Gist Opens to the Public, Wants to Own the Nexus of E-mail, Search, and Social Networks

9/15/09Follow @gthuang

Every time I look at Gist, it’s a little different. Given it’s a scrappy startup trying to navigate the worlds of e-mail, social networking, business software, and Web search—each a huge market opportunity, each hugely competitive—this is probably a good thing.

The Seattle company, backed by Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital and Colorado-based Foundry Group, is announcing today that its software, which has been in private beta trials for the past year, is now available to the general public. Gist bills itself as an online service that helps people manage their personal and professional relationships more efficiently.

The basic idea is to provide a Web dashboard that finds your contacts from your e-mail inbox and social networks (Outlook, Gmail, Twitter, Salesforce.com), and keeps you up to date about these contacts—even ranking their importance—through online information from blogs, articles, tweets, and updates on Facebook and LinkedIn. So, before your next business meeting, instead of having to Google around or search on Twitter to get up to speed on notable developments, Gist will surface any recent activity involving your contact, says Gist founder and CEO T.A. McCann.

It’s an ambitious product. Since the company’s $6.75 million Series A funding round from Vulcan and Foundry Group was announced in May, Gist has buckled down and focused on listening to customers (about 10,000 and counting) and improving its software and interface. It also moved into new office space near Qwest Field.

Among the new wrinkles in the software: Gist can filter information based on which people you’re meeting with this week, or which people you’ve exchanged new e-mail with; the software can also hook into customer relationship management through your Salesforce.com contacts; you can invite other people to try Gist, so there’s a viral component to the product distribution.

“There are probably a whole bunch of users who can get a lot out of Gist,” McCann says. “We think Gist is something people will want to talk about and share with other professionals.”

For now, the software is free, and will remain so for the rest of the year. But come early next year, McCann says, Gist will try out a subscription model. The big question, of course, is whether enough people will pay for the service. “We thought most business people will pay for something that saves them time, and gives them insight for business success,” McCann says. “Those are the two pieces we’ve kept working on.”

To that end, McCann’s team has been intensively studying use cases. That means things like how many times a day customers are using Gist, and in what context—for example, during a morning coffee, before a meeting, when searching for an e-mail document, in Salesforce.com, or in conjunction with other social media (these are all popular scenarios). “We have a lot of interest from content partners or social network platforms. We’ve been in a lot of discussions around all that,” McCann says.

Other interesting things the Gist team has learned from private beta trials: “There’s a lot of stuff in Gist people didn’t know how to use, or didn’t know existed,” McCann says. “In the last couple months, we’ve been giving people a simpler and smoother way to get into the product, experience its value in a small way, and peel back layers of the onion.” Another issue, which investor Brad Feld of Foundry Group has been pushing, was to think about how Gist can bring value to companies and groups, rather than just individuals. For instance, Gist could help a company figure out who among them has the best connection to a particular division at another company, and when they last communicated. “That data lives inside Gist,” McCann says.

I asked about mobile use, and McCann says Gist has done a moderate amount of optimization for the iPhone, and is continuing to evolve its mobile version. In the mobile sector, he says, “We’ll cover a wide variety of use cases.”

As for competition from big companies, McCann emphasizes that he sees Google Wave, the online communication and collaboration tool, as a “new kind of inbox” that is “not very competitive to Gist.” In fact, he says, Gist is working with Google’s Gmail team to help extend its products. Similarly, Microsoft wants to extend its communication platforms to real-time blogging and social networks. “The good news is that almost every platform provider [like Twitter] sees that Gist is stitching these together. Little Switzerland in the middle, called Gist, can keep making the connections.”

In the next two or three years, McCann says, “The world is going to change a lot. Big companies are going to innovate, small companies will start up. We see Gist sitting at the intersection of the Web, search, communication, and social networks—bringing all that together, and each sphere is a multibillion-dollar sphere. How big’s the opportunity? It’s gigantic. The intersection right now is small, but it’s growing the fastest. Not a lot of guys are building new e-mail servers, but lots of people are figuring out e-mail meets instant communication.”

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 or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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