Outbox Pours Salt On Snail Mail By Launching Its Digitizing Service In San Francisco

Mail digitizing startup Outbox is launching in San Francisco today, the first step in what co-founder Will Davis says is a broader national rollout.

If, like me, you find physical mail to be an annoyance, this is good news. Basically, Outbox swings by your real-world mailbox three times a week, digitizes the content, and makes it accessible on the Web, iPads, and iPhones. That means you’re less likely to dump an important document into the recycling bin (hell, my initial, physical Outbox invite ended up in my laundry hamper, and they had to email me another copy), and your desk/kitchen table/whatever doesn’t get cluttered with piles of junk mail.

Of course, there are rare occasions where the digital copy isn’t enough, but Outbox accounts for those. For starters, any packages (like an order from Amazon) will be dropped off on your doorstep. And if there’s any other piece of mail where you want the physical item, you can select it on the website and Outbox will deliver to you. Everything else gets shredded and recycled.

Outbox was first developed in Austin, where the team has worked out a lot of the kinks. For example, you can identify whether you’re signing up for a household plan (so all the mail at a given address gets collected) or an individual one (only mail sent to one name gets collected, which is important if you have roommates). And if you need a key to open the mailbox, you can send Outbox a photo and it will make a copy based on that image.

There were about 500 testers in Austin, Davis said, and only 3 percent of them actually cancelled: “We have an incredibly sticky service.”

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/53848218 w=500&h=281]

Intro to Outbox from Outbox on Vimeo.

It sounds very appealing, but I did wonder whether everyone’s going to be excited about having strangers opening and scanning their mail. Davis’ co-founder Evan Baehr said that everyone who collects the mail and processes it has to go through a thorough background check. He also argued that since it shreds everything, Outbox is actually a more secure way to dispose of mail than what most people do now.

I also wondered about the company’s long-term prospects. If physical mail is becoming less and less important (a development signaled by the U.S. Postal Service’s plan to stop Saturday delivery), where does that leave Outbox in five or 10 years? Well, Davis pointed out that the postal service delivered more than 150 billion pieces of mail last year, and that even the pessimistic projections suggest that it will be delivering 120 million pieces annually in a few years. He also pointed at Netflix as a company that built a relationship with customers via physical mail, and used those relationships as it transitioned to a new model, streaming video in this case. (Netflix’s transition hasn’t been entirely smooth …)

So what does the next version of Outbox look like? Baehr and Davis didn’t get too specific, but they noted that among other things, Outbox can help build a relationship between companies and consumers. It already allows customers to try to stop certain types of mail delivery, but they said the company can also go back to those businesses and help them market themselves in ways that actually engage and interest consumers. Baehr also said that bill pay and check deposits are on the product roadmap.

Looking beyond San Francisco, Davis said he’s hoping to launch in cities including New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles by the end of the year.

“The cool thing is, because we’re a hyperlocal service, we don’t have to build this huge infrastructure,” he said. “We can actually pretty much build it out in a few months’ time.”

Back in 2011, Outbox raised a $2.2 million round led by Floodgate. As it expands, it will be probably be raising more funding, Davis said.

After a one-month trial, Outbox costs $4.99 per month. I’ve signed up myself, but the collection hasn’t started yet, so I can’t offer much first-hand experience. I have played around with a demo account, so I can say that I like the interface — it’s visually rich enough that it captures the character of the real object, and it’s easy to sort things into different folders. (It would be nice if there was an easier way to scroll through lots of mail at once.)

San Franciscans can sign up here.