The Man Who Invented Email

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Photo by Donna Coveney

Yeah, I currently scan most of my mail just because I want an electronic version of it. It’d be nice to have that done right at the post office level so if I went on vacation, for instance, I wouldn’t have to worry about my mailbox filling up.

Shiva: So that service—they should have done that back in ’97. When I met with them, the goal was, “Well, we’re a $50 billion company. Yeah, email’s there but it’s not that interesting.”

But I think it comes down to that issue that people don’t understand what electronic mail is. It’s this electrification of letters—it’s not just messaging.

Do you think email is killing the Postal Service?

Shiva: There are various factors in the postal system. It’s a large organization and they have some of these policy issues, right? But I think, fundamentally, when you look at the Postal Service, it was literally set up at the time of the inception of the United States. It’s that old—it’s very aligned to democracy. But if you look at Benjamin Franklin, the guy’s an amazing innovator. He set up the logistics of how this thing would work—the different services, the delivery times—the guy was phenomenal.

Fast-forward to 1997 and you see this explosive growth in email. And what do these guys do? They basically didn’t do anything innovative. They basically sort of made tweaks. And even now after this whole eMailbox thing was proposed, their stance is, “Well maybe we should look into it in the future.” So there’s this fundamental lack of commitment to innovation.

It’s a large organization still making revenue. The fact is that because that revenue’s dropping and because email volume’s grown—I think by 60 percent or so—the volume of billing has been taken over by email. So what used to be bills, 60 to 70 percent is now email.

And I think segment by segment, that’s going to occur. So I think that if the Postal Service doesn’t get on board quickly and start offering some of these electronic services, their solution is going to be the standard financial application—lay people off and close branches.

In fact, the former head of the union had written several memos saying the Postal Service should start using the electronic medium, but I think the management fundamentally still views itself as, “We’re Walmart. We’ve got 500,000 people. We have this core business. How do we tweak it with first-class mail?” Those kinds of issues. They’re starting to awaken a little bit, but I think that unless they take a fundamentally innovative approach, they’re going to have problems.

What’s the solution?

Shiva: The solution right now is to lay off 100,000 people. But those 100,000 people—if you think about the mentality they’ve been trained in—have the discipline, by and large, where you could  put them on an electronic frontend and have them do electronic services like email sorting.

And the number of companies in the U.S. that need that right now is desperate. There’s a Jupiter report saying 67 percent of companies still don’t manage their inbound mail well. And managing email isn’t an area where you can train people quickly.

The issue is that companies—even large companies—think of email as phone calls. There’s still this lack of understanding about what email is, so they’ll say, “I’m going to take some phone guys and have them answer email for me.” But it’s a different activity. Answering phones synchronously is very different than reading an email, sorting it, figuring out which bucket it goes in, and then responding.

So I think the Postal Service has this huge opportunity. They could use those 100,000 workers and it’s not that much training. U.S. companies do it in 90 days now. They get people who barely speak English, and they train them to sort and process email, and they charge on a per-unit basis. The Postal Service already has physical real estate. They could put terminals in there and offer those services to local businesses, and just brand it as “You have your email. We’ll process it for you and we’ll tell you what your sales leads are.”

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