Mailboxes are often overwhelming nowadays, with messages coming in from every corner of the internet to vie for your attention. While sending out millions of e-mails has never been easier with the rise of automation and robots, for those on the receiving end it is increasingly difficult to control. This digital noise can be exhausting, and it can also drown out what really matters.
For those who can’t risk missing out on important e-mails from work, family, or friends, Gated offers an easy solution by putting up barriers to accessing your e-mail. While other e-mail solutions help sort incoming messages faster, Gated stops unwanted e-mails in the bud. Suppose an unknown sender tries to contact you. If you are using this browser extension, the sender is asked to donate a small amount to a charity of your choice. This ensures that only those who value your attention and time make it to your inbox, and instead of being overwhelmed, you can focus.
We spoke to the Gated Chief Marketing Officer, Melissa Moody, about why our inboxes are so flooded, why this is bad for us, and how Gated offers a unique solution:
Q: Tell me a bit about what inspired the idea behind Gated? How did it come about and when?
A: Our co-founder and CEO, Andy Mowat, was working in Silicon Valley and had managed teams that were sending millions of e-mails through automation. But they were also receiving a lot of unsolicited e-mails themselves. Andy wanted to create a solution, and what happened was if people e-mailed him and he didn’t know their e-mail address, they would receive a response saying, “Hi, I don’t recognise this address. If you’d like to get a piece of my time and attention, please donate to “The Wounded Warrior Project”, which was the first charity he set it up with.”
People started asking him, “How can I get this? How did this work?” And so, in about 2019, he brought on some engineering help, and they built an MVP, the first initial product. I didn’t join until 2020, and Andy was still in full-time roles working for other companies. It was very entrepreneurial because it was just an idea. But he had more and more people working on it, and about 50 people trying the Beta. People, including investors, were starting to get more interested. And so he decided to turn it into something. It wasn’t until April this year that we released a full public product. Anyone with a Google-based e-mail can use it, and it is essentially the same core product from the early days.
Q: Tell me a bit more about Gated and how it works.
It’s pretty simple – you don’t have to download or pay for anything, and it works with any existing Google Inbox. When someone you’ve never exchanged e-mails with tries to reach out, an automatic response essentially says, “Hi, I don’t recognise this address. Please donate to my charity of choice if you’d like to reach my inbox.” Everybody can pick the charity they’d like to donate to; we don’t prescribe it. There’s also another option [for senders] that says, “If you actually know me or I was expecting your message, just click here, and it’ll go into my inbox.” The core product is as painless as that. It just fits right into your workflow.
Q: Interesting. How and why do you think our mailboxes get so full of messages that we don’t care about?
Many people I talk to insist that [the state of their inbox] isn’t a problem. It’s just a part of their routine now. People wake up and spend an hour triaging the messages in their inbox. But if that [process] doesn’t make you mad, I don’t know what would. One of my favourite podcasters says her e-mail inbox feels like everybody else’s to-do list. And it’s true. Today, anyone can reach you at any time. Of course, this is why e-mail is beautiful –it’s very democratic and open. But now we are seeing [the downsides of this technology]. [Our mailboxes are overflowing like never before], and I see two major factors contributing to this.
The first is automation. In marketing right now, we can send a billion e-mails with just a click of a button. We can scrape e-mail addresses from across the web – you don’t have to permit us – and we can take those, and boom: you’re on a list. Then we can start hitting you. These automated e-mails can also be personalised. Over the last five years, this has increased exponentially, and the tech allowing us to do it has just mushroomed.
The second factor is less tool-based, but it’s an interesting business dynamic related to the shift to Product Led Growth we’ve seen. [This is when the primary driver of revenue is the experience of the product, as opposed to Sales Led Growth, where sales teams and customer service primarily lead revenue growth]. Basically, you used to sell one tool to the CEO, and that’s it. He would say yes to the offer and turn the product on for the whole company. So, the CEOs have always been sort of in charge [of how the product is disseminated].
But Zoom, Calendly, Loom and all the big names in Product Led Growth are now selling to every middle to low manager and up to get them to use the product. Ten years ago, these mid-role persons were not a target for sales. But now? Absolutely. Every new tech product on the market wants to sell to that person. And so not only are we getting more [e-mails] through automation but more products are being sold through the Product Led Growth Model. which basically says, ‘If I can get the day-to-day person to use it, then it will get used by the whole company’. So those are really two massive factors that are turning our inboxes into chaos.
Q: And how does Gated solve this problem? Who benefits most from software like Gated?
It’s really a triple win. Firstly, with Gated you see less inbox volume, which many people are motivated by. If you start up with Gated, it reduces inbox volume by an average of 46 %.
But another interesting win is that some of our biggest clients are people who are sending e-mails. Because right now, if you’re sending good, well-intentioned e-mail, it’s just getting lost in the mess. But with Gated, there is less in the inbox, and you can actually stand out. You can say, “I’m a real person. I care about your interests. I have something here that is worth your attention.” So, senders love it. There used to be about a one percent reply rate to sender-emails, but with Gated, the reply rate can be upwards of 50 %.
And then the third win is for the non-profits. From their perspective, it’s just an extra bonus out of dollars from donations, and they’re also getting brand awareness. Because every time someone e-mails me, and they don’t know me, they’ll see Team Rubicon, my charity of choice, in my e-mail reply. There are really three different ways in which the product is helping.
Q: Interesting, my inbox is a nightmare. I’m constantly running out of space, partly because of hundreds and hundreds of unsolicited marketing e-mails. And I’ll delete them, but then more come in, and it’s a constant tug of war.
A: What’s really interesting is that for us at Gated, we know our first initial target market. I’ll tell you three in particular. One is CEOs. They just get too much of everything. So, for them [the problem] is volume. They’re just like, “I don’t have the time.” Secondly, marketers are being sold to because they have budgets to spend so everyone is trying to sell to them. Marketers are interesting because they really care, and a lot of the time, they would actually like to respond to a good cold e-mail. But they’re just getting hammered with junk. You’ll meet a lot of marketers who are like, ‘Oh, I would love to hear about a new product, but I can’t because I have so much garbage in the inbox.’
But although we’re primarily talking to those groups right now, Gated’s vision is very big because everybody needs this. My grandparents and my mom turned it on because it’s our company of course. And my mom said to me, “I had a very relaxing week when I turned it on because I wasn’t hammered with political e-mails.” Suddenly she didn’t have to see all these things coming in all the time.
And just to clarify, we don’t delete any e-mails. They’re literally in a [separate] folder in your inbox. Things don’t come into the [primary] inbox if you don’t know the sender, but they go to a folder called ‘Gated’. Some people I know like to check it daily and make sure they don’t miss something. But other people just wait until it’s a thousand and then delete everything.
[You can constantly alter who is allowed in your primary mailbox]. If you don’t want to hear from a particular address anymore, you can choose to remove it from the ‘allow list’. And from then on, it’ll show up in the Gated folder. Or if you come across a newsletter and you really like it, you can add it to the ‘allow list’. And if someone donates to get into your inbox, there will be a little label on the e-mail saying, ‘Gated/Donated’. You can also log on to a dashboard [where you can see various statistics], including how much e-mail you received and how much was ‘gated’.
Q: Let’s talk a bit more about the charity aspect of the product. So, when using Gated, unwanted e-mail addresses must donate to a charity of your choice to reach you. How did this component come about?
When Andy first created the product, and it was just a tiny little Beta, he initially did test an idea [that we have now abandoned]: ‘Should someone pay you to reach you?’ There were a couple of findings there and several reasons why we’ve gone with the charity route instead. The first is that a lot of the people who really needed this product, like the CEOs, didn’t need another twenty dollars a month. And it felt a little selfish, you know, to say, ‘Pay me to get my attention.’ The attraction of getting a couple more dollars was very minimal.
In comparison, when we shifted to the non-profit idea, there was a sense that you’re doing good and it’s benefiting someone. All it’s really doing for the user of Gated is that they can see, ‘Oh, this person values my attention. I don’t need money from them, but I [know they value my time].’ There needs to be a marginal cost. Otherwise, the e-mails keep coming.
Another part of the non-profit component that is important – we don’t add non-profits and then get people to choose between them. Anyone who uses Gated is able [to choose their own non-profit to support]. It must be a verified 501C3, and as long as it can also be verified by our non-profit partner Change and they can get it through their system, you can literally request any official non-profit that you are passionate about. It could be the King Charles Cavalier Spaniel Rescue, or it could be a big organisation. So, we really want the non-profit angle to be, ‘You pick.’ It should be something that matters to you.
We do set up a featured non-profit so that if someone doesn’t have a particular non-profit in mind or maybe they’re just starting off, they can just default to our featured one. In the past, we’ve had charities like the American Red Cross and Feed the Children. Usually, on a quarterly basis, we’ll change the featured non-profit.
When people log onto the dashboard, they can see which non-profit they’re donating to and how much money they’ve raised, and it’s very easy to change your non-profit.
Q: How does Gated deal with privacy and control issues when dealing with e-mails?
We do not ever read the contents of your e-mail. When things are in your inbox, Google reads your e-mail to serve you ads and who knows what else. We currently only look at the ‘to’ and ‘from’ fields of the e-mails that are sent because we need to recognise whether you have sent an e-mail to this person before.
If you have Gated and you e-mail me for the first time, it would recognise that you’ve e-mailed me [before], so if I e-mail you back, I will not see a challenge e-mail. You’ve kind of automatically allowed me into your inbox by sending me an e-mail. So on the [backend], if you send an e-mail to someone, then we determine that they should be on your ‘allow list’. Then you also have the manual ability to add or remove people at any time from what we call the ‘allow list’. You can also allow full domains. For example, if you want to hear from anyone at Wall Street Journal.com, it’s easy to allow and enable that.
We’re built upon Google right now. We are preparing to go into other e-mail clients, but right now, it will work with anything Google-based. We’re fully passed Google Security Audits. So, people can log in with Google and have all the normal permission controls. By doing that, people kind of have all the rights to their own data. You can cancel anytime, and we don’t store or sell any of your data. I like to emphasise that because many people assume that we do so based on it being free.
Q: Interesting, so how does Gated generate income then?
We actually monetise the sender payments. When a sender pays to reach a Gated user, they are making the donation to charity. So, 70 % of that goes directly to the charity through our partner called ‘Change’, and then about 15 % goes to fees and 15% go to supporting Gated. We make our money through the sender payments, we don’t charge users [or profit off of their data].
Q: What challenges, if any, has Gated faced in its development?
I think the biggest challenge for us is to do with behaviour. People see Gated and say, ‘Oh, of course, why would I not do this?’. But I think the biggest challenge for us is that for the entire history of e-mail, it has been an open house. People can stroll in and send you anything they want. [With Gated], we are asking people to set boundaries, and we help them do that so they can reclaim their attention and not be overwhelmed. And setting boundaries is psychologically an insanely difficult thing for humans to do. Honestly, our biggest challenge is that we are trying to change how people behave.
There’s a slide in one of our presentations which basically says, “Once upon a time, it was very weird to sleep on a stranger’s couch or to get into a stranger’s car. Or to wear a mask all the time. But these big behavioural changes opened up completely new ways of thinking – about hospitality, transportation, and health. And [we are putting forth] a similar challenge in that we’re not just asking people to try a product, we’re asking them to change their behaviour a bit. [We’re asking them to say], ‘No, you can’t just dump things on my front lawn. You can’t just leave things in my inbox. I expect you to show me that you value my attention, and I’m setting up something [which makes this clear].’ And that’s not easy. I see what we’re trying to do as a behavioural change.
Q: I suppose there’s a kind of FOMO involved, like ‘Did I miss something?’ or ‘What if one of the e-mails that go into the Gated folder is really important.’
A: Yes, exactly. I think knowing you can still access the e-mails in the Gated folder helps with that.
We also have customised challenge e-mails. We have some very high-profile people who cannot miss e-mails using Gated, and they’ve built great custom e-mails [which ensures they don’t miss out on important contacts]. They [also] have a cadence for looking at the Gated folder.
[Interestingly], they’re actually able to do business better because they’re not seeing everything. They can see opportunities which were getting missed [because of e-mails being lost in the overloaded inbox].
But FOMO and the behavioural change [involved in] blocking your e-mail is a big challenge. And a lot of that falls on me as the marketing officer. The product itself could easily [be used in ways that reduce FOMO], but you’ve got to get people thinking a little bit differently.
Q: So why are these behaviour changes important? Why does it matter?
This world is getting noisier and noisier from a digital perspective. And I see a world where people who do great things have to be focused. They can’t be distracted all the time. So, we’re really trying to build this world where you can protect your own attention, and you don’t have to be a victim of this digital noise. It’s not an easy thing to do, but I truly believe that if we don’t start building technology for that now, then 5 or 10 years out, I don’t think our human brains [will be able to] handle it.
Q: Yesterday I was reading an article about fragmented attention. It argued that because of social media, e-mail, and the digital age, we are constantly distracted and we’re losing our ability to do deep work.
A: That is precisely why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Q: What sets you aside from other e-mail management options?
I believe it was in 2008 that Bill Gates said, ‘Someone will solve the problem of spam with a monetary solution”. [And that’s what we’re doing, though] I don’t use that term lightly, we could use the term ‘unsolicited e-mail’ in general.
A lot of the companies out there are doing great things. But [the model is still set up so that] everybody can still send you the stuff they want to send you, the [companies] just help you sort it faster or [introduce] new keystrokes that help you move through it quicker.
[We go further than that]. We believe that by placing a marginal monetary incentive through the non-profit charity donation, you shift the incentives of e-mail completely. No one [has done this] to date. People in the past have been unsuccessful either because they locked down user inboxes or they sold the data like crazy to the sender side. We’ve found that this marginal cost strikes a perfect balance. Senders are happy [because] they can get through [and stand out], and users are happy because they’re not being hammered by junk.
Q: What changes do you think we’ll see in the future of e-mail, and how do you think it can be improved?
I honestly think e-mail has kind of been a lagger in terms of being able to set your own intention and [create boundaries with the outside world]. If you’re watching Hulu, you can pay to remove ads. If you’re using your phone, you can turn it off. There are little things built into technology that allow us to say, ‘I have control of my own intention.’ But with e-mail, we don’t have that yet.
So Gated believes we need to be the ones who add that into e-mail, and I do think it will extend into other realms as well. I think people are going to realise that we need to have more technological tools to control our own attention, [so that we are not] just victims of whatever’s coming in.
There is so much out there about the ‘attention economy’, but it’s all about [how to steal] people’s attention. And I would like us to be one of the first companies that says, ‘No, we’re going to start building things to protect your attention.’
Q: What are Gated’s short-term and long-term plans for the future?
In the short term, the goal is to get as many people as possible to use it and try it. Our users are deeply passionate, and people are really excited about it. Gated.com/love is just a barrage of the internet talking about Gated, [completely unprompted] and without us in the middle. They’re not sought-out testimonials, it’s just people talking about it. So [we want to keep the momentum going]. And because it’s free, there’s a very low barrier to trying it and testing it out.
Regarding the long-term goal, we have a manifesto on our website, which we wrote in 2020 before we had the public product. The gist of it is: Believe your attention should be your own. And that’s really the core of all of this.
We’ve [also recently] created individual landing pages for each non-profit. It shows how much has been donated and so on. We want to extend this non-profit angle by [asking organisations to suggest Gated to those who are already on their member list]. It’s kind of like Amazon Smile and the non-profit donation system they offer. [We hope people] will just say, ‘Why not?’ If people are already signed up for a non-profit, then why not get a few more dollars and a lot more awareness [for your cause?].
The Digital Age has meant our attention is more fragmented than ever. It is pulled in many directions at once. While other digital platforms and technologies have given people ways of controlling their attention and who has access to it, e-mail still lags behind. Getting rid of the noise and allowing you to focus on what’s important, Gated might change this and enhance the way you experience e-mail forever. All while making money for charity.