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The bitcoin blockchain is helping keep a botnet from being taken down

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Rows of 1950s-style robots operate computer workstations.

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Ars Technica)

When hackers corral infected computers into a botnet, they take special care to ensure they don’t lose control of the server that sends commands and updates to the compromised devices. The precautions are designed to thwart security defenders who routinely dismantle botnets by taking over the command-and-control server that administers them in a process known as sinkholing.

Recently, a botnet that researchers have been following for about two years began using a new way to prevent command-and-control server takedowns: by camouflaging one of its IP addresses in the bitcoin blockchain.

Impossible to block, censor, or take down

When things are working normally, infected machines will report to the hardwired control server to receive instructions and malware updates. In the event that server gets sinkholed, however, the botnet will find the IP address for the backup server encoded in the bitcoin blockchain, a decentralized ledger that tracks all transactions made using the digital currency.

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Terminus raises $90M to grow its B2B marketing platform, now valued at around $400M

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Sales and marketing are often considered a single category on a business plan, but ironically, when it comes to building apps and services to help with them, they usually become separate entities, and so too do the teams that address sales and marketing in organizations. Today, however, a startup called Terminus — which is building a platform that views sales and marketing in a more integrated way, through account-based marketing — is announcing funding and growth, a sign of how its approach is gaining more traction.

The startup has closed a Series C of $90 million, at a valuation we understand from sources to be around $400 million. This is a huge jump on Terminus’s valuation in its last round, which was $96 million post-money in 2018, according to PitchBook data.

Part of the reason for the hike is likely because of the huge focus that digital marketing has had especially in the last year — a time when, because of the pandemic, a lot of more legacy and traditional channels have ceased to be as visible). Account-based marketing alone was estimated, in 2018, to be a $458 billion market opportunity.

Another reason for interest in Terminus specifically is because of its customer record within that. It has around 1,000 enterprise customers, including divisions of IBM, Salesforce, Thomson Reuters, and more.

“We’re building the new marketing automation,” said CEO Tim Kopp in an interview. “We think account-based marketing is the most important thing to have happened in sales software. Teams are switching from lead-based to account-based approaches, and we’ve now moved into addressing all points of engagement, a modern B2B marketing cloud.”

The equity round is being led by Great Hill Partners, with previous investors Atlanta Ventures and Edison Partners, and new backer Hallet Capital also participating. The funding brings the total raised by Terminus — co-headquartered in Atlanta, GA and Indianapolis, IN — to about $120 million.

The world of marketing has seen a huge shift in the two decades, with the rise in internet consumption, and the proliferation of digital services, driving a big business in what is now collectively called “martech”.

The area that Terminus specifically focuses on within that is account-based marketing. In short, this is a way for B2B sales and marketing teams to conceive of potential targets at a business not as individual entities but collective groups. This means a more joined up effort to work across whole organizations, providing a way to market something to more than one person, increasing the chances of connecting with someone to then make the sale.

Terminus’ platform and approach, CEO Kopp points out, essentially brings the functions of sales and marketing together, instead of needing to hand off work from one to the other (eliminating the admin and cost of working across different software within those groups as part of that).

“We see an overwhelming opportunity in bringing together marketing and sales,” he said in an interview. “Marketing is joining in on sales meetings and sales has become a part of the client success, where you are marketing to your own customers. It’s an area where customers stink because they typically come at it from the sales or marketing side.”

Terminus’ platform today consists of a “data studio” that brings together sales intelligence, account information, and other data sources to help compile a list of would-be targets. On top of this, it also has been building out a marketing engine that includes the ability to build advertising, email and web campaigns, and chatbot management. Some of this has been built in-house, and some has come to the company by way of acquisitions (for example the chat functionality comes by way of its acquisition of Ramble last April).

Terminus is by far not the only company working in this area. Others include Marketo (part of Adobe), 6sense, Sendoso and many others. Terminus’s approach is to bring different aspects of the marketing and sales process (analytics, orchestration, automation and execution) into one platform.

Fittingly, the startup’s name was based on an early nickname for Atlanta, and used as a reference to its aim of being the single for its customers’ various marketing and sales activities.

This is one reason why investors have been knocking.

“Terminus continues to redefine how teams go to market, innovating how companies generate revenue in a digital-first environment,” said Derek Schoettle, a growth partner at Great Hill. “We’ve been so impressed with this team, the company’s significant growth over the last year, its continued product innovation, and the huge market opportunity ahead.”

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Berlin’s MorphAIs hopes its AI algorithms will put its early-stage VC fund ahead of the pack

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MorphAIs is a new VC out of Berlin, aiming to leverage AI algorithms to boost its investment decisions in early-stage startups. But there’s a catch: it hasn’t raised a fund yet.

The firm was founded by Eva-Valérie Gfrerer who was previously head of Growth Marketing at FinTech startup OptioPay and her background is in Behavioural Science and Advanced Information Systems.

Gfrerer says she started MorphAIs to be a tech company, using AI to assess venture investments and then selling that as a service. But after a while, she realized the platform could be applied an in-house fund, hence the drive to now raise a fund.

MorphAIs has already received financing from some serial entrepreneurs, including: Max Laemmle, CEO & Founder Fraugster, previously Better Payment and SumUp; Marc-Alexander Christ, Co-Founder SumUp, previously Groupon (CityDeal) and JP Morgan Chase; Charles Fraenkl, CEO SmartFrog, previously CEO at Gigaset and AOL; Andreas Winiarski, Chairman & Founder awesome capital Group.

She says: “It’s been decades since there has been any meaningful innovation in the processes by which venture capital is allocated. We have built technology to re-invent those processes and push the industry towards more accurate allocation of capital and a less-biased and more inclusive start-up ecosystem.”

She points out that over 80% of early-stage VC funds don’t deliver the minimum expected return rate to their investors. This is true, but admittedly, the VC industry is almost built to throw a lot of money away, in the hope that it will pick the winner that makes up for all the losses.

She now plans to aim for a pre-seed/seed fund, backed by a team consisting of machine learning scientists, mathematicians, and behavioral scientists, and claims that MorphAIs is modeling consistent 16x return rates, after running real-time predictions based on market data.

Her co-founder is Jan Saputra Müller, CTO and Co-Founder, who co-founded and served as CTO for several machine learning companies, including askby.ai.

There’s one problem: Gfrerer’s approach is not unique. For instance, London-based Inreach Ventures has made a big play of using data to hunt down startups. And every other VC in Europe does something similar, more or less.

Will Gfrerer manage to pull off something spectacular? We shall have to wait and find out.

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Lob raises $50M for its direct mail platform

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Lob is a startup promising to help businesses deliver physical mail more quickly and affordably, and with more personalization.

The company estimates that its platform has been used to deliver mail to one in two U.S. households. And today, it’s announcing that it has raised $50 million in Series C funding.

CEO Leore Avidar told me he founded Lob with Harry Zhang nearly a decade ago to “allow people to send mail programmatically.” Over time, the company has become increasingly focused on enterprise clients — its 8,500-plus customers include Twitter, Expedia and Oscar Health — although Avidar said it will always offer a product for small businesses as well.

Avidar explained that in a digital age, there are two main categories of physical mail that Lob continues to support for its customers. First, there’s mail sent for “a regulatory purpose, a compliance purpose” — in other words, mail that businesses are legally required to send in printed form. Second, there’s direct mail sent as marketing, which Avidar said many companies are rediscovering.

“Marketing as a whole is always trying to find a unique channel in order to make their customer aware of whatever their call to action is,” he said. “Right now, social is really expensive, Google AdWords is super expensive, with email you can easily unsubscribe. No one’s been paying attention to direct mail, and the prices don’t scale with supply and demand.”

Lob says that it can reduce the execution time on a direct mail campaign by 95%, from 90 days to less than a day. For the actual printing and delivery, it has built out a network of partners across the country. And other companies like PostPilot and Postalaytics are building on top of the Lob platform.

The startup has now raised $80 million in total funding. The new round was led by Y Combinator Continuity Fund — Lob participated in the YC accelerator and the Continuity Fund also led the startup’s previous funding.

Avidar said the company is planning to triple the amount of physical mail delivered through the platform this year, which means the round will allow it to continue expanding the Print Delivery Network, as well as increasing headcount to more than 260 employees.

“Lob is leading the digital transformation of direct mail, a business process used by every company on Earth that has remained virtually untouched by software,” said YC Managing Partner and Lob board member Ali Rowghani in a statement. “Lob’s platform delivers exceptional value to some of the world’s largest senders of direct mail by lowering cost and improving deliverability, tracking, reporting, and ROI. Even for the most sophisticated senders of direct mail, Lob’s API-driven product is vastly superior to legacy approaches.”

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