McCue grew up in New York, New York, the oldest of six children. His parents, Lucy Ann and Patrick J., were running a small ad agency. When McCue was in his early teens, his father, who lacked health insurance, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and the family was forced out of their home and had to rely on food stamps. After his father died of cancer, McCue chose to help his family instead of joining the US Air Force Academy, and never went to college.
McCue was fascinated by software and began his first business in his early teens, writing video games at home that he licensed to magazines and in the end to a games publisher. He had wanted to be an astronaut and his first real app, he said, was a space shuttle flight simulator he wrote in TI-BASIC in 1981.
Admiring technology entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Mitch Kapor and Bill Gates, McCue joined IBM in 1986, giving up a congressional nomination to attend the US Air Force Academy. He was employed on a six-month temporary contract but ended up staying three-and-a-half years.
Paper Software and Netscape
In 1989 McCue founded his first company, Paper Software, aiming "to make using a computer as easy as using a piece of paper". At first the company was not successful and McCue spent a summer digging ditches and building houses to raise funds, and then doing software design consulting for a company contracted to the pharmaceutical firm Merck & Co.
Paper Software's first product was Sidebar, a set of icons designed to make using a computer more intuitive, but after discovering Mosaic, McCue began to develop technology allowing web browsers to display complex 3-D graphics. McCue acted as CEO, winning nearly 80% market share in 3D internet software from Microsoft and SGI.
McCue rejected offers for Paper Software from America Online and Silicon Graphics before selling to Netscape for $20 million in February 1996. At Netscape McCue was appointed Vice President of Technology, helping to create Netscape Netcaster and working on transforming its Netscape Navigator browser into a Web-based desktop operating system. It has been said that the project, called Constellation after a boat McCue's father had helped to restore, led Microsoft to alter its Windows licensing agreements to prevent PC manufacturers using competing software, eventually leading to antitrust proceedings against the company.
When McCue later paid $200,000 for a 48-foot classic wooden sailboat he named it “Constellation”.
Tellme Networks and Microsoft
In February 1999 McCue left Netscape to co-found with Angus Davis, Tellme Networks. McCue had previously recruited Davis to work at Netscape when he was 19 years old,[clarification needed] and credited him with the idea for the new company. Tellme went on to raise $238 million in venture capital.
Tellme launched in July 2000 with the ambition of creating a 'voice browser' by using voice-recognition software to allow users to find internet-based information through their telephone with simple voice commands. “When you pick up a phone,” McCue explained in 2001, “you'll hear a friendly voice say, ‘What would you like to do?’ and you’ll be able to place a call or do a whole variety of things using simple key words.”
Instead, McCue decided to "go where the phone calls are today, not where they'll be tomorrow”, and Tellme evolved into a service that allowed a caller to communicate with a client's server by translating voice commands into VoiceXML and then transferring the data through its own network, potentially saving large companies hundreds of thousands of dollars on human operators and their own telecom networks. By 2005 Tellme estimated that 35 million Americans were making calls through their network each month; revenues were more than $100 million. The company became profitable in the second half of 2004.
Tellme was one of the world’s first internet platforms to deliver web data to anyone over any telephone, a platform that inspired the migration of large-scale phone services from proprietary applications to open standards applications and drove the adoption of VoiceXML. The system became the standard for "voice browsers" and in March 2007 the company was acquired by Microsoft for a rumoured $800 million, with McCue joining as General Manager.
McCue described his efforts to make design a higher priority at Microsoft as a work in progress during his time at the company, "I'd give it probably a 'C-plus' to a 'B' right now," he said in 2009.
McCue left Microsoft in June 2009. In January 2010, he co-founded, with Evan Doll, one of the early engineers on the iPhone team at Apple, Flipboard, the "social magazine" app for Apple's iPad. Flipboard launched in July 2010 having secured $10.5 million of venture capital from investors including John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (who had also invested in Tellme), Index Ventures, The Chernin Group, Twitter creator Jack Dorsey, Facebook’s co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, and Ashton Kutcher.
Flipboard evolved from a thought experiment undertaken by McCue and Doll in which they asked what the web would look like if it was washed away in a hurricane and needed to be built again from scratch with the knowledge of hindsight. "We thought," said McCue, "it would be possible to build something from the ground up that was inherently social. And we thought that new form factors like the tablet would enable content to be presented in ways that were fundamentally more beautiful." McCue said that when reading magazines like National Geographic he would ask himself: "Why is it that the Web isn't as beautiful as these magazines? What could we do to make the web a more beautiful place?"
McCue was critical of the way that journalism appeared on the web, saying that it had been "contaminated by the Web form factor" and was being pushed into trying to support the monetization model of the web by driving page views with slide shows, condensed columns of narrow text and distracting advertisements, a space where, he said, "I don't think it should ever go". "It's not ... a pleasant experience to 'curl up' with a good website", he said.
With this in mind they recruited Marcos Weskamp, the designer who in 2004 had built newsmap.jp to graphically display a heatmap of stories from the Google News news aggregator. Flipboard became what they called the first social magazine, allowing people to consume media from Facebook and Twitter in an easier and more aesthetically interesting way.
By December 2010, Flipboard claimed that they were installed on about 10% of the 8-9 million iPads then in circulation; Apple named Flipboard its iPad app of the year. In April 2011 McCue confirmed a $50 million round of financing, valuing Flipboard at $200 million.
McCue served on the board of directors at Twitter from December 2010 until August 2012. He was initially appointed as a compromise candidate between the company and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, from whom Twitter had just raised $200 million in a round of funding. His recruitment led to speculation that Twitter was heading towards creating a media and publishing business.
McCue has had a long association with Kleiner Perkins, which invested in Netscape, Tellme Networks and Flipboard. Ellen Pao, who was a junior partner at the firm when he joined the board of Twitter, was also a board member at Flipboard having worked with McCue at Tellme. McCue praised the work of Pao and Kleiner Perkins, restating that opinion when Pao brought a gender-discrimination lawsuit against the venture capital firm in 2012.
McCue's departure came as Twitter moved to reassess the terms of its use by third-party developers and as it was beginning to enhance its own presentation of news articles and other information, moving it potentially into competition with Flipboard. In September 2012 McCue cautioned Twitter against compromising its existing relationships, telling The Daily Telegraph: “Twitter was created as an open platform, an open communications ecosystem, and I hope it can stay that way. You have to be really careful not to let money get in the way of that.”
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- Microsoft Tellme Site
- McCue's Twitter Account
- TechCrunch TV Founder Stories interview with McCue by Chris Dixon in June 2011: "Part One: The Builder"; "Part Two: The TellMe Years"; "Part Three: Surviving The Downturn"; "Part Four: Why Microsoft Bought TellMe"; "Part Five: Life after TellMe"; "Part Six: Delivering Digital Content".