Rapportive’s “Social CRM” Gmail Plugin Makes E-mail Social Again

This is the fifth in a series of profiles of companies emerging this summer from Mountain View, CA-based startup incubator Y Combinator.

When Google launched Gmail five years ago, a lot of people were freaked out by the keyword-based text ads that appeared alongside e-mail messages. The idea that Google’s algorithms were “reading” your e-mail and serving up related ads seemed a little creepy and invasive. But now most people have gotten used to that, and have moved on to being freaked out about Facebook’s privacy settings. These days, most Gmail users never even glance at the ads filling the right-hand column.

Now there’s a way to put that space to more practical use. Rapportive, a San Francisco company that’s part of this summer’s crop of Y Combinator startups, makes a free browser plugin that replaces Gmail ads with digital dossiers on your contacts. If I sent you an e-mail message and you opened it in Gmail in a Rapportive-equipped browser, you’d see my whole social-media life spread before you: my photo, my title, my e-mail address, a list of my current and previous employers, my last three tweets from Twitter, and links to my Facebook, LinkedIn, and Flickr, FriendFeed, Google Profile, and YouTube accounts (see the screen shot below).

Rapportive - Sample SidebarThe idea is to give you real-time intelligence about the person you’re corresponding with—whether they be a friend, a source, a business associate, or a sales prospect—in order to bolster your rapport with that person (hence the company’s name, which is among the cleverer ones I’ve seen this year). “People love it because of the photos—there’s something very visceral about seeing a photo—and because of the tweets,” says Rahul Vohra, a University of Cambridge computer science graduate who is Rapportive’s co-founder and CEO. “They can talk immediately about something someone has just said. It shows you really care because you are following them on multiple channels.”

Putting a contact’s photo and personal and professional details right alongside his or her e-mail messages isn’t a brand new idea. San Francisco’s Xobni makes a popular add-in for Microsoft Outlook that does many of the same things, and Seattle-based Gist makes a Google Apps gadget that lets Gmail users click on contacts’ names to see profiles. But Rapportive is more automatic, filling the right sidebar with contact details without requiring any action on the user’s part. And when you think about it, the idea makes perfect sense: e-mail is the original, and still dominant, “social media” technology, so when you’re reading or writing messages, it’s useful to have all of the Web’s miscellany about your correspondents gathered up on the same screen. (There’s also a box that allows you to save personal notes about each contact.)

I’ve been using Rapportive’s tool since April, well before the company announced that it was part of Y Combinator, a startup school in Mountain View, CA, that provides several months of mentorship and networking assistance in exchange for a small amount of founding stock.

Along with Y Combinator’s investment, the startup has raised $1 million in seed funding from an impressive, bicoastal list of venture firms and angel investors. The venture investors include BoldStart Ventures, Charles River Ventures, 500Startups, Kima Ventures, and Zelkova Ventures, and the angels include Paul Buchheit, Scott Banister, Jason Calacanis, David Cancel, Shervin Pishevar, Naval Ravikant, Roy Rodenstein, Dharmesh Shah, and Gary Vaynerchuk.

Because Gmail runs inside a Web browser, meaning it’s really nothing more than a bunch of HTML, style sheets, and JavaScript, it’s a straightforward matter for Rapportive and other startups to write plugins that manipulate the appearance of the Gmail page—and there’s not a thing Google can do about it. So far, there are Rapportive plugins for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari, and Vohra says the three-man startup is working on a plugin for Apple Mail.

Vohra himself has the sort of hybrid background—heavy on both computer science and entrepreneurship—that makes him a natural as a social media startup founder. He says he’s been coding since age 9, starting with BBC Basic, the language developed for … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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