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MMX stung for $7.7 million by crappy .london contract?

Kevin Murphy, April 26, 2017, Domain Registries

Did MMX take a $7.7 million accounting hit to renegotiate a crappy .london gTLD contract? It looks a bit like that to me.

Found in the company’s full-year 2016 financial results yesterday is the disclosure that it had to pay off an undisclosed gTLD partner after originally making “overly ambitious” predictions about its likely popularity.

The deal apparently had MMX — then under previous management as Minds + Machines — making guaranteed payments to its partner on the assumption that it would sell a lot more domains than it eventually did.

.london currently has about 56,000 names in its zone file, down from a post-launch peak of about 65,000.

According to its statement to the markets, MMX recorded a 2016 one-time contract restructuring expense of $3.8 million and has added a $3.9 million intangible asset to its balance sheet in relation to the contract.

That’s a total of $7.7 million, but CEO Toby Hall told DI that the cash payment was nowhere near that amount. He said:

in reality we have paid no where near that amount and much of this is the accounting treatment of a new contract that we believe has the potential to deliver future economic value to the business and will be covered from future revenues.

The gTLD in question is not named in the statement, and Hall also declined to name it in response to a DI inquiry, but MMX says of the contract:

In very early 2012, at the time when ICANN was still accepting new generic Top Level Domain applications, the then Executive Team entered into an overly ambitious agreement that it believed would provide value to the overall profile of the Group. The agreement had very significant financial commitments over the life of the contract and did not include any clauses that could allow the Group to renegotiate those commitments should the specific top-level domain not perform to the agreed financial projections. The growth of this top-level domain has not come close to meeting those expectations and the agreement has proven – and would have continued proving – to be a significant drag on the Group’s ability to generate positive cashflow from the given TLD.

In late Q4 of 2016 the current Executive team was able to successfully conclude renegotiations of certain components of the agreement by either restructuring or buying out certain financial commitments thus making it more economically viable going forward. As a result of the renegotiation effort, the Group has revised its modeling and believes that it can derive future economic benefit from the renegotiated contract. Accordingly, based on Management’s review, a portion of the buy out ($3.8million) has been expensed as a one-off restructuring cost while the remaining portion ($3.9million) will be capitalized as an intangible asset with future economic benefit.

All the evidence points to .london being the gTLD in question.

First, MMX says that the deal was entered into in “very early 2012”, which ties up with the timing of the request for proposals by the Mayor’s marketing office, London & Partners.

Second, MMX doesn’t have any other partner-based gTLDs that would plausibly have such ambitious commitments.

Third, MMX has previously stated that it was renegotiating some “burdensome” contracts. Last year, without relating it to a renegotiation, it said in a trading update that it was “encouraging to see an increasingly commercial and flexible approach from London & Partners, our Dot London partners”.

Fourth, word on the street back in 2012 was that L&P (which remember is affiliated with the London Mayor, an elected political office) had gone with tax-haven-based MMX rather than UK-based non-profit Nominet because MMX (then Minds + Machines) had offered the best financial incentives.

The scrapping of the old deal is perhaps another indicator of the hubris that accompanied the opening of the new gTLD program five years ago.

While L&P is the “owner” of .london, for want of a better word, in practice I gather that MMX runs it pretty much as if the gTLD was part of its regular portfolio.

The news of the contract changes were made in MMX’s audited 2016 results, which showed its billings doubling to $15.8 million during the year.

Revenue was $15 million, up from $6.3 million in 2015. Less partner payments, revenue was $13.5 million versus $5.5 million a year earlier.

The statement has half a dozen or more bottom lines, depending on what costs you exclude, but the one MMX wants us to look at is “Billings Operating EBITDA before one off restructuring costs”, which was $4.2 million compared to a loss of $6.6 million in 2015.

That, in other words, means that an unprofitable company has become a profitable one.

A lot of that has to do with the revenue from hundreds of thousands of .vip domain sales in China and a swingeing restructuring that led to headcount being slashed from 43 people to 20 people.

The company also sold off its registrar business to Uniregistry and started outsourcing its back-end functions to Nominet.

For 2017, the company has already disclosed two huge sales that will boost domains under management considerably, but at the risk of concentrating a larger part of MMX’s business outlook in just a few hands.

UPDATE: This article was updated a few hours after publication to clarify what MMX has said in relation to .london in previous trading statements.

Uniregistry and Neustar have TLDs approved in China

Kevin Murphy, April 13, 2017, Domain Registries

China’s April batch of approved TLDs has been released, featuring three domains from Neustar and Uniregistry.

Neustar had its longstanding, 2000-round .biz pass regulatory scrutiny, while Uniregistry’s .link and .auto have also been approved.

While .auto is managed by Cars Registry, a joint venture with XYZ.com, its stablemates .car and .cars do not appear to have yet been approved.

The rubberstamping was made by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which administers the country’s stringent regulatory framework.

Clearance means that customers of Chinese registrars will actually be able to deploy and use the names they buy.

The registries have also agreed to strict takedown policies for Chinese registrants.

While MIIT appears to be announcing newly approved TLDs on a monthly basis, it’s a slow drip-feed. I believe there are still fewer than 20 Latin-script gTLDs currently cleared for use in China.

Chinese to invade .africa? CEO thinks so

Kevin Murphy, April 11, 2017, Domain Registries

While .africa finally went on sale last week after years of legal fights, it seems Africans may find themselves in the minority of registrants.

A combination of awareness, pricing and anticipated interest from Chinese domain investors, means that Africans could account for as few as 1 in 10 .africa registrations, according to Lucky Masilela, CEO of .africa registry ZA Central Registry.

The domain went into its sunrise period last week, and has a multi-phased launch planned out that will last until July 1, 2018.

After the trademark owners have had their crack at the domain — Masilela tells us that South Africa brands such as Nando’s are among the first to grab theirs — there will be five phases in which domains will be open to all but priced at a premium.

Starting June 5 there will be five landrush periods of five day, each a kind of hybrid between the traditional landrush period and the kind of Early Access Period offered by Donuts and others.

Each landrush will see all names priced at a certain amount, with the amount going down at the start of each period — $5,000 to $2,000 to $1,000 to $500 (all USD).

In the event that any name is claimed by more than one registrant, there will be an auction for that name at the end of the period.

Then on July 4 comes the first period of “general availability”, from which point all domains will be first-come, first-served.

But for the first 28 days of GA, domains will be priced at $150, other than domains categorized by the registry as premium.

Domains then come down to a more affordable $18 wholesale.

But that’s not the end. ZACR has baked in a price reduction to $12.50 wholesale, due to kick in July 1 2018. From then on out, it’s business as usual.

Unlike similar TLDs such as .eu, there are to be no geographic restrictions on who can register .africa names, and Masilela said he expects registrants from Africa to be in a minority.

“I think were are looking at about 10% from the continent, growing gradually over the years,” Masilela said. “The next wave is going to be international registrars.”

“We have a big suspicion that we will probably see a huge uptake coming from the east, which is the China market,” he said. “They’ll probably come in and grab a large number of domain names.”

He said that Chinese investment in Africa offline is likely to be mirrored online.

Pricing is also likely to be a factor. While .africa will bottom out, ignoring periodic discounts, at $12.50, that’s still quite a lot more than you’d expect to pay for African ccTLDs. ZACR’s own .za costs about $4 per year.

The relatively high price of becoming ICANN accredited has also meant that while Africa has 50-something countries, there are currently only about half a dozen gTLD registrars based there.

ZACR proposes to counter this by offering a gateway service rather like the one it already offers in .joburg and .capetown, that would help bring its own .za registrars on board.

China approves more Donuts, Afilias gTLDs

Donuts and Afilias have had two batches of new gTLDs approved for use in China.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology approved five Afilias TLDs and six Donuts TLDs last month. This means customers of Chinese registrars will now be able to legally use those names in China.

Afilias was approved for .info, .mobi and .pro, which were delegated following the 2000 and 2003 new gTLD application rounds and .kim and .red from the 2012 round.

Donuts simultaneously was cleared for .ltd, .group, .游戏 (“game”), .企业 (“business”), .娱乐 (“entertainment) and .商店 (“store”).

The approvals more than double the number of new gTLDs in Latin script to get the nod from MIIT, in what now appears to be a monthly occurrence.

In February, .ink and four Chinese-script TLDs passed the regulatory process, following .site and .shop in January and .vip, .club and .xyz in December.

MIIT approval means the chance of usage by Chinese registrants should go up, but it also ties these Western registries to relatively Draconian government policies when it comes to Chinese registrations.

ICANN reveals $500 million gTLD buyback program

Kevin Murphy, April 1, 2017, Domain Services

ICANN is to spend its half-billion dollar auction war chest on a buyback program for failing new gTLDs, DI can reveal.

Inspired by the “Cash for Clunkers” program that provided stimulus during the economic downturn in the US a decade ago, the new program will see ICANN offer $1 million per gTLD to any registry whose heart simply isn’t in it any more.

The scheme will work rather like a stock buyback, ICANN explained in a 489-page document (PDF).

Registries opting to sell back their gTLDs will see their strings abruptly removed from the DNS root and their contracts torn up and burned on a great big bonfire.

Any domains registered in these gTLDs will stop resolving to parking pages immediately.

“We believe this program offers the most equitable distribution of auction funds and the fairest way to ensure new gTLD program participants see a return on their investment,” ICANN chair Steve Crocker said in a statement.

Portfolio registries including Donuts, Uniregistry, MMX, Radix and XYZ.com are already believed to have expressed an interest in the scheme, and were already forming a disorderly queue outside ICANN’s Los Angeles headquarters last night.

While Verisign also qualifies for the program, much of the funding will be provided by the $130 million it spent at the .web auction.

The company said it welcomed the deal and plans to sell .web back to ICANN as soon as possible. It added that it will cover the $129 million loss by fueling its data center generators with ten-dollar bills, rather than twenties, for the first three weeks of April.

But registrant groups were outraged by the proposal, which will see millions of domain names erased from the internet.

Dr General President Colonel Lucky Mfwamba (Esq), chair of the New gTLD Registrants Association, said he expects the bottom to fall out of the penis enlargement market overnight.

And in China, thousands of domain investors flocked to forums to complain that the randomly generated domains they bought at $0.20 each and hoped to sell to other investors for $0.30 each are suddenly worthless.