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CIRA becomes first new gTLD back-end since 2012

Kevin Murphy, September 22, 2016, Domain Registries

CIRA, the Canadian ccTLD manager, has become the first new registry back-end provider to enter the gTLD market since the 2012 application round closed.

The company today announced that it has signed Dot Kiwi, operator of .kiwi, as its first client.

.kiwi will become the first non-.ca TLD that CIRA runs the back-end for, according to VP of product development Dave Chiswell.

CIRA has already completed pre-delegation testing and technical evaluation with ICANN, he told DI today.

It is believed to be the first back-end provider not attached to any 2012-round application to go through the PDT process.

That would make CIRA essentially the first company to officially enter the gTLD back-end market since 2012, in other words.

The .kiwi contract was up for grabs due to the fact that Minds + Machines, its original supplier, decided to get out of the back-end business earlier this year.

All of M+M’s own stable of gTLDs are being moved to Nominet right now, but customers such as Dot Kiwi were not obliged to follow.

Chiswell said that CIRA’s system, which is called Fury, has some patent-pending “tagging” technology that cannot be found at rival providers.

He said that registry operator clients get a GUI through which they can manage pricing tiers and promotions based on criteria such as substrings and registration dates without having to fill out a ticket and get CIRA staff involved, which he said is a unique selling point.

CIRA’s goals now are to try to sign up more TLDs (cc’s or g’s) to Fury, and to attempt to get Canadian brands and cities to apply for gTLDs in the next round, whenever that may be.

The company also intends to migrate .ca over to Fury from its legacy infrastructure at some point, he said.

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.

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.

Minds + Machines dumps back-end and registrar in Nominet, Uniregistry deals

Minds + Machines is to get out of the registrar and back-end registry services markets in separate deals with Nominet and Uniregistry.

The cost-saving shake-up will lead to about 10 job losses, or about 25% to 30% of its current headcount, CEO Toby Hall told DI this morning.

Under the Nominet deal, M+M will outsource the back-end registry functions for 28 new gTLDs, currently managed in-house, to the .uk ccTLD manager.

The deal covers all the gTLDs for which M+M is the contracted party (such as .law, .cooking and .fashion), as well as the four it runs in partnership (eg .london) and the five where it currently acts as back-end for a third party registry (eg .broadway).

The company also plans to dump its “unprofitable” registrar entirely, migrating its existing customers to Uniregistry’s Uniregistrar business.

About 49,000 domains will be affected by this move, Hall said.

Uniregistry will pay M+M a commission over the lifetime of the accounts.

Focusing on the registry business was the plan from the moment Hall took over M+M, following a shareholder coup that kicked out founding CEO Antony Van Couvering in January.

Hall told DI:

It [previously] had a very ambitious plan. It wanted to be vertically integrated, but the considered view is there are people out there who are far better able to run parts of the exercise than ourselves, both on the RSP piece and likewise the registrar piece. The strategy from day one was to rapidly evolve into becoming a business-to-business marketing-led registry business and radically overhauling our cost structure at the same time.

The company is currently in a financial quiet period and will not yet disclose the amount of savings it expects to reap, Hall said. He added:

Reducing cost isn’t a strategy for growth, and as a business that will be where we will be judged. Growing our portfolio, growing our domains under management, growing our revenue within those domains. That’s what the business has to be focused on. We see within the industry that the highest value is in the [TLD] ownership part.

The job losses are expected to be largely on the technical side of the house.

The RSP outsourcing means that Nominet significantly boosts its stable of managed TLDs. While it’s in the top five back-ends in terms of DUM (due to the 11 million in .uk) its portfolio of clients there is relatively small, largely limited to a handful of dot-brands.

Nominet CEO Russell Haworth said in a statement:

This partnership takes us into the top tier of registry operators globally by volume of TLDs and compliments the brands we currently manage, such as .BBC, .Bentley and .Comcast. It also underlines our long-term strategy to provide a more diversified range of services to gTLDs and registrars.”

With the Uniregistry registrar deal, Hall said that competing with its own channel “was just not right for us”.

It might be worth noting that Uniregistry is actually a vertically integrated triple-play along the lines of M+M, also, managing its own back-end, registry and registrar businesses.

Hall said that the M+M registrar had sold mainly to domain investors with little interest in buying value-added services such as email and hosting, which is often where much of the profit lies.

Both deals are subject to ICANN approvals, and client approval in case of the back-end transition, will be phased in over many months, and are expected to be finalized by the end of the year.

UPDATE: M+M said later this morning that it is changing its official company domain to mmx.co from mindsandmachines.com.

Van Couvering ousted from M+M, replaced by PR guy with channel focus

Kevin Murphy, February 22, 2016, Domain Registries

Antony Van Couvering has been fired as CEO of Minds + Machines and replaced by someone who was until very recently the company’s agency PR guy.

Neither Van Couvering, the company, nor incoming CEO Toby Hall, have disclosed the reason for his ouster.

But I suspect the “differences and disagreements” that Van Couvering alluded to in his CircleID piece this morning may refer to M+M’s go-to-market strategy.

Hall told DI this morning that his focus as the company’s new leader is going to be on the registrar channel.

“It’s all about engaging with the outside world and recognizing we’re a business-to-business play,” Hall said. “It’s a fundamental shift in perspective.”

The strategy “has to be stacked in a way that makes our business partners make revenue”, he said.

“We’re not a consumer registrar,” he said.

M+M is a vertically integrated domain name company, acting as both registry and registrar.

Registrar sources tell us that Van Couvering wasn’t keen on working with third-party retailers, preferring to focus on its in-house registrar.

It seems that’s going to change under Hall.

M+M said in a press release (jarringly, emailed to reporters this morning as usual by Hall himself):

Mr Van Couvering was removed from office with immediate effect by means of a unanimous resolution of directors passed at a meeting of directors held on 19 February 2016.

The Group is currently making the transition from asset gatherer to monetisation of its leading portfolio of top-level domains; the Board believes a change of leadership will assist in this process.

Hall was appointed chief marketing officer last month.

Since the early 1990s, he’s been head of the London-based PR slash investor relations outfit GTH Communications, which focuses on small-cap businesses. M+M was a GTH client almost since it was founded, Hall said.

He said he’s going to be stepping back from GTH to focus on M+M.

Van Couvering founded Minds + Machines in 2008. It was soon acquired by the company that would be known as Top Level Domain Holdings, which later changed its name to Minds + Machines.

TLDH founder Fred Krueger got canned by the M+M board last year too.

Today, Van Couvering wrote:

It’s a story told a thousand times: founder of a company ousted by investors. It’s a story so common you can find it any day of the week as a minor headline in a tech blog. Not much of a story at all really, until it happened to me…

It sucked.

Windfalls still biggest money-spinner for M+M

Kevin Murphy, February 3, 2016, Domain Registries

Minds + Machines is still pulling in most of its cash from one-time new gTLD auction defeats, according to its latest trading update.

The company yesterday reported billings for 2015 of $7.92 million, up from $5.03 million in 2013.

But the company brought in $9.15 million by pulling out of private new gTLD auctions, where the winning bid is shared among the losers. That’s down from $37.5 million in 2014.

“Billings” is the money make at the point of sale, rather than audited revenue which is recognized over the life of the registration. Revenue numbers will come in April.

For the fourth quarter, sales of both premium and standard-fee names were up.

Premium names were up 215% at $1.52 million, which standard name billings were up 184% at $2.66 million.

The company said its registry business ended the year with 278,523 names under management, a 158% increase on year-ago numbers.

M+M met or beat its “key performance indicator” targets in terms of average revenue per name (both standard and premium) and sales growth.

However, the Chinese market boom caused it to miss its market share KPI.

It blamed missing the low end of its 3% to 5% new gTLD market share target by half a percentage point on the rapid growth of China.

The money being pumped into domain names from China in the second half of last year tends to favor the budget end of the new gTLD market, where names can be picked up for cents, whereas M+M’s TLD mix is skewed a little higher.

M+M said last week that it plans to open an office in China soon.

.boston was a “distraction”, says gTLD seller

Kevin Murphy, January 20, 2016, Domain Registries

The Boston Globe newspaper decided to offload the gTLD after its new owners decided it was a “distraction”.

That’s according to a report yesterday in the newspaper itself.

Last week, it was announced that Minds + Machines, which already runs a handful of geo-gTLDs, is acquiring the .boston contract for an undisclosed sum.

Today, the Globe reports that its owners thought .boston would be “a distraction from the Globe’s central business of providing information through its print and online outlets”.

“The .boston domain business was inherited by the current management team and is not perceived as core to the mission of supporting the highest quality journalism in the region,” it quotes the Globe’s VP of marketing as saying.

The newspaper was acquired by Boston Red Sox owner John Henry in 2013, a year after the .boston application was filed, according to the report.

The acquisition, which sees M+M buy 99% the Globe subsidiary in control of the gTLD registry agreement, is subject to ICANN approving the contract reassignment.

M+M acquires .boston from Boston Globe

Kevin Murphy, January 12, 2016, Domain Registries

Minds + Machines has added .boston to its stable of geo-gTLDs, buying the contract from the publisher of the Boston Globe newspaper.

The company said today that it has acquired 99% of Boston TLD Management, a new company into which the Globe plans to sign over its .boston ICANN contract.

The deal is contingent on ICANN approving the contract reassignment.

The ink is still moist on the .boston Registry Agreement, which was signed December 10.

The gTLD is officially in pre-delegation testing right now.

But the acquisition also means M+M will take over back-end duties for .boston. Originally, the Globe had intended to use OpenRegistry.

The gTLD was officially a “geographic” string under ICANN rules, and needed support from the local government in Boston.

.boston would become M+M’s fifth geographic gTLD — sixth if you include .london.

The company said it plans to launch the TLD later this year.

M+M lays off dozens in focus on S&M, promises profit next year

Kevin Murphy, September 22, 2015, Domain Registries

Minds + Machines has outlined its plan to refocus its business on sales and marketing, which has already resulted in a couple dozen job losses, as the latest stage of its profit runway.

The new gTLD company also outlined plans to return about half of its cash reserves — mostly obtained by losing new gTLD auctions — to its shareholders.

For the first half of the year, the London-listed company reported an EBITDA loss of $1.2 million, compared to income of $5.7 million a year earlier, on revenue that was up to $3.6 million from $113,000 in the comparable 2014 period.

The company said it is “committed to achieving its stated goal of crossing over into profitability in 2016” and blamed high operating costs for the loss, but said it has been restructuring to help it return to profit.

M+M said its headcount has been reduced from 58 to 44, but that it has added ten jobs in sales and marketing, which seems to indicate at least 24 people recently lost their jobs.

The bottom line was also affected by the fact that most of the company’s cashflow to date has been generated by auction losses, and there were more of those last year than this.

The company hit three of its six “key performance indicator” targets — domains under management market share, premium sales growth and standard sales growth — but fell short of the other three.

Average revenue per name for premiums was $184 versus a $200-$225 target, and average revenue per standard name was down from $28 to $10, largely due to a deep discount promotion for .work domains. Higher prices for soon-to-launch .law could increase the average, M+M said.

The company also announced that it will spent £15 million ($23.1 million) of its cash reserves on a share buyback.

That’s almost half of the $48.3 million is has in the bank. This time last year, M+M’s share price peaked at 12p; it’s currently at 8.55p.

The price saw a spike in May, shortly before then-chairman Fred Krueger was asked to resign by the board. Krueger has since sold off the majority of his substantial shareholding, despite explicitly saying that he would not.

M+M gets $3.5m from two gTLD auctions

Kevin Murphy, August 27, 2015, Domain Sales

Minds + Machines secured loser fees totaling $3.5 million from its participation in .art and .data new gTLD auctions, the company disclosed today.

It seems .data was auctioned recently. It was a three-applicant string and none of the applicants have yet withdrawn their applications.

It seems either Donuts or brand applicant Dish DBS won the string.

The .art auction happened well over a month ago, with the final losing applicant withdrawing on July 23.

UK Creative Ideas won .art. Whatever it paid for the string would have been shared between nine competing applicants.

M+M also said that “strong interest” (presumably no sales yet) has been expressed in its $15,000+ “super premium” registry-reserved names, and that it has sold 20 premium names in its .london auction last month.