Outbox Hacks Your Mailbox To Deliver Digital Letters Instead

The NSA's got nothing on this startup, which wants to intercept, scan, digitize, and help organize all mail before you ever see it in your physical mailbox. It’s a logistical nightmare. But is there enough value in the "mail graph" to justify it?

The USPS employs more than 500,000 people in its effort to deliver America’s mail to the right mailboxes. And in San Francisco and Austin, a startup called Outbox employs eight "unpostmen" to collect it again the next day. "They undo the work of the USPS," explains cofounder Will Davis.

Outbox’s vision involves snatching up the letters you get in your physical mailbox—before you have a chance to get them—then scanning them and delivering them to a virtual inbox with in a day. If you're out of town or otherwise unavailable to lay hands on your letters, they're accessible in digital format, ready for organizing or archiving. No bulky cabinets or stuffed recycling bins required. Outbox's "unpostmen" (and women?) will deliver the physical mail later, too, if you want. It's all an effort to make snail mail as sortable and searchable as email. As Davis and his cofounder, Evan Baehr, have discovered since starting the company last year, that’s a lot more complicated than it sounds.

To get unpostmen into locked mailboxes where the physical mail you get is often sitting, the company copies keys from photos sent by box owners. It accesses locked gates the same way. But rather than asking for full access to mail slots, in some cases, the startup inserts a metal box attachment that opens from the outside—a sort of backdoor access point (but in the front, usually). It created a similar system for garage slots.

Getting the mail is just the first step. Passports, wedding invitations, birthday cards, and other physical things that people want to keep add another layer of coordinated effort. So Outbox offers an option to redeliver anything that a customer sees in their virtual mailbox. In that case, a letter would be intercepted by an unpostman and then re-delivered by the same unpostman a couple of days later.

Outbox provides photos for depositing checks digitally. It deposits packages with the user's doorman or wherever UPS would put them.

Undelivering mail, it turns out, is a logistical nightmare. Outbox charges just $7.99 per month, which seems like peanuts until you realize that its ultimate product won’t be mail undelivery. Davis and Baehr are creating what they call the "mail graph." By collecting your mail and indexing things like type of postage used, logos, and addresses, it will build a database of everything that’s ever been sent you.

"That platform that sits in front of your house is no different than that platform that is Facebook in that there are advertisements, information," Davis says. A well-indexed mailbox is useful to customers who want to look up important documents and can unsubscribe from specific senders through their virtual mailboxes. Eventually, the company hopes that third-party apps will also use the data to make dealing with mail easier. But the mail graph can also offer an opportunity for marketers who want to get into your mailbox.

Outbox ran its first pilot promotion with Kind granola bars. Users saw ads for free samples in their virtual mail box. If they signed up, their unpostman delivered one while picking up their mail. Similarly, it offers free products from subscription services Nature Box and Quarterly when users refer a friend. Eventually, the startup plans to charge for such partnerships. As it learns more about what users like based on which promotions they accept, Outbox gets better at targeting users with offers they like. (It will not use the contents of mail from your mailbox for this purpose, the cofounders say.)

Revenue opportunities in your mailbox don’t end there. Over time, as Outbox understands which companies send the most mail, it can offer to deliver those letters directly to virtual mailboxes for a fee—saving those senders postage and paper costs in the process. That’s a market so potentially lucrative (think 89 billion pieces of advertising mail a year) that giants like Hearst and Pitney Bowes have also launched products to serve it. Neither of those companies, though, already has access to the paper mail it is trying to replace.

"What to many people sounds like an added cost or unnecessary or silly," Davis says about uncollecting the mail, "is actually enabling us to build things that create value. "

Even if none of those things work out, there’s at least one revenue stream that seems foolproof. Outbox shreds all of the letters it collects after 30 days.

"There’s a whole secondary market for paper," Davis notes.

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13 Comments

  • Chris

    How can someone write such an article without mentioning PRIVACY or DATA THEFT??

  • Anthony Reardon

    Ha! I suggested this on a recent Fast Company article about the US Post Office trying to figure out how to stay afloat. These guys should just get together now with the USPS. The model they have as a stand alone needs to be reoriented to the logistics and scale already in place.

    Ads? Ads? Seriously? Once again a conceptual fail in monetization strategy. However, eliminating ads, and particularly junk mail, lots of value there- and if you want to stamp that with some innovation...lots of money to be made as well.

    Best, Anthony

  • Moofarbubu

    Are you suggesting that the government should try something this technical and innovative?...haha...yeah, if it were an ideal world...lol.

  • Anthony Reardon

    Lol, I know, right. I mean, if you are going to have your mail collected after it is delivered...so that it can be scanned to a virtual mailbox, then why have it delivered in the first place. Just forward your address right to the service. Post office would do better to intercept mail to that kind of service before shipping. It doesn't take a rocket scientist, but I don't know how many technology developers you have to put in a room to see the bigger picture.

  • Piyush Bhatnagar

    I think one of the biggest issues with this model is - Privacy. I wrote a guest article in VentureBeat on Outbox a few months back when they launched a beta in SFO. I had aired my concerns about privacy and security of Outbox model. Nothing I have seen since then has made me change my mind. Here is a link to my article that appeared in March 2013 in VentureBeat.
    http://venturebeat.com/2013/03...

  • Adeno Sine

    "If you have nothing to hide..."

    I bet you know who is going to fund this lol!

  • Sanjay Mehta

    Sounds so similar to a web-to-snail-mail and reverse snail-mail-to-scan-mail service that we built at Homeindia.com, way back in 1997-98. That was the time when there were a lot of Indians outside of India who had Internet on their desks, but not so, their friends and family IN India. And this service bridged that gap! 
    Pleasantly surprised to see outbox now! Very similar.. but for a different reason!

  • Bradley

    Just because junk mail isn't going to your house doesn't mean that junk mail doesn't exist.

  • RROBLES

    Exactly!! Huuum. So I guess users see no issue with a group of strangers seeing potentially sensitive information from doctors, lawyers, creditors, et cetera and delivering them "safely" to your inbox. What if the mail is sent 'by mistake' to a stranger? What if your bank statement showing you are worth an incredible amount of money in cash form is sent erroneously and unknowingly to a pro thief? Now they can target you as a potential victim. Who holds the liability? Sounds crazy but you know full well IT WILL HAPPEN. I mean 'by mistake'!

  • WesBEnterprise

    Seems as asinine as recreating your friendships on a website! And who would want to research anywhere other than the library, what with all of its books.