An e-mail arrives first thing in the morning, addressing you by your first name:
"You asked us to remind you that Johnny will turn three years old tomorrow!"
"I did?" you blink. "Who is this from?"
The message continues: "You may have noticed certain developments in Johnny lately . . . that he's become interested in shapes and colors. Kids at this age love `The Shapeshifter.' Order yours now at etoys.com."
Then you recall that you volunteered the information to Lifeminders.com, a Herndon-based free online service that helps forgetful subscribers remember important dates, track personal projects and keep abreast of many topics of interest in their lives (gardening, for instance).
Since launching the service in January, Lifeminders.com says, it has gathered more than a million subscribers. Signing up an average of 7,000 more each day, the company is one of the latest to target people who are both overcommitted and Internet-savvy.
Founder Stephen Chapin said the idea for the company arose out of his own tendency to neglect car maintenance. So Chapin -- then a vice president and director of marketing at First USA Bank -- wrote a simple program to have his computer prompt him whenever his car was due for service.
"When I saw the program in action, I said, `A-ha!,' " recalls Chapin. "Here is a service that many people would also find helpful."
Chapin talked his way into the office of Jiffy Lube President James Wheat, who was immediately taken with the idea. Convinced that he had a marketable product, Chapin left First USA in 1997 and began to flesh out the concept in his basement at home.
For the next year, Chapin and his brother John -- a former programmer at Electronic Data Systems Inc. -- built a program catering to do-it-yourself home and garden enthusiasts, complete with product suggestions to go with each e-mail reminder.
Based on a successful test of the product with executives from Lowe's Cos., the Chapin brothers secured a combined $4 million in venture capital from Novak Biddle Venture Partners, FBR Technology Partners, U.S. Trust and ABS Ventures. The deal got the attention of Home Depot, which signed on as an early and major advertiser of the site.
Lifeminders.com has since attracted several other big names -- including Blockbuster, First USA and Toys R Us -- broadening the scope of "minder" messages to include pet care, movie releases, personal finance and entertainment.
Chapin said the company is in the process of rolling out several new categories of "minders," for the travel-minded and health-conscious.
The service is a variation on a standard ploy in e-commerce: Provide a free service in which users are asked to reveal things about their personal likes and dislikes, then use that information to target them with specific ads. Each e-mail missive suggests products catered to the subscribers' interests and provides a Web link to the advertiser's site.
One of the company's biggest marketing methods is its own users: People who sign up are asked to nominate other potential users. The person providing the names gets entered in a minor sweepstakes, once for each name provided; the people nominated get e-mail inviting them to visit the site, and if they like it, they may nominate yet more friends.
Company officials say they've had huge numbers of referrals by this form of "viral marketing." Randy Chartier -- a retired civil servant living in Springfield -- arrived at the service through such a referral. He's now a regular user and says the weekly "minders" have kept him out of hot water on several occasions, most notably in the areas of car care and birthdays.
One drawback with the service: It can only be as reliable as the Internet itself.
"My e-mail service had been down for several days," recalls Chartier, 55. "On the evening it finally came back up, there was a message reminding me that it was my brother-in-law's birthday. Fortunately, he's in California, which gave me just enough time to make the call official."
Chartier has since nominated a few of his more absent-minded buddies for the service.
Persuading people to cough up personal information can be a tricky task. But, Chapin said, his experience with First USA in assuring the confidentiality of sensitive financial information has been the key to establishing that trust with Lifeminders.com members.
"Because our customers tell us so much about themselves, the data that we glean from our subscribers is the most valuable asset we have," Chapin said. People have the option of specifying that it will not be shared with third-party companies.
Chapin acknowledged the current trend of Internet companies being built purely for their resale value, but said he has no immediate interest in auctioning his audience. "Our philosophy is to build a product that people love," said Chapin. "We'd like to be known as a solid, sustainable company -- not simply a tool."
An IPO? That's different. To date, Lifeminders.com's 1999 revenue totals about $1 million. While the company is not yet profitable, Chapin and others hope that by the end of the year it might be selling shares to the public.
Lifeminders.com rose from 15,000 subscribers at the end of January to more than 1 million to date.
Business: Provides free, personalized e-mail messages containing information on topics specific to members' interests, including reminders of important dates, home & garden projects, car maintenance, entertainment and personal finance.
Web site: Lifeminders.com
Web site launch: January 1999
President and CEO: Stephen R. Chapin Jr.
CAPTION: Stephen Chapin, center, with his brother John Chapin and Teresa Head, vice president of member marketing.