How to Reconnect at the the Right Time: Entrepreneur’s Personal Project Evolves into an E-mail Reminder Service
When Chris Keller was working full-time at his startup, the online celebrity fantasy league site Fafarazzi.com, he had plenty of e-mails that needed following up on, as most entrepreneurs do.
He’d set reminders for himself on his calendar, but found this mechanism wasn’t ideal, since it was tedious to modify every calendar entry to reflect communications with the contacts he had already heard back from.
“I wished there was a way my calendar knew that he or she responded,” he says.
So in July 2007 Keller built himself a Web-based software tool that bypassed his calendar entirely, instead sending e-mail reminders about people he needed to communicate with, and automatically deleting those reminders once they were knocked off the to-do list. Last spring, he started mentioning the tool to a few friends who have similar “e-mail woes,” and what started out as a personal project has since evolved into a part-time business endeavor with more than 1,000 users.
Keller’s creation, FollowUp.cc, is built around a set of e-mail addresses that function as reminders. Users can add a FollowUp e-mail address in the CC or BCC line of an e-mail when they want to remind themselves to reconnect with the recipient at a later date.
So far, the development of the tool has “all been organic,” says Keller, who also works full-time at the Cambridge, MA-based Web marketing startup, HubSpot, as a “labs product owner,” working on experimental projects to help launch client companies’ websites. “I’m never thinking it’s done or polished enough. As we’ve learned in startups, you just need to get it out there and deal with it.”
Keller had a few brief months to focus on FollowUp between the time he left Fafarazzi in July 2009 and his hiring at HubSpot in late September 2009, but the system is now back to side-project status. He investigated potential business models (more on that in a minute) for FollowUp, but intends to remain full-time at his HubSpot job.
FollowUp frames reminders using four different time references. Users can remind themselves to follow up at a specific length of time into the future, such as three hours from now. In other words, to send a note that will automatically show up in your e-mail inbox two days from now, you’d send a copy to firstname.lastname@example.org. Users can also select an upcoming day of the week and a time on that day—same thing with a date in the future (Mar30@followup.cc, for example). Lastly, for the more immediate tasks, users can set a reminder for a certain time in the next 24 hours (i.e. email@example.com).
Since its inception, Keller has adapted FollowUp to serve several different functions. Users who want to remind themselves to reconnect with someone after a certain period of time without the person knowing of the reminder can add the FollowUp address to the BCC (blind carbon copy) line. But some e-mail recipients like knowing that their correspondents have designated a specific date for a follow-up, in which case adding the FollowUp address in the CC line of an email is helpful, Keller says. (He’s since removed the tool’s feature of automatically deleting reminders once someone replies, though.)
FollowUp sends a reminder instantly notifying you of your future plans to follow up (a feature you can choose to turn off), and sends you another e-mail on the day or time you specified. Users can opt to “snooze” these alerts and delay them to another time.
By addressing a new message to FollowUp directly (in the main recipient line), users can turn the tool into a personal to-do-list creator. If a user has an important e-mail that she can’t respond to immediately, she can simply forward it to a dated FollowUp address in the same fashion. This aspect of the tool works particularly well for people who look at their inboxes as personal assistants, datebooks, or task lists, Keller says. (One of our own does, to an extent. Check out Wade’s column on the subject.)
“It’s flexible,” says Keller. “It fits everyone’s general pattern to some degree.” On the weekends and when he can squeeze in the time, Keller is working on transforming the FollowUp home page, which he described as “rudimentary,” to make it more elegant and user-friendly. He also hopes to create a “gadget” for FollowUp on Gmail.
On the surface, it might seem like all of the e-mail reminders might add to the noise of an already crowded inbox. The tool offers some solutions that problem, though. It aggregates all the tasks users set into a calendar that appears on a user’s page on the FollowUp website. FollowUp can also be programmed to insert tasks into RSS feeds or personal calendars on applications such as iCal or Google.
As for the exact business model for the tool, Keller is working on that. If the FollowUp user base grows substantially, he’s considering using ads in the reminder e-mails. But he’s more inclined to explore paid subscription models.
“I didn’t want to be another startup in that relies on ads; I’m just growing it to get a ton of users then figuring it out later,” Keller says. He’s toying with several subscriptions models, such as free 60-day trials, or “freemium” models, with users getting a certain volume of usage or features for free, and then paying to upgrade to a more sophisticated version. If he does end up charging for usage, he’s thinking the fees might be around $5 a month.
“I want to think that I could build a service with enough value that people would be willing to pay a bit of money for it,” he says.