The Acquisition of Etacts and Email as a Platform

Etacts, an email add-on that layers social network profiles, conversation history and other relationship management information on top of your email conversations, announced abruptly this morning that it is shutting down its service, deleting all customer data at the end of next month and has “decided to pursue other opportunities.”

Having raised more than a half million dollars from some of the hottest investors in Silicon Valley just over six months ago, it’s unlikely the Etacts team has decided to go do something unrelated. It is most likely the company has been acquired by a larger firm that does heavy business in email. The Inbox 2.0 market has long been expected to heat up and indeed it has. Etacts competitor Rapportive also recently drew big name funding, Gist is rumored to be in acquisition talks with RIM and now Etacts announces a mysterious shut-down. Update: See our subsequent coverage, it appears to be Salesforce that has acquired Etacts.

Funding

In May of this year, Tomio Geron at the Wall Street Journal summed up the funding story thusly:

Etacts, which completed the Y Combinator incubator program in March, has just closed a $700,000 seed round from prominent angels including Ron Conway’s SV Angel; Eric Hahn, former chief technology officer at Netscape; Joshua Schachter, founder of Delicious; Jim Young, co-founder of HotOrNot; Barney Pell and Lorenzo Thione, co-founders of Powerset; Jawed Karim, co-founder of Youtube; Ashton Kutcher, actor and now angel investor; Robby Walker and Wayne Crosby, former Y Combinator participants; and Irene Pedrazza, founder of CheetahMail.

Etacts raised the funding quickly – in just over a month – and had intended to raise $500,000 but decided to let in more investors because of the strong interest, said [Howie] Liu, who co-founded the company with classmate Evan Beard after the two graduated from Duke University last year.

You don’t take Ron Conway money and then just give up in six months.

Rapportive raised a small round from other impressive funders 3 months later. Gist raised $4 million in between those two announcements, in July.

Etacts hasn’t replied to our request for comment, but an acquisition certainly seems the most likely explanation for the service’s decision to shut down.

Email as a Platform

We wrote about email as a platform for application development most recently in August. Yahoo’s Eran Hammer-Lahav, then working on developer relations for Yahoo Mail, explained why so many companies are interested in this space.

“It’s pretty clear that email provides a huge potential for extensibility, given the wide range of ways people use it. The inbox is much more than just a place for incoming mail, it is the primary dashboard for many web users – it is how they manage their lives. So when looking at email as a platform, the opportunity of making it more useful and productive reaches most areas of online activities.

So far the focus has been on taking social information to help better manage email overflow, but the platform has much more potential beyond that.”

What will its likely acquirer do with Etacts? Presumably displaying the social networking profiles and past conversations we’ve had with the people who sent us emails is just the beginning. How will other email providers respond, lest they fall behind in richness of user experience? That’s where things will get really interesting.

Personal Data as a Platform

Perhaps even more interesting is the way that all of these services use data about the people who have sent you email that they have acquired through services like Rapleaf. Services that scoop up and wholesale personal profile data (“the person attached to this email uses this LinkedIn profile, this Twitter profile, owns a home, has kids and loves short videos about kittens”) are wildly controversial but also very useful. Nowhere is that usefulness more clearly demonstrated than in the email CRM services like Etacts, Rapportive and Gist.

Perhaps if Etacts’ feature-set goes mainstream in some big email program, the story of value built for everyday people (not just marketers) from aggregate online personal data as a development platform would become easier to tell.

That would be very good news.

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