Digitizing Paper is a New Cottage Industry

By Josh Catone
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If you’re like me, you have a filing cabinet full of paper. Health insurance forms, utility bills, car service records, tax receipts, etc. It piles up fast and keeping track of it all is something of a pain in the butt. For virtual teams, with employees scattered around the globe, the pain caused by piles of paper can be more pronounced. Over the past year or two, a handful of startups have emerged that help digitize your paper documents and sort and store them online.


Launched in 2006, Earth Class Mail offers what’s called a “remote mail service,” and they’ve raised $13.3 million to do it. Earth Class offers personal and business users a “digital mail room,” that consists of a real postal mail box. When mail comes in, it is sorted (based on who it is addressed to), scanned, stored online and emailed to the appropriate recipient.

Web startup Gliffy has a virtual team with members on 4 different continents. By using Earth Class Mail, says company CEO Chris Kohlhardt, they have been able to simplify their mail handling. The flood of mail that was so overwhelming, is now far more manageable.


When many people think of receipts they think of that episode of Seinfeld where George Constanza’s wallet, so fattened by store receipts, ends up causing him back pain. Founded in January 2007 by a senior at Duke University and launched later that year in July, Shoeboxed scans receipts for companies and individuals so that they’ll never have to deal with an overstuffed wallet again. Ultimately, Shoeboxed’s goal is a world completely free of receipts.

“In the future, wouldn’t it be great if you had a Shoeboxed card, for example, and you could swipe it at a store and they could just e-mail it to you at your Shoeboxed account?” company VP Dan Englander told the Washington Post in June. For now, the company is focusing on digitizing paper receipts, and acting as a storage point for emailed receipts from online purchases as well.

Other Documents

Recently launched Pixily, which was called a “revolution in the mailbox” by the Boston Globe, scans documents and stores them on Amazon’s S3 servers in a private, secure account. Users can also upload PDF and Microsoft Office documents as well.

If you want your documents public, and don’t mind ads being served next to them, Scribd offers a “Paper to iPaper” that scans documents for free.

Benefits and Challenges

The major benefits of these services are quite clear: less clutter and convenience. Instead of driving to the post office to pick up your snail mail, you could get it emailed to you. Instead of sorting through your filing cabinet for last October’s business dinner receipts, you could just search for the tagged, digitized version online.

There are also potential long term environmental benefits if any of these companies succeed in convincing the world that printed paper has to go.

There are some major hurdles as well, though, the two main ones being privacy and reliability. Why should I trust a company with my private health care or tax documents, for example? How do I know my private documents won’t be read or shared and are truly secure when they’re stored in the cloud? Also, without my paper backups, what happens to all my records if the company goes belly up? If I have to keep paper backups, there goes one of the major benefits of digitization (space saving).

Still, these services are interesting and seem to have hit upon a unique market opportunity. For many people who didn’t grow up in the all digital age, the benefits of digitizing their paper are clear but actually doing it is not something they’re willing to do on their own. And for virtual businesses, keeping everything virtual has real benefits that will make these services worthwhile investments.

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  • Eric

    There is also NeatReceipts which allows you to scan your own receipts into a file on your pc. Cheaper and more efficient.

  • danenglander

    Thanks for the mention, Josh. Shoeboxed is the only way to cheaply and efficiently outsource the really annoying part of organizing, which is of course the scanning part. We also have a free trial that you can access at start.shoeboxed.com

    Dan Englander

  • rickmans

    Perhaps a nice reference: Hamlet’s Blackberry why paper is eternal.

  • Eric

    Scanning receipts in takes 30 seconds a day, and is thus cheaper, and more efficient as there is no waiti time, and no concern of anyone seeing your private info.

  • danenglander


    If you can find a way to scan all my receipts in 30 seconds a day, I’d be interested! Unfortunately, when I used to use my scanner to scan all my receipts, it took me almost a day every month! Scanning is really time intensive unless you have a very expensive feed scanner.

    OCR software on desktop applications is not immediate; it can be very slow. It’s also only about 60-70% accurate in my experience. I think its something that a lot of people would like to do themselves, but it ends up piling up any way because it’s time consuming and boring.

    And if you’re curious about how Shoeboxed can help you, nothing is cheaper than free ;)

    Free trial: start.shoeboxed.com

    To read about our extensive privacy and security procedures, please check out our privacy policy.

    Dan Englander

  • Eric

    What can I tell you, I scan about 3 or 4 receipts perday into my scanner, and yes, while it takes more than 30 seconds, it does not take more than a minute. You must be a pretty small company if you have time for all this back and forth on some tech site.

  • danenglander

    Shoeboxed is one of the fastest growing companies in North Carolina, and we’ve just been nominated for an award by the Industry Standard! They just keep me around to spread the Shoeboxed love wherever I go :)

    Thanks for the exchange! Let me know if you have any other questions.

    My email is dan@team.shoeboxed.com


  • dg

    I have NeatReceipts, and yes, the scanning part has been a complete royal pain and way too time consuming for my preference. So much so that I’ve pretty much stopped using it.

    The Shoeboxed idea sounds interesting — my concern would be privacy. It’s great to have a privacy “policy”, but it doesn’t guarantee that unscrupulous employees would always comply. Although…you could argue that my bank (and their employees) have plenty of my private spending habit info (with the exception of cash purchases).