By Kevin Meyer
A recent CNN article pretty much describes the problem at the US Postal Service, although that wasn't really its intent. You see, there's this new startup called Outbox that is working to digitize traditional paper mail, and our beloved USPS is having a bit of a conniption about it.
I think this is a terrific idea as I've been trying to make more and more of my life electronic - and thereby location independent. A few years ago I subscribed to a voicemail service that emails me the voicemail so I don't have to be near a phone. Last year that service even began transcribing those voicemails (with remarkable accuracy by the way) so I don't even have to listen to the audio file - I can just rapidly scan the "voice"mail. For the last year I've also been able to take a photo of checks with my phone and deposit them to my business or personal bank accounts. Another app on my phone lets me photograph documents, sign, convert to PDF, and email or fax them to a recipient. No more going to banks, fax machines, or sometimes even a computer. I can work just as efficiently from home, the car, or Tahiti. In your face Marissa Mayer!
Almost. The missing piece has been incoming paper mail. But with Outbox and a couple of other competing services, that may soon be resolved. Unless the USPS gets in the way.
A driver of a white Prius with a giant, red plastic flag affixed to its side is rolling through the hilly streets of San Francisco, undelivering mail from mailboxes. The driver is not a thief. He and the car are part of a startup called Outbox that is attempting to pick up where the embattled United States Postal Service leaves off -- by digitizing physical mail.
He collects the letters, bills, magazines and advertisements that were deposited there by official postal workers and delivers them to a warehouse. There they are opened and photographed, and the resulting digital files are sent electronically to the recipient through the Outbox website or iPad or iPhone apps.
The company already has more than 600 customers in Austin, Texas, and starting Tuesday it's rolling out in its second city, San Francisco.
And it all costs $4.99 per month. Even with the USPS standing in its way.
Creating a shadow, reverse postal service may not be the most efficient way to improve the struggling mail system, but Outbox is unable to intercept clients' mail any sooner in the process. The company has met resistance from the United States Postal Service, which has refused to collaborate with Outbox or let its workers pick up mail directly from local post offices.
Why does the USPS have a problem?
"The Postal Service is focused on providing an essential service in our mission to serve the American public and does not view Outbox as supporting that mission," the USPS said in a statement. "We do have concerns regarding the destruction of mail -- even if authorized by the receiver -- and will continue to monitor market activities to ensure protection of our brand and the value and security of the mail."
And that statement describes why the USPS is a sinking ship. "Protection of our brand and the value and security of the mail." But what about the customer? I mean the home customer, not the providers of bulk junk that is increasingly the primary revenue source of the USPS.
Imagine a different path. A postal service that is focused on increasing value to its customers rather than protecting its "brand." Instead of fighting startups like Outbox they'd be creating that innovation themselves, converting paper mail to electronic digital formats for folks like me that immediately scan and shred anything we have to keep anyway. Or maybe they go even further an enable the sending of original mail electronically, instead of trying to entice companies to remain paperbound to create "demand."
But no. That would mean thinking of value from the perspective of the customer. And that's apparently not as important as the brand - whatever value that has anymore.