August 1997 – The Beginning

So here we are at the beginning of our tale. Introductions are in order. Howdy, I’m Mark. In interviews, I’d tell reporters that I am a “nerd by birth.” Joe Gillach, our first head of marketing, coined the phrase. I guess it fits.

In August 1997 I was working for Diba, a startup in Silicon Valley. We made set top boxes that let people surf the web from their televisions. Just like WebTV. That month, Sun Microsystems bought us. While this saved the company from going bankrupt, I was not looking forward to working for a large company. So I decided to start my own company. In that situation, how one jumps to that conclusion, especially while sober, I don’t know. But there you are.

I sat down and wrote out a list of several ideas for Internet companies. Unfortunately, that list is lost to time. But I have a sneaking suspicion that most of those ideas were, in hindsight, really bad. This is based on the fact that most of my ideas are bad. A recent example:

Meat flavored liquors. We’ve got peppermint schnapps, wintergreen schnapps, Jagermeister. But no beef schnapps. Why is this? You could come up with all sorts of interesting mixed drinks. Tuna Colada anyone? Beefsteak and coke on the rocks, please. Or the popular tuna and Mayo, straight up.

See what I mean? But I guess I had luck on my side that night. For one of the ideas that I thought up that night was a free mailing list service.

What the heck is a “mailing list”?

When you say “mailing list,” most people think of junk mail. As in the applications for credit cards you always receive in the mail. But this is the Internet, and in this instance, mailing lists are a way for groups of individuals to communicate easily through email. Create a list, have people subscribe to the list by adding their email address, and then by sending an email to a special email address, it’s automatically distributed to everyone who has subscribed. Mailing lists had been around for almost as long as email itself, but they were very difficult to set up and use. I thought that this would be a great application for the Web.

I did a quick search to see if anyone else was running a service like I envisioned. I came across one potential competitor, Coollist. My disappointment lasted only until I realized that they weren’t doing a very good job. In fact, if you believed all the complaints about them on USENET, they sucked. There was room for a better service. Or at least one that sucked less. And so, I began.


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