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Masters of their Domains
Forget condos and strip malls. Domain names, the real estate of the Web, have been delivering far greater returns. How some of the savviest speculators on the Net are making millions from their URL portfolios.
– On a balmy night in late October, hundreds of partiers, most sporting red or blue Hawaiian shirts, pack the Delux nightclub in Delray Beach, Fla. It's a swank place--outdoor decks, two bars, plush, bed-size sofas scattered throughout--and the crowd arrives in chartered buses and stretch Hummers. Many head straight for the guy rolling cigars and toss back shots as if it were 1999. Which, to them, it might as well be.
They call themselves domainers. They make their living buying and selling domain names and turning their Web traffic into cash--lots of it. They have gathered in Delray Beach for a trade show called Traffic that this year boasts 300 paying attendees, more than twice the number that came for the first show, in '04.
The man behind the conference, Rick Schwartz, couldn't be happier--and he isn't even around when midnight strikes and bikini-clad women take to the dance floor to raffle off prizes and peel off their tops. Schwartz, 52, began buying up domain names 10 years ago. Like many early players, he gravitated to where the money was: porn. He snapped up names like Ass.com, Makeout.com, and Porno.com, to name a few. It was a quick path to riches: Adult sites were paying handsomely for the traffic; mainstream sites were not--at least not yet.
Today, Schwartz owns about 5,000 names, with less than a third falling into the "adult" category. He's the industry's biggest promoter, preaching the power of domains to anyone who will listen and bringing domainers together with moneymen and execs from the likes of Google and Yahoo. He sports a $65,000 Rolex on his left wrist, a $32,000 diamond bracelet on his right, and is astounded that he--a community college dropout--is living like a king in a waterfront house in Boca Raton.
"I don't like to work," Schwartz says, almost yelling as if to convince everyone within earshot that they're fools if they do. "I figure any moron in the world can generate work for themselves and tie up their time. I have one laptop, no employees, and no product whatsoever--none! This is magic." Magic, he claims, that's earning him $2 million a year.
And you thought the domain grabbers vanished with the dotcom bust. The boom in Internet advertising and the success of the pay-per-click ad model are making the go-go '90s look sluggish. Back then, buying a domain name was pure speculation: Snap up Whatever.com and sit back until some big company with a get-on-the-Internet-at-any-cost mentality offers you a set-for-life payday to buy it.
Now it's all about the income stream. A single good domain name--Candy.com, Cellphones.com, Athletesfoot.com--can bring in hundreds of dollars a day, in some cases while the owner hardly lifts a finger. Schwartz, for instance, directs his traffic to one of the many small companies that serve as go-betweens with Google and Yahoo, the two giants that make this all possible. The middlemen, known as aggregators, do all the heavy lifting, designing the sites and tapping into one or the other of the search engines' advertising networks to add the best-paying links. Many other big domainers cut out the middlemen, creating their own webpages and working directly with Google or Yahoo.
The secret? It has to do with what's known as type-in traffic, or, in Wall Street jargon, direct navigation. Though it may seem odd in the era of powerful search engines, it turns out that millions of Internet surfers don't use search at all. Instead, they type what they're looking for right into the top of their Web browser. Looking to buy candy? Type in Candy.com, a name Schwartz bought in May 2002 for $108,000. A page filled with links to candy-related products comes up. Click on one of the ads and the advertiser pays Google, which in turn sends a share to Schwartz and the company that runs Candy.com. Some days Candy.com makes Schwartz $300 in profits; the site paid for itself in a year and a half.
No one knows for sure how much Web traffic comes from type-ins, and Google and Yahoo execs won't discuss it. But privately, during one of the late-night parties at the Traffic conference, one Yahoo official estimates that type-ins could make up 15 percent of its search business. Marchex, a Seattle-based public startup whose strategy rests largely on type-in traffic, estimates that it accounts for nearly 10 percent of the global paid search market, which is projected to soar from $9 billion this year to $23 billion in 2009.
That's why some domain names are commanding six- and seven-figure price tags and attracting big-money players. Private money manager Stuart Rabin is cutting those sorts of checks to domainers two to three times a week. In November 2004, Marchex shelled out $164 million for a single domainer's portfolio. Even a few venture capital firms are now placing bets. Earlier this year, Boston-based Highland Capital paid $80 million to acquire BuyDomains, a company with 500,000 names, according to people familiar with the deal. Says Highland principal Richard de Silva, who wouldn't confirm the price, "These are profit machines."
Domainers have their heroes, and one of the most mysterious is a man named Yun Ye, a Chinese citizen living in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is credited with boosting the entire market when he sold his portfolio of more than 100,000 domains to Marchex. His names were bringing in more than $20 million a year in revenues--and $19 million in profits--when Marchex paid the equivalent of 8.6 times annual earnings, based on figures provided in SEC documents.
our god," says domainer Michael Bahlitzanakis
the moment he hears Ye's name uttered at a
Delray Beach party. Every domainer knows of Ye,
but few have ever met him. He's the domainers'
Keyser Soze. "My attorney happens to be his
attorney, but that's as close to him as I can
get," says Bahlitzanakis, 29.