Frankie Urbino was down on his luck one day in 1998 when he staggered into a Miami, Florida public library and fell into a chair in front of one of the new library computers connecting to this new Internet. With a head and face full of dark hair that hadn’t seen a comb or a razor or a shower in at least a week, his brown eyes were bloodshot from too much booze and not enough sleep. Staring at the screen, looking for an escape from the guilt from conning too many vulnerable people out of their life savings, he fumbled with the computer mouse and used an Internet search engine to find a pornography website. The site offered some teaser images and then presented a screen where he could sign up to look at the good stuff.
And there it was – a screen with several fields asking about various preferences. He could register an existing email address, or sign up for free email service from several providers, and when new content became available, the website would send him an email about it.
An idea started to form in the midst of the fog in Urbino’s alcohol altered mind. His hands shook as he tried to force his mind to think. “Why do these guys want to give me a free email service?”
He fumbled with the keyboard briefly, then quickly got up and teetered out the door. Porn pictures could wait. “There’s an idea in here someplace”, he thought as he caught a city bus to the seedy neighborhood with his apartment building. “What is it? What IS it?”
Thoughts churned in his head as he stumbled off the bus, across the street, into the building, up the elevator, and down the hall to his one bedroom apartment. He fumbled with his keys, opened the door, and was assaulted by smells of stale beer, overflowing trash, and dirty laundry. He navigated to the couch, flipped on the TV, and promptly fell asleep for several hours. His last conscious thought was, “What‘s the email angle?”
Five hours later, he woke up with a headache, his head mashed against the remnants of a week old pizza and drool running down the side of his chin. The TV blared with a late night documentary about ancient space aliens who built the Egyptian pyramids.
After a shower to clear the cobwebs, outlines of the idea started to form. The porn site operators wanted to connect him with an email address so they could entice him with paid services later. That had to be it. Free porn was just another teaser. The website operators made money by collecting email addresses and selling goods and services via email.
“I wonder how much money they spent to set up that porn site so they could collect my email address,” he thought to himself. And “I wonder if there’s a cheaper way to do it? What if I could collect email addresses and sell them to companies who want to sell stuff over the Internet?”
Twelve years later, clean shaven, impeccably dressed, with dyed black hair combed back and none out of place, Frank Urbino advertised himself as the king of email marketing. That seedy neighborhood and rundown apartment building were distant memories and he now spent most evenings at some of the most popular night spots in town. He had a database with millions of email addresses, harvested from public forums across the Internet and categorized by interest, geography, and dozens of other factors. He also cultivated a partnership with a Chinese email relaying service, which allowed him to offer a whole range of bulk email services. He was open for business to anyone, no questions asked, including a strange character from somewhere in Iran who always paid 50 percent in advance via wire transfer, and 50 percent at the conclusion of a bulk email run. And a mysterious Russian who seemed to have a thing for vodka.