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Spam spawns success

By Rebecca Macfie

Friday 1st August 2003

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How's this for a crazy business startup model: spend $25,000 of your own hard-earned cash developing a product, give it away for free to anyone who wants it, and hope that a few kind souls will give you a voluntary donation out of the goodness of their hearts. But this is exactly what Christchurch software entrepreneur Nick Bolton did, and now he's got a business that will pull in upwards of $3.5 million in revenue this year.

Thirty-year-old Bolton was a financial planner for Perpetual Trust when he started getting irritated by the rising tide of spam. Finding nothing on the market that dealt efficiently to the menace, he opted to develop his own solution. He had a bit of spare capital slopping around, so he contracted Christchurch software developers Ecosm to design a simple, user-friendly spam-snuffing system. He called it Mailwasher, and hoisted it onto the internet in August 2001.

Downloads were free; donations welcome. Those who paid a donation were promised technical backup, which, for the first year, Bolton provided from home in the early hours of the morning and late at night. Within a matter of months Mailwasher had been featured in the German edition of PC World and on BBC World, and by May 2002 monthly donations reached $80,000.

A year ago Bolton decided he could afford to quit the day job and concentrate on the business full time. Well, almost. He runs this fast-growing new venture between the hours of nine and three.

In March, Bolton broke away from the donation-only model, introducing a "pro" (paid for) version for $29.95. Free downloads are still possible, but upgrades will only be available for paying customers. So far the change in strategy hasn't done his revenue flow any harm: when Unlimited visited his Christchurch office in June weekly revenue was running at $70,000. Bolton's company Firetrust now employs 22 people.

Mailwasher works by giving the user a quick view of the emails sitting on the server, and uses a range of tools such as fuzzy logic based on key words and blacklisted email addresses to highlight likely spam. A version for large corporate servers is in the pipeline and due for release in August. Bolton also has 200 users around the world trialling a new system whereby suspected spam is reported, and then checked by technical support staff to assess whether it really is spam or legitimate email. Once it's been confirmed as spam, Mailwasher prevents it reaching the inbox of any user of the software.

Despite various jurisdictions making noises about banning spam and prosecuting the perpetrators, this scourge of modern commerce isn't going to disappear any time soon. The volume of spam has risen exponentially since 2001 and now accounts for an estimated 45% of all email, costing some $10 billion a year in wasted corporate time. So chances are the market for products like Bolton's will just keep on growing.

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