Interview: Why businesses need to change the way they think about email

With the growing emergence and adoption of business messaging apps, 2016 might be the year that email finally evolves. Henn Ruukel, former engineer of Skype and now CEO of Fleep - a business messaging app, discusses why business operational culture needs to adapt to meet user-demand and how messaging communication apps can be used to help businesses become more efficient and evolve workplace habits.

You’ve worked in the communications market for some time – how has the landscape evolved?

The landscape has evolved and will continue to evolve for sure; looking back over the last decade we can see how voice calling has turned into video calling, which has become a commodity available on all platforms for free. When Skype launched it was a revolution, and today it is part of our everyday life and a widely accepted form of business communication.

Sometimes I wonder how we could measure how much this has affected the airline industry as it saves a lot of flying! Another big change in the communication market that is currently ongoing is in text based communication - 5 years ago it was almost dominated by emails and SMS, but today we are seeing lot of new players entering the market and eating email and SMS’ market share. WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Telegram have replaced a lot of SMS traffic and revenues, while email is being disrupted by business messengers like Fleep, Slack, HipChat and others. Email is still huge compared to any new business messengers, but the transition has started and we will see interesting times ahead :)

What key successes and challenges have you experienced working in this space?

While working at Skype, we had pretty much two main challenges: how to scale to cope with such huge user demand and how to manage legacy telecom regulations. I think in Fleep, one of our biggest challenges has been and will be changing peoples’ habits and business culture. Email has been part of business culture for a long time, which has created an email etiquette that has needed to evolve or change to become business messaging etiquette. We are building Fleep by focusing on users’ smooth transition from email, which automatically creates a cultural clash between those two worlds, so we need to find ways to mitigate those clashes. Just one example is the email signature – in the email world it has become almost standard to attach colorful email signatures with pictures and logos - we have decided we don’t support that in Fleep and expect users to use short and plain text signatures, which saves everyone’s attention and time.

There’s been relatively little innovation when it comes to email, but yet people seem to hate it – what are the key issues here?

I think email hate is twofold: Firstly there is the “spam” issue - messages we would have preferred not to receive, ever. Email’s biggest value lies in its openness - anyone can email anyone - which also leads to lot of “spam”. The only subset of this is technically real spam, where the majority of it is from services and people we know, thus legitimate, but just unwanted from the receiver’s perspective. Secondly – there is the issue of a lack of control over conversation - email by its nature is message-centric and does not naturally have support for “conversation” - this leads to broken experiences if we try to use email for conversations. If new people are added to the email thread it easily leads to multiple threads where some people are missing part of the conversation. Also - there is no way to leave the conversation but to keep begging others not to include you anymore in their replies. Eventually this leads to an overload of messages which are grouped together in a hard to consume view for the user, which leads to natural frustration like any communication barrier. In Fleep conversations we can solve these issues because we are using new, conversation-centric technology. For Fleep email integration, we are trying to solve some of those issues but we cannot solve them all, as we too are also limited to email’s technology limitations.

Is there a lot of competition in the market in terms of messaging apps?

There is for sure and I am very happy to see that. This is natural for any evolving market and as the text messaging market is still evolving and has not yet matured we will continue to see new players entering the market. I think the consumer mobile messaging market which started earlier is showing signs of maturity, while the business messaging market is still in early days and email is still dominating the world by far. Over the last few years HipChat and Slack have challenged company internal email communication - now Fleep and hopefully others will challenge cross-organisation and cross-team email. Competition is very useful as it helps to eventually deliver the best possible solution for users.

Why do businesses need to change the way they think about email, and do you think they will?

I think businesses should think of email as a good service for one-way communication (newsletters, invoicing, notifications, announcements) but they should be looking for new tools and services to move their conversations away from email - this shift will save a lot of time and focus for their employees and makes them thus more effective and less frustrated. It’s worth noting however that messengers, if used wrongly can consume even more peoples’ time than email did – it happens when people and teams don’t manage their messenger habits and culture. General business messaging culture hasn’t yet matured, thus misuse can happen more easily and people should look out for that. Tools like Fleep will do their best to support them in shaping their habits and maintaining their focus, but in the end this is in the hands of users.

Communication is a fundamental part of the business process - how easy is it for CIOs and directors to switch up the tools being used?

Any centrally managed process change in an organisation is a hard task and my advice to CIOs is that rather than centrally enforcing the switch to Fleep or any other messenger, to instead support end-user driven transition. In usual Fleep deployments we see a pattern of small sub-teams within an organisation starting to use Fleep and then growing from there. Fleep’s email integration supports this, allowing members to be added as email participants that can convert to Fleep users at any point if they like or continue participating over email. This allows CIO’s to become advisors on chat culture and etiquette, which is as crucial an element as choosing which messengers to use.

Henn Ruukel, CEO and Co-Founder, Fleep

Image Credit: Pavel Ignatov/ Shutterstock