At Cambridge-based Cannonball, alumnus seeks to make email personal again

December 5, 2013

Cannonball co-founder Raffaele Colella, MBA ’11

Cannonball co-founder Raffaele Colella, MBA ’11

Before the term “social networking” even existed, email was the original online communications tool. Although today it seems hard to believe, almost all emails were once person-to-person, and the arrival and spread of electronic mail revolutionized communications in a way that rivaled the telephone in conquering the expanse of geography and time.

Today, email accounts are cluttered with e-newsletters, subscriptions, and marketing messages. Communication from real people fills only 14 percent of inboxes. “Unread messages” have become more daunting than welcoming, and many people establish free email accounts just to stockpile messages they may never read.

Raffaele Colella, MBA ’11, and Cannonball, the company he co-founded, recently released a new app aimed at tablet users to help them “love email again.” Despite the plethora of digital communications tools, Colella said, email remains the common denominator. Cannonball is a visual interface that helps users to separate and prioritize messages from real people, while also allowing easy browsing for e-newsletters and subscription emails like Groupon.

Where other email apps are useful in organizing emails into defined and managed files, Colella said Cannonball is a more visual approach, designed specifically for the different and more relaxed manner in which tablets are used.

   The Cannonball app, as used by Daisy BuchananThe Cannonball app, as used by Daisy Buchanan

“Email is overcrowded by computer-generated content, and the direct contact [with people] is not really enjoyed in email,” said Colella. “The first thing we do is automatic organization, so that you can chat with people, you can find your transaction emails, and you can browse your leisure email.”

The Cannonball app is free at the Apple App Store, and was launched to work with Gmail accounts, and recently added Yahoo, iCloud, AOL, and Outlook.com, Colella said. Over the coming year, the company will run monetization tests in the email marketing space, given that the visual showcase of those messages enhances the user’s experience and their engagement with content.

A native app

Personal connections, Colella said, are not only a priority in Cannonball’s product design, but also in how the company is run. Founding the company in 2012, the Cannonball team remains geographically close to campus by working in the Cambridge Innovation Center in Kendall Square. Colella remains deeply connected to the MIT entrepreneurial community.

“This is the place where we met, and where we still receive a lot of resources in terms of human resources and capital. Most of our investors are local,” Colella said. “It’s an amazing melting pot, a great ecosystem with people who bring capital, people who bring advice. And that you can’t find many places. If you’re in Kendall Square, everything happens here. We have a few MIT professors as investors, which has been a great source of validation for us.”

“I think the great thing about [meeting people in person] is you can discard all the noises, you can judge for yourself, and you can decide what’s important,” he said. “It’s a bit like what we wanted to do with email. It was your original ‘social network,’ and then it was so good it became cluttered and it was not invented for that. We’re forcing it to be more functional. We’re giving it a makeover, making it more beautiful and more meaningful.”

In addition to Colella, Cannonball’s co-founders include Jim Caralis, a former consumer product director at Where (acquired by PayPal), and Thibault Le Conte, former chief technology director and co-founder of Mobee. Andrew Lai, an MIT graduate student, recently joined the team.