Email. Love it or hate it, there is still nothing that rivals it as a business tool. Everyone has an email address and the adoption and use is not abating despite the other communication channels that have emerged. Email has become synonymous with the smartphones we use – think back to the original flavour of BlackBerry, it was sold as a mobile email tool. Legend has it that when Lazaridis saw people responding to email on their BlackBerry’s while sitting in front of their desktops he knew a shift had happened in the industry.
Flash forward to today and, if your inbox is like mine, email has become an albatross – a vacuous place where good deeds and intentions go to die. Mobile email was supposed to help smooth out our day so we don’t return to our desks with 100’s or 1000’s or unread messages but this hasn’t happened. Now, as we move more and more to a small screen as our dominant (read: first) screen, our practice of mobile email triage does not suffice.
Key takeaways from this episode. Click on the link and the video will take you to that clip
Rob: Hi. Welcome to Untether.tv. I’m the host and founder, Rob Woodbridge. This is, of course, your single source for deciphering the mobile experience. I’m here today with Javier Soltero, who’s the co-founder of a company called Acompli; it’s an incredibly well-thought-out communications hub for your smartphone. Before I bring Javier on, before he comes on, I would like to thank all of you that have contributed to Untether.tv through our Patrion account at patrion.com/untether. I believe in the value-for-value model. If you found some value, whatever it might be in what we do here and want to support independent content creation, head over and contribute there at patrion.com/untether. Don’t worry if you can’t, we’re still going to bring you the exact same stuff that we’re doing right here. Hopefully, we’ll make a difference in your business so at some point you will be able to contribute.
Today’s conversation is with Javier Soltero; he’s the CEO of Acompli. He’s a seasoned tech veteran having been CEO and co-founder of a company called Hyperic. He was the CTO of SaaS in Application Services at VMWare. Most recently, he was an entrepreneur in residence at Red Point Ventures. Acompli is an amazing app that is more than just an email client, it has a calendar, it has contacts, and documents built in for good reason; it’s a big search engine as well for everything that has to do with your communications.
The episode explains why he decided to focus on solving the mobile email challenge, which is huge, as well as why they took a year to beta test it and what the many challenges were both technology and marketing, and awareness-making, and all the stuff that you would associate with this, in building this application. If you’ve declared email bankruptcy, like I have, this might be the app that changes your mind. Here is Javier. Thank you for doing this, live from San Francisco.
Javier: Good morning. How are you?
Rob: I’m great. Thank you for doing this. I really appreciate your time.
Javier: My pleasure. It’s great to be here.
Rob: Start with this, the question: What was the inspiration to do this? You’re a founder; you’ve started another company before this. Then you look at the email problem and you say, “There’s a problem on mobile. Let’s solve this.” Why get into this space?
Javier: A year into it I guess I’m now beginning to be able to answer that question a little better. If you had asked me a year ago, I must admit I was struggling with email. I didn’t wake up one morning and say, “You know what I want to do? I want to build a company around email.” If anything, it was on the list of things that I didn’t want to do
Rob: Who does?
Javier: because I knew that it was extraordinarily hard. The way we got to email was we when I was at Red Point I had been, as you mentioned, at Red Point Ventures as an entrepreneur-in-residence. It was a great experience to be able to spend a few months just thinking about new ideas, looking at getting reinvigorated with the idea that pursuing hard technology problems and building great businesses is something that I really enjoyed doing. As I was looking at different opportunities and different problem areas that I found interesting, I kept coming back to in the absence of a specific, I knew that I had certain core truths that I had been living by.
The first one was people nowadays are very smart and very equipped to make choices around the technology that they use. They have strong opinions about not only devices but the applications that they choose to use, both personal as well as work ones. That the next great set of software businesses were going to be built around that idea; around the idea that it starts with somebody making an informed and ideally passionate decision to adopt the product that they think is going to help them either live better or work better, or whatever.
The next thing was, as a person that spent the better part of 20 years building businesses focused on enterprise IT and where most of the problems are related to infrastructure problems and platform problems, and what have you. I came out of VMWare perhaps the most the largest recent success in traditional enterprise IT infrastructure companies, a tremendous company, with this observation that there’s just so much being thrown at enterprise IT that they really just don’t have the cycles to digest all this innovation that’s being thrown at them. Ultimately, the next big set of steps that we take to improve the way that people work are going to come from, again, people making their own choices. Again in terms of what company I wanted to be involved with, truth Number 1 was it has to start with users picking the app or the service, irrespective of whether their company forces them to use it, and 2, that it is fundamentally an app or something that solves an end-user problem as opposed to an infrastructure piece or some plumbing component.
With those two truths in hand, I then realized that I know nothing about either of them. My career has been first as a software engineer, and then later as an entrepreneur and CEO building products for IT that were mostly plumbing products. In fact, they were plumbing products, they were not mostly plumbing products; they’re plumbing products. All the way back from Netscape through Hyperic, everything I did was plumbing. I’m a master plumber who’s now attempting to offer advice on interior decorating. That is generally not something that people you don’t want your plumber offering you tips on how to decorate your house. I had to round up a team. I knew that whatever I chose to do, it’d require a different balance, I guess, of not only infrastructure expertise but also the ability to build esthetically-pleasing, beautiful products that people, again, would choose.
How we got to email was I started thinking I tried to pick apart the different aspects of what I see as the forces that are changing the technology landscape, in particular at work. I drew this picture on my whiteboard in my office that had a little person on the left then a nerdy dude with a tie on the right. One was the end-user and the other one was the IT person. The picture was, ‘We went from a world in which your company gave you everything you needed to do work with. You need a computer, here’s your computer; you need a phone, here’s your phone; you need apps, here’s your apps, etc., into a world where now users are showing up at work with not only their own personal devices, but more importantly, their own sets of apps that they want to use.’ In the middle of that, I drew this big explosion. I like drawing and stuff like that. I drew this big explosion, visually these two things as a collision course between traditional enterprise IT and what people call personal IT. I said, “That breaks. Where everything breaks, there’s bound to be interesting opportunities.”
As I picked apart the various aspects of that problem, which ranged from identity issues to workflow issues, I realized that the only thing that was a common technology thread across both of those worlds was actually email. It’s in use by over 800 million people and it continues to grow at a spectacular pace. It is the cornerstone through which business is conducted in this planet. The thing that really got us to be what became a company was this very simple observation that today the email experience on mobile in particular is focused around you triaging and moving things out of the way. Nobody’s really tackling the opportunity to make this ubiquitous and fundamentally open medium better suited for these super computers that we now all have in our pockets. That’s how we got to email.
Rob: The idea because most of the solutions that are out there. Most of the emails that I’ve looked at, the programs that I’ve looked at, downloaded, played with, tried to adopt, then deleted are because of that. It’s a focus on cleaning out my inbox, but pushing it out until tomorrow or 3 days from now, or archiving it. It’s not I look at these devices, at least I did, until I downloaded your software as a way to triage what was going on outside in the real world. Then when I got back to my desktop, then I would deal with it. Then as my emails accumulate, 500-600-700 unread messages, I declared email bankruptcy.
Javier: That’s a common thing.
Rob: This has really helped bring that under control. I’m still bankrupt in email; response doesn’t come in 24 hours which is
Javier: No one company can solve that, but it’s definitely a problem that is worth solving. It’s hard technically. It’s hard because email is subject to a very kaleidoscope of different usage patterns. There’s everybody does it differently. I’m not an inbox-0 guy; I’m an inbox-20 person, give or take. If you’re in my inbox, it means I’ve got to deal with it, and it’s something that I’m purposefully leaving in there. I’m not tormented by the fact that I have things in my inbox. Actually I posit that for all the people who claim that email is a flawed medium because of email overload, I’d say that the bottom line is in some way they’re doing it wrong. Even CEOs of major corporations, arguably, the President of the United States who also uses email; if his email is out of control, it’s mostly because he’s doing it wrong and it’s not emails fault. It’s probably because in a lot of ways, you maybe have designed the wrong organization. If the CEO of Ford Motor Company is getting copied on every single email, for every decision that every person is making throughout the organization, email isn’t the issue, Ford is the issue.
Rob: That’s a great observation because it’s true; nothing can save you if that’s happening.
Javier: In going back to this idea of tackling, as the person who along with my two other co-founders, we’ve had the privilege of being part of very successful companies. We said, “If we’re going to go build something again knowing that this takes a lot of time and that it’s very hard, let’s pick something that’s hard enough to make it worth it.” Believe me; as I mentioned before we got started, everything from comments about our choice of misspelled French word as a name to our choice of font color, and just about every other aspect of our app is scrutinized lovingly by most people, and it’s something you have to be ready for.
Rob: What else was on the table when you were looking at Earth-changing technologies that you considered to build?
Javier: All ultimately related it to email and all ultimately part of the fundamental vision of Acompli. I think the subject of identity is extraordinarily interesting. I think that in a world that you start providing your own technology and showing up at work with it, it’s important to be able to have you be in better control of where what the anchor point for all those different services is and give you the ability as the workplace becomes more fluid to move in and out of there, and have a better separation between your data and your employer’s data. There’s that. I find the task of notification and these fundamentals
Email has these 3 very critical roles in the workplace. The first one is obviously this notion of identity that you log into services, both corporate, provided, and otherwise, with an email address and some password. The second is this workflow aspect. Every single business workflow, whether it’s a workflow that is implicit in an application that you’re using or just a behavioral workflow where it’s like, ‘How do approve a purchase order?’ “You send it to Susan via email and Susan figures out how to get you paid.’ There’s so many different types of business workflows that are dependent on this medium. The third is this idea that notification both from other people as well as from other systems; the best place for those notifications to arrive is your inbox because it is a junction point for a number of different places. Everything that’s good about is also what makes it bad. That’s the perverse logic of trying to fix that.
Rob: It certainly is big, and it’s a very competitive market. My goodness. Not only is there incumbents that are installed on the devices that every one of us carry, from iOS down to Android, with Gmail. There’s Gmail as a client, there’s Gmail as a web service; there’s all these other different competitive pieces. How do you stand out? How do you build a product that is unique enough and that you can actually voice the unique nature of the application when the world’s already got an email client installed?
Javier: Great question. You start by being very clear on who you’re targeting as a user. You say email remains the fundamental communications tool for business users. Consumers arguably have moved on to many other things like Facebook and any number of other more intimate, arguably closed ways in which people can communicate with each other. Then you say for business users that’s great, and then you start with a very explicit problem statement and a proposed solution that guides every aspect of the feature design, everything about how you market it. For us, it was, as I mentioned a second ago, how do you turn this device into a better emailing something that lets you actually lets you do more instead of simply deferring, achieving, or deleting?
In order to answer that question, you have to ask people, “Why is it that you don’t do as much email from your phone? I’m curious. Now that I have you here, captive, give me 3 reasons. Don’t overthink them, but 3 reasons why you don’t do as much email from your phone. I’m curious to see if you get the same ones we got.”
Rob: I think the first one is I’ve a limited amount of time. When I’m checking my phone, it’s typically in line somewhere, it’s on the way somewhere; it’s while I’m killing time. I always think that this requires more time for me to respond to you so I’m just going to put it off until I can get to it.
Javier: Why does it require more time? I think it’s
Rob: It’s psychological, absolutely. Why does it take
Javier: [inaudible: 15:38] see this email. I’ll give you an example. We’re setting up this chat that we’re having now. I send you an email and say, “Rob, what time works for you?” Would you respond to that email from your phone?
Rob: I would.
Javier: That’s because it’s me or because you have [inaudible: 15:54].
Rob: That’s right. It’s because I can then flip over to my calendar right away and see that I have open time.
Javier: What we did was we said, “Give 3 reasons.” The first one is very obvious: Typing is hard. Typing on these devices is very hard. It’s going to stay if you talk about strictly a keyboard-based input; it’s going to continue to be hard. Physical keyboards the world has spoken. The market for phones with physical keyboards is a niche market that may continue to exist for some time, but if that’s what you’re banking on, the only thing a physical keyboard allows us to do is to send more longer emails, which no one wants. That’s not it.
The first one is basically composing anything but the simplest message is very hard. The second one is finding things is very hard. If your email account is your repository or your personal knowledgebase, your ability to refer back to information in that account quickly, for whatever purpose, is very important.
Rob: It’s a brutal experience.
Javier: Search has been hopelessly broken on mobile phones for a long time. More importantly, the traditional search model of typing keywords into a text box, it requires typing. I just told you rule Number 1: Typing is hard. That’s obviously broken. The third one is this idea that email’s a communications medium that leads to data inactions that are in other apps or in other places on your phone. You don’t notice that on the desktop because on the desktop system you have windows, tabs, mice, and you have the whole input model and a way of doing parallel tasks that since the dawn of Windows 95 at least, you’ve been able to do that very effectively, and switching back and forth between things. When you get an email and you have to look something up in your calendar, you don’t notice that in your desktop experience nearly as much as you do on a phone. On a phone, you have to basically double-tap and switch apps, and go look for stuff.
These 3 things: Typing is hard, finding things is hard, and app switching is hard, all combine into this beautiful mess that makes people really unwilling to do more email directly from the phone. The solution is to build an email app; a beautiful, familiar email app, that is fast and has you no more than one gesture away from the right data and the right actions in order for you to process that message, whatever that means. That’s what led ultimately to what you see today in Acompli.
Rob: Did you guys do a lot of research on this? Who did you talk to? Did you do case surveys and all that?
Javier: We did surveys. That actually plays into the time period for we had some of our own opinions when Kevin, JJ, and I started getting together to go from that problem statement that I just described and more towards a solution. We all said, “Let’s talk about what are the obvious aspects of pain here.” The first one that came up was there’s a lot of pain around calendar invitations and calendar interactions in general on the mobile phone; they’re just really, really bad. Arguably, they’re bad on the desktop, too. Somehow, the calendar is just the invitation process in calendars are fine. It’s the actual interaction with calendaring and other people that’s really, really, really broken. We said, “If email is the medium through which calendar interactions travel then let’s find different ways in which this is broken.” We came up with our own handful of ideas, which includes things that are in the product today, like the ability to send your availability to someone by just visually tapping specific slots on your phone, or the ability to accept calendar invites in one press because you can tell immediately that you are or aren’t available; that kind of thing.
Rob: So good.
Javier: I know. Those are things that we felt we pretty obvious. We did, in fact, go talk to we started with a dozen people, then a couple dozen. Everybody’s got opinions on email. Getting people to give you feedback on this subject, at least, is it’s a lot easier than getting them to give you feedback on IT infrastructure stuff, that’s for sure. We heard the initial thing we showed people was the availability and calendar invite accept behavior. The immediate response was, ‘That is awesome. Please build it. By the way, please make a full calendar out of it,’ which we had no intention of doing originally. The idea that Acompli today has a full-fledge calendar inside it was not our plan, because the calendar client is an extraordinarily-complicated piece of software. Underneath that part of the reason why it sucks so bad is because underneath the simple logic of you visually displaying an agenda and handling invites back and forth is issues with time zones, issues with recurrence, issues with delegation. There’s a range of arguably, Microsoft Exchange is still the dominant communication and collaboration platform because they’ve invested a tremendous amount of time into building the calendar interaction that people have simply accepted as the way in which calendaring is done. That gives you a sense of how we got to that.
Rob: It’s very complex to bring all of these things in. There’s a natural connectivity, the natural tissues that connects all of these things. What we’re seeing lately is this unbundling, this simplicity thing that is happening. A lot of complex apps like Facebook are just saying, ‘That is a standalone app.’ Even FourSquare’s now splitting into two different apps because it’s too confusing. A lot of these companies are doing that. Is that you’re going against the grain? Do you feel like you’re going against the grain? Why make something a little bit more complex when everybody’s moving to simplicity in mobile?
Javier: That’s a great question and I’m glad that you mentioned it. I haven’t had a chance to talk to anybody about this growing this discussion about unbundling. There’s one app in your phone that is the best example of why bundling is important and why certain things cannot be taken apart; it’s the phone app. If you open the phone app in your iOS, or even arguably, your Android device, you’ll notice that at the bottom, the phone app is a combination of tools. It’s a phone dialer, a VIP/favorites demarcater, if that’s not even a word.
Rob: It is now.
Javier: It’s a voice mail app and it’s your contacts app. It is actually 4 different apps rolled into one, and there is no chance whatsoever that that’s going to get unbundled. The reason for that is because when you use your phone, the phone app is a communications tool and you need to be close enough to all those things. I never open the contacts app. I open the contacts app through the phone dialer. This is an example where bundling makes a tremendous amount of sense and where arguably Apple as the company that introduced this split apart mail/calendar/contacts/notes, etc., app made a choice that, at least for business users and productivity-oriented people, it is extraordinarily inconvenient. I’m hesitant to say that they study, they have better data, they make very informed decisions around their designs and their apps, choices and so forth. In this particular case, and particularly based on the feedback, we feel they got it wrong.
Rob: There’s a natural bundle here, that’s what
Javier: We’ll see. Bundling has its limits too. If you look at the Facebook app, the Facebook app today is Facebook is also a platform in its own rights. Realistically Facebook couldn’t possibly explore the richness of their entire web interface onto the mobile app because they have external apps inside of Facebook that aren’t even published by Facebook itself. This choice that they’re toying with about separating things out makes a lot of sense for them. We’ll see how it plays out.
Rob: There must be technical challenges that you have in building this. There are companies that spend years . . . they spend years building just an email client, and then there’s companies that I love, that are just building calendar clients. Then there are companies that are building contact clients, and then there are companies that are building applications that mine all this information and bring you your documents; 4 separate, different companies, a bunch of companies in those categories, and you decided to build them all and put them into one application. Talk about the complexities around the development of that.
Javier: Before I talk about the complexity, I want to make sure that your viewers and listeners know that the reason we made that choice was because we started from the point of view of a workflow. We said, “When people get an invite for a calendar event in their email, it’s extraordinary inconvenient to go switch out of that and into the calendar app to decide whether they’re even free or busy, and they can actually accept it.” For every decision that led to this ultimate combination of capabilities that you see in Acompli, it was made with a specific workflow in mind and not with this best we weren’t sitting here debating what the best-of-breed calendar experience is, it’s more about, ‘What’s the best-of-breed workflow?’
From a technical perspective, one of the things that’s extraordinarily hard about doing anything in calendar or email; I’ll start with email, because in this sense it is harder. This is the only class of app that you can choose to build where people show up at your doorstep with giant suitcases filled with data that you did not have any part in building or controlling, or anything. You’re going to have here’s a very amusing story: Early parts of the beta, we start expanding it to try out different people here in our office, for example. One of the people who signed up to test us out had a UK Gmail account. What happens when they activate our app and our app starts talking to Gmail, the trash folder in the UK Gmail system is called the bin, not the trash folder. You could sit I could innumerate hundreds of these interesting, both platform idiosyncrasies as well as content idiosyncrasies that make the task of getting to a barebones before you start adding special sauce, you have to have a functional email client that is trustable. In other words, I sent an email to you; we’re past the days where you can claim you didn’t get that. Email gets to where it’s going
Rob: Don’t tell anybody that, that’s my excuse.
Javier: unless it’s a typo. In order for somebody to commit to an email client, they have to get to that level of trust, which again, is a very hard place to get to. For technical reasons, if you mess up once, somebody’s going to say, “I don’t
” even in a trial period, even when we’re trying to validate some of these concepts, we want people to live with the app. We’re asking businesspeople to do a science experiment and use this app for their real life business accounts. It’s a very big thing to ask for. Somebody who’s in sales, who’s using an early version of Acompli to send an email; the email doesn’t get out, or all of a sudden the email recipient gets 9 copies of it because of some bug in the system. Those things are really, really hard and it takes a tremendous amount of technical skill, patience, and iteration to get to that. It’s a very, very, very, very hard problem to solve.
Were in the process of building our Android app. We are actually, curiously enough; as of this week, the goal is I have a Nexus 5 phone and I have to live with still very the early state of our Android app on this phone, because the only way that we validate that stuff is working is by using it. You don’t say, “Yes, it’s all complete.” You got to put it in the hands of tons and tons of people to be able to make sure that that works, and it is hard.
Rob: I read that you guys moved away from iMap, or you built your own protocol in order to be able to do the email client.
Javier: Email is built around a set of protocols; the basic ones are basically 30-years-old at this point. Some of them are newer; none of them are suitable for mobile devices. They are extraordinarily chatty, they’re very heavyweight, they can be insecure depending on how they are deployed, and they don’t respond well to the intermittent connectivity and the variance in bandwidth that is built into a mobile device. As a result, you get an experience for a user, particularly a business user who’s dependent on a timely access to email that is launch the app, waiting, sinking, getting, connecting; when realistically, what you want to do it open the app and have stuff be there. In order to solve that problem, we had to basically tackle the task of figuring out how to create a better interaction between the email service that is hosting the email and is responsible for being the source of truth when it comes to your email account or mine, and the device. That involved the creation of a very limited amount of infrastructure that is designed to help deliver mail down to the device efficiently as well as provide for certain capabilities like a very powerful search that doesn’t exist in the email system as it is. That’s based on how we built the product.
Rob: How do you decide to go down that route? There’s an okay solution, which is exciting protocols, but you know that it’s, as you said, it’s heavy, it consumes a lot of battery, it’s chatty. Then there’s deciding that you have to build something in the middle of that in order to be able to facilitate this. How do you make that decision? How far in did you make that decision?
Javier: Not lightly. We made it very early. I think the starting point for that is having 2 co-founders and an early engineering team that has experience building the system of record. My 2 co-founders and our early engineers all came from a company called Zimbra which built to-date the most credible contender to displace Microsoft Exchange in business and in the public sector. Zimbra is acquired by Yahoo!, and then later acquired from Yahoo! by VMWare. The experience that they had in building the system of record led them to a very clear understanding that in order to fulfill the capabilities again this all starts with, ‘How do we enable these workflows that we’ve envisioned for this app.’ You can’t, unless you have some intermediary technology that makes those workflows possible. It’s in no way something that we took lightly, because we recognize that in particular as you target business users, you have to be a very transparent and clear about how you’re approaching their your corporate email isn’t owned by you, it’s owned by your employers, same as with mine.
Being able to address not the technological part, in a sense, is the easy part. The security, and the policy and privacy part of that is the much harder part to get right. It’s something that we are embarking on in part because we’ve been trusted. Our team has been entrusted with providing email services for high-grade enterprises, public sector agencies, as well as educational institutions to the tune of tens of millions of users that are still to this day running their code. We know enough about it to be very, very prudent about how to go about it.
Rob: It just seem like this is the perfect team solving this problem. I don’t know that you could ask for a better group of people that have this expertise to be able to see that.
Javier: I’m blessed to be working with a team of people that combine that skill set with the ability to build a very compelling user experience on the client. Ultimately, a user that chooses to use Acompli is going to pay limited attention to they don’t really care about the scale, they’re going to give us a lot of affordances in terms of you have to build trust. Just like we all have trust in [inaudible: 33:47], in Google, and a range of other companies, Acompli has to get that same place. In order to get there, you have to start with an amazing user experience. You could build all the management and security goodies that you could want, and ultimately if your user experience is not up to the task, people are just not going to choice your stuff.
Rob: I want to talk about that, because I want to talk about the year that it took to build this out and how you marketed this as well, during your launch process, which you’re just in the middle of. I want to ask one question before that just popped in my mind: Do you think about adding components to the software? Now that you’ve got email, you’ve got calendar, and you got documents and contacts, there is that layer of instant communications; Snapchat-like services, instant messaging. Do you think that there’s room for that in this or do you just hold tight to the 4 things you’ve got in there?
Javier: I think that there’s room for more things. I maintain I should say we as a company, because we’ve talked about this extensively from the very beginning. When we first started, we had this idea that there was a lot of integration problems associated with email on mobile that needed to be solved. What I think I’ve learned in the last month in particular since we’ve had more active use and this tremendous amount of feedback, support, questions, and just everything we could have ever dreamed of and more in terms of successfully launching a product of this type has happened. There is enough to be solved yet in that core email, calendaring files, and contacts experience that we’re probably going to stick to that and perfect that. People have more pain there than they do in making it easy to send emails from Acompli into Salesforce.com, from Accompli into Evernote, or any of these other things. These are things that may come up later, but in reality, there is tremendous amounts of polish and really amazing mobile-centric things that we have in store for just the things that we have today.
Rob: I think you have to contain that vision or else it can get a little [inaudible: 36:15].
Javier: Then you get into this unbundling thing. You could argue, and Microsoft certainly believes this, that the PIM elements, what was called PIM back in the Outlook days, personal information manager, should have never been unbundled. Outlook today is a single bundled dinosaur-giant app for the desktop. It’s in use by hundreds and hundreds of millions of happy PC users today. I think these are things overloading it. Notice we don’t have tasks, for example; that may come up. We have some cool ideas in store for that. Even tasks, these are not universally used by do you use tasks inside of Outlook in the days that you’ve used Outlook?
Javier: Me neither. To-do lists; all these things, they’re not part of the core communications experience, so we have to figure out how to stick to that.
Rob: It’s fascinating. Part of the process that you went through was that you took a year to roll this out before you launched this past late winter. What was that one year? Why go through that process? Was this just really about testing, user case scenarios, and making sure that it functions? It just seems like a slow roll out. O worked the last company I ran was a company called Rove, and it took us, not a word of a lie; we had a very complex problem that was a very big piece of software for mobile. We went a year between releases and it was killing me; a year between releases. It was a very complex process. I understand what it means to go through this. Why go through that one year?
Javier: The first part is the nature of the problem makes it such that you have to recruit a lot. You have to see a tremendous amount of data flow through the system in order to validate that it works correctly. This comes all the way from message rendering. Somebody sent you you’re subscribed to some service that sends crappily-formatted HTML messages which you often like to read on your phone. I’d love to be all W3C on you here and proclaim standard compliance in HTML, but the reality is the user doesn’t care about that. They’re just like, “This is the email from my gym with the monthly newsletter, and it looks like crap.” We have no control over how the source system assembles that message. It’s our job to figure out how to make sure that the rendering experience, even while we’re building on top of things like Webkit and so forth inside of iOS, is consistent. That problem is one aspect of it. The second is just validating this getting to this level of this is a trusted, reliable email app. Absent of all the other goodies, this thing can send and receive emails reliably. I will not be betrayed by this app. It takes usage that extends beyond the number of people in the company.
As far as the bake time, we did a lot of experimentation. You mentioned you started using Acompli somewhere around February. We did a lot of experimentation on various types of UI metaphors, various color schemes, various fonts, different ways in which the information that is an e-mail client fundamentally is a time ordered list of messages and a composed screen, and not much more than that. The Acompli-specific goodies have been expressed inside of the app across that 1-year beta period in different ways, which led ultimately to what you see today, which is that bottom bar that allows you to switch between the different notes. Previously, they were in this concept of a panel that you pull out; a lot of different things. Really, trialing a lot of that while we built out the infrastructure; this has been I personally wrote the first backend service that became Acompli, so there’s some of my code in there too, which is a troubling thought. I enjoyed every second of it, I will confess. I still love writing code and it’s a big part of what I enjoy about being in the technology space.
You’re bringing to life a backend service and an app simultaneously, and you’re trying to say, “It’s got to be stable enough for me to use it every day. By the way, you got to make it special enough because otherwise why am even bothering to try this?” The sausage-making, if you will, of what is now hopefully a delicious sausage feast in Acompli was pretty messy and something that was greatly aided by having that many people at during that time.
Rob: How did you know when it was ready?
Javier: It’s not ready, is the we knew it was ready how did we know? We had decided that we needed to get not only the core email experience, but also the calendar experience, the files experience, and people experience to a certain degree of quality and polish before we officially released the app onto the App Store. The process of coming to the point where we said it’s ready was something that we ended up getting comfortable with closer to February. One forcing function that we employed was we said, “We’ve been operating in stealth for a better part of a year, and we’re really running out of ways in which we can pretend like we’re not building an email client here,” and also swearing early beta testers to secrecy and all this stuff. In announcing the company on February 20th, we put a stake in the ground that gave us the opportunity to say, “Here’s who we are. Here’s what we’re building and here’s why.”
The feedback we got from that launch, which was a company announcement really; it wasn’t a release of a product or anything, was so unbelievably strong that it basically said, “It’s time to not land the plane, but it’s time to shore up the things that are in there, basically bolt things down make sure the app is at an appropriate level of quality, and then start the process of App Store submissions.” As maybe some of your listeners of yours know, you’re not in real control over the release software in a iOS world in particular is subject to a, at times, arbitrary length of time before Apple actually lets this stuff show up on the store. We’re revving our product daily and I’m using the development build that changes. Literally every time somebody pushes code, we basically re-roll the entire infrastructure, and Javier has that new email client. These things, that continuous integration taken to an almost maniacal level is also part of how we can figure out a way to move even faster. We’ve just released, I should say Apple, finally just released an update to Acompli on the App Store, on Saturday or Friday which fixed a number of rendering issues, speed issues, added sounds. There was a lot of stuff that was in there.
Rob: It’s continuing.
Javier: Every 2 weeks, there’s going to be something else in there that’s going to be a significant step forward in terms of functionality as well as instability, which is great.
Rob: Let me ask you a brief question here before we wrap it up; it’s around the marketing of this and the awareness making for this. Was there anything that you learned during this process that can help the people who are watching this or listening to this, based on your experience of marketing something like this; getting awareness, pushing it out, and taking a year to build this out? How did you launch this, and what worked for you guys?
Javier: Hard to answer that briefly. I’d say staying true to the core principles that guide the product, so the 3 things I just told you, and the ‘Why does this product even matter?’ Being able to answer that [inaudible: 44:52]
Rob: It starts back then.
Javier: in a way that you should be you should get vigorous head-nodding from whoever you tell this to is the test for how this all needs to play out. That tells you you’re on message and you need to build your entire marketing experience, your language and all that stuff around a very simple set of concepts that say, “This is what we do. This is why we do it. Here’s why it matters to you.” Then I think the other thing we did which was very, very good for us was the videos. I assume you’ve seen them. We invested a significant amount into those videos in part because as when we come into a crowded field with tons of other competition, we wanted to produce the most compelling way of explaining why this product mattered. Everybody has a built in email client on their phone.
I’ll give you 90 second to explain to me why I care. What is this about? Telling a story and building marketing collateral, marketing copy around scenarios that people can relate to; one of them is in the video, for example. You’re in sales and you’re about to board an airplane, and you get an email from a customer who is upset. You have to respond to them before the flight attendant tells you to turn off your phone for takeoff. How do you deal with that? These are scenarios that you don’t have to go and do a fancy video with it, but being able to produce that and translate that into marketing is very powerful.
Rob: It was. I saw the video, and immediately, it’s the guy walking through his day, about how he accomplishes thing with the app. Javier, I know you’ve got to go. Aside from what you use right now, aside from your own product, is there an app that you’re addicted to, a thing that you could never give up?
Javier: A thing I could never give up.
Rob: A service, an app.
Javier:No. I’ve been trying out a lot of different things lately. On the phone specifically, I’m a big fan of newsreaders, so I’m actually intrigued by how people are sharing content and how people discover new content. I personally use Zite, which actually, Flipboard just acquired. It was like a different take on the Flipboard thing.
Rob: I used it too. They’re going to kill it.
Javier: They’re going to kill it
Javier: I used Zite partly because I don’t want to sit here and curate a magazine.
Rob: I’m with you.
Javier: Bring me some stuff that I want to peruse and read. I’d say that one is definitely I’m still looking for a replacement for that. I don’t think Prismatic, which is similar to that, is a worthy equivalent. I’ve also seen interesting apps like I think Refresh is an interesting business productivity app that enhances your interactions with your key contacts. There are some good concepts there. Those are two I think that are worth checking out.
Rob: I wonder if it’s funny; the next business you get into is going to be about how to bring news to the desktop or bring news to the mobile. There’s your next challenge.
Javier: 1995; I’ve been at this for that long so I remember [inaudible: 48:26].
Rob: I remember those days as well, man. I can’t thank you enough for doing this. Where should we send people to get more information from you guys?
Javier: You can download Acompli at the App Store; just look for Acompli. You can more easily find it by just going to Acompli.com; double-C will take you elsewhere. Follow us on Twitter as well, at @acompli. We’re always eager to have more people try out our new releases. Sign up for our beta for Android and find out more good tips about how to handle email in the professional world, all that stuff.
Rob: I love it. Acompli.com or just do a search in iOS. It’s coming in Android. Javier Soltero, thank you so much for being part of Untether.tv. I really appreciate your time.
Javier: It’s my pleasure, Rob. It’s been great chatting with you today.
Rob: I love the app. Those of you out there who are listening, watching, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing; you should stop and go download this application if you are an iOS user and wait for the Android. You will actually begin to enjoy email again on your mobile device. Thank you all for watching. We’ll see you all next time on Untether.tv.
Prior to starting Hyperic, Javier held chief architect and senior engineering positions at a number of enterprise software and consumer internet companies including Netscape, where he was responsible for early internet messaging, application servers and e-commerce technologies. Throughout his career, Javier has been actively involved in various open source communities as both user and contributor to projects like JBoss and Apache Tomcat. He is also an active advisor to a number of open source and SaaS startups. Javier is originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico and received his bachelor of science degree in information systems and industrial management from Carnegie Mellon University.