Unified comms and social collaboration startup did not seek funding for 3yrs
VCs seldom into long-term plays, so bootstrap and angels the way to go
IMAGINE a future when a Twitter discussion to move a meeting back 30 minutes is detected, and the corresponding calendar appointment automatically updated. When if one is home and spending time with the family, there’s a system smart enough to block all but the most urgent of work calls.
And if you have a 9am conference call scheduled, the system is also intelligent enough to know the best moment to wake you up based on your sleep cycle – it may be 8:02am for you, but 8:33am for your partner.
If Toby Ruckert has his way, that would be the future. “None of the technology for this exists yet, but it will,” he tells Digital News Asia (DNA) on the sidelines of the recent Echelon startup conference in Singapore.
In the meantime, Ruckert is working on his own contribution to that eventual future with his current startup, Unified Inbox.
Unified Inbox is a cloud-based unified conversation and social collaboration platform that centralises external conversations, social engagement, and internal team collaboration into a single platform across desktop and mobile devices.
Ask Ruckert to talk about the origins of his venture and he will say that it isn’t an easy one to tell.
The thought that a communications management tool would become important first came to him in 1992 while he was working as a system operator at an early bulletin board called LIGHT-BBS.
But it wasn’t until 2006 when Ruckert was working on an e-commerce startup and living on Waiheke Island in New Zealand, that the motivation to build a smart online communications platform to help manage information overloads really kicked in.
“My backoffice was in India, my suppliers in Europe. I started thinking there must be a way to maintain and control all these disparate streams of communications and have it all collected in one inbox. We started working on a solution that disparate teams could really work with,” he recalls.
Ruckert also decided against raising funding too early in his venture, sharing that it was only after Unified Inbox's third year in development that funding was sought. Markus Lehnert came on board then as Unified Inbox’s first investor as well as cofounder and chief financial officer.
The company’s funding currently comes from a collection of independent angels from a variety of countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Singapore, India and New Zealand.
“I approached a lot of venture capital (VC) firms initially, but very often the longer term interests of a company does not align easily with VCs and their limited partners.
“Even with our current angels, they were very carefully selected. We have accountants, lawyers and senior telco executives among them. I initially didn’t realise just how much these angels would actually contribute to the venture in the long run,” he adds.
Asked how much funding has been raised to date, Ruckert says that US$1 million was raised via angels, and during Unified Inbox’s bootstrapping phase, he put in about US$1 million of his own money into the venture.
“If you’re an entrepreneur and have done one business, you’re tempted to start another. I had two other companies at the time so instead of buying property, especially when you have no family to consider, I just invested in my startup,” he quips.
Building that unified inbox
Work on a prototype that would eventually become known as Unified Inbox took three years, and was a bootstrapped labour of love.
“It took a long time to build the prototype, because it’s incredibly hard to get it right in the backend. You have to normalise channels, the many different APIs (applications programming interfaces) and coding types – frankly it's a pain in the butt to get it done.
“Then on the frontend, the actual inbox users would see. People prefer their own living rooms, meaning they prefer the look and feel of their primary email, so you need to design to allow for such preferences too,” says Ruckert (pic).
The development process entailed four public beta rounds involving 8,000 users from 72 countries providing feedback. Things were all ready for a public launch in early 2013, but then a man called Edward Snowden put a wrench in those plans.
“We had to delay our launch by a year. We were supposed to launch last year but then the NSA (the US National Security Agency) scandal came up and we had to rethink our entire solution in terms of how we dealt with data.
“We initially thought to fetch all messages and store them, but now we’ve changed all the technology so we don’t store the data and it’s not possible to read user messages. We are a communications-as-a-service provider and in the future, other developers can build their own unified inboxes on top of our platform,” says Ruckert.
It is also this heightened concern around data privacy that led to the opening of Unified Inbox’s German office in early June, to ensure it met the higher benchmark standards in place in Europe.
The company adopted a similar position to exchange services, and by utilising a franchise concept for its solution and partnering with telco operators and carriers, these partners help take on the burden of privacy rights.
Changes in the way Unified Inbox dealt with data isn’t the only thing the team has been working on. It also acquired two technology companies to beef up its offering.
In February 2013, the company announced that it was acquiring HelloInbox, an iOS app that can be used to send and receive messages both from email accounts and social networks, for an undisclosed sum.
The acquisition allowed Unified Inbox to leverage the Amsterdam-based HelloInbox team’s expertise in app development to improve the user experience on mobile.
In May of this year, it also acquired Boston-based Smak, for an undisclosed sum.
Smak (Secure Messaging Alerting and Knowledge) is a cloud solution to help executives and professionals sort their incoming information from email accounts and social media, and increase their productivity by applying ‘LifeModes.’
Users will be able to filter their Unified Inbox for messages that would fit their current situation or LifeMode – be it Work, Home or Holiday – to read and respond to those first.
Smak, according to Ruckert, has some of the best tools for such functions and will be important for Unified Inbox moving forward.
“There is currently no ability to pick which certain keywords can come through in communications, even though you may not be technically available. LifeModes offers that, and it is this context sensitivity that will be extremely valuable when layered on top of our unified communications platform,” he says.
In addition, the company is also working with German software powerhouse SAP AG on an algorithm that could potentially power a 'smart inbox assistant' dubbed InboxRank.
“The algorithm would help to determine which messages come on top, based on how fast we reply to each other and the history of relationships, no matter data source,” says Ruckert.
Next Page: Moving towards Unified Inbox's future