Manilla: Making online bill pay into a better payoff

February 28, 2011, 4:27 PM UTC

The new startup, incubated by Hearst and run by digital media guru George Kliavkoff, aims to incentivize customers and companies to give up their paper bills forever.

A new company called Manilla launches today and it could be the nail in the coffin for the US Postal Service. Its goal: To help businesses convert customers to paperless billing by giving consumers an easy tool for organizing and paying bills.

Manilla (as in those folders you used to keep those paper bills in) has been taking shape within the halls of the Hearst Corporation since May 2009, and is now being spun off as a separate company.  Individuals can request invitations to the beta site starting today.

Despite the efforts of utility providers, credit card companies and other billers to convince customers to go paperless over the past decade, less than 15% have opted-in, according to estimates. Some of that resistance is due to the fact that the alternative—the email inbox—is a less than ideal place to receive and track bills.

So a team led by EVP of Hearst Entertainment and Syndication George Kliavkoff, who will leave Hearst to become CEO of the startup, began developing Manilla. The website aims to be a digital filing cabinet, helping consumers organize their bills, subscriptions and memberships, while converting them to paperless billing.

Here’s how it works: A new user registers by entering account login information for everything from their checking account to their cable provider. Once the process is complete, messages and account updates—everything the user once got in their mailbox, or email inbox—start to appear within Manilla. The user interface is clean and easy to navigate, with three tabs: “mail,” “accounts,” and “reminders.”

The “mail” tab is an inbox for bills, statements, notices and offers, with all documents available as downloadable PDFs. The “accounts” tab is a dashboard that provides a snapshot of all accounts in one place, organized by the categories that Manilla currently offers: “household,” “finance,” “travel,” and “subscriptions.” (This last category is a nod to Manilla’s origins at Hearst and will finally bring some much-needed transparency to when your magazine subscriptions truly do expire).

The “reminders” tab is where notices appear that a user sets up for individual accounts to remind them when a bill’s due date is approaching. But there are also colored and graphic signals throughout the site to indicate that a bill is coming due, or overdue, so it’s less clear how this section is useful. Users can also opt-in for email and SMS notification of impeding bills.

When a user clicks on any provider, say American Express, anywhere on the site, they are taken to a dedicated American Express page within the site where they can review the details of their account, and either pay their bill or be directly logged-in to the biller’s site to make a payment (this varies depending on the company). Each biller’s page appears with the same layout, and gives the biller the chance to show offers to the user in standardized online ad formats.

While Manilla is completely free for consumers, the site charges billers for each customer they convert to paperless. That fee is a tiny cut of what the biller saves on printing, collating and mailing costs. But it’s a monthly annuity payment made in perpetuity, and in aggregate, Hearst hopes it will add up.

Last year consumer businesses sent nearly 48 billion pieces of pre-sorted first class mail from special offers to account notices, at an estimated cost $0.55 – $0.80 per piece. According to Manilla’s estimates, this accounts for about $35 billion per year spent on postage alone.

Manilla won’t charge its billing partners for customers who are already paperless when they sign up. In fact, if a paperless user is referred to Manilla by, say, AT&T for example, and then converts to paperless with other accounts, AT&T (T) will receive a cut as well, for facilitating that conversion.

In addition to the help Manilla will get from its billing partners in promoting the site, the startup also hopes to tap its editorial and publishing connections at Hearst (attention readers of Redbook and Good Housekeeping: this site is for you).

Manilla’s leadership team also lends credibility. Prior to joining Hearst, Kliavkoff was NBC Universal’s chief digital officer, where he was also the first CEO of Hulu. And before his stint at NBC, he held senior roles at Major League Baseball Advanced Media and RealNetworks. To jump-start Manilla’s marketing efforts, Kliavkoff brought on Jessica Insalaco, who succeeded in converting 30% of subscribers to paperless billing while CMO at Dish Network.

Manilla has no obvious competitors but will be compared to Intuit’s personal finance site, which also gathers personal account data and alerts users about bills. However Mint’s business model has historically relied on revenue from showing customers competitive offers whereas Manilla hopes to provide a noise-free channel for companies to talk to—and further market to—their customers.

At launch, Manilla has formal partnerships in place with Citibank (C) and Comcast (CMCSA), but users of the site can also connect to their accounts with AT&T, Verizon Wireless (VZ), Sprint (S), American Express (AXP), Bank of America (BAC), and DirecTV (DTV).  Manilla will also expand the list of accessible billers on the site to include local providers, like PG&E (PCG), as well.

Kliavkoff declined to make any predictions to Fortune about how many of the up to 90 million households still using paper bills Manilla would pick up this year. However he did say he would consider 2.5 to 3 million to be a “home run” that would be “incredibly profitable.”

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