The ListHunt Startup Series: Part Four

December 16, 2015
Henry Vasquez

Accelerate or Die: the Techstars Experience (Part 4)

For part one of this series, “The First Day”, click here.
For part two of this series, “Mentor Madness”, click here.
For part three of this series, “Momentum and Metrics”, click here.

Silicon Valley wants to kill email.

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 4.12.16 PM

Just ask Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, whose company, Asana, calls itself “Teamwork Without Email.” Or look at Slack, the hottest enterprise company in the last 5 years. Stewart Butterfield, its CEO, said that Slack wants to reduce internal email by 100%.

We went into Techstars fully aware of the zeitgeist. What we discovered was something magical about email that invited confidence in our vision.

Despite the email death knell, the numbers tell a different story. 2.5 billion people use email worldwide, and that number is expected to increase to 2.9 billion in the next 4 years. The average worker gets 70 emails each day. This isn’t to say more is better. Perhaps more is actually the problem. But why do techies hate email so much, and what do they propose as an alternative?

Drawbacks to Email

  1. It’s a mixed, uncurated channel of marketing messages, important transactional emails, conversations, and our digital passport to accessing services. It isn’t sorted by importance or anything that distinguishes signal from noise.
  2. It’s controlled by others. Other people fill our inbox and even if we are diligent, it can be nearly impossible to slow the inflow of messages. We can get trapped in an endless reply-all stream and can’t remove ourselves.
  3. It’s unstructured. Email is mostly plain text and doesn’t define specific fields that are relevant to work. This requires a lot of manual human interpretation and transcription.
  4. It’s lossy. If you’ve been using the same email for years, it can be brutal trying to search and find something from the past. Even worse, all the conversations that happen in your co-workers’ inboxes are inaccessible.

Okay, so email has some issues. Rather, YOUR email client has issues. Some people have migrated to better email clients that curate their mail. Some people have adopted strict “Inbox Zero” policies to how they handle email. I even talked about it one time on Tasty Trade’s Bootstrapping in America.

Some people clean their subscriptions on a regular basis. But the majority of the world uses email like a telephone without caller ID and voicemail, which is to say, a pretty awful experience. What about the benefits of email? We should be balanced here:

email

Advantages of Email

  1. Email is open, free, and available to everyone. Email isn’t controlled by a single company. It’s a set of open standards and a diverse ecosystem of clients, servers, and utilities that have been refined and improved since it was invented in 1971. This means that anyone can built on top of email and create their own experience. Openness leads to greater innovation.
  2. We all know how to use it. The learning curve has been passed by everyone we know born after 1940. Email is a lingua franca for internet communication, so even if it’s not the best at every possible use case, it provides a baseline or common ground for anything that is more complex. This resolves the fragmentation problem “I use JIRA, you use Asana, so what do we use when we work together?”
  3. Email is robust. There isn’t a single point of failure. It’s not a winner-take-all market with one option. If one company decides to share your information with the government, there are 50 others that won’t. If one business closes, there’s another waiting for you and you can migrate over with ease. The entire process of setting standards is determined by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), an open volunteer organization that is extremely transparent, diligent, and less corruptible than your average tech giant.

Okay, so what did all of this mean to Tribe?

If we were to build a business that ran towards email, instead of away from it, we needed to understand the nitty gritty of how it worked, its history, architecture, limitations, and capabilities. We had a major assumption to prove, and it reads like this:

  1. Productivity tools have grown and evolved to transform business. They are a good thing that make us more organized and productive.
  2. Productivity tools are designed for insular teams. They require the authority to enforce a top-down process and a common interface. They require everyone an organization to adopt them.
  3. Much of the work we do is with people outside our team. Some industries that are more contractor-heavy, the majority of work is done with outsiders. As the 1099 economy continues to grow, this way of working will become more common.
  4. When we work outside our team, the dominant (95%+) solution is email. This is true for even the tech-savvy Slack and Asana users among us.
  5. There is an opportunity to build an enterprise productivity platform focused on working with people outside your organization. This system must be backwards compatible with email.

We didn’t make this up in a philosophy class or during an MBA project. We saw it first hand when we watched hundreds of real users leave their structured tools of choice and fall back to email to work with their attorneys, accountants, freelance designers, and partners. What we needed to do was find the exact people who felt this pain the most. We needed to prove that people could collaborate over a platform—assigning work, sharing deliverables, messages, and files, without using the same interface. This decoupling of data/content from application/UI isn’t new (think Flipboard/RSS for blog posts, Spotify vs iTunes for music, Google Calendar/Outlook for calendar invites). However, it is foreign to enterprise productivity software. Most systems behave like walled gardens.

So there we were, designing experiments to prove our business model.

  1. What percentage of outsiders will interact with the task emails sent by insiders?
  2. Will outsiders, using only email, send tasks to insiders?
  3. Are there customers who will use Tribe as their exclusive task management solution?
  4. Will our target customers understand how to use Tribe? Will they be able to self-onboard and learn the tool on their own?
  5. Can we explain the problem and solution clearly in our marketing materials and convert visitors into users?

Throughout Techstars and beyond, we have chipped away at these questions. In the final post of this ListHunt series, we’ll share the answers we found and how we pitched the opportunity to investors. These weren’t just any investors, and this wasn’t just any pitch. We’re talking about Techstars Demo Day 2015, at the House of Blues in front of 500 people. Stay tuned!

[Follow along and read more about the Techstars experience at our blog]

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Tribe has gotten lots of press, here are links to other posts:

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