At Yahoo, they don’t have golden parachutes, they have purple ones. Yahoo’s vice president of social search, Jeff Bonforte, is among the thousand or so employees being laid off. (The picture at left is of him skydiving with the parachute Yahoo gave him as a signing bonus when he joined the company a few years ago). His last day is today. But Yahoo’s loss is startup Xobni’s gain. On Monday, he plans on accepting an offer to become CEO of Xobni, a startup that makes Outlook e-mail smarter. (Disclosure: I’ve known Bonforte for a long time. We once lived in the same house).
As head of social search, Bonforte oversaw Yahoo Answers and Delicious before those businesses were recently absorbed by other groups. His real accomplishment at Yahoo, though, was prior to that, as the VP in charge of Yahoo Messenger!, working for Brad Garlinghouse. Under Bonforte, Yahoo Messenger! surpassed AIM in number of users for the first time, revenues went up sixfold, and he also introduced all those funky avatars to the product. Before Yahoo, he did a stint as president of Michael Robertson’s SipPhone, where he developed the Skype-like Gizmo Project on the sly. And during the go-go 1990s, he founded i-drive, one of the first online storage services (it went belly up—a good idea that was too early). At Xobni, his experience with both Yahoo! Messenger and search should serve him well.
Xobni launched at TechCrunch40 (read our review). It is a 14-person YCombinator startup that raised a $4.2 million Series A last year from Atomico Investments, First Round Capital, Khosla Ventures, and Ron Conway’s Baseline Ventures. The VP of engineering, Gabor Cselle, worked on Gmail and did his Masters thesis on inbox organization (I’m not joking). Xobni offers a plug-in for Outlook that helps you sort through your inbox. Click on a person, and you can see all your threaded conversations with them, as well as any attachments they may have sent in the past. “It makes email, in general, work the way your brain does,” says Bonforte. Bill Gates is also a fan.
When Bonforte first met the Xobni founders a few months ago, he brought them into Yahoo to talk to other executives there. They made a lasting impression on him at least. “We weren’t looking for a CEO,” says co-founder Matt Brezina, “but any time we find good people we ask, How can we get them?” Co-founder Adam Smith will relinquish the CEO title, but both he and Brezina will remain very much involved in running the company.
Although Bonforte has only good things to say about Yahoo, I haven’t heard him sound so excited in years. “Just fixing Outlook is a huge opportunity,” he says. “The inbox is still fatally flawed. It is hard to find stuff, hard to find people, hard to understand the network of relationships in your inbox.” Xobni addresses all of those issues.
And what about Xobni’s business model? It is still up in the air, but there are many avenues to explore: selling premium services on top of Outlook such as file transfers, adding people search, adding voice, integration with enterprise apps like Salesforce, Oracle, and PeopleSoft. Bonforte is a creative guy. He’ll figure something out.