9,000 people attended the Launch Conference last week in San Francisco, and I had the serendipitous fortune of finding two of the brightest needles in that humongous haystack. Shash Deshmukh and Eva Liparova were there to pitch Paperfold, their remarkable startup company that aims to change the world with the stories captured in our email. Their passion for how visual story memories will reconnect us on an emotional level drew me into their orbit.
Photo courtesy of Paperfold
“A new email app?” You say with a raised eyebrow. Save your eye roll, this one’s a keeper. Paperfold has designed a fast, functional, efficient product that lets you “see” the visual story of your email.
I interviewed Shash and Eva on Skype yesterday, and asked them to tell me the story of Paperfold. I learned a bit about the app, and even more about them.
“Most apps try to change small features, and focus on one thing that gets celebrated. We are into more than that. This is a new way to do email,” says Shash. “The iPad changed things. We’ve had gigantic leaps in technology, yet email feels outdated.”
After earning his engineering degree at Oxford, Shash worked as an account manager for a specialist automotive and logistics-marketing agency, and then helped raise funding for a social analytics company. The idea for Paperfold emerged while explaining email to his grandmother on his iPad.
“She saw all the text and said it looked too much like work,” he says, “and I thought, she’s right. Why does it have to look like this? It seemed so outdated, so under-designed compared to other apps on the iPad. It was frustrating.”
While working closely with his friend Federico Selmi, a designer and creative director, they scoped out the idea for Paperfold. “He’s a visual person,” said Shash, knowing that was the key to making Paperfold work. They mapped out a way for your email to be shown in an eight-tile format on the screen, displaying a preview graphic or photo, and added an elegant, one click UI to get you where you want to go easily. They showed the early designs to a Venture Capitalist in London, who loved it.
“He went wild with it,” says Shash. “People asked us, ‘why hasn’t it been done?’ We asked that too. Most people aren’t technical. Everything we do is based on emotion. Paperfold lets you see email in a meaningful way.”
“So we had this great idea,” says Shash, “but no team, so we bootstrapped it. The app was slow and buggy at first, but proved itself. We put friends' and family money into the business, and eventually hired an agency to build it out, followed by a tech team in India.”
And then Paperfold met Eva.
Eva Liparova is one of those rare people with the ability to open up the realm of possibility just by being in the room. Mesmerizing intelligence and inner light are the words that keep rolling around in my brain when I think of her.
“Eva helped us find the emotion,” says Shash. “Some tech companies only hire tech people, but Eva got the emotion of Paperfold right away. She can spot themes in the real world. And that’s what’s different about our business.”
Eva spent six years in theater as a director and a producer, including working with the famed Hau Theater in Berlin and also her own theater company in London. She also worked in an ad agency and later product design before starting her own agency, with a keen interest in companies that do social good.
“Good design can change behaviors,” says Eva. “I’m interested in how brands can engage customers. When I saw Paperfold, I thought, this feels really good. It doesn’t look like email. It creates emotion. There are emails out there that have changed our lives. How can Paperfold create a new sense of value for them?”
“Opening an email needs to feel like opening a letter,” she says. “Inboxes are collections of memories and stories, collated over time. Hitting the search button should be like going down memory lane, and let us bring out the content we cherish. It needs to tell a story, make us think about the relationships that matter to us.”
I first met Eva on Twitter at the Launch Conference. I worked on Printables for HP wireless printers, and tend to think about print relevance a lot. The augmented reality paper airplane app I worked on just launched recently, so when I saw the name @Paperfold jump into my Twitter stream, I was intrigued. As I sat in the vast room with thousands of others, watching Paul Graham of Y Combinator talk about starting startups, I checked out Eva on LinkedIn.
Eva’s background looked interesting, so I invited her and Andrea De La Cruz, who’s doing social media for Paperfold, to an impromptu party I named #LaunchWomen, which I arranged that night at a nearby bar in order to get to know more women at the conference. I also convinced Dyn, one of the title sponsors of Launch to buy us all drinks, which they did, because they’re awesome (so thanks again, Dyn!)
When Eva walked in to the party, I felt an instant connection to her, like she was a friend I hadn’t seen in ages, and I hugged her. She and Andrea lit up the room with their humor and energy.
Photo courtesy of Paperfold
I asked Eva to show me a demo of Paperfold, and she walked me through it on her iPad, right there in the dark bar between the pool table and the dartboards. I loved it, and quickly realized how brands could take advantage of this visual email format to engage customers with good stories, and how disruptive Paperfold could be for marketing.
“Email still tells a story,” said Eva. “Social media is exciting to use, but it’s public. Email remains something that only you see; it’s just for your eyes. It deserves to be exciting.”
She told me some of her fondest memories are sitting around the dinner table at home with her parents and her sisters during the holidays. They read through printouts of old emails and photos they have sent to each other from past travels and life adventures. They laugh with each other, as they read their own sentimental stories aloud. They relive tales of schoolgirl crushes, heartache, excitement, loneliness, and the wonder of meeting new people and seeing new places. “It is like reading a book of our own lives,” said Eva. “When I saw Paperfold, I knew that’s how email should be.”
I hugged Eva again then, which I know is sappy, but I didn’t care. I knew exactly what she meant. I have binders of notes and letters my best friend and I sent to each other from junior high school through young adulthood. It is one of my greatest treasures. I’ve moved about 16 times in the past 30 years, and still cart around that binder and two shoe boxes of letters my parents, my sister, and a few close friends wrote to me in college.
“We all have phones that take photos now,” Eva says, “but we’ve lost the behavior where we go somewhere and take a few special photos, print them out and put them in an album. It’s so easy now; we can always take photos. But that might mean we don’t cherish them as much. Paperfold is trying to change the nature of the way we use email, so that when we do send photos on email, suddenly you get a photo album of the person you’re talking to with a click. It becomes more special.”
From a business angle, Eva and Shash realize that if brands can tell stories that evoke the same kind of emotion as personal email, this could be a very powerful platform, and make money. We’re already seeing the explosion of brand storytelling with the introduction of apps like Vine and Instagram (as I wrote about in the Meagan Cignoli story, here) so it makes sense to me that smart brands will want to engage readers with more dynamic, story-driven visual email.
“We don’t believe in ads, no one likes them,” says Shash, “but if you’re subscribing to engaging emails from brands, we will create a marketplace for those emails. If there are some emails you don’t like, you can give feedback to the brand through Paperfold. What’s important about us is that we can increase open rates and action rates, and get at rich data without compromising individual user’s email privacy. The brands will know why people are engaging with their content. This brings a sense of responsibility back to the brands. The value is in the story the brand creates, and it will change the way we interact.”
It turns out many others who heard about Paperfold at the Launch conference are also seeing the vision. The team has been bombarded with requests for meetings with VCs and advisors in the past week, which is exciting and confirms to them that they’re on the right track. Even Mark Cuban asked for an invite to Paperfold so he could try it out. Shash and Eva are sorting through funding offers, and thrilled with the response and advice they’ve received.
I asked Shash and Eva how long they were staying in America, which prompted laughter from both of them.
“It took us 18 minutes to fall in love with San Francisco. We realized it in the cab ride from the airport.” says Eva. “Everything is pointing to us staying here. We were so busy before we arrived; we’d had no expectations of the city. It was quite a discovery how this city made us feel, as people. Meeting all these startup people who are like us, willing to take a risk and seeing what happens…it’s very refreshing. Our lives have been turned around completely. We are here to ride the wave.”
“London is a great place,” says Shash, “but San Francisco is something else. The place takes on the qualities of the people. It’s a beautiful place, but it’s more than that. It’s the people who are there, who make it beautiful. Here things are merged, and there isn’t the division of class and culture. Here it’s all ‘what are you working on, what drives you?’ People at all levels of society will talk to you. You can see it in the streets. The attitude is different here; it’s one of inclusiveness. In London, there is not as much openness, there’s a bit more of ‘what’s in it for me’. I wish we could take a bit of that inclusiveness back to London. Naturally we have an impression of what we think Americans are like, but I have a newfound respect for Americans now that I’ve been here,” he says.
Of course we Americans like to hear that. I emailed them a link to a YouTube video of Neil Diamond singing, “Coming to America,” just in case they hadn’t seen it, for educational purposes.
Our Skype call was klugey, my annoying little dog barked in a very disruptive way three different times, and after an hour of talking to Eva and Shash on the phone, I knew I should let them go. But it was hard to hang up. I felt so lucky to talk to them. They are the kind of people I want to hang out with all day just so I can bask in their positive vibe, and soak up their enthusiasm.
So I asked Eva what she was most proud of, partly to keep her talking and partly to hear what she would say.
“I’ve developed a habit of having the attitude that if you really wish for something, and you say it as if it’s happening, it will happen,” said Eva “and that’s what I’ve done. Instead of saying ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful to go to Launch?’ I said ‘we are going to San Francisco to Launch.’ At the end of the day if you want it to happen, you put your heart and mind to it, you put all your energy toward that wish, and it will happen. It’s just a matter of time. I’m proud that I’ve followed that.”
Her answer was so great, I asked Shash the same question.
“Coming here to San Francisco – it’s a dream come true,” he says. “I have self-doubt like everyone does, but you just go for it and jump with both feet. We have started a spreadsheet since we’ve been here, listing all the serendipity about this trip. It’s up to 64 things now, and we’ve only been here a week! It’s all falling into place. Being here has changed the way we do business. It may sound cheesy but if you change the way you think, you can change the world. The thought that I can get up and do this job is a privilege, and to have energy to live well, and doing what you love with people you love is what drives me.”
I feel proud of Shash and Eva, and I’ve only just met them. They are piloting Paperfold in selected local markets and setting up partnerships with a few key super-brands, but within three months, everyone should be able to use it. They’ve also received immense support from UKTi (UK Trade & Investment).
I can’t wait to start using Paperfold. If you don’t want to wait either, you can sign up to be a beta tester on their website. Oh, and they’re hiring the best talent they can find, now in San Francisco. Send them your email here: http://www.paperfold.me/learnmore/