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Email-First Startups (ryanhoover.me)
137 points by rrhoover on Feb 25, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 46 comments

Email as the interface is really interesting to me. Users don't necessarily need a username/password combo. They don't need to learn a new workflow. They don't need to install any new tools. Company IT depts take care of making sure people can access their email on their phones/laptops.

I've built a product that tracks team mood that is based almost entirely on email. Instead of having a team of 10 developers each make their own accounts, there is just one account for the manager - who manages the list of the team's emails. The team members record their mood by clicking one of three links in the email, no complicated forms or sliders. Usage and adoption rates have been beyond my expectations (~70% response rate to daily emails) and I think the use of email is a major factor.

Email-first is very constraining - but ultimately constraints help spur creative and elegant solutions.

> no complicated forms or sliders.

I find this very interesting. What made you want to avoid use a slider?

Personally, I really dislike such limiting options. Good, meh, bad? It doesn't let me express if I'm a little better than good or somewhere between Good and Meh. I'd often have to truncate my true expression.

For myself, I would love a single simple slider. It would let me express myself with any degree of accuracy I want. Very specific, or just rough.

Am I an exception from the average user?

Because this bugs me in so many places. So many things are in or out. I want them to be a floating point value between 0 to 1. Website favourites. I wish I could favourite them by any amount between 0 to 1, etc. (Then you could do all sorts of things like display the higher-ranked items larger, or filter displaying only >= 0.75 items). Same goes for app/movie rankings. Why do I have to truncate my feelings to 1-5 stars instead of just dropping a slider to where I feel like?

My take is that when you use a slider - or the common 5-item Likert scales (strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, strongly disagree) - people will waffle over their answer. The fewer the options, the lesser cognitive overload of having decide is today a "great" day or just a "good" day.

I don't want answering the question "how is your day going?" to take more than the 2 seconds it takes to move your mouse to the link.

The problem with the slider is that you have you interface with it. So the workflow would be: get an email, click a link, move a slider (compared to get an email, click one of 3 links). I know I'd want to avoid the extra step as a user, so that's why I opted for that approach.

There is also an option for the user to enter an anonymous comment after they have logged their mood - so if you want to express why today is bad or add note that it is an especially excellent day you can do that.

At a higher level view, I think the value in this particular app is not a scientifically rigorous computation of a teams mood, but rather as a conversation starter ("why has there been a few 'bads' this week? let's talk about it") and a general trend indicator ("morale is down since we moved to the new office, what's up with that?").

Yeah, I think having more options (like 5-item Likert) would be worse for exactly the reasons you mentioned.

It's a good point that you can't do a slider in email, I didn't think of. Unless email allows embedding an html form that you can submit? I've never seen anything more than static html in my email so I guess it must not be possible.

Anyway, thanks for your explanation, it makes sense. I think I'll make myself a 0-1 floating point favourites tracker and see how I like using it.

Yeah, forms in an email are tricky. Some clients actually do support them - which was a big surprise to me! http://www.campaignmonitor.com/resources/will-it-work/forms/

Thanks for the feedback, I appreciate it.

> What made you want to avoid use a slider?

I built a political survey app once, and we started out using sliders to measure both (1) issue importance and (2) agree/disagree. It was way too fiddly, and no one cared about degree of accuracy. Every iteration of the UI we gave the user fewer choices. By the end I was pushing for just "agree" and "disagree" or even "agree" and "next question," but we never took it quite that far.

>> Users don't necessarily need a username/password combo.

This is where I really love the Token Authenticatable module in Devise (for Rails).

Your rails app can start by just collecting emails. As your app grows, you can then turn that table into a Devise User model. Turn on token auth. and your emails can now include links that auto-login users.

Sounds good in theory, but login-links are a security issue, because they:

  show up in browser history
  can be pasted accidentally somewhere
  are send usually unencrypted via email
You'll need one-time login links, which is partly okay, partly inconvenient.

Don't get me wrong, I play with the idea of login-links as well, but they have some drawbacks that one should at least be aware of.

Love this idea. Can I see it somewhere online?

Love it.

While this is a good article, I feel like email first is just a specific example of building an MVP.

I did a similar thing when launching BugMuncher - I bought a template from Themeforest, built a very minimal PHP backend, and put a paypal subscription button on to the website.

When ever anyone signed up, I'd get a notification from PayPal, at which point I'd manually add the user's details into my database, and manually send them a welcome email. There was no where for users to log in an amend their account, instead they had to email me with the required changes, and I'd action it.

This meant I could build the first version of BugMuncher very fast, and once I had my first 10 paying customers I felt it was validated enough for me to build the full, automated system.

So in short, MVP's rock

I'm paying an email-first startup £2k a month right now. In fact, it's not just email-first - it's still email-only. They don't even have a website.

They are actually moving to email-first-and-now-a-bit-more tomorrow - from tomorrow onwards, there won't even be any email, as the data they're providing will go straight into another system through an API. From email-first to not-even-email.

Are you able to say who this is? It sounds very intriguing as a business model. Guessing it's some sort of business/financial data subscription?

This was exactly how I started http://www.weekendhacker.net

I was manually going through mails both from project owners and helpers.

Now it's more or less automated (and about to relaunch after a period of silence) but it was good to get validation easily.This was exactly how I started http://www.weekendhacker.net

I was manually going through mails both from project owners and helpers.

Now it's more or less automated (and about to relaunch after a period of silence) but it was good to get validation easily.

Other startups that could have started as emails

AirBnB Ebay TheFancy CraigsList

Craigslist did start as an email.

From wikipedia: "Craig Newmark began the service in 1995 as an email distribution list of friends, featuring local events in the San Francisco Bay Area, before becoming a web-based service in 1996 and expanding into other classified categories. It started expanding to other U.S. cities in 2000, and currently covers 50 countries."

ahh ok. There you go.

Craigslist did start as an email list: "Craig's List"

I just started a Posterous clone (just as in today) that tries to do most things via email (no login necessary... or possible).

It uses Mailgun for email management and in my experience it works flawlessly.


Yep! This is how we started The Fetch (http://thefetch.com) – a what's happening city guide for professionals to discover local events.

I started it out of Melbourne, Australia and we've gone to 10 cities across the US, Europe and Asia Pac within a year. :)

In many ways, it's never been easier to get validation and traction for your startup idea. Email-first is a good strategy for some but I'd love to hear other lean ideas and examples. Forum-first? SMS-first? B&M-first?


Phone-first is still pretty much the choice in many places. It's frustrating how many businesses in Eastern Europe, for example, fail to have any other means of contacting them or first-hand sources of information about them.

raldi mentioned Twitter as SMS-first: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5280081

could you elaborate on phone first?

Despite the claims of email being dead and/or ripe for disruption, we all use it – a lot. And I agree that email is a great place to gain traction. There is a low barrier of entry by only requiring an email address to receive a newsletter, for instance. And there is no mystery how email works. The biggest thing may be the built in "stickiness." I enjoy trying out new web apps and services, but the hardest part about making an app useful is remembering to use it. That's not a problem if it ends up in a place I already have open and in front of me much of the day – my email.

This reminds me of this article I read a month ago: The Most Underrated Digital Marketing Tactics. http://www.digiday.com/brands/the-most-underrated-digital-ma...

Surprisingly: 2 of the 6 marketing directors interviewed said "Email" was the most underrated technique.

There could be something to this email-first idea.

There is something to it: it works. But people here are blind to it due to various reasons. Such as the hate towards cold emailing (not spam, but cold), the focus on writing code to fix something that does not need fixing, the focus on problems rather than on the solutions, anod the inherent apathy towards marketing that a lot of programmers have. Something that keeps them busy building useless products that nobody wants.

I've built a number of sites/prototypes along these lines, two services (no affiliation beyond using them) that I've found useful are:

http://www.postmarkapp.com and http://www.mailgun.com

In particular they really are quite good at simplifying the parsing of inbound emails, which lets you get going quickly.

Building a list and sending emails is an ideal way to start building an audience early and eventually, to test market your product concept.

We expand more upon this idea in the following post: http://www.tinylever.com/building-an-audience-before-or-para...

Craigslist in '95 another example.

Since I run an email newsletter startup (not quite the same thing as the OP is discussing)it's fair to say I believe in the value of email.

Surprises me how many people though tell me we should build and sell an App instead. Which market would you rather gain traction in - people with smartphones or people with an email address?

I think OP was right in saying that email can be used to later up sell on an app or other product. Once you've built a good list, you can even ask them if they would prefer a native app.

At Correlated (http://www.correlated.org), the daily results email has been a key part of the user experience from day one. In fact, users can take part in the site's main activity -- responding to the daily poll question -- straight from their email. I've found that users tolerate a once-a-day email pretty well, and it's a little more noticeable than just an RSS feed.

That said, here's how I think users respond to daily content delivered via email vs. an RSS feed:

-- A handful of RSS feed updates a day: That's cool.

-- A TON of RSS feed updates a day: Still cool. I'll get to 'em when I get to 'em.

-- A handful of email newsletters a day: That's cool.

-- A TON of email newsletters a day: Not cool, man. If I have time, I'll filter them. Otherwise, time to unsubscribe.

So, yeah, right now, email might be a good medium ... but there is a saturation point.

So, yeah, right now, email might be a good medium ... but there is a saturation point.

Long term it'll continue to be too, just as with anything else. There are only so many magazines, newspapers, TV channels, Web sites, foods, restaurants, drinks, etc, that we can cope with/consume each day too, but new ones come along and knock others out of business without breaking the tolerance for the medium (luckily!) :-)

Very interesting. About two weeks ago I coded up this one http://www.samsreminder.com/ in a weekend for fun. (Not really meant to be a startup, but just a service that could be helpful to a few folks.) It is an almost-email-only solution.

My former employer FierceMarkets was a very profitable email-only B2B publisher for years. Email isn't sexy, but it's an incredibly powerful and often underrated medium.

Building a Twitter client via email: http://essenceapp.com

To focus on the people you care about

Who produced the video for you ?

Nathan Barry has been writing an articulate blog about the process of starting a SaaS business in this "e-mail first" manner: http://nathanbarry.com/

His product is (well, will be) to offer this as a service to others: http://convertkit.com/

Beeminder started this way too (it was Kibotzer -- the kibitzing bot [http://blog.beeminder.com/beenamer] -- back then). Bot emails you asking for your number (eg, your weight) and sends you back a graph of your progress.

Let's not forget that this is how Twitter got started, too. (Though they used SMS instead of email.)

I'll add another "me to" to this. Diarysnap (http://diarysnap.com/) started of as a greasy hack that plugged email surveys into an excel spreadsheet - initially manually.

Cloudability started this way too. It wasn't until the initial free email system broke and the people using it wrote in saying WTF that we realized we were onto something...

Can you elaborate? I am having a hard time conceptualizing this.

TheLadders.com started exactly like this. IT was an email digest of 100k + jobs, went crazy viral.

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