Email Is Still King: Why We Built a SaaS Company to Make It Even Better
Email, by itself, has obvious flaws as a collaboration tool. When multiple people are working together on something:
- You can’t easily share information (without CC’ing a giant list).
- You can’t track projects and statuses easily, especially when they involve multiple emails and people.
- You can’t discuss email threads privately (without starting discussions in multiple different apps or multiple email chains).
- You can’t automatically send sequences of emails and track stats.
The problem today is that tools that set out to solve these limitations, including many of the most popular project management, messaging and CRM applications, have in turn created new challenges.
Trello, Slack, Basecamp, Help Scout, Salesforce and HubSpot and hundreds of competitors have chosen to solve communication problems by giving users a totally separate channel in addition to email. But this introduces a new set of problems because users still have to defer to email:
- There are so many places to find information (“Was that in an email? Slack? Trello? Basecamp? …”). This data dispersion hurts productivity.
- We create elaborate webs of integrations to sync communication using tools like Zapier and IFTTT (Trello to email, Slack to Trello, email to Salesforce, and so on).
- Most communication outside of our immediate team members happens over email, which remains ubiquitous: clients, customers, vendors, and contractors still use email.
So, instead of making our lives simpler, the creation of these siloes has led to loss of productivity, tedium, and annoyance for people and teams.
In late 2016, recognizing that email is still king — that is, it’s still our default inbox and default communication hub, we asked a simple question:
What if there was a tool with project management, collaboration, private messaging, and sales automation features built inside of email?
We built it, and called it Gmelius.
We built Gmelius on top of Gmail (melius is Latin for “better”), since it’s the largest email client in the world, and wanted an experience that could solve these problems:
- Transparent or Private Communication – Have shared inboxes, delegate emails to people, transparently see who responded to what, or have private messages about email threads, schedule emails, and more.
- Project Management – What if we could have a project management system, like a Kanban board, right inside Gmail? No forwarding emails to an external system, no adding clients or vendors to a new platform.
- Sales Automation and CRM – What if sales teams (who live in their inboxes) could have a CRM inside their inbox? What if this tool also let them create sales email processes like drip or automation sequences, email scheduling, mail merge, and more? How convenient would that be?
This became our objective. We wanted to solve the problems with old fashioned 1-to-1 communication, but do it inside the inbox, not in 5 different apps.
Below we discuss each of these use cases and how we feel the user experience can be improved by staying inside your inbox.
Finally, in each section we discuss the specific product decisions we chose in Gmelius to solve each problem with native email.
1 – Email Collaboration: Why We Think Private and Public Communication Can and Should Stay Inside Email
Email has two collaboration shortcomings, on the opposite ends of the spectrum: no transparency if you want to share information (such as responding to a support request from a customer), and no private messaging if you want to keep certain messages private (like private comments about an email thread you don’t want a client to see).
Let’s discuss each of these use cases in turn.
One of the biggest shortcomings for teams using email is the lack of transparency. This is most evident in “help desk” or “ticketing” use cases:
For example, a customer reports a problem and you want to “assign” that email to a team member.
In traditional email, you forward that to the team member and hope for the best. They could cc: you on all emails but you’d get every response in your inbox. And what if anyone on your team wants to see the status? Then everyone has to be cc:ed — not practical.
If this happens multiple times a day, everyone’s inbox would explode into chaos.
One solution for this is help desk or ticketing software, but in talking to users, we found that other teams besides customer support also had this issue.
Agencies, for example, deal with this every day (client requests coming in via email, delegating these to team members, knowing the status of those tasks).
Agencies and other teams aren’t about to use expensive help desk software for all of their email.
Email of course, is where the inbound requests come in the first place, so we figured that with a few thoughtfully designed features, we could solve these transparent collaboration issues from within the inbox itself.
In Gmelius, you can set up “shared inboxes” and let multiple team members have access.
Then when an email comes in, anyone can simply assign it to a team member.
You can see which tickets are “unassigned” by clicking “unassigned” on the left-hand side by your regular inbox.
The “Activity Stream” and “Live Feed” dashboard on the right-hand side give you the most recent activity in live-time.
We also added other features for subtle transparency.
For example, if a team member is actively replying to an email, you can see their avatar with “…” underneath:
So now, teams get the power of help desk software, but keep the conversation inside email, no 3rd party tool required. This way, any team, not just customer support teams that buy help desk software, can benefit from transparency and delegation.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are private notes or messages.
The quintessential private messaging use case is discussing an email thread with a colleague… privately. Say in an agency, a client sends an email. Or for a sales team, a prospect sends an email. Everyone knows the need to discuss that email with your colleagues.
- “What should we say back?”
- “Do we have the data they asked for?”
- “Jen, can you send them the report by tomorrow?”
Email clients do not come native with a private messaging function, which is one of their core limitations.
Most users resort to one of 3 workarounds:
- They start a separate email thread. But this can snowball into thread on thread on thread. Causing confusion.
- They remove recipients and send private messages on the same thread. Which is equally confusing and risks sending a private message to the wrong person.
- They go off email and discuss on a messaging platform like Slack. This leads to problems we already mentioned of having to check a bunch of places to find a discussion.
What if you could send private messages about an email thread inside Gmail? You can! This is how we built it:
These notes are all made privately, and they happen just to the right of your normal inbox. The original sender never sees them, and only the team members you tag will be able to read it.
You can also tag multiple people so everyone you need can stay in the loop…privately.
Finally, any discussion that ensues stays attached to an email thread, so you don’t have to go hunting for information:
If you do need to find Gmelius notes, they are integrated into Gmails search function and easily found by: @mention, date, or a few words from the note.
It’s our belief that keeping this conversation in one place (the inbox, where most communication is anchored anyways) adds to productivity — and sanity.
2 – Why We Think Project Management Can and Should Happen Inside Email
One of email’s great limitations is that it was never originally meant to be used as a project management tool, and yet, many of us have tried to force it to be one.
We may be able to get away with simple things like using our inbox as a to-do list, but when you begin to introduce multiple players from your company, things get messy.
So, to solve this, we of course turn to project management software, such as Trello, Basecamp, Asana, and a bunch of others.
But from talking to customers, we’ve learned that this leaves them in an endless ping-pong routine between email and project management platforms.
These tools add extra layers of communication that live outside of email. So users have to keep up with messages there, while, at the same time, email remains the primary channel for both team members, and definitely for outside communication (clients, vendors, etc.).
From talking to customers we’ve learned of these unfortunate workarounds:
- They setup auto forward email addresses — to send most of their incoming email into project management apps like Trello.
- They set up notifications so all messages from, say, Basecamp, make it to their inbox so they can “make sure to see it”.
- They have one thread in their Project Management software about a project, then switch to email to communicate to the client (or contractors/freelance designers they hired for the task).
So, true to our mission of simplicity, we asked: What if there was a project management system, like a Kanban Board, built inside Gmail?
Gmelius does just this. We added Trello-like Kanban Boards to Gmail to make managing to-do lists simpler, bringing the business’s project management conversations back to the inbox.
When your project management system lives inside Gmail, it means turning an email into a “card” on the Kanban board is super simple.
Just one click gives you this dropdown on any email:
You don’t even have to open an email to send it to the board.
We also added other simple, subtle, project management features besides Kanban boards such as synchronized shared labels to organize emails.
This is handy if you want anyone on the team to see emails organized by client or project:
3 – Can Sales Teams Be More Productive by Staying in One App?
We think sales teams have the most to gain from reducing switching costs from other apps and their inbox.
They consider it a burden. And they should. The majority of their work is in email. They are constantly in their inbox.
In addition, many sales teams have to use a 3rd party outbound email automation program as well.
So their work life ends up looking like this:
- Stay on top of their inbox to keep discussions going.
- Schedule new campaigns, check open and click rates, and tweak sequences in a 3rd party app.
- Then make sure everything is also updated in Salesforce or their CRM.
That’s a lot of app juggling and it’s not productive.
We dared to ask these questions and have built these features into Gmelius. Let’s look at the user experience we chose for each use case.
Sales Automation in Gmail
First, we wanted sales reps to be able to do all the fundamentals in sending, tracking, and iterating on outbound email campaigns from right inside Gmail, no expensive outside application required.
We fundamentally believe you shouldn’t have to leave your inbox to do this.
Mail merge is a simple task that normally requires expensive sales software or cumbersome “hacks” to do it inside Gmail. We wanted to make it easy.
You can upload a CSV of contacts:
Assign variables for fields like ‘First Name’, ‘Company’, and whatever else you want to customize:
Write the email template and decide what date/ time you’d like to send it:
It’s that simple!
Normally, mail merge history and stats involve an archaic collection of spreadsheets, files, and one off notes, or worse, just Gmail history.
We wanted to make this easy as well, so we built a simple history page in the Gmelius dashboard so you can see what’s been sent, existing drafts, and analytics for each campaign:
Now what if we combined this with the Gmelius collaboration features that we built right into Gmail?
That’s when the joy of staying in your inbox, even when you collaborate with the team, really kicks in.
You can store templates and add them right from the Gmail compose window. We wanted this to feel completely native.
As sales reps tweak and improve emails, they can also share templates and discuss their changes with anyone on the team—all within Gmail:
These chats happen right inside the Gmail interface and are attached to the specific template being discussed. No more emailing Word files between multiple people or sending Google Doc links in separate Slack threads.
Boards as a Visual Sales Pipeline Inside Gmail
You can also use the boards feature of Gmelius as a visual sales pipeline:
Typically, each card on the board is a prospect, and has attached to it:
- All outbound messages to them
- All email replies they sent
- Private notes between the team
- Delegation information (like who is in charge of the next step).
For many sales teams (or founders doing sales themselves) Gmelius boards can be their entire CRM. Most teams use only a tiny fraction of their CRM’s capabilities and even then, as we mentioned earlier, they struggle to keep it up to date. They prefer to work from their inbox.
So, it’s our belief that building in CRM features to your inbox is the best of both worlds: it lets you keep the essential features of a CRM (to see where leads are in the pipeline and next step of each) while making it ridiculously easy to keep up to date because you don’t have to switch programs.
For those still using Salesforce or other CRMs, we also support integration with popular CRMs.
Advanced Features for Sales Teams
Because sales teams are such heavy users of advanced email features, we built a few additional features that let them have a complete experience in terms of getting their outreach work done in their inbox.
First, they can build shareable sequences with any combination of “If/Then” logic they choose from right inside their Gmelius dashboard:
“If/Then” sequencing can be set up to follow up with potential leads:
We wanted to make sending these sequences as simple as composing a new email in Gmail. So we let you do it from right inside the compose window (the left tab):
We truly believe this is transformative for sales rep productivity because they don’t have to deal with switching back and forth between email and sales automation software.
Sequences can be shared with relevant team members. Even analytics can be seen from inside Gmelius, down to managers being able to see which team member’s outreach is getting the best results:
How Does Productivity Change If We Modernize Email and Recognize Its Importance?
Like I said at the beginning, our central thesis at Gmelius is that the mailbox remains the central communication hub (the “most important browser tab” if you will) for a huge fraction of knowledge workers.
Email, in its traditional state — one off messages between two individuals — is obviously inadequate for what teams need today.
But the solution presented to us so far — juggling between a handful of different workplace apps like project management, instant messaging, CRMs, and sales automation — is also lacking.
So what would happen if you could transform your inbox and give it all the collaboration, messaging, project management, and automation features modern teams need? Would productivity increase? Would results for sales teams and agency teams improve? Would happiness improve?
We dared to ask these questions at Gmelius. Now you can try it and be the judge yourself.