Interview: NewsGator's JB Holsten on Being a SharePoint PartnerWhen you think about Microsoft partners, one of the first that comes to mind is NewsGator. A successful third party integrator to Microsoft SharePoint, NewsGator Social Sites has over 4 million paid seats and is Microsoft's premier partner for social software integration. And while this last little while has seen a number of interesting events happen for NewsGator: Microsoft's acquisition of Yammer, a new version of Social Sites, a new version of SharePoint and a new CEO, it only spells good news for the social software company. Here we offer some of J.B. Holston's (now the former CEO of NewsGator) views on these topics.

CMSWire: NewsGator started as a company that supported RSS. What was the driving force that shifted the focus to social and SharePoint?

JB Holston: In 2005 we released an aggregation server based on RSS whose job was to allow organizations to securely and scalably manage subscriptions to unlimited sources, then intelligently redistribute those feeds. We called the product the “NewsGator Enterprise Server (NGES)” (We weren’t great at naming…). One of our first customers was Lockheed, Martin, which took NGES and combined it with SharePoint, which was already their base collaboration layer for employees; Google Search; and some custom wiki work and combined it into one of the first ‘facebook for the enterprise’ applications, which they called Unity. Unity’s business problem was tactic knowledge capture; about 25% of LM’s employees leave every five years and a large proportion of those were the folks with the deepest historical and topical knowledge. LM felt that a more social and easier means to share knowledge would help address that issue.

Soon thereafter the SharePoint team at Microsoft approached us -- MOSS (SharePoint Server 2007) was out and while it was being marketed for ‘social’ use cases, the product team recognized the deficiencies. They suggested we more closely tie NGES to SharePoint to provide an out-of-box social solution. We were smart enough to draw a line between the Lockheed Martin and Microsoft data points, and that led to the first version of Social Sites, which we launched with Microsoft at the Enterprise 2.0 show in Boston in the summer of 2007.

CMSWire: What made you decide to tightly integrate Social Sites with SharePoint and not build it as a standalone solution?

JBH: We felt from the start that the value of enterprise social computing would increase directly as a function of the number of individuals accessing the network. We realized that that meant the system needed to act as a scaled, secure, searchable enterprise application, or it would buckle or become prohibitively expensive as organizations sought to provide and support the network for everyone. SharePoint had taken off -- in no small part due to Microsoft’s sales and marketing strengths -- to become a ubiquitous available platform within organizations. We felt that leveraging its paid-for presence and technical capabilities -- and Microsoft’s commitment to it as their fastest-growing server product -- would mean we could provide a best-in-class solution at the lowest total cost of ownership to the broadest market.

CMSWire: What do you think makes NewsGator a successful SharePoint partner?

JBH: We’ve invested tremendously in the art and science of Microsoft partnering. Microsoft is a complicated organization that requires careful handling across different field geographies in parallel to close work with a multiplicity of highly-siloed product organizations. We invested the time and people to insure we understood all the different groups’ goals and objectives, and to do everything we could to be clearly and volubly positioned to leverage those goals and objectives. We were also always careful to over deliver on our commitments. And we learned to operate as Microsoft operates -- if they stood up a new reporting system we’d use it, however painful; when new technologies became mission-critical to Microsoft, we’d adopt and embed them first.

CMSWire: What excites you most about Social Sites and SharePoint and their future together?

JBH: Microsoft is pivoting hard toward the consumer and the cloud. SharePoint is a multi-billion dollar business and remains the fastest-growing MSFT server product in history -- and has over 135 million sold seats at last count. We believe there’s a beautiful future as the leading ISV bringing this pivot and these facts together to offer cutting-edge enterprise social solutions to organizations. SharePoint will remain a vital application platform and critical system of record for organizations; on premise for many, hybrid for an increasing proportion, and via the cloud over time. We believe that leveraging its strengths and the promises of other MSFT platforms will remain key to providing the best and lowest total ownership cost enterprise social solutions for a long period of time.

Side Note: When the news of Yammer's acquisition by Microsoft first came out, I had the opportunity to talk about it with Holston. And while I am sure it events had NewsGator jumping, Holston seems very confident this is only good news for the company.

Holston told me that when they spoke with Microsoft, they were told that nothing was changing as far as their relationship with Microsoft (and SharePoint), or their understanding of Microsoft's product roadmaps. In fact, Microsoft saw the Yammer acquisition as offering more technology that NewsGator could leverage in their integrations.

Holston believes Microsoft sees Yammer as a way to get people into enterprise social faster (on Microsoft technologies) due to its freeium model, and Microsoft has been clear that Yammer will continue as a standalone solution. What that means for NewsGator is that Yammer will be a bigger on ramp for Social Sites than it has been already. According to Holston, Yammer has been a big lead source for them in the last nine months. 

CMSWire: We are really just starting to understand how to best implement social collaboration in the enterprise. What do you believe is the most important thing to consider when building a social collaboration strategy? What do enterprises often forget?

JBH: While the unprecedented adoption of consumer social networks means that individuals at work ‘get’ social networking technologies, that doesn’t mean that their usefulness when deployed within an enterprise can be taken for granted, or that their utility to the organization is automatic once deployed. The technologies are evolving, and organizations are learning quickly, too. The technologies themselves are still too overwhelming for many folks, and they are still too unlinked from the fundamental processes and systems that define productivity within a work environment. There’s still a lot of work to do to tie social networking more deeply to the rapidly-changing means by which we get work done.

Embedded systems within organizations need to be opened up for instant collaboration -- on any device -- and that collaboration needs to be intelligent. “Intelligence” in this context means that someone is presented with exactly the process, resource, and individual or community she needs at exactly the right time on precisely the relevant device to get her work done more quickly -- and creatively.

While the technologies evolve, organizations need recognize that ‘going social’ is a journey, not a destination, and embrace the new opportunities for faster innovation and more efficient work that these changing technologies provide. The most successful enterprises populate the journey with committed advocates in key new roles such as community managers and curators. The least successful enterprises at ‘social’ leave the capability as a silo’d lightweight uncared-for chattering place, or run it entirely and exclusively out of the I.T. organization. Neither approach weaves the social fabric sufficiently into the organization to accelerate the journey toward the new world of work. Those that get it right most rapidly gain enduring competitive advantage and will be those organizations we all consider as the best places to work in the coming years.

CMSWire: You’ve brought in a new President and CEO. Will NewsGator’s vision change under new leadership? Or is its course already set?

JBH: The course is largely set but we firmly expect to accelerate along it with this change, which includes some other key new managers too. Daniel has a great background building global businesses from Newsgator’s current size to much larger scale; has deep experience around and passion for enterprise social; and has been in companies which have leveraged multiple ecosystems successfully. The enterprise social industry is quite young; there are an immense number of organic and inorganic growth opportunities and we’re delighted to have leadership in place that can rapidly move to take advantage of all of those.

CMSWire: As Chairman of the Board for NewsGator, what role will you now play in the company you built? Do you think it will be hard to let go of the reigns and allow someone else to lead?

JBH: My primary initial focus is to insure a smooth transition, so I’ll be available to the team as needed. But we’ve been working with Daniel and the team as consultants for quite some time, so they’re running from day one. I’ll continue to represent NewsGator externally to the degree the Company finds it useful to have an extra voice in the market. The Chairman of the Board oversees all the Board’s interests which of course includes our investors, so I have a particular responsibility on that dimension, too. I love the company we’ve built and expect to remain close to many of the great folks and awesome clients I’ve worked with over the years, but it isn’t hard to let go of the reigns at all. This transition was my idea and project; once I decided that this was the best next move for NewsGator I became heavily focused on making it successful and haven’t been looking back. I do think it’s a fairly rare case for successful start-ups, though, but for me it’s the logical next step in building the business, and I’m all about building great businesses.

CMSWire: Does leaving the position of CEO now open the door for other projects for you? Can you give us an idea what they are?

JBH: Yes, but too early to say. I have long had interests in a wide range of for-profit and not-for-profit businesses and a long list of other outside activities, too. But I do particularly love building great, durable businesses…

CMSWire: In one sentence, can you provide your vision for the future of social business?

JBH: In the very near future any business that is not fundamentally and tranformatively social will fail …..