Archive for May, 2010

Easing The Pain Of E-Mail Lists – San Jose Mercury News

May 26, 2010

By David Plotnikoff
Knight Ridder Newspapers

If you were to ask a dozen amateur investors what images they associate with the term “Internet start-up,” they’d most likely wax eloquent about daring young geeks racing round the clock to create new models for commerce, content and community. That and the potential for stock performance approximating that of a Saturn V rocket.

In point of fact, some of the most successful Internet entrepreneurs never introduced a paradigm-shifting, category-busting breakthrough product or service. What they did is provide pain relief — solutions that would help people cope with the abrasive, non-intuitive and downright maddening shortcomings of existing technology. This concept, which Net publishing pioneer Tim O’Reilly termed “information pain,” continues to be an ubiquitous presence in our digital world. You can bet your 401(k) that there will always be people struggling with technology — people who will pay dearly for that better digital mousetrap.

Consider e-mail lists, a tool for group communication that’s been around almost as long as the Net itself. E-mail lists are a lowest-common-denominator platform for virtual communities — cheap, durable, downright dowdy technology that’s been overshadowed for years by flashier tools such as real-time chat and people-finders. While most sectors of the Net have undergone a nearly complete metamorphosis over the last decade, e-mail lists and the technology behind them have changed little if at all. Most are still run on university servers by volunteer moderators. The robotic software that handles the mechanics of message traffic for most lists is still next-to-unintelligible for the non-technical person. And therein lies the pain. Just finding and joining mailing lists used to require mind-bending strings of Unix-based incantations. Signing off a list once enrolled often involved several more painful steps. And actually hosting such lists was 100 times worse.

Mark Fletcher felt this pain firsthand in 1988 when he got his first Net account as a computer science student at UC-San Diego. Now, the 28-year-old is doing something about it. His nascent venture, ONElist, is taking the rough edges off the unsung old technology with a Web interface that makes finding and joining lists as simple as operating a search engine. By making e-mail lists safe and inviting for non-geeks, Fletcher may trigger a great social revolution in one of the Net’s oldest and most staid neighborhoods.

After 15 months of operation, ONElist is clocking some heavy numbers: 3 million registered members; 12 million pieces of e-mail sent each day; 120,000 mailing lists. The current rate of growth for memberships is impressive even by Net standards — 30 percent per month.

At this point Fletcher is living a Silicon Valley start-up cliche: His company consists of 15 cheerful, highly caffeinated young people (only two employees over 30) sharing a cramped, sparsely furnished budget suite in an anonymous office park by Highway 101 in San Mateo. Computer carts and El Cheapo 6-foot particle-board tables are just about the only furniture in sight.

Fletcher’s journey to this boiler room began in August 1997, when the start-up he worked for, Diba, was acquired by Sun Microsystems. Fletcher sketched out 10 ideas for his own venture and ranked the list from most-achievable to least-achievable. A company that would make mailing lists appealing to the masses was at the top of that list. The operation began in January 1998 when Fletcher told a single person about the Web-based service he’d designed.

“It was a Saturday night and I sent e-mail to this one guy — a stranger in Norway — and I woke up Sunday morning and there’s a list,” says Fletcher, sitting down to chat earlier this week in ONElist’s closet-size conference room. “That first list was on a particular type of lizard called an anole. Through the first couple weeks you could trace how word spread through communities – at first 10 or 20 more lizard lists, then it would jump wildly to some other topic and we’d have 50 or 100 specialized lists on that before it’d spin out to the next area.”

Fletcher didn’t quit his day job at Sun. He ran ONElist as a one-man show for five months. “I wasn’t doing anything to promote it but it kept growing. I remember passing 10,000 users and thinking `Wow. I’m going to have to do something.”‘ Specifically, that something was hiring other engineers to make sure the digital bridge didn’t collapse under the load.

On funding, it could be said that Fletcher provided his own first round of venture cap. The first year’s operations — approximately $30,000 for rented server space — were entirely out of pocket. By December of last year when he received his first outside capital infusion, ONElist had passed 1 million members. It was time to move the company out of his living room.

ONElist has been in the current space two months. Fletcher says that with any luck they’ll be able to stay here a couple more before growth sends them packing again. The fact that ONElist continues to grow at such an explosive rate — with zero advertising and minimal marketing — says something about the need for e-mail pain-relief. The appeal of the service to long-suffering volunteer list moderators is direct and compelling: We’ll take care of all the hassles — new subscriptions, un-subscriptions, junk-mail control, delivery problems — and free you up to be the host of your party. “One of the reasons I did this in the first place,” says Fletcher, “was so that you wouldn’t have to be a rocket scientist in order to be a community leader. My father couldn’t run a (Unix-based list server) but he runs a list on ONElist.” The moderators, who pay nothing for ONElist service, will ultimately be the ones to decide if ONElist succeeds. They are the publishers, the content cops and the marketing force for their individual lists and, by extension, ONElist as a whole. And it’s the moderators’ sense of propriety that will keep the system from degenerating into the noisy anarchy that characterizes much of the Usenet newsgroup system today. Every list, bar none, is owned by an individual. Every new thread in the fabric of the electronic discussion is read and approved by a human. In a Net environment that can often seem bereft of any human oversight, this is a compelling advantage.

Fletcher hopes ONElist’s technology will make community leadership in cyberspace a bit more democratic. “It’s amazing the range of people we have running groups — people who never would have organized anything like this before. We have 10-year-olds. And we have a lot of teen-age girls with their `Titanic’ and Leo Di Caprio lists. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, we have older people researching family history. I think we have 1,500 genealogy lists devoted to different surnames alone.”

Beyond the core of moderators, ONElist could also play a role in broadening overall participation in the digital world. It’s possible for a person with no computer, no online account and no technical expertise to go to a library public access terminal, get a free Web-based e-mail account and participate in an unlimited number of ONElist communities — all without spending a dime. Fletcher says he doesn’t know how many of his users are homeless, but he does know that a significant number of the members don’t own personal computers.

So given all these democratizing tools, what are the citizen-pamphleteers of the Wired Age building out there?

Just about anything you can imagine — from family newsletters (ONElist supports closed lists that are open by invitation only) to full-blown electronic extensions for other media. (The 17,000-member “Ask Dr. Science” list, supporting the public radio show of the same name, recently migrated over to ONElist.) If there’s one stat that proves Fletcher’s digital prairie-fire is permanently changing the nature of mail lists, it’s this: The majority of the 120,000 communities were born on ONElist, not ported over from other servers. In other words, there are tens of thousands of fledgling communities — most just a few months old — that almost certainly never would have formed under the old system. While most ONElist groups have no history as a physical community, that’s not the case for all.

Eagle Mountain was once a Southern California mining-company town with a population of 2,000. When the mines closed in the ’70s, the community scattered. Now, 50 former neighbors are rebuilding a virtual Eagle Mountain neighborhood in cyberspace.

For all its social ambitions, ONElist is a bona fide business with some concrete plans for revenue. At the moment, the advertising system is essentially halfway rolled-out. Banner ads on the company’s home page — http://www.onelist.com — get 22 million page-views per month and consistently sell out. Still, relatively few users return to the home page regularly after they’re hooked up with the groups they want.

To reach those eyeballs, ONElist is just beginning to place text ads at the bottom of individual pieces of e-mail. To a potential advertiser, the advantage ONElist has over a portal or other high-traffic service is focus — the ability to identify and reach very highly targeted pools of users without getting into the thorny privacy issues that come with targeting individuals. Fletcher says that eventually the company will get additional revenue by selling enhanced services to list owners. A list owner who wanted, for example, more storage space for shared files than the system currently provides gratis would be able to purchase that extra server space a la carte.

ONElist is not the only start-up devoted to making mailing lists a true mass medium. Two other firms — eGroups and Topica – have launched since ONElist appeared on the scene. ONElist says its daily traffic volume far outstrips that of any competitor. On the other hand, eGroups claims 4 million users to ONElist’s 3 million and 150,000 lists to ONElist’s 120,000.

For now, Fletcher seems to be none too concerned with revenue or competition. He says tech support and engineering are the things he must stress now if he’s to keep the corporate rocket-sled from careening off the tracks.

“I’m a geek by birth, so the technical challenge keeps me up,” he says. “Beyond that, I lose sleep over hiring the right people in the valley’s competitive environment — engineering staff, sales team, senior management. And then I worry about how we build out the service.”

With the financial markets raining IPO money on any Net start-up that floats a prospectus and valuations defying any known logic, is it hard for Fletcher to keep his attention on the mundane service issues? He looks down at a Net trade-magazine that has splashed “This Week’s Billionaires” across the cover and smiles indulgently. “OK, this is not exactly the worst time to be around,” he says. He catches himself before the reverie can kick in. “But we have to stay focused on service — otherwise we won’t get there.”

David Plotnikoff writes about the wired life for the San Jose Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, Calif., 95190. E-mail plotnikoff@sjmercury.com. On the Web, dial http://www.sjmercury.com-columnists-plotnikoff

1999, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

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Startups Get On The List – Red Herring Article

May 26, 2010

By Owen Thomas
Red Herring
February 26, 1999

Sometimes it seems like all of Silicon Valley is on the same mailing list.

In the past six months, a bevy of startups have gotten funding for the same goal: building a critical mass of subscribers to email lists, and building direct marketing engines targeting those subscribers.

Startup veterans formed Topica, Onelist, and eGroups in 1998. Onelist launched early last year; eGroups followed in January 1999; and Topica launched its service this week.

Topica was the first to go out for a large venture round; August Capital and Highland Capital Partners invested $4 million in August 1998, and Onelist raised the same amount from CMGI’s @Ventures arm and Bertelsmann Ventures in December. After raising a $1 million seed round in June 1998, eGroups scored another $5.1 million from Atlas Venture and Sequoia Capital in January.

A TANGLED WEB

The tight-knit venture community has taken a keen — and competitive — interest in these companies.

“Onelist got funded from CMG and Bertelsmann, and it was basically me who connected CMG and Bertelsmann together,” says eGroups CEO Martin Röscheisen. “They really wanted to invest in us, but [Sequoia partner] Mike Moritz is of such caliber that we rejected [CMG and Bertelsmann]. They turned around and put the money in Onelist.”

Bertelsmann Ventures partner Jan Buettner wouldn’t comment specifically on whether his fund approached eGroups, but says he did due diligence on several companies in the space.

“We thought that Onelist had the better management team and growth rate,” says Mr. Buettner. “I negotiate with two or three companies at one time. If you have a problem with one company, you want to have another one in place.”

And Topica and eGroups share the same law firm and strategic consultancy, the recently formed BZ Partners. Jim Brock — the legal eagle behind Yahoo (YHOO) for many years at Venture Law Group — is advising Topica, while his partner Bob Zipp is advising eGroups.

“Bob and Jim seem to be managing a Chinese wall about those topics,” says Mr. Röscheisen. (To complicate matters, Mr. Brock serves on the board of FindLaw, Mr. Röscheisen’s previous startup.)

SIBLING RIVALRY

Despite these industry connections, all three companies seem to be launching a fierce war of words.

EGroups and Onelist eagerly point to their lead on Topica in numbers. For its part, eGroups counted 3 million users and 5 million emails distributed in a day. Onelist has slightly more than 2 million users, but they’re considerably more active, at 10 million emails a day.

Topica is taking a different approach, however. The company has built a directory of lists, partly by licensing collections of mailing lists created by long-established Net volunteer groups, and partly through the acquisition of the List Exchange, a site Topica bought from Webbers Communications last summer.

“We don’t care if the list that you’re on is on Topica when we manage it,” says board member Andrew Anker, a partner at August Capital. “The other guys are building a closed system. List owners don’t care whether their subscribers are on Topica or not; subscribers don’t care whether the list is on Topica or not. … You can manage Onelist on us; you can manage eGroups on us.”

In fact, eGroups also allows subscribers to manage subscriptions to lists hosted outside. But Topica CEO Ariel Poler says that his product is designed specifically to target list owners.

“The more owners we have on our side, listed on our directory and archiving with us, the more value we can offer to consumers,” says Mr. Poler. “One thing [eGroups and Onelist] have been doing is archiving lists without permission and getting in a lot of trouble with owners.”

For eGroups’ part, it sees potential on the corporate side as well as in consumers. “We expect the OEM part to possibly be even bigger down the road,” says Mr. Röscheisen, comparing his company to Critical Path — another company that has staked its IPO hopes on outsourcing email.

Onelist, meanwhile, is focusing on the growth of its numbers.

“We expect 20 million users by the end of the year,” says Onelist CEO Mark Fletcher. “And we’ll be sending out 3 billion email messages a month.”

Those are big numbers — and they might attract big players.

“All the major portals have been very interested in getting to know us,” says Joe Gillach, Onelist’s acting vice president of marketing.

Shared Files Are Here – Thursday, February 25, 1999

May 26, 2010

From: ONElist Tech Support <admin@ONElist.com>
Date: Thu Feb 25, 1999 12:14pm
Subject: Shared Files are Here!

Hello,

The past month has been exciting and eventful for ONElist. We’ve achieved some amazing milestones and added a great new feature, Shared Files.

We are now sending 10 million email messages a day and we recently passed 2 million users. Thanks to everyone for making ONElist the leading free e-mail community service!

We redesigned our web site and we are continuing to make it easier for our users to use.

We have added Shared Files. Each list now has 5 megabytes of disk space on the ONElist web server. Subscribers can upload files to this area and other subscribers can view or download the files; it’s a private web site for your community. Check it out in the List Center area of your list.

Moderators can flag files so that they will be e-mailed to the list either bi-weekly or monthly, which is great for frequently asked question lists or monthly reminders.

Moderators can also flag files so that they will be e-mailed to users when they subscribe to the list, or when they unsubscribe from the list. Great for additional welcome and goodbye messages!

For more information on our new Shared Files area, please see:

http://www.onelist.com/info/helpshared.html

We are continuing to upgrade and improve the ONElist system. Our best features have been from suggestions by our users. We now have a suggestion box on our web site. Know how we can improve ONElist? Tell us about it!

Thanks again for making ONElist the leading e-mail community service!

The ONElist Team

Upgrade Notice – Wednesday, February 24, 1999

May 26, 2010

From: ONElist Tech Support <admin@ONElist.com>
Date: Wed Feb 24, 1999 10:40am
Subject: ONElist upgrades

Hello,

ONElist will be down for system upgrades Wednesday evening, from 8pm to 11pm Pacific Time. We are increasing our server capacity to keep up with our ever increasing user base. We apologize for the inconvenience.

At that time, we will also be adding a great new feature. An announcement will be forthcoming Thursday which will talk about it.

We now have a suggestion box on our web site. Know how we can improve ONElist? Tell us about it!

Thanks,

The ONElist Team

January 1999

May 14, 2010

ONElist started 1999 on solid ground. We had just received our first major funding, we had quit or were in the process of leaving our day jobs, and we were ready to expand the company.

January 6, 1999 – Status Report

From: ONElist Tech Support <admin@ONElist.com>
Date: Wed Jan 6, 1999 3:57pm
Subject: Status Report

Status Report for ONElist.com

Thank you for using ONElist. We continue to improve the service, based on the many suggestions from our users. Over the past two months, we’ve been able to add several new features, including:

  • Download Users
    Moderators can now download as a text file the list of email addresses of their subscribers.
  • Manager Privileges
    List managers can now have restricted privileges.
  • Redesigned web site
    We’ve changed our web site so that it no longer uses frames. We’ve also made the User Center easier to use.
  • New Lists History
    You can now view the past week of New Lists.
  • Moderated users
    Individual subscribers can now be moderated, which means that their posts need to be approved before being sent to the list.
  • Subscriber Profiles
    We have added an option so that list managers can decide whether they wish to have profiles of their subscribers available for viewing by other subscribers.

Note: We will be turning on the Subscriber Profiles function in one week. If you do not wish to have that feature available to your subscribers, please change the configuration of your list before then. You can do this through the Change List Attributes link on the Manage List screen for your list.

We are continuing to add new features and improve the ONElist system. Our goal is to make ONElist the best possible e-mail community system. To do that we need your feedback. How can we make it better? How can we make it easier to use? What features are missing?

Please email your comments to comments@onelist.com

Thanks!

The ONElist Team

January 11, 1999 – Funding Press Release

Money is only one of the currencies that Venture Capitalists deal in. One of the others is press exposure. And one of the main ways to achieve this is through press releases. Below is the press release issued by CMGI and Bertelsmann Ventures announcing the funding of ONElist. We had very little to do with this press release. I remember having to pester Deirdre Moore, head of marketing for CMGI, just to get a copy of the press release before it went out. Joe Gillach and I hurriedly worked to make sure that it reflected ONElist’s interests.

There is a certain art to crafting press releases. There are many parts to a good press release, and one of those parts is a quote from the CEO or other high-level company manager. In the press release below, for example, I’m quoted talking about our Venture Capital partners. What I learned during this process is that the CEO almost never writes the CEO quote. Marketing crafts the press release, and the CEO signs off on it.

CMG@Ventures and Bertelsmann Ventures Team For Investment in ONElist.com

Leading Provider of Internet E-Mail Communities to Tap
Business Synergies In CMGI and Bertelsmann Internet Portfolios

ANDOVER, MA—January 11, 1999 — @Ventures III, the affiliated venture capital arm of CMGI, Inc. (NASDAQ: CMGI), and Bertelsmann Ventures, the independent venture capital fund of Bertelsmann AG, today announced a joint minority investment in ONElist, Inc., the leading provider of e-mail community services. Financial terms of the investment were not disclosed.

Founded in 1998 and headquartered in Silicon Valley, ONElist (http://www.ONElist.com) provides free e-mail communities via the Internet. Users can search for or subscribe to tens of thousands of communities on different topics or create their own. ONElist has a wide range of user created communities, on topics ranging from genealogy to military spouse support, from Muscular Dystrophy to the pop music group ‘N SYNC.

“ONElist has developed a unique service that allows online consumers to create and promote their own email communities based on common interests,” said David Wetherell, chairman and CEO of CMGI. “ONElist’s service is highly complimentary to other companies within the CMGI family. ONElist has already begun discussions with a number of CMGI affiliates, and we intend to exploit these synergies further in the months ahead.”

Added Wetherell, “The added bonus of this new investment is the expansion of our relationship with Bertelsmann, already an important international partner for Lycos. CMGI’s diverse family of Internet companies, combined with Bertelsmann’s vast media properties, provides ONElist with a tremendous opportunity to expand upon their success.”

“We’re very excited about ONEList’s compelling service,” said Jan Henric Buettner, general partner, Bertelsmann Ventures. “The ability of online communities to capture a large consumer base with a strong viral growth component is one of the most thrilling phenomena of the Internet. Bertelsmann has a long history of developing vertical community concepts and we intend to leverage those skills, as well as the Bertelsmann affiliated properties, to help ONElist become a very successful business on the Web.”

“This investment by CMGI and Bertelsmann represents a major validation of ONElist, and we’re thrilled to be working with companies of their stature. This is a tremendous opportunity for us to work with their portfolio companies to reach millions of new users, and to expand upon our leadership in this space,” said Mark Fletcher, President and CEO, ONElist.

About ONElist, Inc.

Based in Silicon Valley, CA, ONElist, Inc. is the premier provider of free E-mail communities via the Internet. The ONElist service can be located at http://www.onelist.com.

About Bertelsmann Ventures

Based in Santa Barbara, CA, and focusing on Internet-based investments, Bertelsmann Ventures is the independent venture capital fund of Bertelsmann AG, one of the world’s largest media companies.

About CMGI

A recognized leader in the Internet arena, CMGI (NASDAQ: CMGI) combines operating companies with strategic venture investments to create a broad and diverse set of businesses delivering Internet solutions. Microsoft, Intel and Sumitomo hold minority positions in CMGI. The CMGI Internet Group consists of its majority-owned subsidiary companies ADSmart, Engage Technologies, NaviSite, NaviPath, Planet Direct, Magnitude Network and ZineZone.

Friday, January 15, 1999 – They Want a New CEO

A few days after the press release announcing our funding went out, I received a call from assistant to Peter Mills, one of our CMGI venture partners. Peter and Jon Callaghan, our CMGI board member, wanted to meet with me at their office. Through the funding process and some meetings afterwards, I had spent some time with Jon and Peter, but the relationship was still new. We hadn’t even had our first board meeting yet. The meeting was set for the end of the day, Friday January 15.

The meeting lasted about an hour and was in Jon’s office. The building that CMGI occupied was an older, two story wood structure that they shared with a small electronics company. I never figured out what the electronics company did, except that they always looked like they were soldering ancient circuit boards pulled from machines dating back to the Paleolithic Era.

Jon and Peter spent the meeting telling me that while I had done a good job starting the company, they thought that I was not appropriate to be the CEO of ONElist. While they had not spent a great deal of time with me yet, they had started to get the feeling that I was ‘not CEO material.’ This was a shock to me. We hadn’t even had a board meeting yet. I was scrambling to get my company together, and they wanted to bring in a new CEO. Throughout the entire hour meeting, I think I maybe uttered no more than a few sentences. I was shocked. We ended the meeting without anything being decided. I was to “think about things.”

Numb, I went home and took my girlfriend out for pizza and beer. I was so totally stunned that I wasn’t able to tell her, or my family, about the meeting until the next day. In a word, things sucked.

January 20, 1999 – ONElist ONE Year Anniversary

From: ONElist Tech Support <admin@ONElist.com>
Date: Wed Jan 20, 1999 12:59pm
Subject: ONElist Anniversary!

The ONElist Status Report

ONElist Turns ONE Year Old!!

This week is ONElist’s ONE year anniversary. With the creation of the anole@onelist.com list one year ago, we began our amazing journey as the premiere provider of E-mail communities.

To celebrate our anniversary, we have created a new feature on the ONElist web site – ONElist of the Week. This feature will allow us to highlight some of the many different ways in which people are using ONElist.

List managers, this is a great way to get some exposure for your ONElist. How are you using ONElist in a unique and interesting way?

Subscribers, have you had an interesting experience with ONElist you are willing to share?

How has ONElist changed your life?

We are currently accepting submissions for the ONElist of the Week. To submit your list or story, please visit the ONElist home page, at http://www.onelist.com and click on the _Share your Story_ link. We will begin sharing the ONElist of the Week soon!

Thanks again for a terrific first year!!

The ONElist Team

December 1998

May 14, 2010

December 1 – Big Changes

In the period of less than a week – Thanksgiving week, at that – we had turned down an acquisition by Xoom, met with CMGI and Bertelsmann, received an offer, negotiated the terms of the deal, and, the evening of December 1, we signed. Oh, and ONElist also passed 1 million users. It was not a bad week. And yes, my name is in fact Mr. Understatement.

We spent the rest of the month working on the details of the deal with CMGI and Bertelsmann. We had several visits with the lawyers, and many phone conversations with Jon and Peter at CMGI. From start to finish, it took about a month to complete the deal.

December 18, 1998 – First ONElist Holiday Party

With everything going on, we still had time to gather the company for ONElist’s first holiday party. Mark Maxwell made reservations at Capalinni’s, an Italian eatery in San Mateo, Ca. The five ONElist employees and spouses attended along with Brad Bugdanowitz, one of our attorneys. In spite of the restaurant making us wait 3 hours for our table, we had a great time. Now, ONElist was really feeling like a real company.

During the course of the evening, we shared many user stories. Kate, in particular as head of customer support, had many entertaining stories. Of course without our users, ONElist was worthless. That said we liked some of our users more than others. Given a sample size large enough, some percentage of people will complain about anything, even a little free service such as ONElist. That evening, in honor of these people, we christened the first ONElist slogan, “Because it’s free you cheap fucks.” From this point on, whenever one of our customer support people had a difficult time with a user, you could hear this phrase echo through the office, chanted like a mantra. It was just a way of letting off some steam.

December 23, 1998 – Leaving Sun

While the deal with CMGI and Bertelsmann wasn’t going to be completed for another week or so, we felt confident enough to leave our jobs. Kate gave notice at her job. Mark Maxwell was already working fulltime for ONElist. That left Scott, Ethan and I. The “Sun 3”, as it were. We agreed to give notice together the morning of Tuesday, December 23. I remember waiting nervously in my cube for Scott and Ethan to arrive. They finally did, and I went and got our boss, Mark Fulks. Quitting any job is difficult, and this morning was especially difficult, as our departures would be a serious set back to the project we were working on. Plus we liked the people we worked with.

With Mark on one side of a conference room table and the three of us on the other side, I spilled the beans. I had started a company, recruited Scott and Ethan, and now that we had received funding, we were leaving to work on ONElist full time. I was moderately surprised to find out that Mark knew most of the story already! Doh! Guess my big mouth isn’t very good at keeping secrets. I still don’t know how Mark found out about ONElist, but in the end it didn’t matter.

Mark took this about as well as can be expected. He head didn’t explode in rage. He didn’t plead with us to stay. He didn’t tell us how rotten we were. He was much more calm about things than I was, in fact. After we were done, he left briefly to summon Harry Burks, his boss (and my former boss). Harry took me into a separate room, away from Scott and Ethan, and had me repeat the story. He wasn’t happy, but I think he understood. The three of us had offered two-week notice, but Harry escorted me out of the building that morning, which I understand. I came back one evening a couple of weeks later and retrieved my belongings from my cube.

December 29, 1998 – It Is Done

The deal finally closed two days before New Year’s Eve. At the time, ONElist had a simple business checking account with Bank of America, which included ATM access. After we received word that the money had been wired into the account, Mark Maxwell and I went down to the local ATM and printed out 5 ATM receipts, showing a balance of a little more than $4 million in the checking account. It was breathtaking seeing all those digits on a balance receipt. I called a meeting at my townhouse where I gave an ATM slip to everyone in the company. It was a small symbol of all that we had accomplished during the previous year, as well as a reminder of all that we had to do in the coming year.

November 1998

May 14, 2010

November 4 – Mark Maxwell

I needed serious help with the business side of ONElist. We had a couple of engineers, and we had customer support, but no business development. Mark Maxwell worked with Carisa at a previous company, which is how I met him. It turned out that he left that company early in the fall and was looking for a new job. His outgoing personality was a good contrast to my nerdful introversion.

From: Mark Fletcher
Date: Wed Nov 4, 1998 9:13am
Subject: Mark Maxwell

Hey Gang,

ONElist is now up to 5 official people (and Carisa in her unofficial but equally important role), with the news that Mark Maxwell has agreed to come on board. He will be helping out with a lot of the business activities that I’ve been neglecting due to either time constraints and/or sheer ignorance/stupidity (you decide).

Mark’s first activity is completion of our business plan. With that we can actively target funding/acquisition. Our goal is to have something in the works by the end of the year. Mark will also be working to get advertising and other revenue streams for us. And he will be looking at partnering possibilities/other ways to promote ONElist. Welcome Mark! Now, we need to work on doubling up on the other names. Anyone know of another Scott, Ethan and Kate that we can hire?

Also, an update on other things. We did an ad test for Xoom over the weekend. It was for some sort of digital camera. 1300 people visited their site because of the ad, and 5 people actually bought the camera because of it. We are still analyzing the ad server logs to figure out some precise numbers as to who actually saw the ad, and how many times. We will be doing some more tests with them; they will be giving us 3 ads this time and we will be rotating them. They will also be advertising ONElist to their users in a couple of weeks. We get 25% of the profit from any sales during this test. But much more important is the information we’re getting from it, in terms of how our users are responding to advertising, what kind of information an advertiser wants from us, and how an advertiser wants to target their ads.

Thanks!

Mark

November 5 – Retiring the Original ONElist Machine

From: Mark Fletcher
Date: Thu Nov 5, 1998 9:47pm
Subject: new web server

Hi,

This is somewhat of a moment in ONElist history. The original ONElist machine, linux73.dn.net, is being retired. The DNS changes will hopefully go through Friday morning. The new web server is linux169.dn.net. It’s faster, has more memory, and is cheaper. We will also be getting a second web server soon.

Kate, instead of logging into onelist.com to do the mail, telnet to linux169.dn.net now. The login is admin and the password is the same. All tech support email is already going to the new machine.

No crying now. Linux73 was a good machine, but it’s time to put it down. 😉

Mark

November 18 – Maintenance Notice

Whoops. During this time, we were going so fast, that we sometimes made mistakes. Whenever we upgraded the system, we had to guess how long it was going to take. Sometimes we got it right, sometimes we didn’t.

From: ONElist Tech Support
Date: Wed Nov 18, 1998 8:11am
Subject: Maintenance Notice

Hello,

This is a notice to let you know that the ONElist system will be down for scheduled maintenance on Wednesday, November 18 from 6pm to Midnight Pacific Time. We continue to experience explosive growth; in the past three months we have more than quadrupled our user base. To keep up with our growth, we are continuing to upgrade the hardware that runs the ONElist system. That is what we will be doing Wednesday evening. Any email sent during this time will be stored and sent out when the system is back up.

We are committed to providing the best service possible for our users.

Thanks for using ONElist!

The ONElist Team

From: ONElist Tech Support
Date: Thu Nov 19, 1998 8:45am
Subject: Change in Maintenance

Hello,

The system maintenance scheduled for last evening has been delayed. We realized that it was going to take significantly longer than we had originally planned. To minimize interruption of service, we have rescheduled the downtime to begin Friday, November 20 at Midnight. ONElist will be back up Saturday at Noon, Pacific Time. We apologize for the inconvenience.

During this upgrade we will be transferring our archives to a faster system. We now serve over 43,000 lists, and our archive system needs to be upgraded.

Any email sent during this time will be stored and sent out when the system is back up.

We are committed to providing the best service possible for our users.

Thanks for using ONElist!

The ONElist Team

November 22 – Does ONElist Look Like a Bitch?

The talks with Xoom had been progressing over the previous couple of weeks to the point where they had decided to make us an acquisition offer. They wanted to present the offer in person, so we set up a breakfast meeting. The suggestion was made that we meet at Il Fornio, an upscale restaurant in Palo Alto. The reason they wanted to meet at this particular restaurant was because, and I quote, “that’s where all the deals are made.” Sounded like a couple of kids playing make believe grown-up business games. But, it was a free meal, and we were curious as to what the offer was going to be, so we went.

Scott and Mark accompanied me to the meeting. From Xoom, Russell was there, along with their CTO and one other person. Over our poached eggs and Belgium waffles, they outlined the terms of the deal. They were offering 100,000 pre-IPO options in Xoom, as well as employment for us. The options were to be split amongst the 5 of us.

Now I suppose that most people reading this have no idea how to evaluate that offer, so I’ll try to explain. An option is the right to purchase a share of stock in a company at a fixed price. Lets say you have an option to purchase 10 shares of Xoom at $10. If the stock is currently trading at $20 a share, then you can make $10 per share. If the stock is currently trading at $5 a share, then the options are worthless (who’d want to buy a $5 share for $10?). Another detail about options is that generally they vest over time. That means you don’t get all the options at once, you get a percentage of them over a period of years. In this case, the options would vest over 4 years, so we wouldn’t receive all 100,000 options until after we worked at Xoom for 4 years.

Let’s look at the big picture here for a moment. We had a service that was growing fast, rapidly approaching 1 million users, and we were the leader in our field. Xoom at that time had about 3 million users. Granted they were much more of an established business and they were on the verge of an IPO. But offering us only 100,000 options (not even real stock) was very disappointing. It amounted to only a small percentage of their company. If I had any self-esteem, I’d say it was even insulting. On the drive home from the restaurant, reviewing the offer, I summed it up through a quote from the movie Pulp Fiction, “Does ONElist look like a bitch?” That’s how we felt.

We turned down the offer. Russell wanted us to give him a counter offer, but I didn’t bother. In hindsight, this was a good decision, to say the least. Xoom did in fact have a successful IPO in December 1998. The next year, they were acquired by NBC, which merged them with Snap.com. After that, the company was renamed to NBCi.com. At some point, the company ended up on the scrap heap of failed dot-com bombs. We never would have made it the 4 years to vest the options fully. Besides, things would get much more interesting two days later.

November 24 – First Contact

Smarting a bit from the Xoom encounter, we continued our routine. It was Thanksgiving week and I was looking forward to at least a couple of hours away from the computer. The answering machine that I had connected to the second line in my house – the ONElist line – could be listened to remotely, and I had given Mark Maxwell the code to do so.

When I got home from work that day, there were two messages waiting on the machine. The first was from someone with a German accent, and because it was a low quality answering machine, I couldn’t understand the phone number he left. The second message was from Jon Callaghan of CMGI’s @Ventures venture capital fund. As I was listening to these messages, Mark Maxwell called. He had heard the messages as well and he had called Jon back. They were interested in talking with us. Mark told Jon that we were considering an acquisition offer (the Xoom deal, which we weren’t really considering), but that we’d talk with them in a week. Jon was anxious to talk with us, and asked us to come to their office the next day anyways. Not quite knowing what to think, but figuring that an interested VC wasn’t the worst thing in the world, we agreed to a meeting the next day. Seeing how I was only tangentially aware of whom CMGI was, I needed to do some homework, and quick.

November 25 – CMGI Meeting

It was now the day before Thanksgiving. Mark Maxwell and I drove over to @ Venture’s office in Portola Valley, an upscale area of the peninsula about 30 minutes south of San Francisco. We met with Peter Mills and Jon Callaghan from CMGI, and Mathias Schilling from Bertelsmann Ventures. Mystery solved, Mathias was the other message on the answering machine from the day before. They had both called. Jon was an associate at @ Ventures, and was around 30 years old, kind of that typical Stanford active outdoors type. Peter was the managing director of @ Ventures, which means he was the head honcho. He was in his 50s and was second in command at CMGI, the parent company. Mathias was also around 30 years old and had relocated to Santa Barbara, where Bertelsmann Ventures was located, from Germany the year before. All seemed intelligent and very interested in ONElist.

It was a very informal meeting. We didn’t have a presentation, but neither did they. CMGI and Bertelsmann had decided to invest in a company together, and they liked the space that we were in. The meeting lasted maybe an hour. They asked a lot of questions about ONElist, and we asked a bunch of questions about them. At one point, when CMGI was explaining their investment strategy, Peter said that “[we] don’t fund assholes.” To which Mark replied, “Good, because we don’t take money from assholes.”

In the end, we shook hands and they said that they’d be in touch. Mark and I went off to lunch at The Oasis, a local Menlo Park watering hole. We weren’t quite sure what to think about the meeting. We adjourned to our families for Thanksgiving.

November 27 – The Exploding Offer

It was now the morning after Thanksgiving, and I received a call from Jon Callaghan. They liked what they saw and they wanted to invest in ONElist. I asked him for the terms of the deal, and had to wait a minute as he worked his way to his office (he was calling from his home).

They wanted to invest $3.5 million into ONElist. In return, they would receive 2 board seats and roughly 40% of the company. Jon said that what was really important to them was the percentage ownership number, implying to me that there was more room to negotiate with the amount of money they would be investing.

We received the official term sheet the following Monday, November 30. A term sheet is a document that outlines all of the details of the deal. This term sheet or Letter of Intent was about 5 pages long. We immediately rushed to our lawyers at Wilson Sonsini to review it. Over dinner at their office, they explained all the provisions of the deal. The offer was made up of fairly standard components. It was a tough deal, in that it was weighed heavily in the VCs favor. They would effectively be gaining control of ONElist. They were guaranteed a return of at least 5 times their investment before anyone else received any money. And Scott and I had to work an additional 3 years to vest our stock in the company.

We decided to accept the deal, after negotiating an increase in the investment to $4 million. I really wanted the deal to happen, and quickly, so I didn’t try to negotiate any of the other conditions of the deal. Very much a mistake in hindsight, but I had reasons. I had no idea what normal deal terms were at that time. Also, I was feeling pressure because we had heard that eGroups, our main competition, had just received funding from Sequoia Capital, the VC firm that originally backed Yahoo. Additionally, we were all burned out from working full time jobs in addition to working on ONElist. This deal would allow us to work on ONElist full-time, as well as hire additional people to help. And in doing research on CMGI, I had come to the conclusion that their network of companies would be able to help us out.

October 1998

May 14, 2010

October 2 – First Company Party

ONElist was now up to 4 people and we were growing like crazy. We were about to pass 500,000 users. It was time for a party. Or at least a get together in a bar. We gathered at Sneakers Bar and Grill, a local eatery in San Carlos, CA. This was the same place that Carisa, my brother and I came up with the names Commulist and Socialist, almost a year earlier. You do remember that part of the story, don’t you. Hello? Anyone there? Oh well. I’m only writing this for my own self-amusement anyways. Hey look, a butterfly.

Anyways, the gathering was loads of fun. Kate, her husband Rob, Scott, Ethan, Carisa and I attended. ONElist was starting to really feel like a start-up, a real company.

October 3 – User Email

From: PBBS90210
Date: Sat, 3 Oct 1998 13:12:19 EDT
To: admin@onelist.com
Subject: Great Experience

I’ve been calling BBS’s for years. This is a great idea and this system works. I just hope that yahoo or the others don’t get a hold of what you’ve accomplished here. This is only the beginning. If you add free e-mail, and www search this would be awesome.

Thanks for letting me share my experience with you. I’ve encountered no problems and its very easy to use. It like a BBS in some respect, I simply come here and check out the mail on the list. How about adding flowers and e-mail stuff as well.

I like it. Oh, how about a home page too. Yep, this is very good. I see a lot of potential.

October 9 – OneListAddicts List Created

Every night, a program automatically generated a page listing all the new lists created the previous day. I scanned it quite often, as it was very fascinating to see how people were using the system. When I saw this group, I had to forward it to the rest of the gang.

OneListAddicts [English] [For People Over 21]

This list is for people who can’t get enough of scavenging through OneList searching for that perfect mailing list to join. We then end up subbed to way too many, and some we don’t even remember signing up for : ) Come join the talk all about OneList Lists!!!

October 22 – Biz Update

From: Mark Fletcher
Date: Thu Oct 22, 1998 6:58pm
Subject: Biz update

howdy,

i figured i’d update you on what’s been going on on the business side of onelist. scott already knows this stuff, but i wanted to make sure the rest of the team is kept up to date.

i will most likely be meeting with someone from excite tomorrow afternoon. they approached us last week about a link exchange. they’re putting together a resource page for their new communities service, and want to link to us. great! i responded with an offer to give them access to our database of lists. it would give them unique content in an area that they don’t currently cover(mailing lists), and it’d give us a bunch of exposure. A win win if you will(no paradigm shift jokes please!). i won’t ask for any money or anything, just a link to us. i would be mucho excited(no pun intended) if they went for it. it would really increase our traffic(can we handle it?).

monday evening, scott and i will be meeting with derek, who represents invest link, a vc firm. this will be a second meeting for us.

tuesday(if our schedules don’t conflict), i will be meeting with someone from xoom (http://www.xoom.com). they approached us because they are interested in offering mailing list services to their users(they’re a free web page place). i’ve been trying to meet with this guy for the past three weeks. our schedules never match. it’s almost comic.

i haven’t heard anything from linkexchange since monday. i’ve talked with them a couple of times, as they were interested in buying us. the last message i got from ali was that he thought we weren’t interested in selling. I sent a message back to him that said that we were definitely interested, and that we’d either be getting vc funding or selling ourselves within the next couple of months. so we’ll see.

i just ordered two more machines to add to our network. one will be a dedicated mail server(there are already 4 others). the other machine will be a replacement for our web server. our web server is the original onelist machine. it’s a 166mhz pentium with a bunch of stuff on it we no longer need. the new machine is a 266mhz pII. faster, and it will cost less money.

we seem to be running close to full capacity on everything, including the database. we’ll be working on some things to ease the load on the database. our web traffic continues to increase, and the other day we did our first 10,000 new user day.

thanks,

mark

October 25 – Status Report

From: ONElist Tech Support
Date: Sun Oct 25, 1998 8:47pm
Subject: Status Report

Status Report for ONElist.com

Thank you for using ONElist. We continue to improve the service, based on the many suggestions from our users. Over the past month, we’ve been able to add several new features, including:

  • Email Commands
    We’ve added several email commands for subscribing, unsubscribing, and switching between normal and digest subscriptions. For more information about these commands, please visit the List Owner’s Manual in the Help Center.
  • Easier Registration and Confirmation
    We’ve made registering with ONElist easier. And we’ve added a second way to confirm your account. Included with the confirmation email is a URL that you can go to to confirm your account.
  • Post Message
    The List Center now includes the ability to post messages to a list directly from the ONElist web site.
  • Improved Subscriber List Page
    We’ve improved the subscriber list page, and you can now list subscribers sorted either by email address or by subscription date.
  • Improved Message Moderation
    For moderated lists, there is now the option to edit a message before approving it for the list.
  • User Profile Editing
    You can now edit your user profile, including your name and email alias, through the User Center screen.
  • Improved Help Center
    We’ve added two new sections to the help center. We’ve added a section for lists that are dedicated to helping list owners. We’ve also added a List Owner’s Manual.
  • No Ads Option
    We now offer the ability to remove advertising on lists. Please see http://www.onelist.com/noads.html for more information.

In addition, we’ve been testing a User Profiles function that will allow people to view the profiles of the other subscribers on the list. Based on user feedback, we have temporarily removed that function until we can add an option for list owners to disable it on a list-by-list basis.

We are continuing to add new features and improve the ONElist system. Our goal is to make ONElist the best possible mailing list system. To do that we need your feedback. How can we make it better? How can we make it easier to use? What features are missing?

Please email your comments to comments@onelist.com

Thanks!

The ONElist Team

October 26 – First Meeting With Xoom

At this point, talks with Link Exchange had ended. Next up was Xoom. Xoom was a web site that consisted of a collection of services, mainly home page hosting. The interesting thing about Xoom is that in reality they were a direct marketing company. Ok, maybe it isn’t interesting, but it explains why they were interested in ONElist. Let me explain.

Xoom had all these services, but in order to use them, you had to register. You filled out a form with your email address and answered some questions about what your interests were. By doing this, you agreed to allow Xoom to send you emails with product offers. Xoom would make their money with sales from these offers. So, the more services that Xoom offered, the more people would sign up, which meant more people would see the direct mail emails, which would lead to greater sales for Xoom.

With their direct market strategy, ONElist was a clear fit with their other services. They would use ONElist as a way to get more people to see their offers.

They were on track to IPO in December, and they wanted to acquire us. I drove up to downtown San Francisco and demoed the system to Russell Hyzan, one of their founders. They were interested, and wanted to run a test with us.

September 1998

May 14, 2010

Early September – Internal Email

With the new database system in place, things really started to accelerate. I was able to allow new groups to be created, which jumpstarted our growth. And Scott and Ethan could now devote their time to other issues besides just the database.

Here is a collection of internal emails that I sent to Scott and Ethan during the first part of September 1998. Some of the emails are talking about features and the system. Some of the emails are comments from our users that I forwarded on. Notice in these internal messages my disturbing lack of capital letters. I think I was too tired to press the ‘Shift’ key. Or I was trying to be ‘hip’ and ‘cool’. As must be painfully evident by now to you, gentle reader, I’m a bit deficient in those areas.

In hindsight, the predictions I made in this first email are fairly accurate. This message was sent to Scott and Ethan on September 1, 1998. On December 1, 1998 we passed 1 million users. So I was a little off, you say. Well, people have been telling me that I’m a little off all my life. Thank you, I’m here all week, try the fish.

On to the email:

From: Mark Fletcher
Date: Tue Sep 1, 1998 11:09am
Subject: growth

if our current growth rate is 1.5 percent per day, then, given 320,000 users, in 30 days we will have over 500,000. in 60 days we will have 784,914. in 90 days we will have 1,229,301.

rough calculation.

mark

–

From: Sshomi
Date: Tue, 1 Sep 1998 10:51:18 EDT
To: comments@onelist.com
Subject: Wow!

Hello ONElisters,

You people are terrific! I am more and more impressed with this service. I love all the new features you’ve put in. It is a very sophisticated and classy system and in stark contrast to the tacky and noisy advertising at places like Listbot. I dread the day the advertising appears at ONElist but hopefully it will be discreet. Keep up the wonderful work!

Muni Gilbert

Sunlight and Ruminations List Manager

Date: Sun, 06 Sep 1998 00:12:16 -0400
To: help@onelist.com
From: Jed Barton
Subject: nice system

Hello folks, i just thought i would send you an email saying that this onelist sight is wonderful. I have been wanting to setup a list for a long time and have done so. This is wonderful. Keep up the great work. Thank you —-Jed Barton

–

From LeonardE@t…
Thu Sep 10 04:28:46 1998

I love my Onelist. It is wonderful! I have made some wonderful new friends and found that I even have contacts in common from twenty years ago with one contact! It is amazing and I love being able to share experiences and information with each other. It is just wonderful. Thank you for Onelist and for making it free!

Very Sincerely,

Betty Leonard, Arabians Onelist owner

–

From chiapet@c…
Thu Sep 10 04:42:19 1998

Congratulations on your most recent updates! You guys just keep getting better and better. The people on my lists are /so/ happy with them, and with the ease and reliability of use. Thank you!

Trish Simpson
Cheeptrills Maine Coons
http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/7528/
MCBFA Breeder Member since 1985

–

From: Mark Fletcher
Date: Thu Sep 3, 1998 8:57am
Subject: stuff

hey guys,

looks like we are continuing our 1.5 or so percent growth rate. we are at a little over 335,000 users today. i’ve just written a program that will run as a cron job to get the count every day, so we have exact numbers.

i added a few things last night. we now have some extra confirmation screens when people want to unsubscribe or change their subscription to no mail. it was confusing some people, so an extra confirmation screen should help.

i also added an advanced search screen. we can search for lists on key words right now. the advanced search allows you to also specify language and/or maturity level. pretty simple stuff, but hey, it’s a decent feature.

i also updated some of the FAQs and other screens.

yesterday, i also added the multiple moderators stuff to the web site. you can now click on a user from the subscriber list of your list and make them a moderator. you can then list the moderators of your list and delete them.

it looks like our set cache size is currently 10. that seems really low to me. can we bump it up to 100 or maybe even 500? that will help in performance and we shouldn’t take a big hit on memory.

thanks,

mark

–

From: Mark Fletcher
Date: Sun Sep 6, 1998 7:32pm
Subject: my weekend

hey guys,

just to let you know what i’ve been up to… i’ve added some functionality to the add users function. previously, when adding people to a list, the people would have to respond to a confirmation email before being subscribed. i’ve added an option where the users will be added automatically, and not have to respond to a confirmation email. hopefully this will help some people who want to transfer lists to onelist.

adding this also meant that we had to support unsubscribing through email. so i’ve added a good chunk of that as well. i’ve also tried to make the existing confirmation messages easier to use.

i also have been mocking up the survey tools, and hope to implement those cgi programs later tonight and tomorrow. i think it looks pretty cool. the results will be displayed with a nice little bar graph with up to date information.

oh yes, and i’ve been answering email as well. our users have been really pleased with the changes, especially everything the new database system gives us. i try to forward some of the emails when i can. you guys have done a great job!

mark

September 9 – ONElist Status Update

From: ONElist Tech Support
Date: Wed Sep 9, 1998 8:46pm
Subject: ONElist Status Update

Status Report for ONElist.com

Over the past several weeks, we have completed our internal upgrades. Our system will now be able to support our continued growth for a long time to come, while providing the high level of service we hope you’ve come to expect from ONElist.

We have also been able to add several new features, including:

  • Multiple Moderators
    Each list can have several moderators. You can add and remove moderators through the Manage List screen.
  • No Post and No Mail
    Moderators can now disable subscribers’ ability to post to lists. Also, subscribers can temporarily turn off mail delivery.
  • Private Archives
    Lists can now specify that archives are only viewable by subscribers.
  • New List Center
    Within the User Center, for each list you are subscribed to, there is a link to the List Center. The List Center contains links to the list archives as well as another new feature, group bookmarks.
  • Group Bookmarks
    Each list now has a Bookmark Center, where subscribers can share links to web sites.
  • Message Trailers
    List moderators can specify a message to be appended to each message sent to the list.
  • Unlisted Lists
    List moderators can specify that a list is unlisted, which means it will not show up in list searches or on the New Lists page.
  • Advanced Search
    Users can now specify a language and/or maturity level when searching for lists.
  • listname-owner@onelist.com
    Each list now has a special address that will send email to the list moderators for that list.
  • Adding Users improved
    The Add Users function has been improved. Moderators can now add people to their list without the users having to reply to a confirmation email.
  • Improved Moderator Control
    Moderators can now switch users between normal subscription and digest subscription, through the Manage List screen.

We are continuing to add new features and improve the ONElist system. Our goal is to make ONElist the best possible mailing list community system. To do that we need your help. How can we make it better? How can we make it easier to use? What features are missing?

Please email your comments to comments@onelist.com

Thanks!

The ONElist Team

September 10 – Link Exchange

With our fixed database and resumed expansion, other companies began to notice us again. We had had interest from a couple of people the previous spring, but the summer was quiet. Things started picking up again, and first up was Link Exchange.

Link Exchange was a successful web-advertising network based in San Francisco. They had recently bought a service called Listbot, which was a minor competitor to ONElist, and they wanted to talk with us.

So, over lunch at Mistraal’s, a local bistro, I met with Ali Partovi and Scott Bannister. Looking back, it’s clear that they were just on a fishing expedition. What that means is that they just wanted to get as much information about ONElist as possible. They said they were interested in acquiring us, but that was clearly a ruse.

I talked with them over the next month, but nothing came of it. Near the end of October 1998, they stopped returning emails. A week later, Microsoft acquired them.

September 13 – Searching for Rick Springfield

We’ve all seen the Behind the Music special. I think this is one of the greatest emails we received the first year. Just try to picture the following scene.

From: Tas3638725@a…
Date: Sun, 13 Sep 1998 00:36:06 EDT
To: help@onelist.com
Subject: Looking for Rick Springfield List

Hi, I went to a Rick Springfield concert tonight and everyone had on buttons with your web address on it so I talked to one of them and they said there was a list for him. I tried searching under his name and got an error message. I then tried to look under the music categories but received the same error message saying there was no such site. I used the “links” on your page for “music” and “Rock”, “80’s” and got the same message. Please let me know what I am doing wrong.

September 17 – Database Meltdown

For the 3 weeks that ONElist had been running under the Oracle database, things had gone smoothly. But good things don’t last forever (or even a month in this case). First, a bit of a set up. I had two phone lines in our house, the normal line, and a line I used for the computer. When I started ONElist, I had to include a phone number with the domain registration. I submitted the second phone line. You would see this phone number if you did a look-up on the domain name, which required a bit of nerd knowledge. But otherwise, it was not generally advertised. I attached an answering machine to that line, which would catch the occasional person calling for customer support.

On September 17, I knew there was a problem when I awoke to the sound of someone leaving a message on the ONElist answering machine saying that the service was down. This is generally not the way you want to wake up in the morning. Especially the morning of your 28th birthday. You get that sinking feeling, where it feels like there’s a 20-pound stone in the pit of your gullet.

Sure enough, the system was down. I traced it to the database machine, which was off-line. After a couple of frantic calls to the hosting facility in Virginia, it was determined that the machine had died because of a disk problem. That’s something you really don’t want to hear when talking about a database machine. It became apparent that this was going to take some time to fix, so I emailed my boss at Sun (remember, we all still had day jobs), telling him I wasn’t going to be in for the day. A day off on my birthday. I just wish I could have enjoyed it.

Skipping all the nerd details, we finally got the system back on-line in the afternoon. But the luckiest part of the entire experience is that the database was ok. We didn’t lose any information.

Late September – Kate Shambarger

It was time for ONElist to grow again. While Carisa had been doing an admirable job helping me with customer support email, we really needed someone dedicated to the job. Luckily, Scott knew just the person, in the form of his sister-in-law, Kate.

At Scott’s invitation, I went over to the townhouse Kate and her husband Rob shared one evening after work. The way that we handled customer support email at that time was really primitive. You had to log into a Linux computer across the country and use a bare bones email program. So I sat down at her computer to show her the many steps required to answer customer support. As I was working the computer, her Siamese cat innocently came up to me and chomped on my leg. Ouch. This was an inauspicious start, to say the least.

Many of the users were abusive and the process of responding to them was tedious. But Kate picked things up quickly, and turned out to be a natural for the job. I now had one less responsibility, and only a little blood loss. A fair trade, in my book.

August 1998 – The Poaching Continues

May 14, 2010

Scott was doing great work with the database, but the hungry beast that was ONElist demanded more people to work on it. So I took Ethan Kan out to lunch. Ethan was the second smartest engineer I knew (after Scott). He had started working at Diba, the startup that Scott and I were at, right when Diba was bought by Sun Microsystems. Bad timing, I suppose, for Ethan.

Luckily for us, Ethan decided to join ONElist. So now ONElist was up to 3 people, all moonlighting on ONElist, while still working full time jobs. Let me tell you, that is not a fun way to live.

Around this time, customer support was becoming a big problem. It was getting to the point that there would be 200 support emails every night, and 500 emails on weekends. I was going insane trying to answer them. So, I recruited Carisa Cannan, my girlfriend, to help answer all the messages. Nice boyfriend, eh? We would trade off answering emails, but she ended up answering most of them throughout the rest of the summer. I was well on my way to insanity before she started helping out.

August 7 – ONElist Upgrade Report

For this upgrade, we were moving the archives off of the original ONElist PC onto another system. Even at this point, there was a lot of data to move. Another sleepless weekend.

From: ONElist Tech Support
Date: Fri Aug 7, 1998 8:28am
Subject: ONElist Upgrade Report

Hello,

We are continuing the system-wide upgrade of ONElist. We recently added additional mail capacity to ensure that email will not be delayed. The next step in the upgrade will happen over two nights, Friday August 7th and Saturday August 8th. For this part of the upgrade we will have to take the ONElist system off-line for approximately 8 hours each night, starting at 6pm Pacific Time. Email that is sent during this time will be queued up and delivered once the system is back on-line.

This is the second to last step of the upgrade process. We appreciate your patience during our upgrades.

Thanks for using ONElist.

The ONElist Team

August 27-29 – Oracle Upgrade Weekend

Finally, Scott and Ethan had put together an Oracle database system for ONElist. We had no idea if it’d really work, although they had tested it a bit. The old database system was doing so badly, that we decided to rush the new system into production. We would fix anything that broke as we went along. Or at least that was the theory.

From: ONElist Tech Support
Date: Thu Aug 27, 1998 11:12am
Subject: Upgrade Notice

Hello,

We will be doing the final part of our upgrade Friday evening, starting at 7Pm Pacific Time. The upgrade is scheduled to last approximately 8 hours. Email sent during that time will be queued up and delivered when the system is back on-line.

We appreciate your patience during our upgrade process, and we look forward to being able to bring you many exciting new features soon.

Thanks,

The ONElist Team

When replying to this message, please include the entire message.
ONElist Tech Support                           Free Mailing Lists
http://www.onelist.com                          admin@onelist.com

Eight hours was wildly optimistic, but we had no way of telling how long the move to Oracle was going to take. So that Friday, we left work early and began the upgrade. The upgrade process involved Scott and I, and we each worked from our homes, calling each other every couple of hours. That weekend, both my brother and my girlfriend were out of town. So I was able to obsess over ONElist unimpeded.

After 8 hours, the upgrade wasn’t complete, but by this point there was no going back. We had to finish it. Around 5Am Saturday morning, everything was copied over into Oracle and we were ready to go. Scott fired up the system, and things seemed to work. But we noticed that things weren’t quite as fast as they should be. Being very tired, we gave up for the night and tried to get some sleep.

It was apparent that Saturday that things were not right. The new database was, in fact, running more slowly than the old database. Which was kind of opposite of what we were going for. This had to be fixed. After much head pounding, we determined that the way that we were talking with the database was the cause of the slow down. We quickly set about creating a new server system that would fix the problem, but it required a lot of work.

Eventually, around 3pm Sunday afternoon, the new server was ready. It had been tested for all of 5 minutes, but we had to put it into production. The ONElist web site had basically been unusable all weekend, because things were so slow. In a sane world, when you write a new software program, you carefully design it. And when it’s completed, you test it a lot to ensure that there are no bugs. But in our insane world, we didn’t have the time to do that. So we put the new server on-line. And miracle of miracles, it worked. Instantly, the web site was fast, email delivery worked again, birds started singing, and a rainbow descended upon my house. I went to bed and dreamed of donuts.