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

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the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Acorn home computer in the early 1980s. He finished his computer science degree at Cambridge in 2005, then went on to do PhD work, focusing on a computer vision program that transformed printed Sudoku puzzles into digital versions that users could solve on mobile devices. While in graduate school, he became deeply involved in Cambridge University Entrepreneurs (CUE), which runs the largest student business plan competition outside of MIT. After becoming president of the organization, he took an intermission from his PhD work to spend all his time fundraising for the group, eventually collecting more than £100,000.

The experience convinced him that he wanted to help run a company—so he left the university and joined an angel-funded startup called mo.jo, which built a software platform to help large organizations run business plan competitions (just as Vohra had at CUE). One of Vohra’s colleagues at mo.jo was Sam Stokes, and at Red Gate Software—the Cambridge database company and incubator where mo.jo was based—Vohra also met Martin Kleppmann, who’d built a Web app testing startup called Go Test It. After winning the non-profit Cancer Research UK  and the UK Ordnance Survey as flagship mo.jo customers, Vohra spent about six months working to launch an online game based on the works of Steven Erikson, the Canadian author of a popular fantasy series called The Malazan Book of the Fallen. But after Erikson backed out of the deal around January of this year, Vohra was back to square one. That’s when he settled on the idea for Rapportive.

“This time I said, ‘Let’s build something that I really want,'” Vohra says. “My e-mail client is Gmail, and what I really wanted was to see what people look like and see what they do and see what they’re saying on Twitter and what they’re doing online, and be able to store notes about them.” He signed up Stokes and Kleppmann to help build a company around the idea, which, he says, had sprung in part from a concept Kleppmann had shared about wanting to make customer relationship management tools like Salesforce.com more social: “I had never heard the phrase ‘social CRM’ before, but as soon as Martin said it, something clicked inside my brain, and I could instantly see a product.”

Rapportive’s public launch in March was actually inadvertent. Vohra had applied to Y Combinator, which “wants to see a prototype before you apply,” he recounts. “We put up a working prototype on the first of March. And on the second of March, somehow the press found it. TheNextWeb found the first version and reported on it, and then it got picked up by ReadWriteWeb, and then Lifehacker, and then Twitter went insane. We had 10,000 signups in the first 24 hours, and in the coming weeks, top-tier VCs started calling us.”

Vohra says the premature launch, which is also described on the Rapportive blog, was “completely accidental,” but it had the happy side effect of winning Rapportive early admission to the Mountain View incubator. “We called up Y Combinator on Skype and basically said, … 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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