For the past few years, Australia-based private email company Fastmail has been putting down roots in Philadelphia and growing a team here.
The company has grown its U.S. office from just a few employees to more than a dozen since the end of 2018, and it’s currently hiring a customer advocate/support technician. Last month, its locally based CTO, Ricardo “Rik” Signes, even landed on our list of Philly’s top 20 influential engineers.
So why does an Australian company plant roots in Philadelphia, and how does managing teams on opposite sides of the world actually … work?
The story starts in the 1990s, when Helen Horstmann-Allen, now COO of Fastmail, was at the University of Pennsylvania. She told Technical.ly that she was in one of the first classes at Penn to be assigned email addresses, and eventually worked to develop and run email service Pobox at Penn. The company provided a lifetime email address that outlived your association with a school, employer or ISP.
Then in 2015, Fastmail acquired Pobox, and Horstmann-Allen and Signes became the company’s Philadelphia-based team. In the last year, the U.S. team has grown from two to 15 employees and set up shop on Walnut Street, right off of Broad.
The growing team has spent the last year building its Philadelphia presence and getting more involved in the local tech community, Marketing Lead Lacey Althouse said. And in the last few years, email customers have recognized the advantages of private internet services like email.
“There’s large communities right now [that are] basically realizing if you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product,” she said. “It’s likely that company is making money on your data and information, and all you really get is a free account.”
We asked Horstmann-Allen and Signes about their experience being acquired, the changing internet landscape, and building an open-source product. Some answers have been shorted for brevity and clarity.
Helen, how has the world of email changed in the years since you first started working in it?
Helen Horstmann-Allen (HHA): Back then, it used to be easy to set up and run your own mail server. I did back then, just for fun! Today, running a mail server requires a huge amount of expertise in modern authentication protocols, reputation management and more. While most of our customers come to us because they want the features of Gmail without worrying about how their data will be used, we still see customers saying “I’ve had enough of running my own mail server, and you folks are clearly the experts!”
What is it like to be a leader of a company that gets acquired?
HHA: For me, I was looking for someone who would take care of my customers. When your selling point is lifetime email, it was hard to feel good about potential acquirers who talked about the value of the domain names, and asked lots of questions about getting folks off them. Finding an acquirer with a values alignment was a requirement for me. So, it was a slow process, and there were lots of points where I wondered whether I should compromise, just to get an exit.
Fastmail was always on my radar, and when they bought themselves back from Opera, it was a clear opportunity. They were a great fit for us, both from a technology and leadership standpoint, and I thought we could go further together. I started out looking for a new home for my customers, but it quickly became clear that it could be a new home for me and my team in Philadelphia as well.
What’s it been like to incorporate Australian culture into Fastmail’s Philly office and how do you operate with offices on opposite sides of the world?
HHA: I think it’s been a win for both offices, and the company as a whole. Our teams had the same values, but vastly different cultures — which I think was a huge opportunity for us to be intentional about the shared culture we wanted to have. In the U.S., we boosted the leave time to four weeks, added a week of dedicated sick leave and two extra holidays, including Election Day. [Editor’s note: Voting is mandated in Australia.]
I know I’ve also gotten more forceful about encouraging people to take time off. Our Australian team uses all their leave every year, and in much longer blocks. So it’s just part of our culture that we work to make sure there’s coverage, and with that comes the certainty that everyone on the team can really unplug from their roles.
Our U.S. office, on the other hand, was substantially more collaborative. We’ve always worked closely in cross-functional teams. Building that from scratch is a process that could have taken the Australian team quite a bit of time, so importing that culture from us helped bring it forward, fast.
The time zones can definitely be a challenge, and I personally take a lot of calls with my Australian team (though I’m sure still less than they would like to talk to me!). But it forces certain good habits like making sure meetings are well run and end on time, documenting research and decisions, and lots and lots of information sharing. Knowing you’ll wake up your colleague on the other side of the world if you need to call them is a great incentive for making your own information shareable.
Rik, tell us about the tech behind private email?
RS: Fastmail provides privacy by treating your email like a bank treats your money. We have it, we protect it from theft, and we carefully control what can access it, and we make sure that it’s always available to you, to use it how you like. Our search indexer, for example, can access your email to build your private search index, so that you get the same search results everywhere. Our support team can’t silently access your private data. If you want, you can reveal specific messages to them so they can help.
This kind of access control and accountability is built into everything we do, and we’re continuing to improve the ways that your data is isolated from us without being isolated from you. Quite a lot of this is made possible by our internal use of JMAP, a new email standard we developed, and which we hope will replace IMAP and some other Byzantine, outdated tech. Because its data model is so easy to work with, we were able to put authorization-based data hiding in place in just a day or two.
What I want is to know that some creepy company isn’t using their search indexes to figure out how to sell my psychometric profile to those who would use it for self-serving interests or means. There’s an argument to be made that one of the most useful technologies involved is the credit card. If you’re paying for a service, there’s far less reason for the service provider to sell your private data.
How does being open source play into how you further develop Fastmail’s products?
RS: The biggest change was when I started to manage open source projects that I used at work, and to manage staff who worked on open source projects during their work time. This is where it became obvious that there would always be conflicts of interest to resolve. The more deeply involved your work is with open source, the more you need a clear guiding principle to make your decisions easier and, for your fellow contributors, more predictable.
One of our company values is that we must be good internet citizens. To me, that means that we try to make everything we do shareable, and we never leave a project worse than we found it. We’ll put in the extra work to take things from “meets Fastmail’s needs” to “is generally useful.” This has a cost, but it means we’re maintaining the very environment that made it possible for us to succeed to begin with, which is the right thing to do.-30-
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