I missed this by a couple of days, but it was 10 years ago when I launched ONElist (now Yahoo Groups). It was a Saturday night, January 24, 1998, and I had just completed three months of coding the site, by working nights and weekends. I had never created a web site before and one of the reasons I started ONElist was because I wanted to learn how to do so.
I talk about how I launched the site in the (woefully incomplete and unmaintained) ONElist files:
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.
Reading that back, it really doesn’t convey the shock and amazement I felt that Sunday morning when I logged in and saw those 20 lists. It really was incredible to me.
I have a tendency to get caught up in things and not fully appreciate what’s going on in my life at a given moment, whether it’s a relationship, a vacation, or, in this case, a life-changing startup experience. It all went so fast. But I am extremely fortunate that I remain friends with many of the people I worked with during that time.
ONElist was an amazing 3 years of my life. To this day, I still occasionally hear stories about how one or another of the mailing lists has changed someone’s life. As an engineer, it’s incredibly gratifying to have been involved in the creation of something that so many people use on a daily basis. And to think, when I started it, I had no idea if anyone would use it.