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Earth Class Mail attempts reboot in Beaverton

Few Oregon startups have launched to greater expectations than Earth Class Mail.

The grand concept was to take old-fashioned paper mail and digitize it, so you could access letters from anywhere and wouldn’t have to bother with the piles of paper and junk mail that flood our mailboxes.

The ambitious Beaverton company packed up and moved its headquarters north to Seattle in 2006, where it landed millions in venture backing and captured the attention of the tech press. The New York Times prominently reviewed its service, and Michael Arrington — the influential founder of the online journal TechCrunch — proclaimed it “a great idea.”

As many a tech startup has discovered, though, a great idea doesn’t always make a good business.

Digitizing all that paper proved hugely expensive, and Earth Class Mail couldn’t make its business pay. Funding ran out when the recession hit and that could have been the end of the story.

Today, though, Earth Class Mail is back in Beaverton. Remaining employees are working out of an industrial building there, re-imagining the company and attempting a reboot.

No one expects to change the world anymore. But they do expect to make money, calibrating their expectations toward an obtainable objective.

“There was so much hyperbole over what this was,” said chief executive Sarah Carr, a turnaround specialist hired to rehabilitate the company. “Unraveling the truth from the myth is still something we wrestle with at times.”

There’s nothing unusual about a startup burning out, or fading away. Startups are deliberately ambitious, risking oblivion for a shot at fortune. And Earth Class Mail’s aspirations, taking on the U.S. Postal Service, among others, were especially lofty.

What’s unusual is that Earth Class Mail is attempting a second act.

The company, founded by veteran Portland entrepreneur Ron Wiener, sought to do for snail mail what the cell phone had done for the telephone. Instead of arriving on your doorstep, your mail would go to a central processing facility where scores of workers would scan it.

Customers could access their mail through a secure Web browser from anywhere in the world, disposing of unwanted messages with a click of the mouse and archiving others. Foreigners could establish a “prestige address” in Manhattan, or Hollywood, to correspond with associates in the U.S.

It was an appealing idea: Your physical location would be that much less relevant as an increasingly mobile population could receive mail anywhere, at any time.

Customers showed interest, but the business wasn’t penciling out. It took 60 people to process all the mail, and Earth Class Mail was losing money on every customer.

When the financial crisis hit and the economy turned south, Earth Class Mail’s backers started to lose their appetite. Carr, hired as chief operating officer in 2008, became CEO in September 2009. See full story

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