Zenefits founder Parker Conrad takes another crack at HR onboarding

Parker Conrad’s last venture at Zenefits didn’t end so well, what with his departure as CEO and the company having to re-orient itself. But he’s once again starting a company that will figure out how to build an employee system of record and management, starting off with smoothing out the process of onboarding employees and focusing on other major life events for those employees.

Conrad’s new company is called Rippling, which is launching today. The goal is to turn the process of bringing on an employee and assigning them hardware and the services they’ll need to operate — like Gmail or Salesforce — right away. Rippling integrates with a bunch of major services on the back-end and automatically assigns those accounts to new employees, and also helps managers set up payroll in several states.

By doing that, Rippling becomes a store of information for all the details about that employee. Rippling assigns the computer, so it’s able to remotely manage and observe the health and status of that computer. It assigns which groups are available in Salesforce, so it can manage the security of those accounts and who gets to use them. And it can quickly turn off those services, looking to also smooth out the process of off-boarding an employee who’s on the way out.

“I’m not sure as I’d describe it as a wedge into something else,” Conrad said. “The reason I believe it’s critical is because if you are the system a company uses for onboarding new employees and setting them up in different systems, it makes you into the system of record for employee data by definition. That’s because of the fact you’re literally ingesting all the different attributes that make up that employee record.”

Rippling is designed to not only help managers deal with those life events — like a raise or sending an offer letter — but also quickly integrate new services. The hope is that instead of having to add new services that employees will use fully manually, there will be processes in place that make it easier to essentially on-board those new services into its suite through a series of categorizations. Automating all of this, at the end of the day, is the goal in order to scale up everything.

“It’s really if you scale things up manually, one of the things, the mistakes we made or I made, is, if you scale things up manually you can come back and automate them later,” Conrad said. “The difficulty of automating a manual process, I’m convinced it grows not just with the employees doing that manual process but as the square of that difficulty. It’s very hard to write down the spec to automate it completely. You have to start automating things when it’s done at a small scale or you’re screwed.”

All of this is processed down to the point that the offer letter is algorithmically generated, ending up with a Mad Libs-style letter with different fields that sync up to the boxes a manager ticked as they went through the process. Managers select the role, the department, what the compensation is, how many shares and so on. These processes are then detailed in the checklist, with Rippling handling sending employees and getting them to sign their documents.


Conrad seems to want to keep focusing on the problem because he’s continually run into issues around it — especially at Zenefits when the company was growing at a break-neck pace. Early in Zenefits’ life, Conrad was running to the Apple Store or ordering computers off Amazon and basically handing them out to employees. In the first day, one new employee (of around the first 10) who had been given a laptop had already been locked out of their computer. The password hint, “Mark McGuire,” wasn’t helpful either. And because there were no systems in place to manage that laptop, the employee ended up coming in every day with an iPad and a keyboard after that.

“Eventually I was like, dude you’re on your own,” Conrad said of dealing as a manager with a fast-growing and small team. “If we were using Rippling you just go into hardware here and I can click right here on their computer and reset their user account right here. We’d have a bunch of people starting Monday and I’d run to the Apple Store to buy a bunch of laptops the night before.”

All of this still needs to be viewed under the lens of what happened at Zenefits, though Conrad laid out a few things he’s trying to do differently this time around. For one, the company has already hired a CFO and is looking for a general counsel early as it looks to scale up — such as expanding to new states through payroll and other more legally hairy situations. That was a major failure of Zenefits, as it was slammed for compliance issues with Conrad resigning after that.

Still, around 90 percent of Rippling’s investors also invested in Zenefits — which happened around two weeks ago. The team already has around 12 engineers, he said, and it seems this time around Conrad is looking for a more calculated approach after the mayhem of Zenefits, which very quickly hit a $4.5 billion valuation and was on track to be one of the fastest-growing SaaS businesses ever.

“We’re just investing a lot more in infrastructure up front, both on the engineering side and on others,” Conrad said. “It’s understanding the sort of complexities of growing a business and what’s around the corner as you grow and the challenges that emerge. I have a much bigger appreciation for getting infrastructure in place, the scaffolding on the tech side but also the company itself, in place early. We’ve been ahead of what’s around the corner, so that things are set up correctly.”

Snapchat launches Bitmoji widget chat shortcuts for your home screen

Snapchat is doubling down on private messaging as Instagram and Facebook Messenger clone and steal usage from its Stories feature.

Now you can instantly start chatting with your best friends on Snapchat. Instead of digging a chat thread out of Snapchat, users can select their favorite friends, create Bitmoji widgets for them with their personalized avatars and click them from their iOS Today screen or Android home screen to launch straight into a chat with that friend. A Snap spokesperson confirmed the feature launch to TechCrunch.

Snapchat first started testing this last week in Android beta but today it rolls out to everyone thanks to an iOS and Android app update. Snap acquired Bitmoji in March 2016 for $64.2 million to allow you to make avatars that look like you and send them as stickers in Snapchat.

 To add Bitmoji widgets on iOS, swipe right from your home screen to the Today screen where you see your existing widgets. Scroll down to “Edit,” add Snapchat and your “Snapchat Best Friends” (based on your interaction) who have created personalized Bitmoji avatars for themselves will automatically appear as widgets on the home screen. Tapping the widgets launches a chat with them. On Android, you tap and hold on an empty part of your home page, select “Widgets,” choose Snapchat and choose up to four friends to make into home screen widgets.

While Facebook might be throwing all its might behind cloning Snapchat Stories, it hasn’t so aggressively copied the disappearing messages that Snapchat started with. By redoubling its efforts in chat, Snap could entrench itself as the most casual, low-pressure way to talk with friends since all messages delete themselves by default.

Android plans to improve security update speed this year

Google has spent the past year working with third-party manufacturers and phone carriers to improve its update system for Android, which is often criticized for not being fast enough to protect users from known vulnerabilities. And while Google says it has made some progress in this area — Android issued security updates to 735 million devices from more than 200 manufacturers in 2016 — about half of Android users still aren’t receiving important security patches.

“There is still a lot of work to do to protect all Android users: about half of devices in use at the end of 2016 had not received a platform security update in the previous year,” Android security leads Adrian Ludwig and Melinda Miller wrote in a year-in-review post. Android issued monthly security updates during that time frame.

When phone makers discover vulnerabilities in their products — either through external reports from security researchers or through internal audits — it kicks off a race to patch the problem before it’s widely exploited. But in the Android ecosystem, which includes hundreds of carriers and manufacturers, pushing those updates out to every user is a complex process.

While Google-manufactured Pixel and Nexus phones and tablets receive automatic updates, hundreds of manufacturers that run Android on their devices don’t push security updates to their customers immediately. This practice can leave customers waiting for months to get updates, and their devices are vulnerable in the meantime.

Ludwig told TechCrunch that Google has been able to cut the wait time for security updates from six to nine weeks down to just a few days by working with carriers and manufacturers. “In North America, just over 78 percent of flagship devices were current with the security update at the end of 2016,” he explained. “It’s a good number in terms of the progress that it represents. We think we can do better.”

Sharing Google’s data on update speed with carriers and manufacturers is crucial in convincing them to issue quicker security updates. “It’s not about convincing them that it’s important — they already believe that — it’s providing visibility into the specific status, which often they don’t have,” Ludwig said. “Because the ecosystem has so many parties, everyone knew the update rate was low but they thought it was caused by someone else. Providing the information allowed them to take action.”

Carriers are starting to view security updates differently than feature updates, and are getting them into consumers’ hands more quickly, while manufacturers are also restructuring the way they release updates to devices. Google is also contributing to the process by shrinking the size of updates to ensure a faster download and by removing requirements for users to approve every update.

Updates aside, Android has made stronger progress in eliminating what it calls “potentially harmful apps” that sneak Trojans, phishing scams and hostile downloaders onto customers’ phones. Google automatically scans apps in the Play store for harmful content, performing “750 million daily checks in 2016, up from 450 million the previous year,” according to the year-end report.

The increase in daily scans has led to dramatic decreases in the percentage of harmful apps downloaded from Play:

 Installs of PHAs from Google Play decreased in nearly every category:

● Now 0.016% of installs, installed trojans dropped by 51.5% compared to 2015.

● Now 0.003% of installs, hostile downloaders dropped by 54.6% compared to 2015.

● Now 0.003% of installs, Backdoors dropped by 30.5%, compared to 2015.

● Now 0.0018% of installs, phishing apps dropped by 73.4% compared to 2015.

Despite this progress, Ludwig and Miller said that overall installations of potentially harmful apps rose in 2016. “While only 0.71% of all Android devices had Potentially Harmful Applications (PHAs) installed at the end of 2016, that was a slight increase from about 0.5% in the beginning of 2015,” they wrote, adding that they hope to cut that number this year using new tools developed in 2016.

Android also made encryption improvements in its latest operating system, Nougat, and improved sandboxing for audio and video files.

Universe, a mobile-only website builder, lets you create pages in ‘under a minute’

The business of platforms for developing websites and publishing online is a crowded one, with established players like WordPress, Wix, Zoho, Weebly, Duda Mobile and Squarespace competing against newer entrants like Medium and the likes of LinkedIn. Now make way for another one: Universe, a startup that hopes its mobile-first approach for building “light” websites on mobile — the pitch is that these can be built in “under a minute” — can give it a unique foothold in the market.

Universe, which is based out of Brooklyn, New York, is today launching its first app, for iOS, with $3.2 million in funding from General Catalyst, Greylock Partners (from its development and seed fund), Eniac Ventures and led by Box Group.

Universe founder Joseph Cohen said that he envisions Universe sites to be the kind of thing you might find linked on an Instagram profile page.

“Millennials are not using the Squarespaces of the world,” he said. “Our intent is to let you be creative in a whole new way.” Sites tacked to Universe’s own domain are free, while those registered with custom domains start at a competitive $2.99/month.

Cohen tells me that the idea to build Universe first came to him three years ago after he sold his previous startup, education-tech company Lore, to Noodle Education. (Cohen himself dropped out of U Penn in his sophomore year and never went back).

“I’ve been obsessed with this space for three years,” he said. “It comes from the desire to turn phones into creative devices. The web is still this incredible platform for sharing identities, and there needs to be a mobile-native way for creating for the web.”

Universe tackles the balance between creativity and templates to speed things up with a slick interface that presents the real estate of the phone as a 3×5 area, where you can select a background and then start to add text, photos, videos and link modules through a drag and drop interface. 

Indeed, the intention is not to give serious developers or large organizations one more way to build complex sites with large backends and processes behind them.

At launch there isn’t even a module to incorporate purchases — although this is likely to come in an update, Cohen tells me, along with other features. Nor are there any plans to extend this into a quick native app builder.

“We’ve thought long and hard about apps and explored prototypes,” he said, before coming to the conclusion that “not everyone should have their own apps. It’s hard to get apps distributed and as a casual user you shouldn’t have to do that.”

Instead, the intention is to provide a way of creating simple web-based presences, which could be viral-ready widgets in themselves (think of sites like IsThisForThat or Is the L Train running?) or landing pages for more details about something like an event you’re organizing for yourself. In a way, Universe feels less in the vein of services like Wix or Squarespace and more like other web-based tools that have been built to make other small things on the web that might go viral, like GIF creators or the now-defunct Checkthis (from the same people who then created Frontback).

“About.me is also too desktop focused,” Cohen countered to my question about the once-AOL-owned online Yellow Pages.

Cohen said that a lightbulb went off when he realized that the range of website builders that exist today approach the concept in a very constrained way that is just “not casual enough.”

Notably, Cohen himself doesn’t come from a technical/developer background, which also likely had an influence in how Universe tackled building tech for non-tech people.

His investors like to highlight the non-tech element here, too. Josh Elman of Greylock noted that Cohen’s mother has designed event websites using the app, too.

“The most transformative companies change the way we communicate and create,” another investor, Spencer Lazar, partner at General Catalyst, said in a statement. “With its playful building-block interface, Universe transforms the slow, esoteric process of web design into a simple, creative mobile experience.”

While Universe sites are desktop-friendly, there are no plans to develop a desktop version of the builder.

“I really think that we can go very far with mobile,” Cohen said. “My feeling is that the phone has so much creative potential as a tool. I think that a lot more of the web is going to be consumed and created on mobile.”

Austin is fine without Uber and Lyft…until it isn’t

After spending a few days in Austin, which lost Uber and Lyft almost a year ago, I started brainstorming a post about how the city was doing just fine without either of the ride sharing giants.

Since Uber and Lyft left last May a bevy of alternatives have sprung up – like Ride Austin, Fasten and Fare. These apps all essentially provide the same experience as Uber and Lyft – drop a pin and a car shows up. All of them comply with Austin’s background check law, and some of them even charge drivers and riders less than Uber and Lyft did.

I had even began to wonder if maybe Uber and Lyft made a mistake by stubbornly refusing to comply with Austin’s fingerprint-based background check requirement, because it showed that a major U.S city could actually survive without them.

Until they couldn’t.

Last night, arguably the biggest night of SXSW, it rained – and everyone wanted a ride. And on cue, the apps failed. Overloaded with demand, Ride Austin and Fasten were essentially “bricked” – you either got stuck at a loading screen or the apps said there were no cars available – when there clearly were.

Riders were stuck, and drivers were circling the city with no way to get matched up with riders.

I heard some (non-taxi) drivers offering to accept cash or Venmo for a ride. It was a flashback to the period of time directly after Uber and Lyft left Austin but before a regulated competitor could take its place. Back then rides were organized on a 30k-member Facebook group where drivers solicited rides for cash.

 In a post, Ride Austin said they were down sporadically from 7:15pm to midnight “due to a previously undiscovered database issue that did not emerge during scale testing”. And Fasten told a local Austin paper that the combination of rain and SXSW led to the app receiving “12 times as many ride requests as normal” is what led to them crashing.

While the companies made it sound like SXSW was the culprit, drivers told us that these apps are often prone to go offline on high-demand nights, like New Years Eve and during Austin City Limits.

As much as people complain about the duopoly created by Uber and Lyft, you can’t argue with the fact that their platform is stable and won’t have random technical issues that prevent you from hailing a ride.

Things seem to be working fine today, but Austin definitely missed its chance to prove that cities are ready to fully-function without Uber or Lyft.

Omidyar Network and the Anti-Defamation League are launching a center to combat cyberhate

With hate crimes reportedly on the rise across the country and online, the Anti-Defamation League is setting up a new outpost in Silicon Valley, backed by the Omidyar Network, to look at ways to use technology to fight back.

Racially and religiously motivated threats were on the rise in the run-up to the election and have continued into the new year. Events have culminated in the murder of an Indian man in Kansas City last month and the shooting of a Sikh man in a Washington state suburb outside of Seattle just last week. Meanwhile, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented over 1,000 incidents through the month of January alone, following the election of President Donald Trump.

Jewish communities across the U.S. have also been targeted, with at least 152 bomb threats reported at community centers and synagogues around the country.

The ADL sees the Internet as increasingly driving the dissemination and promotion of hate speech in the modern era and is looking to marshal the resources of Silicon Valley’s techcommunity to create better tools to “monitor, track, analyze and mitigate hate speech and harassment across the Internet”, according to a statement.

“1.8 billion people are on Facebook — 500 million tweets are sent out every day. No matter how you cut it, it’s incredibly important to make sure we are taking the fight to where the country and the world is at. Simply put, it’s online.”

Though the ADL has long maintained a presence in San Francisco, the new office in Silicon Valley will be a command center from which the organization hopes to combat all kinds of cyberthreats.

 Beyond its work monitoring and reporting hate speech, the group will also look at methods to better secure the online presence of various minority organizations; examine the seam between digital rights and the creation of a civil society, and look to partner with leading technology companies to ensure the safety of online communities.

The ADL is already working with Alphabet and its Jigsaw division (formerly Google Labs), on ways to improve its software developed to identify and filter propaganda and hate speech.

Since the earliest days of the Internet, the ADL has tracked hate speech online. Now with the increasing importance of the internet in public life, the need is greater than ever, Greenblatt says.

Helmed by former Department of Justice lawyer, Brittan Heller, the new center will author reports and publish data on cyberhate and cyberbullying; engage partners and provide insight to policy makers; and expose and combat specific cases of online harassment and cyberbullying, according to a report.

Now more than ever as anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, and other hatreds have exploded online, it’s critical that we are bringing best-in-class technology and resources to this fight. That’s why we will build this center in Silicon Valley, and why we are so grateful to Omidyar Network for providing seed funding for this effort. This is a natural extension of the cyber hate work ADL has been doing for decades and builds on the new presence we established last year in the Valley to collaborate even closer on the threat with the tech industry.