Meet the Developers: Sherman Dickman of Postbox

Today’s interview is with Sherman Dickman, one of the founders of the exceptional Postbox email client. Sherman teamed up with his co-founder, Scott MacGregor, to create Postbox after serving as Director of Product Management at Mozilla Corporation.

I’m a huge Postbox fan, and it was fascinating to learn a little more about what goes on behind the scenes. In our interview with Sherman, we’ll shed some light on the company, discuss the importance of desktop software in an increasingly web-dominated world, and consider the benefits and drawbacks of developing a single application.

I hope you enjoy the interview!

Tell us a little bit about the Postbox team – where are you located, what brought you together, and what motivates you as a company?

Postbox is based San Francisco, and the company was founded by myself and Scott MacGregor, who was one of the original creators of the Thunderbird email client.

While working at Mozilla, we discovered that we shared a desire to do something more with email. We wanted to move it forward in bold and innovative ways, free from the preconceived notions of what an email app should or shouldn’t be.

In a nutshell, our goal is to help people become more efficient and productive through the most innovative email experience possible. We love developing a great product, but making a positive change in the lives of our users is really what motivates us as a company.

The Postbox Website

The Postbox Website

It seems like many of the Postbox team are scattered around the world. How do you all communicate and collaborate on various projects?

The development team uses Bugzilla to track bugs and new features, iChat and Skype for meetings, Google Docs, and of course, lots of email.

Customers play a big part in the development of Postbox, so we use Zendesk to collaborate on new features and Wufoo to conduct surveys.

The marketing side uses Basecamp to collaborate with graphic artists and Web designers, ExpressionEngine to work with Web developers, Dropbox for sharing files, Google Analytics and to coordinate campaigns, and a few other services that we share with accounting, etc.

We have people and services all over the place, but somehow it all just works beautifully.

Many people are moving away from desktop email clients to web apps such as Gmail. Do you think there’s still a strong market for desktop clients, and why?

What’s nice about Postbox as a desktop app is that anyone can download it, install it, and instantly make a meaningful change in their work lives. Postbox works with any POP or IMAP account, it’s private, secure, standards-based, ad-free, well integrated into the OS, and provides a reliable backup when your webmail services go down.

You don’t have to wait for your company to adopt Gmail, you don’t need permission to redirect your email (and confidential information) to a 3rd party service, it’s something you can do for yourself right now.

In fact, about 20% of new Postbox users have come from Gmail, so luckily we see people migrating in the other direction as well.

The Web is awesome, but desktop apps rule!

As a developer, do you feel the need to always be running the latest hardware, or do you prefer to run a simpler setup with fairly basic kit?

Our setups are fairly basic, and we prefer to run hardware that’s a bit under-powered to avoid having a false sense for application performance. We have a Mac Pro for rendering video, but since most of our infrastructure is hosted our hardware requirements are somewhat modest.

How regularly do you receive requests for new features in Postbox, and how often do you act upon and implement them?

We receive requests all the time through our Ideas and Feature Requests forum hosted on our support portal. Users can post new ideas, collaborate on features, and then vote on the ones they like best. We’re just about to begin planning exercises for Postbox 3, so there will be a lot more activity within those forums over the next few months.

We typically break features into three buckets: 1) game changing features that create excitement and buzz, 2) highly requested features from customers, and 3) platform or maintenance work, bugs, clean up, etc. All three buckets are necessary, and prioritization is certainly a challenge.

Main Postbox Interface

Main Postbox Interface

What’s the number one Postbox feature that you’re most proud of having available in the app?

My personal favorite is Summarize Mode for replies and forwards, which just released in Postbox 2.1. It enables you to create a clean and stylish who-said-what-when message summary that you can send to your colleagues and friends.

It’s a really neat feature, and it has helped us to extend the benefits of Postbox to a wider audience in ways that are viral, yet natural.

Many Mac development teams focus on a range of products and apps. What do you think the benefits/drawbacks are of focusing on just one piece of software?

The benefit is that you can focus on just one thing, and do it really well. The drawback is that you are dependent on just one revenue stream, which can be cyclical, and you’re also more vulnerable to moves by competitive offerings.

We’re currently developing several versions of the product: Postbox and Postbox Express for both Mac and PC, and we’re planning on having Postbox in the Mac App Store in the near future. So even with one piece of software, there’s a lot to do.

What aspect of creating and developing Postbox do you find most enjoyable, and equally, what do you find frustrating?

The most enjoyable aspect is creating a product that people love using. The most frustrating is not being able to develop features fast enough.

For someone interested in developing their very first Mac app, where would you recommend they start?

Solve a small but important problem, create the minimum viable product that you think could sell (even if it’s $1.00), and then bring it to market as soon as possible. Make it simple, easy to use, and hopefully social. Create a community, learn from your customers, and iterate quickly. The Mac App Store will be a great vehicle for this.

Next, look at some of the most popular Mac applications, and try to determine the secrets to their success. Panic made an FTP client that’s sexy. Things made to-do lists friendly and fun. Pages, Numbers, and Keynote brought office productivity to a completely different level. Dropbox just works. None of these apps are “paradigm shifting” or “revolutionary,” but they’re designed better than the rest and they’re a delight to use. Learn from their successes.

Do you have any interesting updates in the pipeline that you can give us a sneak peek at?

We have some really interesting things in the pipeline, but no sneak peeks just yet. Stay tuned for more surprises over the next few months!

Thanks, Sherman!

Thanks so much to Sherman for taking the time to share his thoughts and experience with us. I really appreciate you taking the time to contribute, and we wish you all the best with the future success of Postbox!

If you’re getting tired of Gmail’s wonky interface, or finding that isn’t really meeting your needs any more, I’d strongly recommend giving Postbox a try. It’s a wonderfully designed piece of software, and arguably the best desktop email client available for the Mac.