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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.

My brain explodes trying to understand MMX’s new blockchain deal for .luxe

Kevin Murphy, August 3, 2018, Domain Registries

Minds + Machines has abandoned plans to launch .luxe as a gTLD for luxury goods and instead made a deal to sell it as an address for cryptocurrency wallets.

If you thought it was a silly move marketing .ws as meaning “web site” or .pw as “professional web”, you’re probably not going to like the backronym MMX has in mind for .luxe:

“Lets U Xchange Easily”.

Really.

Tenuous though that marketing angle may be, the concept behind the newly repurposed TLD is actually quite interesting and probably rises to the level of “innovation”.

MMX has inked a deal with Ethereum Name Service, an offshoot of Ethereum, an open-source blockchain project.

Ethereum is largely used as a cryptocurrency, like BitCoin, enabling people to transfer monetary value to each other using “wallet” applications, though it has other uses.

I’m just going to come right out and say it: I don’t understand how any of this blockchain stuff works.

I’ve just spent an hour on the phone with MMX CEO Toby Hall and I’m still not 100% clear how it integrates with domains and whether the .luxe value proposition is really, really cool or really, really stupid.

I’ll just tell you what I do understand.

Currently, when two Ethereum users want to transfer currency between each other, the sender needs to know the recipient’s wallet address. This is a 40-character nonsense hash that makes an IPv6 address look memorable.

It obviously would be a lot better if each user had a human-readable, memorable address, a bit like a domain name.

Ethereum developers thought so, so they created the Ethereum Name Service. ENS allowed people to use “.eth” domains, like john.eth, as a shorthand address for their wallets. I don’t know how it works, but I know .eth isn’t an official TLD in the authoritative root.

About 300,000 people acquired .eth domains via some kind of cryptographic auction process that I also don’t understand. Let’s just call it magic.

Under the deal with MMX, some 26 million Ethereum wallet owners will be able use .luxe domains, dumping their .eth names if they have them.

The names will be sold through registrars as usual, at a price Hall said will be a little bit more than .com.

Registrants will then be able to associate their domains with their 40-character wallet addresses, so they can say “Send $50 to john.luxe” and other crypto-nerds will instantly know what to do. Ethereum wallets will apparently support this at launch.

Registrars will need to do a bit of implementation work, however. Hall said there’ll be an API that allows them to associate their customers’ domains with their wallets, and to disassociate the two should the domain be transferred to somebody else.

This is not available yet, but it will be before general availability this November, he said.

What this API does is beyond my comprehension.

What I do understand is that at no point is DNS used. I thought perhaps the 40-char hash was being stored in the TXT field of a DNS record, but no, that’s not it. It’s being stored cryptographically in the blockchain. Or something. Let’s just say it’s magic, again.

The value of having a memorable address for a wallet is very clear to me, but what’s not at all clear to me is why, if DNS is not being queried at any part of the Ethereum transaction, this memorable address has to be a domain name.

You don’t need a domain name to find somebody on Twitter, or Instagram, or Grindr. You just need a user name. Why that model couldn’t apply here is beyond me.

Hall offered that people are familiar with domain names, adding that merchants could use the same .luxe domain for their web site as they use for their Ethereum wallets, which makes sense from a branding perspective.

The drawback, of course, is that you’d have to have your web site on a .luxe domain.

The launch plan for .luxe sees sunrise begin August 9, running for 60 days. Then there’ll be two weeks for .eth name holders to claim their matching .luxe names. Then an early access period. GA starts November 6.

While it should be obvious by now I don’t fully “get” what’s going on here, it strikes me as a hell of a lot more interesting way to use .luxe than its originally intended purpose as a venue for luxury goods and services.

Let’s face it, depending on pricing it would have turned out either as a haven for spammers, a barely-breaking-even also-ran, or a profitable business propped up by a couple thousand trademark owners paying five grand a year on unused defensive regs.

MMX gets four more gTLDs approved for China use

MMX’s Chinese subsidiary has received the government nod for four more of its new gTLDs to operate in the country.

The approved strings are the lifestyle-oriented .fashion, .luxe, .yoga and .fit.

Getting the nod from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology means Chinese registrants will be able to use domains in the the four gTLDs, albeit subject to China’s much more stringent censorship regime.

MIIT this week also approved .时尚, which is the Chinese version of .fashion, managed by Rise Victory, a subsidiary of Yuwei Registry.

.fashion, .fit and .yoga have about 40,000 domains in their zone files, combined, while .luxe does not yet have a launch date.

MMX has had some success in China with its flagship .vip TLD, which had over 884,000 domains under management at the last public count. It recently said preliminary second-quarter renewals there were a very respectable 75%.

It also recently that that .购物 (.shopping) and .law both went on sale in China, and “will be marketed by in-country specialists as high-value domain names”. Investors were advised not to expect high volumes.

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.