Why USPS Outbox is Doomed


Tired of throwing away more than half your mail because it's junk? Do you want an easier way to change your address to the several people communicating with you? Do you want your mail to be digital and not need a shredder? Do you live in San Francisco, California or Austin, Texas? Then Outbox can help you!

Although the new service already has some detractors, its founder Evan Baehr really believes in the project he started with friends some two years ago. They did it as "frustrated citizens who have had a really frustrating communications experience with postal mail," mainly because they didn't receive all their mail when they moved.

Outbox works like this: Three times a week, an "Unpostman", who passes extensive background checks, picks your mail, brings it to a secured location, opens it, scans it, makes digital copies of it, and then sends it to you via your smart phone or your email inbox, all for $4.99 a month. If the customer still wants their physical mail, they can get it within a day or two. Also, subscribers would still receive your magazines as usual.

Of course, such a service doesn't make everyone happy, especially at the U.S. Postal Services. They wouldn't allow Outbox to distribute the mail themselves, so they simply pick it up after it's delivered. Outbox has no choice; tampering with mail is a federal offense. However, co-founder Will Davis claims that once mail is delivered, it becomes a regular, unregulated piece of paper, much like when your neighbor picks up your mail. In other words, Outbox operates in a legal gray zone where innovations happen.

However, this gray zone is likely to become black quite soon, even if the Constitution doesn't forbid what Outbox is doing. Lysander Spooner, famous 19th century anarchist, once tried to challenge the federal postal service by creating his own American Letter Mail Company. He created the company in 1844 out of his frustration towards the high postal rates but also its terrible service — which hasn't changed much. Unfortunately for him, government doesn't like competition when it is disadvantaged by more competent people. So it cut the price of mail delivery and reinforced the dubiously constitutional mail monopoly to run Spooner out of business.

It seems likely that Outbox will reach the same inglorious end as the American Letter Mail Company. Considering that the USPS lives mainly off bulk (junk) mail senders, Outbox's actions will likely make worse the already deep deficit the public monopoly suffers. And since government is above its own laws — such as anti-trust restrictions — it will most probably ruin yet another businessman whose only mistake was to try to challenge a force he couldn't possibly outcompete.