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September 17, 2012

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The Domain Giant You Didn’t Know:  Rob Grant's Rise to the Top

There are certain names that everyone in this industry knows, names that newcomers normally encounter within hours of entering the domain business. Names like Rick Schwartz, Kevin Ham, Frank Schilling, the Castello Brothers and others from a small band of pioneers who have reached the top of a mountain that thousands of others continue to climb. Most in that group became wealthy because they were visionaries who foresaw how valuable domain names would become long before they appeared on anyone else’s radar. 

Rob Grant may not be as widely known as some of his pioneering peers, but few in the industry can match the foresight, financial commitment and unwavering faith in the future of domains that Grant has shown over the past 12 years. During that time the personable real estate broker from upstate New York assembled the world’s best collection of real estate related domain names (as well as some gems in other categories).  


Rob Grant

With the explosion in domain values in recent years Grant has been well rewarded for his prescience. So much so that he has begun giving back through a series of generous domain donations (totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars) to grateful educational institutions in the U.S., including his alma mater, Arizona’s Prescott College.

There were times in Grant’s life when the kind of philanthropy he practices today would have seemed like the wildest kind of pipe dream. He had walked away from a good job on Madison Avenue so he could move to New York’s Adirondack Mountains, even though there was no job waiting for him there. After the move, the company he started wound up folding but like all great entrepreneurs, Grant bounced back and bounced back big.

Some of that resiliency may have come from growing up with two rambunctious brothers. The three boys were born in a five year span starting in 1953 when Rob was the first to arrive. The family lived in Evanston, Illinois (suburban Chicago) at the time but soon moved to Memphis then on to Providence, Rhode Island as Rob’s dad climbed the corporate ladder, becoming a VP at one of the first business conglomerates, Textron.  

Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay

Most of Grant’s formative years were spent living near Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay where he developed a love of sailing (a love that played a big role in his first successful business that we will be talking about shortly). He would sometimes take off for days at a time, exploring the Atlantic Coast in a 25-foot sloop. Grant also developed an appreciation of nature and love of the outdoors during this time and that love would be a critical factor in the decision I mentioned earlier to walk away from a promising advertising career in New York City. 

Though he had an idyllic life in New England, Grant said he had grown a bit tired of “East Coast culture” finding it a little to pretentious for his tastes. “I rally wanted a change and I had never been out west so it had this romantic appeal to me. Prescott was also an experimental college that offered a brand new concept allowing students to design their own courses and majors. It was something that really clicked with me – a chance to get out in the great wide open west and explore the world in this unstructured academic environment,” Grant said. 

“Prescott also attracted a lot of rebellious, independent thinkers and it was a very exciting mix. We all knew we were part of something knew and I just found it to be exhilarating,” Grant added.

That freedom to be as creative as he wanted to be would serve Grant well when he graduated and went out on his own. 

Grant headed backed to Rhode Island and opened his own business – in fact two of them. One was a boat building company called Breton that manufactured 16-foot daysailers. The other was a restaurant in historic Newport, a joint venture with some friends. Breton leased and managed fleets of sailboats for local resorts that would in turn make them available for guests to rent. 

Classrooms at Prescott College

While in that business and interesting twist of fate would send Grant off in an entirely new direction. In 1977 the America’s Cup yacht race would be coming to Newport and Grant knew the whole world would be watching – especially since the Cup would be defended by the Mouth of the South, media mogul Ted Turner (who would wind up winning as the skipper of Courageous). Grant got the idea to use the sails on his fleet of boats as huge billboards that would be impossible to miss when the TV cameras from around the world were trained on the yachts racing through local waters. 

“The concept was something that no one else had tried at the time,” Grant said. “I pitched the idea and was able land King William Scotch as our sponsor." Grant hired a handful of craftsmen to hand sew the giant highly detailed logos on the sails of more than a dozen boats.” The whole idea was kept as quiet as possible because Grant new if they stodgy America’s Cup committee got wind of it, they would be horrified and do anything they could to keep Grant’s boats out of camera range. 

Rob Grant's King William Scotch flotilla at the 1977 America's Cup - Newport, RI

“The day of the race we towed the boats out to the entrance of Newport Harbor. Moments later hundreds of press boats from around the world headed our way and up went our King William Scotch sails! It was beautiful day and the sails were just beautiful as we cruised in formation right through the press fleet. You could literally hear the motor drives on their cameras whirring away because they had never seen anything like this at the America’s Cup before,” Grant recalled fondly. “Instantaneously we wound up in about 150 publications worldwide including Newsweek who ran a big story on this.” 

The scotch company was understandably delighted with the worldwide exposure they got for around $40,000 and that successful gambit opened the door for Grant to start an entirely new company called Creative Sail. “You never know where something is going to lead,” Grant said. “You start with one idea and it morphs very quickly into another. The whole point of this is that you have to remain very opportunistic and very unstructured in your thinking. I think that is the hallmark of anyone who is successful - they are very good at turning on a dime necessary and that is what I have tried to do throughout my career.” 

In fact soon after this success with sailboat advertising, Grant decided to turn on a dime again and head for New York City to see if he could parlay his marketing skills into a career on Madison Avenue. He set up shop in what he called an incredibly seedy hotel on the West Side where he hooked up with aspiring art directors that helped him a produce a portfolio of storyboards to take around to the different agencies to see if one would like what they saw and give him a chance.  

“It was a very grueling process but finally someone at Grey Advertising sent my portfolio up to their new Creative Director 

Billy Giles (a major figure on Madison Avenue at the time) who thought Grant had real potential. He called Rob into his office and after a short interview asked him is he could start the next day. “I was stunned. I had been looking for so long I didn’t really expect to hear anyone say yes,” Grant said. But Giles did and Rob’s foot was in the door. 

Even though he started out with a desk in the hallway with the secretaries, Grant was ecstatic just to be there, especially since Grey was one of the world’s top ad agencies. His first big break came when he was in on one of several creative teams that were given an assignment to come up with a slogan for the Playtex company describing a new bra that broke new ground in terms of comfort for the women who wore them.  

Grant, intent on making a name for himself, stayed up until the wee hours almost every night trying to come up with something. Grey told the writers to concentrate on the word “fit” (just as domainers would concentrate on keywords when they came on the scene years some 15 years after this). Among the words and phrases Grant scribbled was TGIF only his translation for the famous acronym was “Thank Goodness it Fits”.  “I looked at it and said That’s It! I knew it was going to be huge,” Grant said. When he showed it to the Creative Director the next morning a big smile crossed his bosses’ face. Playtex loved it to and Grant’s idea appeared in all of their ads. The campaign was very successful and Grant was soon ushered into his own office as a reward. 

Rob & Pat Grant
New York City - June 2007

He was soon working on other major accounts including Proctor & GambleNorthwest Orient and STP (which resulted in him working directly with legendary NASCAR driver Richard Petty who was the company’s spokesman). In addition to his status as a highly respected copywriter, Grey brought Grant something even better. He met a lovely young account executive there named Pat and they soon fell in love and were married. However Grant found there was also a downside to what he was doing. Advertisers doled out multi-million dollar accounts based on how well the liked the ideas coming our of the different agencies. Landing one big account could make or break a company.  “It was a very intense period. I literally worked day and night,” Grant recalled. 

After six years in a very high pressure job burn out started to set in just as Rob and Pat had their first child, Elizabeth (Caroline and Charlie followed over the next few years to round out the family). With a family to think about now, they decided to pull up stakes and make a radical change in their lifestyle by moving upstate to the mountains. All of their friends thought they were crazy and warned they that if they walked away from their jobs they would never be able to come back. Grant said, “even so I looked at my life and thought is I stayed in Manhattan and raised a family it would be enormously expensive and we would have to live in an apartment out in the suburbs. It just turned me stomach to think that I could spend the rest of my life going back and forth to the city on a commuter train.” 

“I also thought here I am, expending all of this creative energy to make money for other companies – why can’t I do this for myself? I had this tremendous urge to channel all of this energy into something that would be mine. So we made the move and headed for the Adirondacks. We rented a house up there but didn’t have a clue what we were going to do! It was a very scary time,” Grant said. 

He finally decided to start an Adirondack furniture company in Saranac Lake (Adirondack furniture is a popular style of casual outdoor camp furniture that originated in that region). “The idea was to take something that had always been a cottage industry and market it on a national scale,” Grant said. The furniture company started hiring local craftsman and their high quality hand made pieces were soon in high demand. In fact a big Christmas order from Saks Fifth Avenue led to Grant personally loading a U-Haul trailer to take a load of his furniture back  to New York City where the pieces were displayed in Saks’ windows.  

Adirondack chairs

Grant targeted the design trade and gained strong acceptance in the high end market. The problem was they couldn’t find enough qualified reliable craftsman to produce enough pieces to meet the demand. Eventually he came to grips with the fact that this was a cottage industry that wasn’t scaleable and decided it was once again time to try something new.  

Grant had actually already taken the first steps on another path while the furniture company was still going. “I was beginning to buy real estate because I felt there was a great opportunity in these mountain resorts where I thought property was grossly undervalued. I began to buy old commercial buildings in Saranac Lake and residential property in Lake Placid. I remember buying an old 3-story commercial building for $20,000! I got seriously involved in rehabbing these buildings and then turning around and selling them.” 

“We happened to get lucky because we hit that market just as the Adirondacks were starting to be rediscovered,” Grant said. “People were starting to come up from New York, New Jersey and Boston and I found I was able to sell the residential properties especially for two and three times what I paid for them. That kind of ushered in my real estate era.” 

Camp Cobblestone
One of the multi-million dollar waterfront camps 
Grant & Associates has listed over the years.

Real estate was an area is which Grant really thrived. “Around 1991 I decided to start a brokerage firm,” he said. “but in 1991 we wound up entering one of the worst recessions in history, one that went on for two or three years. I remember thinking my time could not have been worse.”  Still Grant managed to hang on and slowly built a reputation during those lean years, especially when he won listings for local waterfront camps (properties that could sell for $1-$5 million). His marketing background came in handy because it allowed him to develop marketing plans for property owners that other brokers couldn’t do as well. That was the birth of today’s powerful Rob Grant & Associate Real Estate firm. 

As the economy started growing again, Grant’s business boomed. At this same time, in 1995-96, Grant became aware of the Internet and domains. “That was a remarkable awakening for me because I had the Madison Avenue marketing background and I had the real estate background and suddenly these two powerful thing merged. I looked at a domain and thought My God, not only is this a brand as the Internet develops, but it is also has all of the properties of real estate,” Grant said.  

A web designer working on a site for him told Grant he should register his RobGrantRealEstate.com but (though he did take that domain) he had bigger ideas from the start. “Nobody here cared about Rob Grant – what they cared about was Adirondacks Real Estate and I felt that is what they would look for.” When he looked to see who had AdirondacksRealEstate.com he was surprised that it was available for registration. He quickly took it then, convinced he was in to something big, went on to take thousands of other .com domains starting with a city, state or country name and ending with “real estate.” 

At that time Network Solutions had a monopoly on domain registrations so it cost about 10 times what it costs to register a domain today. So, Grant laid out a huge amount of capital on a theory that most thought would never pan out. Also keep in mind that back then there was no PPC, no Yahoo and no Google, so the domains had only one apparent value – their generic brand value. Grant said, “my hunch was that as the Internet grew and developed these intuitive brands would take on more value as property and assets.” That was the beginning of Grant’s remarkably deep Real Estate Directory at RealEstateDirectory.com. 

Grant soon started taking his idea global, sweeping up major city real estate domains outside the U.S. “That was really an exciting time because no one had thought to go international,” he said. “There was very little resistance, unlike today when there is so much competition.” Though Grant was focused on real estate he realized that this same phenomenon would happy in many other industries. “If you could own a keyword term for a particular industry that was a very significant asset so picked up some in other categories too, like TropicalFish.com, CaribbeanResoirts.com, LiteraryAgents.com, BookPublishers.com and MusicPublishers.com 

On the downside, the more domains Grant piled up the scarier it got because of the extremely high annual registration and renewal fees at that time. “It was brutal,” Grant said, “because you had these high carrying costs but absolutely no revenue. You really had to believe. I feel it was the true test of whether or not someone has vision. I sat for years paying these registration fees and not earning a nickel and wondering if I was out of my mind.” Grant, who piled up over 5,000 domains (many are featured at WebMediaProperties.com), added something that a lot of guys (including me) can also identify with, “my wife also wondered if I was out of my mind!” 

Grant hooks a big one.
Photo shot earlier this month (April 2008)
off Anna Maria Island, Florida where 
Grant has a vacation condominium

Grant not only held on when the .com bubble burst in 2000 (reinforcing critic’s views that domain investors were nuts) he used that as an opportunity to buy yp more high quality assets as others panicked and sold out cheap. “They had decided they had made a bad move, that they had been in it long enough and they had made a bad investment and they were getting out. I remember buying good domains for a dime on the dollar,” Grant recalled.  

“I can’t tell you how many times people told me to get out. That the domain thing was over – especially the techie guys. They never got it. They didn’t have the marketing background and I know they kick themselves to this day for not understanding the true value of these names,” Grant said. “I’ve seen so many peaks and valleys since 1996 and in each valley there was a washout as people get scared or got discouraged and got out. Then a new generation would come in with a new sense of conviction.” 

Grant’s belief in real estate domains has never wavered and today there are now multiple ways to monetize those domains He has some leased out through LeaseThis.com and there is always PPC, but for the best returns can be realized through lead generation. For example he has HawaiiRealEstate.com, representing a state where the average home sale is $750,000. A single lead to a licensed broker in Hawaii can be worth up to $45,000.  

Grant did better than that with a listing on his CatskillsRealEstate.com site several years back. Though his company was several hours north of the Catskills, he won a list for a very large multi-million dollar estate and marketed it through his Catskills domain. He ended up selling the property in house with no help from any Hudson Valley or Catskills area realtors, giving him the full commission – approximately $150,000. “These showed me that with the Internet you could each out beyond your traditional territory – you were no longer restricted by conventional boundaries which might extend maybe 50-70 miles from your agency was,” Grant said. “It was a great case study for me.” 

With his business thriving, Grant started looking for ways to give back to a cause he believed in and a few years ago he settled on higher education, especially small schools like his Prescott College alma mater. Again drawing on his marketing background and the power of domains he felt he could help quality schools that were struggling  compete more effectively with better endowed institutions chasing the same pool of students. 

Paul Smith College President 
George Miller (left) with Rob Grant

“By giving them intuitive domains we felt we could help them increase their admissions and also increase their brand exposure, “ Grant said. “We started with Paul Smith’s College in our neck of the woods in the Adirondacks. They had a very enlightened president who was receptive to the idea so we were able to work with them to build a network of domains that effectively drove traffic to the college’s website. All they needed was one applicant enrolling from the program fo four years to gain $120,000 in tuition. We started by giving them $10,000-$15,000 worth of domains and they were very excited with the results so went on and gave increasingly larger gifts to other colleges.” 

The donated domains are appraised by Moniker.com and though many appraisal 

companies tend to come in on the high side (to ensure happy customers who will come back and order more appraisals) the long list of appraisals I saw for names Grants donated were on the very conservative side. This is probably why Moniker’s domains appraisals are recognized and accepted by the IRS. 

Grant made a portfolio gift valued at $60,000 to Prescott College that included Conservationism.com, FinancialGrant.com, LiberalArtsDegrees.com, MastersDegreePrograms.com and many others. He followed that up with another portfolio of 107 domains valued at over $99,000. A portfolio valued at over $237,000 went to his daughter Caroline’s present school, St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. In 2006, a portfolio of 225 domains valued at more than $371,000 was given to the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota. Paul Smith’s College also got new gifts totaling over $84,000. 

The schools have been thrilled with the donations. Grant has also consulted closely with school officials on how to best use the domains. While there is a lot of valued in redirecting keyword domains to the the individuals school’s websites, some are moving beyond that. St. Scholastica is setting up a committee to work on building out some of the marquee domains given to them. Both faculty and students will be involved in those projects.  

Grant is now expanding his program beyond colleges to other community organizations and non-profit groups. He also provides hosting services and website marketing advice to many groups in his area. More details are available at Grant’s Adirondacks.com website.  

Adirondacks.com is one of about 1,500 developed websites that Grant operates. It includes it a busy travel section and Grant is now applying the same formula to travel guides in Florida and Vermont. Though domain development has just become a front burner issue over the past year as PPC revenues have fallen Grant has been developing properties for ten years now. “It takes a lot of hard work, you’ve got to have the right content, you have to continually refresh that content and you have to have a sales team that goes out and gets the advertisers.” 

Development is just one of many ways Grant has financially diversified in recent years to protect himself from shocks in any one category. “In addition to our real estate brokerage, we operate a self storage business, we have a big vacation rental business, I operate a 23,000 square foot office building, so we have both commercial tenants and residential tenants. One of the lessons I learned early on was that it is very important to be as diversified as you can be. You can’t rely on any one business model because if you do you will be taken out. I’ve seen it time and time again and I’ve had it happen to me. So anytime I see an opportunity to create a business, or even just another revenue stream, I do it.” 

Grant has been around long enough to see just about every conceivable up and down in the business cycle. With the general economy now going through a major down cycle, I asked him what he thought about the domain industry’s prospects over the next year or two. “I think we’re going to go through a very intense period and I think we are going to go through another shakeout. We have seen these rough patches historically in the domain space and I think right now we are faced with multiple threats. There is going to be more and more dangerous legislation created that could take our domains away and I commend the Internet Commerce Association for everything they are doing to combat that and everyone needs to understand how important it is to support the ICA” Grant said. 

Grant added, “The National Association of Realtors (NAR) understood decades ago how important it was to have an organization that could lobby on Capitol Hill and the NAR is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the world. What we have seen in the real estate industry is wave after wave of potentially damaging legislation and it has always been the NAR and their lobbyists who have protected this industry. They can do it because they are so well funded and so well organized and because the individual members all understand the importance of having that kind of representation. The domain industry, as young and as small as it is, needs to very quickly understand that if they don’t have this same kind of representation, they will not last. They will not be an industry, they will be a footnote in the history of the Internet.” 

Despite the hurdles ahead Grant remains bullish about the long run, predicting that current monetization methods will be supplemented by new models. “I think we are going to see pay per call, pay per action, much more sophisticated lead gen. Ultimately the best domains will rise to the top and those will be the big powerful generic domains. Many of those will move from being a $200,000-$1 million asset to being a full blown company that’s worth $30 million-$50 million and I think that’s where we’re going to go next.” 

“I think a lot of today’s PPC companies will morph into development partners because they already have the client base and they’ve already established the loyalties so I think you’re going to see these companies approach portfolio owners with development proposals. The owners will merge their domains with the technology and the expertise of these parking companies," Grant said. Sound unlikely to you? Visionaries don't always have 20/20 vision, but with Grant's track record I wouldn't discount anything he has to say about the future.





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