Organizations have been using social media monitoring for years to get a better idea of how they are being perceived in the world at large, to pick up on themes or urgent issues relevant to them, and to generally be more responsive in a world that's predicated on "engagement." Now a company called Aware, which has built a similar framework aimed at organizations' internal messaging boards, is announcing some funding -- a sign of the growing interest in applying the same principles in-house.
The startup -- based out of Columbus, Ohio -- has raised $60 million in a Series C round of funding. Goldman Sachs Asset Management (specifically its growth equity division) led the round, with past backers Spring Mountain Capital, Blue Heron Capital, Allos Ventures, Ohio Innovation Fund, JobsOhio, Rev1 Ventures, Draper Triangle Ventures and JumpStart all also participating. The company is not disclosing its valuation, but PitchBook, which tracked the first close of this round (which was $50 million), put it at $215.50. On a straight-funding track that would put Aware's valuation now at about $226 million. (We'll update this if we learn more.)
For some more guidance on valuation, Jeff Schumann, Aware's CEO and co-founder, said that since the company's last round -- a Series B of $12 million in 2020 -- growth has been "exponential", with revenue up 175% year on year and more than 300% growth since December.
Aware plans to use the funding to continue expanding its technology, which today is focused mainly on monitoring text-based conversations on company messaging platforms like Slack, Teams and Workplace (Facebook's enterprise-focused service) for things like legal compliance, confidential information sharing, sentiment, toxic behavior and harassment. Schumann said the plan is both to extend this to other mediums like video -- Zoom and other videoconferencing tools being so critical these days in the workplace -- as well as to continue enhancing the natural-language and other tools that it has to improve detection and responsiveness.
Aware is playing in an interesting, but often contentious, area of enterprise IT.
On the one hand, if you accept that social media platforms have a role to play in making sure their platforms are not used for harassment or other toxic behavior, or for illegal activities, then the same should go for companies and the social media platforms that they use.
Aware already has a lot of huge enterprise customers, including AIG, AstraZeneca, BT Group, Memorial Health, MercadoLibre, Rivian, Sunlife Financial and Wipro; the average customer has 15,000 users, but some have as many as hundreds of thousands of employees.
Schumann said that COVID-19 has accelerated the opportunity for his company because of how much more is now being communicated over messaging compared to before the pandemic. He notes that a typical organization of 10,000 might send 180 million messages per year on Slack today, and the largest sends 1 billion -- up between 300% to 1,000% on pre-COVID levels. This means that the only way to track whether anything illegal or toxic or otherwise is being passed around is by using software like Aware's.
"We have a unique opportunity here," he said.
On the other hand, conversations on workplace messaging platforms may be "in the open" and therefore viewable by all other employees; but a lot of them are often one-to-one, or to a select group of recipients.
In other words, even though it's a work platform, it retains a semi-private nature, so it might feel like an intrusion to know that your company is actually "listening in" on what you are talking about. If the nature of the conversation is not outright illegal but might be sensitive for other reasons, that could be tough, and it definitely pushes the boundaries on how that information might potentially get used against you.
There have been a number of examples in recent times of how employees have baulked at that practice: a recent one involved Amazon telling employees it was tracking conversations in which workers were talking about labor organizing.
As in that Amazon example, Schumann claims that the company is focused on keeping anonymized the information that it tracks, although it's not clear how it could then prompt an action against a specific person who was behaving in a way that violated company policies or legal regulations. In some ways, it feels like the company has changed its tune on this front over time: "Aware" is actually new branding. When the startup first launched, it was called "Feedcop", and then it changed its name to "Wiretap," both of which have... questionable... implications as concepts these days.
There are, in any case, a number of data points that support Aware's aim of helping to keep conversations healthy by ferreting out the bad stuff. Schumann said on average one of every 190 private messages, and one of every 280 public messages, gets flagged as "negative conversations." And one in 149 private messages and one in 262 public messages share passwords. One in 135 private messages and 1 in 118 public messages share confidential data. Messages in private groups are 135% more likely to be toxic than messages in a public environment; and one-to-one private conversations "are 250% more likely to be toxic than messages in a public environment."
Operating on the borders of when it is okay, and when it is not okay, to listen in on conversations is bound to be something that will be a subject for debate for years to come. And it might only ultimately be settled once and for all in a legal setting. So for now, Aware's services, and their takeup, will continue to interest customers, and investors.
“At Goldman Sachs, we believe in the transformative power of technology and see potential in Aware’s ability to connect fragmented data that exists within organizations across many sectors,” said David Campbell, an MD at Goldman Sachs Asset Management, in a statement. “The Aware team addresses information management, data protection and organizational insights at scale through their feature-rich platform that can satisfy the most demanding global enterprises, yet is simple enough to serve the mid-market.”