Email is like putting gas in your car: you depend on it and you scream when it’s not available. But nobody loves it.
At last night’s 500 Startups Inbox Love event in Mountain View, the former founder of an email startup explained why it’s so darn hard for a startup with an innovative idea about e-mail to make it better.
Bijan Marashi is the cofounder and former CEO of Xoopit, which built tools tools for users to search and organise their email and web services for developers to search their applications. Yahoo acquired Xoopit in July 2009 for a rumoured price tag of around $20 million, and Marashi stuck around until a few weeks ago. Now, he’s looking to start his next project, and it won’t involve email.
Here’s a summary of the frustrations he ran into:
- Providers are impossible to deal with. Big email providers won’t make ground-up changes because they don’t want to anger their huge user bases. The only way they can make big changes is by launching new products, which don’t have the built-in user bases you were counting on. (Think of Google Wave versus Gmail.)
- Got a clever add-on? Don’t expect the big platforms to give you prime real estate in the user interface–again, they don’t want to anger or confuse users.
- They also won’t offer the deep technical hooks that are necessary to pull data and call complicated functions in their systems because they’re afraid your add-on will hurt performance. Even if they do, deep processing of email is hard, takes work, and is very expensive.
- And they won’t share their revenue with you. Somebody at the company might say they’re going to, but when it comes down to it, they won’t.
- If you make something really cool and actually get it implemented and adopted, platform providers will simply copy the feature.
- Waiting for big platform providers to do anything will suck up way more time than expected, running you dry.
- Starting from scratch is hard. So why rely on the big providers? Why not just start over again? Because building your own new email service from scratch is way harder than you think and will take forever. Ask Zenbe or Threadsy.
- User habits are also a barrier. You can build an alternate Web site that lets users access email features or data, but it’s hard to draw users and keep them on the site.
- There’s a small group of very loud and finicky privacy advocates. This can make it hard to judge how to do data discovery.
- Users don’t want to give you any space in their inbox unless your feature is directly related to email.
- Most VCs won’t bite. Finally, VCs aren’t very interested in funding companies looking to improve particular features in a product like email. They want to fund businesses looking to address huge market problems, or wacky inventions.