Thinking Outside the Shoebox
Receipts in America are pretty much a universal occurrence -- everyone has them scrunched in their wallets, purses and pants or littered about their house, where they may or may not get filed away.
Receipts have become part of pop culture. They're something that characters like George Costanza of "Seinfeld" have a love-hate relationship with - George kept a fat wallet full of receipts but had back problems because of it.
They've also become a part of politics - there's a law that says businesses can't list a person's full credit-card number on a receipt, only the last four digits, for security and privacy reasons.
But will paper receipts become a thing of the past?
"The whole idea of receipts seems anachronistic to us," says Dan Englander, a vice president with Shoeboxed, based in Durham, N.C. "Every time you make a transaction there needs to be a piece of paper for that? In the future, wouldn't it be great if you had a Shoeboxed card, for example, and you could swipe it at a store and they could just e-mail it to you at your Shoeboxed account?"
Shoeboxed's goal is to make it easy for a consumer to digitize, organize, analyze and export receipts, which the company says can cause stress and harm the environment. Customers can organize receipts themselves for free online on the Shoeboxed Web site or try out a premium service that allows them to send in receipts to the company, which scans and uploads them to an account where they can be imported into a spreadsheet or exported to different programs like Quicken.
Englander, 21, part of the executive team at the 15-person company, says he "can't remember going to school without computers or the Internet. For me, it's intuitive. But the people using Shoeboxed aren't from the Internet generation that we're from, but people generally have more trust in the Internet now. And technology makes it possible for us to run a sophisticated Web application online while five or six years ago it wasn't possible."
"People are starting to read digital books and download movies and music - it's the way we're going," said Englander. "It's probably more effective to have a digital paper trail because it's so easy to lose a receipt if your wallet is stolen or something."
Company founder and CEO Taylor Mingos started the firm in late 2006 with a team of Duke University alumni and students. Mingos, now 23, met Englander because they lived in the same dorm.
Englander was an editor at the Duke newspaper for three years when Mingos approached him to write a couple of pages for a Shoeboxed Web site. "Suddenly, I started working 50 to 60 hours a week for Shoeboxed on top of school," said Englander, who graduated about three weeks ago with a degree in public policy and economics.
Mingos moved the Shoeboxed team to Berlin for the summer of 2007 because he knew the startup community there from working as a marketer at Studivz.net, Germany's version of Facebook. He ultimately got Shoeboxed's seed financing from Studivz.net executives.
Shoeboxed clients are primarily small and home businesses like mom-and-pop gas stations, mechanics and bars as well as business travelers. "It's a great way to outsource a lot of receipts but not on the scale of some big-box retailer. If Wal-Mart came to us to scan their receipts, we couldn't do it," said Englander.
Vivimedia, a creative services agency in San Diego, mails its receipts to Shoeboxed because it's cost effective and goes with the company's mission of going green, said Tamara Tuttle, principal and founder of the company, which has two full-time employees and a stable of about a dozen contractors. Tuttle said she posts the Shoeboxed mail-in envelope in the office and workers just drop their receipts in it after coming back from lunch, for example. She sends it off to Shoeboxed but "then I never have to deal with it again" because the Vivimedia accountant deals with the spreadsheets online.
"Reconciling receipts and accounts "was the worst job I was doing on a regular basis as a small business owner," said Tuttle. "We're not accountants. We're artists. And now we can work on the stuff we like to work on."
One of the firm's first challenges was that when it launched its free do-it-yourself service on the Shoeboxed Web site, there was very little traffic because no one wanted to scan their receipts.
"Our solution...was to eliminate the pain of scanning receipts - and that's not anything we had discussed in the original business plan," said Englander.
The company currently focuses on organizing receipts and what Englander calls "cousins of receipts," like invoices and warranties. Shoeboxed doesn't scan general documents like letters and birthday cards. "We try and just stick to financial stuff," said Englander, who added that the company may eventually expand in that direction.
The firm has set up shop near the Duke campus in about 2,500 square feet of office space, of which about half is the mail-in operation. Fees range from $9.95 per month for regular mail to $59.95 for express mail services. The company sends customers a pre-paid envelope, which they mail to Shoeboxed full of their receipts. Shoeboxed then mails the empty envelope back to customers for reuse.
"I use Shoeboxed services myself, but to get receipts you usually have to spend money and that's something I don't really have a lot of right now," said Englander.
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