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MMX waving goodbye to .london? Boss puts focus on renewal profits, China

Kevin Murphy, September 26, 2018, Domain Registries

MMX’s revenue from domain renewals could cover all of its expenses within the next 24 months, if everything goes to plan, according to CEO Toby Hall.

Hall was speaking to DI this evening after the company reported its first-half financial results, which saw revenue up 22% to $6.4 million and a net loss of $14.7 million, which compared to a loss of $526,000 a year earlier.

MMX’s huge loss for the period was largely — to the tune of $11.8 million — attributable to the restructuring of an “onerous” contract with one of its gTLD partners.

Hall refuses point blank to name that partner, but for reasons I discussed last year, I believe it is .london sponsor London & Partners, which is affiliated with the office of the Mayor of London.

When L&P selected MMX to be its registry partner for .london back in 2012, I understand a key reason was MMX’s promise to pay L&P a fixed annual fee and commit to a certain amount of marketing spend.

But two years ago, after it became clear that .london sales were coming in waaaay below previous management’s expectations, MMX renegotiated the deal.

Under the new deal, instead of committing to spend $10.8 million on marketing the TLD itself, MMX agreed to give half that amount to L&P for L&P to do its own marketing.

It appears that L&P has already spunked much of that cash ineffectively, or, as MMX put it:

a significant portion of that marketing budget has been spent by the partner with minimal impact on revenues in the current year and no expectation of any material uplift in future periods

MMX seems to have basically written off the .london deal as a bad call, and now that MMX is no longer in the registry back-end or registrar businesses, it seems unlikely that the .london partnership will be extended when it expires in three years.

Again, Hall would not confirm this bad contract was for .london — I’m making an informed guess — but the alternatives are limited. The only other TLDs MMX runs in partnership currently are .review and .country, and not even 2012 MMX management would have bet the farm on those turkeys.

Another $2.1 million of the company’s H1 net loss is for “bad debt provisions” relating the possibility that certain US-based registrar partners may not pay their dues, but this provision is apparently related to a new accounting standard rather than known deadbeats threatening to withhold payments.

If you throw aside all of this accountancy and look at the “operating EBITDA” line, profit was up 176% to $661,000 compared to H1 2017.

While the loss may have cast a cloud over the first half, Hall is upbeat about MMX’s prospects, and it’s all about the renewals.

“Renewal revenue will be more than all the costs of business within 24 months,” he said. To get there, it needs to cross the $12 million mark.

He told DI tonight that “an increasing percentage of our business is based on renewals… just on renewal revenue alone we’ll be over $10 million this year”.

Renewal revenue was $4.7 million in 2017 and $2.4 million in 2016, he said. In the first half, it was was up 40% to $3.4 million.

MMX’s acquisition of porn domain specialist ICM Registry, which has renewal fees of over $60 per year, will certainly help the company towards its 2018 goal in the second half. ICM only contributed two weeks of revenue — $250,000 — in H1.

Remarkably, and somewhat counter-intuitively, the company is also seeing renewal strength in China.

Its .vip gTLD, which sells almost exclusively in China, saw extremely respectable renewals of 76% in the first half, which runs against the conventional wisdom that China is a volatile market

Hall said that .vip renewals run in the $5 to $10 range, so apparently TLD volume is not being propped up by cheap wholesale renewal fees. The TLD accounts for about 30% of MMX’s renewal revenue, Hall said.

About 60% of .vip’s domains under management are with Chinese registrar Alibaba. The biggest non-Chinese registrar is GoDaddy, with about 3% of the namespace.

More exposure to China, and specifically Alibaba, is expected to come soon due to MMX’s repurposing of the 2012-logic gTLD .luxe, which is being integrated into the Ethereum blockchain.

MMX said last week that some six million (mostly Chinese) users of the imToken Ethereum wallet will in November get the ability to register .luxe domains via imToken and easily integrate them with their Ethereum assets.

The announcement was made at the Alibaba Cloud Computing Conference in China last week, so you can probably guess imToken’s registrar of choice.

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.

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.

.com adds 5.5 million names, renewals back over 70%

Kevin Murphy, April 30, 2018, Domain Registries

Verisign reported first-quarter financial results that reflected a healthier .com namespace following the spike caused by Chinese speculation in 2016.

The company Friday reported that .com was up to 133.9 million domains at the end of March, an increase of 5.5 million over the year.

The strong showing was tempered slightly by a further decline in .net, where domains were down from 15.2 million to 14.4 million.

Over the quarter, there was a net increase of 1.9 million names across both TLDs and the renewal rate was an estimated 74.9%, a pretty damn good showing.

Actual renewals for Q4, measurable only after Verisign announced its earnings, were confirmed at 72.5%, compared to a worryingly low 67.6% in Q4 2016.

In a call with analysts, CEO James Bidzos confirmed that the turnaround was due to the surge in Chinese domainer speculation that drove numbers in 2016 finally working its way out of the system.

In Q1, the cash-printing company saw net income of $134 million, compared to $116 million a year earlier, on revenue up 3.7% at $299 million.

Bidzos told analysts that it’s “possible” that the company may get to launch .web in 2018, but said Verisign has not baked any impact from the contested gTLD into its forecasts.

MMX profitable as acquisition talks drag on

Kevin Murphy, January 29, 2018, Domain Registries

New gTLD registry Minds + Machines became profitable as an operating company for the first time in 2017, the company announced on Friday.

MMX saw billings of $10 million in the second half of the year, compared to $5.6 million in the first half, as domains under management grew 67% to 1.32 million.

Billings is a measure of sales, rather than the more formal measure of revenue for accounting purposes.

Renewals accounted for $5.6 million of billings in the year, which “for the first-time has exceeded fixed operating costs which have been reduced to below $5.5 million for 2017”.

The company’s bottom line will also boosted by $2.1 million due to MMX losing the .inc and .llc new gTLD auctions.

MMX also provided an update on its “strategic review”, a code word for the “acquisition by or sale/merger of the Company” that it announced last May.

The company said “the longevity of the discussions has been at times frustrating” but that it hopes to have something to announce by the time it reports its formal 2017 results in April.

MMX had originally hoped to have concluded these talks before last September.