Ex-Microsoftie’s Startup, Telligent, Takes on Jive (and Others) in Social Software for Businesses

A week ago, I reported on Portland, OR-based Jive Software’s latest product, a business software package designed to let employees communicate and collaborate more effectively using social networking tools. Jive competes with the likes of big companies such as IBM and Microsoft, who want to own the business communication space and have been adding social-network features to their own software offerings. But it also competes with a slew of smaller companies all trying to get a piece of the social-networking-for- business pie.

One of these smaller competitors is Telligent, which was founded by Rob Howard, an ex-Microsoftie. Howard, who is Telligent’s chief executive, started the company in his hometown of Dallas, TX, in 2004. Previously, he had spent six years at Microsoft, living in the Seattle area and moving between a developer relations group and the .NET software team, doing both marketing and product development. He helped launch one of Microsoft’s first community websites, and a blogging platform.

Howard originally bootstrapped Telligent with about $5,000, then grew it into a profitable business. Last September, Intel Capital invested $20 million in the company. Telligent now has just over a hundred employees, including half a dozen former Microsofties (mainly from Redmond, WA), Howard says. Telligent’s big customers include the Associated Press, Dell, Electronic Arts, Honda, Intel, MSNBC, MySpace.com, Visa, the National Football League, and yes, Microsoft.

The idea behind Telligent was to use social tools like wikis and blogs to build a suite of software applications for business collaboration. Over the past few years, the company has focused most on business analytics. “Our software helps companies get much more crisp about how to talk to their customers,” Howard says. “What we uniquely do is the analytics. It’s great you can capture all this information, but what’s difficult is to make informed decisions about it.” For instance, he says, Telligent’s software can scour blogs, forums, MSNBC, Twitter—you name it—and pull out what a company’s customers are really saying about a new product in a way that’s totally different from a user survey.

Telligent’s other focus is employee productivity. For example, its software helps workers at big companies like Proctor & Gamble take their e-mail inboxes and distribution lists and make their content “searchable, discoverable, and reusable” in a Web-based discussion format, Howard says. That can help employees quickly find the right experts within the company on a given issue, among other uses.

As for how Telligent competes specifically with Jive’s social business software, Howard emphasizes that his firm’s “investment in analytics is the biggest differentiator.” He also sees a difference in how the two companies’ products interact with the outside world. Howard says, “Our view of the world is one that requires integration. We have to integrate with existing platforms. Jive says, ‘We are the platform.’ We [Telligent] are part of the system…Maybe it’s my Microsoft background, but integration is usually of more value to the business than stand-alone capabilities.”

Another difference is that Telligent partners with Microsoft and counts the Redmond company as a customer, instead of competing directly with its social computing offerings (for now anyway). It’s a delicate relationship that Howard probably understands how to navigate better than most, given his experience.

Even if Telligent isn’t lining up against Microsoft, though, Howard says he has plenty of “great competitors” in Jive and other social computing startups like Emeryville, CA-based Lithium.

So where is this competition headed? Look for the next version of Telligent’s software to hit the market in the next few months. One focus will be on measuring true customer engagement, rather than things like raw pageviews for a given site, Howard says. On a more personal note, Howard says he’s looking forward to spring, and may return to the Northwest to do a little fly fishing. Apparently you can take the Microsoftie out of Seattle, but you can’t take Seattle out of the Microsoftie.

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