Dubious Startup Ideas #1: Simple Email Workflow

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Dubious Startup Ideas #1: Simple Email Workflow


About a couple of times a week, I have an idea for a startup.  Most of these ideas likely wouldn’t make for good startup companies (or for that matter, even a product for an existing company).  But, one person’s dubious idea may be another person’s brilliant insight (or possibly lead to it).  So, I thought I’d kick off a series of these and share some of the ideas that occur to me in the hopes that someone says:  a) it’s already been done  b) it shouldn’t be done   c) it can’t be done or d) hmmm.  Interesting.


So, to kick off the series, here’s my first dubious idea.


Dubious Startup Idea #1:  Simple Email Workflow With An Outlook Plug-In


I send and receive lots and lots of email.  My life runs on email.  But, I find most of the current email clients lacking a few basic (but very useful) features that I think would be easy to implement.  So, my idea is for an Outlook plug-in (I pick Outlook simply because that’s the client I use) that would do the following


  1. Response Expected:  Let me flag messages I send out as being “response expected”.  Once a message is flagged as such, the system would monitor to see if the message actually ever got a response from the recipient.  Once such a message comes in, the original message would go back in to “normal” state.  If a response didn’t come in, it would show up on a list somewhere (see below).


  1. Response Required:  I’d like to flag incoming messages as soon as I scan them as being “response required”.  This is a mental note to myself that a given message requires some response on my part.  Similar to #1, if I don’t respond within a certain time (hopefully, user configurable), the message will show up on a list of messages requiring attention.


  1. Someone Should Respond:  This is similar to #1, except that I’d use it when there were multiple people on the “to” list of a message.  In this case, the system would “watch” to see if someone responds to the original message (likely some other party on the “to” or “cc” list).  If so, then the message is considered “handled”.  If not, then it would show up on the “attention required” list.


  1. Sender Significant:  I’d be able to mark any sender of a given email as being “significant” (this would be a toggle).  Until I turn this flag off, all messages from this sender would show up on the “Response Required” list (or otherwise be highlighted).


  1. Delegate:  This would be an extension of “response required”, except it would be an email forward to a designated recipient with an automatic “response expected” flag turned on (to make sure the person who received the delegation acknowledged).


That’s it.  Ideally, each of the above could be done with a single keyboard shortcut.  Something like this would likely do wonders for my email productivity (and ensure that emails get handled appropriately). I can’t tell you how many times I meant to handle an email, but then just had it slip through the cracks.  Outlook supports it’s “flag” feature, but that just doesn’t cut it for me as it doesn’t go far enough.


What do you think?  Is this idea dubious, or is there a need for something like this?  If such a tool existed, would you use it?

Posted by admin_www.pshah.com admin_www.pshah.com on Mon, Feb 12, 2007


I was just thinking how I need this response required.

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 3:17 AM by Elisha Klein

I'm sure this has been done in different forms? That said, I can't recall any names!

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 4:06 AM by Bruce Lewin

Well, it might be the best if a mail client would allow the user to create custom flags, optionally assigning each an icon or some other visual mark.

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 4:33 AM by Berislav Lopac

Possible solution would be to use the labels feature in Mozilla Thunderbird.

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 5:42 AM by Dan W

The problem is that this would have to be implimented with custom headers...which not all mail servers would/could read. Even outlook doesn't pass along ALL headers.... I am not saying it couldn't be done, but it wouldn't be a clear cut solution.

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 8:59 AM by Dan Hirsch

Neat tool idea, how about just rentacodering it? Bet you could get it done for a few hundred bucks, then you get a tool immediately useful for you, and you can evaluate whether it is the basis of a business.

(Not to mention that it sounds like a natural extension for Hubspot - perhaps you're vetting feature ideas here on the sly?)

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 9:07 AM by Ray

Somebody already beat you to it: a lot of this is already implemented in SproutIT's Mailroom. Too bad it's hosted only though, otherwise we would use it...

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 9:07 AM by Rob

There are a few problems with this being a startup idea. First, it is both obvious and simple. Second it is too intertwined with your email server/client of choice. Third it is not something that would really appeal to a broad group and is not something you could charge a lot (or possibly at all) for - low/no cost + low volume.

It is a value-add for an email provider or for an existing email client/server (Exchange/Outlook, Lotus, etc) to add on (or for an ISV to create as an add-on) but it's not something that would make for a viable startup.

A consulting company may want to create something like this and toss it around as a freebie to get some eyes looking at their services.

A weekend warrior might make some shareware out of this idea.

But I don't believe there is a business in there.

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 9:42 AM by Robert

The notion of workflow management, when applied to email, is more of a critical part in the entire customer service workflow. The idea you are suggesting requires more than just a plug-in. It requires a server to coordinate all the steps of the workflow in a coherent and rapid way. The server and the enterprise level management of contact management and customer service workflow is where the business begins to form. Consider that Outlook, by default, polls the email server every 15 minutes for mail. Now apply this to a scenario where you have a startup with five or so people that may respond to any given customer’s email. The lag in seeing each other’s emails may result in the customer receiving more than one response to the same question. Hopefully all five respond with the same basic message. Using a plug-in to outlook that communicates with an external server that manages workflow, automated tagging of messages and an indication that the customer’s email is actively being handled are valuable features to a customer service oriented company. These are features that Outlook does not provide out of the box. Now tack on web mail on the road staff and a hosting service for companies too small to support the infrastructure. This is the sort of thing that should be a part of a large customer service organization that is probably priced out of the range of any startup.

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 10:20 AM by Andy

Exchange already does most of this and it is horrible. The problem you run into is that ALL email clients would have to respect these headers. That's not going to happen. Much better would be to create your own mechanism for passing electronic information between you and your clients. Get them to agree that all communications with you go through your system. Implement your system any which way you want. Doesn't sound feasible? Well, that's what you're proposing, just reworded.

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 10:56 AM by Rob Kinyon

Has it been done? Well, I can use Outlook folders creatively to do some of it. For example, by dragging a copy of any "response required" message into a to-do folder and then simply looking at my to-do folder at appropriate intervals.

Would it work? Partially. I doubt one could reliably automate all the functions you describe because they are content-related. For example, with "someone should respond", what if someone responds with an out-of-office message? Or "Not my problem, dude?"

Is there a good business here? Maybe a quick smash-and-grab. But if it ends up working, and it's popular, you know the features will show up in the next release of Outlook! It would be hard to protect this intellectual property.

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 11:57 AM by Carl Strathmeyer

I would extend your concept from an email-based workflow to a more generalized workflow system. If I could easily set up a sequence of tasks, and assign dependencies and route activities, I could accomplish what you want with your email use-cases (which I agree are important) as well as with document sharing and collaboration. Not MS Project, not SharePoint. Simple, online, task sequencing.

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 12:03 PM by Rahul Roy-Chowdhury

Agree with Rahul. This in fact points out an important "how to get it to work" factor: all the participants must be part of a community that is under the workflow management system. For example, when "someone must reply", the party replying should take an explicit action that declares "I am responding and taking responsibility" - not just sending email. One party trying to do ad hoc workflow management by reading their own emails won't work. You can do desk (inbox/outbox/calendar) management, but that's different. Don't confuse the two.

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 12:19 PM by Carl Strathmeyer

I use http://www.taglocity.com to do this kind of thing. You can build up your own simple workflow using a series of tags and their corresponding actions.

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 12:24 PM by David Ing

I don't think much of this requires any custom header items - it seems to mostly be the e-mail client watching messages and monitoring if the get replied to or receive replies. The only one requiring anything of another e-mail client (which is where you'd need some sort of header) is possibly the last one, but I'm not totally clear what that one's about...

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 12:42 PM by Jim Martin

That's why Lotus Notes was invented 20 years ago.

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 12:47 PM by David

I read this the other day...similar concept.


posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 5:59 PM by Dan Hirsch

The trouble is that people would flag everything response expected or similar. The actual flag will then be devalued. A bit like read receipts which I automatically delete from my outbox so I can decide of I tell someone I opened their email..

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 6:20 PM by Peter Boyle

Rob wrote: Much better would be to create your own mechanism for passing electronic information between you and your clients. Get them to agree that all communications with you go through your system. Implement your system any which way you want. SWREG have just this system for handling customer support. You MUST login to their system to create support issues and to reply to their reponses. IT IS AWFUL. I HATE IT. Its *SO* much easier to use email. I want the record of the correspondence in my email system not in someone elses web based email system. As you can see, the solution you propose, I think is not desirable at all. Dharmesh: Yes, a system like you describe that I could have in Thunderbird would be very useful. I don't have the need for the central server as described by another respondent but I also think the ideas described in that post have value (not convinced its startup territory though). Stephen

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 7:59 PM by Stephen Kellett

I think you're looking at the wrong type of platform. Email should be a simple no-brainer for anyone to use. A centralized collaboration tool is a better choice for this, perhaps with some sort of email plug in that might help make your life easier by not requiring you to use the collaboration tool all the time. A collaboration tool provides centralization, visibility, auditing, higher accountability, transference, and other things that your email inbox on its own can't give you.

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 10:08 PM by Shan Plourde

Thanks to everyone for their comments. Wasn't expecting this level of response. For the record, my needs (I think) are very simple. I think a server-based solution with a ton of workflow features would be overkill. Though this would likely work for many businesses, I'm an individual user with involvement in several businesses. My point here is that even though there may not be a fulol-fledged business here, there is clearly a "niche" need. If there's one of me, there's likely hundreds (if not thousands). I'm not defending the idea, but simply suggesting that if you set your target small enough, you will always find niches that are underserved. The question, is of course, is the opportunity large enough (in the long run) to warrant pursuit.

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 10:15 PM by

Ok, I’m really surprised... being a super geek, I naively expected that someone will point out that all that could be done in outlook. Now, this response is long and boring, so if you don’t need such “plug-in”, skip fwd... otherwise (or being also a geek), read on: Need: Response Expected: Let me flag messages I send out as being “response expected”. Once a message is flagged as such, the system would monitor to see if the message actually ever got a response from the recipient. Once such a message comes in, the original message would go back in to “normal” state. If a response didn’t come in, it would show up on a list somewhere (see below). Way: Assuming that you are keeping your sent mail in “Sent Items”, it can be done by creating a new category (which is an outlook entity), call it what you want, e.g.: “Response Expected”, then create a rule that will search your outgoing messages for a certain text string (I chose “<Tag: RE>”), and will assign the message to the category you created. Next, create a search folder that will show only those messages that belong to this category. So, when sending a message that you want to tag, simply type “<Tag: RE>” anywhere in the message body, and it will show up in the search folder. Here goes (it’s really not that complicated). This will create the rule and the category: Select: Tools > Rules and Alerts Click: New Rule... Select: Start from blank Select: Check message after sending, Click: Next > Check: With specific words in the body Click: Specific words (on the bottom pane) Type “<Tag: RE>” (without the quotes, and you can actually type here whatever you want) Click: Add, then OK Click: Next > Check: assign it to the category Click: category (On the bottom pane) Click: Master category list Type “Response Expected” Click: Add, OK Check: Response Expected (that you just created) Click: OK Click: Finish Click: OK This will create the search folder: Select: File > New > Search Folder Select: Create a custom Search Folder Give it a name: “Response Expected” Click: Criteria Choose tab: More Choices Click: Categories Check: Response Expected Click: OK Click: OK Click: Browse UnCheck the top folder Check: Sent Item Click: OK Click: OK That’s it. Any message that you send with the tag <Tag: RE> will appear in the Search Folder. To remove the message from the folder _DONT_ delete it. Right click on the message, select “options”, and delete the category. In the same method you can create additional tags and additional search folders to control your outgoing mail. As for the incoming mail, and the various categories you need (“Response Required”, “Someone should response” etc), you can also use the categories mechanism, as follows: Right click an incoming message that you say want to tag as “Someone should response”, select Options, click: categories, click: Master category list, add the “Someone should response” to the categories list, click: OK, check the “Someone should response” category, click: OK. Now, create a search folder as described above that will filter in only messages that belong to this category. “Sender Significant” – a simple rule could assign messages coming from a specific sender to the appropriate category, and again using search folders, could be easily managed... There is also an option to use different formatting for messages in a folder (colors/highlight/font/etc) but that is for lesson #2…

posted on Tuesday, February 13, 2007 at 2:46 AM by Ben Dover

Ben, I think you just validated Dharmesh's business idea...

posted on Tuesday, February 13, 2007 at 4:39 AM by Craig S

Yup (to Craig's previous comment). Ben's complicated Outlook how-to instructions also validate Dharmesh's previous blog posting, in which he asserts that although a given problem may already be addressed by current offerings, there may still be room for a solution that addresses it in a manner that better meets user needs!

posted on Tuesday, February 13, 2007 at 7:08 AM by Carl Strathmeyer

I'm sorry for shifting the conversation from the philosophical level to the practical level... but if you allow me to practical for just another moment - no one will build a business around ONE use case. If anyone will build such a plug-in, it would have to be much more versatile, and as such - require about the same configuration effort to do what outlook already can. :-)

posted on Tuesday, February 13, 2007 at 9:25 AM by Ben Dover

Great idea. I've thought of the "response expected" think *a lot*.

Another useful feature (but harder to implement) is "confirm that this was received". I know there is a flag for "delivery confirmation" but what I want is to manage by *exception*. I.e., ALL I want to know is "what email did NOT get confirmed".

I think you could start a small ISV around this idea. Eventually, I think you'd need to expand the capability (and the price) but it's a starting point.

posted on Thursday, February 15, 2007 at 8:23 PM by Aphasia Software

check out the GTD plugin for outlook from netcentrics. it does quite a bit of what you want.

posted on Sunday, February 18, 2007 at 4:13 PM by peter

GTD - Getting things done. I guess it's all more about alining your organisation and yourself than the tool. With the GTD plugin you can do most of it, but first of all you will need to discipline yourself.
And here is where it goes for the business idea: it's not just one little tool, it's the business of time management, performance improvement, coaching, alignment consulting, etc. - so jumping on it would be a great thing for a "me too" startup, solving some of the problems the other businesses didn't before...for me the problem stays: how do I become that disciplined and steady to really work productive 100% of my dedicated work hours....there is where we need the tools...or training

posted on Tuesday, February 20, 2007 at 7:54 PM by Christoph

What version of outlook are you using? I'm able to do these with Outlook 2003. Also, you might want to consider rephrasing "Response Required" to "Follow-up" or "To Do" or something similar, since that is something that YOU have to do, while others are things the someone else has to do - might be easier to explain it off to the user if you ever build a plugin for this.

posted on Monday, February 26, 2007 at 3:31 PM by Karthik Ram

1) Response expected
That would be nice feature to have.
But I think this feature should expect response to all my outgoing emails. Periodically I would review "expect response" list and remove emails from this list (if I don't need response anymore).
2) Response requiered.
This is implemented long time ago.
Outlook 2003 and my mail client (The Bat) have ability to flag email.
So, if I read email, but don't have time to reply to it right now - I'll flag it.
MS Outlook even has "For Follow Up" folder, where you can review your flagged messages.

posted on Friday, March 02, 2007 at 10:57 PM by Dennis Gorelik

Just make sure you get Outlook Track-It, a program which will always remind you to follow up to emails. Important emails should always have a followup reminder. Great Outlook GTD plugin.

posted on Saturday, February 28, 2009 at 6:35 PM by cjw

At least one e-mail based workflow system that I know of was made in the dotcom era. It was called ZappApps or Applets or something. I think it was acquired by Sun. As I remember, it's architecture turned useless as JavaScript was banned form email readers. Because JS was used in a clever way to alter the contents of a mail depending on status. So your e-mail read "Fence Painted" if someone else did the task for you. 
I was searching for it, curious if it still survived in one form or the other, so that's how I found *this* post ... :-)

posted on Sunday, September 06, 2009 at 11:25 AM by hans hoekstra

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