Dylan Smith

Thoughts on Parcel

Parcel is a code editor designed specifically for email development, and does a great job of marketing itself as such. The app’s landing page highlights a number of thoughtful features that appeal directly to its fairly niche target audience. I’ve been watching founder Avi Goldman’s progress on Parcel for a while now. He ended its beta yesterday for a general release so I thought I’d jot down my thoughts as someone who’s spent the last several years working on email development and marketing products and immersed in that community.

The first thing I notice is the general look and feel of the marketing site. It’s not super unique on today’s web — dark mode, Tailwind UI, Linear sort of vibe — but it does stand out in the email industry where most sites and products look like shit, frankly.1 They’re apps you have to use, not apps you want to use. Parcel feels different right out of the gate.

Parcel’s biggest strength, though, is that Avi seems to be employing good product practices. He’s super close to his users and embedded into communities where they hang out. As a result, he’s giving them not only features they want but also things they didn’t even realise they need. Listen, learn, ship, repeat.

Another thing working in Parcel’s favour is that they’re a small team (two people building it?) in a fresh, clean codebase. They can move fast. I’ve seen someone make a feature suggestion and it shipped within hours. I can’t think of another product or tool serving email development in this way right now and it’s a huge competitive advantage.

One double-edged sword to consider is that there’s little to no competition in this area right now. Most email tools specifically for developers that I can think of are free and/or open source, and way smaller in their ambitions. Many of the paid products have taken investment and moved upmarket to focus on enterprise and, necessarily, more valuable marketing personas.

Solid startup pattern:

- Find any company "moving up into the enterprise"

- Build a similar product for the startups that will be frustrated by the mayhem that causes

John Cutler

The space is underserved, but what matters is why. I do wonder if the potential market for something like this is too small. Parcel’s Pro plan, the cheapest paid tier, is $24 per user per month. That’s 417 users to hit $10K MRR, a common milestone for bootstrapped indie SaaS companies. 417 doesn’t sound like a lot but…

Email developers and designers are notoriously late adopters.2 Many designers still Photoshop or even InDesign instead of modern, purpose-built UI software. Developers still use Dreamweaver and haven’t adopted best practices like version control.3 If we haven’t hit a point where most email practitioners are using industry standard tools, I worry about Parcel being able to attract a critical mass of paying users.

Even if people do learn about it and love it, there’s another challenge: email developers are at the bottom of the marketing department ladder. They’re seen as a cost centre, not a profit centre, serving email design which serves email marketing which serves marketing in general. Email marketing departments do often get budget for software, but that doesn’t necessarily trickle down the same way developers reporting into an engineering department get spoiled. Can potential Parcel users make a compelling case for why they need a $24/mo subscription when their managers think whatever free code editor they’ve been using is good enough?

I can’t help but think that, on another timeline, Parcel’s biggest threat would be a decent set of email-focused extensions for VS Code and developers’ willingness to try them. Instead, because no one else is building that reality, it’s a huge monetisation opportunity if they can just sell to enough customers.

I don’t know what Avi’s ambitions are but I can imagine companies waving cheques at him this year, depending on those companies’ strategies and how keeping email developers engaged might play in. A sticky, lovable product for that persona has an undervalued impact on word of mouth and bottom-up product adoption in marketing departments. And, as above, once email devs get comfortable with a tool they often stick with it.

If I was a larger email company right now, I’d start thinking about inviting Avi to a Zoom call or two. But if I was Avi, I’d probably decline serious talks for the time being to explore a path to profitability. There’s a solid bootstrapped SaaS company to be had here, in a space with a great community that takes care of their own.

  1. If this seems harsh, go search for screenshots of Adobe Campaign. And if you think it’s not that bad, add “Classic” to the end of your query. 

  2. I’m not sure why this is. I asked about Dreamweaver on Twitter recently. There are some specific features useful for email developers but that seems like a byproduct of email coding standards and practices being so far behind. Another contributing factor to this phenomena might be the distance between email design and development (reporting into marketing) from its tech product counterparts (with design and engineering established as independent and mature departments). 

  3. These are stereotypes but generally representative of what I see in the community. I actually think there are two cohorts of people working in email: email-first designers and developers, and web- or product-first designers and developers. The former tend to be much more knowledgeable about the quirks of the medium but the latter are miles ahead in terms of how they work, applying industry standards from other disciplines back to email. 

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