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Killer App's Bad Rap
A bi-weekly column with timely, relevant and possibly irreverent insight into the BC technology industry.

Something Ventured:
October 24th, 2003


By Brent Holliday
Greenstone Venture Partners

"Walked out this morning
Don't believe what I saw.
A hundred billion bottles
Washed up on the shore" - The Police, Message In A Bottle

What would you do if you legitimately wanted to mention your experience with Viagra to a friend and you happened to be a Nigerian banker, specializing in re-financings with 'hgh' as consecutive letters in your last name? You'd pretty much have to call him on the phone because e-mail won't work for you. Not with all of the spam filtering proliferating out there.

In recent weeks, luminaries in software and the Internet have declared the end of e-mail as we know it. They have witnessed the dramatic rise in spam mail in the past 12 months, as we all have. In late September AOL's 30M person e-mail system crashed for three days under the weight of un-solicited e-mail. Clearly, we have an emerging problem.

My personal case in point: A year ago, my Greenstone e-mail received no un-solicited e-mail (Ahem, well a lot of business plans that were un-solicited, but, um, that's what I do). Last week, I received exactly 1,120 e-mails in total, of which 86% (or 963) were garbage that I didn't ask for. Zero to 963 in 12 months. And that's no straight line, either. It's geometric growth. My Blackberry (Internet Edition) crapped out this week and tech support still can't figure out why it won't get my e-mail. I have an answer… it is under siege and can't pass the volume through.

With worms like SoBig (that contains it's own SMTP engine, like a mini-printing press for e-mail) and bots that search for e-mail addresses in regular internet traffic (or scraping them from web sites that have e-mail addresses in the HTML source code), it's no wonder we are getting ridiculous volumes of e-mail now to addresses that haven't been sold or entered in web site forms. There is no end in site to this growth. I figure that it will be about 10 times worse than it is now before the pain is completely unbearable, moving up from its mild annoyance stage today.

Now first let me say as an investor in optical components and networking companies, bandwidth clogging e-mail might be a godsend to the suffering networking industry. Just add more bandwidth! Uh, well, like when they built the Lincoln tunnel from New Jersey to Manhattan and proudly declared that traffic on the Washington bridge would become bearable again... and it got worse, the adage of "adding capacity merely ends up adding traffic" means I'm out of luck on the 'more bandwidth' solution.

Back to e-mail. This is the number one killer app that made the Internet what it is today as a communication network. Nearly ¾ of a billion people have e-mail addresses now. It's closing in on telephones in terms of proliferation around the world. Is it fundamentally broken? Are we about to lose its benefits under the weight of Nigerian, re-financing Viagra peddlers and snot-nosed e-mail virus creators?

Yes and no. {How's that for definitive?}

No, e-mail will continue to be a dominant communications form. It is too important in workflow, introduction of ideas and fundamentally tied to productivity in a fast paced world because it is asynchronous. You can concentrate on something else completely (like a meeting) and get all up to date in 15 minutes with 15 different people sharing 15 different ideas. Imagine making all of those phone calls and actually getting people on the other end? It would take days to accomplish the same level of interaction.

Here's how to help your spam problem today and get your e-mail back to a productivity tool:

1) First, run, don't walk, to your nearest individual or corporate spam filtering vendor and get a spam filtering application. Get to the filter rules and load in your contact database (friends that get through) and become very good at blocking those bastards:

- Block every mail from the free e-mail domains (yahoo.com, hotmail.com, mail.com, etc.) Don't worry, your friends can be added.
- Addresses are free to the spammers, domains cost money. Search for the domains in the text (the links behind the pictures) and filter on those domains.
- Check your "quarantine" and "killed" spots for e-mails that got blocked (your Nigerian friend) that you want kept.
- It takes time to get it blocking well, but mine is now doing 90-95% blocking with minimal upkeep.

2) Change your e-mail address. If it's really getting you down, take the step of changing your e-mail by a letter or number and notifying your friends. It will take at least a year to get back to where you are today, especially if you remove all traces of that new e-mail address from the web.

3) Limit use of your e-mail address in web forms. Use time-bombed e-mail addresses for web forms like shopping. Mailinator is a good example of one-time use e-mail. You get to look at the e-mail once, copy it and keep the text, but no one finds you after that. Brilliant.

But what about those that need un-solicited e-mail sometimes? Venture Capital, among other industries, has become completely reliant on e-mail. We receive plans from people we don't know. If I blocked all of them and didn't respond, well that wouldn't be good for business. No product I've seen yet can tell the difference between a solicitation for venture capital and a solicitation for money into a Nigerian bank account.

So here's what we propose... a different take on soliciting directly, vs. soliciting broadly. On our website, we should have a form instead of a mailto: link. You enter your e-mail address if you want to send a plan or ask a question and an e-mail will be automatically sent back that you reply to with your plan. Keeps our e-mail off the web site and adds you to our "friend" list so you aren't blocked. Simple changes in how we hang out our shingle can help block un-solicited stuff that we don't want.

So there are lots of creative and inexpensive ways to shield yourself from the onslaught. But e-mail itself is changing too. Ray Ozzie (creator of Lotus Notes) and Groove offer on-line workspaces where work gets done synchronously and asynchronously without e-mail per se. He believes that workflow will move away from a flurry of e-mails into more efficient document creation and sharing. Many other vendors are coming up with new ideas and interfaces for how we do work or socialize on-line that might help lower the burden on e-mail as we use it today.

Instant messaging is, of course instant and very synchronous. I have found it to be amazingly useful at work and in social aspects (as the teenagers around the world discovered years ago). We are truly in the 21st century when my sixtysomething father IM'ed me this week for the first time with the tentative, two finger typed message: "ths i s nedt. Wat awe you doingh?" After 2 minutes passed from my response, it became so painful I picked up the phone and welcomed him to the world of IM and suggested a typing tutor.

IM is a very fast, no spam, way of communicating ideas and you can, after all, see when they are there, which is a huge advantage over a phone. It has been used inside companies for a while and will now extend beyond trash talking friends to the inter-corporate world.

The most effective way to avoid spam is to stay within a circle of trusted communication that is authenticated. Many solutions have sprung up around this notion, the cleverest of which, I think, are the ones that proliferate your address to rings of trust. So if I trust Geoff and he won't suggest I use Viagra, and he trusts Cindy, who won't ask him to re-finance, I might not know Cindy, but if I ever get a message from her, it would be OK. Wouldn't it be nice if we had one e-mail address forever and it could be shared socially and corporately like this? Kind of like seeing callerID on your cellphone (which has a unique ESN or MAC address, authenticating you) and the callerID said "Geoff's contact" underneath so you were OK with answering.

This is where messaging is headed, but the un-solicited e-mail will be many times as bad as they are now before the pain forces us to look longingly at new solutions like rings of trust. In the meantime, get and use the filters... and add your Nigerian contact to the "Friend" list.

Random Thoughts –

- More Technology Buyouts in Vancouver - Silent Witness gets bought by Honeywell for $84M a few days after I wrote about Sophos acquiring ActiveState. Certainly a big win for Silent Witness shareholders, but it brings an interesting point home. Silent Witness makes CCTV cameras and provides video surveillance solutions (including software to manage the cameras). They sold for just over 1.4x last year's revenue. ActiveState, a predominantly software license company sold for nearly 5x last year's revenue. These are healthy multiples in either case, but it illustrates the premium paid for higher margin businesses like software.

What Do You Think? Talk Back To Brent Holliday

 



Something Ventured
is a bi-weekly column designed to supplement the T-Net British Columbia web site with some timely, relevant and possibly irreverent insight into the industry. I hope to share some of the perspective and trends that I see in my role as a VC. The column is always followed by feedback (if its positive or constructive. I'll keep the flames to myself, thanks).

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