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The Father of Spam

Half of all e-mail sent today is spam. What does the man who started it all think of it now?
October 1, 2003
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/64482

Every day--every hour--it comes, and just try to stop it. Spamming costs businesses $8 billion to $10 billion per year in lost productivity, as entrepreneurs and employees constantly rid their e-mail boxes of the unwanted promises: Get out of debt; get 12 CDs for the price of one; enhance your sexual prowess. And Gary Thuerk is to blame for it all. As a young, ambitious computer salesperson, he sent the first spam to 600 people on an early version of the Internet in 1978. Today, Thuerk is married with three grown kids, works as a sales representative at Hewlett-Packard, and actually appears to be a nice guy. After explaining why he did what he did, he even gave us his e-mail address. "But don't print it," he begs.

What do you personally think of spam? Is it good or bad?

Gary Thuerk: I think it's more annoying than anything else. Incidentally, I don't get a lot of spam. I don't do the things people do that get them on those lists. And the last time I ended up getting on a spam list, I changed my account. I really don't surf the Net or belong to any chat groups or to any places where they post bulletin boards.

So if you had the chance to send the first spam again, would you do it?

Thuerk: Yes. Because it was a fast and efficient way to get the word out about our new product. The only thing that's changed is, when we CC'd, we had to type each name out by hand. We didn't know you could build a group of addresses. I sent [product information] to an organization I was a member of, giving them a notice about technology that had become commercially available, as opposed to a lot of these e-mails, which are a shot in the dark. Of course, some people make a fortune out of that.

Presumably, there are some decent entrepreneurs who want to use spam for good, not evil. Any advice on using spam correctly?

Thuerk: It's worth the effort to find the target audience rather than sending it to everybody in the world, because you'll have a more respectable image. And I tell people on the other side to delete all forwarding addresses in e-mails. Because while you might be forwarding it to some trustworthy people, eventually it's going to get into the wrong hands.

So do people give you death threats or dirty looks when they learn you started it all?

Thuerk: At a trade show recently, one guy introduced me to someone as the Father of Spam. I ended up autographing stuff and taking pictures with people. They asked, "What was it like? What did you do?" A bit of celebrity has entered my life.


Geoff Williams is a writer in Loveland, Ohio. He can be contacted at gwilliams1@cinci.rr.com.