Front raises $3.1M to take the misery out of enterprise email through intelligent collaboration

By Michael Carney , written on September 30, 2014

From The News Desk

Email has long been the scourge of many office places, with inboxes often resembling warzones of unread messages, stars and tags, missing attachments, and all around chaos around next steps for each item. These problems are only exacerbated when multiple people are included on an email chain.

Front is a shared inbox and collaboration platform for enterprise email that looks to solve many of these problems. Today, the Summer 2014 Y Combinator grad announced $3.1 million in Seed funding in a round led by SoftTech VC, with participation from BOLDStart, Point Nine Capital and Caffeinated Capital. The formerly Parisian company is now permanently headquartered in the Bay Area.

“Email is great, but it was invented for one-to-one communication,” says Front co-founder and CEO Mathilde Collin. “Unfortunately, email is regularly used for one-to-many, and many-to-one communication. We wanted to make email useful again for companies.”

Front works best with public-facing email accounts like [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], and so-forth. Whereas traditionally, these emails are routed to one or more personal inboxes for employees tasked with managing them, in Front, they land in a single, shared inbox that enables real-time collaboration and task management. For example, if one employee starts drafting a response to a support email, other employees can see that task in progress and know not to duplicate those efforts. If appropriate, the second employee can weigh in, in real-time, on the best way to respond. Front also allows companies to establish intelligent rules – using natural language processing and manual filters – to better sort and categorize incoming emails based on subject, priority, and so-forth.

Companies can try Front for free with two or fewer user accounts, if they’re ok with outbound messages being tagged “Sent with Front.” After that, companies must pay $29 per month for three users plus $9 per each additional user for access to the product and a standard feature set. A premium offering that includes analytics and workflow automation runs $99 per month for the first five users, plus $19 per month for each additional user.

After six months in private beta, Front launched publicly in June and has seen revenue grow 15 percent week-over-week in the three months since, according to Collin. The company has also yet to see a single paying customer churn, although it remains early. “At least we know people don’t hate this thing,” Collin says.

The average user spends three hours per day inside the app, Collin adds, suggesting that Front is more a core utility than a peripheral feature. And with companies trumpeting the resurgence of email, both as a customer acquisition and a customer support channel, it doesn’t appear as if it’s going away any time soon.

“Even though people say they hate email, they love it,” Collin says. “And they love to read about the future of email and innovation in that space. Content marketing has been one of our most effective customer acquisition channels.”

Front has just a seven person team today, and is entirely product-focused. The company will eventually need to build out a traditional enterprise sales and marketing team, but that’s a challenge for further down the line, when it has more cash in the bank and has proven out its product-market-fit. Nevertheless, Collin expects the team to grow to at least 20 people in the coming year. On the near-term roadmap are the addition of native mobile apps to its existing Web, native desktop app, and mobile Web product offerings, as well as the buildout of the Front platform that will allow it to connect with third-parties like Salesforce and Zendesk, among others.

Having relocated from Paris to participate in Y Combinator, the frenzy that is Demo Day and Silicon Valley-style fundraising was a foreign concept to the company’s founders. But Collin found an ally in SoftTech Vc’s Jeff Clavier – who is also French – who agreed to lead the round two weeks prior to Demo Day, and subsequently to be her guide through the ensuing madness. The balance of the $3.1 million was raised within days of the company’s public launch.

“We’ve always liked email as a theme, especially in the enterprise,” Clavier says. “I asked one of my existing portfolio founders what companies were interesting in this YC batch and he pointed me to Front. I had actually heard about them previously from a French friend, but they were very early on at that point. But once I reached out and saw the product, it was so simple, yet powerful. Everyone at the firm liked it more than they expected to. So we rushed to invest before demo day, because we knew it would be all the rage once people saw it.”

Clavier views Front as closer to a Yammer or Evernote, than a true SaaS software company, owing to the product’s virality and likely bottom-up adoption. But where Front differs is that it doesn’t offer a true freemium version, or at least one that will appeal to too many teams, given its limit to just two users.

I asked both Collin and Clavier whether they were concerned about competition or fast followers, given that Front doesn’t seem to have any core innovation or defensibility, other than being the first to develop an elegant solution to this universal problem. The Front founder pointed to the difficulty of reimagining email for a collaborative use-case.

“You can’t just build on top of existing email clients, because they were never architected or designed to support collaboration,” she says. “That’s why we spent a year building out the MVP – the first 10 months were just building an email client from scratch that had all the expected features like tags and attachments, etc. Then we were able to layer on the new features like collaboration and group workflow management. But we needed the foundation to be able to support that.”

Clavier was less kind, literally laughing me off the phone when I suggested that Google or worse Microsoft might roll out something similar. “We’re not worried about Google and Microsoft,” he says. “The most important thing to us today is organic retention. How well is this solving a problem, rather than how difficult is it to rip out. From that perspective, all the numbers look great, although it’s early.”

Front is already getting inbound interest for a Series A round, Clavier adds, owing in part to the frenzy that is post-YC fundraising and part to the fact that the company seems to have “found something” that resonates.

“This is not one of those companies that plans to race out and raise ahead of its vision,” he says. “They have strong metrics and a good story, good team, good product. We’re excited to see the size of the customers that hop onto the platform and the team that they’re able to continue putting together.”

Perhaps no problem in the enterprise has generated the consternation – and the digital ink among product-wonks – as email. Front is the first enterprise-focused offering in recent memory to generate any kind of buzz, and may have more parallels to the consumer mobile-focused Mailbox and Accompli. It remains early, but both Collins and Clavier see big things ahead for the company.

“I’ll tell you one thing, we’re not looking for a $50 million tuck-in [acquisition] into Google,” Clavier says.