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This article was published on February 8, 2013

What’s Cooking at TNW Labs: a ‘frighteningly ambitious’ way to improve email

What’s Cooking at TNW Labs: a ‘frighteningly ambitious’ way to improve email
Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten
Story by

Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten

Founder & board member, TNW

Boris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and Boris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and Boris is very active on Twitter as @Boris and Instagram: @Boris.

At The Next Web we don’t just write about new technology. We also develop our own services. Examples are PressDoc, Paydro and Twitter Counter. This is a story about a new little project, with a rather ambitious goal, we are currently working on.

A few months ago I read an inspiring post by Paul Graham in which he offered a few ‘Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas‘. One of them was a proposal to ‘Replace Email’. As Graham explains:

Email was not designed to be used the way we use it now. Email is not a messaging protocol. It’s a todo list. Or rather, my inbox is a todo list, and email is the way things get onto it.

I love a challenge so decided to look into email and see how I could fix or replace it. Not that I thought I could, but it was a Sunday and I didn’t have anything better to do. First I started looking at some existing solutions. I tested SaneBox (which is awesome), Gmail’s Priority Inbox, Apple’s VIP feature and I also looked at a bunch of efforts (some launching soon) to make email easier to manage by transforming the inbox user experience.

Then I had a small breakthrough. All these efforts are trying to solve the email problem by making it easier for you to handle a lot of email. These are all tools to sort and file more stuff, but none of these solutions try to stop stuff from arriving in the first place. Or to find the email you really want to receive between all the other stuff.

That felt like something I could work with. I figured that instead of me trying to guess what an email would be about I would ask the sender to classify their emails for me. Is this something that can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’? Then please classify it as such and I can optimize my interface to deal with it.

inboxprologoThe result is a system I call Inbox Pro. I’m currently the only person using it and I don’t plan to launch it until I can prove it actually works. You can help me test it however by sending an email to [email protected]. Try it now and the following will happen:

Your email will land in my ‘Queue’ box and you will receive a reply via email with some information and options. The email states that my inbox currently contains 325 emails and that it takes an average of 3 days, 7 hours and 47 minutes for me to reply to emails.

I hope that message alone will make it clear to people that maybe they are sending me too many emails and to accept that they probably won’t get a reply within a few minutes. But it doesn’t stop there. I also invite the sender to optimize their email for me to ensure I get to it faster. They can do that by following a link and then changing their email to one of 4 formats:

1: Yes/No question:
2: FYI Message
3: Short Message
4: Long Message

Each format has a separate ‘Average Response Time’ and it is shown as you compose your message. Over time it will likely show that Yes/No questions and FYI Messages are answered faster than Long Questions.

In a few months I hope to have an iPhone and Android app that skips the whole email part of this setup and just allows you to pick an address and submit a message format.

There is one more feature that make Inbox Pro worthwhile for me personally and that is the ‘Expire’ function. I can set a time after which emails will expire. That means that if I haven’t been able to reply to your email within one week that simply means I’m too busy to answer it.

The email will disappear into the ‘Expired’ box and the sender will receive a friendly notification that they can move it back to the queue, change it to a different format, or delete it altogether and maybe just give me a call. It might seem harsh but I’ve found that I spent too much time saying ‘no’ and that ‘no’ is hardly ever accepted and mostly seen as the start of a discussion.

“Do you have time for coffee”
“No, sorry”
“It would only take 5 minutes”
“No, it wouldn’t, and I really don’t have time”
“But I have a great concept I need to show you”
“No, I’m focused on our own projects at the moment”
“But this is going to change the world”
“Maybe, But I really am too busy”

As I’m spending time trying to talk myself out of this discussion I might miss more important mails, or just have less time left to answer them or work on important stuff.

My hope is that people won’t start arguing with a machine when it says that I simply wasn’t able to answer their email. And yes, I can move any email in my inbox straight to the Expire folder.

That helps me clear up my inbox so I won’t miss that important or funny or just cool email I was waiting for.

The other cool feature we are adding now is custom email formats. You could specify a personal format for ‘Speaking Requests” or “Pitch for stories” or anything else that deserves their own format and folder. One person I showed Inbox Pro to suggested we’d add a paid format so that you could charge $50 for certain questions and people could pay to get their email answered first. One can dream.

Maybe one day we will add a ‘To do’ format and a ‘meeting planner’ format. Or maybe we should build a free-form format builder thing so you can build your own formats.

The current version of Inbox Pro is optimized for just me. It runs on a little server which might scale to 100 users, but then we would probably need to change some things. The service is also not optimized for threads. Meaning that if I reply to an email, no matter what format, and that invokes a new reply I generally switch to ‘normal’ email.

But I do notice that asking people to structure their email makes it a LOT easier to answer them, causes less stress and makes it easier to get to the important stuff. My dream is that in a few months I will open my Inbox Pro app in the morning and answer 20 Yes/No questions using just my left thumb, then read a few FYI messages and mark them as read, and then have my Inbox cleared before I even get to my office.

I also want Inbox Pro to become a perfect tool for inter-office communication. It isn’t there yet, and we need to solve a bunch of issues to get there, but I’m optimistic about our chances.

Anyway, if you think Inbox Pro could work for you too do visit the site and sign-up for the beta. The more people do the more motivated we will be to launch it soon.