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E-mail start-up looks back to the future

Zairmail, which has gotten funding from Hewlett-Packard, takes typewritten letters sent through its Web site and delivers them via the U.S. Postal Service.

Ever wish you got more letters in your mailbox than in your in-box?

The solution may be at hand. Portland, Ore.-based Zairmail takes typewritten letters sent through its Web site, prints them and delivers them to their destination via the U.S. Postal Service.

Customers can either pay about $1 per letter for the convenience or have their letter stuffed with advertising and sent for free. The company, which has gotten funding from Timberline Venture Partners and Hewlett-Packard, said the system is ideal for sending letters to friends without e-mail or when people want to put more personalization into their correspondence.

"Let's say you have an aunt or someone who doesn't have e-mail, or you want to send out invitations," said Elena Vejarano, Zairmail's marketing and communications manager.

Zairmail's model may also appeal to people in business who have become overwhelmed with the sheer volume of correspondence passing through their in-boxes. When receiving hundreds of e-mails each day, personal notes from friends or family can be overlooked or accidentally erased. This has led some people to turn to instant messaging programs, the telephone and so-called snail mail, or regular mail. Zairmail says it offers another alternative.

Acutely aware of the dot-com die-off, however, Zairmail says it is not putting too much emphasis on the consumer end of its business. Instead, the company is focusing on its corporate customers, who pay for the service in lieu of patronizing a direct mail house. Zairmail executives say the service can send out massive mailings much more quickly than direct mail houses--in three to four days compared with three weeks.

"I would say our competitive edge is the speed, that we can turn things around quickly," Vejarano said.

Political organizations and companies with franchises have used Zairmail's service to send mailings, the company said.

"They can do a direct mail piece, upload it, upload their mailing list, and then we handle the rest, or we can do the mailing list," said Bill Impey, Zairmail's vice president of marketing. "We can also provide addresses."

Zairmail launched its service in November 2000 and now has about 100 business customers, and about 45 advertising customers for its consumer model. Impey said the company is considering an initial public offering, but said it will not be in the immediate future.