Startup finds niche in digitizing physical mail

Story highlights

  • Outbox picks up mail the post office drops off at homes, scans it and e-mails it to recipient
  • Austin-based startup is rolling out in its second city, San Francisco, this week
  • The service costs $4.99 a month and will still deliver selected physical mail
  • The struggling U.S. Postal Service is not working with Outbox
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.
The driver, dubbed an "unpostman," visits Outbox subscribers' homes three times a week, flipping through a thick ring of keys to open the wide variety of entryways and mailboxes. 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 idea is that for $4.99 a month, someone can make their pesky physical mail disappear (assuming they can resist the urge to peek in their mailbox between pickups). Using a mobile device or computer, Outbox customers can organize mail in files or forward them as e-mails, ask to be unsubscribed from junk mail, have unwanted items destroyed or request that important mail, such as a wedding invite or a postcard, be re-delivered to their home.
The company already has more than 600 customers in Austin, Texas, and starting Tuesday it's rolling out in its second city, San Francisco.
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.
"From a startup perspective, we can wait on no one," said Outbox co-founder Will Davis.
Outbox's legal 'gray zone'
Even though Outbox is forging ahead without the blessing of the USPS, Davis said he has a lot of respect for the federal agency and would welcome any attempts to work together.
It's a sentiment that does not yet seem to be mutual.
"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."
Circumventing the Postal Service has been a way to get Outbox up and running. But tampering with mail is a federal offense, and there may be questions about the legality of a third party removing mail from a mailbox, even with permission.
Davis argues that once a piece of mail has been delivered, it becomes just another unregulated piece of paper. An Outbox employee taking mail with permission would be no