Email Reborn

Email Reborn

For his next act, software visionary Pat Sullivan leads the charge to save business owners from drowning in e-purgatory

By Kimberly Hundley  |  Photos by Sam Nalven

If like most of the corporate workforce you spend one-third of your day managing email, you likely snicker at snarky predictions of email’s impending death.

If only, right?

That’s not to say, though, that email isn’t broken—which is why so many of us are flailing about our cluttered inboxes trying to make them perform what software visionary Pat Sullivan calls “unnatural acts.”

Sullivan, cofounder and CEO of Airpark-based tech venture Contatta, is determined to fix email to match the needs of modern-day, collaborative businesspeople. Think of email as an innocent Sleeping Beauty who’s been snoozing alongside Rip Van Winkle on the communication highway while Facebook, Twitter and texting zipped by. She’s just as nifty as the day she was born, and gosh darn it, we like her. It’s not her fault this relationship has grown stale.

“Email is great at what it was designed to do!” Sullivan says. “It’s a great tool for one-on-one communication. It’s everybody’s core application. But it’s 20 years old, and it hasn’t really changed in 20 years. And because we ‘live there,’ we force it to do things it wasn’t meant to do.”

Namely: collaborate with multiple players, create tasks, act as a filing system, and manage contacts. Those are the four biggies that just about everybody who uses email has cleverly improvised around, and those are the four wishes granted by Contatta, the first email client with full contact management built in.

Think of Sullivan, then, as the prince who awakens Sleeping Beauty to a world where internal emails disappear and inbox traffic plummets by 60 percent, among a plethora of other productive scenarios.

Sullivan has a platinum track record when it comes to feeling the pain of a technical shortcoming and inventing a solution. As the founder of ACT! customer relationship management software in 1987, he’s credited with essentially creating the CRM category. He followed that up with SalesLogix contact management software a decade later, selling both companies for nearly $400 million, according to the Phoenix Business Journal. He’s twice been named Ernst & Young “Entrepreneur of the Year,” and just a couple weeks ago was selected to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Governor’s Celebration of Innovation in Arizona.

But Contatta, says Sullivan, is going to be his best deal yet, thanks to $8 million in investments and three years of development—a rare luxury for startups, and a boon for users who like their software fast and kink-free.

Just this summer, the public was invited to try the beta version of Contatta for free. The official rollout is slated for October or November, but even then, any company or individual can sign on for a 30-day trial. If you fall in love with the platform, cost is $10 per month per user, and you can invite an unlimited number of guests to Workrooms at no charge. It only takes a few minutes (sometimes less) to sign in current email accounts and begin using Contatta as your client; all email actions are mirrored, so the transfer bears no risk if you change your mind.

Think Outside the Inbox

Just what does Contatta do that Outlook and Gmail can’t?

It brings all your tasks, contacts files, emails and team collaboration into a more productive inbox, explains Sullivan, who likens the application to having the project management tool Basecamp right in your email.

For example, users can create Workrooms to share info, comment, leave time-saving “likes” and improve communication across teams. It takes just a few second to create and name a Workroom, and then invite coworkers or guests outside the company to join via email. That Workroom then becomes a dedicated place where parties exchange communication rather than continuing to email and copy each other. They can leave files for group perusal, post emails to the room (while within an email, with just one click), assign tasks, tag each other to get alerts, assign due dates, brainstorm projects in real-time discussion threads and more.

“We turn emails into discussions as opposed to discussing an email inside an email,” says Sullivan. Shepherding dedicated topics and groups to a workroom also prevents what Sullivan calls “reply-all hell,” where a coworker, for instance, sends information to 20 people and they all start replying to one another.

Contatta’s contact management—as you would expect from SalesLogix alums—is also garnering rave reviews. For instance, you can click a “create contact” option in an email and cut and paste the person’s signature into a drop-down window that instantly fills the fields. The system also automatically scans the Internet for possible social media connections to the contact, allowing you to select LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter accounts to flesh out the profile.

“In Outlook and Gmail there really isn’t a place to put notes from previous conversations [within a contact], or say, ‘Here is what I need to get back to you about,’” Sullivan adds.

In Contatta, users can create a task within a contact—as well as in a Workroom—that includes specific notes, alerts, due dates and files. Another nifty feature is that within a given contact, you can elect to see every email, file or task you ever shared with them, all neatly presented in whichever list you choose to view.

The inventory of “good stuff” in Contatta is hard to describe, says Marcus Krieg, directory of marketing strategy for WireBuzz in the Airpark. “It’s one of those things that unfortunately you have to see because you don’t know how much your life sucks using email until you use Contatta and see how it can simplify that,” Krieg says. “The pain point is latent—you don’t know you have it yet.”

WireBuzz, which creates strategic marketing videos, is a creative group that once relied on Basecamp to help in managing projects and creating task lists. “Contatta takes that a step further by integrating with your email,” Krieg says, explaining that if he wanted to share emailed information on a Basecamp project, he’d have to constantly copy his team and import it into the app. “On Contatta, you just hit a button on your email and it shares it to the Workroom.”

Another favorite of Krieg’s is the ability to be in a Workroom with others at the same time and essentially instant message people on the team.

Aly Saxe, CEO of Ubiquity PR in Phoenix, says Workrooms have taken the place of other meetings, which is always a good thing.

“What I like best is the organization factor,” she says. “You can find exactly what you need to find when you need to find it—whether it’s a person, a contact or a conversation you’ve been having with a single contact. I was one of those people who had a million folders and now I don’t have any. It works really well because of the way Contatta is laid out.”

To business owners who are on the fence about giving Contatta a try, Saxe says it’s a no-brainer.

“It’s extremely easy to get up and running. It’s going to save you a lot of time and improved productivity, especially if you have a small team,” she says. “Try it. If you don’t like it, you can always go back to whatever traditional, boring email you were using to begin with.”