Email Intelligence

I am in my second decade as a board member on several companies. It doesn't happen often in the VC business, at least my VC business, because I get off the boards of companies that go public or are headed there shortly. The percentage of portfolio companies that don't shut down, sell, or go public within a decade of their initial VC investment is low. But the ones that make it into their second decade without an exit are special in many ways. They have staying power, an ability to evolve and grow, and a culture that is built to last.

The company in that group that this community is most familiar with is Return Path. Executives from Return Path, including its founder and CEO Matt Blumberg, have written guest posts here a few times. Return Path has reinvented itself three or four times in its history. And yesterday they did it again. They are now the global leader in email intelligence. They actually have been that for quite a while. But they gave themselves that label yesterday.

What is email intelligence? Well in Matt's words, it is:

[Emailers] are struggling with two core problems that complicate their decision making: They have access to so much data, they can’t possibly analyze it fast enough or thoroughly enough to benefit from it; and too often they don’t have access to the data they really need.

Meanwhile they face new challenges in addition to the ones email marketers have been battling for years. It’s still hard to get to the inbox, and even to monitor how much mail isn’t getting there. It’s still hard to protect brands and their customers from phishing and spoofing, and even to see when mail streams are under attack. And it’s still hard to see engagement measurements, even as they become more important to marketing performance.

Our solution to these problems is email intelligence. Email intelligence is the combination of data from across the email ecosystem, analytics that make it accessible and manageable, and insight that makes it actionable. 

In connection with the new reformation of their company's mission and position in the market, Return Path launched or relaunched three products yesterday. The one that is truly groundbreaking in my opinion is called Inbox Insight. Think of its as ComScore for Email. If you want to know how your mail is doing compared to your competitors across a number of key metrics like engagement, inbox placement, spam complaint rates, etc, you can learn all of that and more with Inbox Insight.

Starting, building, and running companies is hard work. I know this because I see it in the eyes and wrinkles of the people I work with every day. But building a lasting, evolving, growing, and market leading company is a terrific feat. I want to congratulate Matt and the team at Return Path, most of whom have been there as long as I have, on a big day yesterday and a great new tagline, mission, and market position. Well done.

#VC & Technology#Web/Tech

Comments (Archived):

  1. jason wright

    “Return Path has reinvented itself three or four times in its history.”Is this linked to why you are still on the board, that it hasn’t defined its identity to sell or go public?

    1. fredwilson

      i think Return Path will eventually go public and at that time my run will be over. but they are taking their time and focusing on building a business and a culture that is built for the long term. and i admire that.

  2. RichardF

    A good move, Amazon SES, despite the critics in the early days is getting better and like all Amazon products will get even better (I am really liking cloud player since it’s been released in the UK). They have driven email sending rates lower. So price is not something to try and compete on. Fortunately for Return Path, at the moment, analysis is not something they are concentrating on and there is a premium value in that.

    1. fredwilson

      yup. return path has never been in the sending business. they have always focused on value added services that mailers need but senders don’t provide.

  3. William Mougayar

    Who are their target clients? As a startup, we use Amazon’s SES (it’s free), and MailChimp (it’s cheap), although thinking about moving to SendGrid. MailChimp provides analytics. Should we be looking at ReturnPath?

    1. mattb2518

      Yes! We work with companies of all sizes who use any ESP or deployment engine, and we have lots of clients in common with all of those companies. Email me separately, and I will connect you — [email protected].

      1. William Mougayar

        Thanks Matt. Will do.

  4. heuristocrat

    I’d say they are onto something. Services like SES and SendGrid are enabling a new way to think about email. While the”transactional” label is popular I think it goes much deeper. In fact email can be the I/O for a kind of intelligence platform around customers and content. That’s cool. For fun check out the SciFi book Avogadro. (I think Brad Feld talked about it and it’s a fun romp with an email intelligence at the core.)

    1. Abdallah Al-Hakim

      I just had a looked at Avogadro on Amazon and have added it to my reading list 🙂

  5. Dan Lewis

    If you’re not in the email sector, analysis is SO needed. My side project is an email newsletter. Here’s a graph of my open rates for the last 30 days or so, below.You’ll see a dip on August 21st. On that date, my open fell to about 24%. Otherwise, I’m hovering around 40-42%. And … we have almost no idea what happened, let alone *why* it happened.This happens once every month or two. It’s frustrating for a day or so because troubleshooting it is a fool’s errand, as above, but what if it’s something fundamental? If that’s the case, it will happen tomorrow, and the next day, etc. And I really don’t want that.(That’s happened to me where I got hit three days out of five. I had used links in the email, mostly out of laziness, and some email providers were blocking it.)So man, I hope this works (and that I can afford it!).

    1. fredwilson

      affording it is the key issue for small mailers. i think SMB is a big opportunity for Return Path but they need to make some changes to their products for this market to work for them.

      1. mattb2518

        We have plenty of small clients – but we don’t have a free or s$10/month product – yet. Dan, contact me separately and I will connect you – [email protected].

        1. brian trautschold

          +1 for being the ceo who gets on and actually answers comments & interacts with people/ potential users/ whomever… i always appreciate this kind of interaction

          1. mattb2518

            Thanks, Brian!

    2. Mark Essel

      Dan, if you try out a product from Return Path I’d like to hear how it turns out (I’d prefer not to have to subscribe to read that one post though 🙂

    3. ShanaC

      I would be looking on a week over week basis for more patterns – a weird dip is nothing to be concerned about

  6. Tom Labus

    Congrats to Return Path for enduring this long as a relevant company.Email is a cornerstone to so many people’s daily business and personal activity.Do another decade or more!!

  7. Nate Quigley

    I’m inspired by @mattblumberg:disqus and his team.”Conceive an idea. Then stick to it. Those who hang on are the only ones who amount to anything.” – Augustus Saint-Gaudin

  8. JamesHRH

    I have a new startup concept…..founders should think ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’.- what could be done in this space (technical possibilities stage)- what would people actually do (category acceptance / adoption stage)- what should they do in this space (leading solution stage)Sounds like Matt has is heading into the third stage, after (I assume) leading the industry through the first two.FWIW: email intelligence – to a B2C user like me – makes me think sorting & filters.

  9. Denim

    Curious to hear your thoughts on sustainability of email, in light of this post & your sustainability initiative. We all have work email, which we all know isn’t ‘ours’ and it goes away when the employment does. We all have at least one personal email address and I believe most of the world has very important emails archived and they believe they will have their personal account for their whole life – but there is no guarantee, we’ve seen email providers come and go or preferences change yet we haven’t had the tool for an average lifetime & I personally believe nothing will replace email as a productivity tool completely.

    1. fredwilson

      i think email is one of the most sustainable services on the internet. as much as i hate it personally, i don’t think it is going away any time soon

  10. Andy

    What was return path’s initial business when it started 10+ years ago?

    1. Jacob Rideout

      Email change of address. At the time, free webmail services (like hotmail, gmail & yahoo) weren’t that big or didn’t exist. Most users used a local, small ISP that provided them an email account. Such as [email protected]. But when people physically moved or just changed providers, such as to [email protected] or [email protected] all the email subscription you’ve signed up for would be lost. The business was sold to FreshAddress:

      1. fredwilson


  11. Dave Hendricks

    Congrats on sustainability and owning your market, Matt. I’ve been following Return Path since the earliest days and what Matt’s built is the definition of what Fred has referred to as a Default Service.For those on the thread who have questions about the future of email, all you need to do is look around you and you will quickly realize that the one app you use in common with all of your friends, family, clients and colleagues is….drum roll please….email. The Secret Weapon of not just Social but of global business productivity. And email intelligence and delivery is a key part of that ecosystem.I have tons of friends who have been at the company for years, total testimony to great culture. Not all startups need to be short-lived fireflies.

    1. G. Simms Jenkins

      Amen Dave and congrats to Matt and the RP team. Certainly, a testament to email marketing’s staying power and functionality as the backbone of all digital marketing. The companies that not just embrace email but elevate it have significant market opportunities.

    2. Ken Takahashi

      Thanks Dave! Appreciate the honesty and continued support!~Ken (one of the ‘friends who have ben at the company for years’ Dave referenced)

  12. leigh

    We are in the middle of a writing a partnership agreement with a crm company. i’ve said this to them, and i’ll say it to Return Path, if you don’t figure out a way to overlay unstructured social data, someone else will. Email ties into community, actionable data and social etc.will be the intelligence people are looking for.Interested to see where Return Path is going in this landscape.

  13. LE

    Attached is something that Matt’s sales team can use when selling their phising protection products. It’s an example of what a competitor is doing that is pretty laughable.The email that we received (as a registrar) is for a customer of ours who apparently had their WP installation compromised. The page in question was acting to phish info from Capital One clients. (Our customer is a legitimate company.)In this case RSA sends out an email asking us to take down the site and provide them with copies of any records (read the email that they sent).As if.This email did come from RSA (headers proved that) but of course it’s incredible that they have a service where they are protecting a client and send out simple emails (with no follow up) and believe that someone is going to act on that. Perhaps a phone call or postal letter might have been a step in the right direction.We can call their product “protection theater” (ref to Bruce Schnier’s “security theater”).As an aside not a week goes by that someone doesn’t attempt to register a domain that is obviously going to be used for phising. These are quite easily identified and blocked.

    1. Ken Takahashi

      Hi LE,I am the GM of Return Path’s Anti-Phishing Solutions. I would love to get more insight into this (the image is a little hard to read). Feel free to email me at your convenience so we can get better acquainted. Thanks for reaching out.mailto:[email protected]

      1. LE

        Just sent you the email. By the way if you click on the image it gets larger.@disqus – I’ve seen this happen before (where someone doesn’t know to click on an image). It might be a good idea to put an icon on top of each image not just on fly over.

  14. Cam MacRae

    Inbox Insight looks quite interesting. Flicked the fact sheet to mate of mine whose business is heavily invested in email to see what he thinks.

    1. fredwilson


  15. Max Yoder

    I’ve heard great things about Return Path from the folks at ExactTarget. Congrats to them on the reformation.

  16. Dave Pinsen

    I wonder if there will be some consolidation in this niche soon — maybe Return Path will acquire ToutApp?

  17. Jselby1

    Hi Fred,I wondered with all the data you have access to from the USV portfolio would you ever consider creating a research house looking at all that data to try and observe and predict how users behaviors / attitudes / engagement is shifting and evolving over time across the ecosystem. Even if this was from an academic standpoint rather than one to be used for future investments, I imagine having access to so much data from so many different sources would open fantastic learning and earning opportunities.For example, being able to look at how the Duolingo audience interacts with the site and it’s offerings compared with the Edmodo audience. Or how accurate the analytics from Flurry are when looking at data from HeyZap or FourSquare. Or how the messaging / layout in code academy alters users behavior compared with Skillshare.Just a thought….

    1. fredwilson

      we do that for ourselves but we don’t share it publicly

  18. Seth Lieberman

    Starting a company is hard. “Restarting” an existing company is 10x harder- but of course a guy like Matt can pull it off.

  19. Techman

    I know one thing: Disqus should NEVER get sold. Daniel Ha and Jason Yan do a good job at running the company, in addition to their employees. I know that they make money, but I also don’t want them reverting to Google like tactics such as selling data for a profit. Such a exploitation of a user’s privacy.As a VC, you expect to get your investment back. Disqus should never revert to the two options mentioned above. While this is not the main topic of this article, I thought I should say that 🙂

    1. fredwilson

      there are other ways to get liquid than selling the company

      1. Techman

        Liquid? Are you talking about money?Subject: [avc] Re: Email Intelligence

        1. fredwilson


  20. mister_ed

    Not too familiar with Return Path. What sets them apart from an industry player like ExactTarget?

    1. fredwilson

      exact target sends mailreturn path provides analytics, insight, and intelligence for the mailer that the sender can’t provide because they aren’t plugged into all the points in the ecosystem

  21. Dave Lee

    Hi Fred, I was wondering if the companies who are 10+ years old feel pressure to exit (either sell or IPO) so that their investors can realize their returns? Also what’s your stance towards these companies? Are you hands off regarding exit timing or do you remind these companies they need to inch closer to an exit scenario?

    1. fredwilson

      yes they do and that’s a problem. we try to be patient. it helps them and it helps us too.

  22. antonber

    I’d like to see if I am the only person who has been more frustrated by ReturnPath than impressed. They have a monopoly on the email deliverability game, taking a tax merely because they are the only white list provider to have a good relationship with Hotmail and Yahoo. Given that we are paying $50k/year to be on a whitelist (which is not at all guaranteed by payment of the fee), the level of customer service has been surprisingly bad — when we have an issue with SRD or some other painfully opaque metric, the only value-add that Returnpath has provided is a PDF on how to improve SRD.To me, Returnpath would not exist without their relationship with Hotmail/Yahoo. I would love for Hotmail/Yahoo to enable another player to compete with Returnpath by establishing a similarly good relationship with them.That being said, Returnpath’s gross margins must be insane, so kudos to them. It’s likely that the reason they haven’t gone public and that board members haven’t been leaving is because they are paying out dividends like crazy. I’m not sure that they would look to IPO until they have a model that is less dependent on Hotmail and a margin profile that is less unbelievable.

    1. fredwilson

      whitelist is only one of about seven different services they provide. so to say Return Path would not exist without their relationship with Yahoo and Hotmail is wrong and naive. trash away on this thread, but when you do i would love it if you actually had your facts straight

      1. antonber

        I am not meaning to trash, but rather voice my frustration with what appears to be a monopolistic service. Though I’m sure you can’t disclose what percentage of revenue is derived from the whitelist, can you disclose if it is a majority of revenue?

        1. fredwilson

          not even close. the inbox monitor which helps you figure out where you have deliverability problems is the flagship product.

  23. Jon Tucker

    I share your appreciation for entrepreneurs who have the passion & commitment to “build a lasting, evolving, growing, and market leading company.” I also admire their passion and laser focus on making e-mail communication more effective (despite many other new shiny tech developments. I’m wondering though how their latest products can give us more intelligence about mobile marketing emails.