In 2004, Bill Gates declared that within two years, email spam would no longer exist. Microsoft would make sure of it, he promised. Eighteen years later, my inbox begs to differ.
According to Statista, while the global percentage of spam has shrunk since 2014, it still sat at a whopping 45% of all email traffic in December 2021. Some of this garbage gets caught by built-in spam filters, but marketers and phishers are quite adept at evading them. Many of today’s most well-known productivity tools, like Superhuman or Boomerang, attempt to tackle the overflowing inbox. But permanently blocking unwanted emails or minimizing the practice of spam altogether? The tech world hasn’t quite solved that. Andy Mowat, CEO of new email tool Gated, thinks he’s figured it out.
“What we’re really trying to say is, ‘Listen, you didn’t cause the mess,’” Mowat said. “You shouldn’t have to clean it up as a user.”
Gated, which has the tagline “noise-canceling headphones for email,” lets users set up a paid email gate to deter spammers. An unknown sender will trigger an automatic reply prompting them to donate a specified amount of money to the user’s nonprofit of choice. 70% of the donation goes to the nonprofit, 15% covers processing fees and the rest goes to Gated. Mowat intends to keep Gated free for users forever. “This is driven by our belief that users shouldn’t be required to pay to clean up the trash dumped by others,” he said.
If senders decline to donate, the email will go into a separate “gated” folder rather than the primary inbox. Senders can click a button to bypass the donation in case they happen to be a personal connection — like your long-lost cousin, for example.
“We’re not in the business of shutting down the inbox,” Mowat said. “We’re in the business of reducing the noise for both sides so people can make more connections.”
Gated is just compatible with Gmail for now, but is working on Outlook as well.
Mowat admitted that, in the past, he caused a lot of email pain as a growth marketing director for companies like Upwork and Box. It’s the cost of working in tech and trying to grow a company quickly. He got a taste of his own medicine as a VP at Culture Amp with a blown-up inbox. Fed up, Mowat decided to set up an automatic reply for unknown senders with his Venmo and a promise to read their email if they donated 10 cents, which he vowed to send to the Wounded Warrior Project. “People started donating, but they didn’t just donate 10 cents,” Mowat said. “They donated 20 bucks or 40 bucks.”
He spent about a year and a half toying with the idea, recruiting longtime collaborator Melissa Moody. Last month, Gated officially launched on Product Hunt, hitting product of the day on June 17. In March, Gated raised $3.3 million in seed funding led by Corazon Capital and with participation from Precursor Ventures, Tuesday Capital and Burst Capital. Charles Hudson of Precursor Ventures is an early user in addition to investor, though he was skeptical at first. Email tools tend to fail because of the friction of getting them up and running, he said. Also, he prides his firm on being open and accessible. But he says he hasn’t gotten any negative reactions. His Gated message specifies that even without the donation, he’ll see your email. It just won’t go to his primary inbox.
“I was really worried about how people would respond to the challenge message,” Hudson said. “All my fears were unfounded. Gated now touches about 30% of the incoming messages that I get.”
An example of a Gated challenge email.Screenshot: Gated
Hudson said Gated catches most of his irrelevant, unwanted emails. It also does a good job at redirecting founders’ cold pitches to Precursor Ventures’ website, where they’ll get a faster response. “Gated allows me to spend more time on the content that I’m getting that I think is relevant to me,” he said.
Davis Bell, CEO of practice management software company Canopy, signed up for Gated because he hated being inundated with sales and vendor emails. “It’s like being at a market where everyone’s just clamoring for your attention,” Bell said. “That feeling was in my inbox.” He’s been using it for three months, and said the tool has saved him valuable time and energy.
Productivity expert Karla Starr thinks Gated’s approach could work for some people. She doesn’t think paying for direct email access is inherently bad, as people are reachable via free mediums like social media. She sees it as more of a status signal than a productivity tool, however. You could use a service like this and still end up drowning in emails, she said. “I think a large part of your job is curating information and sifting through the noise to find us the signal, and you often have to read a lot of crap to find an interesting nugget,” Starr said.
Mowat stressed that the tool is not “pay-for-play”; there’s no obligation for the recipient to respond once the sender pays the donation. Nevertheless, putting a price tag on email is a controversial idea. We’re accustomed to the idea that everyone and everything on the internet is within reach, for free. Many might hesitate to put a paywall up on their email. For some, the price of maximum accessibility may be worth the annoyance of spam.
Angel investor Esther Dyson is not one of those people. In fact, she angered quite a few Guardian readers in 2013 by proposing that email senders should pay for access. Email spam still bugs her now. Tools with similar premises to Gated, like Wrte.io, have petered out over the years — mainly because it’s hard to achieve mass adoption, Dyson said. “It’s pretty obvious that the problem with spam is that it’s free to the sender,” Dyson told Protocol. “The cost is paid by the recipient who has to go through the mail. The economics really don’t work.”
Dyson invested in Boxbe, an email-screening tool, back in the day, but it didn’t really get at this value proposition, which she considers the heart of the junk email problem. Gated comes closer. She’s not a fan of putting a nonprofit in the middle of the transaction, however. “Make money and pay the nonprofit yourself,” Dyson said. “They’re trying to pretend it’s nicer, but I have no problem with a market that works. Being paid for the value of your time is honorable and doesn’t need to be sanitized by giving the money to a charity.”
Other people will feel differently, of course. The nonprofit aspect of Gated is non-negotiable for Hudson. He would feel uncomfortable taking money directly from people pitching him. “I feel much better using Gated, knowing that the money that people are donating goes to a cause that I care about, than I do putting it in my own pocket,” Hudson said.
Access and email etiquette can be a touchy subject, especially in the tech and VC space. Remember when tech Twitter erupted over whether sending a Calendly link meant you thought you were superior? Just imagine the endless discourse if Gated became widely adopted. Richard John, a postal system historian at Columbia University, said our attitudes about access via different modes of communication have shifted greatly over time. The idea of anyone being able to reach you by phone was alien at first. But access to digital communications, and to anyone via those digital communications, is deeply ingrained now.
“If you make spam expensive, you could cut down on it, but that undermines that principle of access, which is an enlightenment principle we’ve had for a long time,” John said.
Moody, who helped Mowat found Gated, conceded that the tool’s mainstream popularity relies on a behavioral change. Getting in a stranger’s car via Uber or sleeping on a stranger’s couch via Airbnb seemed weird once, she said. She believes the value of Gated will outweigh the discomfort.
“Telling people, ‘Hey, no, you can’t just get me, I’m not free,’” Moody said. “We haven't done that in email ever. We’re really bringing a bigger vision. It’s not just another tool for email management. It’s a shift in how we as humans protect our attention.”