Digitizing Paper is a New Cottage Industry

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.

Mail

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.

Receipts

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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