ICQ is the software that launched a thousand viral marketing business plans. Released by the Tel-Aviv based Mirabilis Corp. in November 1996, the Internet chat program rapidly became one of the most envied and storied examples of the power of Web word-of-mouth, racking up some 50 million registered users in a mere 18 months -- without spending a dime on marketing. The legend grew even larger in 1998, when Mirabilis and its ICQ program were acquired by AOL for a cool $287 million.
ICQ stands for "I seek you" -- a fitting phrase, since the software enables users to find and chat with friends online. Whenever registered users log on to the Internet, ICQ lets them know which of their friends are also online. They can chat with each other through message boards, data conferencing or Net games -- and all in real time.
The program is the brainchild of four 20-something Israelis -- Yair Goldfinger, Arik Vardi, Sefi Vigiser and Amnon Amir -- who first met as teenagers in Israel's tight-knit programming community; they later crossed paths again, after they'd each served their mandatory three years in the Israeli army and were wondering what to do next. The four cofounders shared a love of programming, but also some army-born wisdom: Their service, says Vigiser, taught them to be "fast, efficient and survive anywhere" -- traits that proved ideal for launching a technology startup.
But they needed money. So they pulled a trick many unemployed youths can relate to: hitting up dad -- in this case, Arik Vardi's father, entrepreneur Yossi Vardi -- for cash. The elder Vardi obligingly wrote out a $100,000 check. The guys then sequestered themselves for six weeks, finally emerging with an ICQ demo to show their backer. It blew him away. "I told my wife, I just saw something that is bigger than any business opportunity I've seen in my entire life," Yossi Vardi recalls.
The four men had effectively created a whole new category of Internet communication, one that quickly transcended mere software to become a bona fide cultural phenomenon: Songs have been recorded, poems written, even art painted in ICQ's honor. And by inventing a product that virtually compels users to sign up their friends and family, ICQ's creators gave birth -- inadvertently, they say -- to what former Apple CEO John Sculley calls "the perfect example of viral marketing." It's an example that others have been trying to duplicate ever since.