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 firstname.lastname@example.org. On the Web, dial http://www.sjmercury.com-columnists-plotnikoff
1999, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).