Gentry Underwood On How The Overnight Success Of Mailbox Came From Years Of Working On Orchestra

After being launched to the public earlier this year, Mailbox appeared to be an overnight success, with hundreds of thousands of users signing up to be a part of its waiting list. But the quick adoption of the app only came after the team behind it spent years developing and iterating on a productivity app called Orchestra. In a conversation backstage at Disrupt NY 2013 earlier this week, co-founder Gentry Underwood walked me through how Mailbox came to be.

“Mailbox is really version 2 of Orchestra, a shared to-do list that we put in the app store in the fall of 2011,” Underwood told me. “Inside the company we were in an endless cycle of prototyping and releases that eventually evolved into Mailbox.”

The road to Mailbox, he said, came as the startup realized that the idea of the to-do list was fundamentally broken. Instead of helping users to organize tasks, they inevitably became a nagging reminder of things people hadn’t yet accomplished. “Everybody fills up to-do lists with things to do, and that’s a great moment because you’re getting your life organized,” he said. “The more people use them, the more they get full of stuff that never gets done.”

The daunting nature of to-do lists ended up providing one of the key features that would eventually make its way into Mailbox — the snooze button. Instead of having an item just staring up at you constantly, snoozing it allows users to file it away to be tackled later. While working on orienting their productivity tool around that, the team realized that most people had a ton of their tasks trapped in their email inbox.

All of that led to a “What if?” moment in March last year, where the team asked themselves, “What if all of your email was somehow all inside Orchestra?” Rather than building that feature into their existing product, they decided to create an entirely new product instead. That app eventually became Mailbox, which launched in January.

Check out the full interview above, where Underwood talks about creating Mailbox, the app’s reservation system, and what’s coming next.