Visa policies threaten innovation but aren’t stopping hiring abroad

The growing intensity of the US visa approval process has made it more difficult for companies to attract, support and retain foreign talent. However, recruiters are still sourcing talent from abroad at an increasing clip.

According to a recent, roughly 30-page, report published by Envoy – the corporate workforce immigration management platform – US corporate demand for foreign talent has remained resilient in the face of a stricter stance on immigration taken by the current government. With help from The Harris Poll, the Envoy 2019 Immigration Trends report surveyed 405 high-ranking human resource and recruiting professionals – across companies from a wide array of sizes, stages, and sectors – regarding changes and trends in the employment-based immigration process.

Custom framing startup Framebridge is opening two retail stores

For a long while, you couldn’t swing a bag of cats around without hitting a retailer looking to create a digital presence. Now, the inverse is growing in popularity, with many digital-first retail brands looking to set up a brick-and-mortar shop.

The latest is Framebridge, a custom framing startup that has raised more than $67 million. The company is launching two new retail stores in the D.C. area, one downtown and one in Bethesda.

“We’ve tested a number of pop-ups, and there were people that had been to our site several times but wanted to see us in person,” said founder and CEO Susan Tysan. “At our pop-ups, average order values were 40 percent higher than they were online.”

The storefronts will still send orders through to the company’s production facility, which will ship final products to end-users. But for folks who come in the store, the hope is that the experience is hyper-similar to using the website.

Framebridge first launched in 2014 with a simple premise: take the pain out of custom framing. The startup lets users browse framing options on the website and see exactly what the piece would look like via website or app. Once the user chooses a frame, Framebridge sends a shipping label and materials to the user, who then sends it to be framed in the Framebridge framing center.

Putting the process online was one step, but bringing down the price was the real innovation here. Through some automation and a refined in-house production process, Framebridge is able to promise customers that the most they’ll pay through the service is $199.

That may sound steep, but folks familiar with the process of getting art framed know just how expensive it can get.

In fact, founder and CEO Susan Tysan came up with the idea for Framebridge after her own harrowing attempt to get four national parks posters framed. Many hours and $1600 later, she decided to shake up the framing industry and has gone on to raise upwards of $67 million from investors like T. Rowe Price, New Enterprise Associates and Revolution.

With the store openings, Framebridge hopes to bring the same simplicity to brick-and-mortar. The company integrated a new POS that allows users to have a nearly identical experience to that of the web and app storefront, allowing them to see their art on screen before they purchase. Plus, the pricing for each frame in every size is clearly marked right on the counter so no customer is ever shocked by the price tag at the end.

[gallery ids="1798965,1798966,1798967,1798968"]

Tysan says that the strategy around launching two stores was to learn as quickly as possible. One store is larger and downtown, whereas the other is slightly smaller and in the suburbs, giving Framebridge the chance to see what works in various environments.

Tysan also mentioned that they’ve put particular effort into making sure the stores are beautiful and inspiring, rather than intimidating.

“The reality is that performance marketing continues to get more expensive and real estate is getting less expensive,” said Tysan. “Framebridge is a distinct category that makes senes offline. And even in my own painful experiences getting things framed before, I didn’t ever hate that it was offline. I hated that it was expensive and intimidating.”

The 14th Street store downtown, located at 1919 14th Street NW in D.C., is opening today at 11am ET, with the Bethesda location, 4806 Bethesda Ave, opening in April.

Vonage brings number programmability to its business service

Chances are you still mostly think of Vonage as a consumer VOIP player, but in recent years, the company also launched its Vonage Business Cloud (VBC) platform and acquired Nexmo, an API-based communications service that competes directly with many of Twilio’s core services. Today, Vonage is bringing its VBC service and Nexmo a bit closer with the launch of number programmability for its business customers.

What this means is that enterprises can now take any VBC number and extend it with the help of Nexmo’s APIs. To enable this, all they have to do is toggle a switch in their management console and then they’ll be able to programmatically route calls, create custom communications apps and workflows, and integrate third-party systems to build chatbots and other tools.

“About four years ago we made a pretty strong pivot to going from residential — a lot of people know Vonage as a residential player — to the business side,” Vonage senior VP of product management Jay Patel told me. “And through a series of acquisitions [including Nexmo], we’ve kind of built what we think is a very unique offering.” In many ways, those different platforms were always separated from each other, though. With all of the pieces in place now, however, the team started thinking about how it could use the Nexmo APIs to allow its customers in the unified communications and contact center space to more easily customize these services for them.

About a year ago, the team started working on this new functionality that brings the programmability of Nexmo to VBC. “We realized it doesn’t make sense for us to create our own new sets of APIs on our unified communications and contact center space,” said Patel. “Why don’t we use the APIs that Nexmo has already built?”

As Patel also stressed, the phone number is still very much linked to a business or individual employee — and they don’t want to change that just for the sake of having a programmable service. By turning on programmability for these existing numbers, though, and leveraging the existing Nexmo developer ecosystem and the building blocks those users have already created, the company believes that it’s able to offer a differentiated service that allows users to stay on its platform instead of having to forward a call to a third-party service like Twilio, for example, to enable similar capabilities.

In terms of those capabilities, users can pretty much do anything they want with these calls — and that’s important because every company has different processes and requirements. Maybe that’s logging info into multiple CRM systems in parallel or taking a clip of a call and pushing it into a different system for training purposes. Or you could have the system check your calendar when there are incoming calls and then, if it turns out you are in a meeting, offer the caller a callback whenever your calendar says you’re available again. All of that should only take a few lines of code or, if you want to avoid most of the coding, a few clicks in the company’s GUI for building these flows.

Vonage believes that these new capabilities will attract quite a few new customers. “It’s our value-add when we’re selling to new customers,” he said. “They’re looking for this kind of capability or are running into brick walls. We see a lot of companies that have an idea but they don’t know how to do it. They’re not engineers or they don’t have a big staff of developers, but because of the way we’ve implemented this, it brings the barrier of entry to create these solutions much lower than if you had a legacy system on-prem where you had to be a C++ developer to build an app.

Simulations, SAFEs, and China beats America in AI patents

Editor’s Note
The most consistent feedback we have gotten from Extra Crunch members is that I write too much, and the Daily emails are too long for mortals (and apparently my mother) to read.

This is great feedback: a huge focus for Extra Crunch is to create signal from noise. To that end, we are experimenting with a new format of the Daily starting today that’s focused on keeping you up-to-date on Extra Crunch, as well as broadening your perspective outside the Silicon Valley bubble.

Have questions, concerns, feedback, anything? Reply to me here, or email me at [email protected]

From Extra Crunch

Are we living in a simulation? Twenty years after The Matrix opened our eyes (okay, sort of), the question is more relevant than ever. Rizwan Virk, the head of Play Labs @ MIT, gives us a deep look at this question from his new book The Simulation Hypothesis. This is a heady and deep form essay, so save it and savor it.
SAFEs are getting complicated. Now there are pre- and post-money varieties, and all that means more challengers for founders. Here’s a guide on how to parse the pros and cons.
We will have a second conference call this week on Friday with Lucas Matney and Eric Peckham talking about the trends coming out of the Game Developers Conference. Stay tuned for specific times and dial-in numbers.

Wide Angle
Stories from outside the 280/101 corridor

Photo by Hiroshi Watanabe via Getty Images

China just beat the US in AI patent filings. Quality not quantity, blah blah blah, but competition in this category is absolutely keen.
Russia is cracking down on the internet. Despite American impressions, the Russian internet has been fairly free compared to other mass media, but that is now changing with this new “fake news” law.
Great media deep dive into Wired. Paywalls, native apps, email newsletter performance, events — good insights and numbers here.

Instagram launches shopping checkout, charging sellers a fee

Instagram is opening a whole new revenue stream. Now the 130 million people who tap Instagram’s product tags on shopping posts will be able to buy those items without leaving the app thanks to stored payment info. “Checkout with Instagram” launches today in the US with more than 20 top brands including Adidas, Kylie Cosmetics, and Warby Parker who’ll no longer have to direct customers to their website to make a purchase..

An Instagram spokesperson confirms to TechCrunch “We will introduce a selling fee to help to fund programs and products that help make checkout possible, as well as offset transaction-related expenses.” When we asked how much the ‘selling fee’ would charge merchants, the spokesperson told us “We aren’t sharing the specific number right now. We are testing a selling fee with businesses during the closed beta. It will not change the price of the items for consumers.” That indicates Instagram wants merchants to cough up the fee in exchange for higher purchase conversion rates rather than forcing users to pay a convenience fee for buying through the app.

Instagram’s ad business could also get a boost as Checkout could convince brands that the social network produces better return on investment since there are fewer steps before purchase. For now, only organic posts from the launch partner merchants will feature Checkout buttons, and ads aren’t eligible. But Checkout-equipped ads could be a gold mine for Instagram just as Facebook’s News Feed ad business looks shaky and CEO Mark Zuckerberg declares commerce as a fixture of the 2019 roadmap.

Checkout tags will appear on feed posts, Stories, and Explore content from the brands in the closed beta that Instagram plans to eventually open to more businesses. When users tap the post to reveal product tags and open one, they’ll see a Checkout with Instagram button instead of the old “View on Website” button.

Their first time through they’ll enter their payment information that’s stored for future purchases. “With their protected payment information in one place, they can shop their favorite brands without needing to log in and enter their information multiple times” Instagram explains. Saving merchants from abandoned shopping carts left by users frustrated with having to sign up with each different brand is the key value offering here. TechCrunch recently reported Instagram is prototyping a Fundraiser sticker for Stories that similarly saves payment info — a database Instagram clearly wants to build up.

After users buy something within Instagram, they’ll be able to track it from a new “Orders” section of their profile that shows the status of an order plus options to cancel, initiate a return, or contact the merchant. They’ll also get a notification from Instagram when the order ships. Interestingly, Instagram isn’t mixing receipts into its messaging product like Facebook does with Messenger.

Merchants will only get the details necessary to fulfill an order, including contact info and address, but not your actual payment info. Users will see an opt-in option to share their email address with the seller for marketing purposes. Checkout with Instagram could leave merchants with a little less data than if the purchase happened on their website. But Instagram says it will provide info on which sales it generates for a merchant.

Users can pay with PayPal, Visa, Mastercard, American Express, or Discover. Instagram plans to allow merchants to integrate their Shopify, BigCommerce, ChannelAdvisor, CommerceHub, and other tools with the Checkout feature. Meanwhile, Instagram confirms that interacting with Checkout will be used as a signal for ranking what content you see. Payments are processed by PayPal — an area of business Facebook has been content not to invade, and PayPal’s fees will likely be covered by Facebook’s selling fee.

“We started using product tags to make shopping more convenient for our customers” writes Warby Parker co-founder and co-CEO Neil Blumenthal. “Checkout takes this experience one step further, making it even more intuitive and seamless for people who have discovered products they want to purchase instantaneously.” Here’s the full list of launch partner brands: Adidas, Anastasia Beverly Hills, Balmain, Burberry, ColourPop, Dior, Huda Beauty, H&M, KKW Beauty, Kylie Cosmetics, MAC Cosmetics, Michael Kors, NARS, Nike, NYX Cosmetics, Oscar de la Renta, Outdoor Voices, Ouai Hair, Prada, Revolve, Uniqlo, Warby Parker and Zara.

There’s still no sign of an Instagram standalone shopping app that was reportedly in the works. Instead, it launched a dedicated Shopping channel in Explore and tags for Stories six months ago. We recently spotted Instagram prototyping a Pinterest-style feature that would let users make their private Collections of Saved posts publicly visible. That would be a great way for commerce influencers to recommend Checkout-equipped products. Facebook has spent five years experimenting with different Buy buttons, but now it finally has them in a place they feel natural.

Instagram has fiercely protected the right to link out of its app in order to keep you steadily consuming its content. Now with over one billion users, Instagram has trapped people’s attention inside, and it’s finally ready to sell the right to sell there.

Firefox now automatically blocks autoplaying audio and video

Mozilla today released version 66 of its Firefox browser. It features all of the usual tech updates and bug fixes, but there’s also a clear theme here: reducing online annoyances.

With this update, Firefox can now automatically block autoplaying audio and video — the scourge of the modern web. The way Mozilla has implemented this is smart enough to recognize when a video is playing with the audio muted and it’ll still let the page quietly play that video. If it’s a news site that insists on bombarding you with the unmuted video of an anchor talking about a semi-related news story, though, it’ll mute it and leave you in peace.

To play the video on a site where Firefox has blocked the video, you simply click the play button. You can also always whitelist sites with autoplaying and unmuted videos, too.

Another major annoyance these days is ads that load after the text or other content on a site is already visible. Often, the ad then moves that text around (and occasionally, slow-loading images are to blame here, too). With this update, Firefox is introducing scroll anchoring, which ensures that you’re not going to bounce around on the page as these slow-loading ads load.

Other updates in this release include the ability to search within multiple tabs, better search in private browsing mode, improved and clearer security warnings and web authentication support for Windows Hello. Firefox 66 also promises an improved extension experience that should make pages load faster by storing extension settings in a single file instead of a series of individual files for every extension.

You can find the full release notes here.

Apple upgrades the iMac line with boosted processors and graphics

For a company hosting a big event next week, Apple’s sure got a lot of news bubbling up these days. It kicked off the week by unveiling upgrades to the iPad line, and now just revealed a handful of upgrades to its bedrock iMac line.

The perennial favorite all-in-one is getting some key upgrades that will narrow the gap between the line and the high-end iMac Pro. The key additions are 9th gen Intel processors and Radeon Pro Vega graphics. The new models are priced the same and look identical to their predecessor — both good things. The two standard models shake out thusly:

21.5-inch: The 8th-gen quad-core is being joined by a six-core option, which the company says is capable of of delivering 60 percent faster performance. The new models also get the Radeon Pro Vega, which brings a boost of up to 80 percent faster graphics than their predecessor. The 4K desktop starts at $1,299.

27-inch: The larger model is now available with a 9th get Intel processor, sporting either six- or eight-cores. The Radeon Pro Vega will be hitting both of those models, as well. The 5K system starts at $1,799.

Both systems are replacing older models, hitting Apple’s site and stores starting today. Not ground, up refreshes by any stretch, but enough keep to keep the long-lived line up to date with the latest AOI offerings — and continue to make the case as a workhorse device for creative pros and hobbyist gamers. Those looking to take the next step should keep the eyes on the iMac Pro — though that desktop’s specs are staying put for the time being.

Xiaomi outs Redmi Go, a $65 entry-level smartphone for India

Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi has announced a new entry level smartphone at an event in Delhi.

The entry-level smartphone is targeted at the Indian market and looks intended to woo feature phone owners to upgrade from a more basic mobile.

It runs Google’s flavor of Android optimized for low-powered smartphones (Android Go) which supports lightweight versions of apps.

Under the hood the dual-SIM handset has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 425 chipset, 1GB RAM and 8GB of storage (though there’s a slot for expanding storage capacity up to 128GB).

Also on board: 4G cellular connectivity and a 3000mAh battery.

Up front there’s a 5 inch HD display with a 16:9 aspect ration, and 5MP selfie camera. An 8MP camera brings up the rear, with support for 1080p video recording.

At the time of writing the Redmi Go is being priced at 4,499 rupee (~$65). Albeit a mark-down graphic on the company’s website suggests the initial price may be a temporary discount on a full RRP of 5,999 rupees (~85). We’ve asked Xiaomi for confirmation.

Mi fans, presenting #RedmiGo #AapkiNayiDuniya

– Qualcomm® Snapdragon 425
– Android Oreo (Go Edition)
– 3000mAh Battery
– 8MP Rear camera with LED Flash
– 5MP Selfie camera
– 5″ HD display
– 4G Network Connectivity
– Color: Blue & black
– Price: ₹4,499

RT & spread the pic.twitter.com/aanAoiauqj

— Mi India (@XiaomiIndia) March 19, 2019

While Xiaomi is squeezing its entry level smartphone price-tag here, the Redmi Go’s cost to consumers in India still represents a sizeable bump on local feature phone prices.

For example the Nokia 150 Dual SIM candybar can cost as little as 1,500 rupees (~20). Though there’s clearly a big difference between a candybar keypad mobile and a full-screen smartphone. Yet 3x more expensive represents an immovable barrier for many consumers in the market.

The Redmi Go also looks intended to respond to local carrier Reliance Jio’s 4G feature phones, which are positioned — price and feature wise — as a transitionary device, sitting between a dumber feature phone and full-fat smartphone.

The JioPhone 2 launched last year with a price tag of 2,999 rupees (~40). So the Redmi Go looks intended to close the price gap — and thus try to make a transitionary handset with a smaller screen less attractive than a full screen Android-powered smartphone experience.

That said, the JioPhone handsets run a fork of Firefox OS, called KaiOS, which can also run lightweight versions of apps like Facebook, Twitter and Google.

So, again, many India consumers may not see the need (or be able) to shell out ~1,500 rupees more for a lightweight mobile computing experience when they can get something similar for cheaper elsewhere. And indeed plenty of the early responses to Xiaomi’s tweet announcing the Redmi Go brand it “overpriced”.

Salesforce update brings AI and Quip to customer service chat experience

When Salesforce introduced Einstein, its artificial intelligence platform in 2016, it was laying the ground work for artificial intelligence underpinnings across the platform. Since then the company has introduced a variety of AI enhancements to the Salesforce product family. Today, customer service got some AI updates.

The goal of any customer service interaction is to get the customer answers as quickly as possible. Many users opt to use chat over phone, and Salesforce has added some AI features to help customer service agents get answers more quickly in the chat interface. (The company hinted that phone customer service enhancements are coming.)

For starters, Salesforce is using machine learning to deliver article recommendations, response recommendations and next best actions to the agent in real time as they interact with customers. “With Einstein article recommendations, we can use machine learning on past cases and we can look at how articles were used to successfully solve similar cases in the past, and serve up the best article right in the console to help the agent with the case,” Martha Walchuk, senior director of product marketing for Salesforce Service Cloud explained.

Salesforce Service Console. Screenshot: Salesforce

The company is also using similar technology to provide response recommendations, which the agent can copy and paste into the chat to speed up the time to response. Before the interaction ends, the company can offer the next best action (which was announced last year) based on the conversation. For example, they could offer related information, an upsell recommendation or whatever type of action the customer defines.

Salesforce is also using machine learning to help route each person to the most appropriate customer service rep. As Salesforce describes it, this feature uses machine learning to filter cases and route them to the right queue or agent automatically, based on defined criteria such as best qualified agent or past outcomes.

Finally, the company is embedding Quip, the company it acquired in 2016 for $750 million, into the customer service console to allow agents to communicate with one another to find answers to difficult problems. That not only helps solve the issues faster, the conversations themselves become part of the knowledge base, which Salesforce can draw upon to help teach the machine learning algorithms about the correct responses to commonly asked questions in the future.

As with the Oracle AI announcement this morning, this use of artificial intelligence in sales, service and marketing is part of a much broader industry trend, as these companies try to inject intelligence into workflows to make them run more efficiently.

Salesforce at 20 offers lessons for startup success

Employee retention platform Peakon raises further $35M in a new round led by Atomico

Peakon, the Denmark headquartered “employee retention platform,” has raised a further $35 million in funding. Described as a Series B extension, the round is led by European venture capital firm Atomico, with backing from existing investors, including EQT Ventures, IDInvest Partners, Balderton Capital, and Sunstone.

Originally offering “people analytics” by enabling companies to more regularly survey employees, Peakon has since evolved to become a fully fledged SaaS for employee retention. It claims to now tackle three critical areas. They are employee engagement, actionable insights to prevent employee problems before they arise, and competitor analysis through benchmarking employee engagement data against Peakon’s proprietory industry-wide data.

Peakon’s surveys are designed to be both fast and conducted weekly, rather than annually (as is the traditional way of surveying employees). They also adhere to standardised questions so as to enable industry wide comparisons. This means that companies using the employee retention software can not only get a more immediate feel for how engaged employees are at any given moment, but also use that data to drive operational decisions and competitor analysis.

For example, Peakon claims to be able to predict when certain employees are in danger of leaving 250 days in advance of doing so. As hiring gets increasingly competitive, this heads up is crucial as it theoretically provides enough time for management to attempt to prevent critical employees from leaving.

Zooming out further, Peakon’s adherence to standardised questions in the employee micro surveys it conducts on behalf of its customers is enabling the company to build what it claims to be the largest real-time database of “how the world’s workforce is feeling,” based on more than 30 million data points and rising. By diving deep into this data, macro trends can be better established, such as comparing the fall in worker productivity before the winter holidays across countries and demographics.

Meanwhile, I’m told Peakon has grown extremely fast over the last year. This has included opening an office in New York where co-founder Kasper Hulthin is now based, while the company expects its U.S. headcount to be over 50 employees within the next 12 months. Peakon also has offices in U.K., Denmark, Germany, and New Zealand, says current headcount sits at over 180.

Since launching in early 2016, Peakon’s customers have included the likes of Capgemini, Verizon, BMW, TrustPilot, Harrods and easyJet.

Adds Mattias Ljungman, Partner at Atomico: “As our world continues to change, traditional concepts of work are being redefined. Workers have to deal with constant change, and this is why it is more important than ever for companies to listen to their employees’ voices and create a positive culture through feedback and engagement. Yet, today companies are still struggling to measure their most important asset: their people. We were blown away by Peakon’s rigorous, data-driven approach to this problem”.