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Archived Sept. 17, 2003
SUPERHERO OR ARCH VILLAIN?
THE SECRET IDENTITY OF SUPER MANN

By Ron Jackson
Editor/Publisher

If the Superman TV series had debuted in 2003 instead of 1953, the show might have had a slightly different introduction:

Faster than a direct registry connection!
More powerful than a loco monopoly!
Able to leap high bidders in a single bound!  

Yes, it’s Super Mann…wildly successful domainer who must be from another planet…and who, disguised as Michael Mann, mild-mannered president of a major metropolitan web firm, fights a never ending battle for….well….for reasons we’re about to reveal. Reasons that may surprise you.  



Michael Mann
President
BuyDomains.com 

(Photo courtesy of
MossPhotography.com)

There probably isn’t a person in the domain resale business who hasn’t run into (or been run over by) Michael Mann’s industry superpower - BuyDomains.com. For competitors it can be a daily (and debilitating) experience. A domain name they’ve been eyeing for months is finally released, they’ve covered every base with the drop catching services, yet their efforts prove futile as the domain lands in the hands of their arch-rival. The situation has a lot of people scouring the black market for kryptonite.

Some of those who keep drawing the short straw think the 36-year-old whiz kid must be bending the rules to dominate the expired domain market the way he has. Others reject the idea that Michael is the Man of Steal, but believe he has a secret formula. If they could just get their hands on it, they're convinced they could be as big as BuyDomains (BD) too. There’s also a sizeable faction that thinks pure luck is all it takes to reach the top. After all, Superman was super only because he had the good fortune to catch a ride off Krypton at just the right time.

However, this is where fantasy and reality part company. Nearly 100% of the time, it turns out that successful people became successful through hard work rather than happenstance. The fact that this also applies to Mann will no doubt disappoint many who want to believe there are shortcuts on the path to success or that a different playing field will prevent doers from continuing to outperform dreamers. Of course, the great achievers also start out with dreams, the difference is their efforts don’t end with them.

Mann apparently was born to be an entrepreneur. While growing up in Washington, D.C., he started taking risks at a very early age. At 15 he decided he wanted to see what life was like on the other side of America. A lot of kids daydream about things like that, but Mann acted on it and within days he could be found hitchhiking through Santa Barbara, California. He must  have also been a born CEO, unaccustomed to answering to a higher authority, as he neglected to tell his parents that he was leaving!

Mann managed to see some of the world before being returned home safe and sound…but he didn’t forget Santa Barbara, one of the most beautiful places on earth. After high school, he headed west again (this time with permission) to enroll at Santa Barbara City College. The school is often called Surfer Tech. Mann didn’t surf, but he learned a few things about technology and a lot about free enterprise while he was in California.

He returned to the nation's capital in 1988 and either launched, bought, sold or managed a dizzying array of diverse businesses. There was a pretzel company called Totally Twisted (any questions about whether or not this guy would end up with a knack for domain names?), several messenger companies including Marathon Delivery and Quick Messenger (still one of the biggest in D.C.) and an internet service provider called Internet Interstate. It was the latter firm, founded in 1994, that launched Mann into the stratosphere.

He and two talented partners who are still with him at BuyDomains, Eric Cantor and Chip Yamasaki, bought up some of the smaller ISPs in Washington then focused their attention on serving the commercial market with web development services and T1 lines. The business blossomed and in 1998 industry giant Verio plunked down a multi-million dollar check to buy the trio out. That gave them the capital they needed to go after even bigger game.

It also gave Mann the means to quietly expand the charity work he has been involved with since high school. You can almost hear his detractors groan in unison, “Oh no! He’s playing the charity card!”  They would be much more comfortable thinking of him as a workaholic real life version of Scrooge McDuck, but the record shows otherwise (well at least on the Scrooge McDuck part). Mann applies the same relentless full court press to helping those in need that he does to building businesses.

He was chairman of ByteBack.org for three years, a charity that Mann says should be mimicked in every city in the world. “They have 9 computer training centers in inner-city D.C. that give free PC skills training to help people get a job or advance in the job they have. This includes homeless people, AIDs patients, drug addicts and the overall urban poor, among others”, Mann said.

He has done everything from volunteering at a local homeless service center to teaching environmental education to underprivileged youth. Mann came by this interest in social activism naturally. His mother, Susie, worked for the Environmental Protection Agency and his father, Larry, is a prominent labor lawyer who has argued several cases in front of the United States Supreme Court.   

Mann’s pride and joy today is Grassroots.org, an organization he founded last year that he is convinced will  “one day  become a major force in improving world social conditions”. Grassroots is a provider of free Internet and business services, including domain names, hosting, email and consulting to qualified charities. You can find out more about the Grassroots movement in this article by Shaun Conrath..

If you are running out of reasons to keep sticking pins in your Michael Mann voodoo doll there is still hope. No one likes a guy who works around the clock! I mean...come on...isn’t that cheating?  By now it should be obvious that Mann could never have accomplished so much in such a short period of time if he weren’t cramming two workdays into every 24 hour period. We were surprised to have emails we sent him well after midnight answered seconds later.  

One of Mann’s biggest competitors for premier domain names, Thunayan K. AL-Ghanim (widely known as Elequa and the subject of a previous Domain Name Journal Cover Story) is infamous for working as many as 22 hours a day. AL-Ghanim paid Mann the ultimate compliment saying, “Michael Mann is the only person I know who works harder than I do!".  AL-Ghanim also dismisses any hint of impropriety in BD’s business culture. “They are tough competitors but Michael runs an extremely clean business. This talk about BD receiving unfair advantages from domain sellers and auction services just isn't true. They are paying for everything they get." 

The seeds for BuyDomains.com were planted soon after Mann & partners sold their ISP to Verio. Mann says “I thought up the concept for, hired a programmer to write and patented a program called NameFind to help our customers land premium domain names.”  The technology attracted many well-capitalized clients giving the new business and immediate jump start . Mann claims that  “NameFind has been knocked off by almost every sizable registrar in the world. All of them who aren’t under license are about to be sued.” 

By 1999, BuyDomains.com was online selling their premium domains and allowing the general public to list domains at BD free of charge. This quickly multiplied the  inventory available on the site and, by requiring sellers to change nameservers and send their potential buyers to BD, it greatly enhanced the site's visibility.  Mann then aimed his slingshot directly at resale giants GreatDomains.com (a Verisign company) and Afternic.com. Playing the role of David, BD slew not one, but two Goliaths and emerged barely 3 years after starting up as the undisputed King of the reseller jungle. The question on everyone’s mind is how exactly did they do that?

Mann says “I’m really not that much of a computer geek but I am pretty good at hiring the best programmers and network engineers to test our ideas. We also invested more money to build the best systems and hire the best marketers we could find”. BD kept spending to line up registrars who would catch domains exclusively for them through their high speed connections to the central registry. That is why they often beat SnapNames subscribers and high bidders at the auction houses for the best names (they also take their own Snapbacks and place auction bids to further multiply their chances of success).

The result of that heavy investment was like pouring gasoline on a raging inferno. BD’s growth over the last 3 years has been spectacular. In 2000 they owned about 6,000 domains. Today they have well over a quarter of a million and Mann characterized 175,000 of those as “premium domains”.  There are now 10 full-time employees along with a support group of contractors, accountants and legal experts who are always on call.  Part of Mann's crew also works on another of his ventures, BrowserMedia.com, a developer of high end websites that has done work for many major clients.

Today BD is standing on top of the mountain but Mann sees some potential clouds on the horizon. One is the rapidly escalating price of domain names, fostered in part by the emergence of auctions as the dominant business model for domain catching services. Final bids on expiring names at places like Pool.com and Namewinner.com often reach levels that would seem to appeal only to end users. BD is often the buyer in those auctions.

Observers say it's "absurd" or "insane" for resellers to pay these prices and surprisingly Mann does not disagree. “We actually think there is no longer any profit to be found buying new domains. We are hoping our aggressive tact will encourage more people to drop out of the market, allowing us and our customers a margin again from new acquisitions.”  Before you dismiss this as sheer lunacy, keep in mind that Microsoft took the entire browser market away from Netscape by giving their product away.

In addition Mann does not want to cede BD’s position as the storehouse for top caliber domains. Competitors like AL-Ghanim, Yun Ye of  Ultimate Search and many wealthy private investors are also bent on staking out the same high ground. What you have is a game of chicken with several cars racing toward the same intersection and no one willing to take his foot off the gas. The degree of carnage that may result remains to be seen.

Mann says even at today’s prices, “Selling the best of the best domains as BuyDomains.com does is working fine. The weakness is in clients and speculators trying to get fresh inventory at a low price. This is essentially impossible at this stage of the game”.

Of course, the biggest storm cloud of all has Wait List Service (WLS) written all over it.  If Michael is Superman, WLS sponsor Verisign is Lex Luthor. They have been at each others throats for years and WLS is taking the hostilities to a new level. BD lays out their anti-WLS case both on their own site and in a recent letter Mann posted at Circle ID .  WLS would insure that the first person in line for an expiring domain will get it but in return Verisign would quadruple the amount  they receive for dropped domains that have WLS subscribers waiting for them. Mann doesn’t think Verisign deserves the windfall and a return to the monopoly position they held at the dawn of the internet era.

“There is an extraordinarily well documented history of the Network Solutions/Verisign monopoly abusing their customers, and even their partners”, Mann said. ”In fact, as just one example, they had offered to license our patented NameFind product back in 1999 only to disappear and reappear with their own exact knockoff called MyNameFinder. They finally came into compliance by licensing our software from a third party vendor.”

Mann went on to say, “They have deleted innumerable domains in paid status from just about every major domain owner in the world. They have tried to flex their monopoly power and political power at every turn, despite the clear unfairness of almost all their proposals, especially WLS. They hoarded millions of domains for years so competing registrars couldn’t register them for their own clients. One has to wonder what they reported to, and how they worked with, Wall Street over the years. Could they be poster children for Crime.org (one of Mann's Grassroots sites)? Shall I go on?” Mann asks. Only if we buy another 200GB of space on our server!

Ironically Mann, who has been a staunch anti-WLS leader, admits that implementation of WLS would actually benefit his company by lowering BD’s domain acquisition costs. Mann explains “that doesn’t mean the whole thing is not a scheme by the rich, powerful, politically connected, Verisign Wall Streeters – because it is”.  In his eyes it is simply wrong whether it benefits BD or not.

The idea that WLS could make BD even stronger is not one current competitors will relish, but there may be no need to break into a cold sweat just yet. ICANN could institute WLS as early as October 11th but Mann doesn’t think that will happen.  “I think there is only a 25% chance of it going forward in its current form. Probably a 65% chance we will see some form of it in the next 18 months.”  Several lawsuits have been filed in an effort to derail WLS and Congress is looking at the issue as well. 

If it happens, Mann says WLS is likely to be more profitable than the current drop process for his customers, but don’t expect BD to be any less of a power than they are now. “The same players will play for the most part. They will just have to feed the greedy, monopolistic middle man and bureaucrats more than they get in the current process. So the end users will ultimately pay more. It flows downstream.  We are going to be on top of the game whatever the game is.”

Some suggest that BD and a handful of other super powers will buy up all of the good WLS slots within minutes of their availability. They will certainly make the effort, but Mann expects some tough competition, with some of it coming from his own well-heeled customers who will try to stake claims of their own.

If WLS is implemented it will affect only .com and .net. domains. SnapNames.com and other drop services can still go after .org and new extensions like .biz, .info and .us. Fans of the new extensions will be happy to know they won’t have to face such stiff competition from BD on those domains. Mann says his company's interest will be “Very little. Those extensions aren’t profitable for our clients so far.”

WLS or not, it will be full steam ahead for Mann who continues to bubble over with new business ideas. One major initiative will allow the company to monetize the vast pay per click revenue locked up in their domains. “We are going to be launching 50 vertical portals (vortals) over the next year to take additional advantage of the massive traffic to our sites,” Mann says. When asked if those portals could eventually be opened to the general public Mann said it's possible but “first we need to get the content and dynamic nature of the sites together. Then we will work on monetizing strategies."  BD recently did a soft launch of PPC search engine SearchHere.com. Mann has also been looking offline and  plans to launch some land based businesses as well. 

While critics target  BD because they have been unable to compete with them, others view the company as the model of what they would like to be. Mann has some advice for those who want to be like Mike.  "Focus on constant incremental improvements in your activities and be willing to test and fail at a variety of small projects.  Emphasize very clear communications and documentation of your  work and plan on very long hours with a strong commitment to clear objectives. Hire the best workers and make most of their pay incentive based." Mann adds "It might not sound like fun, but from a business standpoint its better than the alternatives."  There is also one group he believes may be beyond help. “The new domain registrars that are just now starting up  to chase this market should probably think of a new line of work."

While Mann is a role model for many in the domain business, he has heroes of his own. “I love Joe Gibbs and Paul Newman. I am also fond of George Bush’s commitment to helping AIDS and addiction, as well as Bill Clinton’s social justice activities. A few of their other traits I could pass on.”

Though many look at BuyDomains.com as the industry’s 800-pound gorilla, Mann doesn’t think the company is there yet. “If we are, then how come Yahoo hasn’t bought us? "  Can’t argue with that logic. Now I see that BD just beat me out on another domain name. Time to say goodbye so I can go check the current spot market price on kryptonite.



If you would like to comment on Ron Jackson’s article, write editor@dnjournal.com.
 

For more on Michael Mann, the link below will take you to a recent text and audio interview with the BuyDomains' president conducted by the WebTalkGuys internet radio site:

http://www.webtalkguys.com/article-domains.shtml

If you missed our previous Cover Story Click Below: 

Farmer Feeds the World With Domain Data: The Dwayne Rowland & Exody Story 

All other previous cover stories are available in our Archive

 

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Domain Name Journal
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