INTERVIEW by GARY GOLDMAN | PHOTOGRAPHY by MARLEIGH JONES
Evan Baehr wants to make your life easier. The recent Harvard Business School graduate and former Facebook employee is the co-founder of Outbox, a free service that intercepts your mail and stores it neatly in an online mailbox. After raising a considerable amount of capital in 2011, Baehr is excited at the prospect of launching a startup that will facilitate access over snail mail while still honoring the daily excitement of going through a fresh batch of letters. While today’s BR!NKer is a multi-talented individual (he is as comfortable chatting about mobile technology incubation as he is discussing public policy), it is his exploration of the limitless possibilities associated with transferring content delivery to the digital sphere that is bound to make him a game-changer in 2012.
I’ve spoken to quite a few entrepreneurs with fast-growing startups, but Outbox might be the most ambitious of them all. Can you give us your elevator pitch?
Outbox is a free service for busy families that helps you take control over your personal mail by having it sent to you digitally. Think of it as a Flipboard for postal mail: we help you better organize your bills and statements, better manage junk mail, and also archive beautiful digital copies of your personal mail like birthday cards and letters.
How does this practically work, though?
First off, we have to intercept your physical mail. We’re excited to partner with the U.S. Post Office to make this as seamless as possible. Outbox is also fortunate to work with leading manufacturers to open and scan your mail at a high-velocity – all with bank-level security.
The digitalization of mail seems like the next logical step in the industry. What sort of advantage does Outbox possess in comparison to its competitors?
Zumbox and Manilla are targeting one important type of mail: bills and statements. Indeed, billers are desperately trying to get out of the mailbox: they spent over $60 billion last year just sending out statements. Zumbox and Manilla created products that feel like bank or bill pay sites; users think of these services as “something that must get done” and visit them with a specific purpose in mind: paying their bills.
Our product is about more than just bills. Our service is built around an app that lets users explore their scanned postal mail visually like an image gallery. Outbox has been able to successfully mimic the exact experience of receiving a stack of mail, opening it, and flipping through it quickly to sort out important mail from junk. We help users connect with people and brands they care about by exploring full color content of letters, cards, notices, and even catalogs on their tablet.
Where does the monetization process come in?
Great question. We want this service to be free for users, because the alternative is amazing and does not cost anything: I’m talking about a postman showing up at your house in boots with a bag full of your mail, and dropping it whether it rains or shines.
In addition to this, Outbox will use the same economics as today’s mail system through marketing: we can help you find new brands, catalogs, and deals you’d like to access. Moreover, because we know where you live and the brands you already like, we think we can actually create value for our users through advertising.
Which might be regarded as an intrusion of privacy. This makes me think of…
Well, let’s think about that for a minute. As a Facebook user, you’ve entered into a contract. Facebook offers a lot; for example, you get access to terabytes of photos with a few second load time from a cell phone in India. That is a pretty extraordinary service. In exchange for this free service, users give permission to Facebook to help find brands and offers of interest to the user and to display those advertisements. Honestly, I think the user is the winner here. We as Facebook users get a free product that required over 500 of the world’s smartest engineers, the fastest hardware available, and an aggregate of over a billion dollars of electricity. And all we pay is a few hundred pixels. So, just like Facebook, we provide an expensive, extraordinary service for free, and are able to do so with advertising. We also remain fiercely protective of our users’ data.
It feels like you have a real appreciation and respect for the print aspect of mail, even though your venture focuses on digitalization.
Most of the other digital mailbox products dismiss the Post Office, arguing that it’s no longer needed. We approach this differently, as the U.S. Post Office is the first communications platform of the United States, and its first social network. Even though the Post Office posted a pretty large deficit last year, it continues to do an amazing job of delivering about 40% of the global mail volume. And they employ 600,000 people, own 225,000 vehicles, and earned $80 billion in 2011. We’re excited to work with the Post Office to create a service that helps users have the best of both online and offline experiences.
You’ve had a great career for someone so young. Who have been some of your mentors along the way?
Two of my biggest heroes are Peter Thiel and Sheryl Sandberg.
Peter is the smartest person I’ve ever met, with an understanding of how the world is, and how it should be. As he showed with Facebook, he can build companies, supports causes, and deploy capital in everything from small tech startups to billion dollar global macro positions.
As for Sheryl, she is as fluent in business strategy as she is in technology platforms, as comfortable with US Senators as she is software developers, and as passionate about advertising as she is women in business. My wife and I both think a lot about the role of women in the workplace and consider her a sage on that topic. Also, the story of Sheryl and Mark (Zuckerberg) is fascinating and inspirational: despite having pretty different skill sets, they are able to work together extremely well, respecting each other’s differences.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
We’re working on some big ideas for how to re-imagine digital content (e.g. magazines, catalogs, deals, and advertisements) exploration on a tablet, and we’re always looking for ideas or conversation partners about how to pull this off. If any of your readers have ideas or want to brainstorm, we’d love to talk.
And are you hiring?
Yes, sir. We’re building out our engineering (front and back-end) and design teams right now, and are looking for some people passionate about UI/UX, tablets, and communication to join us here in Austin, TX. Drop a resume at firstname.lastname@example.org.