February 25, 2013

Email-First Startups


Web-first, mobile-first, tablet-first, etc. etc. etc. All startups start somewhere, evaluating several factors (product, market, team, timeline, competition) to determine the right strategy.

One of the less common approaches is the email-first startup. Email-first enables startups to:

  • Validate ideas quickly. Generally it’s faster to build an email-first product than a full website or mobile application. The sooner you can get your product into customers hands, the sooner you can learn what does and doesn’t stick.
  • Fake it ‘til you make it. Email is largely asynchronous, allowing room to fake functionality with manual processes (see Wizard of Oz experiments).
  • Force focus. Email doesn’t afford feature-creep. Email-first products are limited, forcing you to be succinct and focused on particular use case.
  • Create habits. We check our email several times a day. If done right, email products can become a part of users’ daily habits.
  • Be ubiquitous. Everyone users email and email doesn’t discriminate against devices or operating systems.
  • Transfer to other mediums. Up/cross-selling to web or mobile offerings is easier when there’s a reliable channel for communication.

Here are a few examples of startups that have used this strategy:

  • Timehop - began as 4SquareAnd7YearsAgo emailing Foursquare check-ins from exactly one year ago.
  • iDoneThis - created over a weekend, simply email iDoneThis with the tasks you accomplished that day and the following morning an email will be sent to your team.
  • Thrillist - created a hand-made, email newsletter on men’s lifestyle.
  • AngelList - narrowly focused on providing a curated list of angel investors delivered via email weekly.
  • Sunrise - morning email of your day’s schedule each day. Simple. Useful.

All of these startups have since expanded into web and/or mobile applications but email is where they were born and has enabled them to validate their business and gain traction with relatively minimal investment.

If your product and market fits the medium, consider an email-first strategy.


For more thoughts on lean startups tactics, subscribe to my email list or follow me on Twitter (@rrhoover).

Update 3/1/2013: I’m surprised by the overwhelming positive response. Visit HackerNews for more examples of email-first startups and interesting discussion.

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