Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! I'm Bron Gondwana, and I'm the CEO of Fastmail.
Fastmail provides paid email hosting services, competing directly with the likes of Gmail and other free email services. We attract and retain customers by providing a service that delivers value to them. People are happy to pay for services that respect their time and maintain their privacy.
Our main product, Fastmail, is an easy-to-use email with built-in calendars and contacts. It works quickly, blocks spam is ad-free, and has all the modern email features you love like snooze, folders, undo-send, rules and filters, calendar sharing, dark mode, and more.
We also offer Topicbox, which is for teams to share emails for better productivity from anywhere. Topicbox keeps group conversations focused, well-documented, and easy-to-find.
Pobox is an email forwarding service that gives you an email address that you keep for life. Founded in 1995, our acquisition of Pobox makes us one of the oldest email companies still operating today!
People choose Fastmail for the speed and usability of our products (hey, it's right there in the name), our uncomplicated approach to privacy (you pay an affordable fee for 100% of our efforts without advertisers in the mix), and of our fantastic customer support (it's truly wonderful!).
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Fastmail was founded in 1999, and at that time, email was provided by either your internet service provider or webmail sites. Most of these options were slow and cluttered with ads. Fastmail founders felt there should be better experiences for people using email.
We made an email product centered on meeting the needs of people. We focused on respecting people's privacy and offering a premium service. You always get helpful assistance if needed.
I became involved in 2004 as a developer and sysadmin at Fastmail, headquartered in Melbourne, Australia. In 2010, Fastmail was acquired by Opera Software from Oslo, Norway, which is primarily known for its web browser. I relocated to Oslo for two years to work at the Opera head office.
In 2013, Opera decided to exit the email hosting business, and members of the Fastmail team bought back the company—at which time I became a part-owner. Today, Fastmail remains fully independent and employee-owned.
In 2015, we acquired Pobox and brought their Philadelphia-based team onboard. Along with the technology and the customers, the key purpose of this acquisition was to add two fantastic executives to our team.
In 2017, I became CEO. I created a group of companies with offices in Melbourne and Philadelphia and built a strong executive team across both offices to drive our growth into the future.
Over half the users who were paying for Fastmail when I started in 2004 are still with us today.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Email has stood the test of time, and it’s widely adopted. It’s so special because it's the largest open federated communication protocol on the internet. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, where you can only communicate with other people on the same service, you can email anyone with an email address no matter what service provider they use.
While I didn’t launch the first version of Fastmail with the original founders, I was here for our most significant change. In 2012, we rebuilt our web-based email client from the ground up. Our new interface is a responsive and efficient client-side application, with a new protocol developed based on our long experience with email. With this improved product, our revenue growth changed from a steady 10% year-on-year before 2012, to over 30% year-on-year in the years following. It’s the single biggest inflection point in our history.
At the same time, we noticed that many new email integrations were coming out that only worked with Gmail. It’s a problem when new email innovation can’t work with all providers. It means that to get the productivity tools you love, you only have one choice.
To do our part to keep email growing and open, we became passionately involved with the open standards community. A new modern open standard for email would make the innovations we've built at Fastmail available to everyone building email tools.
We spent years standardizing our protocol, leading to the official publication of JMAP in 2019. Publishing a new internet open standard for email is a significant victory. Our work has ensured a healthy future for email that is open and inclusive. More developers will be able to make powerful email products. Customers will benefit from a broader email marketplace with more choices and more tools that work with their preferred provider.
Describe the process of launching the business.
To finance my part when we repurchased the company from Opera, I took out a business loan against my home. I can't tell you that there's no personal risk involved in being a business owner. There were some lean years! But it was worth the risk because I believe in our products and our work to make email better for everyone. Many people rely on our products every day to make their life easier.
We have a blog post showing our homepage over the years, which shows how far we’ve come.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Our customers love our product, and we have a reputation for being the best in our field. Because of this, a lot of our growth has been through word-of-mouth recommendations from technology influencers. Our excellent retention is due to offering a product that meets the needs of customers.
We started with a freemium model but discovered that very few non-paying customers converted to paying customers. We now offer a 30-day trial but afterward, everybody pays. Eliminating our free option meant that we could segment the potential customer base and avoid those who just wanted something free and were unwilling to pay for the value we add. We operate an honest and straightforward business model for our entire customer base—money in exchange for service.
Over the last year, we've focused on enhancing our feature set so that Fastmail continues to be more efficient to use than Gmail while providing the highest level of privacy, security, and support. Our target market is users who want both the features they love and the privacy and security they deserve.
Identify a need that people have and offer something which provides value to your customers and fills that need. Ideally, a need that you have yourself, and in an area where you have some expertise!
Recently we’ve revamped our landing pages to make our product more accessible to those who haven’t heard of us before, and we’re experimenting with paid advertisements to reach new prospects.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, we're still going strong, and we're growing. We're helping people spend less time on email and more time doing what they love. People are becoming more informed about their digital privacy and empowered to protect it. Over half the users who were paying for Fastmail when I started in 2004 are still with us today.
The coronavirus pandemic has made us all aware that email is essential. Our team is working remotely from around the world. A key company goal has always been to build resilient products, and we're seeing our hard work pay off. We're keeping people connected during these difficult times.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Interestingly, the platform that we needed to keep our team connected around the world couldn't be found there, so we wrote it ourselves! Topicbox is a private and secure solution to the group email.
I like to say that email is your personal electronic memory. Well, Topicbox is home to the digital memory of an entire organization. Teams share their most important emails using Topicbox. It includes all the right people and keeps group conversations focused, well-documented, and easy-to-find.
A way this tool has helped our company is to onboard new employees. When a new employee joins us, they can immediately read the most valuable information on their projects. In many ways, they can pick up where the last person left off, using a shared inbox for that role.
We integrate with Pin Payments, Stripe and PayPal to capture payments from our customers, and Avalara to calculate tax. Pin can capture in US Dollars and pay that directly to us in an Australian USD account without foreign exchange fees. Since many of our expenses are in USD, saving the double conversion fee is a major win, so most of our transactions go via Pin.
We're using Helpspot for our customer support, and LiquidPlanner to track where we spend our time. Developers use Gitlab for their work, and we use Dropbox Paper for most of our collaborative documents.
Our servers are all hosted with 365 Datacentres. They recently purchased our primary New Jersey datacentre from New York Internet—who we've been happy to work with since before I started. 365 have kept the same excellent staff who provide us with quality 24x7 remote hands. We're thrilled to keep working with them.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
In my previous life as a developer, I loved reading Joel Spolsky's work and reading Hacker News. I still read and contribute to Hacker News!
These days my kindle bookshelf is full of a different kind of book. Patrick Lencioni's Five Dysfunctions of a Team has helped me navigate the new world of being a CEO, and I'm working my way through Measure What Matters by John Doerr. And I definitely need to stop procrastinating and read Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The advice that I'd give to anybody starting out is to identify a need that people have and offer something which provides value to your customers and fills that need. Ideally, a need that you have yourself, and in an area where you have some expertise!
Fastmail became profitable because there was a clear need for an email service that was designed for busy people. People paid for that simplicity. It's hard to do simple things well, but we have built on experience and retained the simplicity while making our product more powerful.
We made our new product, Topicbox, with the profits from Fastmail. We didn't have to fundraise to launch a new product, and we could take it in the direction we wanted on our schedule.
At Fastmail, we're clear about our values, and we're trying to make the internet a better place. Your work is a large part of every day—so working with good people and doing good things will make you so much happier when you look back at your life.
Be honest with your customers and, most importantly, yourself! Misleading people can make you money in the short term, but you have to live with the guilt. I have a company where we aren't using any dark patterns on our customers, and it feels bloody great. Don't discount your future self when you're wondering how far you can flex your morals and still feel OK in the right now.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We're currently hiring for a UX designer and a support agent in our Melbourne or Philadelphia offices.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Try our products Fastmail and Topicbox with a free 30-day trial
- Read more on our blog
- Follow @Fastmail and @BronGondwana on Twitter
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