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Zumbox gives your house an e-mail in-box

Clever company aims to offer electronic statement delivery to banks, utilities, and other consumer billers.

Zumbox is an interesting e-mail start-up based on the company's capability to create an electronic mailbox for every residential physical address in the United States.

The idea is that companies that send our paper statements--banks, utility companies, and so on--can now send those documents electronically. The benefits include lower environmental impact, security, and archivability of the messages. More importantly, service providers already know their customers' physical addresses. They can start delivering messages to users immediately, instead of trying to gather their customers' e-mail coordinates.

To sign up for the service, consumers go to Zumbox, enter their physical address, and then wait for a physical letter to arrive with their Zumbox PIN. That closes the loop between online user and home address, and is used to unlock their electronic mailbox.

Billing companies don't have to wait for consumers to connect to the service before they start using it. The idea is that they just start sending their electronic print runs of bills and such to Zumbox, which then files messages in mailboxes waiting for consumers to activate their accounts.

Once customers sign into an account, they can then--for each biller sending them statements--optionally turn off the paper delivery they've been getting. Zumbox can alert users' preexisting e-mail accounts when they have new statements ready for them.

The consumer advantage over getting regular e-mail from a biller? It's a central, secure clearinghouse for bills, and it's archived at the Zumbox site. For the biller, the big advantage, as I said, is setup, since they already know their customers' physical addresses.

Zumbox matches real-world physical addresses with users' online coordinates. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET Networks

Zumbox President Glen Ward told me that the service is also secure, to HIPAA and other levels, allowing the safe sending of financial and personal medial information.

The service is free for businesses sending account-based mail, like bills and statements, to customers.

So what's the catch? Commercial mail. Zumbox's customers can also send "special offers" (junk mail to you and me) to subscribers, and not just those whose physical addresses they know. They can blanket entire apartment buildings, or select all addresses within a radius around a given point.

The volume of spam should be kept in check by Zumbox's business model. It charges companies 5 cents per piece of junk--sorry, per special offer--delivered. Users can also opt out of receiving the messages per sender (but not overall).

However, if, like many people, you like getting catalogs in the mail, Zumbox's "offers" service could be a real boon: it lets you get a ton more direct mail without having to hassle with the overflow of paper catalogs. It's also, clearly, a very green solution to mail overload.

Zumbox is clever, and, I think, really useful. But it has a real challenge: it's a middleman business that doesn't become truly valuable for for its for endpoint users (senders and consumers) until there's a critical mass of both. That's a tough slog.

Fortunately for Zumbox, the costs for building out this business are reasonable. Zumbox runs on Amazon's EC2, unlike the very ambitious Earth Class Mail, which needed a giant physical facility to intercept and scan postal mail for its users.

The company has raised $4 million in private (non-venture) funding so far, and Ward says his runway is "as long as we need," even though he plans to start stumping for venture funds in the summer. He also says he has several high-profile senders lined up to start using the service. He wouldn't tell me who they are, but says he'll announce them shortly.