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Chinese investor pumps $7 million into M+M as .vip pushes firm into profit

Kevin Murphy, September 20, 2016, Domain Registries

Minds + Machines made a profit, kinda, in the first half of the year, due to the popularity of .vip in China.

The company today announced a loss of $1.9 million for the six months to June 30, compared to a $1.6 million loss in the comparable 2015 period, on revenue that was up 115% at $7.4 million.

But factoring out discontinued operations — M+M started to close its registrar and registry back-end businesses during the half — it actually managed to sneak a profit of $56,000.

Its revenue was also unaffected by one-time gains from gTLD auction losses, something which had pumped up its top line regularly for the last few years.

Chairman Guy Elliot said in a statement to the markets that M+M “has successfully been navigated out of troubled waters”.

The turnaround is due in no small part to the success of .vip, which racked up over 400,000 registrations in its first month (back in May), the large majority of which were sold to Chinese investors.

The company said that $5.5 million of the $8 million in H1 billings were made in the first 21 days of .vip’s availability.

Having started 2016 with no sales in Asia whatsoever, it expects 45% of its revenue to come from China by the end of the year.

As a direct consequence of .vip’s sales, M+M has received a £5.5 million ($7.2 million) investment from Goldstream Capital Master Fund I, a Cayman Islands shell company owned by Chinese private equity firm Hony Capital.

Hony, which manages $10 billion in assets, is perhaps best known for owning the pizza restaurant chain Pizza Express, which it acquired for $1.54 billion in 2014.

According to its web site, Hony’s own investors include three large Chinese state-owned investment vehicles.

The investment deal includes clauses preventing Hony from trying to get a director on M+M’s board and/or launching a hostile takeover bid.

It will own 7.17% of M+M after buying 50 million shares at £0.13 each, assuming M+M’s simultaneously announced £13 million ($17 million) share buyback is fully subscribed.

M+M opened a subsidiary in China (a Wholly-Owned Foreign Enterprise) during the half, in order to better serve the Chinese market and comply with Chinese government regulations.

It simultaneously laid off 44% of its staff in the US — engineers no longer needed due to the shift into an almost entirely marketing-focused business — and expects to end the year with only 13 employees there.

.hotel losers gang up to threaten ICANN with legal bills

Kevin Murphy, August 30, 2016, Domain Registries

The six losing applicants for the .hotel new gTLD are collectively threatening ICANN with a second Independent Review Process action.

Together, they this week filed a Request for Reconsideration with ICANN, challenging its decision earlier this month to allow the Afilias-owned Hotel Top Level Domain Sarl application to go ahead to contracting.

HTLD won a controversial Community Priority Evaluation in 2014, effectively eliminating all rival applicants, but that decision was challenged in an IRP that ICANN ultimately won.

The other applicants think HTLD basically cobbled together a bogus “community” in order to “game” the CPE process and avoid an expensive auction.

Since the IRP decision, the six other applicants — Travel Reservations, Famous Four Media, Radix, Minds + Machines, Donuts and Fegistry — have been arguing that the HTLD application should be thrown out due to the actions of Dirk Krischenowski, a former key executive.

Krischenowski was found by ICANN to have exploited a misconfiguration in its own applicants’ portal to download documents belonging to its competitors that should have been confidential.

But at its August 9 meeting, the ICANN board noted that the timing of the downloads showed that HTLD could not have benefited from the data exposure, and that in any event Krischenowski is no longer involved in the company, and allowed the bid to proceed.

That meant the six other applicants lost the chance to win .hotel at auction and/or make a bunch of cash by losing the auction. They’re not happy about that.

It doesn’t matter that the data breach could not have aided HTLD’s application or its CPE case, they argue, the information revealed could prove a competitive advantage once .hotel goes on sale:

What matters is that the information was accessed with the obvious intent to obtain an unfair advantage over direct competitors. The future registry operator of the .hotel gTLD will compete with other registry operators. In the unlikely event that HTLD were allowed to operate the .hotel gTLD, HTLD would have an unfair advantage over competing registry operators, because of its access to sensitive business information

They also think that HTLD being given .hotel despite having been found “cheating” goes against the spirit of application rules and ICANN’s bylaws.

The RfR (pdf) also draws heavily on the findings of the IRP panel in the unrelated Dot Registry (.llc, .inc, etc) case, which were accepted by the ICANN board also on August 9.

In that case, the panel suggested that the board should conduct more thorough, meaningful reviews of CPE decisions.

It also found that ICANN staff had been “intimately involved” in the preparation of the Dot Registry CPE decision (though not, it should be noted, in the actual scoring) as drafted by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The .hotel applicants argue that this decision is incompatible with their own IRP, which they lost in February, where the judges found a greater degree of separation between ICANN and the EIU.

Their own IRP panel was given “incomplete and misleading information” about how closely ICANN and the EIU work together, they argue, bringing the decision into doubt.

The RfR strongly hints that another IRP could be in the offing if ICANN fails to cancel HTLD application.

The applicants also want a hearing so they can argue their case in person, and a “substantive review” of the .hotel CPE.

The HTLD application for .hotel is currently “On Hold” while ICANN sorts through the mess.

M+M billings quadruple on China .vip surge

Minds + Machines this morning said that its billings increased to $8.05 million in the first half of 2016.

That’s a 300% increase on the comparable year-ago period, the company said in a preliminary statement to the markets.

It added that its domains under management grew from 217,200 at the end of June 2015 to 728,940 a year later.

While the statement did not elaborate on the reasons behind the growth, the recently launched .vip gTLD seems to be the main factor.

It went to general availability a little over two months ago and quickly topped 400,000 registrations.

Just a few weeks before the end of the reporting period, M+M said its billings and orders for .vip alone had already hit $5.5 million.

That’s due to interest from Chinese domain investors, who were courted by M+M during a conference in Beijing.

M+M will report its full interims on September 20.

China conference leads to 49% .vip spike

The Global Domain Industry Conference, held in China over the weekend, has led to a huge boost in .vip domain sales.

Registry Minds + Machines told the markets this morning that the recently launched gTLD hit 404,892 as of 1600 UTC yesterday, up 49% from Friday.

CEO Toby Hall confirmed to DI that China is very much behind the spike, and that the conference helped raise the profile of .vip.

Billings and orders have now hit $5.5 million, up from $3.2 million on May 22, M+M said. That number includes sunrise and premium sales.

At GDS, M+M sold eight .vip domains auction for a total of $232,000 before auction commissions, which very likely inspired the spike in base-fee registrations.

Photos of GDS published on social media yesterday show a packed auditorium, with hundreds of attendees.

While M+M makes much of the fact that it has not used a “freenium” strategy for .vip — which it says may lead to better renewal rates than competitors — retail prices are still pretty damn cheap.

At West.cn, its leading Chinese registrar, a .vip can be had today for about $3. It’s closer to $10 at GoDaddy.

Today’s batch of zone files have not yet been published by ICANN for verification, but yesterday there were 245,872 names in .vip.

M+M makes $3.2 million in five days from .vip

Minds + Machines has billed $3.2 million in .vip domain names sales after the first five days of operation, the company said this morning.

It’s already managed to pay off the cost of acquiring the domain at the September 2014 auction, which was $3.1 million.

Between 1600 UTC May 17, when .vip went to general availability, and the same time May 22, the gTLD racked up 203,720 domains, the company said.

The $3.2 million is a “billings” number, which will convert to accounting revenue over the lifetime of the domains.

For comparison, billings in the whole of 2015 was $7.9 million.

M+M now has over half a million domains under management, a 64% increase from the start of the year, the company said.

Registrations from China, where presumably owning a .vip name does not make you look like a douchebag, accounted for over 80% of the registrations. Almost half of its registrars are Chinese.

Major Chinese registrars are currently selling .vip names for CNY 25-26 (about $4) apiece.

The discrepancy between that low price and the $3.2 million (which implies an average wholesale price of about $16) is due to the effects of premiums, sunrise and multi-year registrations, CEO Toby Hall told DI.

M+M, like the vast majority of TLD registries, is not currently licensed in China, so these names will not legally be allowed to be developed into sites until the company has gone through the full governmental approval process.

Hall said in a press release:

The Chinese market for top-level domains is real and we are delighted to have accessed this key region through the .vip launch… It is a major milestone for the Company, the new management team and our business model centred on working with best-in-class partners across every aspect of our business so as to best monetize our assets while maintaining a tight control on central overheads. It demonstrates that, when properly executed, how quickly the initial investment costs for a domain can be recovered and the potential for a strong recurring revenue established. The .vip launch equally illustrates how as a b2b business we do not have to burn funds on marketing to reach end-consumers and achieve outstanding results.

He’s referring there primarily to M+M’s ongoing restructuring, which has seen the company ditch its registrar business in favor of a more heavily channel-focused approach.