Alex Sanz probably gets more mail than anyone you know.
He’s the founder and CEO of Virtual Post Mail, a company that has helped, since 2009, thousands of customers turn their daily delivery of physical, postal mail into electronic, digital data.
Virtual Post Mail customers pay to receive their mail at its California location, where workers scan a picture of the outside of each envelope or package to upload to the company’s servers. Then, customers can decide with the click of a mouse whether to have Virtual Post Mail open and scan the contents of a particular parcel, forward it to another address, or simply shred it.
Users range from frequent travelers who want to read their mail while they’re on the road to expats looking to keep a U.S. address to startups eager to outsource the business of handling and archiving their incoming correspondence, Sanz says.
"We are becoming almost a part of the backend of their business," he says. "We’re part of their support."
Virtual Post Mail is one of a number of companies working to turn old-fashioned snail mail into yet another service in the cloud, with some handling more business correspondence, some processing more personal mail, and some focused more on packaged merchandise.
Most of these services have had to custom-build technology and carefully craft workflows to turn the messy, three-dimensional world of hand-lettered envelopes and oddly shaped packages into uniform images they can load onto a website or smartphone app.
"We have to photograph thousands of items every day, and they range from a pair of underwear for kids to skis or giant golf club sets and things like that," says Ernest Fata, the founder and CEO of Fishisfast, which mostly caters to overseas customers who need to receive deliveries in the United States.
"Over the years, we’ve done iterating and iterating to create a system that can do that, 'cause I don’t know of any [commercially available] warehouse management system that has the ability to photograph thousands and thousands of items in quality photographs every day," he says.
Many of Fishisfast’s customers are running small import-export businesses and buying goods from American e-commerce merchants to resell in their home countries. Others are families and individuals just looking to take advantage of U.S. online deals, Fata says.
Fishisfast not only scans and weighs packages and the goods inside, it will consolidate individual packages into bigger boxes to save on shipping costs, wrap individual items in Bubble Wrap or even, for an added $5 fee, shoot video of electronic items powering on to verify they’re in working order.
To capture photos, the company’s gradually moved from Wi-Fi-enabled digital cameras to tablets with specialized software and, most recently, to customized desktop machines with built-in cameras, Fata says.
"Basically it’s a full custom thing where basically you place an item in a square and our system photographs it and gives you a barcode, and then you’re ready to move on to the next one as quickly as possible," says Fata.
The service’s focus is purely on shipping merchandise, not letters and documents, he says.
"In order to do parcels, we would have to probably go and figure out a whole new system for handling that," he says.
That’s essentially what Virtual Post Mail has done, says Sanz, who compares the company’s mail-handling system to an automobile assembly line. Since Virtual Post Mail’s facility is technically just one address, the U.S. Postal Service doesn’t sort its customers’ mail, leaving the company to index, barcode, and photograph each individual envelope, says Sanz.
"The logistical and technical aspects of processing mail is, I think, extremely, extremely difficult," he says, explaining that attention to operational detail makes the company reliable and efficient as the customer base grows. "Certain parts of the process cannot be automated."
While startups in the purely digital world can often deal solely in abstraction—storing email attachments or uploaded files without caring too much about the contents—Virtual Post Mail’s website is practically a catalog of the many special cases involved in handling snail mail.
There are policies for scanning credit and debit cards and the fronts and backs of checks. There are rules for forwarding mail, returning it to its sender, and picking it up in person. There are procedures for handling books and magazines, for depositing checks, and for securely shredding documents.
"When you’re talking about digitizing mail, it’s not just about software, it’s not just about the software engineering aspect to it," says Sanz. "There’s also a physical operations aspect to it."
Still, the company just introduced a new mobile-friendly interface. While operators of digital mail services take on the complexities of physical mail, their customers benefit from the relative simplicity of computerized data.
"Ninety percent of our mail that we actually need, after you weed out the junk, we can digitize it and just have it in our [cloud storage] and that’s good enough," says Alex Polvi, the founder and CEO of server software company CoreOS, which uses Earth Class Mail as its virtual mailroom.
CoreOS has moved offices as it’s grown to its present size of about 40 employees, but it’s maintained a consistent, and somewhat anonymized, mailing address thanks to Earth Class Mail.
Administrative staff can simply handle the company’s mail online, storing necessary documents digitally and having packages forwarded to CoreOS’s physical office address, he says.
While Oregon-based Earth Class Mail dates back to 2006, the company was acquired just last month by a new parent company created by tech investor Jonathan Siegel. The acquisition came after Earth Class Mail filed for Chapter 11 in late February, with the company’s chief financial officer writing in a court filing that the company had "been in financial distress since the economic downturn in 2008."
Doug Breaker, the company’s new CEO as of July 13, says the financial troubles had more to do with debt Earth Class Mail was carrying than with the underlying business model.
"The interesting thing is, the company other than some really restrictive debt they took in the last bit of funding was operating pretty profitably, and with a customer base that really loved the product," Breaker says. "So what we plan to do is to go and really invest again—to go invest in the product to make it that much more valuable for small and medium businesses and startups and companies like that."
That’ll likely mean more software integrations and auto-processing of incoming deliveries, he says.
For businesses already running their own mail operations—from office mailrooms to traditional mailbox stores—a startup called Anytime Mailbox launched in 2014 offers mail-digitization apps that can run on a standard laptop, smartphone, or tablet, letting mailroom workers snap pictures of mail, tag recipient accounts, and upload the data to the cloud.
"Our approach was, let’s use existing technology," says cofounder and president Matt Going. "People are very used to taking photos with their mobile device, tagging their friends, and then uploading on social media—same kind of idea."
Going says the company has more than 100 locations currently using the service.
Even the Postal Service itself is gradually moving toward a world of digital mail, with an ongoing pilot test in areas of Virginia of a program called Real Mail Notification that lets participants see digital previews of the mail they’re receiving that day. The program currently emails customers images captured as part of the mail sorting process, and a Postal Service spokesperson says the agency's considering options to include additional images submitted by mail senders.
The Postal Service says it's received a positive response in Virginia and plans to expand the pilot program into New York City later this year.
"We generated a high level of engagement," Postmaster General Megan Brennan told a mailing industry conference in May. "Nine out of 10 people were checking their mobile device to see what’s in their mail every day."
For his part, Earth Class Mail’s Breaker says his company welcomes any competition.
"It’s actually very encouraging to see others entering the space," he says. ""That’s a sign that this is an important market, where others see opportunity as well."