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Zumbox Delivers Paperless Mail (In Beta)

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Would you trust your postal mail with a company called Zumbox?

I ask, because startup Zumbox enters public beta today with a fairly interesting (but not entirely new) alternative to traditional snail mail. Here’s how it works: instead of sending bills, statements, advertisements, postcards and the likes to a street address, a business can now send those to a digitized street address, without the need for actual paper or stamps.

Let me try again: Zumbox basically created a digital mailbox for every street address in the US it could find (150 million), which can be used to receive mail that was sent to a physical location instead of an e-mail address. This approach is based on the fact that while not everyone has an e-mail address, everyone supposedly has a unique street address, and that businesses tend to have street addresses for their customers more often than they have e-mail addresses.

With Zumbox, these businesses as well as individuals can send documents and custom mailings to one’s physical street address, and by entering their address on Zumbox.com, recipients can consult what was sent. That’s an entirely different approach than Earth Class Mail, which scans all the postal mail it receives on a custom address created by a user, and then posts it to the customer’s digital account. Sending and receiving with Zumbox is free to consumers, and businesses are charged 2 cents postage per address.

I have a couple of observations. First of all, going back to my initial question: why would anyone trust their personal mail, which often includes sensitive information, with a young company they’ve never heard of? The company goes to greath lengths to explain the service is secure, and how they’re compliant with the security standards of the financial, healthcare, and banking industries, but that remains a significant hurdle.

I was also wondering if Zumbox doesn’t make it easier for companies to electronically spam people, but the startup gave me a number of reasons why this isn’t the case: it’s a closed system where Zumbox controls the entire flow of mail, the identities of senders and receivers are verified in advance, users get some control over the mail they receive, and finally the 2 cents charge should provide a barrier to senders with malicious intentions.

Another question that I had was how Zumbox notifies a user the first time he receives his mail to a digital account instead of his physical mailbox. Apparently, the startup has 3 ways of doing this: by getting consumers to sign up via e-mail, an iGoogle widget, or a desktop application (the latter two coming this January). Developers of third-party application are invited to use the company’s API to work on other ways too.

Not a flaw, but still noteworthy: the solution won’t help you a bit if you don’t have an internet connection. The number of people without internet access may be decreasing, but it’s nowhere close to zero just yet.

I’m still not sure whether I think this idea will stick or not, but for what it’s worth, Zumbox realizes it will take several years for postal mail to transition into a digital system. The company has raised $3 million in Series A funding in Q1 2008 from a number of private angel investors to finance the public beta release, but there’s no doubt they’ll need way more capital to provide a runway to success.

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