Mick and Ryan have been working together for 6+ years through all the ups and downs of startup life. Before Mainframe, they worked on a project called Undrip. Below is a picture of the two in their shared flat when they had just moved to London in 2014.
Our investors are deeply familiar with the world of messaging, collaboration & work-focused tools. It’s an honor to have these smart people believe in us.
And we’re backed by some of the best venture capital firms in the world (they’ve also invested in Facebook, Square, Uber, Docker, Viv, Dollar Shave Club, Honest Company, and many more)
We’re a team of 11 full-time people based mostly in London (a few remote developers). You can read our hiring values and better understand the types of people we try to surround ourselves with.
We’ve had the privilege to work with so many amazing people throughout the years (see Our Journey below). We especially admire those who have gone on to start their own projects or found their own companies. A few examples include Cahlan Sharp (founded DevMountain - since acquired), Jay Marcyes (cofounded FirstOpinion), Nick Walter (founded Zappy Code), Thomas Moulia (cofounded HealthTensor), Stuart Kelly (cofounded Zego), Lorenzo Sicilia (cofounded Ernest), and many others who are now self-employed pursuing their own projects (Noura Asaad, Chris Maximin, Arjun Shankar, Christian Giordano). We strive to make Mainframe a place where the entrepreneurial spirit can grow and be cultivated. We’re proud of the Undrip/Spatch/Mainframe mafia.
For many years we’ve been toiling away at trying to solve some of the inefficiencies of how people connect and collaborate at work. We’ve built and shipped many features, products and versions. We’ve learned a lot through the failures. Any other team would have quit years ago — we’re relentless. Dart by dart, throw by throw… we’re closing in on that bullseye. Don’t blink or you might miss it.
Our first crack at this was to build a layer on top of email (IMAP/SMTP). The project was called Spatch. The idea was to allow a sender to add context/intent to every email (i.e. highlight a task and add a due date). Ryan and Mick were the only ones working full-time but we had various interns and friends helping along the way. Watch the working demo in our YC application video (YC rejected us).
We kept hitting walls. Putting metadata in the email headers or as an email attachment turned out to be unreliable and clunky — each email client would handle it differently. And email is soooo slooooow — it didn’t feel like a modern, real-time messaging app. We still believed in our vision but knew we couldn’t do it on email. This first attempt was a failure.
Though discouraged and frustrated, we were still restless about this problem space. Email was broken and we had become deeply familiar with why. We couldn’t help but think of all the ways it could be better. On New Years Eve 2013, on a whim and with only an idea, we applied to participate in the Techstars London accelerator program. We said we wanted to build a new protocol that would replace email. They accepted us crazies into the program. We bought one way tickets to London and haven’t looked back since.
We started rethinking email from the ground up. We did a lot of experimentation and tinkering during our time at Techstars. We built a prototype to demonstrate use-cases. The video below highlights the initial vision. You can also watch our Techstars Demo Day video.
We raised $3.2m in our Seed Round from mostly European investors and some strong angel investors who understand the space we’re operating (many of those listed above in Advisors & Investors section). We still didn’t have much to show for it other than a really strong team and a solid prototype.
During a team offsite in Portugal, our protocol ideas really started to take shape. We basically considered every email inbox like a personal database. However, data inside one’s inbox is completely unstructured — making interoperability very difficult. Another big problem with email is that it was not designed to be a platform where applications could leverage this inbox data. Our protocol would address both of these fundamental issues (unstructured data, platform functionality). This was bigger than messaging. We were inventing a new decentralized operating system — the inbox was one’s personal database and applications could make use of this data. Many types of applications could be built on this new protocol — a messaging app, a file-sharing tool, even a social network. The world was at our fingertips.
Investor pressure was mounting — they wanted to see results. Decentralized protocols using operational transformation algorithms is very complex stuff. Investors started to wonder if we were an Academic R&D Lab more than a startup. After much heated debate, we decided to put our federated protocol dreams on hold. We needed to build a product that we could commercialize. Pragmatism prevailed.
One of our advisors was aware that the E&Y Dublin office was looking to build their own tool to manage communication and task management. She made the intro and we won the deal to build a prototype. The team was able to rally around a common goal and we gained great data and insights. However, we knew this wasn’t a target customer. The process was incredibly slow, painful and beauracratic.
We were invited to “launch” at Techcrunch Disrupt in London. We had to scramble to adjust the E&Y prototype for something that better reflected our vision. Given how quickly this was hacked together, we knew the product was fragile. This was a great opportunity to learn and get feedback. TechCrunch’s article says We are the best of Email and Slack.
The response from Techcrunch Disrupt was positive. We shipped the prototype anyway (eek!) so that we could continue to learn and iterate. We worked closely with a handful of companies to make sure we we had our ideas grounded in real use-cases and real problems. We kept shipping, learning, listening, and iterating (scheduling, polls, more email compatibility, To Dos). We knew we were accruing technical debt but we wanted to keep the momentum rolling.
We raise $2.3m in what is basically a Seed Extension — mostly from angels and familly offices. This round wasn’t easy. We’ve clearly had a few false-starts up to this point but we continue to learn, improve and fight.
Post-funding, we knew we needed to stop hacking on the prototype and instead build a real product. We start work on rewriting our API (now Relay/Graphql) and unifying our client code-base (using React Native on mobile, dropping into native iOS/Android when needed, sharing most of the mobile components with desktop via React-Native-Web). This was a risky investment but in hindsight the correct decision.
The re-write was successful — performance is strong, 95% of our client codebase is shared, and our ability to iterate quickly was greatly improved. We ship many great features like Teams, To Do List, Updates, and more. Positive response from our pilot customers.
With a solid foundation to build from, we’re excited to go beyond messaging. For us, it never was about messaging. It has always been about helping people be more productive, get more work done, and be better humans. We’re returning to our roots.
Since the beginning we’ve wanted to build a platform where rich applications could thrive. Since the beginning we’ve wanted structured data to be first class citizens — better interoperability, more efficient consumption. Since the beginning we’ve wanted to focus on real utility, real use-cases, real work (not stickers or games). It’s been a long winding road but we’ve finally arrived — we’re the Operating System for Work.