PowerInbox CEO Dishes on E-mail as Social Platform vs. Facebook (& Instagram)

At its best, e-mail is a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. At its worst, well, it’s like falling down an infinitely long, dark tunnel with a box of quicksand at the bottom. Can you guess which side of bed I got out of?

Fortunately, there are people working on making the e-mail experience better. Matt Thazhmon is one of them, though he’s not going to reduce the size of my inbox anytime soon. He’s the founder and CEO of PowerInbox, a tech startup in Cambridge, MA, that is trying to make e-mail into a broader platform for social apps.

Today the company is rolling out an API (application programming interface) so that e-mail and social media companies can offer PowerInbox without their users having to download or install anything. To that end, the startup is announcing three e-mail partners so far—UnifiedInbox, Smak, and Fuser (the latter two have ties to Boston).

PowerInbox calls its technology an “interactive e-mail” platform. The basic idea is that, using the startup’s software, you can access Facebook, Twitter, Groupon, Google+, Instagram, and a number of other services directly from your e-mail inbox. PowerInbox has created 17 apps and counting; others include TimeTrade, Boloco, PivotalTracker, and Vsnap. Thazhmon (third from right in team photo above) says he’s working on integrating with more e-mail providers and building more apps. “That makes us more appealing to e-mail clients, and it’s better for consumers,” he says.

Rather than trying to integrate directly with the big boys of e-mail—like Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, and Outlook (which all support PowerInbox, but you have to install it)—Thazhmon says he is looking to form partnerships with smaller e-mail apps and services that have “captured the early adopter community,” such as Thunderbird, Sparrow, Postbox, Shortmail and MailMate. PowerInbox is also looking to work with e-mail and social media marketing providers like Constant Contact and MailChimp, he says.

The bigger idea is that PowerInbox is making progress in developing a social platform for e-mail that—if it gets big enough (which is a big if)—could eventually challenge the likes of Facebook for online supremacy. After all, e-mail isn’t going away anytime soon, and developers could conceivably build lots of apps for it. There are roughly 2 billion active e-mail users worldwide, Thazhmon says. By contrast, Facebook says it has some 850 million users.

Speaking of Facebook, I asked Thazhmon for his take on the social network’s billion-dollar acquisition of Instagram, the photo-sharing mobile app. His view depends on whether the decision was made by Facebook’s methodical side, or it’s “oh crap” side, Thazhmon says. “Maybe a bit of both. It could be, ‘We need to watch this company, we better do something, and do it now—before we’re public, while there’s less scrutiny.’” But if Instagram truly posed a competitive threat or provided a big advantage, he says, there might be some core issue that Facebook knows about that outsiders aren’t seeing.

To me, this is all interesting because we are starting to see more companies making headway in aggregating social media, integrating social apps, making communications mobile and more targeted, and experimenting with business models. It could be tough for Facebook to stay on top in a few years.

Meanwhile, PowerInbox got started in 2010 and has raised $1.9 million in seed funding from investors including Atlas Venture, Egan-Managed Capital, Founder Collective, Longworth Venture Partners, and angels. The company has seven employees, so it’s clearly still early days.

The biggest challenge for the startup so far? “We’re creating a new market for interactive e-mail,” Thazhmon says. “We’re dealing with the growing pains of making that happen.” On the plus side, he says, “Everyone is focused on social and mobile, it’s sucking the air out. But it lets us focus on what we want to do.”

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