Unified Inbox boosts tech chops with SocialGrow acquisition

  • Acquires SocialGrow, its third acqusition in two years
  • On track for 2015 launch, partnerships signed in Asia & Europe
Unified Inbox boosts tech chops with SocialGrow acquisition
UNIFIED Inbox, which was originally founded in New Zealand but with its international headquarters in Singapore, has announced the acquisition of Boston-based social networking application company SocialGrow for an undisclosed amount.

This marks the the social communication and collaboration platform startup’s third acquisition, follwing the acquisition of another Boston-based startup Smak (Secure Messaging Alerting and Knowledge) in May and Holland-based HelloInbox in February 2013.

Key components of SocialGrow, an application which claims to make it easier for organisations and individuals to better connect with the people they know on different social networks, will be integrated into Unified Inbox’s product offerings.

In a statement announcing the acquisition, Unified Inbox chief executive officer (CEO) Toby Ruckert said that SocialGrow gives the company the opportunity to further unify communications, including collecting and managing contacts from user inboxes and outboxes.

“Integrating SocialGrow showcases how we are using unified communications as a platform to encourage developers to create apps that will allow customers to fully customise their inboxes – pixel by pixel if they so choose – to meet their specific needs and preferences,” he added.

Commenting on the development, Nathan Zeldes, president of the Information Overload Research Group (IORG), noted the move integrates two streams of information, each previously prone to its own debilitating information overload: Email, and the management of social network connectivity.

“By intelligently automating the second based on what happens in the first, the overall overload and time investment is reduced even while the quality of social relationships is deepened,” he said in the statement issued by Unified Inbox.

Standing out in a crowd

Unified Inbox boosts tech chops with SocialGrow acquisitionIn an email interview with Digital News Asia (DNA), Ruckert (pic) said that he had been familiar with SocialGrow and the work it does do "for quite some time."

“One year into starting up Unified Inbox, I discovered another young and dynamic team in the space we were operating in – it was SocialGrow.

“At the time I thought to myself, what a great idea to build out an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) which was focused purely around the concept of connecting of people and helping them growing their networks, while keeping the option to build it out into a Unified Inbox later,” he recalled.

But at the time, no moves were made as Ruckert and his team were already well into their own product development phase, and he was “passionate about getting the underlying unification technology right first.”

As time passed and the Unified Inbox team moved closer to realising their final product, feedback from beta users highlighted how nice it would be if there was a way to ‘auto-complete’ and ‘auto-grow’ their social networks based on the contacts they have day-to-day communications with anyway over email and other messaging channels.

That feedback brought the work of SocialGrow to mind and Ruckert reached out to the startup’s CEO Marsh Sutherland to open up negotiations.

“After several discussions with all of the SocialGrow cofounders, we eventually discovered that our vision is really aligned and that we could integrate the technology into our product offering within a matter of weeks or months – which is very important as we didn't want to get sidetracked from our main mission,” Ruckert said.

While all of Unified Inbox’s acquisitions to date have made sense within the wider vision of the product it eventually seeks to offer the world, it is not commonplace for a startup to be this aggressive, especially before it even launches to market.

Asked about this, Ruckert admitted that it is certainly a strategy that would have raised many an eyebrow with questions, but shared that acquiring any company before Unified Inbox’s global rollout “wasn't actually on the agenda.”

These acquisitions were “opportunities which presented themselves” and only materialised because the people were a fit, and vision and technology were aligned to increase product attractiveness, company value and the overall platform ecosystem.

Unified Inbox boosts tech chops with SocialGrow acquisition“We were thinking to build those features ourselves anyway; in fact, for some we had already started. And while building is comparatively easy, knowing why certain things should be built in a certain way is really hard.

“There are no patents for this; it's intellectual property that solely exists in the founders' minds and the essence of many accumulated hours of thinking, trying, designing, failing, re-thinking, re-designing and re-trying.

"This in itself is a big value if the experience transfer can happen fast enough and there is cultural fit between the solutions and the people,” Ruckert added.

He argued that its acquisitions have helped Unified Inbox sharpen its offering and strategy, shorten thinking time around a specific set of problems and features in the Unified Communications space, and accelerate the development to make them available within the UCaaS (Unified Communications-as-a-Service) platform the team is building.

Asked about how operations work for such a diverse and geographically scattered team, Ruckert reported that the company is currently refocusing the staff in the different locations the company has operations in – namely New Zealand, India and Germany – so that the team can more effectively work together to fulfill the company's mission and vision.

He said he believes that at the stage Unified Inbox is in now, there is a need for team members to "come together" in certain central locations which matter for key markets, wryly adding that it was probably also time to “uprade to a bigger plan” for all the online tools the company leverages.

“But we also want to stay true to our distributed team and remoting working roots. For instance we've been trialing remote internships which was first intended as a simple experiment but so far has been working so great that we may turn it into an actual initiative.

“So despite having crossed 20 team members a while ago, we're committed to both central and individual operations as well as continuing with a partly remote team,” he said.

Full steam ahead

Unified Inbox boosts tech chops with SocialGrow acquisitionAs Unified Inbox readies its first commercial launches and prepares for global availability in 2015, SocialGrow’s chief marketing officer and cofounder Ken Herron will be joining the team as head of marketing to steer global efforts in this area.

“As a CEO who’s both a founder and a grower, it’s great to work with Toby [Ruckert], and I’m lucky to join the very talented Unified Inbox team,” said Herron.

“I’m excited not only to help integrate SocialGrow’s key features into new solutions, but to work with the Unified Inbox team to create something even bigger – really simplifying communications and collaboration for both organisations and individuals,” he added.

This year has been a busy one for the Unified Inbox team. In addition to its acquisitions, the company opened its new global headquarters in Singapore in April and announced in July that it will be leveraging SAP HANA technology for its smart sorting mechanism, InboxRank.

Ruckert said that the team is on track with its mission to launch next year, adding that the company has market (channel) partnerships in various countries in Asia and Europe with telecommunications companies, Internet service providers, governments and device manufacturers. Negotiations with American partners are still ongoing.

“The addressable end-subscriber numbers from those partnerships at the moment are just under 250 million users, out of which we aim to get 1% as paid subscribers by the end of 2015,” he claimed.

Ruckert also remains steadfastly commited to the path he has set for Unified Inbox with its stated mission of sparking a “communication revolution.”

“Revolutions don't start with ‘Let's try to raise some funds, give us a year or two and if we make it great; if not, let's move on to something else.’ When you start something big, you need to see it to the finish line, before you make the first step – or else you won't see it through eventually. It's kind of like running a marathon with eagle eyes," he said.
For him, there is no point in being too fast or too slow if you don't make it to the finish. And marathons – much like solving big, scary and ugly problems – simply take time. It's not a 100-metre sprint.
“Sometimes it's the market you've got to wait for or you get a Google Wave, and sometimes it's the product we need to adjust without losing our overall vision.

“Some of the hard parts at Unified Inbox is the many channels we have to deal with, the restrictions around them, related API (Applications Programming Interface) changes, user concerns such security and privacy aspects, overall scaling and the related profitability.
“So it's not pretty what we all have to do so that one day we can give the user the ability to ‘Simply Communicate’ – it just takes time,” he added.

Related Stories:
Unified communications vision takes shape at Unified Inbox
Asia Pacific workers want more access to social tools at work
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