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Sparrow finds perch in ultra-competitive e-mail software market

After graduating from École des Hautes Études Commerciales de Paris, one of Europe's leading business schools, Dominique Leca spent two years working for a Web development company doing mock-ups of iPhone and iPad applications.

It was an intriguing job for someone with a business degree but the biggest lesson Mr. Leca learned in creating sketches of how an application should work was the importance of simplicity.

"I made things as simple as possible to minimize the efforts of the [software engineers]" he said during a recent interview from Paris.

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Armed with real-world experience about user interface and experience, Mr. Leca left his job to start a company. He was joined shortly afterward by Hoa Dinh Viet, who had been working on a mail engine for 10 years.

It turned out to be a perfect marriage as Mr. Leca used his experience to create a beautiful design for Viet's technology. The result was Sparrow, user-friendly e-mail software for the Mac that has been a major success since its release in late 2010.

To put things in context, the e-mail software market is ultra-competitive, with several large established players – Outlook, Apple Mail, Gmail, Yahoo Mail and Hotmail – and dozens, if not hundreds, of smaller players looking for a foothold.

So what sets Sparrow apart? Perhaps the biggest difference is the look and feel, which is user-friendly and easy to navigate. Another good feature is the integration with Gmail, which makes it a good option for people who are using Gmail but are looking for desktop software as opposed to an online service.

In some respects, Mr. Leca and Mr. Viet got lucky because Apple was focused on upgrading its operating system rather than improving applications, such as Mail. It provided Sparrow with a window of opportunity that placed it at the right place at the right time.

"We thought it made a lot of sense to do it," Mr. Leca said. "From a business standpoint, I knew building an mail engine is really complicated and requires a lot of investment. I was lucky to partner with someone who had been doing it for 10 years, and we built something amazing. There is no one who will start from scratch to build a new mail engine because it's too complicated and too expensive."

Mr. Leca and Mr. Viet got another lucky break when they caught the attention of Xavier Niel, one of France's leading seed investors. After meeting four days following Sparrow's release of the beta version of its software, a seed round was quickly raised, Mr. Leca said. This was no small feat, he said, in an investment climate that moves slowly. The money enabled Sparrow, which has been profitable since it launched, to refine its beta.

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As Sparrow captured more users, the five-employee company focused on developing an i Phone app. It was not an easy task because the mail engine had to be completely reworked to create one that consumed less computing processing power and memory. After seven months, Sparrow for the iPhone was released to critical acclaim.

Mr. Leca said Sparrow now has 250,000 to 300,000 users. This consists of people who have purchased the Mac software for $9.99 or downloaded a free, ad-supported version, as well as the $2.99 iPhone application.

The next obvious move for Sparrow would appear to be an application for the iPad but Leca said the immediate priority is stabilizing the Mac software and improving the iPhone application.

"We are still pondering an iPad application, and there is a fair possibility we will do it sooner or later." he said. "We are also thinking about an Android version because it's growing fast. We will focus a lot of effort on the 2.0 version of the Mac."

What about Windows, the world's leading operating system? Mr. Leca is non-committal, saying he has a new Nokia Lumia smartphone, which is powered by a Microsoft operating system, but it is too early to say whether Sparrow will do anything in the future.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Mark Evans is the principal with ME Consulting, a communications and marketing strategic consultancy that works with startups and fast-growing companies to create compelling and effective messaging to drive their sales and marketing activities. Mark has worked with four startups – Blanketware, b5Media, PlanetEye and Sysomos. He was a technology reporter for more than a decade with The Globe and Mail, Bloomberg News and the Financial Post. Mark is also one of the co-organizers of the mesh, meshmarketing and meshwest conferences.

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