Email sucks. Here's how five startups are trying to fix it

email blast
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The quest for a better inbox.

Email sucks. 

There's no two ways about it: The workhorse of web communications may be reliable, but it's also overwhelming, slow, and impersonal. The more attached we get to email, the harder it is to actually get anything done, thanks to the constant stream of interruptions and inevitably long email threads that can result from simple things like trying to meet for coffee. And the more you send, the more you receive, until email eating more and more of the day without actually accomplishing anything.

In fact, a 2012 study estimated that the average employee spends 28% of his time every week just answering email. To address this, a number of companies have taken to banning email after hours or on weekends, or else simply restricting how often employees can check their inboxes. But that's just a band-aid. 

A new breed of startups have emerged, coming not to praise email, but to fix it. All of them operate under the pretense that email is unavoidable, but that it can be a heck of a lot better. 

These startups tend to fall into one of two camps. The first camp thinks email is entrenched and will continue to be used for a wide variety of things, so is focusing on building better email clients, especially for mobile devices. The second camp would like to see email relegated to a much smaller role, with specialized apps taking over things that email was never meant to do, like instant communciation and task management.

Mailbox and Acompli: Make the email client better

The best-known example of a startup with the "make it better" approach is Mailbox, a popular iOS email client that was acquired by Dropbox a year ago, and which empowers users with the ability to organize their email and get reminders to answer later with a single flick of the thumb.

The team that would go on to build Mailbox got their start with the now-discontinued Orchestra To-do, a task management app that was born from the observation that a lot of people use their email apps as a really terrible to-do list. Orchestra tried to solve this problem by adding a collaboration layer right within its to-do list.

It was a good idea, maintains Mailbox's Sean Beausoleil, but the problem, as always, is keeping users within the app. The second a coworker isn't available from within the app and you have to send an email, the whole concept is made redundant.

"A tool like that isn't useful unless by default you're connected to everyone you work with," says Beausoleil. And so Mailbox was born.

A smarter email client like Mailbox takes the core experience of email -- which most everyone has these days -- and makes it better, without leaving anyone behind or forcing them to go to different software just to get the content you need.

Intriguingly, Beausoleil says that the major impetus for this kind of smarter client has been the rise of the mobile device: Keeping track of your digital correspondence is tricky enough with a large screen and full keyboard, but it becomes exponentially trickier with a smaller screen. The improved ability to organize and prioritize communication is super useful on a mobile device, Beausoleil says, but those innovations are going to come right back to the desktop model too. 

Javier Soltero, CEO and co-founder of the popular new iPhone email client Acompli, would agree with that perspective. Acompli, as CITEworld has discussed previously, aims to add more context into mobile email with the ability to access calendars and maps from straight within the app, and attach that stuff right within an app. It certainly makes it easier to schedule a meeting. 

Just like anything else, Soltero says, email is a skill. Its freeform nature is what makes it "both popular and maligned," he says. Some people write long prose, some people write short notes, and some people copy way too many people. Some people use it to get quick answers and get out, and some people load every message with pictures of cats. It's really up to the user. 

"People can be equally ineffective and chatty on the phone," Soltero says. But ditching email is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

Voxer, Slack, and Asana: Offload tasks that were never meant for email

The other approach says if you can't get rid of email -- most often because you have to talk to people outside your own four walls -- you can use other apps to offload tasks that email isn't particularly good at.

Take, for example, voice-focused short messaging app startup Voxer, which launched an enterprise product last year. Email is 10 to 20 percent spam, says Voxer's Nicole Strada, and even when you get a message that's important, it can take you a half hour or more to process it and decide how to answer. All the time, more and more emails came in.

"It's only going to get worse if people don't find ways to offload some of the volume," Strada says.

A ten-second voice message, like Voxer specializes in, can supplant a two-paragraph email and spark much more of an instant response. Voxer's own metrics suggest that while the average response time to an email is around 45 minutes, a voice message on their app takes 8 to 10 seconds for a turnaround. That effect may be psychological -- an instant message, either in text or via voice, implies more immediacy -- but it works. What's more, talking into a phone can be a lot more user-friendly than trying to type a long missive.

Other companies taking this particular stance include Cotap and Tigertext.

In a similar vein is rising star Slack, which recently raised $43 million in venture funding after only 10 weeks in limited beta. Slack bills itself as internet relay chat for the enterprise. Within a huge organization, email is necessary for collaboration between teams, says Slack founder Stuart Butterfield (former co-founder of Flickr), but within a team itself, "it's just the most inefficient." 

Butterfield doesn't have a hard definition for "team," but estimates it tops out around 100 people. In those smaller groups, you need some kind of platform to communicate quickly and efficiently. When email is 80 to 90 percent computer-generated in the form of newsletters, automated alerts, and other mass mailings by volume (by Butterfield's estimation, anyway), a chat platform like Slack is the right way to help users separate the signal from the noise, Butterfield maintains. Integrations with third-party platforms like Heroku and Google Docs make it a single place for employees to go and see everything that's actually and immediately important to them at that moment, Butterfield says.

"Within the team, it should completely supplant email," he says. 

That's consistent with the story told by Asana, which has long branded itself the solution to email overload. Asana offers a tool where employees can talk to each other and ensure they're on the same page, eliminating the need to send long email chains to check the status of a project or see who owns a particular task, says Asana's Kenny Van Zant. It's a more structured approach that supplants the need for a lot of, but not all of, emails. 

"To say that all email is the same is not true," Van Zant says.

As a nice side-effect, Asana acts almost like an enterprise's centralized memory, making sure that not only do existing employees see everything that's happening everywhere in its team, but that new employees instantly see the entire history of the enterprise and get up to speed quickly. It's a way more structured way to build a brain, to use Van Zant's turn of phrase. 

So yes, email is driving everybody crazy. But between new email clients like Mailbox and Acompli, platforms like Asana, and messaging tools like Slack and Voxer, it seems clear that there's a demand for a better way. Email isn't going anywhere, but there's a lot of work being done in making it a lot better for everybody -- and the consensus seems that the first stop on that journey is helping us spend less time using it. 

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