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TaxScouts wants to make filing your tax return a lot less tedious

TaxScouts, a U.K. startup founded by TransferWise and Marketinvoice alumni, is the latest online service designed to make filing your tax return a lot less tedious. However, rather than focusing on the bookkeeping part of the problem primarily tackled by cloud accounting software — which is often overkill if you are self-employed or simply earn a little additional income outside of your day job — the company combines “automation” with human accountants to help you prepare your tax submission.

“Doing taxes is either tedious when you have to do them yourself, or expensive when you hire an accountant,” says TaxScouts co-founder and CEO Mart Abramov, who was employee number 8 at TransferWise and also previously worked at Intuit, MarketInvoice and Skype. “We’re automating as much of the admin part of tax preparation as possible in our online app. We then connect you with a certified accountant who will take care of the entire tax filing process for you”.

The headline draw is that TaxScouts charges a flat fee of £99 if you pay in advance, and promises a turn-around of just 24 hours. To help with this, the web app walks you through your tax status, income and expenses without assuming too much prior knowledge. This includes asking you to upload or take a photo of any required documents, such as invoices or dividend certificates. The idea is that all of the admin is captured digitally and packaged up ready for your assigned accountant to take a look.

“As more of the menial tasks are handled by our app this allows accountants to focus on what they do best and not get stuck in admin,” explains Abramov. “They can focus on providing advice and expertise to make sure everything is done right. Our customers get both the benefits of getting a personal accountant and having a simple tool to manage it all, without the huge costs”.

Abramov tells me that TaxScouts’ typical customers are anyone who wants to have their self assessment done for them or who just wants help with tax preparation. This spans self-employed people — from construction workers to professional freelancers — entrepreneurs and company directors, and people who are entitled to some kind of tax relief or refund, such as investors on crowdfunding platforms. He also said that gig economy workers are a good fit.

Moving forward, TaxScouts plans to further develop the automation functionality, including plugging into more data sources beyond its existing integration with HMRC. Abramov says this could include a driver’s Uber data for tracking mileage claims, for example, while I can immediately see how the app could integrate with various fintech offerings that capture transactions and receipts.

To that end, the startup has raised £300,000 in “pre-seed” funding to continue building out the product. Backers include Picus Capital, Charlie Delingpole (co-founder of ComplyAdvantage and MarketInvoice), and Charlie Songhurst (former GM corporate strategy at Microsoft).

Serverless computing could unleash a new startup ecosystem

While serverless computing isn’t new, it has reached an interesting place in its development. As developers begin to see the value of serverless architecture, a whole new startup ecosystem could begin to develop around it.

Serverless isn’t exactly serverless at all, but it does enable a developer to set event triggers and leave the infrastructure requirements completely to the cloud provider. The vendor delivers exactly the right amount of compute, storage and memory and the developer doesn’t even have to think about it (or code for it).

That sounds ideal on its face, but as with every new technology, for each solution there is a set of new problems and those issues tend to represent openings for enterprising entrepreneurs. That could mean big opportunities in the coming years for companies building security, tooling, libraries, APIs, monitoring and a whole host of tools serverless will likely require as it evolves.

Building layers of abstraction

In the beginning we had physical servers, but there was lots of wasted capacity. That led to the development of virtual machines, which enabled IT to take a single physical server and divide it into multiple virtual ones. While that was a huge breakthrough for its time, helped launch successful companies like VMware and paved the way for cloud computing, it was the only beginning.

Then came containers, which really began to take off with the development of Docker and Kubernetes, two open source platforms. Containers enable the developer to break down a large monolithic program into discrete pieces, which helps it run more efficiently. More recently, we’ve seen the rise of serverless or event-driven computing. In this case, the whole idea of infrastructure itself is being abstracted away.

Photo: shutterjack/Getty Images

While it’s not truly serverless, since you need underlying compute, storage and memory to run a program, it is removing the need for developers to worry about servers. Today, so much coding goes into connecting the program’s components to run on whatever hardware (virtual or otherwise) you have designated. With serverless, the cloud vendor handles all of that for the developer.

All of the major vendors have launched serverless products with AWS Lambda, Google Cloud Functions and Microsoft Azure Functions all offering a similar approach. But it has the potential to be more than just another way to code. It could eventually shift the way we think about programming and its relation to the underlying infrastructure altogether.

It’s important to understand that we aren’t quite there yet, and a lot of work still needs to happen for serverless to really take hold, but it has enormous potential to be a startup feeder system in coming years and it’s certainly caught the attention of investors looking for the next big thing.

Removing another barrier to entry

Tim Wagner, general manager for AWS Lambda, says the primary advantage of serverless computing is that it allows developers to strip away all of the challenges associated with managing servers. “So there is no provisioning, deploying, patching or monitoring — all those details at the the server and operating system level go away,” he explained.

He says this allows developers to reduce the entire coding process to the function level. The programmer defines the event or function and the cloud provider figures out the exact amount of underlying infrastructure required to run it. Mind you, this can be as little as a single line of code.

Blocks of servers in cloud data center.

Colin Anderson/Getty Images

Sarah Guo, a partner at Greylock Partners, who invests in early stage companies sees serverless computing as offering a way for developers to concentrate on just the code by leaving the infrastructure management to the provider. “If you look at one of the amazing things cloud computing platforms have done, it has just taken a lot of the expertise and cost that you need to build a scalable service and shifted it to [the cloud provider],” she said. Serverless takes that concept and shifts it even further by allowing developers to concentrate solely on the user’s needs without having to worry about what it takes to actually run the program.

Survey says…

Cloud computing company Digital Ocean recently surveyed over 4800 IT pros, of which 55 percent identified themselves as developers. When asked about serverless, nearly half of respondents reported they didn’t fully understand the serverless concept. On the other hand, they certainly recognized the importance of learning more about it with 81 percent reporting that they plan to do further research this year.

When asked if they had deployed a serverless application in the last year, not surprisingly about two-thirds reported they hadn’t. This was consistent across regions with India reporting a slightly higher rate of serverless adoption.

Graph: Digital Ocean

Of those using serverless, Digital Ocean found that AWS was by far the most popular service with 58 percent of respondents reporting Lambda was their chosen tool, followed by Google Cloud Functions with 23 percent and Microsoft Azure Functions further back at 10 percent.

Interestingly enough, one of the reasons that respondents reported a reluctance to begin adopting serverless was a lack of tooling. “One of the biggest challenges developers report when it comes to serverless is monitoring and debugging,” the report stated. That lack of visibility, however could also represent an opening for startups.

Creating ecosystems

The thing about abstraction is that it simplifies operations on one level, but it also creates a new set of requirements, some expected and some that might surprise as a new way of programming scales. This lack of tooling could potentially hinder the development, but more often than not when necessity calls, it can stimulate the development of a new set of instrumentation.

This is certainly something that Guo recognizes as an investor. “I think there is a lot of promise as we improve a bunch of things around making it easier for developers to access serverless, while expanding the use cases, and concentrating on issues like visibility and security, which are all [issues] when you give more and more control of [the infrastructure] to someone else,” she said.

Photo: shylendrahoode/Getty Images

Ping Li, general partner at Accel also sees an opportunity here for investors. “I think the reality is that anytime there’s a kind of shift from a developer application perspective, there’s an opportunity to create a new set of tools or products that help you enable those platforms,” he said.

Li says the promise is there, but it won’t happen right away because there needs to be a critical mass of developers using serverless methodologies first. “I would say that we are definitely interested in serverless in that we believe it’s going to be a big part of how applications will be built in the future, but it’s still in its early stages,” Ping said.

S. Somasgear, managing director at Madrona Ventures says that even as serverless removes complexity, it creates a new set of issues, which in turn creates openings for startups. “It is complicated because we are trying to create this abstraction layer over the underlying infrastructure and telling the developers that you don’t need to worry about it. But that means, there are a lot of tools that have to exist in place — whether it is development tools, deployment tools, debugging tools or monitoring tools — that enable the developer to know certain things are happening when you’re operating in a serverless environment.

Beyond tooling

Having that visibility in a serverless world is a real challenge, but it is not the only opening here. There are also opportunities for trigger or function libraries or companies akin to Twilio or Stripe, which offer easy API access to a set of functionality without having a particular expertise like communications or payment gateways There could be similar analogous needs in the serverless world.

Companies are beginning to take advantage of serverless computing to find new ways of solving problems. Over time, we should begin to see more developer momentum toward this approach and more tools develop.

While it is early days, as Guo says, it’s not as though developers love running infrastructure. It’s just been a necessity. “I think will be very interesting. I just think we’re still very early in the ecosystem,” she said. Yet certainly the potential is there if the pieces fall into place and programmer momentum builds around this way of developing applications for it to really take off and for a startup ecosystem to follow.

RIP “crypto”

RIP “crypto”. You had a good run.

This week veteran cryptographer Matt Blaze, finally gave in — to what must have been a near-constant, low-level drone of ‘CAn Buy Crypto.com???$$$$!’ spam — and sold the pithy domain name he registered in 1993, in the midst of the PC era crypto wars, to use as an encryption policy resource, to Monaco, a Zug, Switzerland-based payments and cryptocurrency platform startup whose self-styled mission is “accelerating the world’s transition to cryptocurrency”, positioning itself at the nexus of the current crypto craze.

So crypto.com now points to cryptocurrencies.

Which seems a fitting moment to say RIP “crypto” as shorthand terminology for an entire domain of cryptographic work that underpins so many more things than just Bitcoin or Ether or Ripple or Litecoin or Zcash — or any of the myriad digital coins that have winked (and more recently minted) into virtual existence over the last decade or so, hoping to hit the crypto jackpot.

Frankly this is not at all fair. But, linguistically, so it goes. Languages live or they die. And to live in linguistic terms means to shift your meaning as word usage ebbs and flows.

The sale of crypto.com tells us not so much that money talks, though clearly there’s that too — domain sellers were speculating that the price for crypto.com could have been a cool $5M-$10M, per this Verge report from March; though the actual price-tag paid by Monaco has not been disclosed.

Mostly it underlines that trying to push as an individual against a surging tide is hopeless. Principled, one-man-stands of linguistic resistance against the crypto(currency) craze are futile at this particular juncture of its technological development. Spam with no end in sight would worry the will of anyone.

So apologies also to the few folks who have written to complain about incorrect use of “crypto” in TC headlines. Using “cryptocurrency” is indeed more accurate if that’s what the story is about. But as a term it’s headline-unfriendly as well as being really quite a horrible mouthful.

And, well, “coin” is too generic unless you’re coin trade press.

Alternative linguistic confections — anyone for ‘cryptoc’? — were never going to fly. So cryptocurrency colloquially colonizing “crypto” was really only a matter of time, given how many joules of attention-energy are being claimed and drained in its name.

Turns out language change can have plenty to do with the price of Bitcoin.

On the flip side, any craze can be a fleeting thing, and it’s entirely possible that, in time, “crypto” could revert to its proper meaning of cryptography should the cryptocurrency hype die back, as hype is wont to do when people get bored — because something that was new and novel becomes properly understood and adopted (and thus less of a conversation starter).

Sustained acceptance can make tongue-tripping nicknames less necessary, and reset the linguistic order.

Equally, though, a nickname can stubbornly stick around for ages — outlasting any nonprofessional understanding of the logic underlying its coinage.

Or at least until evolving usage causes another terminology shift. Think, for example, of the rhythmic swings of “telephone” -> “phone” -> “mobile phone” -> “mobile”.

Crypto(currency) could ultimately even lose the ‘crypto’ prefix should the technology end up becoming so ubiquitous as to be considered synonymous with the generic term “currency”, and usurp/displace that word, sinking back into the accepted conceptual morass that envelopes the idea of money.

Of course the crypto(graphy) community have not been at all happy about the linguistic sands shifting treacherously under their foundational field.

And they do have a point, given that without their founding crypto there could be no, er, ‘crypto’…

“”Crypto” could mean encryption, cryptography, or cryptology, but never cryptocurrency,” one computing academic tells us, adding: “I’ve heard plenty of whinging about the changed meaning of “crypto” and I don’t expect a dignified fall-back.”

“Normal usage says “encryption” is only one application of “cryptography” (building schemes for encryption and similar apps) which together with “cryptanalysis” (trying to break such schemes) makes up “cryptology”,” he adds.

Certainly, don’t expect the original crypto community to migrate to alternative terminology — not willingly, and not anytime soon. Which will probably make for some confused messaging at times. But technology applying pressure points to human communications is just par for the course.

As recently as last month the content on Blaze’s (now former) website included the express declaration that: “This site does not trade in or provide services related to cryptocurrencies. It is concerned with cryptography, computer and network security, and technology policy research.”

It further capped that caveat with an explicit disclaimer — writing: “Warning: Many cryptocurrencies are scams, and I strongly advise against their use as investment vehicles.”

Visitors to crypto.com now will not encounter any such caveats. But most of these folks probably weren’t headed there looking for cautionary tales. Nor seeking Blaze’s contact details. So you really can’t blame him for moving with the times.

For the original crypto community, playing the long game and waiting for the upstart crypto usurper to get linguistically cut back down to size seems the best option.

Sure, they’ve lost this “crypto” war — but many more important crypto wars remain to be fought and (hopefully) won.

And of course, in the far-flung future, who knows how 2018’s crypto craze will be viewed? Perhaps as the pinnacle of a hype-cycle that didn’t end in the wholesale reconfiguration of business and society that the crypto oracles promise, even if they managed to shift the conversation of a certain IT crowd for a while.

On another level, given rising levels of tech-fueled disruptive uncertainty crisscrossing so many facets of life, perhaps it’s fitting for “crypto” to become something of a cipher itself, devoid of fixed meaning.

“Encryption technology is the key to the future of the information revolution,” wrote Blaze in 1996. “It allows businesses and individuals to communicate securely over any inexpensive communication platform without fear of eavesdropping.”

That sentiment at least remains constant.

Watch all the interviews from TechCrunch Sessions: Blockchain

What a day. Yesterday, hundreds of people gathered in Zug, Switzerland for TechCrunch Sessions: Blockchain. In addition to some of the key people of the Ethereum Foundation, the team interviewed the entrepreneurs behind Binance, Coinbase, ConsenSys, CryptoKitties and many other organizations.

The event was packed with interesting content. But if you couldn’t be there in person, don’t worry as you can watch everything that happened in Zug:














Disclosure: I own small amounts of various cryptocurrencies.

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