Archive for the ‘The Story’ Category

March 1998 – Makelist Enters The Fray

April 28, 2010

So, to this point we have an interesting idea, a successful launch, and a growing Internet service. Of course, we couldn’t be the only ones doing this (Coollist doesn’t count) for long. Cue music. Enter Makelist. Da Dum!

Makelist actually started life as Findmail. Scott Hassan started Findmail about a year earlier (although I may be wrong about the date, I wasn’t there). Findmail was a service that archived mail lists. These lists were created and maintained on their own servers. Findmail would subscribe to these lists, like normal users, and archive the posts it received.

From Findmail, it’s not a difficult jump to Makelist, which provided mail list hosting services. Just like ONElist. Eventually, near the end of summer 1998, both Makelist and Findmail were morphed into eGroups. You’ll hear more about this later.

During the first year or so of Makelist/eGroups, we competed against them mainly on the basis of functionality. We had a few month head start and had a few more bells and whistles. After parity was reached, we competed more on customer support and quality of our hosted lists. And then a little later, we stopped competing altogether. But of course we’re getting ahead of ourselves again.

January 24, 1998 – Launch

April 26, 2010

By Saturday, January 24, 1998, things looked ready. The software was written and tested. I had leased a PC running Linux for $279 a month from a company in Virginia called Digital Nation. I had created a Limited Liability Corporation. I ran out of things to do. Silly me. I guess it was time.

I wanted to start things slowly, so I decided to try to get one person to start a list. I’d be able to shake out any remaining bugs and get feedback. So I did a search of USENET looking for people who wanted to start mailing lists but didn’t know how. I found one person, who happened to be in Norway, and spammed him about the service. Then I went to bed. Little did I know that this would be the last night of (non-alcohol induced) restful sleep for the next couple of years.

The next morning, I was hoping that there’d be one new list created. Or at least I hoped the guy from Norway didn’t complain about me spamming him. Instead, to my surprise, there were about 20 lists created. The guy from Norway had created his list and then told all his friends about it. And that’s how it grew. You create a list and of course you want subscribers. So you tell your friends. It snowballs. Viral marketing, the VCs call it.

So what was the first list? Discourse about Shakespearean influence in modern playwrights? Talk about rising tensions in the Middle East? In depth political discussion about globalization and free trade? No, no, no. It was about lizards. Not just any kind of lizard, but Anole lizards. From a guy in Norway. It’s still there, even: Discussion list for all Anole species. And most of the other new lists were lizard lists. I suddenly had visions in my head about our first press release. “Leaping lists of lizards!” it would shout. Herpetologists rejoice!

From that, there was little stopping it. I occasionally posted announcements to USENET groups about ONElist, but the growth really came from word of mouth. In hindsight, I guess it’s obvious that mailing lists are viral. But at the time, I had no idea. I just wanted to create a service that made finding and managing mailing lists easier.

So now, the story shifts from trying to get people to use the service, to keeping up with the growth. It was good that I had a restful night of sleep that night.

October 1997 – Naming The Beast

April 26, 2010

I worked on creating this new web site throughout the rest of 1997, mainly during nights and weekends. As it slowly took shape, I needed to come up with a name for it. One evening while having dinner at a local pub, my girlfriend, brother and I brainstormed company names. The two favorites from that evening were Commulist and Socialist. After I sobered up, being the no fun kind of guy that I am, I ditched those ideas. I thought the name should have list in it. And I liked the idea of the name expressing the fact that our service was the only one, or the best one. Singular in all its, umm, greatness. So, I settled on Monolist as the working name of the company. Ugh.

Luckily, I wasn’t terribly happy with Monolist. It had the right elements, but wasn’t quite there. With a couple of weeks of software development remaining, I tweaked the name a bit and ended up with ONElist. I registered the domain on October 22, 1997. What I didn’t realize until a couple of years later is that I should have registered any alternative spellings of the domain. After we started getting popular, people registered, and other variances. Most of these domains went straight to porn sites. I love America.

Porn Aside #1

Speaking of porn, skipping ahead a year and a half or so, we had an interesting discussion on how to increase revenue from our service. Noticing that porn was popular, someone came up with the idea of ONElust, a separate porn mailing list service. We never really pursued the idea, however.

Porn Aside #2

Interestingly enough, and skipping ahead even more, it turns out that our main competition at the time, eGroups, also had similar thoughts. They registered eGrope.

Porn Aside #3

There is no third porn aside.

August 1997 – The Beginning

April 26, 2010

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.


April 26, 2010

As mentioned in the index, I originally wrote The ONElist File back in 2001/2002, and it has not been updated since then.

I am told that viruses, like Ebola, can flair up for awhile, infecting a large population for period of time, and then go dormant, infecting no one for years on end. There was a strange disease, perhaps a virus, going around in the late 1990s. It caused people to do weird and unnatural things, like start Internet companies. I believe this is a mutation of the virus that afflicted so many in the 1970s, the disco bug. As with disco, one day we will look back on this era in cringing wonderment. Actually, it already seems like another era. Somebody ought to work on a vaccine. At least our clothes were better this time.

Despite my best efforts, I somehow caught the malaise in August 1997 and was compelled to start ONElist. This is my attempt to document that time, from inception until acquisition by Yahoo in September 2000. It actually was an incredible adventure, and hopefully this compendium will provide a glimpse of it, through emails, press releases, and insider commentary. This is not a “dot bomb” story, far from it. ONElist was more successful than anyone could have guessed.

I have just started working on The ONElist File. Really. Most of the internal and other company documents that I have are here and linked by the Table of Contents. However, I’ve only just started writing the story that links all of this together. Beware the ugly formatting, broken links, misspelled words, etc. You have been warned.

Apologies to John Walker for the blatant rip-off of The Autodesk File. His work is much better than this.