E-Mail on Steroids

Every good salesperson’s motto is “Stay in touch with your customer,” but that can be a tough proposition when the Internet lies between you and your customer. That’s one reason why mass e-mailings — of newsletters, alerts and order confirmations — are booming.

Unfortunately, today’s outbound e-mail servers were never meant to handle such loads. That’s where BoldFish Inc., a three-year-old start-up in Santa Clara, Calif., comes in. The BoldFish product bypasses conventional mail-merge techniques, say its inventors, to both speed up bulk message delivery and reduce the burden on network resources.

For chief technology officer Tim Yamauchi, the increased speed meant the difference between launching a vital new customer service for his company, San Francisco-based Stockpoint Inc., or possibly watching the competition get there first. “BoldFish made the difference between a wish list and something we could sell into our client base,” he says.

Stockpoint provides Web-based financial applications “for anyone who wants a financial presence on the Web,” Yamauchi says. The company’s 200-plus clients include brokerages and bankers such as Barclays Bank PLC, Quick & Reilly and LookSmart Ltd.

Stockpoint sets up investment portfolios for thousands of customers; those portfolios automatically report back to investors twice each day. The company also provides an alert service that notifies a customer when a company makes a move that could affect the price of its stock.

Yamauchi’s team had built a homegrown system to handle both chores, “but as we started to grow, it became obvious we couldn’t scale beyond what we were already doing,” he says ruefully. “We needed to send out several hundred thousand e-mails per day, but it was taking many more hours than we had to complete each job.

“The half-life of financial information is very short,” Yamauchi says. “If we don’t get the news out on time, we might as well forget it.”

Stockpoint examined commercial alternatives to its homegrown system and decided on BoldFish because it already had a track record in the mass e-mail handling space.

BoldFish’s co-founders started with a strong pedigree in on-line mailings. Co-founder Tasos Kotsikonas, for example, was the original designer of listproc, a Unix mailing list, newsgroup and file-handling system that remains one of the more popular mailing-list management systems on the Internet.

BoldFish software takes over from more conventional message transport architectures such as Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP). Traditional outgoing mail servers handle bulk messages as thousands of separate e-mails that are written — sometimes several times — to a storage queue for transport.

BoldFish, in contrast, stores only a master copy of the message content, combining it many times with mailing addresses and other information from a SQL database. The actual message that will be mailed to the customer is assembled on the fly, without SMTP’s additional writing and queuing. The result, says Yamauchi, is that bulk messaging can be sent much faster than with conventional e-mail systems. According to BoldFish’s acting CEO, Barbara Tallent, the BoldFish system can ship as many as 500,000 messages per hour.

The system offers other advantages, such as faster recovery and resend if the server crashes during transmission. “All we have to know is where we left off,” says Tallent. “We simply resume at that point, without dropping or duplicating messages.”

Moreover, BoldFish also manages the mail that doesn’t get through. Between 2 per cent and 20 per cent of all bulk message transmissions are returned as unsubscribed requests, failed addresses or retries. BoldFish can distinguish between several types of failed transmissions, says Yamauchi, and will either try to resend a message, update the database or forward the failed message to someone for further action.

“Too often, the problem of bounced messages is just an afterthought, and that’s the way it was for us,” says Yamauchi. “The sheer volume of bounced e-mails was really clogging up our customer service department,” a problem that’s been “mostly alleviated” by BoldFish.

The BoldFish software supports Windows NT, Linux and Solaris platforms and works with most SQL databases, including Oracle, Sybase and Microsoft Corp.’s SQL Server. BoldFish is at www.boldfish.com.