Building the best group email for teams – an interview with our COO

Topicbox launched in August 2017 and since then we’ve been busy creating the best group email product we can for teams, whatever that team looks like.

We recently sat down with Helen Horstmann-Allen, Topicbox COO and Head of Product to talk about the history of Topicbox, the future of email and how group email can help a wide range of teams be more productive and organized than ever before.

Helen has worked in tech and email for more than 20 years and is still in love with email today.

Firstly, tell us a bit about your background in email and tech?

Helen: I got started with Pobox, which is an email forwarding service (and now part of the FastMail family) in 1995, the world’s first lifetime email address, and having ‘one address for life’ was our initial concept.

And like many companies, we started getting feedback from customers right away asking us for more features they wish we would add. And a very early feature request was group email, colloquially known as ‘listserves’.

The most popular open source product at that point in time was a program called MajorDoMo, and so launched in early 1996. We had tons of people sign up for it and we very quickly decided that it actually should be its own product, Listbox, which we launched late in 1996.

Listbox is still around today, but it went through many iterations. Initially it was just people who wanted to talk to each other, over email, which was so novel back then!

Over time we expanded the service offering to include email marketing and newsletters, but my first passion was always the group email product.

I think email is a tool that everybody has access to. It is one of the only pieces of technology that is almost truly universal. It’s accessible to almost everyone and when you talk about the value of email as a discussion tool it’s incredibly inclusive.

In 2015 I sold my business (which had created Pobox and Listbox) to FastMail and when we started talking about what we could do together, group email was one of the first things we both thought sounded like a really interesting idea.

Listserves have been around for a very, very, very long time. They are one of the foundational technologies of the internet, but nobody does them really well. And we thought what a great opportunity. If we could make a great group email solution, could we change the way people use all their email?

After quite a bit of work and many iterations we launched Topicbox. Topicbox was originally built to serve people at a pretty large size and as we started working on it, and we started testing it with people, we discovered that in fact even very small groups can get a lot of benefit out of group email.

What were some of the other challenges in creating Topicbox?

Helen: Email is one of those technologies that people love to hate. There’s a lot of challenges in it and most of them have to do not with the sending of email but the receiving and the organizing.

There are always the clients, or the products or the projects that you absolutely positively need to hear everything about the moment it happens. There are other things where you just need to kind of know stuff is going on but you don’t need to be interrupted by it all day long. And then there are plenty of projects that other people are working on, you need to be aware of maybe and you might need access to it in the future but you don’t need to actually see it now.

If Topicbox could take all that information – some of which you get today and you’re frustrated with; and lots of which you don’t get today and then you don’t have that information when you need it – and put it one place that everyone in your organization can share then how much of your team’s best knowledge could we make accessible to you?

How can Topicbox help teams communicate better?

Helen: In many ways using Topicbox is just like using your regular email. The only difference is instead of sending it one-to-one, or CCing a whole group of people, you send it to your group.

The group can be predefined, either by you when you create it, or by someone else who is running the project, and that’s really it. You still send the same information but you get it to the right audience.

I use Topicbox just by myself sometimes, just for one-to-one correspondence because I know that some day, someone besides me is going to need to read it and it is somewhere they can now get at it.

We use it for groups of two or three people. Instead of some people getting CCd on some messages and not others and they have an incomplete history … a Topicbox group lets you have a complete history for everyone to see, even if they end up joining a project later.

And then of course for big groups it makes perfect sense. You don’t want to have to have your ‘All company’ messages in one place, you want to have one central tool that you use for everything.

Where does Topicbox sit amongst a suite of modern communication tools such as more traditional email, instant messaging and CRMs?

Helen: Topicbox is something that almost every company who uses email can use. If in your company today you CC people then you probably should be using Topicbox.

Imagine Topicbox as a tool to put the control and the flow of messages into the hands of the people who receive it.

Chat is terrific, but it’s kind of like a replacement for a telephone call or walking by a group. When you have a really active chat platform it can feel like reading a transcript of everything that happened in your office over the course of a day. That’s too much information for lots of people. And it’s not a great way to get oversight over an organization.

If you feel overwhelmed by the volume of chat, moving your important discussions up to Topicbox is a wonderful solution and a great add-on to those existing tools.

But if you’re using regular email in almost any way, if you ever CC somebody, a Topicbox group is going to help you retain that information in a more useful, more searchable and more categorized way. And that helps when you bring more people on, it helps when you transition people out, it helps when you start up a new project and it helps when you retire that project.

You can say all that information is now gone to one contained place and we’ll start a new group to discuss a new thing and we don’t have to have our history backlog littered with information about old projects that you get when you’re re-using a lot of tools.

What’s your favourite Topicbox feature?

Helen: I love the Daily Summary! I love getting one message that I can quickly skim through and just see what other people are working on who aren’t necessarily my department, or aren’t necessarily in my team. It’s definitely not what I am working on but it gives me a little oversight into what everybody else has got going on, and [gives me insights] if something important is happening in an area of the company that I’m not dealing with.

I also love organization-wide search. Who hasn’t found themselves in the position of knowing that something has been discussed, not necessarily knowing where to look for it? Topicbox helps you find what you are looking for and then immediately places you in the context where you can also see what else has happened around there very, very quickly.

How else has Topicbox improved your own business communication?

Helen: One of my favourite places to use it is with clients. When you are dealing with any type of external organization you may have one, two or three different touchpoints there and you may also have multiple people on your staff who need to deal with them.

Creating a Topicbox group is a really easy way to make sure that everybody is on the same page all the time.

Do you use Topicbox through the web browser, mobile or your email program?

Helen: I started out using Topicbox almost exclusively through email and as time went on I found myself more often going to the website and using the Message Composer to respond to old threads.

And what’s great about that is then I know I can just go back to my inbox and throw away everything because now I know it’s in Topicbox so I don’t have to hold onto it myself.

What is planned for Topicbox in 2018?

Helen: We’ve got some big things planned so stay tuned! I can’t share anything just yet but we’re currently looking at more ways to make Topicbox even better for teams.

We also love hearing from our customers, so if you have any feedback or feature wishes please let us know via Twitter or contact us directly.

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