T.A. McCann didn’t learn his entrepreneurship lessons through working at a startup or starting his own business. Rather, he learned them as a sailor on a winning America’s Cup team. He says the experience taught him the idea of “freedom, with responsibility” – that the best leaders challenge their team members to innovate and excel, and also to own that success or failure. And he also learned that micromanaging can literally sink your ship, so you have to find team members who can take charge. Through working on other startups including HelpShare and Jump2Go he learned that it’s better to have data to make decision, that the whole team needs to be accountable, and that sometimes you still have to manage with your gut.
These lessons came in handy when McCann came up with an idea for a company while working as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Vulcan Capital in Seattle. “I believed that combining all your contacts and all their content in an automated and prioritised way would provide a competitive advantage for relationship centric professionals like salespeople and business owners,” he says. He launched the company formally and raised almost $7 million in a first round of venture capital for Vulcan and Boulder, CO-based Foundry Group in May 2009. The company, Gist, launched in private then public beta shortly afterwards, so the team could refine the product and attract new users. McCann was also taking the opportunity to avoid some of his past mistakes.
“When I started Gist, I used this experience to avoid making some of the mistakes I’d made in the past and focused on building both a process and a product that promotes continuous improvement for the process and the team,” he says. He led the company as chief product visionary while at the same time navigated the challenges of raising money, developing business relationships with customers, and forging partnerships with strategically important companies like Facebook, Twitter, Salesforce and Google. Gist was acquired by Research In Motion, Ltd. in February 2011, “creating a successful outcome for the employees and investors while adding a critical piece to the BlackBerry mobile product line.”
Gist addresses a key problem faced by business professionals to keep their professional network updated and current. Gist aggregates information from a user’s email and social accounts as well as sources key information about professional contacts and news about both people and companies. Gist also allows a user to interact with their professional connections by sharing information among prospects and colleagues and keeping pace with the events and news that matter most.
“It is innovative because it bridges work and personal social spheres and has the promise of dramatically increasing the effectiveness for an individual worker,” McCann says. “This is an active market space with larger and well-funded companies such as Google, Facebook, Salesforce.com, IBM, and Microsoft all working to innovate and deliver new capabilities through their products that do this.”
Though he had early support from investors, McCann says it was still a challenge to build the product. “The biggest challenges to building the Gist business were working on an incredibly hard problem and trying to do it at scale, while at the same time introducing a new way of relating to data that other companies hadn’t introduced or really done before,” he says. “The problem of finding out ‘who’s relevant to me today’ is not that challenging when you think about it in the context of a few close contacts. When you try to expand that search over many contacts and address books, it becomes a problem of contacts, context and content.”
Looking back on his experiences raising VC money for Gist, McCann says entrepreneurs need to remember a few key things before raising capital. He says raising money will take 6-9 months from the time you start until you have money in the bank, so you need to start the process way before you need money. “Raising money is a sales process and should be treated with similar approaches and diligence,” he says, and advises doing as much diligence on the funders as they do on you. He also says entrepreneurs need to build personal relationships with the “smart” funders and find ways to work on the your ideas well before you need to raise money. McCann has written about why his investors were awesome, and his advice for entrepreneurs raising funding.
McCann says the company’s focus on helping professionals made RIM a great fit. “We wanted to most rapidly bring the power of Gist to tens of millions of users and RIM afforded us this option,” he says. “As we consider future plans, the Blackberry platform will allow us to take the ideas of context to a new level and make the overall mobile experience more social, more focused and smarter.” He envisions the product helping people “get the Gist” of someone they’re meeting in 10 minutes, or “get the Gist” of people copied on an e-mail. For now he’s focused on building a BlackBerry version of Gist, expanding on the multi-platform experience, and continuing to support customers.
Those lessons learned sailing, along with taking a business from launch to acquisition in two years, means he has a lot of advice for new entrepreneurs. “Sell. You are constantly selling your idea to users, customers, partners, VC’s, journalists, employees…you need to become a master and be able to sell in 30 seconds, 3 minutes, 30 minutes, 3 hours…and always be understanding how to close,” he says. He also stresses the importance of your network. “Build and strengthen your network. Make introductions, give of yourself, your ideas, your experience and help other people achieve their goals,” he says.