Gmail creator Paul Buchheit featured on light grey background announcing interview with ZeroBounce

Gmail Creator Paul Buchheit, on What May Be Next in Your Inbox

Gmail creator Paul Buchheit talks to ZeroBounce about building the leading email service 20 years ago. He also addresses Google’s AI-powered assistant Gemini and the improvements it could bring to our inboxes. 

When you think of the email advancements that changed the world, Gmail is monumental. Yet in 2004, it was just launching – Google’s new email client promised to make our inboxes easier and more fun to use. It succeeded.

The genius behind it? Engineer Paul Buchheit.

As Google employee number 23, he created Gmail and the original prototype of Google AdSense — two innovations that revolutionized the way we communicate and advertise online. Plus, Buchheit is the guy who came up with Google’s original motto, “Don’t Be Evil.”

In spite of his achievements, the engineer remains grounded and approachable. In the interview below, he talks about:

You can also watch the video of the Paul Buchheit interview.

Paul, is Gmail what you envisioned it would be?

Yeah, I think so. It’s done pretty well. 

It hasn’t changed tremendously recently, but it’s grown into the product we had envisioned. I’m excited to see what they do with the Gemini integration. I think that could be a major upgrade – probably the biggest improvement since we launched the product.

Is there anything your imagination conjures when you think about that Gemini integration?


The original concept for Gmail was that it should be like a smart assistant that does more of the work for you. That was the thinking behind features like making it search-centric. Instead of filing everything in folders, which is what people used to do, you can just archive the email and find it later.

The same thing with the conversation view – it brings the whole conversation together in one page, the spam filter, all these things. The idea was to try to do as much of the work for you. 

But we were limited at that time because Google had not yet invented AI. If you think about what you could do with a super smart assistant built into your inbox, those are all potential product improvements. 

For example, if someone sends a bunch of legal documents, it might be nice if it would automatically summarize what’s going on in those documents. 

I do a lot of startup investing, so for me, I’d love it if it could pull up even things like, what’s my current ownership after this round of financing?

When you think about those early days when Gmail was but a dream and hadn’t yet been released, what was the goal?

That’s really it – to make a product that makes it as easy as possible to manage your email.

Back when we launched this in 2004, the world of email was kind of split between desktop clients, like Outlook, where the email would be stuck on your computer. And if you lost your computer or it crashed, your email would be gone. 

Or web mail like Yahoo and Hotmail that were very clunky and crude products. They weren’t something anyone wanted to use in a professional capacity. 

They also gave very little storage. At the time we launched, Yahoo was giving four megabytes. People can’t even remember what four megabytes is anymore. That’s about the size of one photo on your iPhone, which was the entire quota you would get on Yahoo. Hotmail was even worse, giving only two megabytes.

So, we built a new category by creating a web-based product with a superior interface to what you would get on the desktop. It was fast, available everywhere, and we gave away 1000 megabytes of storage. 

The competition gave you two or four megabytes, and we said, how about 1000? (Laughs)

There are now almost two billion Gmail users. When you think about how many people are on earth, that’s astonishing.

A quarter of them. We’re one-quarter of the way there.

What does that feel like, Paul?

I think it’s pretty cool. That was always the dream: to make something people will love, a product that adds value to their life.

Has there been anything about Gmail that has surprised you?

I’m surprised that it happened sometimes, but beyond that, it’s played out the way we hoped it would.

Our customers range from solo entrepreneurs to big companies like Netflix who are trying to keep their emails out of spam. What’s the worst sin that a sender can commit that will get them sent to spam? 

Deliverability is a hard problem. I can’t answer it with all the latest best practices, but even when we launched Gmail, one of the biggest problems was getting our email delivered because the spam problem is so bad. 

Deliverability is a huge challenge for everyone. Even at Google, I’m sure there’s still a team of people whose job it is to make sure the email keeps going. 

Picture of Gmail creator Paul Buchheit skydiving and wearing blue cap on light grey background with text about what affects email deliverability
To avoid spam complaints, send people emails they want, advises Gmail creator Paul Buchheit.

Ultimately, the thing that gets you flagged is if people mark your email as spam. So the sin is continually sending people emails they don’t want and making it hard to unsubscribe. 

Related: How to reduce spam complaints and get your emails to the inbox

I love that they’ve launched this thing where they put the unsubscribe link right in the interface. Sometimes it still has you click through to a website, which shouldn’t happen. I get signed up for a lot of random things I never signed up for. And half the time, when you click that link, it wants you to log in. So yeah, I just report spam on that.

I do like the new feature of just hitting the button to unsubscribe. Ray Tomlinson is the man who created what we now call email. Were you aware of him? 

I am aware of him. I think that was back in 1971 or something like that. But yeah, back in the day, I would read the RFCs (Request for Comments) and see his name. 

Related: Read more about Ray Tomlinson and the holiday ZeroBounce dedicated to the creator of modern email. 

He certainly deserves our respect for being the guy.

It’s really incredible. A lot of the early internet protocols were ahead of their time. It’s remarkable that it was over 50 years ago.

You’re a managing partner at Y Combinator. The company’s website states that its goal is “to help startups take off.” What’s the best advice you could give to startup founders?

Our core piece of advice is to make something people want. It sounds obvious, but if you look at why startups fail, it’s because they’re not making something people want. 

There are a lot of ways to deceive yourself. Sometimes, if a startup gets a lot of money, they can go off in the wrong direction for a long time, convincing themselves it’s going to be a great product. The number one thing we always try to do is get people out there with the customers and users as soon as possible. 

If people want what you’re making, they’ll pay you for it and use it. 

Even before you build a product, you can go out and start selling it. You can try to get people to give you a letter of intent. You have to prove there’s real demand for what you’re doing. If you just talk to people, sometimes they’ll say it’s a great idea, but when you try to get them to sign a piece of paper, they might back off. 

It’s very important to find something people deeply need, not just a nice-to-have.

That’s true. When you’re checking your Gmail account, what do you focus on? What gets your attention in the inbox?

It’s whatever is there. I just try to clear it out. I don’t have a big strategy for it.

So, are you an Inbox Zero proponent?

That’s a great ideal, but I’ve never really achieved it. I’m more of an infinite inbox that keeps overflowing.

I did not expect that. What’s your biggest email pet peeve?

Spam is pretty annoying. I don’t like getting signed up for things constantly, especially from startup founders. That would be my least favorite thing.

Is there a brand email that you find yourself opening every time?

I don’t think so.

Can you recall your first email address?

I think the first internet email address was one I got when I went to school at Case Western Reserve in 1994. My email was

For anyone out there watching, listening, or reading this, how can they have a better day today?

This might sound a bit weird, but sometimes you can just go out and start picking up litter. It brightens the world slightly to pick up some garbage and put it in the trash.

I used to go out on the side of the road and pick up trash. It became like meditation. It always made me feel better, even though there would be trash the next day.

Exactly. I call it trash yoga, walking through the neighborhood and looking for bits of garbage to pick up.

Well, you’re checking your Instagram, and then a few minutes later, you’re talking to the man who created Gmail. I did not see that coming today. Paul, thank you so much for spending time with me. It’s been a true pleasure.

Great! Glad to talk to you.

Thank you for Gmail, Paul

For so many people around the world, Gmail is their email client of choice. Gmail has now been around for more than 20 years. It’s made email more helpful, faster, organized, and intuitive. 

Paul Buchheit, we salute you for changing email and making it infinitely better. We owe you a debt of gratitude. 

Thank you, Paul.

See what Paul Buchheit is up to on Instagram, X, and Y Combinator. Struggling to land your emails in the inbox? It may be time to clean your list.