I don’t know what’s going on but in the last two weeks we have been approached by 3 different midsize VC/private equity firms enquiring about investment possibilities in EO. Obviously we aren’t on the radar of the big names such as Sequoia Capital or KPCB, but it still is encouraging in a way. The dilemma we have is quite funny – we really don’t know what we would use the cash for. I don’t really believe in “strategic looking” acquisitions (think Oversee buying Moniker and SnapNames) since I think they rarely create value, only opportunistic small bolt on acquisitions. Also a partial exit for our investors or me isn’t that interesting, since we really don’t need the cash either (would result in another dillema – where to put the money). So I really wonder how this will play out. In a way it is good that you really don’t need the cash, since you can really be picky and only accept a really good valuation. It also might be good to wait another year or so because I believe things will heat up again and there will be more institutional money swirling around.
One thing that has been puzzling me for some time is the lack of institutional money in any structured way in the domain business. More institutional money is clearly a prerequisite for higher domain valuations.
When you look at it today there is only a little bit. Marchex/Fabulous/Tucows are publicly traded. Oversee, Demand Media, Skenzo, Name Media have all taken aboard funding, very decent amounts. Then we also had iReit, which sort of flopped. Various domaining companies managed to take on some debt such as Reinvent. Domain Capital at least brings a little leverage effect into the business (they have $30 million loaned out). But that’s pretty much it.
But why don’t we have more hedge fund-esque operations that would take on investor’s money, maybe even tie in a little leverage to increase ROE and start buying up portfolios? The only exceptions I sort of know of are DomainIvest.LU (they have raised their first 10 million Euro fund, which is now invested I hear), mad.biz runs some kind of private partnerships, where they bring in limited partners. I do a little bit of that as well. Maybe InternetRealEstate does some of that as well.
So what are the main reasons behind this lack of structured institutional capital?
One factor is that the first round of institutional capital that poured in sort of got burnt. This was before Google/Yahoo started heavily cutting payouts via various quality related claims, before the downturn hit etc. To really illustrate this: If you bought a portfolio in 2007, today it would be probably making 60-80% less on PPC than it did at the time of purchase.
Second is transparency. Michael Gilmour sums it up pretty well in his article here, so no need to elaborate further.
Another issue may be size. When you really think about it, the domain industry is pretty small. My estimate is that Google/Yahoo combined probably pay out about $40 million a month to the domain channel now. That’s already not much, again taking the more macro perspective (compare it to say the size of the bond market). Worse, the market is highly fragmented. There is not probably a domain portfolio owner that would own 10% of this market. Probably Oversee, Reinvent etc may be close to the 10%, but more likely in the 5-7% range, when it comes to their owned and operated portfolios. The domain biz may simply be too small to get on the radar of the big various funds.
And lastly, there is the issue of risk. There is the monetization risk (that ppc will further decline or a big upstream ad provider leaving the space and not syndicating its feeds to the domain channel), maybe a degree of type-in traffic fading away (more long term) and then there is the legal risk. I hope eventually somebody smart will find a way how to securitize the cashflow from domains and create domain derivatives that could for example separate the the yield of a portfolio and its risk. The same way that for example in the bond market you have credit default swaps (through which you can basically separate the yield of a bond from the risk of non-repayment). Doing this would be a huge boost for the business and would really help institutional money to flow in in masses.
So will be see an influx of institutional money coming into domains in the next 3 years?
I really think so. PPC is certainly not going to fall as much as it did in the last 2 years – I actually think it may be relatively stable and new monetization techniques (refer to previous post) may actually even bring a little bit of upside. I also think there is going to be a new breed of domainers-turned-domain fund managers that will start bringing in the institutional money – because the industry is so complex it’s rather difficult for an outsider to do that. And lastly, with us getting out the recession I think investors will have a higher appetite in risk again and start exploring more alternative investments again.