As a kid in San Francisco, Ladar had used a bulletin-board system called Nerdshack. In fact, his first email address was a Nerdshack account. The service folded, and a lawyer bought the URL. Ladar knew this fact because, feeling nostalgic about his childhood email address, he would check every six months or so to see who owned Nerdshack.com. In the summer of 2002, the URL became available, and he snapped it up. He sat on it for almost two years before he figured out how to use it. Here was his thinking:
If you wanted to attract an audience and then charge advertisers to reach that audience, you could either spend a lot of money to create content for the audience, or, far more cheaply, you could build a platform and let the audience generate its own content. That’s email. Seeing it as a medium around which to wrap ads might not sound groundbreaking today, but at the time, no one had heard of “user-generated content.” Wikipedia was in its infancy. Gmail didn’t exist until the same year Nerdshack did.
Ladar launched his free email service in April 2004. There were no ads initially, and revenue was nonexistent. Really, it was an expensive hobby. Rodenberg was working at the time for a startup based in downtown Dallas. He let his buddy Ladar use the company’s T1 internet connection for Nerdshack, but it quickly sucked up so much bandwidth that it had to be moved to a separate data center and pay its own way.
Ladar thinks there might be 1,000 people on the planet who share his combination of skill sets. (This assessment does not take into account his proficiency in volleyball or wilderness survival.) There is writing software for an email service, and then there’s running the hardware and the databases that make the service hum. Without venture capital or employees, Ladar did it all himself. And then, a year and a half after he started Nerdshack, he revamped the entire operation.
In 2006, he rolled out a major reconfiguration of his email service (adding IMAP to his POP service, if you must know). And as long as he was doing that, he figured, he should come up with a snappier name, something with less “nerd” in it. Too, he’d been reading about the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. Better known by its abbreviated acronym, the Patriot Act had become law in a legislative paroxysm triggered by the 9/11 attacks, greatly expanding the government’s surveillance operations on several fronts. In high school, Ladar had debated the legality of random locker searches as a member of the Junior State of America. He now saw parallels between that situation and this one, where the liberties of the many innocent would be curtailed in pursuit of the guilty few. He also saw a business opportunity. Thus was born Nerdshack’s offspring, Lavabit, an email service for the privacy-minded.
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