Snail Mail. Junk Mail. Standard postal mail is often referred to by a few unflattering titles that lend to an impression of a system that we, in our modern times, see as outdated, inefficient, and in desperate need of some innovation.
We’ve seen the headlines in the news, “Postal Service on Brink of Bankruptcy,” “USPS losing $25 million daily with ‘broken business model’” and we are aware of a need for change that is both revolutionary and immediate.
What if I told you that the framework for such a solution is already in place? What if I told you it was built right here in Austin, TX by a couple of Harvard Business School graduates? What if I told you that you could signup today and be rid of your junk mail by tomorrow? What if I told you a little more about Outbox — complete with an interview with the co-founder, a tour of the facilities, and a long-term review of the service?
Slide down for everything you need to know about this new revolution in mail delivery.
Outbox aims to solve a few common pain points among the general public.
“Digitize my mail so I can access it anywhere.”
“Give me a better way to sort and file my bills and statements.”
“Somebody give me a way to get rid of my junk mail already!”
The last need is particularly intriguing.
Something that would be seemingly simple to solve is surprisingly difficult due to a hidden structure of how the government and its postal system actually works. It’s not by coincidence that there is a do-not-email list, a do-not-call list, yet there is not a universal do-not-mail list. Sitting down with Evan Baehr, co-founder of Outbox, in their modest office / sorting facility “Twenty-five percent of [the postal service’s] cost basis is to have someone pack [your mail]… and go door-to-door.”in downtown Austin revealed why that’s the case – and why the Postal Service doesn’t view you, the taxpayer, as its customer.
Evan: For a while we were working with the postal service in the state of Texas. It’s a federal service but there were local officials, so we were doing an interception program. We’d say, ‘Here are our authenticated users, here’s the terms of service, and we are now their registered mail agent. Let us pick up the mail from the regional distribution hub and this will save you last mile delivery.’ Twenty-five percent of [the postal service’s] cost basis is to have someone pack [your mail] in a bag, drive it out, and go door-to-door. So we’d be doing that last mile for them. We were doing that in June and CNBC wants to do an interview. So they call us, fly down, and do this interview of Outbox, then we get summoned to DC to meet with the postmaster general of the overall thing.
So it’s Will [Davis – Outbox co-founder], myself, and one of our advisors in this windowless conference room with the Postmaster General, the Head of Digital Innovation for the postal service, the Chief Operation Officer, and the Chief Legal Officer. So they go straight in a line.
Chief Legal Officer says “this is totally illegal,” and we said “well, actually we have the number one postal lawyer in the country who wrote all of our regulations and protocol so it’s actually legal.” Head of operations said, “There’s no way your ops team will ever be able to support this,” and we said “well, actually we’re already doing it at the DDU and this is how it “No one will ever be interested in this because digital is a fad.”works.” Then we get to the Head of Digital Innovation and this guy who is 65 years old, his most recent job is he ran the union of letter carriers, and he says that “no one will ever be interested in this because digital is a fad.” And his job title is Head of Digital Innovation!
So then we get to the Postmaster General, and we were being as cordial and cooperative as we could and we said to him, “Think about it this way. We’ve got 10 really smart people, we’ve raised two and a quarter million dollars, and we’re in the middle of spending two years of our life trying to learn more about what your customers want, we’re going to give you all this data, and we see this as a way to learn more about what the future of the postal service should look like. All we’re asking from your end is some really light operation cooperation that in the short term “We see this as a way to learn more about what the future of the postal service should look like.”there is probably some transaction cost it might not save you money but in the long term we could save you a lot of money.” Then he says, “that’s our real misunderstanding.” “Well, what do you mean?” “Those aren’t our customers. Our customers are about 600 volume mailers and our product to them is the guaranteed delivery of their junk mail onto the kitchen tables of Americans.”
The postal service is trying to find revenue so they actually sell your name and sell your information. Every Door Direct is a product of the postal service where the postal service sells and rents out your name and your address and your information!
“Those aren’t our customers. Our customers are about 600 volume mailers and our product to them is the guaranteed delivery of their junk mail onto the kitchen tables of Americans.”
Imagine Google selling your name, your profile information, and your email address to email marketers. It’s crazy that this happens but this is how the postal service works.
“Every Door Direct is a product of the postal service [that] sells and rents out your name, and your address, and your information!”
So we walked out of that meeting concerned. A little like “Oh my gosh, this is not good.” But we came out, had a cup of coffee and started thinking about it again. Then sort of realized that this validates our idea even more because we are after building a better consumer product, and, at the end of the day, the only way that the billers and the marketers even have a platform at all is that the customer likes it and engages the content.
Facebook did not set out to start building a really great advertising product and then hope customers come, they set out to make an amazing customer experience that draws people back to using [their] communication medium. And that’s what led us to this pretty crazy idea which is literally going to people’s mailboxes and picking up their mail.
How Outbox Works
The very day after signing up for Outbox, you’re freed from going to your mail box to check the mail – an Outbox “unpostman” will come to your mailbox to filter, sort, and digitize all your mail.
Evan: We call them ‘unpostmen’ because they are undoing the work of the US postmen. The overall image we see as kind of the opposite of the postal service, they’re in gross, old, tired uniforms, driving carbon vehicles, and our unpostmen are young.
“We call them ‘unpostmen’ because they are undoing the work of the US postmen.”They wear all Under Armour clothing and they drive environmentally responsible white Toyota priuses with the mail flag on the side. They have a specific route that is tracked with GPS on their iPhones so they know exactly where to drive, and any special notes for the route — for instance, don’t pick up this person’s mail today because they had a hold request.
If anything comes that day — like a subscription magazine, a credit card, a DVD, or a small parcel like apparel — it is set aside. That content will go in an Outbox sleeve and go to that person’s house that same day. So there’s no delay on a Rolling Stone, a paid subscription magazine or parcels. [The rest of] that mail goes into mail bins organized by customer and at the end of the route that mail comes back to Outbox.
From there, mail is processed in the Outbox facility — a minimal warehouse space with red brick walls, stained concrete flooring, and IKEA furniture. First class mail pieces are digitized by hand, under video surveillance, by mail operators who undergo more rigorous background checks than those conducted by the U.S. Postal Service themselves. Each operator is physically [Operators] undergo more rigorous background checks than those conducted by the US postal service themselves.authenticated when they sign in to their operation systems.
The patent pending ‘rigs’ the Outbox team developed are behind a set of locked doors in the corner. Here, your mail is ‘scanned’ by a setup that consists, quite literally, of a horizontally-mounted Canon DSLR, LED lights, and a type of green screen where your mail rests. This setup was created because traditional scanners simply weren’t good enough (there is nothing on the market capable of efficiently handling the heterogenous items that come through your mailbox).
The DSLR camera setup creates a hyper-real, textured capture of your mail that is beautiful to look at and interact with. The digital files are stored securely with 256-bit encryption, and hosted offsite — where they arrive in your new Outbox on your browser, iPad, or iPhone device.
Iloved the concept of Outbox when I first heard about it. I became even more compelled after talking with Evan, seeing the facilities, and meeting the small team of passionate, talented people involved. To really find out if this group can execute on their radical new strategy for mail would require a thorough hands-on test and review. Does Outbox truly deliver?
I have been using Outbox for over five months now, and I do not miss going out to my mailbox everyday. I do not miss sorting out the personal mail from the junk mail. I do not miss shredding
The user experience for Outbox is great. They deliver on their promise to be “a beautiful inbox for your postal mail.” Viewing through a retina display, you can see the texture of the paper, the indentions left behind from a ballpoint pen on a handwritten note, and the vivid colors of a pattern or image on a Christmas card. It’s incredible.
I place the Outbox app right next to my email app and enjoy the convenience of checking both my regular mail and electronic mail whenever I need — with bubble notifications that alert me to They deliver on their promise to be “a beautiful inbox for your postal mail.”items that need to be read or sorted.
As with anything though there are a few quirks that could be improved, and we’ll start with those bubble notifications. When you get new mail, or requested mail is delivered, Outbox will send you a courtesy email – to keep that virtual portal of mail on your mind and relevant. This is your mail by the way, the official form of contact for legal matters (I even happened to get a jury summons while testing the service, and I received it, responded to it, and even served, all without a physical artifact). With email on an Apple device you might be accustomed to the numeral inside the red bubble icon to be an indicator of how many unread emails you have. For Outbox, it’s not exactly live, you have to enter the app for the numeric indicator to be accurate and for new mail items to populate. Not a big deal, but it could be improved.
When you do enter the Outbox portal, the service treats your mail like a task list…you go through each piece of mail one by one and either toss it, unsubscribe from junk, file it in a folder (and even set an alert), or request a hard copy to be delivered to your door. When you’ve performed one of those calls-to-action to each piece of mail, you’re done and back to Outbox zero.
The process for sending out pre-stamped mail, through your mailbox, remains unchanged – for mailing back Netflix DVD’s, birthday cards, etc. Considering how the service works I assume either the traditional mailman delivers it or one of the Outbox unpostmen does — depending on who gets there first — but stamped mail does go out and I haven’t had issue with it being received.
Requested mail arrives timely, typically the very next day, and I never feel like I’m missing out on anything important. These items come to you in a nice white envelope, but the envelope is perhaps a little too nice as it doesn’t seem compostable — and in a town that is adopting a large-scale community composting program it should be.
After using the service long term, you really understand the importance of adopting a new way to deal with your mail. At first, I simply requested all bills and statements to be delivered so Requested mail arrives timely, typically the very next dayI could file them in my tried and true sorting system complete with physical filing cabinets and color-coded labeled folders. Eventually though, you realize this is undermining a great benefit of Outbox — which is to be an online virtual storage system itself also complete with folder and labels.
Make a folder for all your credit card statements, make one for your tax documents, make one for your cards and invitations. When you get used to sorting and managing everything virtually you really start to see the power of Outbox, and it becomes more than just a service that throws your junk mail away.
Long term use also makes you realize how ridiculous it is to get mail delivered to you everyday. I check Outbox 2-3 times a week and really that’s all I need. I’m sure I could even adopt a once-a-week standard mail checking routine and be perfectly fine. The way the postal service operates now is overkill and a dramatic shift in thinking is needed to keep it from being the money sucking service it is today. With enough subscribers, Outbox recently expanded to San Francisco and have eyes set on more cities soon, they might have the basis to revisit that conference room with convincing data that the US consumer not only demands change but has found the solution.
Outbox is a smart service, with an even smarter team behind-the-scenes managing things. I’ve even emailed them a few suggestions that I have since seen reconciled through software updates and service improvements. So they care, they listen, and they understand that YOU are their true customer.
Get the full interactive experience today! Only in the Apple App Store.
Founding Editor / Photographer
Chris Perez is an electrical engineer turned writer / photographer (and now founding editor of Citygram) thanks to the creative culture and community of Austin, TX.
He aims to showcase the talent and lifestyles of this great city by sharing inspiring stories from the very people who inspired me. His work can be seen regularly on Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn.
Photography: Chris Perez