In case you haven't heard, everything is about branding these days, personal or otherwise. And one early internet entrepreneur is banking on the idea that, in order to have a strong #brand, you need a strong domain to go with it.
So, for the last 21 years, Gary Millin and his colleagues at World Accelerator have been slowly accumulating a veritable treasure trove of seemingly premium "generic" domain names. For instance, Millin owns, has sold, or has bartered away world.com, usa.com, doctor.com, lawyer.com, comic.com, email.com, cyberservices.com, and more than 1,000 other domain names that can be yours (including yours.com, which he owns), as long as you've got the startup idea to back it up.
As you might expect, the Manhattan-based Millin got into the internet early. He was a venture capitalist in the mid-90s and, with the help of an investment banker named Gerald Gorman, started a company called mail.com while he was at Harvard Business School.
"It caught that first growth of the internet—our focus was to give people a lifetime email address," Millin told me. "It grew and hit a billion dollars on the Nasdaq at its peak, and then the markets turned. But, during the dark days, Gerald and I bought portfolios of domain names."
Having already sold Kosher.com, London.com, and England.com for a couple million bucks, Millin realized that there was a lot of money to be made in the domain name game. In 2007, he started World Accelerator, which is where things get a bit weird.
You can no longer buy a domain name from Millin. Instead, he will work with your company (or your idea for a company) to build out a product, then he'll lease or lend you one of his domain names in exchange for partial ownership. In some cases, he says that companies will buy the domain name entirely, but only once they've become successful businesses.
"A lot of times, a strong dot com domain is a great brand, even before a business is even built," he said. "We have these underutilized assets, and we want people to use them. It's like, we have a giant parking lot on Madison Avenue. It hasn't been developed, but it's there. You match the right team and the right idea, and then you have this brand to accelerate its growth."
So far, it's not exactly clear that any of his clients are making great use of these plots of land. Doctor.com and Lawyer.com have turned into companies that help you search for, well, doctors and lawyers (Doctor.com has also become a portal for doctors themselves). India.com is now operated by a news company in the country. But those are the biggest success stories. USA.com is a robotized mess of a directory for the country, World.com is being used by Millin himself, and many of the rest are parking lots for ads.
Despite the fact that you can create a strong brand with seemingly any mishmash of words, real or not (Twitter, BuzzFeed, Flickr, Seamless, every brand ever), generic domain names are worth, quite objectively, an insane amount of money. Insurance.com sold for a record $35.6 million in 2010, PrivateJet.com sold for $30.18 million in 2012, Sex.com sold for $13 million in October 2010, Korea.com sold for $5 million in January 2000, and the list goes on and on with numbers that make me physically ill.
The value of generic domain names seems to have only continued to grow, somehow, despite tools like Google making it really unlikely someone is going to hop on their computer and type in "doctor.com" and hope they find something to cure that rash they've got. Search engine optimization and a high Google ranking are certainly still very important, but it seems like these days you could build your brand without spending seven figures on a domain name. Millin disagrees.
"From what I see, the value of these hasn't diminished. It's not the domain, it's the brand ability of it—you can put it on an ad," Millin said. "You already have some credibility with names like the ones we have."
So why is he doing this? Certainly Millin could manage to flip email.com, which is a barren wasteland of ad links, for a not-so-small fortune. The simple answer, from what I can gather, is that Millin believes in what he's doing. And maybe, he thinks the domains are worth more as prospective #brands than they would be if he simply sold them to one.
"We're not a domain broker. We don't have a list price. The issue is, at the end of the day, I believe there's value in these brands. We're patient and we're rather participate in the whole growth process," he said. "If we can bet on a company and they get successful, that's more rewarding than saying 'hey, send me a check.'"
Masters of their Domain is a column that investigates who owns popular or interesting domain names, and what they're doing with them.