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Adapt or Die: How Alan Dunn Embraced Change to Master Domains and Find a New Mission in Life

By Ron Jackson

Among domain industry veterans Alan Dunn has been one of the most widely known and universally respected domain investor/developers in this business for more than 15 years. Still, his name and accomplishments may not be as familiar to you as those of some other pioneers simply because the soft spoken Canadian native (who holds dual citizenship with the U.S. and lives in Florida) has never been one to talk about himself. 

However, knowing that his story - both on a personal and professional level - would be immensely helpful and inspirational to countless people - I've spent some time trying to wear down Dunn's resistance and am delighted to finally be able to share his fascinating journey with you.

From the business standpoint he has done it all as a buyer, seller, developer and monetizer of domains (he once earned $21,500 for a single click on one of his  lead generation sites). Alan has also been a top level consultant, corporate leader and company founder along the way.

Alan Dunn
Managing Director
NameCorp LLC

On the personal side you will learn how adopting a son who was later diagnosed with autism propelled him from utter disarray to an unexpected destiny as a champion of families with special needs children (the Facebook page for his influential AutismAwareness.com website has over 250,000 followers). 

Even before that Dunn's life was a roller coaster ride of exhilarating highs and stomach churning lows - a background that we've seen before in our profiles of highly successful people in this business. In an industry that is constantly changing with new winners and losers minted every day, that ability to adapt and make the most of the hand you are dealt  may be the elusive key to success that so many  are seeking. Dunn shows us his cards in this wide ranging interview and we can all learn a lot from looking closely at them. 

"Yes, I’m a Newfie," Dunn began with a smile. "Born in 1972 in St. John’s, Newfoundland, which is the most eastern part of North America. It has its own time zone, 90 minutes ahead of EST (yes, the Newfoundland Standard Time, NST, is real)!"

St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada (photo from Bigstock)

"I was an ’80s kid and grew up in an amazing family. Both my parents were teachers and my brother (Paul) and I are only 14 months apart. Luckily, Mom and Dad’s profession allowed us to spend a lot of time together. In fact, Mom’s school was about 1,000 feet away from my school, and I remember my brother and I would sneak up to the high school cafeteria every now and then since the food was so much better!"

Most of my younger days were spent playing basketball, hockey and soccer or listening to Motley Crue, Van Halen and Poison and, of course, playing Atari games. I remember spending weeks trying to earn a badge on River Raid and dropping hundreds of quarters on Pole Position. Basketball was my first love, though, and we even went on to win a couple of basketball championships. (It doesn’t mean much now but I still have those gold medals!)," Dunn smiled.

Long before Alan Dunn (at far right in front row) had his first "slam dunk" with domains 
he was registering minutes on the hardwood for his school basketball team.

All in all it was a happy, care free life for Dunn until everything changed, literally overnight.

"I will never forget the events that started on September 26th, 1986, when my father was rushed to hospital," Dunn said. "Three days later (almost like he was waiting to see my brother, who had to be flown in from across the province, before he passed), my father died from a heart attack at 50 years old. A few days later, hundreds of people showed up for his funeral while I was still in a world of shock." 

"This was a huge blow to all of us, and the blows just continued over the next 11 months. In that time, my Nan and Pop (grandmother and grandfather), who lived with us, died, as well as four friends in a plane crash (that I was supposed to be on), and another friend on a motorcycle. There are still many people I remember spending more time with while attending funerals than ever seeing outside of them."

"The next few years were very rough. Losing a parent is hard—losing half a family and friends at such a young age is something that shapes you for life. It’s also something I would never wish on my worst enemy. To this day, I still cannot attend a funeral or wake for others," Dunn said.

Alan Dunn with his 88-year-old grandfather.

"I was attending the high school my father taught at the year after he died. On one hand, it was difficult to have everyone know who I was. On the other hand, the school and the Sisters were incredibly supportive of me during my turbulent times coping with the loss.  It wasn’t until years later that I realized how amazing some of these teachers were and, more importantly, how strong my Mom was. She retired early and gave up everything to focus on raising her boys during the next few years. It’s a move that I never fully understood the scope of until I became a parent. They say you will do anything for your kids, and my mom did.

Alan Dunn's mom - nicknamed “Nana B” 
with his son Alek and Sir Topham Hatt in 2016.

In 1990 it was time for Dunn to pick a college. "I decided to attend the Memorial University of Newfoundland, but quickly realized it wasn’t for me," Dunn recalled. "After two years, I enrolled at St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia, and quickly realized how great University can be when you live on campus. I was lucky enough to have a pretty diverse group of people on our dorm floor, and some of my best friends today were made during those college years. Then, when winter hit in 1995 (January 3rd, to be exact), I decided to move south - an advantage of having dual citizenship (I also gained Irish citizenship in 2002 to make it three)."  

"We used to visit the west coast of Florida as kids, however, I opted to move to South Florida where I only knew one person. Actually, barely knew, since it was my dad’s sister, who I may have met once before. Within a couple of weeks, I landed a job with the NHL's Florida Panthers working alongside some of hockey’s greatest names, including Bill Torrey, Chuck Fletcher, Scott Mellanby, Brian Skrudland, Brian Sutter, Denis Potvin and more. It was truly a magical year—the year of the Rat Trick, a term coined after Scott Mellanby hit a rat in the dressing room one night before a game and then went on to score a hat trick!" 

Above: Alan Dunn with Florida Panthers President Bill Torrey (left).

Below: Alan with the infamous Hanson Brothers from the move Slap Shot.

"Our owner, Wayne Huizenga, also owned the Miami Dolphins and the Florida Marlins, as well as Blockbuster Video. It was a pretty surreal experience when I think back; getting to meet so many people from all different walks of life; Don King, The Hanson Brothers, Dwight Gooden, Kelsey Grammer and more. I even had the World Series Trophy at my house for a couple of hours in 1997!," Dunn marveled! 

Alan Dunn  took the Florida Marlins World Series Trophy home for a few hours in 1997!

After two seasons Dunn decided that, as much fun as it had been, he was ready for a change. So in August 1996 he moved to Vancouver, Canada - an area that would later produce some of the world's greatest domain investors. He didn't stick around long enough to see that though. After just four months of incessant rain he decided Florida was home and made his way back across the continent. Even though he would leave a future capital of domains behind he would find another when he returned to South Florida.   

"Unlike the first time around, I knew a lot more people in Florida now and had started developing a much greater interest in the internet and domain names," Dunn recalled, "However, domain investing wasn’t even on the radar in terms of being a full-time job, so I explored a few options. Because of my love of finance, the mortgage industry attracted me and soon I found myself working for a mortgage brokerage company. The business was pretty easy - translate: boring - but what fascinated me was how much the company was spending on radio ads."

"I think the bill was around $60,000 a month and although the ads worked to get the phone ringing, I just couldn’t understand why anyone would pay that much and buy ads on afternoons and weekends. Later I found out that this was a creative way for some stations to offer the premium “morning drive” slots to preferred advertisers and if you wanted to play then you simply had to pay. I still was perplexed why radio was the only medium they were using. I mean, did that many people still listen to the radio? I guess they did, but there had to be something in this “internet” thing also," Dunn thought.

"At the same time, I also made my first domain name sale (BadCredit.org) for around $8,000, which solidified every feeling I had about the future of "the internet. I 

Image from Bigstock

then purchased LoanApplication.net, created a simple website using HotDog by Sausage Software, and then a few weeks later this guy called from Buenos Aires and we ended up doing a multi-million dollar mortgage for him in Miami. As the expression goes, this just got real!

"I then started registering/acquiring a lot of domains focused on the financial industry - like most investors, I didn’t expand my scope broadly enough to take advantage of all the deals and unregistered domains back then! - and quickly amassed a pretty big portfolio, including MortgageCalculator.net, HomeEquityLines.com, CreditScores.net, JumboLoan.com, SuperJumbo.com, LiborLoans.com, LiborIndex.com, HomeBuying.com, Real-Estate.com and many more. For the next few years I worked with quite a few banks, including Chase, Fleet Mortgage and Wells Fargo, as I developed out the properties and kept buying more domains," Dunn said.

"I was also young and in love and had, basically a plan with no plan, some would say. On December 22, 1999, I married Kristin Antisavage at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables with my brother, Paul, as my best man."

Alan Dunn and his best man, his brother Paul, on Alan's wedding day.

Dunn said, "Shortly after the wedding we were living between Florida, New York and Milan as Kristin studied fashion and worked in the fashion world. In New York, we lived in Greenwich Village (7th and Bleecker) and I still remember the morning smell of Magnolia Bakery just around the corner and the breakfast at Les Deux Gamins (it’s now closed)."

"Everything changed again once I acquired InterestOnlyLoans.com somewhere around 2001. Although I was doing some lead gen through various sites, nothing had the same impact as this domain."

"Within days of launching the website we ranked in the Top 3 for interest-only loans and the quality of leads became amazing. NFL players, C-level executives of Fortune 500 companies, all kinds of bond traders from New York and more. My network was well-developed at this stage, with a focus on higher-end mortgages through properties like JumboLoan.com and SuperJumbo.com. I remember talking to a VP from AOL who was a client and he just laughed when he realized 70% of the first page results for almost anything related to jumbo and super jumbo loans led back to us."

"It also helped that I was one of the first 100 Google Adwords specialists and understood how to leverage AdWords arbitrage well before the quality score came out. Someone asked me one time for advice on online marketing. My response was, “First, you have to lose LOTS of money to learn what NOT to do.” I’ve paid those dues," Dunn said.  

Image from Bigstock

"It’s important to note that was this before interest-only loans became a popular thing. Our success was due to not just our SEO and PPC coverage, but also because almost no main lenders offered these publicly. It was primarily Morgan Stanley Dean Witter and Merrill Lynch (from what I remember) who had much of any public “interest-only” product offerings that were easy to access. So, we ended up (for the most part) with the spill from private wealth clients who were looking for more information on these types of loans. We also had a long list of wholesale lenders who offered them, so as long as the profile was good, we were certainly able to accommodate most qualified people."

Early in his career Dunn (2nd from left after Frank Schilling) combined the best of both worlds - domain investing and domain developing. It was no surprise in 2012 when he won T.R.A.F.F.I.C.'s Developer of the Year Award (presented by Rick Schwartz and Howard Neu). Two years later he was also nominated for the T.R.A.F.F.I.C. Hall of Fame).

"For a while, our business was consistent and predictable, then all of a sudden the tidal wave hit. It seemed like America had turned on the switch for “interest-only loans” and everyone was applying. It was a really strange shift since these loans were (in my opinion) initially set up to provide high wealth clients with a preferred option to invest in real estate. The strong loans consisted of 5, 7 and 10-year fixed rates with interest-only payments. Then someone, somewhere, got the idea to create a wealth of products with teaser rates," Dunn said.

"Very few people could foresee the mess the industry would become, but for the moment servicing all the loan requests was our big issue. Our leads went from primarily triple A clients to almost everybody. I found a solution pretty quickly for the triple A clients by partnering up with a branch of RBC Mortgage in Boca Raton; for smaller loans and second-tier applicants, we partnered with a few companies and simply sold the leads."

"I had 12 or 15 people who worked the “Dunn Leads,” which resulted in more than $200 million a year in closed mortgages from all over the country. To put it in perspective, in 2004 our network had:

  • 6,000,000+ unique visitors

  • $13 Billion+ in loan requests

  • 25,000+ leads

  • An average lead/mortgage request of $420,208

One of our sites had a single page for commercial loans. I still remember the day when Alicia at C-loans called to say we made $21,500 from a visitor who converted into a closed application - simply from a referral link!," Dunn said.

"This was also where I met some of the greatest people I know and saw the importance of work culture for the first time under the leadership of a great company founder, Alan Reichstein. Even years later, some of the many friendships formed at RBC have continued into the domain name space."

"Everything was working great and I spent a lot of time the next couple of years traveling with Kristin and some of my closest friends. From Santorini to Cuba to Peru to Vegas to the Bahamas to Malta we used to fly half-way across the world for a few days of fun, at a time when many of us could. Some of my best memories were 36 hours overseas and the best thing is most of us were all friends from high school or before."

Above: Friends Walter, Russ, Robbie, Dante with Alan (4th from left) on a visit to Atlantis circa 2007. 

Below: Alan Dunn and brother Paul in Berlin circa 2008.

"Then everything changed again when the mortgage industry imploded," Dunn said. "This not only affected everyone financially, but also became a challenge. We had been in the middle of raising some venture capital and, well, the brakes were put on that pretty fast. We were fortunate to have some properties acquired by QuinStreet, ZipRealty and others, but there was still a big question of where to find liquidity in the domain space."

"It was a question that intrigued me since so many domain auctions happened every day, but there were so many critical flaws in the industry that (in my opinion) still greatly affect the market today. Different platforms have different audiences, different auction houses have different exclusive feeds, different venues have different levels of access (some private, some invite, some closed). It became a mission of mine to understand how to sell at SnapNames and NameJet, rather than relying on the arbitrary acceptance and rare opportunities of live auctions. The real volume happens every day on GoDaddy, NameJet and SnapNames," Dunn said.

"As luck would have it, SnapNames had just opened a private seller program, and within a few weeks we listed a large set of names. My theory was right—domain name investors would almost always pay more in an auction than in a private sale. In fact, I ended up learning the nuances of offering 

friends domains for sale and having them say “no,” only to see them buy the domains in auction a month later! Eventually, I gave up even asking and let automation take its course."

"I then explored other venues and took a data approach to selling—analyzing every day what was closing, what similar names were being sold to bulk buyers, and more. The findings were pretty crazy. There were people spending tens of thousands of dollars monthly on aftermarket names but who, for some reason, had never hand-registered similar domains. It sounded too good to be true, but I tried this and from Day One it was an instant success. Once I found a pattern I would then register similar domains, upload them to SnapNames and, within a couple of days, a significant percentage of those domains would sell. Liquidity wasn’t only available, it was available in bulk,"  Dunn said.

"In fact, I remember one night when I hand-registered about 20 domain names, uploaded them to SnapNames with “buy it now” prices ranging from $888 – $4,588, and then drove to Tampa in the morning. By the time I checked in later that afternoon, I had sold $26,000 just from spending around $200 the night before. This went on for a while and for the next three years I was were the No. 1 private seller on SnapNames—simply by analyzing public data, price points and trends. It’s something a few people eventually caught on to and repeated: I won’t mention their names, but they certainly got their start (or a really big kickstart) by doing the exact same thing."

"However, all good things come to an end," Dunn noted. Parking revenue dropped and many of the bigger buyers in the auction markets slowed down (or disappeared). Furthermore, SnapNames introduced a change in their search filters that allowed buyers to “uncheck” private owner domains. It was a change I constantly railed against as wrong, but with no luck. Even today you will see many auction providers use other terms such as “pre-release” to incorporate private owners, expiring domains and more. Good domains are good domains, after all, but that’s another story."

"In 2011 I was approached to join Domain Holdings. It was a good time for me to work with a company since it was just after our divorce and personally I wanted to get out of the house more. It also helped that some of the industry’s greatest people like Chad Folkening, Monte Cahn and others were involved. The move felt natural, especially being surrounded by people who actually understood domain names!," Dunn said.

Part of the Domain Holdings team at the 2012 T.R.A.F.F.I.C. conference in Florida (left to right): Joe Uddeme, Co-Founder John Ferber, Alan Dunn and Co-Founder Chad Folkening.

"Over the next few years working with Domain Holdings turned out to be much more fun than I expected. The company become also like family to me as we managed to grow from around $8 million to $40 million annually in sales. We also introduced more transparency to the industry with our quarterly sales report and were able to build a team of some of the greatest people in this industry including Mark Daniel, Giuseppe Graziano, Tracy Fogarty and more. These years also re-inforced how important culture is in today’s workplace and in 2015 I decided it was time to move on."

"Outside of work, in 2007 Kristin and I started exploring the idea of adoption. After some investigation, we found a great team of people to help us through the process and quickly decided to adopt from Russia. It was a long (and sometimes heartbreaking) process, but in 2009 we finally met and adopted a boy who would change our lives forever."

"Words cannot describe the feelings associated with a successful adoption. We were now parents and fully responsible for this amazing little person, seemingly overnight. Over the next few months, however, a new, previously unknown challenge arose and we found out Aleksander had autism. Truth be told, it was rough for a while. Neither of us had special needs in our family, nor did we have any family support in Florida. To say it was a challenging first year for me would be an understatement. Alek was almost 5 years old and couldn’t speak (English or Russian), had constant physical meltdowns and I didn’t know what to do. I’m not ashamed to say I dropped the ball at times as a spouse and was in denial for a while. I wasn’t prepared for this and honestly had no idea how to handle Autism (on top of financial stress still existing from the mortgage industry meltdown and other things)," Dunn recalled ruefully.

Image from Bigstock

"Even when asking for help you realize how many “professionals” there are just to take your money and how the world of autism is still a puzzle with no clear definition even today. At the beginning, it felt like I was constantly looking for guidance and information, but nobody had built the road yet—although they certainly had built a lot of toll booths. Feeling lost and defeated is an understatement."

"Two things happened that really provided me light on how to embrace these new challenges in our life. The first was a quote I heard by Dr. Stephen Shore: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” These words helped put everything in perspective pertaining to the parenting challenges I had in front of me."

"The second was a trip to Nashville, when I saw this picture and completely lost it looking at the unconditional love in my son’s eyes."

Alan and son Aleksander at ICE at The Gaylord Hotel in Nashville 2009 - a visit about which Alan wanted to send this message, "Thank you to Brian and Charlie for inviting us, this trip meant more to me than you will ever know!"

"I “really” saw my son for the first time that day and have never looked back," Dunn said. "He is my best friend and my world, and I will battle for him every day no matter what the cost. This picture is also my daily reminder of why it’s so important to help other parents who may feel lost and need help (no matter how small) understanding, appreciating, coping and rising to the challenges of life. I know it sounds corny, but every day I want to change the world a little."

"In 2011, Alek’s mom and I realized that we were better friends than spouses and talked about the next move. We both knew the first priority had to be Alek and, after many conversations, we realized Florida wasn’t the best place for us to raise a child with autism. With a large network of family support located in Pennsylvania (and vast special needs resources), Alek and his mom moved there and for the last six years I have commuted between Florida and Pennsylvania, determined to never miss a single moment of school, birthdays or holidays."  

"Alek is also somewhat of a local legend at Fort Lauderdale Airport. For the first four years (while I worked at Domain Holdings), every second Friday I used to fly to Philly, pick Alek up at school, and fly him back to Florida. Then on Sunday night, I’d fly him back to Philly and then fly back to Florida. Six plane tickets every two weeks. Thankfully, he loves flying and American Airlines has been nothing short of spectacular for him—with pilots always making time to show him the cockpit and flight attendants sneaking him extra chocolate chip cookies when Dad isn’t looking! Today I split my time between Newtown Square and Delray Beach, with a residence just a few minutes away from his mom. We also try to sneak trips to St. Martin and D.C. in every year—Alek’s favorite places!"

Top photo: Alek in the cockpit of an American Airlines jet. Below left: In St. Martin
Below right: Alek and Alan in Washington D.C.

"We are extremely lucky that Alek is higher functioning, but my eyes were now opened to the challenges of special needs (for parents, families and children). In 2012, I launched AutismAwareness.com. Initially, it was more for self-therapy, but it has since blossomed into something pretty incredible, with a community of over 250,000 people on Facebook. That’s almost the size of Orlando!," Dunn exclaimed.  

"We expect to hit 600,000 by next summer and just acquired the domain name A.org for a non-profit to be announced later this year. Out of everything (besides being Dad to our incredible son), this is the most rewarding thing I have ever done. We not only help create awareness, but also provide a platform for other parents to share and discuss their life stories. Just a few weeks ago, The Huffington Post used one of our articles; another article was shared over 500,000 times. Then we had a parent who just received their child’s autism diagnosis earlier that day comment on a story how she felt alone. So many parents commented to reassure her that everything would be fine, and offered her their support and strength from far away. I cannot express in words how important this is to me, and how thankful I am for so many people in the domain name community who pushed and helped make this happen. I have to also thank Carolina and Rachel – two people I probably couldn’t survive without - they know who they are!" Dunn said.

"Of course, non-profits do not typically result in profit, so after leaving Domain Holdings in 2015, I started NameCorp, a company focused on domain name management and acquisitions for brands. We have a pretty extensive client list and focus more on corporate projects (such as valuations, domain name management and acquisitions)."

"I’ve also gotten back into writing, contributing to sites like Business Insider, TechCrunch and other popular destinations. Our industry is amazing, but it’s also an industry where there is way too much noise and the great stories sometimes never get told. For example, I thought the story I published on TechCrunch about .ME now accounting for 2% of all exports for Montenegro was a great story. More generic stories about how the next new gTLD can change the world… maybe not such a great story," Dunn opined.  

"So far it’s been a phenomenal ride in the domain name industry, and I believe there is a lot more to look forward to. We are an industry that essentially provides the digital foundation for brands, so unless the internet and human behavior change, I’m pretty sure it’s only going to get better every day."

"Of course, you need to understand the difference between making a buck and building a career. The explosion of the China market in the last few years has much in common with other rapidly rising markets. A wealth of “experts” arrive and then, eventually, when the quick money is gone, so are they. It’s a natural evolution of markets, so the trick is to understand that and look for people who have value, provide logic and can show you a track record of success. I can’t express enough how many people want to tell you “how to sell” or “what to buy” in this industry while barely ever having sold a domain themselves. Due diligence is important no matter what industry you’re in, and even more so in unregulated markets like domain name sales."

"The good news is every day I hear people say, “all the good names are gone” or “I wish I was here 10 years ago.” The irony behind all of this is that probably half the industry started less than 10 years ago, so while you keep wishing, more people will likely pass you by."

In closing Alan said, "My only recommendations are to always remember two quotes:  

Family first.” and “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.”

…also, always laugh like no one is watching!"


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