About 6 months ago, I switched from Outlook to Gmail and wrote about the experience. It was a move I haven’t regretted, and I’ve never been tempted to return to Outlook. Despite a few glitches in the matrix that occur when Gmail goes down, the service is as close to “free, perfect, and now” as it gets. So, why am I spending time switching to an email service by an unknown start-up called Relenta?

In a more recent post looking at the evolution of tools for sales, I expressed my frustration not so much with Gmail but with having to integrate multiple work and productivity tools. This prompted Dmitry of Relenta to contact me, and he has been “relentless” in helping me switch to Relenta. In this post, I’ll document my early experience with the process.

Why Consider Yet Another Webmail Tool?

Dmitry probably has a hard time getting attention for Relenta. What could be more boring than yet another webmail system? He got my attention, though, by claiming that Relenta would reclaim one hour of my day by making my routine work more productive. From my first look at Relenta, this looks possible (but far from certain — these are still very early days).

The short of it is that Relenta has email at its core, but it is a lot more than email. Actually, any corporate type who has “lived in” Outlook for years already has something like this. Outlook/Exchange is a lot more than email, too, except it is tied to the PC.

SaaS tools have done well by being simple. But integration eventually becomes the pain point. And integration does not simply mean a bit of middleware that integrates data. Nor does it mean a suite with basic levels of integration. There has to be some UI magic that makes it all look simple.

The deciding factor for me was my need for a basic CRM. Would a simple low-cost product like Zoho or SugarCRM do the trick? Or perhaps something hacked together from Gmail and related tools? The reality was that email would remain the core of my daily work, so adding CRM capability would mean having the following:

  1. Contact manager: contact groups, contact-specific filters, follow-up management.
  2. Task manager: to-do lists, follow-ups, prioritizing, all around getting-things-done capability.
  3. Calendar: which is essential to task management.
  4. Really simple email marketing automation: auto-responders, lists, canned responses.
  5. File management: quick and easy document attachments.

Relenta claims that “it takes just one click from any screen within Relenta to respond to emails, update contact information, add calendar events, or create to-do lists.”

From a few days of use, it looks like Relenta does this fairly well. It’s not perfect yet, but switching to a new system is like moving into a new home: it has to at least be good enough at first, and you have to be confident that you can rip out the ugly linoleum without destroying the house or your budget.

I saw enough positive reviews to be convinced that Relenta is for real. This survey by SalesTeamTools was particularly helpful:

“Email-Centered Contact Management Software
****½

“With an update to our review of online contact managers, we introduce Relenta. But this is a whole new world. Just to get you setup and running, Relenta requires a pretty web- and techno-savvy person. But if you can get that squared away within your company, or through your computer-neighbor down the street, you’ll become addicted to the features Relenta offers.

“Relenta is really an email management and marketing system, all wrapped inside a solid online contact management program. It can free you from using Outlook or any other email client, consolidates all your incoming and outgoing email by tying each to a contact in your database, and includes killer email/newsletter marketing features. You can also share emails, contacts and contact-based notes across a team.

“It is a powerhouse: it’s feature-packed and offers far more than typical contact management. But it’s also not for the faint of heart. It takes quite a bit of time to fully appreciate the concept, to get setup and to get used to operating.

“But if you’re in this for the long haul, and you want more than a glorified address book, set aside some time and give Relenta a try. Relenta offers plans for $20 or $25 per month per user.”

My experience so far echoes the review. And that is why I am switching — cautiously.

Why Cautiously?

Here are two reasons:

  1. The services are mission critical for me and too important to mess up.
  2. Relenta is a small start-up. It could fail or mess up.

And here is how I am hedging my bets:

  1. I still have Gmail. This is a standard parallel-run implementation and is how I made my transition from Outlook to Gmail. I never had to go back to Outlook. Now, email to my Gmail account is simply forwarded to my Relenta account.
  2. All CRMs and contact managers take some effort to get the best out of them. I am investing this effort bit by bit. For example, I have taken the trouble to group and tag one set of contacts. If that enables me to be more productive in that area, I will invest time in other areas.

Personal Tool or Group Tool?

Relenta is more useful when your colleagues use it as well, because then it allows you to avoid the endless rounds of email forwarding and lengthy mail lists and threads. Your work categories and contact tags can also be used by colleagues. But persuading my colleagues, who are less email-obsessed than I am, to make the switch at the same time would have been too hard. So, my test was whether I could reasonably improve my productivity while keeping it only as a personal tool.

Outlook/Exchange has a similar issue. You can use Outlook as a personal tool, but there are bigger benefits when the whole company uses Exchange. In the old days, somebody in IT told you what to use. Today, individuals can make more decisions and get colleagues to buy in gradually.

How Fast Will Relenta Innovate to Create the Ideal Tool?

Relenta is working on two fronts that are important to me:

  1. Easy integration with social media. Following email threads is fine, and viewing all email communication with one contact is good. But what if the communication you’re looking for happened on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, or Skype?
  2. Native Blackberry integration. Specifically Blackberry, not the iPhone. Relenta appeals to people who like Outlook, and those people tend to have Blackberrys. And I’m not just talking about a mobile browser version either, which is easy, but integration with native Blackberry tools. That’s hard. Relenta at least views this as a priority.

I’ll report on my progress with Relenta in follow-up posts or in comments to this post. I would love to get feedback from people who have experience, good or bad, with Relenta.