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A New Startup Finds Money in Email Bounce-Backs

Do you open a message that has bounced back? A shocking number of us do, which is why there’s treasure in that virtual trash

A New Startup Finds Money in Email Bounce-Backs
[Mailbox: Steve Byland via Shutterstock]

Every email inbox is a minefield.

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Put aside, for a second, all of the necessary emails you have to confront on a daily basis, the ones you want or need to see, the messages you spend 28% of your workweek answering. That leaves you with the detritus, the garbage and spam and antagonism that mounts a nonstop invasion on one of your most intimate digital spaces.

But what about the emails that never even reach you? In a blog post announcing its investment in Bounce.io, a startup that aims to make treasure from your electronic trash, the Foundry Group noted that roughly 300 billion emails are sent every day. Interestingly, 10% to 20%–meaning at least 30 billion–of these messages don’t make it to the intended recipient. They bounce.

Bounce.io is focused on this economically unripe dimension of the Internet. Scott Brown, the founder who’s been involved with multiple startups in the realm of email, said the 18-month-old Denver-based company manages 27 million registered domains, 10% of all the registered domains in the world, including 551 million individual mailboxes. Using those mailboxes, Bounce is essentially rebuilding the bounce, from the ground up.

Bounced emails from mailboxes under the company’s umbrella now come in the language of the recipient, are written in an easily understood manner, and contain subtle but direct advertising. Meanwhile, the company, currently with a staff of 15, can monitor incoming email in an effort to provide anti-fraud and intelligence companies with an idea of what spam and digital chaff looks like on a large scale. (Bounce raised $4.8 million in a Series A round in February with Foundry Group, SK Ventures, and Bullet Time.)

A trained Shakespearean actor, Brown credits his experience in the theater with having provided him a mindset for framing startups. A production of Hamlet has to find a new version of the story to play, or else it’s inessential; a new startup has to consider a problem in a way that nobody else has before, or else it’s pointless.

The origin story he tells goes like this: Brown’s experience in email eventually led him to a coffee date with a domainer, a guy sitting on 50,000 web addresses. Domainers, also known as domain name speculators, buy domain names that they think might be desirable to someone else in the future, often generic words or phrases that they can then flip to business for a profit. Brown asked the guy what happened when people emailed those dormant addresses he owned. The guy said, people don’t do that. Brown borrowed a few, 12 in all from two different guys, and it turned out that people, as well as bots, did email those addresses, to the tune of some 200,000 emails a day, 8% from real humans. All of a sudden, he had a business.

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“I started sending bounces back, and I put a little tracker inside of it,” Brown told me. “It turns out that 60% of the time, people opened the bounce I sent. That makes it the most read email in the world–that’s more frequent than my mom reads the email I send to her. I said to myself, ‘I think I’ll put a little back-to-school gift-card ad in the body of this bounce.’ And I let it run. A month-and-a-half later, I’m checking the mail and I get a check from the advertiser for $20,000.”

If you think of the Internet as a physical, geographic landscape, Bounce.io’s approach is like finding gold in the Yukon: Nobody was doing anything with bounce messages, and yet, bounce messages existed, weird indecipherable pieces of web protocol, 30 billion of them every day, 100 times more than tweets. Throughout the ancient history of communication, messages have not always, or even most of the time, reached their destination. It’s a constant, immutable, and it’s no different with email.

How much of this found revenue could be out there? In the current media environment, user-oriented free networks–publications as well as social platforms like Facebook and Twitter–consider how to slip advertising into their services without revolting consumers (think of “native advertising.” The bounced email provided a different opportunity: The advertisement became inseparable from the service. An Internet that plays within our expectations could be both useful and quietly subversive.

I asked Brown why people open bounce messages at such a high rate.

“It’s human nature,” he said. “If you send something out, and you’re expecting it to be delivered, when you get a message back that says your message could not be delivered, you always open it up. You can’t check the box on your to-do list if you get a bounce back. It does not matter if you’re the CEO of Apple or grandma on your AOL account–you can’t move forward unless you know what happens.”