How I Invented For-Profit E-mail Publishing
I invented for-profit e-mail publishing on Wednesday, June 22, 1994. I'm not aware of any others who claim to have invented it before that time (but see the update below). This is a brief description of what I came up with, and how.
Weekly Weird News
At the time I was working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. I was on the engineering staff since I was doing software engineering, but my college degree is actually journalism. I had wanted to be a newspaper columnist when I went to school, but I quickly saw that it was an unrealistic goal: I would have to start as a reporter and, over the years, work my way up to being a columnist. (Forget that! I remember saying to myself.) Since I enjoyed science writing, my specialty became explaining complex, technological topics to a lay audience, and (long story short) that led to a technical publishing job at JPL, which led to software engineering.
One of the best things about JPL: they're very high tech. There were more computers than people at the Lab, and there were a lot of people — around 6,000 at the time. For most of my tenure there I had two computers myself: a Mac and a PC.
That's puzzle piece one.
A lot of people post cartoons on their office walls. For years, I had posted weird-but-true newspaper clippings on a (cork) bulletin board outside my cubicle at JPL. Just posting paper clippings wasn't enough: I couldn't help but to hand-write comments on the articles. For instance, one that I recall was about a woman who kept two things under her pillow: an asthma inhaler ...and a gun. One night she had an asthma attack, grabbed the gun instead of the inhaler, stuck it in her mouth, and pulled the trigger. On the article I wrote, "There she goes, shooting her mouth off again."
As the years went by, they got very popular at JPL: I'd just call out "New clips going up!" and go sit down, and clusters of people would crowd around the bulletin board in the hallway to catch the news — and laugh at the comments. One of my biggest fans was my nearby secretary, Dottie, who would often proclaim as she read the clips, "You need to write a column!"
That's puzzle piece two.
During the early 1990s, I was one of the early JPL employees to get my office computer attached to the ILAN — the Institutional Local Area Network — and was starting to explore this "Internet" thing that the ILAN was connected to. I was astounded at how easy it was to connect to computers half-way around the world. I long had online access at home — my first CompuServe account was dated 1983 (and I kept it until AOL shut it down in 2009). I mainly used my CompuServe account for e-mail, and my NASA computer's e-mail too: I worked with people all over the country, and later the world, and it was rather handy to be able to send them notes no matter what their time zones. Many of them became my friends.
During that time, when I had a slack period where I had more time at the office than work to do, I started studying the Internet. Among the things I read about was "listservers", server-based software which take an e-mail message and then copy it out to everyone on its internal "list". They were mostly used for e-mail "discussion groups". It's quite possible they were even used for newsletters that far back, and thus I don't claim to have invented e-mail publishing as a whole, but in 1994 doing business on the Internet was virtually unheard of; making a profit online was actually considered a terrible thing — the 'net was supposed to be a pristine environment of academic interest ever since it first went online (October 1, 1969, when the University of California at Los Angeles hooked up to the Stanford Research Institute, creating the Department of Defense's ARPAnet). For-profit e-mail publishing simply didn't exist at the time.
I don't actually remember being a member of any lists then, but still, that was puzzle piece three.
June 1994 was a pretty warm month. It was in the 90s, and my apartment had one crappy air conditioner that couldn't keep up with the heat. It was stifling inside, and I couldn't sleep. I was tossing and turning, wishing I could move the hell away from the desert to a cooler climate. If I had to work for someone, JPL was an awfully interesting place to work, but I really, really wanted to get out of L.A.! I had been a small publisher (newsletters and books) before JPL, and I really wanted to get back into writing and publishing again.
That was puzzle piece four.
The Pieces Fall Together
In a flash of inspiration as I was tossing and turning, unable to sleep, the puzzle pieces fell into place: by using the Internet I could bypass "paying dues" as a newspaper reporter and become an online publisher, going directly to my audience without a newspaper publisher behind me. I'd use my "weird news" interest as the content vehicle, and the commentary to give it personality. To get the biggest audience possible, I'd give my new column away online for free, with profit coming from three primary sources: advertising in the newsletter (radical, in 1994!), book compilations (there's the old book publisher in me chiming in!), and — once the column got popular — newspaper syndication. In other words, despite the lack of commercial activity online, the inspiration included the concept of for-profit activity from the e-mail newsletter, even though I had never even heard of such a thing before.
I leapt out of bed, booted my computer, and jotted down some notes: I knew I had come up with a great idea, and I wanted to be sure nothing was lost. But it was so burned into my mind I needn't have worried. In addition to the profit sources outlined above, my June 1994 business plan also spelled out the mechanics of the e-mail publishing portion:
The first method of distribution is by direct subscription via electronic mail on the Internet. A "listserver" is an automated Internet computer program designed to disseminate information electronically to a large audience. By sending a standard electronic mail message to the listserver with the word "subscribe" in the body of the message, the listserver reads the e-mail address of the sender and adds it to a file — a file containing the e-mail addresses of people who want to subscribe, i.e. be added to the list. When an issue of the newsletter is ready for distribution, the author passes it to the listserver for full distribution. The newsletter is electronically duplicated — a copy for each person on the list — and each copy is electronically mailed. Distribution is thus handled quickly, and virtually without human effort. To grow large very quickly, promotion will be aggressive — and distribution by this method will be free. Since this distribution is free, we suspect most people will want to get their own subscription, rather than depend on a friend to make them a copy.
There it is: the basics of my "invention" — for-profit e-mail publishing. You can kinda tell I was working in "engineer" mode! :-)
Why a business plan? Because Thursday morning, I was excited enough about my ticket out of L.A. that I told a couple of JPL friends about my idea. And they didn't get it. At all. It was so obvious to me I couldn't believe they couldn't see it. I said I'd be making enough income from it that I could quit my Day Job within two years and go full-time with my e-mail publication. "How are you going to make money giving it away for free?" they asked. sigh
So I went home that night (Thursday, June 23) and booted my computer again. I fleshed out my notes into a business plan. The usual reason to write a business plan is to explain a business concept to investors to get funding. I realized I didn't need funding, but wrote the plan anyway to help explain the concept — not just to my high-tech JPL friends, but to less online-savvy people, like my father.
On Friday I brought the business plan back to JPL to show my friends; they could read the concept, including details on how profits would be generated — and including my estimate of two years of ramp-up until I could quit my day job. After all, there weren't that many people online in 1994.
And my friends still didn't get it. They thought I was crazy. But I pressed forward.
January 2009 Update
Well, it looks like someone else also invented it, and before me:
Sorry, Randy, but TidBITS has always been commercial. For the first year or so, we didn't make any money, but we started our corporate sponsorship program in 1992 (which is, as far as I'm aware, the first advertising program on the Internet, though the first commercial use of the Internet was ClariNet). We do also accept direct contributions from readers, but that came many years later when readers requested it. It has never been a significant source of revenue. Since our entire 19-year archive is online, all of this can be verified in our back articles.
Hey, Adam, no apology necessary! I'm glad to get things clarified, because I was still wondering. I can't think of a better team to hold the crown.