Toby Ruckert knows that technology is both a means to freedom, and a bit of a ball and chain. His company, Unified Inbox, is on the verge of launching software to help users put paid to "app overload" once and for all.
Unified Inbox is a web-based tool (with apps available for download) that brings your email and social media accounts, memos and other apps together into one unified inbox.
Facebook, Twitter, Evernote and Basecamp are some of the major accounts compatible with the Unified Inbox stream, and Ruckert says LinkedIn will be next to link up in the coming weeks. Other candidates include commenting system Disqus.
"There are hardly any we will not tap into in the future."
The software enables a powerful search function and allows backup of all online communication, not just email. It's possible to respond to messages or create tasks straight from the dashboard, and move conversations from one network to another, he says – for example, you might be communicating with someone on Facebook, who then logs out and hops onto Skype, where you can then pick up where you left off.
Ruckert plans to launch publicly with a splash in April, exactly a year after the product first entered public beta. Kiwi startups are eligible for a free year-long trial, but there is (and always will be) a free plan allowing up to three different account connections.
The platform itself is four years in the works. A patent was applied for in 2009, but not granted until last year. Development started in 2008, and early feedback on a prototype led to a full redesign in 2010.
The platform has 1200 registered users in 72 countries, and a team of 12 staff (one in customer service, three in design and management and the rest in R&D) in as places as far-flung as India and Romania. They work around the clock, says Ruckert – "when one team stops, another continues".
Ruckert and his wife came to New Zealand 10 years ago and liked it so much they stayed. Originally a pianist, he also has a "great passion" for e-commerce. He has a number of companies to his name, but it wasn't until founding Wellness-Shop.com thatthe idea for Unified Inbox developed when he had trouble keeping up with all the necessary communication.
It's these other businesses that enabled him to self-fund Unified Inbox, along with some angel investment. He's now looking for more investors, and has had interest from the US and Europe, but is set on staying in New Zealand.
"If we have to move, our solution has failed," he laughs. "We live in one place, our markets are in another, the staff are in another."
The company has a virtual office in the US and is in talks with collaborative working space Kiwi Landing Pad in Silicon Valley, and some of its companies, about getting on the Unified Inbox bandwagon.
Ruckert says the product appeals to both extremes: startups and large corporates – convenience has universal appeal. According to him, it's ideal for managing social media in the workplace. And there's a business case for it, he says, with information overload costing the US economy more than US$1 trillion a year.
He recalls the case of one power user at a European company who goes through up to 4000 emails a day, and panicked when he received an email warning him that his details were out of date and needed to be updated.
"Once people are used to having this it's really difficult to imagine a situation where you suddenly don't have it."
Meanwhile, for individual users, he believes social networks have become a commodity. We're no longer so concerned about experiencing Facebook in itself, for example (especially with its ever-changing UI and increasing privacy concerns) and just want to cut out noise in favour of what's relevant to us.
While a lot of startups have come and gone in this space, Ruckert says a lot of thought has gone into Unified Inbox's infrastructure and design, which he believes will set it apart – and hopefully see the company become profitable.