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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.
I really enjoy reading the feature stories on DNJournal, they bring a lot of inspiration. What usually most of the profiled people share in common is a pretty comfortable middle to upper class upbringing (I’m no different) which to a large extent helped them to be successful in their future business careers.
Today I want to tell you part of the life story of a huge domainer (easily over $200k in revenue per month), because it is one of the most breathtaking and fascinating stories I have ever heard and really differs from all of us. This person comes from Eastern Europe just like me and I have got to know him pretty well in the last two years, although we have met in person only a few times. This guy is completely under the radar, so obviously I will keep his name private. Let’s just call him Igor for the purpose of this story.
Igor spent most of his teenager years still behind the iron curtain, growing up under the communist regime of the time. The times were tough then, shops were undersupplied, there was a lack of freedom, you couldn’t travel etc. Igor dropped out of school early, never finishing high school. His first major encounter with life was when his father committed suicide when he was a teenager, to be found by Igor’s brother. Igor would later attempt to committ suicide himself through a rohypnol overdose, which he fortunately survived (he woke up 48 hours later). With the revolution in 1989, Igor discovered he had an entrepreneural spirit and decided to go into business, opening a newsstand at a train station. Unfortunately he ended bancrupt with no money, he had to find a new way how to provide himself with a living quickly. During his time working at the newsstand he got acquainted with some of the homosexual prostitutes residing there, which would tell him about their “business” and the potential of making decent money from it. Because of the situation he was in, he opted for this option and moved to Germany, where he would prostitute himself for over a year (although being straight himself). He also had a stint in Switzerland, only to be banned from the country for 10 years. As his financial situation improved, he came back and went back into business, starting a book wholesale operation. This career was brought to a halt though as he got involved in a serious car accident for which he was sentenced to two years in prison. After being released from prison he again started a new business, this time in import-export, where he finally found some success. The internet was becoming integral to this business and Igor stumbled upon the relatively new Google Adsense programme, which he implemented on his export related websites. After making 50 cents in the first day, he saw potential in this and was looking at ways to scale this and was quickly drawn to domains, which he would acquire through drops. Even though he had a demon called alcohol haunting him (he would go through two bottles of vodka a night working), he would put immense amounts of work into his new passion of domains and would observe his portfolio and parking revenue grow every month, mainly through re-investing all his income back into domains. Today, his portfolio numbers tens of thousands of domains and is still growing every day.I really admire this guy because he is one of the smartest people in the business, has a huge drive to move forward and has an unbelievable sense of humour. This guy is the biggest charater in the biz and is 100% pure. I hope a movie is made out of his life one day.
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.