Email First Startups

Last month, Ryan Hoover had a great post about building email into your startup first, before moving on to other platforms. His awesome points:

  • Email lets you validate ideas quickly
  • Since email is async, you can fake functionality with manual processes
  • Forces focus
  • Email is a part of users daily habits
  • Email is ubiquitous
  • You can use email to upsell users to other platforms when you’re ready

Posterous was the ultimate email first product. I started the project because I wanted to email photos from my iPhone to my blog. I wrote thousands of lines of email code, which posted to my Blogger blog, before I ever wrote a line of web code.

There are a few other reasons why I think email an amazing platform to build on top of:

  • Email has identity built in. Email is identity. Whether you’re sending or receiving email from users, you don’t need a login system. Posterous was able to completely eliminate signup from our flow.
  • Email is mobile. It’s on every device, including super low end feature phones. Even people in developing countries on slow internet connections can use email.
  • Email isn’t blocked in China. You open your service up to another billlion users.
  • Email is integrated in all the apps you use. You can email photos from iPhoto, or a link from Safari, or a Tweet from Twitter.
  • Email supports rich content. You can send photos, documents, video, audio, and any arbitrary attachment. There’s nothing email won’t transfer.
  • iPhones will send email in the background. If you’re sending a video and your internet is slow, the iPhone will keep uploading while Mail is in the background.
  • Users get notifications instantly, on all devices, without managing extra notification permissions or settings.
  • So easy, your mom can do it.

Email is a powerful and flexible platform used by billions of people around the world. Start your company with email first in mind, and integrate it deeply in everything you do.

Email needs to be realtime

Email rocks. Phones are very yesterday and voice mail is so broken. Until someone can make it easy for us to extract a number from a voice mail, file the message away for later, label it, quickly find it again, search through it, forward it, reply asynchronously, etc etc, we are going to stick to email.

Email is the most powerful, flexible, open, and free messaging platform out there. Obviously Posterous loves email, we’re betting our company on it.

Yet it seems like everywhere you look, someone is declaring the death of email. The very next second they’re probably using email to send a message to their mom, schedule a meeting, or share files.

Chris Sacca is right: voice mail still doesn’t have some of the most basic functionality that makes email great. I hate it when people leave me voicemail. But that also goes for SMS, IM, Facebook messaging, Tweeting, and other new messaging systems. None of these match the power of email.

Email Rocks

The origins of email can be traced back to the 1960s. Over the past 40+ years, we’ve seen incredible innovation in computers and technology. Yet nothing has challenged email for messaging. What makes email great?

  • It’s an open standard, not controlled by any single body.
  • There are no inherent limits in the standard. It can be used to transmit anything, of any size. As we’ve started sharing files, photos, and video, email has had no problem stepping up to the challenge. And it will continue to do this.
  • It works on all devices. You can use it from your desktop with a real keyboard, or from your phone with a touch keyboard.
  • Email works great for group chat. It’s easy to email a group of people, add or remove people from the thread, start new threads, etc. cc, bcc, all built right in.
  • No carrier tie ins. You can get email from a number of providers. And you can even run it on your own domain.
  • It’s free.

No other system out there can match this. Google Wave was probably the richest in terms of feature set, but it was too complicated and unusable in practice.

It’s all about being mobile and instant

I use SMS a lot. But if email is so universal and powerful, why do I need SMS?

  • Distribution. Everyone with a cell phone has SMS and you don’t need to sign up for a data plan to use it.
  • Mobile. I have my cell phone with me all the time and I’m always connected. I want to message when I’m on the go, not just when I’m at a computer.
  • It’s instant. When I send a message to someone, they get it immediately and can reply immediately.

In the past three years since the iPhone was released, email has gained a lot of traction in these areas. Now, most of my friends have email in their pocket at all times. Email has great distribution and email is now mobile. What’s the missing piece? Email is not realtime.

The Solution

Email needs to be realtime.

  • We need true Push email. Not sorta push, but truly instant.
  • I want emails to popup on my phone just like SMS does. And I want to be able to quickly reply just like SMS.
  • I would love to see someone write a better email application for the iphone that does push notifications, quick replies, smart threading, etc.

Signs of Life

It’s been exciting to see a resurgence in innovation around email. Companies like Etacts and Rapportive are making the experience smarter. The most recent release of Google’s app for the iPhone adds push notifications for Gmail. These are young, smart people choosing to innovate on top of a 40+ year old platform, and I’m glad they are.

I’ve never owned a Blackberry and I never really understood the appeal. But now I get it. RIM made email the primary use for the device. They made it realtime, easy to navigate, and easy to type. They put email front and center, and nailed it.

I’d love to see the same on the iPhone. I’m sick of paying AT&T for SMS. I’m sick of Facebook emailing me when someone sends me a Facebook message. I’m sick of all my conversations being spread over multiple platforms, without archive or search.

I’m hoping Apple will also see email as the killer app for the iPhone and throw some resources into it. Together with MobileMe, they have an opportunity to make email shine. Email should be more than just another app.

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