BY E.B. BOYD Today
With the rise of Square‘s paperless transactions, those instant digital receipts from Apple Store purchases and others, inboxes are the new wallets–stuffed with too many receipts to even begin to organize.
That’s why Project Slice is today launching a new application that will automatically scan your emails and collect all your purchase information in a single place. You’ll be able to see a history of what you bought and when. And for online purchases, you’ll be able to see when your items shipped and what their tracking number are.
While our inboxes contain the records of everything we’ve bought online, trying to retrieve that information by searching for individual emails is far from easy. “It’s a problem we all experienced personally,” Project Slice CEO Scott Brady says.
The new application, All My Purchases, is launching inside Yahoo Mail and will be rolled out to the service’s 89 million accounts in the United States this week and next. Project Slice is also beta-testing a version for Gmail. And mobile tools are in the works—so you can carry your purchase histories with you when you’re on the go.
The idea for the product came about circuitously, says Jeremy Liew, of Lightspeed Venture Partners, which provided seed funding for the company last year and just participated in a new $9.4 million round of Series A funding, and which worked with the Slice team to identify the product they wanted to build.
Project Slice formed about a year ago when its co-founders—all experienced entrepreneurs who knew each other from Stanford Business School—decided to develop a commerce-related product. At first, Liew tells Fast Company, the group thought they would head in the direction of social commerce.
Two other social commerce startups, Swipely (which lets you recommend things you bought) and Blippy (which lets you share credit card transactions), were heating up, and the Slice team thought they might create a tool to let people share their transactions as a way of expressing who they were, the same way people are increasingly sharing other parts of their lives online.
But in researching the idea, Liew says, the team discovered it wasn’t as promising as they’d originally thought. “They learned that very few people think you are what you buy, and very few want to live at that level of radical transparency,” Liew said.
Instead, however, they discovered an entirely different—and more fundamental—opportunity. People didn’t necessarily wanted to share their transactions with others, but they definitely wanted help managing all the receipts and shippping notices piling up in their Inboxes.
The result is a fairly simple, yet altogether ingenious utility. Using sophisticated algorithms to interpret the content of emails, All My Purchases can identify which emails contain information about purchases. It pulls all that information into a single application that shows all the things you bought—whether it’s a big-screen TV from Best Buy or a box of candy from a Mom-and-Pop saltwater taffy shop.
Or mostly. The system is still new, Brady says, and it’s dealing with unstructured data, meaning it depends on the algorithm to be able to interpret the meaning of the emails (as opposed to pulling data from a database, for example, where you can be sure that when you pull a set of words out of a field named “Address” you’re going to get an address).
As a result, Brady says All My Purchases can understand the information in just about all shipping notifications and about 80 percent of email receipts.
Project Slice expects the need for the service to grow in years to come. Online retailers will send out about 8 billion purchase-related notices this year, Slice estimates, and that number will grow as more and more brick-and-mortar retailers start replacing paper receipts with electronic ones, as stores like Patagonia, Banana Republic, and Nordstrum already have.
But Brady says the implications of the service will be even more profound than simply being able to quickly pull up the name of the vendor who sold you glow sticks for Burning Man last year. It will also help people stay organized in other areas as well—like quickly finding business expenses or items eligible for flexible spending account reimbursements.
And they’re doing even more. Once they’ve identified the merchant for a particular purchase, they can usually pull information into the system about the company, like its return policy and customer service phone number, so it’s right at the user’s fingertips.
Slice is even imaginging uses for the system that don’t necessarily exist in the real word, like finding ways to organize and present their purchase histories in ways that are meaningful to users. “Beta testers found that going through your purchases is like going through a photo album,” Brady says. “There’s a lot of emotion and experiences tied up in the things they bought.”
The company has attracted some notable investors—including Playdom founder Rick Thompson, Twitter funder Mike Maples’s FLOODGATE, and Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors, and Beebo co-founder Michael Birch.
Still, the company doesn’t yet have a business model. Brady says his team is primarily focused on building trying to build out a tool users find valuable.
“Users have all this rich information that sitting out there,” he says. “If we can find creative ways to deliver a more personalized experience for users, there’s a lot of value we can create for them.”