'Shadow' postmen scan the mail

outbox lets users control 'outdated' service

Austin American-StatesmanJanuary 5, 2013 

Snail mail is going high-tech, thanks to a startup called Outbox.

For $4.99 a month, Outbox has one of its "unpostmen" retrieve your mail three times a week and scan each piece into images viewable anywhere in the world via a secure website or iPad application.

The service was rolled out in its hometown of Austin, Texas, a couple of months ago. The company expects to get another round of financing this year, allowing it to expand to 10 or 15 additional U.S. cities, most likely including San Francisco and New York.

"The pain point we solve is for the frequent traveler, those individuals with cluster mailboxes far from their homes and people who want to be better organized," said Will Davis, who co-founded the company with Evan Baehr, a former business school classmate. "There are things in your mailbox you love, and we want to give people better access to that."

There's also a bunch of junk mail that postal workers deliver each day. Outbox is out to stop that, Baehr said.

The Outbox app and website use proprietary technology — the firm has nearly two dozen patents pending — to flag junk mail. With just a couple clicks, users have the option of requesting to be removed from a sender's list.

"We're getting people away from our paper-focused world," Davis said. "It's better for the user and for the environment."

Outbox customers can still receive items such as magazines and birthday cards that they decide they want via doorstep deliveries made by the unpostmen each Friday.

Future enhancements to Outbox's technology, the company says, will include the ability to instantly pay bills that are received and an option to request catalogs and samples its customers actually want from companies they patronize.

"We're building a shadow postal network, helping customers take their mail back," Baehr said.

In 2011, the U.S. Postal Service reports it processed 554 million pieces of mail each day and brought in $17.8 billion in postage fees from companies sending advertisements.

"Right now, you have no control over who sends you mail," Baehr said. "The sender has all the control. We're out to change that."

"The entire process is very dated and dusty," Davis added. "There's just not a lot of innovation happening. That makes it ripe for us to disrupt."

The company has 12 employees and about 500 customers right now, according to Baehr, most of them clustered in downtown Austin, where the company's offices are located.

A warehouse facility to sort mail will come online soon in North Austin.

Central Austin resident Bill Boebel was one of the first people to sign up for the service.

"I love it because it's like postal mail finally caught up with all of my other forms of communication — email, phone, SMS," he said. "I can access it anywhere, any time, share with people in real time, store important items forever and retrieve them whenever I need them."

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