Getting the Gist of Gist, from Entrepreneur T.A. McCann

9/12/08Follow @gthuang

T.A. McCann has been on my list of people to talk to for months. So when I heard the Seattle-area entrepreneur, a former Microsoftie and pro sailor, has a new website in beta trials, I had to get the scoop from him. The site, and company, is called Gist, and this is its first week in beta. McCann has a really interesting background, and he has some constructive thoughts about the Seattle innovation community, but that’s a story for another time. For now, I just wanted to get the gist of Gist.

The basic idea is to “blend personal communication with the Web,” McCann. We all spend so much time managing new e-mails, searching for old e-mails, learning about new people, and trying to keep up with our contacts’ blogs and other related information about them (I know I do, at least). What Gist does is it tries to put all that stuff in one place, on one page, so “we can get the gist of our communications rapidly,” McCann says.

It does this by starting with your e-mail inbox and figuring out what (and who) you care about. Gist uses proprietary algorithms to rank your contacts by their importance, and then organizes and presents information from the Web about them—articles, blog posts, and the like. “The machine is 80, maybe 90 percent right. It’s never going to get all the right articles,” says McCann. “But the system can learn as you go along.” It does this by taking input from the user via a slider bar that adjusts what’s on his or her dashboard. You could think of it as “a way better Google Alert,” he adds.

Gist is backed by Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital, and that originally came about through a key string of contacts. McCann says he spent time talking with Steve Arnold of Polaris Ventures’ Seattle office, who called McCann for due diligence on the startup MessageGate. From there, McCann went to Polaris as an entrepreneur in residence. After a year and a half, Arnold introduced McCann to Steve Hall, the managing director of Vulcan Capital. McCann has since worked on five projects within Vulcan Capital, and two have become companies. (The other is Seattle-based Evri, which we covered here.)

Vulcan Capital is different from most VC firms. As McCann puts it, most VCs have many limited partners and are focused on return on investment. Vulcan Capital has one limited partner—Paul Allen—and there’s less emphasis on the returns. “Paul is much more involved in things incubated within Vulcan,” says McCann. “There’s a different dynamic on how decisions are made…We can think bigger, think faster. We sit at a confluence of a lot of big markets.”

Later this year, McCann says, he’ll go out and raise another round of funding with other investors, and Gist will become “more market focused and customer focused…It’s both about creating cool and innovative technology, and creating something customers want.” Which raises the question of who the customers are. McCann says it’s salespeople, C-level executives, and VPs, at least at first. These are the people who bought the BlackBerry first, for instance, and who need “on-demand access to information,” he says. The business model will be mainly subscription-based.

What about competitors? There are certainly other companies out there trying to do things similar to Gist—for instance, startups like Xoopit, Xobni, and Plaxo. But McCann maintains they tend to focus on either the e-mail inbox side of things, or the business-intelligence and Web-info space—not both, as Gist is trying to do. And then there’s the name-brand factor. “All the guys in my space have weird names—I feel pretty good with ‘Gist,’” he quips.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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