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The elusive paperless office: HelloSign says it has the answer

The new product from Y-Combinator's HelloFax aims to replace printing and scanning documents while taking a consumer approach to the fabled office of the future.

HelloFax CEO Jospeh Walla wants to kill printers and scanners -- doing away with them one digital signature at a time.

HelloFax is known for letting people send and receive faxes, request signatures, and fill out forms -- all without a physical document. From that service, the company is launching HelloSign, which lets people sign documents digitally.

Through HelloSign, Walla hopes to accomplish what many companies have tried and failed to do: create a paperless office. It was a dream born in the dot-com era but never realized, as workers still cling to physical paper despite the financial and environmental benefits of not doing so.

"The paperless office is this massive failure," Walla said. "It's something that has been promised to us for more than 10 years and it just has not come around."

He described the current era as an "in-between period," where people are increasingly mobile -- with their personal life and at work -- but they still need a scanner or printer. When a signature is needed for a legally binding document, people have to print out the doc, sign it, and then scan and send it or fax it.

"It wastes a tremendous amount of time," Walla said. He thinks HelloSign is the next step in reducing the need for paper documents.

HelloSign is remarkably slick for an e-signature program. It's a Web-based program that lets users drag and drop documents for uploading. Users can upload or create a signature that's inserted into the doc. Even the text-functions (used for filling out forms) are easier to use than those in other programs I've experienced. After the document is signed, users just plug in an e-mail address, add a custom e-mail message if they want, and hit Send.

Screenshot by Donna Tam/CNET

Signatures and e-mails are tracked using IP addresses, cookies, and other info. Walla said security is the "cornerstone" of HelloSign's services.

Y-Combinator Partner Garry Tan, who is an advisor at HelloFax, said HelloSign's biggest obstacle is not security, but changing consumer behavior. Whether you're comfortable with storing things in a cloud or sending a digital signature is a personal choice, Tan said.

"The key here is just great user experience. Also, I think a lot of it just comes down to the way things are sold. If you're selling it to a customer, they would need to be able to use it in five seconds flat," he said.

Walla said the program's simplicity is part of the product's appeal. Other programs cost money and are bloated and difficult to use, he said. HelloSign's service is free to consumers and big businesses. Taking a cue from Yammer's approach to business services, HelloSign plans to give companies the option to upgrade to premium features for more complex tasks.

Tan said there's a trend at Y-Combinator of moving toward consumer focused products for enterprise purposes, and HelloSign is a good example.

"They have a good plan," Tan said. "The hardest part with any consumer product is getting people to know about it. From what I have seen, when someone finds out about it, they use it once and they'll use it forever."

HelloSign also stores the signed documents, and for a limited time cloud-storage company Box -- which just raised $125 million in its latest round of funding -- will provide 25GB of free storage for HelloSign customers.

HelloSign plans to work with more companies that will make the transition to a paperless office possible.

"There are definitely more tools that we envision will make you more and more paperless. If we don't have it, we will partner with other companies," Walla said.

Who wouldn't want a paperless office? Printers are often the bane of every workspace, as CNET's Molly Wood has so eloquently put it.

HelloSign hopes it can offer a remedy.