Everybody knows the old saw, "It's not what you know, it's who you know." But, do you really know who you know? Probably not as well as you'd like.
Between pocketing business cards, filling up your smartphone contacts and expanding your social media connections, trying to remember who's who gets tough. But San Francisco-based Rapportive is here to help. The company's free-to-download Gmail extension automatically collects information about the person you're e-mailing, including Twitter account content, Facebook posts, LinkedIn data and any other material tied to that e-mail address. The info is displayed as a simple sidebar, usually replacing the distracting paid ads on the right side of the page.
Founded in 2010 by University of Cambridge grads Rahul Vohra, Martin Kleppmann and Sam Stokes, Rapportive exploded in popularity with tens of thousands of users in the first 24 hours of launch. It further picked up steam with seed funding from investors like Silicon Valley's elite business incubator Y Combinator. The startup was purchased in February by LinkedIn for an undisclosed sum.
Rapportive's subtle approach to customer relationship management has won over swarms of dedicated fans. Among them is Boston-area startup veteran Mike Taber, who in addition to running two small businesses of his own has founded the Micropreneur Academy, an online community that provides guidance for software startups.
"We have over a thousand people who have joined [the academy] over the last couple years, and I have no idea what they look like," Taber says. "I tend to have to do a lot more work to bring my brain up to speed about who they are and what they do. But [Rapportive] shows me a picture. It shows me Twitter. And I can instantly associate them with the products they've worked on."
Time-starved entrepreneurs like Taber find Rapportive useful because they don't have to remember to use it. Once the extension is installed, users simply type an e-mail address into Gmail and everything the tool can scour up online about the person's identity is instantly displayed in the sidebar. Another link takes users to every recent conversation they've had with the contact. There's also space for adding internal notes on the status of a deal or personal data. Rapportive's mission is to help users build a rapport with their contacts by bringing context to e-mail communication.
The tool is convenient (individual Gmail users and Google Apps shops might wonder what they did without it installed), but it's still limited. Non-Gmail users are left out and there is no smartphone or tablet support, even if you are using a Gmail web app. You also have to connect your various social media accounts to Rapportive in order to get full functionality. For example, to see other users' tweets, you have to give Rapportive access to your own Twitter account.
Another inconvenience: The Rapportive extension has to be installed on each individual browser that you are using to open Gmail. The software doesn't live on the web and follow you from computer to computer, so if you're borrowing a friend's laptop or logging on at work or the library, you'll need to install it fresh, which won't always be an option.
The bottom line is if you're using Gmail for work, there's no reason not to give Rapportive a try. It's a quality customer relationship management tool that quickly gets you up to speed on anybody you deal with in the workday.
Marshall Kirkpatrick, CEO of expert discovery service Plexus Engine, is in the process of launching his own data-driven startup, partly inspired by Rapportive's success. "I think that it's an early example of using contact data as a platform for richer engagement and competitive advantage," he says. "It's just the beginning of what I hope is a whole world of applications built on top of that kind of data. I hate e-mail without it. I desperately want it on my iPhone. I want it on my tablet. I want more applications just like it."
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