One of Google’s biggest critics is launching a paid new service that it hopes will bring about the ‘absolute revival’ of email, outside of Google’s or Microsoft’s control

  • In April, the project management software company Basecamp plans to roll out a new paid email service called Hey.
  • David Heinemeier Hansson, better known as DHH, has been a frequent critic of venture capital and Big Tech — which is why Basecamp is trying to build a “small tech solution” that does things a little differently than Google’s Gmail or Microsoft’s Hotmail. 
  • Hey will charge some kind of fee, but Hansson says that it’s so that Basecamp will never, ever have to scrape data or show advertisements to its email customers. 
  • Hey will also include features to help filter out unwanted emails like spam, marketing emails, and pitches.
  • The ultimate goal, Hansson says, is to bring about an “absolute revival” of email, which he praises as not being owned by any single company or entity, and is thus a totally open standard beyond the control of Big Tech.
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Project management software company Basecamp is an unusual tech startup, in the sense that it found success with very little by way of venture capital funding. Now, it’s setting its sights on a big new challenge: Fixing e-mail, something it sees as broken.

Basecamp’s new email service, called Hey, is expected to roll out in April. Cofounder David Heinemeier Hansson, better known by his initials DHH, says the company decided to build a completely new email service because most of the current ones have a “really bad rep from a lot of people.” 

“A lot of things about email are broken,” Hansson told Business Insider. “Those broken parts we want to fix.”

Specifically, Hansson says, Hey will be a paid service — important, because unlike popular email services like Google’s Gmail, Microsoft’s Hotmail, or Yahoo Mail, it won’t scrape information from your messages to present you with ads.

Hansson says that every time a new messaging app like WhatsApp or Slack gets popular, people say that it’s the death of email. Hansson says that isn’t so; it’s just that big tech companies like Google and startups like Superhuman — which came under fire for helping users track email recipients’ locations — have made email less appealing.

“Much of that battle is waged on philosophical grounds whether people have an issue with Google, ad targeting or these other things,” Hansson said. “We’re going to be appealing to people by making a great damn product.”

It’s Hansson’s hope that Hey kicks off a much-needed “absolute revival” of email, a method of communication that he praises as being totally open and agnostic: Where WhatsApp users can only communicate with WhatsApp users, or Slack with Slack, literally anybody can build an app that can send email to anybody using any other app. So while Hey, as a paid service, may only find a relatively small niche itself, the entire email market is ripe for the taking.

“We’re launching a service where we’re happy if 50,000 or 100,000 people sign up,” Hansson said. “It’s such a large ocean that there’s room for dozens and dozens of new builders. We are clearly pointing out some specific disadvantages around things like Gmail and Google’s control of email.”

Basecamp has clashed with Big Tech before

Basecamp took no traditional venture capital financing — Jeff Bezos bought a “minority, no-control stake” of the company in 2006, in a $6 million deal that Hansson once said was more like buying a membership in a traditional LLC rather than your typical startup equity deal. Hansson said in 2017 that Bezos still owns the stake, but that the profitable company had paid him back over 5 times his initial investment over the years.

Indeed, Hansson has been a frequent critic of Silicon Valley’s venture capital model: “Venture capital, like private equity, is money without a soul. Zombie capital that scours the land to eat the brains of entrepreneurs,” he tweeted in November.

Basecamp has also clashed with Google. In September, CEO and cofounder Jason Fried said that the company had to take out Google search ads for its own name, because searching for “Basecamp” yielded paid placements from competitors above its own website. Fried described it as a “shakedown” to CNBC.

‘Small tech solution’

So with Hey, Basecamp is actively trying to do things differently than Big Tech. In fact, Hansson goes so far as to call it a “small tech solution.” Privacy is preserved, your data doesn’t flow into the coffers of Microsoft or Google, and it even blocks the so-called tracking pixels that help companies know when you’ve opened their marketing emails. 

“We’re taking a hard stance and saying opening your email shouldn’t be something that results in someone spying on you,” Hansson said.

The price has yet to be announced, but Hansson says that Hey will be priced to be affordable to as many users as possible (and less than the $30 monthly fee charged by buzzy VC-backed email startup Superhuman, which had its own privacy scandal last year), but that there won’t be a free version. Hansson says the company wants to make sure Hey works in a “sustainable way.”

“We’re not luxury software, but also we’re not free software,” Hansson said. “You pay with money or you pay with your privacy. We’re trying to strike a reasonable balance between those things.”

Better than before

Basecamp has already been using Hey internally for months. Hansson even says it’s been his primary email service since the fall. It’s not just about the privacy aspect, he says; Hey was meant to make email more useful to a broader audience.

A big problem with email as it stands today, Hansson says, is that inboxes get so clogged up with marketing emails, newsletters, and straight-up spam that many users get frustrated and stop paying attention. That’s why Hansson says that Hey will help users automatically sift and surface their important email, while minimizing the work that goes into setting up rules or filters to make sure incoming messages get sorted properly. 

“We have fresh ideas for how to do that in ways that neither relies on AI or teaches people how to program to get basic order in email and real life,” Hansson said.

The real vision, he says, is to help people regain control of their inbox, and in so doing, make email that much more useful and indispensable.

“It’s well overdue that we get better tools to defend ourselves and our attention and our love affair with email,” Hansson said. “Right now you’ll email people and they’ll get your attention right away. It will simply show up in their inbox. That’s not a great model. No wonder people go, ‘you know what? Email isn’t working for me.'”

The opportunity is big, Hansson says, but it’s about time that email got a real, honest shakeup.

“Launching a new email service is a pretty daunting thing,” Hansson said. “The last independent email services are over a decade old. There basically hadn’t been anything since.”

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