging reports, understanding how your electric vehicles are performing and being able to remotely precondition it so that you’re able to maximize the range before or before that van goes out on the road for the workday,” Marchwicki said in a recent interview.

Solo.io announces service mesh platform aimed at enterprise customers

Solo.io, a Cambridge, MA service mesh startup, announced some big changes to its approach today with a full-stack platform of services aimed squarely at the enterprise. The culmination of this will be Gloo Mesh Enterprise, a new product that will be available in Beta by the end of the year.

Service meshes are part of a cloud native, containerized approach to development that enable micro services to communicate with one another.

Idit Levine, founder and CEO at Solo, says that she began by creating individual components since launching the company in 2017 because she knew that it was early for service meshes. Today’s announcement is about bringing all of these components the company has created into a more coherent and connected enterprise product.

While she was worried at first that the pandemic would have a negative impact on business, she says that her company has been busier than ever and today’s announcement is really about giving customers what they have been asking for throughout this tumultuous year.

Most of Solo’s customers are running Kubernetes and they needed some missing pieces that Solo was happy to provide for them. The first problem is the primary reason the company started, which was to manage service meshes, and Gloo Mesh, which is based on the open source Istio service mesh, helps developers manage their service mesh clusters.

Another problem involved running containers at the edge, which required an API gateway. To that end, the company announced Gloo Edge, an API gateway built on the Envoy Proxy, an edge service proxy. Running applications at the edge means they get the resources they need to improve performance and save bandwidth.

The third piece is called Gloo Portal. This provides a centralized, self-service catalog of services that developers can tap into as they are building their applications. The final piece is Gloo Extensions, which provides a way for developers to access or build extensions called web assembly modules.

All of these pieces are available as open source, but companies that want additional functionality and support and a way to connect all of these pieces will need to buy the enterprise product. Among the additional features in the enterprise version is the ability to apply roles to the APIs in Gloo Edge to control who has access. Gloo Mesh users get production Istio support including updates and patches. It also includes a dashboard for managing clusters and developer tools for building web assembly pieces in Gloo Extension

The company has raised over $36 million, according to Pitchbook data. The most recent deal was $23 million in September. Levine says the startup has several dozen large customers at this point and 35 employees. She said she is actively hiring and expects to be at 50 soon.

Venture firm M13 names former Techstars LA managing director, Anna Barber, as its newest partner

The Los Angeles and New York-based venture firm M13 has managed to nab former Techstars LA managing director, Anna Barber, as its newest partner and the head of its internal venture studio, Launchpad.

Designed to be a collaborative startup company incubator alongside corporate partners, Launchpad focuses on developing new consumer tech businesses focused on M13’s main investment areas: health, food, transportation, and housing.

For Barber, the new position is the latest step in a professional career spent working both inside and outside of the tech industry.

Barber got her first taste of the startup world when she was poached from McKinsey to join one of the several online pet supply stores that cropped up in 1999. From her position as the vice president of product at Petstore.com, Barber got her taste of the startup world… and left it to become a talent manager and the co-founder of the National Air Guitar championships (no word if she managed air guitar talent).

Prior to launching the Techstars LA incubator program, Barber founded ScribblePress, a retail and digital publishing app, which was sold to Fingerprint Digital.

Anna Barber, partner, M13. Image Credit: Raif Strathmann

At M13, Barber will be working to recruit entrepreneurs to work collaboratively on developing startup consumer businesses that align with the strategic interests of M13’s corporate partners, like Procter & Gamble.

We will be bringing in founders in residence who will come in without an idea,” Barber said of the program. “We’re starting with a blank sheet of paper and building teams in partnership with entrepreneurs and in partnership with corporate partners who will bring their perspective and their IP. “

The EIRs will receive a small stipend and equity in the business, Barber said.

The starting gun for M13’s Launchpad  program was in 2019 and the program currently has managed to spin up three startups. There’s Rae, an developer of affordable women’s wellness products; and the beauty tech company OPTE; Kindra menopause products; and Bodewell for sensitive skin care, which were all developed alongside Procter & Gamble Ventures.

M13, for its part, is developing a strong team of women partners who are investing at the firm. Barber will join Lizzie Francis and Christine Choi on the investment team, something that Barber said was especially exciting.

“There is no better place for M13’s Launchpad than Los Angeles and no better person to lead it than Anna. M13 is home to a creative, diverse community of entrepreneurs and operators who want to make the world better by applying innovation in everything from media to biotech, prop tech to food,” said M13 co-founder Carter Reum. “We are excited for Anna to continue to lead LA’s center of entrepreneurs, mentors and investors with a rigorous Launchpad program and more exceptional partners and cohorts.”

Facebook loses final appeal in defamation takedown case, must remove same and similar hate posts globally

Austria’s Supreme Court has dismissed Facebook’s appeal in a long running speech takedown case — ruling it must remove references to defamatory comments made about a local politician worldwide for as long as the injunction lasts.

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment on the ruling.

Green Party politician, Eva Glawischnig, successfully sued the social media giant seeking removal of defamatory comments made about her by a user of its platform after Facebook had refused to take down the abusive postings — which referred to her as a “lousy traitor”, a “corrupt tramp” and a member of a “fascist party”. 

After a preliminary injunction in 2016 Glawischnig won local removal of the defamatory postings the next year but continued her legal fight — pushing for similar postings to be removed and take downs to also be global.

Questions were referred up to the EU’s Court of Justice. And in a key judgement last year the CJEU decided platforms can be instructed to hunt for and remove illegal speech worldwide without falling foul of European rules that preclude platforms from being saddled with a “general content monitoring obligation”. Today’s Austrian Supreme Court ruling flows naturally from that.

Austrian newspaper Der Standard reports that the court confirmed the injunction applies worldwide, both to identical postings or those that carry the same essential meaning as the original defamatory posting.

It said the Austrian court argues that EU Member States and civil courts can require platforms like Facebook to monitor content in “specific cases” — such as when a court has identified user content as unlawful and “specific information” about it — in order to prevent content that’s been judged to be illegal from being reproduced and shared by another user of the network at a later point in time with the overarching aim of preventing future violations.

The case has important implications for the limitations of online speech.

Regional lawmakers are also working on updating digital liability regulations. Commission lawmakers have said they want to force platforms to take more responsibility for the content they fence and monetize — fuelled by concerns about the impact of online hate speech, terrorist content and divisive disinformation.

A long-standing EU rule, prohibiting Member States from putting a general content monitoring obligation on platforms, limits how they can be forced to censor speech. But the CJEU ruling has opened the door to bounded monitoring of speech — in instances where it’s been judged to be illegal — and that in turn may influence the policy substance of the Digital Services Act which the Commission is due to publish in draft early next month.

In a reaction to last year’s CJEU ruling, Facebook argued it “opens the door to obligations being imposed on internet companies to proactively monitor content and then interpret if it is ‘equivalent’ to content that has been found to be illegal”.

“In order to get this right national courts will have to set out very clear definitions on what ‘identical’ and ‘equivalent’ means in practice. We hope the courts take a proportionate and measured approach, to avoid having a chilling effect on freedom of expression,” it added.

Sonos launches an $8/month streaming radio service

There’s no shortage of streaming music options in the world, but the fine folks at Sonos decided we can all do with one more. Following the April launch of the ad-supported Sonos Radio, the company just announced a $7.99 a month premium tier called Sonos Radio HD. As its name implies, this is a streaming radio offering, rather than a full-fledged music service like Spotify/Apple Music.

The other bit the name should make clear is the bit rate is much higher. It’s 16-bit, versus the standard radio’s 128kbps, putting it at around lossless CD quality. The ad-free premium tier also adds the ability to skip and replay songs, which you can’t do on regular Sonos Radio.

There are a smattering of additional station offerings only available on Radio HD. In addition to Sonos Radio’s Thom Yorke, Brittany Howard, Jack White and Ludwig Göransson stations, HD gets Dolly Parton’s Songteller Radio. Which, fine, everyone loves Dolly Parton, to the best of my knowledge, so good get there. Additional artist-curated stations are coming at some point down the road.

There are a handful of additional curated genre stations, as well as a bunch of “soundtracks,” aimed at different moods like relaxation and productivity, including white noise, pink noise, brown noise, rain, rainforest and piano sounds.

The original Sonos Radio is now the No. 4 most listened to streaming service on Sonos speakers, according to the company. The fact that it’s free no doubt played a major roll in that. I suspect an $8 a month premium service is going to be a much heavier lift with all of the different options out there.

If you’re interested, it’s available starting today in the U.S. and U.K., following a one-month free trial.

mmhmm videochat software is now available to all for Mac

mmhmm, the presentation software developed by Evernote founder Phil Libin, is today coming out of beta. The mmhmm app is now officially available for Mac.

The software allows folks to spice up their video calls with the ability to add different backgrounds, play videos, add images, and use filters, among other cool effects. The app has been invite only since its inception, but today it becomes available to all.

Alongside the launch of the free app, mmhmm is also introducing Premium Tools.

This includes customizable rooms, presenter controls and extra add-ons like laser pointers. Users can get a free seven-day trial of the Premium Tools, and after the trial will have access to these tools for one hour per day. The Premium Tools will cost $99/year or $9.99/month, but free users will still be able to videochat, record, collaborate and use the basic present with a default background and simple presenter mode.

Another important note: mmhmm has decided to make its Premium Tools free to students and educators for one year.

The public launch also brings a handful of new features, including Big Hand Mode (which lets folks in the video call visually react), improvements to the appearance of mmhmm’s virtual green screen, and mmhmm Creative Services.

Big Hand Mode is only available on Apple’s new M1-powered Macs.

Creative Services represent another revenue channel for the company, which will now offer white-glove bespoke services to folks running large events or experiences.

For now, mmhmm is only available on MacOS, but the company is working on a Windows beta as we speak.

Apple HomePod Mini review: Remarkably big sound

It’s hard to shake the sense that the smart speaker market would look considerably different had the HomePod Mini arrived several years back. It’s not so much that the device is transformative on the face of it, but it’s impossible to deny that it marks a dramatically different approach to the category than the one Apple took almost three years ago with the launch of the original model.

Apple has never been a particular budget-conscious company when it comes to hardware — terms like “Apple tax” don’t spring out of nothing. But the last few years have seen the company soften that approach in an effort to appeal to users outside its traditional core of creative professionals. The iPhone and Apple Watch have both seen the company more aggressively pushing to appeal to entry-level users. It only follows that it would follow suit with its smart speaker.

Couple that with the fact that the Echo Dot and Google/Nest Home minis pretty consistently rate as the best-selling smart speakers for their respective company, and arrival of a HomePod Mini was all but inevitable, as Apple looks to take a bite out of the global smart speaker market, which currently ranks Amazon and Google at around 40% a piece. It’s going to be an uphill battle for the HomePod, but the Mini is, simply put, its strongest push in that direction to date.

Launched in early 2018 (after delays), the HomePod was a lot of things — but no one ever claimed it was cheap (though no doubt they found a way to spin it as a good deal). The $349 price tag (since reduced to $299) was hundreds of dollars more than the most expensive models from Amazon and Google. The HomePod was a premium device, and that was precisely the point. Music has always been a cornerstone of Apple’s philosophy, and the HomePod was the company’s way of embracing the medium without cutting corners.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As Matthew wrote in a David Foster Wallacesque “four sentence” review, “Apple’s HomePod is easily the best sounding mainstream smart speaker ever. It’s got better separation and bass response than anything else in its size and boasts a nuance and subtlety of sound that pays off the seven years Apple has been working on it.”

He called it “incredibly over-designed and radically impressive,” while bemoaning limited Siri functionality. On the whole, the HomePod did a good job in being what it set out to be — but it was never destined to be the world’s best-selling smart speaker. Not at that price. What it did do, however, was help convince the rest of the industry that a smart speaker should be, above all, a speaker, rather than simply a smart assistant delivery device. The last several generations of Amazon and Google products have, accordingly, mostly brought sound to the forefront of product concerns.

Essentially, Amazon and Google have become more focused on sound and Apple more conscious of price. That’s not to say, however, that the companies have met somewhere in the middle. This is not, simply put, the Apple Echo Dot. The HomePod Mini is still, in many ways, a uniquely Apple product. There’s a focus on little touches that offer a comparably premium experience for its price point.

That price point being $99. That puts the device in league with the standard Amazon Echo and Google Nest, rather than their respective budget-level counterparts. Those devices run roughly half that price and are both fairly frequently — and quite deeply — discounted. In fact, those devices could nearly fall into the category of loss leaders for their respective companies — dirt-cheap ways to get their smart assistants into users’ homes. Apple doesn’t appear particularly interested in that approach. Not for the time being, at least. Apple wants to sell you a good speaker.

And you know what? The HomePod Mini is a surprisingly good speaker. Not just for its price, but also its size. The Mini is nearly exactly the same size as the new, round Echo Dot — which is to say, roughly the size of a softball. There are, however, some key differences in their respective designs. For starters, Amazon moved the Echo’s status ring to the bottom of the device, so as to not impede on its perfectly spherical design. Apple, on the other hand, simply lopped off the top. I was trying to figure out what it reminds me of, and this was the best I came up with.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The design decision keeps the product more in line with the original HomePod, with an Aurora Borealis of swirling lights up top to show you when Siri is doing her thing. It also allows for the inclusion of touch-sensitive volume buttons and the ability to tap the surface to play/pause music. Rather than the fabric-style covering that has dominated the last several generations of Google and Amazon products, the Mini is covered in the same sort of audio-conductive mesh material as the full-size HomePod.

The device comes in white or space gray, and unlike other smart speakers, seems to be less about blending in than showing off. Of course, being significantly smaller than the HomePod makes it considerably more versatile. I’ve been using one of the two Minis Apple sent on my desk at home, and it’s an ideal size. On the bottom is a hard plastic base with an Apple logo.

There’s a long, non-detachable fabric cable. It would be nice if the cord was user-detectable, so you can swap it out as needed, but no go. The cable sports a USB-C connector, however, which makes it fairly versatile on that end. There’s also a 20W power adapter in the box (admittedly, not a sure bet with Apple, these days). It’s disappointing — but not surprising that there’s no auxiliary input on-board — there wasn’t one on the standard HomePod, either.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Where Amazon switched to a front-facing speaker for the new Echo, Apple continues to focus on 360-degree sound. Your preference may depend on where you place the speaker, but this model is more versatile, especially if you’re not just seated in front of the speaker all day. I’ve used a lot of different smart speakers in my day, and honestly, I’m really impressed with the sound the company was able to get out of the 3.3-inch device.

It’s full and clear and impressively powerful for its size. Obviously that goes double if you opt for a stereo pair. Pairing is painless, out of the box. Just set up two devices for the same room of your home and it will ask you whether you want to pair them. From there, you can specify which one handles the right and left channels. If you’d like to spread out, the system will do multiroom audio by simply assigning speakers to different rooms. From there, you can just say, “Hey Siri, play music in the kitchen” or “Hey Siri, play music everywhere.” You get the picture.

In fact, the whole setup process is pretty simple with an iPhone. It’s quite similar to pairing AirPods: hold the phone near the speaker and you’ll get a familiar white popup guiding you through the process of setting it up, choosing the room and enabling voice recognition.

The speakers also get pretty loud, though if you need clear sound at a serious volume, I’d strongly recommend looking at something bigger (and pricier) like the original HomePod. For the living room of my one-bedroom in Queens, however, it does the trick perfectly, and sounds great from pretty much any angle in the room.

As a smart assistant, Siri is up to most of the basic tasks. There are also some neat tricks that leverage Apple’s unique ecosystem. You can, say, ask Siri to send images to your iPhone, and it’ll oblige, using Bing results. The fact of the matter is, however, that Amazon and Google got a pretty major head-start on the smart home assistant front and Apple is still catching up.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There have, however, been some key strides of late — particularly as it pertains to Home/HomeKit. The last couple of iOS updates have brought some solid smart home updates; 14.1 brought intercom functionality specifically for HomePods and 14.2 extends that to other other devices. So you can say, “Hey Siri, intercom everyone, dinner is ready,” and beam it to various devices. The feature joins similar offerings from Amazon and Google, but does so on a wide range of (Apple) products, sending a pre-recorded snippet of your voice to the devices.

The system works out of the box with HomeKit-compatible devices — it’s a small list, compared to what’s currently offered for Alexa and Google Assistant, but it’s growing. You can check out the entire list of compatible smart home devices here.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I found the voice recognition to be quite responsive to voice, even when the music is playing loud. Beyond Siri, there are a couple of ways to interact with the device. In addition to a single tap on the top to play/pause, a double-tap advances the track, triple-tap goes to the previous track and touching and holding fires up Siri. Unlike other smart speakers, there’s no physical button to turn off the mic — and you can’t ask Siri to do this either. The device is only listening for a “hey Siri” trigger and audio isn’t stored, but the feature would be nice for additional peace of mind.

You can also control music from your iPhone using AirPlay 2. That’s my preferred method, because I’m a bit of a micromanager when it comes to music. You’ll need to hit the AirPlay button to do that — or you can simply hold the iOS device near the HomePod Mini to take advantage of handoff using the U1 chip (iPhone 11 or later). That’s a neat little trick.

As someone who’s more accustomed to using Spotify than Apple Music, one thing that tripped me up a bit, however, is that when you ask the HomePod to play music, it will pick up from the last time you verbally requested playback, rather than treating all of your Apple Music listening sessions as a single stream. I prefer Spotify’s unified cross-device approach here.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

That said, a nice little iOS 14.2 addition brings your aggregated listening history (Apple Podcasts and Music) to a single stream accessible by long-pressing your HomePod in the Home app. From there you can tap on an album or podcast to automatically send them to the smart speaker.

All told, I’ve quite enjoyed my time with the little smart speaker. As I noted at the top, it’s hard not to wonder what might have been if Apple had launched the Mini alongside the initial HomePod. I suspect the company would still be a ways from market share domination, but the product really could have eaten into Amazon and Google’s lead. Instead, Apple waited — likely in hopes of getting the package right. That’s certainly understandable. Apple’s never been one to rush into a product, and the HomePod Mini sounds all the better for it.

Sales CRM Pipedrive takes majority investment from Vista Equity Partners to reach unicorn status

Pipedrive, the sales CRM tool for small and medium-sized businesses, is the latest European company to reach unicorn status.

Founded in Estonia and now headquartered in New York, the company has taken a majority investment from U.S. enterprise software focused private equity firm Vista Equity Partners. This means that Vista has effectively acquired Pipedrive, in the sense that the PE firm now has a majority stake. Multiple sources with knowledge of the deal tell TechCrunch the transaction values Pipedrive at $1.5 billion dollars. The official announcement also makes mention of unicorns.

We’re also told that Pipedrive’s existing investors Bessemer Venture Partners, Insight Partners, Atomico, DTCP, and Rembrandt Venture Partners, will continue as minority investors in the company. Asked which shareholders exited, a spokesperson for Pipedrive says that this is not a secondary funding round, underlining that all major investors as well as the company’s founders, Timo Rein and Urmas Purde, continue invested in Pipedrive’s potential for further growth in the next few years.

However, it’s clear from my own sources that, as is the case with these type of private equity buyouts, many of Pipedrive’s early shareholders will have exited or partially exited, including employees/management and early backers. This is either voluntary or mandatory as part of a shareholder agreement “drag-along” clause.

Founded in 2010, Pipedrive’s calling card has always been that it is sales software designed to serve first and foremost the needs of sales people not their managers — built by sales people, for sales people, if you like — but has since matured into a more comprehensive CRM platform play also spanning marketing.

The software integrates with over 100 other apps used in business, for example Google Apps, Trello, Zapier, MailChimp, Yesware and PandaDoc. Pipedrive also employs what the company describes as artificial intelligence and automation to help sales teams manage leads and deals more efficiently, and track customer and prospect communications — all with the aim of helping to improve the bottom line.

It hasn’t always been an easy sell, however. When the company raised its Series C round in mid-2018, Rein told TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden that there was some skepticism when the Pipedrive first launched that it would be possible to make a dent in a landscape dominated by the likes of Salesforce and Microsoft.

“When we entered the market in 2010, people asked us, ‘Why build a product in an area where Salesforce is already strong?’ But having been in sales for more than a decade ourselves, we realized that it’s not just the sheer number of features you offer users. The difference is finding the right spot on the spectrum where you are getting what you need out of a product that you can use,” Rein said. “We have proven that users are migrating from Salesforce and others and are coming to Pipedrive. We definitely have less functionality, but professional salespeople know that performance is largely about your personality.”

Fast forward to today and Pipedrive claims 95,000 companies use its wares. Cue statement from current CEO Raj Sabhlok: “Reaching ‘unicorn’ status and partnering with Vista will enable us to accelerate our mission to support SMBs as they continue to digitize their businesses in order to grow. Our goal is to successfully deliver on the bold vision that Pipedrive set earlier this year – to provide our users with powerful tools that cover the whole customer journey.”

Adds John Stalder, Managing Director at Vista Equity Partners: “As more and more small and medium-sized businesses look to accelerate their digital adoption to grow and thrive, Pipedrive has proven itself an invaluable partner with solutions that drive revenue growth to its customers. We see a tremendous opportunity to work with the Pipedrive team and their partners to continue to grow the business and serve small and medium-sized businesses globally”.

Meanwhile, Pipedrive’s unicorn status adds to a decent run for Atomico, the European venture capital firm founded by Skype’s Niklas Zennström. The VC has seen three of its portfolio companies achieve unicorn status this year (being valued by investors at 1 billion dollars or more): Pipedrive, Lilium and MessageBird. Another Atomico investment, Klarna, also achieved so-called decacorn status with a valuation of $10.5 billion.

“Pipedrive is now Europe and Estonia’s newest SaaS unicorn,” says Zennström. “While financially rewarding for long time Pipedrive founders, employees, and shareholders, it’s more importantly a strong re-affirmation — from one of the world’s leading SaaS PE firms — of the mission started by Timo, Urmas, Ragnar, Martin Henk and Martin Tajur to make salespeople successful around the world. We are proud to have partnered with Pipedrive since we led their Series B in 2017, and believe the company is now well and truly on track to become Europe’s next global SaaS success story. That’s why we have doubled down as part of this latest investment and are excited to continue the Pipedrive journey with Vista at the helm. On a personal note, I am really proud to see another global leader emerge from Estonia with some ex-Skypers as key executives”.