MailChannels builds email security products for hosting providers to give users a more secure, more reliable email experience. The company helps businesses grow by providing solutions that protect their servers from sending spam, identify bad actors, and deliver a superior email service. We’ve asked Ken Simpson, Co-Founder & CEO of MailChannels about the company history and the email delivery service they provide.
Let’s begin with company history. What made you decide to start the company?
Ever since graduating from engineering school, it’s been my dream to build a significant part of the internet’s infrastructure. Email security seemed like a place where there were a lot of problems to solve, and of course, there are lots of problems with email. So when the co-founder of MailChannels told me about a cool idea for disposable email addresses he had back in 2003, I jumped on the opportunity to get started in the space.
What were the important milestones? How did the industry react to your service?
After a few pivots (the disposable email address idea wasn’t commercially viable way back then), we found ourselves helping VPS and dedicated server providers to identify spam by transparently filtering their outgoing email traffic with our software. One of our customers had a uniquely difficult time filtering spam from his shared hosting farm – he had about 500,000 domains and a very widely dispersed infrastructure – and our software just wasn’t cutting it. What he really needed was for someone to just take over the problem for him. And so we started the MailChannels Outbound service, delivering his shared hosting email.
The reaction from the industry was pretty fast. Shared hosting servers generate a lot of spam and phishing when user accounts and web sites — especially WordPress sites — get taken over and used by spammers. Identifying and blocking spam and phishing from compromised accounts is a very challenging task. On top of this, you have to deal with IP blocklists, abuse reports, feedback loops, and all of the other vagaries of just delivering email to the inbox. The idea of outsourcing to a provider who takes care of all these problems for you was pretty appealing, so our service took off rapidly from the start. I think we added 100 hosting customers just in the first twelve months after launch.
Eventually, customers started asking us if we had any plans to also do inbound email filtering. We resisted the urge to jump into the inbound filtering space, because it is so crowded. But eventually, you just have to do what customers ask. So today we also have a pretty awesome inbound email filtering service and are making rapid progress convincing hosting providers to ditch their in-house or on-premise software for spam filtering and just let us take care of that as well.
Which sectors can have the benefits of MailChannels solutions? Who is your target audience?
Our sweet spot is definitely shared hosting – sometimes referred to as SMB hosting. Our outbound service is perfectly designed to deliver email for anyone who manages a lot of email accounts or servers that have to send email, over which they have little control, or where there is a pattern of abuse such as account takeovers. Within the SMB hosting market, we are pretty dominant. We are number one globally in terms of the number of domains that are sending email through a cloud delivery service.
How does an SMTP relay service work? Tell us about the MailChannels infrastructure.
Our platform has evolved a great deal since the early days, but fundamentally a few things never change. Customers send email through an initial SMTP proxy layer, which performs authentication. Policies are applied based on the nature of the message and the behavior of the sender. And then we queue the message for eventual delivery to receivers on the internet. We keep detailed logs of everything we have done so that customers can search those logs if they need to. And when we detect problems such as compromised accounts, we let the customer know by sending them a webhook or email notification.
To make everything scale – we send a great deal of email – we run our cloud within Amazon Web Services (AWS). We have been an Amazon customer since 2006 and continually take advantage of the new capabilities they are constantly rolling out. We use Kubernetes to orchestrate a huge farm of containers, scaling things up and down as needed. From the customer’s perspective, we just look like an SMTP relay. But behind the scenes, at any time there could be thousands of different components talking to each other to get email delivered.
I should admit that while we have a lot of custom software internally, we use plain old Postfix to queue email for final delivery. Postfix is a robust open-source email server that has been hardened through more than two decades of development and active use. With just a few hacks, Postfix robustly delivers email to receivers all over the internet and just about never fails us.
What is the most technically challenging thing for the hosting companies while fighting against spam filtering?
Providers like Gmail and Microsoft 365 frequently block hosting servers when they detect unwanted or dangerous email. For example, a single hacked WordPress plugin sending out phishing email can get the IP address for an entire shared hosting server blocked, causing delivery problems for everyone else who is hosted on the same machine.
Hosting providers have to rapidly identify all sources of bad email and reliably stop them from sending out this bad email. But because it’s really hard to stop all the bad stuff, inevitably some poor person at the hosting company ends up swapping out IP addresses that have become blocked and communicating with the email receivers to try and get IPs de-listed from blocklists. It’s a total nightmare that eats up a lot of time and leaves end users very frustrated.
What are the benefits of using MailChannels? What differs MailChannels from the competitors?
Our most common feedback is, “it just works.” Honestly, the best thing we can hear from our customers is… nothing. We aim to be like the telephone network. We provide that email dial tone that customers can rely on so that they don’t have to waste their time figuring out how to get email delivered. Competitors generally offer a software solution that requires a lot of setup, configuration, and ongoing maintenance. We’re plug and play. The easy option.
Who is using your services? Tell us about a customer success story, please.
One customer I’m super proud of is Dreamhost. Before rolling out MailChannels, Dreamhost struggled to respond to about 300 email delivery related tickets every week. Their mail server IPs would get blacklisted and then they’d have to spend hours reconfiguring and talking to blocklist operators to get delisted. Worse, customers were experiencing a high rate of “junk-foldering,” which is what happens when a large provider like Gmail decides to put email into the junk folder rather than the recipient’s inbox. Because junk-foldering doesn’t cause any kind of error message, messages are silently lost forever amidst the spam.
What is the most popular service among your customers: inbound filtering, or outbound filtering? What is their primary purpose for choosing that product?
We launched our outbound platform in 2013, so it’s the most popular product just because of its age and maturity. Inbound was launched in 2018. It’s new and growing rapidly as customers discover how nice it is to have someone else worry about all aspects of their email security. A recent customer, whom I can’t name, unfortunately, adopted inbound for a large number of domains as part of a larger migration of their cPanel infrastructure to one of the big public cloud providers. While moving their core hosting services to the public cloud, they decided to outsource all non-core software to cloud providers like MailChannels. They no longer wish to run software.
How are you dealing with false-positive situations? Can you tell us about the technical details?
It’s mathematically impossible to build a spam filter that classifies messages with perfect accuracy. Services like Gmail frankly get really close to perfect; however, we’ve all experienced errors even with the incredible machine learning capacity of Google at work. To deal with the inevitable false positives in our outbound platform, we have a “Not Spam” button feature that lets email senders tell us we made a mistake by clicking a link in the non-delivery report. For inbound filtering, we offer an optional message quarantine that lets end-users quickly browse their blocked messages via a digest message that gets delivered to them each day. A single click releases a quarantined message and another click whitelists the sender – all without requiring a login.
Could you please tell us about your support team. What kind of support do you provide? What is your average response time?
The cloud value proposition extends beyond just hosting servers and software and monitoring everything to keep it online. We believe “cloud” means providing a complete service from top to bottom, and that necessarily includes support for customers and end-users.
Our support team is in multiple time zones and we always have skilled staff ready to answer tickets at all times of the day and night. We aim for a response in under 15 minutes and our long term track record is a median response in 30 minutes. We do not charge extra for support and we happily support end-users directly with delivery issues as well as our direct customers.
To my knowledge, the quality and speed of our support are unsurpassed in the industry.
How is COVID-19 affecting global email traffic? How did MailChannels react to those effects?
Cybercriminals reacted to COVID-19 by launching a wave of phishing attacks and spam to target vulnerable email recipients while they were stuck at home during the pandemic lockdown. Our April email volume was more than 100% higher than during the previous April and May was up by 60%. The recent QBot spam botnet, which specifically targets WordPress installations, has been particularly active in sending out spam and malware attacks in quite substantial volumes.
Our reaction to the COVID-19 spam wave was mostly automated. As volume increased at various times of the day and night, our services automatically added capacity to deal with the increased load. In terms of filtering accuracy, our outbound systems worked very well to detect and block compromised accounts. On the inbound side, we had to make some changes to keep up with the torrent of spam and this quarter we are focused on improving accuracy with an investment of additional R&D.
What else do you want our readers to know about MailChannels or email security?
If you’re a web hosting provider, consider how much time and effort you put into running your own services, particularly email services. Is it core to your business? Hosting providers often love to build services themselves, but email security is a really difficult thing to get right and if you do it wrong, your customers can really suffer.
Could you please share photos of the team and your workspace with us?
Sure! Here they are. And please don’t forget to visit the MailChannels website.