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After ICANN nod, MMX buys .xxx

MMX has closed the acquisition of porn-focused ICM Registry, after receiving the all-clear from ICANN for the contract transfers.

The deal is worth roughly $41 million — $10 million cash and about $31 million in stock.

ICM runs .xxx from the 2003 gTLD application round (though it didn’t go live until 2011) and .porn, .adult and .sex from the 2012 round.

MMX, which now has 29 fully-owned TLDs and another five in partnerships, will now become roughly a quarter-owned by former ICM employees and its back-end provider, Afilias.

ICM president Stuart Lawley now owns 15% of MMX and is its largest shareholder.

CEO Toby Hall said in a statement to the markets that he has “identified a number areas of potential growth and synergy”.

The company noted that the deal increases the share of its revenue coming from the US and Europe, implicitly highlighting the reduction of its exposure to the volatile Chinese market, where .vip has been its biggest money-spinner to date.

ICM had something like 152,000 .xxx domains under management at the last count, but over 80,000 of those are reservations. It has about 92,000 names in its zone file currently.

The three 2012-round names are faring less well, with about 8,000 to 10,000 names apiece in their zones.

Somebody once jokingly told me that ICM stood for “Internet Cash Machine”, due to the perception that porn-focused names would sell like, well, porn. Just thought I’d mention that.

MMX rejected three takeover bids before buying .xxx

MMX talked to three other domain name companies about potentially selling itself before deciding instead to go on the offensive, picking up ICM Registry for about $41 million.

The company came out of a year-long strategic review on Friday with the shock news that it had agreed to buy the .xxx, .adult, .porn and .sex registry, for $10 million cash and about $31 million in stock.

CEO Toby Hall told DI today that informal talks about MMX being sold or merged via reverse takeover had gone on with numerous companies over the last 11 months, but that they only proceeded to formal negotiations in three cases.

Hall said he’d been chatting to ICM president and majority owner Stuart Lawley about a possible combination for over two years.

ICM itself talked to four potential buyers before going with MMX’s offer, according to ICM.

Lawley, who’s quitting the company, will become MMX’s largest shareholder following the deal, with about 15% of the company’s shares. Five other senior managers, as well as ICM investor and back-end provider Afilias, will also get stock.

Combined, ICM-related entities will own roughly a quarter of MMX after the deal closes, Hall said.

ICM, with its high-price domains and pre-2012 early-mover advantage, is the much more profitable company.

It had sales of $7.3 million and net income of $3.5 million in 2017, on approximately 100,000 registrations.

Compared to MMX, that’s about the same amount of profit on about half the revenue. It just reported 2017 profit of $3.8 million on revenue of $14.3 million.

There’s doesn’t seem to be much need or desire to start swinging the cost-cutting axe at ICM, in other words. Jobs appear safe.

“This isn’t a business in any way that is in need of restructuring,” Hall said.

He added that he has no plans to ditch Afilias as back-end registry provider for the four gTLDs. MMX’s default back-end for the years since it ditched its self-hosted infrastructure has been Nominet.

The deal reduces MMX’s exposure to the volatile Chinese market, where its .vip TLD has proved popular, accounting for over half of the registry’s domains under management.

It also gives MMX ownership of ICM’s potentially lucrative portfolio of reserved premium names.

There are over 9,700 of these, with a combined buy-now price of just shy of $135 million.

I asked Hall whether he had any plans to get these names sold. He laughed, said “the answer is yes”, and declined to elaborate.

ICM currently has a sales staff of three people, he said.

“It’s a small team, but their track record is exceptional,” he said.

The company’s record, I believe, is sex.xxx, which sold for $3 million. It has many six-figure sales on record. Premiums renew at standard reg fee, around $60.

With the ICM deal, MMX has recast itself after a year of uncertainty as an acquirer rather than an acquisition target.

While many observers — including yours truly — had assumed a sale or merger were on the cards, MMX has gone the other route instead.

It’s secured a $3 million line of credit from its current largest shareholder, London and Capital Asset Management Ltd, “to support future innovation and acquisition orientated activity”.

That’s not a hell of a lot of money to run around snapping up rival gTLDs, but Hall said that it showed that investors are supportive of MMX’s new strategy.

So does this mean MMX is going to start devouring failing gTLDs for peanuts? Not necessarily, but Hall wouldn’t rule anything out.

“Our long-term strategy is ultimately based around being an annuity-based business,” he said. He’s looking at companies with a “strong recurring revenue model”.

About 78% of ICM’s revenue last year came from domain renewals. The remainder was premium sales. For MMX, renewal revenue doubled to $4.8 million in 2017, but that’s still only a third of its overall revenue (though MMX is of course a less-mature business).

So while Hall refused to rule out looking at buying up “struggling” gTLDs, I get the impression he’s not particularly interested in taking risks on unproven strings.

“You can never say never to any opportunity,” he said. “If we come across and asset and for whatever reason we believe we can monetize it, it could become an acquisition target.”

The acquisition is dependent on ICANN approving the handover of registry contracts, something that doesn’t usually present a problem in this kind of M&A.

101domain founders suing Afilias over unpaid $1 million after $15.5 million acquisition

The two former owners of 101domain are suing Afilias over an unpaid $1 million portion of their $15.5 million acquisition deal.

And Afilias is suing them right back, claiming it doesn’t have to pay because the deal left it saddled with an undisclosed tax bill in excess of $1 million.

The suit was filed by Anthony Beltran and Wolfgang Reile, who has since died, in February and Afilias counter-sued a couple of weeks ago, but I only recently became aware of the case and I don’t believe it’s been reported elsewhere.

Afilias bought 101domain back in 2015 for a then-undisclosed sum, its first big push into the registrar side of the industry.

Court documents now reveal that the Ireland-registered company gave 90%-owner Reile and 10%-owner Beltran a combined $12.5 million cash, along with a promissory note to pay $3 million more over the next two years.

Afilias paid them the first $2 million owed in September 2016, but when it came to paying the remaining $1 million the company refused, saying it had discovered 101domain had a VAT liability from before the deal closed of around $875,000.

Last month, after the suit was filed, it re-estimated the alleged liability at over $1 million.

Under the terms of the promissory note, Afilias reckons it does not have to pay up. What’s more, it wants the two men to cover the difference between the money it owes them and the amount of the tax bill.

In their initial complaint (pdf), Reile and Beltran disputed whether the liability even exists, saying “Afilias has failed to provide an adequate accounting for the purported pre-closing VAT liability”.

Reile died April 6, but Afilias filed its counter-complaint (pdf) April 19 and the legal wheels still appear to be turning.

Beltran, who declined to comment on the case, is still listed as 101domain’s president on the registrar’s web site.

MMX could announce acquisition this week

New gTLD registry MMX could announce plans to be acquired as early as this week.

The company told the markets last week that its delayed 2017 financial results would be announced in “early May”, along with the “conclusion of the strategic review” it has been teasing investors about for almost a year.

The “strategic review”, announced last May, is exploring “how MMX can participate in a broader industry consolidation” including acquisition or merger.

MMX said last week that “constructive discussions continue to progress”.

It has previously described the duration of the negotiations, initially slated to close last September, as “frustrating”.

Unlike AIM-listed rival CentralNic, which has confirmed it is in reverse-takeover talks with KeyDrive, MMX has not revealed which potential buyer(s) it has been talking to.

MMX, also listed on AIM, has a market cap of £69.3 million ($94.3 million) today.

In January, it informally reported that its 2017 billings are expected to be around the $15.6 million mark, allowing the company to hit operating profitability for the first time.

The company runs 25 new gTLDs solo and five more in partnerships with other companies, but by far and a way the best volume performer is .vip, which accounts for well over half of its registrations largely due to its resonance in China.

CentralNic and KeyDrive in merger talks

Kevin Murphy, March 14, 2018, Domain Registries

CentralNic and KeyDrive, two major European domain firms, are in merger talks, CentralNic confirmed this morning.

CentralNic said that the transaction, should it close, would be a “reverse takeover” of itself by KeyDrive.

That’s where a private company, in this case KeyDrive, reverses into a public one, in this case AIM-listed CentralNic.

Luxembourg-based KeyDrive is the holding company for brands including the registrars Key-Systems, Moniker and BrandShelter and the registries OpenRegistry and KSRegistry.

London-based CentralNic is a registry provider for the likes of .xyz, recent acquirer of Slovakian TLD .sk, and owner of registrars Internet.bs and Instra.

CentralNic said: “CentralNic and KeyDrive Group believe that the combination of the two businesses would have strong strategic logic and economies of scale, and would represent an opportunity to create a group with advanced technology platforms delivering significant recurring revenues for every major customer type within the industry.”

If a deal should be struck, it would happen in the second quarter, the company said.

The announcement was made today after news of the talks leaked.

Trading in CentralNic shares has been temporarily suspended.