The following was submitted by Mitch Rosich, a Partner at Athenian Venture Partners:
I believe that I have used email longer than most people in the world. I recall my very first email address was one issued to me in college that I used in a particular engineering course in which the professor liked communicating with us via that medium. That was 1983. I also went to work for Digital Equipment Corporation in 1986. Even then, at that particular company, email was used extensively for internal communication. The format for an email address was DEVICENAME::USERNAME since everything traveled with the dec.com domain name. Back then, I don’t even think I knew what the term “dec.com domain name” really meant, but on rare occasions we would occasionally exchange email with people at other companies and use the now more familiar format of [email protected]. Back then, that was probably 1% of my email flow. The other 99% was internal. Almost all of it was relevant; most of it was important. Occasionally, someone would come up with a cute image that could be displayed nicely on a VT-100 screen, but that was rare and that was the extent of spam in the 1980s.
How I long for those days!!
Now email has become a necessary evil for most people. We receive hundreds if not thousands of emails each day. Most of it comes from automated email generators. Another big chunk comes from people we really have no interest in knowing but who want something valuable from us – time, money, personal information. Like beggars on a city street, people solicit us and approach us unwantedly via email. And like strangers on an unfamiliar corner, we try not to give them even a glance or more than a second of our time. We fear the potential outcome of an engagement –clicking on an embedded link could cause our computers to be destroyed or our personal information to be provided to a skilled cybercrook.
However, mixed with all that spam and bacn are some very important communications which shape our lives. Email provides a great means for communication. Writing an email gives you time to document and organize your thoughts much more than a phone conversation. It allows you to send a message when it is convenient for you to do so, regardless of whether the other party is available at that time. Email is persistent. It reminds you that it is there waiting for you every time you log in. It documents what you have responded to, what you have passed on to someone else, and what is yet unanswered. Perhaps, most importantly, it provides a permanent record of your communication and interactions with others. I have used it on many occasions to provide evidence of my accountability and attention to matters that happened months or years earlier, both professionally, and personally. (Necessary disclosure: I am divorced – enough said?)
For decades I’ve struggled with the growing barrage of emails. I am a thorough person and pride myself on my accountability. I don’t appreciate it when I am in need of information from another person who is not timely and forthcoming and try my best not to be that way with others. Therefore, I found myself spending more and more of my workday sifting through email – deleting the garbage first, often in bulk, and then responding to the rest. My work often takes me into long research missions or deep problem solving sessions that consume me for hours. When I finish or take a break, I instinctively check my email. Often there were dozens of new messages. Usually there were only a few that were worth a read. It felt like I wasted hours of every week sifting through the chafe.
I found traditional spam filters that sorted on content to be a joke. How many ways could they look for the word Viagra? “Viagra”, “VIAGRA”, ‘vIAGRA”, “V1agra”, “vIaGra”, “V I A G R A”, “V*I*A*G*R*A” – words there seemed to be no end to the madness, and my inbox continued to fill with garbage. And therein was the fundamental problem. Content filtering cannot ever filter flawlessly. Especially since there are companies developing Viagra and doctors prescribing it, and patients taking it who may not want some of these email filtered, at least not the ones they send to each other. Even they don’t care about the ones that the bots generate. Content filtering, however, cannot distinguish one from the other.
As a venture capital investor, it was clear to me when I first learned about what Sendio did that they truly had come up with a far superior solution to filtering. Instead of content filtering, Sendio learns who you trust by address and lets their email through. Think of them as the doorman of your posh Manhattan apartment building. Your friends, family members, and work colleagues pass right through. If you are expecting a visit from a new associate, you can let the doorman know to expect them. However, anyone else who hasn’t gotten your prior approval is held in the lobby for evaluation. In the case of Sendio, that lobby is a mailbox where email is held temporarily until either the sender validates that they are a real person and not a mail bot, or the intended recipient reviews the email header and source address and decides that he wants to receive it. However, the recipient can also choose to reject it, or even reject every email that ever comes from this address again.
It sounded like a unique approach to the problem so while our firm considered investing in the company, we got our IT department to install the product on our mail server and I began using it. I found an immediate, significant reduction in my email volume! This was exciting. Each day, dozens and dozens of emails were being held in limbo in the “lobby” by the Sendio application. Each morning I would receive an email from Sendio’s software with a list of all the emails that were being held. This is a standard feature of the application that every user gets. Each morning I would check this email and for every held item, I could decide whether I wanted to accept it, reject it, permanently validate the user address, or permanent block the address. On most days, I would permanently block every single entry.
As I’ve said already, I pride myself on responsiveness and don’t want to miss email from others. I had a huge fear that Sendio would block an email that I needed to see. For years after we installed Sendio, one of my first tasks every morning was to look through my Sendio email queue and decide how to deal with each email there. Most of the time, I decided to permanently reject every address. I probably continued this routine for 2-3 years. In that time, I estimate that there were about five emails that I allowed through. When an email is blocked, Sendio sends an email to the originator with instructions about their email being held until they actively validate their email by replying to the Sendio message, at which point the email is allowed to pass through. I’m guessing that most of the few email that I did manually validate during those years were because I reviewed the queue before the sender saw the email from Sendio which would have allowed them to push the email through. However, in the early days, the messaging in that email was a bit cryptic and confusing, but the company has since made it very clean and easy to validate yourself. It seems pretty idiot proof to me.
A few years ago, I finally decided that Sendio was so accurate that I no longer needed to check the queue each day. There is an interesting story behind this. I was in the process of finding a new accountant and had narrowed the field to two. One of them sent me an email to my work address and one morning I found it sitting in my Sendio queue. I assumed that the individual hadn’t seen the validation request, but instead of validating it myself, I let it sit there. The next day, the email was still in the Sendio queue, and the day after that, the same thing. At that point I hired the other accounting firm. I decided that anyone who could not follow the easy instructions laid out by the Sendio validation request and who never followed up to see why I didn’t respond to their email was not worthy of my business. I did read the email and there was some information that they requested from me, but I don’t remember what it was anymore. That was a liberating moment for me. I now trust Sendio filtering implicitly and haven’t checked it in years. I know that anyone worth my time either already reaches me via email, will be smart enough to figure out how to pass Sendio’s first time sender test, or will be resourceful enough to follow up another way – with a phone call, for example. If you are not smart enough or ambitious enough to reach me one of these ways, then you are no more valuable to me than a bot, you are probably not worthy of my business or my time, and the fact that you didn’t reach me probably isn’t my problem, it’s yours. These days, the time I spend on email is far less than it used to be because the unwanted email is gone and I can be more productive and focused in other areas of my work.