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.