Building a Company Around Email – The InboxFever Interview

inbox fever

InboxFever is a TechStars 2011 company which aims to make it quick and simple for anyone to build email-powered applications. The service has formed a strong user-base since launch, and today we are lucky enough to have the co-founder of InboxFever, Doruk Aytulu, on The Startup Project.

Can you share the story behind the development and launch of InboxFever? What challenges did you face?

Our first product had nothing to do with email, it was a social learning platform. We aggregated unique, credible content and merged that with an online research platform. We built a feature initially, and a little selfishly I should say, just for ourselves. We could update our ongoing research via email. We loved it. We realized that email is in fact a very flexible and a massive, global platform. In our daily lives, email is just there, we don’t even think about it. Other than the obvious communication use, we all use email for many different things. We save and share information, backup files, send ourselves reminders, collaborate, share images and so on. We loved the idea of controlling a web service with email. And we said, we can in fact control the web with email.

We got mixed feedback, which in my opinion is a good thing. We got the offer to be one of the TechStars Boulder 2011 companies, imagine starting the program with just a vision. Actually, I see starting TechStars with a clean sheet as an advantage. The discovery process slowed us down but it was worth it. We met with amazing people at TechStars and their take on the general idea and how they would use the technology was enlightening and very different. Everyone had their own opinion of what InboxFever should be. At that point it was clear to us that the potential was much bigger than we thought and we decided not to be in the business of developing email applications but in allowing anyone to integrate email intelligently into their existing web services or software products. So the challenge was figuring out which feedback was really useful and aligned with our vision, because all feedback was good!

The power of InboxFever is no doubt difficult to express to the average internet user – what approach have you taken as a founder to market InboxFever to a wider consumer audience? What advice can you offer to fellow entrepreneurs in this regard?
On the contrary. InboxFever enables developers and companies to transform an email address into an application. So from the user’s point of view, there is nothing to download, no logins, no registration. InboxFever is not a plugin, an extension, or an add-on. It is true that some applications might need some hand holding but the learning curve is much lower with InboxFever applications because they work with any email client, on any email capable device. The user interface of email is the most commonly used user interface and it is truly global. Users simply send an email from their own personal or work email client and they trigger actions.
Having said that, if you are innovating in a space, which is ignored for a long time, you have to listen to what others say, and optimize how you explain it, because people will make assumptions. One useful trick is after a meeting, or an email exchange, I ask people to describe InboxFever in a sentence or two as if they are explaining it to a friend. It is amazing how much you can learn from this experiment.

We are just at the beginning of a long journey so I cannot say we succeeded in taking InboxFever to a wider audience. But my advice to entrepreneurs is to prepare themselves, and their supporters, for an experimental stage, where they systematically try different things and make small corrections. If the core product is good it will find a niche following and you can always build on top of that. Don’t get disappointed if you don’t achieve super fast growth, which is very very rare.

Do you have any plans to monetize the service? What approaches are you – or will you -consider?

Yes we do. We are discovering many premium features that we can offer to developers and enterprise customers. I believe we will end up with a freemium subscription model. Having said that we are learning fast and looking forward for challenging projects. We can rapidly deploy custom email powered applications and turnkey solutions to our clients. If you have any email application ideas let us know at

You describe email as the ‘remote control of the web’ on the InboxFever website – to what extent do you believe that will continue to be the case in the future? Is traditional email not slowing fading into obscurity?

That’s another perception about email, which is not true, actually the usage of email among adults increased from 2009 to 2010. The number of email users increased by 400 million plus between 2009 and 2010. We think email is pretty cool and it is here to stay. Today, what we call as “work” is taking something out of email, doing something with it, and putting it back in email.

Finally, what advice would you offer to an aspiring entrepreneur dreaming of their first successful company?

This is the toughest question because there is not a success formula for startups. Every entrepreneur, every market, and every company is different. I think you increase your chances by creating the entrepreneur-market-company fit. The leadership requirements of every company will be different. And of course you should be passionate about your idea and business.

Another lesson learned for me was that everything takes more time than you anticipate, you should be mentally prepared for this. It is difficult for first time entrepreneurs, but having concrete checkpoints for yourself and for your business would be helpful. This is why you should surround yourself with mentors and experienced people. They will help you to define success, your milestones and how to get there. Successful, high-growth companies are created by teams, don’t do it alone.