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Create e-mail account, get paid for messages

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Wanted: Your eyeballs. Reward: 15 cents. That's what many big-name companies will pay you to open an e-mail, and San Francisco start-up Boxbe is ready to set up the deals. As an added bonus, signing up may be the antidote to g...

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Wanted: Your eyeballs. Reward: 15 cents.

That's what many big-name companies will pay you to open an e-mail, and San Francisco start-up Boxbe is ready to set up the deals. As an added bonus, signing up may be the antidote to getting spammed.

It works like this: Create an e-mail account at Boxbe.com and fill out some information about yourself. Then, if a marketer wants to contact you, it has to pay the price you set for the e-mail to be forwarded to your regular inbox. Boxbe takes a 25 percent cut of that revenue. (Friends can contact you by completing a "squiggly-line test" that only a human can pass.)

This protected account also means you can post your Boxbe e-mail address on a MySpace page or use it to sign up with a retailer such as Amazon.com without fear of being spammed by businesses not paying the price.

At first, Boxbe's business model may sound like a dot-com pyramid scheme, but businesses are used to shelling out big bucks, pennies at a time, to reach people who might buy their products. Companies spent more than $500 per person on direct marketing in the United States in 2005, according to the Direct Marketing Association, an industry trade group. Boxbe offers the average consumer a chance to see some of that cash.

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"Frankly, they'd rather pay the people they're trying to get as customers," said Thede Loder, Boxbe co-founder and president. "It's a much more friendly introduction when the first communication you have from a marketer or advertiser is money in your bank account."

Boxbe stems from Loder's graduate research at the University of Michigan, where he investigated spam, the unwanted junk e-mail advertisements sent indiscriminately to millions of inboxes at a time. According to various estimates, the spam problem costs billions of dollars due to lost worker productivity and wasted bandwidth costs in the billions of dollars -- in addition to the annoyance of digging through an e-mail service's bulk mail folder every so often to find worthwhile messages.

Loder and co-founder Corbett Barr developed software based on an idea floating around the tech industry since e-mail went mainstream: If companies have to pay to e-mail you, they'll stop spamming. And if they're still sending too many unwanted advertisements to your inbox, you can just raise your price (Boxbe recommends setting it between 15 and 25 cents per e-mail).

The system also gives marketers a way to reach consumers who don't click on pop-up advertisements or Google AdWords.

"The existing means of reaching people are drying up, like what TiVo and other digital video recording devices have done to television commercials," Loder said.

Boxbe, which launched publicly last month, won't disclose how many users it has, but Loder says its clients include national brands as well as agencies that run digital marketing campaigns for major companies. Venture capital firms already have shown interest in the as-yet self-funded company, and Loder said they'd soon announce venture funding from a "top firm."

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