Software specialists vs. cloud giants
Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Software specialists vs. cloud giants

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Good morning! Industry-specific SaaS companies are hitting unicorn status by building software for underserved markets. And the cloud giants are taking notice.

Upending the SaaS narrative

There’s an age-old idea in the software business that if you want to be big, you have to build a company that can meet the needs of every enterprise. But a litany of enterprise software companies are turning that thesis on its head by relentlessly focusing on niche industries — and winning, Protocol's Aisha Counts writes.

There's a growing list of industry-specific software companies, often referred to as vertical software companies, that have gone public with eye-popping numbers.

  • ServiceTitan, for example, found success by building a software platform that spans marketing, human resources, and finance for plumbers, electricians, and other trade businesses. It’s now worth an estimated $9.5 billion.
  • But it wasn’t always easy to convince investors that there was a market for software that catered to trade industries, because field services businesses were often overlooked by investors and an industry-specific focus was viewed as limiting by venture capitalists obsessed with growth.
  • “The orthodoxy at that time was, you draw a box around a category of software, and then you do really well in that category, and then you go try to sell it to as many customers as you can,” said ServiceTitan co-founder Vahe Kuzoyan

The success of vertical software has pushed SaaS giants to launch industry-focused clouds across manufacturing, health care, financial services, and others.

  • It’s an acknowledgement by those companies that in order to compete and win against the next generation of startups, they’ll need to deepen their expertise.

But vertical software companies say they aren’t worried about the Salesforces and Microsofts moving into their space.

  • They know large SaaS giants don’t have the knowledge to meaningfully compete in their industries. And the truth is, it just doesn't make financial sense for horizontal players to home in on any one industry.

Read more: How vertical SaaS companies are taking market share from the cloud giants

A chip industry in turmoil

Over the past year, it's become increasingly obvious that the good times experienced by the chip industry are drawing to a close. The situation doesn’t appear likely to improve any time soon, Protocol's Max Cherney writes.

The situation looks bleak headed into next year, at least the way industry bellwether TSMC executives tell it. “We expect probably [in] 2023, the semiconductor industry will likely decline,” CEO C.C. Wei said in the earnings call. “But TSMC also is not immune.”

  • For a tight-lipped, conservative company like TSMC, this is about as strong a warning as the tech industry is likely to get.
  • And to put a fine point on it, TSMC said Thursday that it planned to curtail its spending on new factories and tools to $36 billion, down from its prior guidance of $40 billion to $44 billion.
  • So far, the drop in demand and the adjustments TSMC has made are because of the quickly drying-up market for consumer chips.

There's potentially some good news for chipmakers. Data center sales and the automotive markets have not begun to decline … yet.

  • TSMC gets demand forecasts from those customers, and Wei made clear that there haven’t been significant enough changes in those plans to cause company executives to make major adjustments to their plans for 2023.
  • But Wei said the company wasn’t ruling out the possibility of a correction or a drop in demand next year, hence taking a more conservative approach. “They might have some correction also, but we did not see it right now, to be frank with you,” he said.

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The long road to electrification

The electric vehicle transition is already underway, but it will need to accelerate to keep the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius in reach. To speed things up, automakers and governments have set targets to phase out the sale of gas-powered vehicles. Those targets, though, vary country to country and automaker to automaker.

Some automakers set their own targets. BMW and Ford, for example, want 50% of all sales to be electric by 2030. Mazda pledged that 25% of its vehicles will be electrified in 2030, while the rest of its offerings will be hybrids.

  • Others have more-aggressive goals: Volvo, GM, and Honda want their entire lineups to be zero-emissions by 2030, 2035, and 2040, respectively.

Many countries have set electric and zero-emissions vehicle sales targets, including some of the biggest auto markets. They’ve also laid out charging infrastructure plans in an effort to make EVs more accessible to the masses.

To have maximum impact, EVs need to reach the rest of the world, particularly emerging economies. Two- and three-wheel options are spreading far and wide, particularly in Asia, and are already making a dent in oil use. But the U.S. and other rich economies are exporting dirty used cars, which will make the transition harder.

Read more: The long road to electrification

People are talking

Mark Zuckerberg admits that he missed a giant shift in social networking, which helped TikTok find success:

  • "[Meta was] somewhat slow to this because it didn’t fit my pattern of a social thing, it felt more like a shorter version of YouTube to me.”

Early-stage startups may struggle with pay transparency laws, said Matt Schulman, founder and CEO of Pave:

  • “I bet, like, 95% of 20-person startups don’t even have a notion of compensation bands at this point.”

Making moves

Volkswagen's software unit Cariad is spending more than $2 billion on a 60% stake in Horizon Robotics, a Chinese tech firm.

Nutanix is considering selling itself, according to the WSJ. The cloud company would reportedly target private equity or other industry players as potential buyers.

Take-Two is shuttering Playdots, the studio behind the mobile game Dots, resulting in 65 job cuts. It acquired the studio in 2020 for $192 million.

Two top Amazon executives left the company. Tom Taylor was vice president of Amazon Alexa, and Gregg Zehr was president of hardware research and development. They both spent over a decade at the company.

Andrei Cherny, CEO of fintech Aspiration, is stepping down as the company faces delays in its SPAC merger. Olivia Albrecht, the company’s chief sustainability officer, is taking over his role.

Health tech company Noom is cutting 10% of its staff, or around 500 people. The company’s CFO Mike Noonan left the company for a position at Tripadvisor earlier this year.

Crypto broker NYDIG laid off a third of its staff, or about 110 people, according the WSJ.

In other news

Netflix is launching its new ad-supported tier in 12 countries next month. Prices for the new plan will vary from country to country.

Snap employee data was exposed by a breach at Elevate, a third-party document analysis firm.

Google could face antitrust charges next year over its digital ad business. The company is at risk of being fined a fourth time in the EU for more than a billion euros.

Meta filed to dismiss an FTC complaint over its acquisition of Within, saying the agency’s anticompetition claims are “pure speculation.”

Elon Musk is being investigated by federal authorities for his “conduct in connection” with his Twitter takeover bid.

Alphabet, Amazon, and Meta disguised their lobbying attempts as they tried to influence the outcome of the EU's Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act, according to complaints from members of the European Parliament.

Apple is launching a savings account with Goldman Sachs. Apple Card holders will be able to open a “high-yield” savings account connected to their mobile wallets.

FTC officials trade stocks more heavily than those at other major U.S. agencies, according to the WSJ. They're invested particularly heavily in tech, and the stocks held often overlap with the work of the agency, the newspaper added.

Nintendo settled a labor dispute with a former employee who alleged the company fired them for union activity. The company will pay more than $25,000 in backpay.

Not your average phone booths

Google is experimenting with a fixture of old science fiction movies: holographic video chats. Project Starline, first announced last year, is a video-calling booth that uses specialized cameras and sensors to create a lifelike experience for callers. Now, it’s expanding its real-world tests with an early-access program in several tech offices, including Salesforce, WeWork, and T-Mobile.

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Correction: This story was updated on Oct. 14, 2022, to reflect ServiceTitan's most recent valuation.

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