The rise of email and online billing in the past 10 years has eliminated the need for a lot of paper mail. People can pay their bills online, and send cards and invitations using sites like Paperless Post. But not everyone opts for online billing, and there are many thing that still come in the mail, like invitations, packages, and catalogues. New Austin, TX-based company Outbox is looking to eliminate the need for physical mailboxes altogether with their new service that intercepts mail delivery, and opens, scans and stores mail in a digital mailbox. The company has raised $2.2 million from Floodgate partner Mike Maples Jr. and several angel investors including Peter Thiel. It’s currently in closed beta testing, with a regional launch scheduled in the next five months, and a U.S. launch in the next year.
Co-founder Will Davis said the idea for Outbox came from a simple request: he needed a Dropbox for his snail mail. He was moving for the fourth time in six years, and was tired of constantly forwarding his address and missing items. “We found that the mailbox is an incredibly vibrant and complex marketplace, but a marketplace with relatively little innovation,” Davis said in an interview. “Meanwhile, consumers were demanding better options. We liked the idea of building a business in a market with these characteristics—so we did.”
The company has partnered with the United States Postal Service (USPS), so once a user signs up on Outbox’s website their mail is intercepted, and then opened, scanned and stored online. Users can then view the mail online the same day it was received from any device (the company doesn’t have native apps, rather an HTML5 solution). Users can get physical items like packages, catalogues and invitations sent to their homes for free, and all other mail is shredded and recycled. “By intercepting mail without a change of address, we can take the mystery out of the product and make the transition painless for our users,” co-founder Evan Baehr said. “You don’t have to worry about forwarding your mail, rerouting it, filling out complicated forms, or notifying senders that you’re using our product. Essentially, all you have to do is sign up and overnight you are paperless.”
There are obvious safety concerns for consumers who are handing over their mailbox to a third-party. The company said it uses “bank level encryption” to keep digital files secure, and they store paper documents in an archival facility with round-the-clock security. Baehr said the service isn’t for everyone, but they’re safer than users’ current physical mailboxes, since “at no time will your postal mail be outside of a trusted network – straight from USPS to Outbox.” “Not many people take the time to scan and encrypt their postal mail, and then safely shred and recycle it in a closed environment. We do this with 100 percent of your mail every day, no exception.”
Though the service is free for the beta testing group, Baehr said they’ll likely charge a subscription fee when they launch, and have been testing several other monetization strategies (including allowing advertisers to put sponsored inserts into a user’s digital mailbox). They’re also looking to raise another round of funding to help with international expansion.
Outbox isn’t the first company to turn snail mail digital. Zumbox has been offering digital copies of physical mail since 2010 through its Digital Postal Mail service, though it doesn’t partner with the postal service, rather with transactional, financial and government mailers, so it only offers online versions of specific items like bills. And there are other startups trying to clean up the mailbox, including PaperKarma, an app that allows people to snap photos of the junk mail items they wish to stop. PaperKarma is like an unsubscribe button for hard copy mail – it deals directly with the senders to stop the junk mail items from arriving in a mailbox. But Baehr believes that their competitors don’t provide a comprehensive solution, rather they solve one piece of the problem.
There are obvious limitations to companies like Outbox that are looking to make the mailbox completely digital. International expansion will be a challenge, since companies have to partner with national mail services like the USPS (Zumbox already licenses its technology outside the U.S., including its latest addition, Australia). Baehr said they will be expanding internationally after they prove the service works in the U.S., and says “once it works here, it will work anywhere.” And of course there’s the fact that many people still do like to receive physical mail, and turning it digital wouldn’t be something they want – and even if they do want their mail digitally, they may not like the idea of someone opening their private mail.
To any naysayers, Baehr said they’re not trying to replace physical mail, just enhance it. “We’re not out to take away your birthday cards or personal letters, but we do want to enhance your ability to control and enjoy what comes into your mailbox,” he said. “So Outbox gives users the full functionality of email with the beauty and tangibility of postal mail.” With a regional launch planned in the next few months, the team has time to tweak the service based on beta feedback, but the true test will be launching to the public, and seeing whether the average consumer is willing to hand over their mail to a third-party.