Paperless World

Posted in Big Thought, Business, New by Harsha on March 23, 2008

“Paperless office” if I recall correctly, was the buzzword in the very early 90s. Later Adobe was heralded for Acrobat and paper was declared irrelevant. That was then, this is now. I just saw Mojo HD’s “Start-up Junkies” and their first season is focused on Earth Class Mail Inc.

I realized just how paperless I have gone since 2002/2003. For instance, I no longer receive paper statements for my credit cards or checking account. Checks that are deposited in the ATM now appear as images thanks to Check21. 100% of all faxes that come into my office are all “efax” – and as long as we’re not mandated to send back hard copies of signed contracts, we just fax the printed copy to our eFax number, which comes to us as an email. Invoices for services delivered are also now almost 100% paperless. And of course, greeting cards have been electronic since 1997.

Similarly, while in the MBA program, I wrote all my papers in MS Word and some were even uploaded to Blackboard that is prevalent in US educational institutions, but not exploited to its full potential by all professors (some disliked it even!). For some I had to submit print copies. Many tech-savvy professors reviewed the papers online and submitted grades in the system as well.

In a flat world, being paperless is the only way things can work and have been working since outsourcing began 12+ years ago. The other day I was emailing chatting with my friend Subbu who lives in Bangalore and works for Ernst & Young doing taxes for it’s American clients. How do you think he is exchanging information with the US office? I am pretty sure he gets all his work electronically, he works on his computer and then sends it back electronically. Paper is analog and obviously, email is digital. And it looks like you can take any existing system and re-imagine it digitally and almost automatically you can create a product and start a business.

Subbu also talked about microfinance. In traditionally poor countries, paper receipts are prevalent. So many of these entrepreneurs borrowing micro loans, are quite electronically adept. Many even have hand held computers. So going paperless can solve a small problem of avoiding missed micro loan receipts all the way to processing tax returns globally.

So when I saw and learned about Earth Class Mail, I was blown away in some respects and skeptical in others. Obviously I am not an immediate potential customer because I don’t own a PO Box, but the solution is brilliant. If I review all the mail I get electronically, trash all the direct marketing pieces of crap and have them recycle it (which is a service they offer for free) and electronically store anything else that is of value, then I think it is a brilliant piece of personal management. Owning a PO box now immediately looks like something my grandfather would have liked using, enjoying a leisurely walk down the street to meet his post office friends and have a chat

Of course, the coverage on Mojo HD (which is on cable) is something I absolutely love because it tells a story neatly edited yet with the fervor and excitement in a startup on small victories (I work in one). One of the episodes shows Ron Wiener who has just started blogging, talking to the Post Master General of India Post and was able to get him and PM Generals from many other nations to agree to run pilot programs. So even these bureaucratic government run organizations are looking to go paperless. That too all at once, globally.

So looks like paperless has finally arrived. I would be delighted if Ron Wiener would be interested in a discussion on this interesting topic.

UPDATE: On further research, I ran across this really nice blog about a Chiropractor in San Diego, CA trying to and then running a paperless office. Here are all the paperless posts, and here is an interesting post in particular.