Interview with JB Holston, NewsGator

For this morning's interview, we thought we'd catch up with J.B. Holston, CEO of Denver-based NewsGator, on the latest from the firm, the company's transformation from RSS to enterprise social computing, as well as how the company's close link to Microsoft SharePoint has helped it grow.

J.B., thanks for the time. It's been awhile since we last talked--what's the spectrum of products you now provide?

J.B. Holston: Right now, the company is pretty significantly focused on enterprise social computing, which is a category that really has emerged over the last two or three years as a significant, independent software category. You've got folks like Gartner, Forrester, and all the other analysts now following it as a space. It's all really just happened in the last 18 months. If you think about what enterprise social computing is, the easiest way to think about it is that it's a combination of Facebook and Twitter for the enterprise. We're selling software to large organizations, the government, and other commercial customers who find that the kind of interaction that Facebook and Twitter provide have business value, when it is used for their internal and external constituents. We've got a range of software and solutions that do that.

How is this all related to your roots in the RSS market?

J.B. Holston: The relationship to the company is the technical protocol, RSS, where our roots are. The big insight was that RSS, as it turns out, is not just for connecting people to content--it's for connecting people to people, which is what enterprise social computing is all about. We've got 250 of the Global 200 as customers at this point, and they are big, enterprise-wide customers. Some of the most well known companies using our product are Accenture, Deloitte, Citibank, and two of the three largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.

When did you start moving into social computing, and why?

J.B. Holston: We started delivering our enterprise RSS server back in 2005, and one of the first customers we had was Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin had built an internal service, called Unity, which was using our RSS server, SharePoint, and Google search, along with some custom development they did. Unity is very much like Facebook for internal employees, and we saw that use of our RSS engine. At the same time, the SharePoint team at Microsoft had come to us and said--hey, we sell SharePoint for social computing, but not many people are using it for that. Why don't we marry RSS with SharePoint, so that we have an out-of-the-box solution for enterprise social computing? Those two things happened around the same time, with us seeing a customer using an RSS server in social computing, and SharePoint suggesting we build an application that integrated with SharePoint in that space. Our first version of Social Sites came out at the Enterprise 2.0 show two years ago, and we're now on version 3.2 of that product. We also recently bought a Canadian company called Tomoye, which closed in January of this year, which had been in the enterprise collaboration space for about nine years. That brought us a stable of government clients. In particular, that includes the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Air Force, and a variety of other companies, which gives us the opportunity to grow our government business in the enterprise collaboration space. Tomoye was also a .NET product, and all on the Microsoft stack, as was our Social Sites product, so it was quite complimentary in terms of market and product, and really expanded our enterprise social computing business.

It looks like you really now have quite a focus on enhancing Microsoft SharePoint?

J.B. Holston: It's been a great adventure. There are 105 million seats of SharePoint in the world, and it's the fastest growing server product for Microsoft, and a strategic push for Microsoft. It comes out every 3 years, roughly. It's really a platform for different enterprise applications, from workflow, to document management, to business intelligence, to enterprise search. It's highly penetrated into the workplace. Because it's a platform, it's a great opportunity to develop customer solutions, and to help fill the gaps out of the box. The Tomoye product is a bit less lightly integrated with SharePoint, so we're now covering the waterfront, depending on how mature people are with SharePoint, whether that's very mature where it's a basic platform for everything, to everyone who has it for free but hasn't been using it for awhile. We cover all of the dimensions. Because of SharePoint's market penetration and uptake, it's been advantageous to ride on top of that from a strategic point of view.

What is the most popular use of your product with SharePoint?

J.B. Holston: The microblogging is huge. We've got a fully integrated microblogging solution, which allows anyone--from their iPhone, BlackBerry, or other mobile device--to directly interact like Twitter, except for work related events. They might have updated a document, and if it's in a community where you're a member, people are notified, they can comment on it, they can rate it, they can like it--lots of different things. You can access it in a lightweight way from any sort of device. The use case is extraordinarily popular. It's just like Twitter, except around work events. You're not just chattering away, it's chattering away and interacting with colleagues in a community around work flow. Communities are a popular concept. We have lots of Tomoye implementations which are really large communities of practice and interest. For example, the Department of Defense has a community on Defense Acquisition University, with 450,000 members--people who are professionals interested in Department of Defense contracting. Very few of them are actually government employees. That community allows people interested in a specific aspect of defense acquisition--say, only fighter jets--to collaborate with others, and interact with others with similar expertise.

There's been a lot of talk about RSS being dead, and you've come quite far from your original focus on RSS readers. What's your opinion on RSS--is it dead, and do people care about it?

J.B. Holston: I don't think I've talked with a customer about RSS for two and a half years. It's just not relevant. Having said that, it's become like SMTP is to email--no one talks about SMTP, but everyone uses email. Now, no one talks about RSS, but they're using Twitter, Facebook, maybe Google Reader, or My Yahoo--where RSS is a critical protocol, but no one thinks about it. It's just a natural evolution of the market. You don't talk about the protocol and what it does, you build an application on it which builds value. There is still a pure-play market for RSS readers--and we still have our consumer products, NetNewswire, Feeddemon, NetNewswire for the iPhone and iPad, which are very popular to subscribe to content--and there's lots of competition for those kinds of things--but virtually none of those are marketed as RSS readers anymore. Most importantly, from our perspective, what the business has become about is connecting folks to content, and folks to other people. That's what our business has become all about, and as a company, we've moved with the market. If we had stayed focused on the consumer RSS market, it's not clear what our business would be right now.

How big is the firm now, in terms of employees, and where are they located? And also, are you still backed by the same venture firms?

J.B. Holston: We now have 85 employees, with two primary locations, in Denver, and also in Ottawa, where Tomoye was based. We're also still venture backed by Mobius, Masthead, and Vista Ventures, and Brad Feld is still on our board, and is as much of a powerhouse as ever.

Thanks for the update!