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Email is broken and Hey’s Jason Fried is here to fix it

‘Everything starts with the idea of control’

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Image Credits: PeopleImages (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Email is a critical tool in modern-day communications, so it’s natural that many entrepreneurs have tried to overhaul it over the years.

In the last decade, email client Mailbox came and went, Slack launched to try to give people an alternative to email and Superhuman emerged to help people more easily reach the promised land of Inbox Zero.

The latest startup to tackle email is project management software maker Basecamp, which launched Hey last month. Within its first 11 days of release, Hey received 125,000 signups, Basecamp founder and CEO Jason Fried tells TechCrunch. Those initial days also included some drama with the Apple App Store, but that’s not what this story is about. Instead, it’s about Hey’s approach, why Fried felt the need to try to rebuild email from the ground up and how he approaches product development.

“The last time people were really excited about email, really, in a broad scale was 16 years ago when Gmail came out in 2004,” Fried says. “I remember it feeling different in a lot of ways. It was really fast, they had archiving, which was a new concept at the time. It worked differently than what I was coming from, which was Yahoo Mail, which was sort of stuck in the past. And I think that’s where Gmail is today — stuck in the past and we’re trying to bring out something brand new with new thinking and new philosophies and a new point of view.”

At its core, Hey is about giving people control over their email and minimizing clutter so users can hear from the people who matter most, Fried says. But control comes at a price: Hey costs $99 per year, with additional fees for three- and two-character email addresses (two-character email addresses are $999 per year and three-character addresses are $349 per year).

“We got a taste of our own medicine because it was not cheap to buy hey.com,” Fried says. “So anything that short in the domain world just costs more. It’s like beachfront property almost, because it’s scarce — more desirable. So given that we have a three-letter domain, two- and three-letter email addresses are just going to cost more. There’s fewer of them and they’re more desirable.”

Hey’s current iteration is targeted toward individual users, but by the end of the year, the plan is to launch a formal enterprise version with collaborative features like shared messages and inboxes. In this unified Imbox (not a typo), people will be able to specify that they don’t want to see work email past a certain time or on weekends.

“A lot of email is collaborative in nature,” Fried says. “People end up forwarding emails around to show someone to get their take. We think that’s totally broken and really antiquated. So we have some stuff built into Hey for work, which lets people share threads with one another in a very different way and be able to have backchannel conversations about threads without having to have those conversations in another product or somewhere that is separate from the actual thread itself.”

There’s much more to this conversation, like how Hey landed on its hypothesis, why control is so important, how email shouldn’t feel like work and more. Below are Fried’s insights.

The Hey hypothesis

The general hypothesis is that email has been broken for 16 years — broken in a whole bunch of different ways. And if you want to fix those things, you have to build it from scratch, from the ground up. You can’t be just a client that sits on top of Gmail. So we approached Hey by looking at all of these workarounds that people have to do every single day with email. Like, first of all, you have no control over who can email you. That, to me, seems like a fatal flaw. You can’t rename threads, typically. And if someone sends you something, well you’re kind of stuck with whatever they called it. That’s not particularly good. A lot of email, a lot of people’s inboxes are just shoved with everything.

The workflows, for example, let’s say I need to get back to someone later. Typically, that involves marking it unread again or starring it, like that’ll remind me that I’m supposed to do something with it. That’s just a fatal flaw. It’s broken. That’s not the way it should be. But it’s just the way it has been. Oftentimes, people will send you threads and they’ll send you multiple threads about the same thing. And historically, for 50 years, you’ve had to deal with separate threads about the same thing. With Hey, you can merge them all together. So we looked at these fundamental flaws of email that we’ve all simply just gotten used to, because we’ve been using it for so long, and said, it doesn’t have to be that way. In order to fix those, you have to go to the root, you’ve got to own the whole platform, you’ve got to build an email service, not just a client, and really do some new things. And so this is sort of a long answer.

But we think Hey is packed full of really fresh, brand new approaches to managing workflows to having a built-in workflow. So you don’t have to go invent a whole bunch of things with mail rules. And, you know, you can simulate some of these things in other places, but it’s so intimidating, which is why if you look at average people and how they actually email, they have like 40,000 unread emails in Gmail, like they just have everything shoved in their inbox, right? If that isn’t a sign that things are radically broken, I don’t know what it is. So we just kind of went back to the basics and try to solve for all these things people deal with every day.

“Everything starts with the idea of control.”

Everything starts with the idea of control. You cannot fix the email problem until you have control over who can email you. If you don’t have control over that, it’s hopeless. It just is because now you’re dealing with a bunch of stuff you don’t want from people you don’t need to hear from.

Image Credits: Hey

With Hey, it all begins with the screener, and before anyone can get into the inbox, they have to pass through the screener and you get to decide if you ever want to hear from that person or service or company or whatever it is. If you say no, you never have to hear from them again. So it’s like an investment in your time. Every time you say, “No,” you’re investing in your time and it pays dividends forever.

To step back, we have a spam filter that takes care of true spam. But spam is not the problem with email anymore. It used to be, but that’s been solved. That’s kind of a solved problem. What hasn’t been solved until Hey is that there are other people that are not spam and services that are not spam that get through to you that you have to deal with, for example, a salesperson who wants to get you on a drip campaign to sell you something. They might send you eight emails over the next, you know, nine weeks because that’s how the system works. That would never be picked up as spam because it’s not technically spam. It’s an individual sending you something.

With most email services, you could tell that person no if you want to, and they’re still going to send you another one and maybe they’re going to send you another one and maybe you just delete them or archive them and you just ignore them. But they keep sending you this stuff. With Hey, you just hit “No” and they’re done. You’ll never hear from them again. So you’ve got to begin to control the spigot. You’ve got to control the flow. Once you do that, then you can start to triage the things that really matter to you. And so that’s what the Imbox is all about. New stuff is automatically always organized at the top. So you don’t have to go digging for new stuff you haven’t seen yet.

If you look at people’s Gmail inboxes it’s like four unreads and 16 reads and it’s like the striping of just stuff everywhere. It’s just like you’re hunting and pecking for the thing you’re looking for. In Hey, all the unread stuff is organized for you automatically, always at the top. And then down below is everything you’ve ever seen before.

Taking the work out of email

There’s no notion of archiving, there’s no notion of obligation, which is something we want to get rid of from email. The fact is, every email that comes in typically, there’s two, at the very least, obligations, historically. You’ve got to read it, and you’ve got to do something with it. So a lot of people archive it, or they delete it or whatever, or they’d let it sit there, I guess.

Why do we have to delete things? Why do we have to archive things? Why do we have to clean up after ourselves? The main reason why is because otherwise stuff just sticks around where it was, so you feel the need to clean up.

We’re trying to reduce the amount of workload people have to go through so they can have more time to themselves. Email should not feel like work, it shouldn’t be work. Systems shouldn’t create more work for you, they should take care of some of the work for you. And there’s certainly people out there who much prefer the Inbox Zero you know, the super-clear empty space. I get it totally, there are different takes. But we want to put an alternative out there that is based on a philosophy that you should not be spending time working on email. Like, you should spend time writing an email, but all the other work around it, that’s what a system should help you take care of, rather than just being thrown a bunch of tools.

With Hey, you don’t ever have to archive. There’s no archiving, there’s no notion of having to clean up after yourself. Time takes care of that for you.

Distraction-free replies

And if you want to reply or reply later and set aside, you can do those things. But you can also just leave it be, and it will just get pushed off the bottom of the screen eventually. And that’s sort of a fundamental thing that we don’t want to create. We don’t want people to have to feel like they have to do work whenever they get an email.

You shouldn’t have to think about where it should go, but just let it go. Or tell Hey where you want it and then we’ll put it there from now on, but it’s that kind of thinking: reducing the sort of mental demands on people, giving people more time and attention back and preventing people from having to deal with people or things or services that they just simply don’t want to hear from anymore. And then the workflows around set aside and reply later, the focus and reply mode is so different than anything that’s ever been done with email before.

Image Credits: Hey

And it’s kind of one of those things where you use it once and you’re like, why hasn’t it always been this way. You put some stuff in your reply later stack and you open the stack and you click the focus and reply button below, and it opens up all those emails one after another with a reply box next to each one on a single screen, distraction-free. Nothing else is going to come in that screen while you’re working. And you can actually sit down and say I’ve got a half-hour, I’m going to knock out 12 emails and I’m done, versus managing everything from your inbox.

Typically, in normal email systems, you go to your inbox, you find something you want to reply to, you click it, you reply to it and it takes you back to your inbox or takes you to the next message. But the problem is that when you go back to the inbox, you see a bunch of other stuff that may have just come in the meantime and you see all this other crap that you’ve got to deal with. Focus and reply takes you out of that loop completely and lets you kind of have one page just to do the things that you’ve already lined up and triaged to do. And then you can knock them down as you go without any distractions.

Imbox, not inbox

That’s my little pet project. We had called it inbox for a long, long time and then we had some other ideas come up and then I suggested Imbox because Hey’s Imbox is not like any other inbox. It’s separated into sections, it has a screener, it has these two piles, like reply later and set aside. It’s radically different and I wanted to signal that, but I didn’t want it to be super different. One of the other ideas we were tossing around was Homebase or Yesbox or Boombox. There are all these other stupid things. But we were playing with these other ideas and they are all too far away from the idea.

Inbox is what people are used to, so the smallest effective difference we could make is to call it the Imbox. And M stands for important and immediate and these are the things that really matter to you.

Even people internally, there are some who can’t stand it and I totally get it. I get that it rubs some people the wrong way. But the thing is, it’s different and we want to signal that. We just want to double down on being original and having a little bit of fun here, but also making a point that this is not an inbox.

Everyone hates their inbox. So we’re not going to put something in a product that everybody hates right off the bat. We’re going to put something else in. Granted, some other people are now going to hate this because they don’t like what it’s called, but it’s totally fair. It’s not going anywhere. It’s staying and if that’s the reason why people don’t use the product, that’s fine. That’s of course up to them but I’m seeing the interest in the product so far. I’m pretty comfortable where we’re going with it.

Hey 2.0

There are so many things we wanted to do that we couldn’t do and so many things we’ll discover to do over the next number of months and years and decades. I’m hoping in the next few weeks we’ll jump back in and begin to launch or launch some of the new features that we didn’t make. I can’t comment on what those are going to be because we haven’t decided exactly what we’re going to be working on.

Next. We don’t have a roadmap — we never work that way. We kind of work six weeks at a time. And if you go look at basecamp.com/shapeup if you’re curious, you can read all about our development methodology and how we approach work and how we work day to day and everything. And part of it is every six weeks we look around and figure out what we want to work on next. And we do that over the next six weeks. So we ship all that and we look around again and figure out what we want to work on next to where we’re always iterating and adjusting based on a whole bunch of factors. We don’t lay out like years’ worth of work. I have no idea what we’re gonna be working on in three months, I just don’t know; all I know is it’s going to be Hey, and Basecamp. And we’ll figure out as we go with the most important next thing to do is based on all sorts of things.

So, there’s loads of stuff we don’t have in there. And there’s a lot of little subtle improvements that we want to make. The way Hey works is that you decide on a per sender basis if you want those emails to go to the Feed, the Paper Trail or the Imbox, and one of the things that has been difficult for some people is that there are some companies that send all their emails from the same address. Like, a billing issue is the same address as a marketing newsletter, is the same address as a new product announcement. And so it’s very hard to figure out where do those go. So we have to think a little bit. This is not necessarily what we’re going to be doing next. But these are some of the improvements we’re going to want to figure out how to make, which is like, how do you disambiguate those situations where a company is sending vastly different kinds of email from the same email address? You know, how do we help people through that, so we’re gonna be working on like, fundamentals like that.

And then also, there’s a whole bunch of really unusual stuff that didn’t make it into 1.0 that we’re gonna put out there. I mean, a big part of this brand play is to do radically different stuff. We have no interest in being like anybody else or trying to match anybody else’s feature set or approach. We have our own take, our own approach, and where we have some really weird things that are coming that don’t traditionally fit people would never think they would ever fit in an email app, or email service, but we have a different take on what email could be and should be. So there’s some stuff coming that people are gonna go, “That’s not email.” I know it’s not. It’s different. So we’re very excited. I know I’m kind of teasing here, but I wish I could share it. But, well, it’s not done. So I can’t. We can’t talk about things that aren’t done yet because who knows what happens. And I don’t want to make promises that we can’t keep. But there’s some neat stuff coming that’s very, very different.

“Human intelligence is greater than artificial intelligence”

Control is a fundamental part of the product. Even algorithmically, we’re staying away from AI and anything where the product is trying to tell you what to do, or what you should do. We’re very much opposed to that. We think that, in our parlance, HI is greater than AI. Basically, human intelligence is greater than artificial intelligence in this case, which is like, just tell Hey what you want and let Hey do it. These aren’t hard questions. Tell Hey what you want, and Hey will take care of the rest. Versus Hey telling you what it thinks you want, and then you have to either say yes or no, and you get frustrated when machines do the wrong things. And you have to figure out how to back out of that problem. And we’re just staying away from that.

So we’re trying to keep it very straightforward and make sure people feel like they’re in control that there’s no surprises and no secrets and no machine behind the scenes doing things that you don’t know about. So that is a fundamental tenant of the product. We’re going to keep figuring out more ways to give people control. The tough thing is you don’t want to create, like for example, Gmail in some ways gives you extraordinary control because you can set up all these mail rules, if-then conditions and all that stuff and regex expressions. You can really go to town on that. But that’s not what most people want to do. People who are really deep into this stuff love to do that — tech people love to do that. But we’re not building a product for tech people. This is not a technical product. We’re trying to make a clear, straightforward, simple product that anybody can use. People who are struggling with email all over the world, and in all sorts of ways need help with this.

So while Gmail might be able to give you extraordinary control at the micro-level, based on configuration, we’re trying to go with what we would call convention over configuration. Like, this is a system that you can apply. And it’s very straightforward and has a couple of rules, not mail rules, but like rules of engagement essentially, and like this is how it works. If you need help with email, and you want to make sense of this stuff, and you want to feel like you’re in control of it, if you adopt this system and follow these rules, things are going to be much, much, much better for you versus here’s a bunch of separate tools. Here’s a bunch of sophisticated if-then statements and make it work for your own custom situation. That’s just a different approach. Not that it’s wrong. It’s just a different approach. We’re not going in that direction. So we’re trying to keep this what we always call internally Fisher-Price. Simple. We’re always like, how can we make this almost like an email toy? Not like in a derogatory, cheap sense kind of thing. But it’s fun. Like, I’ve got two young kids and you look at kids’ toys sometimes, and they are just so straightforward. The buttons are always huge, and everything’s really obvious. And that’s kind of what we’re trying to get to, is making things really as obvious as we can, so that people just understand because nobody likes to be confused. And when you open up the Gmail Settings panel, it’s confusing, flat-out, unless you really understand the stuff, and some people do.

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