The perfect storm of a boring pitch came together in my inbox the other day. A startup called HelloSign that offers a mundane enterprise task — legal document signing online — had a new feature that no one in the world would care about — integration with Google Docs. It’s the sort of pitch reporters find themselves falling asleep halfway through reading, hitting the delete button with their nose as they pass out on their laptops.
But in this case my eye was caught. A search of my inbox proved that I had used HelloSign at a pivotal moment in my life: When I accepted my staff reporter offer letter with Pando.
Infrastructure companies like HelloSign are intriguing despite their dull outer appearance. They may not be revolutionizing the web or transforming the way we communicate. But they’re using technology to make the grim, exhausting tasks of paperwork a tad less painful.
“File storage was unsexy before Dropbox. Back in the day it was just — I mean — file storage,” HelloSign’s founder Joseph Walla tells me. It’s a good point. Who would’ve thought online file storage would turn into one of Silicon Valley’s hottest companies? Even Paul Graham was a skeptic initially.
HelloSign has embraced its lackluster job. The company does one thing and focuses on doing it well. “My big thing is we need to not be too creative,” Walla says. “There’s just a lot of unnecessary and unhelpful creativity that happens in startups.” His team has debates about whether they’re wasting resources trying to reinvent the wheel when there might be established old school methods in place that work far better.
When was the last time you heard about a startup worried about being too creative?
The less-than-thrilling GDocs integration is part of that. Google released its new add-ons suite, with more than 35 add-ons to its documents and spreadsheets. It’s meant to rival Microsoft Office Suite, expanding the role that Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets can play in people’s lives.
HelloSign is proudly trumpeting that they were selected as one of two contract signing services integrated with the new suite. “You can create a contract in Google Docs and sign it there!” Walla says.
Snooze. That’s fine and everything, but what’s far more fascinating is what Walla’s excitement represents about HelloSign’s contrarian startup approach. Big news isn’t a huge funding round or a dramatic pivot. In fact, HelloSign — and its parent company HelloFax — hasn’t disclosed any of its funding. But they’re shouting from the rooftops when they’ve executed a small development that makes HelloSign users’ lives incrementally easier.
Google Docs integration of a contract signing application might seem dull in the big picture of things. But with startups sometimes it’s the small removal of extra steps — the slight easing of a process — that makes all the difference. As Michael Carney wrote about Drew Houston and Dropbox a year ago, “[A]t the time [Houston] started working on it, the file sharing and portability problem had already been solved according to most people in the technology sector…But none of this was good enough for the MIT alumni, who equated emailing himself files to writing himself a letter, addressing an envelope, adding a stamp, and thinking that was an effective way of keeping personal records.”
Despite being a fellow YC grad, HelloSign is by no means the next Dropbox — its use cases are far less frequent. But Walla and Co have taken some of their cues from a Dropbox mentality. Sometimes technology’s biggest impact can come from making things just a tiny bit easier.
“This is a seemingly boring space,” Walla tells me. “We’re very different from a lot of tech companies.”
Boring or not, it has made my life a little easier.
[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]