Alexis Santos, a freelance web developer, bought his first domain in 2007 and has been impulsively buying more ever since. He says he now owns 26 domains, down from the 35 he owned at the height of his experience with what he calls "domain hoarding." Only eight of these websites are in use, but he can't bring himself to sell or get rid of them.
"When I have an idea for a website or an app, I think of a domain name and I buy it," he said. Domains he has purchased include stuntbrainapp.com, which he bought in hopes of turning it into a note-taking or reminder app, and whatwas.org, a potential mobile app that would map historical photos and landmarks.
"It's kind of a to-do list in a way, but one that has a bit more importance," he said. "When I have a list of projects it is hard to follow up on them. When I put money on them it encourages me to think about them more, at least once a year when I have to renew them."
According to Mike McLaughlin, senior vice president and general manager of domains at GoDaddy, many of the company's customers buy multiple domains. The largest registrar in the world, GoDaddy manages 59 million domain names but only has around 13 million customers.
"We don't restrict people from buying as many domains as they want," he said. "It's good and fair that when people have ideas they should claim their piece of online real estate as the first step in their process."
"There's sort of an emotional attachment, like what if I get rid of it and it becomes something?"
McLaughlin said people with multiple domains usually fall into one of two camps: the "domainers," or people who make money off of scooping up lucrative names and reselling them, or the average customers, many of whom are self-employed and purchase names as part of their businesses.
Anthony Waller, a 29-year-old product manager for a medical device company, bought his first domain in 2005 and has accrued up to 80 sites since then. The majority of those he purchased in the last four years, after the registrar he uses added a one-click system that made buying domains impulsively much easier. He said about 20 percent of the sites he owns are in use, including an estimated one third for work, one third for jokes, and the rest "just random stuff."
"Most domain names I have fall under that category––stupid stuff," he said. "But for some reason I have trouble not renewing them. There's sort of an emotional attachment, like what if I get rid of it and it becomes something?"
At an average price of $14 per year, his combined domains are costing him more than $1,000 annually. "It's a little bit of a problem," he said.
Domains he owns include starbuckslover.com, a reference to a widely misheard Taylor Swift lyric; magicthegatheringonlineexchange.com, a joke about now defunct Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox; and yambenjamin.com, an inside joke from a podcast he listens to. He said he also owns clubofsecrets.com, but isn't sure why.
"I don't know why I own this domain name, or why I bought it, but it's a good name so I'm going to keep that one," Waller said. The day I spoke with him, he had just purchased another domain.
"I was thinking about buying an Apple Watch tomorrow morning, and I thought 'There might be a big third party market for Apple Watches,' so I bought the domain pearstraps.com," he said.
"That one's not so good," he added.
Waller also owns free-ipod.com, which he admits "didn't pay off" because iPods aren't sold anymore. But said he still won't cancel it.
"It's only $14 a year, it's not that much money," he said. "If they came all at once and said I owed $1,200, I'd probably say no. But I get a renewal notice once a week, and when it's $14, you think 'Oh I can spare $14 for this week.'"
Waller seemed sheepish about his domain-buying habit, asserting multiple times during our interview he is "not a crazy person." But other self-professed "domain hoarders" are spending even more on their habits.
Shannon DalPozzal, the Louisiana-based creator of a blog called Traveling Mamas, had 125 domains in 2011, which at an average of $10 a year was costing her more than $1,000. She said she has since gone through a divorce and got the number down to 75 as part of a series of money-saving lifestyle changes.
She described her problem in a post on her personal website called "I'm a Domain Hoarder." The idea sounds like a joke, but DalPozzal is serious about the emotional effects of offloading her websites.
"When they come up for renewal, the process like the show Hoarders, when they clean out the houses," she said. "It's an emotional process to let go of some of your ideas, but you have to accept at some point if you've been sitting on something for 10 years and haven't acted on it, following through on that dream might not be meant for you."
"I would wake up with the idea, and I'd want to capture that dream and hold onto it."
She said after the success of her blog travelingmamas.com, she began to scoop up other travel and food related domains in hopes of developing other business ventures, including peacelovejourney.com, peacelovetravel.com, and myfabuloustravels.com. She also bought spiritsaroundtheworld.com, a reference to a wine blog she wanted to create, and romanticsouth.com, where she plans to host a travel guide specific to the American South.
She said she's currently using less than 5 percent of the domains she owns, but she would never sell one even if given the opportunity.
"I think there's karma attached to how you make money or acquire things," she said. "I wouldn't feel right selling it to someone else like myself just because they had a similar idea. It's all about creativity for me. Some people do it for money, I do it for the creativity and hope."
DalPozzal said talking about her domain habit for this story made her think more deeply about why she does it.
"Maybe domain hoarding is a reflection on people's lives," she said. "I'm sure there's some kind of a psychological meaning behind why people hoard domains. For me, I would wake up with the idea, and I'd want to capture that dream and hold onto it. The domains represent dreams and hope. It's an idea, and it's a dream. When you let go of the domain, you're letting go of that dream."
For some, domain hoarding stems from a fear of missing out—what if you sell your domain, only to have someone else later purchase it for thousands? But for DalPozzal and others who aren't trying to flip the websites, the online real estate is simply aspirational. And for them, those deferred dreams are still worth $14 a month.
Masters of their Domain is a column that investigates who owns popular or interesting domain names, and what they're doing with them.