Digitally signed, sealed and delivered: Our paperless future

We have all had to sign a legal agreement at some time or another. The process is a time consuming and costly process of making multiple copies of agreements and signing them and then either faxing or mailing original copies to all parties.

The online world has been slow to come up with a solution to this business issue. Many companies have launched hopeful remedies and then failed to capture the market over the years.

I believe a Seattle company has developed a solution that makes the process all digital and is easy to do. Tom Gonser, executive vice-president and co-founder of took a few minutes to fill us in on his digital document signature system.

Q: Explain what Docusign does.

Gonser: The simplest way to think about what we do is a digital version of an overnight express envelope. Any document that you might send to somebody for signature typically is printed on your printer and put in an overnight envelope or fax machine and then sent off to be signed. We’ve developed an electronic version of the envelope. Rather than printed on a printer, you print them directly into our virtual envelope and off they go.

Q: It’s competitively priced to be similar to an express mailing and it’s easier to do. Where’s the downside?

Gonser: It doesn’t cost as much, and we actually thought that would be a conversation piece. Here’s a process with a quarter of the cost of an overnight express envelope and that’s a great benefit, but the focus that most of our customers have put on this isn’t a cost aspect as much as the time aspect. Even when it absolutely positively has to be there overnight, it’s still a day out, and you hope someone gets it, opens up, signs it and returns it to you within a day. That’s two days, even if you’re going overnight. If you use Docusign Express, you could be on the telephone with somebody, they could receive your Docusign Express envelope and sign instantly. Rather than the speed of trucks, we travel at the speed of light.

Q: Are you seeing an issue where contracts and legal documents are in a printed form and people looking to use your service just don’t have it in a digital form?

Gonser: There are cases where you have a piece of paper on your desk that you need to sign and send, but not very many. The Post Office has a statistic that upwards to 92 percent of the paper we use today came from a computer.

Q: Does it matter if the original document is Word or Excel or PDF?

Gonser: No, that’s one of the tricks we’ve done. Most of the solutions in the past have required some fancy software that works with a particular application. Our solution works with any document you can print. In the past most of the businesses who wanted to take advantage of the digital signature were not using Microsoft Word to originate the documents they needed for their business. By allowing any document that can be printed to be sent for digital signature, we enabled those lines of business applications to take advantage of our software without any integration at all – literally a print driver.

Once you install the little three megabyte install, you choose the Docusign Express envelope and print. It goes right into the envelope and follows the same process it would with paper. It’s an innovative way we’ve done it to keep it simple for people. You then instruct the system on who’s going to be receiving this for signature with an e-mail address and name. It shows you the document on your computer screen. To indicate where someone is supposed to sign or initial, you just drag a little yellow sticky pad onto the document where you want them to sign their name. To sign it, they just click on it.

One of the real benefits is that, in a lot of transactions, you might receive something that has little sticky tabs on it. If one fell off in the envelope, you sign everyplace you think you’re supposed to sign and send it back. The next thing you hear is they have to send it to you again because you forgot to sign page seven. With our system, you can’t forget to sign anything. You try to complete the transaction without signing on all the places, it will say, “Sorry, you’re missing one and here it is.”

Q: What is your opinion on why it’s taken so long for digital signatures to be accepted?

Gonser: There are a number of reasons why this hasn’t taken off. All the other aspects of business transactions have been accelerated dramatically: very powerful word processor technology, e-mail use is just crazy, sending documents back and forth to review – but this last piece of getting a signature is throwing us back 100 years.

Initially, the reason people weren’t doing this was because there was no law that supported it. Just because you said you sign something online, there was no legal framework for that. In 2000, there was actually a national act passed at the federal level. The government passed the ESign Act, which stands for Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce. It gives electronic signatures in documents the same weight or legal effect as paper documents and handwritten signatures. As of 2000, the law supported it but, of course, people don’t want to be the first in the water so there had to be some cases where the actual e-signatures stood up.

Q: There were certainly a lot of dot-com related companies with great ideas that were a little too early to market. Now there are enough people out there who understand how to use Web-based technologies so that now it’s a more viable option for people.

Gonser: Exactly. In the late 1990’s and 2000, there was still a debate about how many people would actually use credit cards online. Today the problem is people are willing to give their credit card numbers to random Websites without even looking to see if it’s an “https” session.

Q: What are the different uses that Docusign is currently being used for?

Gonser: In the legal space, clearly there is a benefit. We actually just closed on some funding and we obviously signed all the documents using our system. If you think about a complex transaction like that, we have a document that needs eight different signatures and is 200 pages long. I had 41 places to sign or initial on the document. The ability to put that documented into the Docusign Express Repository and have all eight people sign the exact same document is fantastic compared to what the paper process is for document like that.

Other markets that are particularly interested and were early adopters was the real estate market. We just signed an agreement with the technology arm of the National Association of Realtors – a company called RE Forms Net. They developed the software application that realtors use to create the purchase and sale agreement and others. They built our Docusign Express technology directly into their Zip Form product so realtors could easily execute their real estate transactions, whether it’s a listing agreement or, in the case of California and Washington where there is a really hot market and offers and counteroffers are bouncing back and forth so quickly, because our system is so fast, potentially a Realtor using Docusign Express and the Zip Form might be able to get their offer in faster.

For more conversation with Tom Gonser about digital signatures, the full interview will broadcast Saturday on KLAY 1180 AM at 11 a.m. and is online at

Dana Greenlee is co-host/producer of the WebTalkGuys Radio Show, a Tacoma-based nationally syndicated radio and Webcast show featuring technology news and interviews.