Interview with Sara Gates, Wisegate

Recently, Austin-based Wisegate ( launched a social networking site aimed at business professionals, focused on senior IT professionals. To get the story on the company, how it is really quite different from a typical social network, and how it's helping IT execs with their jobs, we caught up with founder and CEO Sara Gates for an interview.

What is Wisegate?

Sara Gates: We are an anti-social, social network. We are very specifically focused on senior professionals and giving them access to each other, in a hype-free, no-vendor, no-sales environment. It's a safe place for them to have candid conversations.

One thing we’ve found is that in this era of social networking, meaningful networks are actually on the decline. Most senior career people have trusted networks of 4-6 people. Wisegate seeks to expand that number for the specific purpose of professional problem solving among peers. We don't ever want to bring millions of people together – that's not where problems get solved.

What kind of conversations would they typically have on your site?

Sara Gates: We're targeting people who have risen to the point in their career where they are the only person in their company who has their job title. What we've heard from our members, is that not only are the only person that does their job, and if they look around, look to the left, or look to the right, they have no one to talk to about huge decisions that they are making, or who they can ask about what they have done in similar positions. We've started by launching and IT community, and we'll be expanding to others outside of IT early next year. Within IT, for example, we have Chief Security Officers running huge implementations of security projects, we have the CIOs of major banks asking what other companies are spending on a specific technology, and more. They're able to post polls within Wisegate, and a week later can give their boss several dozen data points from well vetted people, giving them a sense of what others are spending. Other examples are the recent RSA hack, where our members were talking to each other, trying to figure out if they should replace RSA, or stick with them, or what the plan should be. It's all very practical things related to their jobs, about buying something, running a big project, or day to day issues that crop up.

How did Wisegate come about?

Sara Gates: My last two startups were both software vendors, and had been acquired. So I've spent a lot of time in the technology industry as a vendor. I started to hear a lot of customers saying--"Could you introduce me to someone who has similar problems?" Because I knew as a vendor what other people were doing, I heard the desire for a peer match matching service loud and clear. One day it hit me, was that the notion of a private "Yelp" for the enterprise was needed. So what we've created is sort of a combination of Yelp and, but for IT guys. It's different from Yelp, in that the content is more structured. Because we're serving IT guys, we've created structure around IT topics, about the type of businesses, and made it easy to filter. You can filter on categories and easily find people like you in similar roles, find product reviews, push polls and questions to the community. You can actually get questions answered from members who have expertise in those areas that you are asking questions about. Similar to, our idea is that we can get your question in front of the right members, who have their expertise to share, so that those questions can get in front of people who are really able to get you insight.

It sounds like you've really done what customer councils, and user groups have traditionally done, but online?

Sara Gates: That's a great analogy. One things that is interesting, is we thought we should be about just products and purchase decisions. But, what we've uncovered--which I think is really exciting--is that purchase and product conversations are only 10 to 20 percent of what members want to talk about. The other 80 percent of the time, they're talking about things like how to secure their iPads, and other hot issues of the day. The interesting thing about Wisegate, is we're at the magic intersection of cool new technology and old school human interaction. You can converse on the site, as you might expect with a social media site, but we also have set up regular phone calls, where members say they want to talk live about a topic. We've even set up a meeting Boston of all the Boston members, where they wanted to get together to talk about hiring mistakes in hiring technical managers and leaders, how they could change their process, and how they could learn from others.

What was your background before you got into this?

Sara Gates: This is my third startup. The last was Waveset Technology, which was purchased by Sun Microsystems. Most recently, I was VP of Identity Management at Sun, and as I said before, I've been around the high tech area for a number of years. The idea for Wisegate came out of all of those years as a software vendor.

We understand it costs $1000 for users to join the site -- why do they join, and is the fee a barrier to signing up new customers?

Sara Gates: Ninety percent of our members expense it. What they normally say to us is, $1000 is no problem, and it's a great investment. They compared it to going to their favorite conference every year, so they can hear from their peers. However, they don't have to leave the office for three days, and they're getting better information than at a conference. Compared to travel and conference expenses it's a great bargain.

How is your firm funded?

Sara Gates: Actually, we bootstrapped the company. My husband and I self-funded it, got if up and off the ground. But recently, we raised funding from Trellis Partners and a well known angel, for our seed round, which was $1.5M.

Finally, what's next for you?

Our vision is to give our members a voice in their industry that is way beyond what they have today. Our members are hyper intelligent and experienced so tapping into that collective wisdom is very powerful. Turning that wisdom into a voice in the industry is a need.

Our very near term goal is to save our members time -- they tell us we are already doing this -- by giving them access to senior peers just like them--in similar positions, similar companies, and with similar challenges-- to get practical, useful info that they can put to work immediately in doing their job. We save them time and arm them to make better decisions.

Next we'll rollout other Wisegate communities – we have heard loud and clear that everyone needs a Wisegate.