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The Postal Service is bad, but Outbox is worse

The Postal Service is bad, but Outbox is worse


A new startup misses the point

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Outbox, which bills itself as "recreating the US Postal Service," launched yesterday in San Francisco after being announced last year. Recreating the troubled US Postal Service certainly sounds like a good idea. So how does Outbox work?

For $4.99 a month, you sign up online for an Outbox account (they also have apps), and then an Outbox employee comes to your house, picks up your mail, takes it back to Outbox HQ, opens it, scans it, and gives you access to it via your account. From there, you can "unsubscribe" from junk mail, and request to have your mail "delivered" to your house (even though it was definitely already delivered once, the other day). That's it: a new, "disruptive" service that PandoDaily wrote about at length last year.

There are a few obvious problems with the concept and execution of Outbox. First of all, it is bloated from start to finish: building a "revolutionary" product by piggybacking onto one of the nation's most bureaucratic, beleaguered institutions (it lost $15.9 billion last year alone) seems shortsighted and doomed, but it actually makes the mail experience less efficient than it is today. Whereas it currently takes three or four days for my letter to get to me from Chicago to New York it will now take... five? Maybe six? Outbox says it picks up your mail three days a week, so it seems likely that the turnaround time will be significantly less fast than if I simply bite the bullet and open the mail myself. A startup with this kind of inefficiency built into its bones is misguided, to say the least.

Outbox isn't "recreating the Postal Service" at all, it is needlessly complicating the already relatively straightforward interaction we have with our paper mail, by turning it into... electronic mail. Outbox also says it can help you get your billing strategy under control... but we've already largely solved that problem, too. I don't get many paper bills, and for most of my accounts, I have instantaneous access to years' worth of bills in a secure environment. And it's not as if Outbox is actually making you a usable, digital bill: it's generating an image of a bill, in another inbox separate from your actual email, complete with to do lists and trash bins. There are some intriguing ideas here: for instance, it would very convenient and useful to get your mail online while travelling. But Outbox isn't the way to get there.

it's generating an image of a bill, in another inbox

In fact, the more one thinks about this idea, the more preposterous it seems, especially in light of the fact that it has around $2.2 million in funding from people such as Peter Thiel, and is a company which has at least eight executives. To be clear, the mail system has serious, real problems. The USPS is a failing "business" facing serious cutbacks, and junk mail is annoying and hugely wasteful (which makes up almost half of the volume of mail in the US and is also a large piece of the USPS's revenue stream); but so is paying someone else to burn fuel on coming to your house to read your junk mail for you. It's essentially inefficient in the most obvious way. It takes the annoyance of mail and makes it someone else's problem, while not actually trying to solve the real problem: cutting down on the existence of unwanted mail. And as for the mail that you do want... having it delivered by the USPS, picked up by Outbox, then re-delivered possibly weeks later is silly. There are real issues with billing and mail which could be and should be fixed, but Outbox misses the point and appears to flail in executing.

A lot of media coverage of Outbox has focused on potential privacy and security issues which can arise from giving someone else access to your physical mail, and Outbox goes to great lengths to tout its security measures. There are also possibly some legal concerns. Of course, if you do give another human being permission to open your mail, well, that's your problem, isn't it?

Note: At the time of its announcement, Outbox suggested it had reached an agreement with the USPS to allow it to intercept mail from ever being delivered to your home, and that it would instead be delivered to its warehouse. This would have made the service less wasteful, to be sure. From its description of the service today, that no longer appears to be the case, and Outbox employs its own "postmen" to pick up already delivered mail from your home mailbox.