Google, Apple, and other smartphone providers manage most Americans’ email at little or no extra charge while skimming data to share with advertisers.
That’s not for everyone. A handful of independent, low-fee email services have won fans among individual and small-business users. One of the longest-lived is Fastmail, which traces its roots to POBox.com (Pobox), an email service started in a West Philadelphia dorm room in 1995.
“It’s been interesting to have been in the email business for such a long time,” said Helen Horstmann-Allen, who cofounded Pobox with software developer Meng Weng Wong when they were University of Pennsylvania undergraduates. She now services as Fastmail’s chief operating officer from its U.S. headquarters at 2400 Market St. in Philadelphia. (Wong moved on to Silicon Valley and then his native Singapore and founded Legalese.com.)
The service, which lured users from Prodigy, AOL, and other internet dial-up connectors, at first cost $15 a year. (Standard Fastmail is now $5 a month.) It got enthusiastic early coverage in Wired magazine and was quickly turning a profit in those pre-Gmail, pre-Microsoft Outlook days.
Early users, Horstmann-Allen recalled, were techies who understood how email worked and sought a reliable provider they could reach on the phone. Later, customers focused on privacy, hoping to shield their communications data from big tech companies.
“It’s tough to compete with free,” she said. “But we can see now that ‘free’ service is costing us dearly. People want to be a customer, not the product.”
Controlling your online identity
Most recently, Horstmann-Allen said, Fastmail has attracted users who “are seeking to gain control of their identity.”
Identity — from email? “In a world of shifting reality, your email has become your electronic memory,” said Bron Gondwana, the company’s Australia-based chief executive.
The original Fastmail, an Australian email hosting service, bought Pobox in 2015 and changed the name of the service to match its own. It kept the Pobox brand for its email forwarding service and also offers TopicBox, a group email management service.
“The internet changes so fast,” Gondwana said. “You don’t know if an article you read online has changed from yesterday. But email doesn’t change. And that is becoming valuable. A lot of young people are now using email, not so much to communicate with people, but to save their information.”
Fastmail, which is self-funded and privately held, now claims 280,000 email accounts and a total of more than 400,000 users. Gondwana said that includes at least 100 people in each of more than 100 countries, with the largest group in the United States. The company also sells a growing list of communications services. It maintains its own servers — not relying on “cloud” servers from Amazon or other tech giants — at locations including sites in New Jersey and Washington State.
“We work with hardware,” Horstmann-Allen said. “We aren’t spinning your data in a cloud.”
The company employs 60 worldwide, including 25 in Philadelphia.
Horstmann-Allen said the service has attracted more small-business clients in recent years. “The difference between free and paid is when something happens to your Google account, you just about need a son who works at Google to straighten it out. Our support team is one of the best in the business.”
Google didn’t respond to queries about competition from independent providers. Companies such as Fastmail aren’t a threat to internet services that provide connectivity and many other services besides email: “Independent email providers don’t represent a competitive solution [vs.] Comcast Business; rather, these could be one of many communication and collaboration applications” a customer uses, said Matt Helmke, a Comcast spokesperson.
Last year, PC Magazine rated Fastmail the “best” service “for email geeks,” noting it has evolved from a “feature-rich tool for email nerds” to a tool “as simple and familiar as Gmail” with calendar, contacts, snooze warnings, and pinned notes.
The magazine by contrast praised rival ProtonMail, a larger, Swiss-based independent email service founded in 2014 — initially crowdfunded, its basic service is free — that is popular among software developers for offering an especially high level of “encryption and anonymity.”
Skiff.com, a 2-year-old, San Francisco-based email service, in an online comparison last spring called ProtonMail and Fastmail “the new and the old,” rating ProtonMail’s security as “more advanced” but gave Fastmail an edge for “more diverse features,” such as rich text search and storage for hundreds of aliases.
A focus on customer service
At least a few of Fastmail’s business users are hometown-proud Philadelphians. “When we opened our brick-and-mortar store in 2018 and we had to choose an email, we weren’t into the whole Google thing,” said Bill Rhoda, cofounder of Philadelphia Typewriter, a 10-person repair shop and parts maker on East Passyunk Avenue in South Philly.
“All the businesses around me are using Google — the spreadsheet, the drive, the email — but on my personal Gmail, there’s always huge amount of spam, just nonstop emails that have nothing to do with me or what I am interested in,” Rhoda said.
An early employee told him about Fastmail, and Rhoda got excited: “It wasn’t in the mainstream. It’s kind of this cult thing, and when I realized they were actually based in Philly, that was really cool.”
Rhoda signed his company up. “And now I don’t have spam issues. They are really good at registering what is spam based in my inbox and what I don’t what to see. I like that it allows me to focus on what I need to focus on.”
He also likes being able to call Fastmail and get help from human employees.
“We’re a scrappy start-up, and it’s great to be able to support a Philly-grown business, instead of one of the big guys,” said Samantha Wittchen, director of programs and operations at Circular Philadelphia, a Kensington recycling-system designer, which uses Fastmail, as do two other enterprises she helps lead.
When she started in business, Wittchen used email from her internet service. ”I was not loving that. A lot of spam got through,” she said. “There were filters, but it was difficult to set them up for people who were not super-tech-savvy.”
Checking Google’s email offerings, Wittchen said, “you had to figure it all out on your own. They have a knowledge base, they have instructions, you can map the servers; I know how to do that. But one of my business partners was struggling with Yahoo’s really clunky Web interface. Moving us all to Fastmail was so much easier.”
She especially likes that Fastmail makes it easy to set up free specialized email addresses and multiple accounts.
Horstmann-Allen said a career in email has taught her the value of multiple addresses. “They are a form of control,” she said. “I can give you different e-mails for Amazon or Apple [correspondence]. Give one to a politician, you discover very fast how quickly they share them” with fund-raisers.
“There are very few people I will give my phone number to,” she added. “With email, I can just block it.”