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TouchMail CEO Matthew Carlson.
TouchMail CEO Matthew Carlson.

A Seattle startup thinks there is a better way to manage email.

Founded in 2013 by two former Microsoft employees, TouchMail is a mobile and visual-focused app for Windows 8.1 and Windows 10 that takes advantage of touch interfaces to help people sort and view emails.

“At TouchMail, we think email should be as dynamic and creative as the people whose lives are invested in it,” said CEO and co-founder Matthew Carlson. “If people are organizing their lives by their email accounts, we want to organize their emails in a more interesting, natural, intelligent way. We’re passionate about helping people be more productive.”

TouchMail, currently part of the latest 9Mile Labs cohort in Seattle, differs from list-based email platforms by using colorful and visual tiles instead. The app, which supports Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo Mail, and other clients, has racked up more than one million downloads to date in the Windows Store.

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Before launching TouchMail, Carlson spent 12 years at Microsoft, where he helped lead teams working on products related to everything from search, messaging, and more.

He started TouchMail with Alexander Frank, another ex-Microsoft employee, though Frank is no longer at TouchMail and now works at VMware as a senior research and development manager.

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We caught up with Carlson for this installment of Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature.

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “We’ve created an email app optimized for touch devices that brings all your email accounts into one place. Messages are displayed as colorful ‘cards’ (instead of lists) that are easy to see and touch so users can save time managing their inbox, and stay focused since our app is always ad-free.”

Inspiration hit us when: “When I saw the first Surface, I knew then that productivity would change with this new class of two-in-one devices that had the added benefit of touch, which by then had already revolutionized smaller devices. I was passionate about improving email and saw a natural fit.”

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VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “Angel and bootstrap. That’s made it easier for us to enable our vision to this point as we prepare to scale the business now that we’ve gotten the product fit worked out.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “A unique visual interface and features that take into account that people process visuals faster and more intuitively than text. We use this to create a better email experience for our users, with features like one-touch delete, color-coded messages, and profile pictures in your mail. Users often tell us that TouchMail provides the fastest way to handle all their email accounts and get through cluttered inboxes.”

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Starting where we saw the market going. Windows 8 and the first Surface introduced many core scenarios around touch and 2-in-1 devices. This is now the only growing segment of the devices market, and Windows 10 just hit 400 million devices in a little over a year.

As those users continue looking at the Windows Store more and more for apps, we’re already positioned near the top, and have built a great relationship with Microsoft for promotion across their network. In fact we’ve already earned a spot in their collection of ‘essential apps for Windows 10’ along with great companies like Facebook, Twitter, Flipboard, and many more.”

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The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “While users spend more time on email — reading, writing, finding and organizing — on PCs, the majority of emails are scanned or opened on phones. In hindsight we should’ve found a way — even with very lean resources — to start testing our concepts on phones sooner. We did learn a lot about our users from our Windows version — their goals, what features and designs they like or don’t like — and have gotten our Android phone version together in much less time as a result, and will have it available in beta later this fall.”

Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Gates, the original tech pioneer whose vision has spanned decades. Gates has been my hero since I was a kid growing up in rural Minnesota. Getting to play tennis with Gates at his country club during my internship at Microsoft was a once-in-lifetime opportunity.”

Our favorite team-building activity is: “Getting things done. As a very small dedicated team we get a boost of momentum each time we ship a new release to our users.”

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “Self starters; driven people.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Plan for contingencies — everything will take much longer than you think. Get lots of advice from trusted mentors but make your own decisions.”

Editor’s note: GeekWire is featuring each of the startups in 9Mile Labs’ fall cohort. The companies will debut their final products at the Milestone9 Graduation Day event Oct. 13.

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