How the Twitter Fail Whale helped start a cloud emailing service

By Richard Nieva , written on November 29, 2012

From The News Desk

The Twitter Fail Whale is known for appearing when servers go down, or maybe showing up on the occasional t-shirt. But helping to start a business? As far as I know, he is not a great consultant.

But working with the Fail Whale taught Jeremy LaTrasse, one of Twitter’s co-founders and former director of operations, an important lesson when he and his team started their company Message Bus: build a nimble infrastructure among many clouds -- not just one cloud server that's bloated and, er, whale-like.

So the goal was to build a cloud-based email platform that could be dependable for a growing business – one that sends over a million messages per month, and which pushes the definition of "server" itself. To create that flexibility for companies, Message Bus took to storing data in different servers across different geographical locations, which comes in handy when Message Bus pitches its sweet spot as durability.

To tackle the unwieldy problem of extremely high volumes of messages, the company first decided that not all emails are created equal. “Transactional” emails – like the kind you might get after resetting your password on a particular Web site – are different from advertisement emails. The service puts them into different categorical “buckets,” says Ken Cheney, the company’s president. Message Bus claims transactional emails get particularly special treatment, and are routed differently, which ensures they will be delivered in less than a minute.

In a way, the service partly plays consultant for its clients – it has about 35 of them today, including American Greetings. The service automatically analyzes the sending habits of each client company so closely that it can help the company modify its behavior around emailing its customers. “Every ‘unsubscribe’ is basically a complaint,” says LaTrasse. “If you can prove that you’re taking that seriously, your reputation gets better.” The company also puts its customers through a rigorous vetting process, to make sure they are not working with spammers who are beyond their help.

Email efficiency is certainly a worthwhile problem to take on, and Message Bus is a way to polish up an operation to make it run smoothly. But it’s a high touch service for a company in transition and trying to scale. It’s $439 per month for a one-million-email company. The price jumps to $9,240 per month for a 30-million-email company.

And other upstart companies are making strides in the space as well. MailJet – which does a few similar things but on a smaller scale – just today announced a $3.3 million investment from Alven Capital. SendGrid is another established and well funded service that has great traction, with high-profile web company customers like Pinterest and HootSuite.

This is all while traditionally consumer companies have been making inroads in the workplace. Google is gaining the business world’s trust with its pay version of Gmail, even in the enterprise, counting Virgin America and as its customers.

But neither of those guys have the Fail Whale as a consultant either.