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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.

Priced to sell: $46m of two-letter .xxx names

Kevin Murphy, January 7, 2016, Domain Registries

ICM Registry has added over 1,200 two-character .xxx names to its catalog of priced premiums.

With prices ranging from $100,000 to $37,500, the newly offered domains carry a total ticket price of over $46 million.

The only six-figure name on the list is vr.xxx. ICM said in a press release today it has already sold vr.porn and vr.sex for $100,000 apiece.

There are seven names with adult connotations (such as 69.xxx and bj.xxx) priced at $75,000, eight more at $50,000 and two at $40,000.

The rest of the list of 1,227 names are being offered at $37,500, which is roughly 10 times the prices on the equivalent .porn, .sex and .adult domains.

While ICM noted the interest in domain investing from China recently, it does not appear to have valued its numeric-only domains (such as 88.xxx) any more highly than less attractive-looking combinations (such as 0o.xxx).

Judging by the list published on ICM’s web site, it has already sold well over 300 two-character domains in its newest three gTLDs.

Had those sold at the buy-now prices it would have raised over $1.1 million in revenue.

But ICM since September has been offering an option to register premium names for premium annual fees that are lower than the one-off price. A $37,500 domain costs $3,000 a year to register, under this model.

The total value of ICM’s premium list, including all the longer domains, is roughly $115 million.

Third ICM windfall due as .sex hits sunrise

Kevin Murphy, September 2, 2015, Domain Registries

If we’ve learned one thing about new gTLD sunrise periods, it’s that adult-oriented TLDs sell quite well.

ICM Registry started its third such period yesterday, as .sex went into its “TMCH Sunrise” phase.

Until October 1, any company with a trademark in the Trademark Clearinghouse will be able to buy a matching .sex domain on a first-come, first-served basis.

From October 5 to October 30, anyone with a .xxx domain name or current .xxx “Sunrise B” block will be able to buy the matching .sex during the Domain Matching phase.

Anyone who buys a .xxx before October 1 will be able to participate in this second sunrise.

ICM reported in May that .porn received 3,995 sunrise registrations while .adult sold 3,902 — both via a combination of TMCH Sunrise sales and blocks.

At ICM’s prices, that’s enough to comfortably cover its ICANN application fees.

Every other new gTLD with the exception of .sucks has sold fewer than 1,000 sunrise names.

General availability for .sex starts November 4.

.xxx boss says new gTLD registries need to “wake up”

Kevin Murphy, February 23, 2015, Domain Registries

ICM Registry president Stuart Lawley may be just weeks away from launching his second and third gTLD registries, but that doesn’t mean he has a positive outlook on new gTLDs in general.

“I think people need to wake up,” he told DI in a recent interview. “If you do the math on some of these numbers and prospective numbers, it just doesn’t stack up for a profitable business.”

“The new ‘Well Done!’ number seems to be a lot less than it was six months ago or 12 months ago,” he said.

Lawley said he’s among the most “bearish” in the industry when it comes to new gTLD prospects. And that goes for ICM’s own .porn, .sex and .adult, which are due to launch between March and September this year.

While he’s sure they’ll be profitable, and very bullish on the search engine optimization benefits that he says registrants could be able to achieve, he’s cautious about what kind of registration volumes can be expected. He said:

If you add up everybody that has ever bought a .xxx name, including the Sunrise B defensives, we have got a target market of about 250,000 names. People to go back to and say, “Look, you still have a .xxx or you had a .xxx at some stage. Therefore, we think you may be interested in buying .porn, .sex or .adult for exactly the same reasons.”

So, our expectations to sell to a whole new market outside of those quarter of a million names is probably quite limited.

Lawley said that he believes that the relatively poor volume performance of most new gTLDs over the last year will cause many registrars to question whether it’s worth their time and money to offer them.

I can see why registrars can’t be bothered. How many of these am I going to sell? Am I going to sell two hundred of them? Am I going to make five dollars per name? That’s one thousand dollars. It’s not worth it to me to put in ten thousand dollars worth of labor and effort to make one thousand dollars in revenue. So, I think that’s a challenge that many of the small lone player TLDs may face.

Lawley said he’s skeptical about the ability of major portfolio players, such as Donuts, to effectively market their hundreds of gTLDs, many of which are targeted at niche vertical markets.

He said in an ideal world a gTLD would need to spend $20 million to $30 million a year for a few years in order to do a proper PR job on a single TLD — ICM spent about $8 million to $9 million, $5.5 million of which was on US TV spots — and that’s just not economically viable given how many names are being sold.

But he added that he thinks it’s a good thing that some new gTLDs are seeing a steady and fairly linear number of daily additions, saying it might point to better long-term stability.

A lot of the TLDs that seem to be doing okay — .club for argument’s sake and several others in that ilk — seem to be doing their three hundred domains per day ADD, or 32 or 12 or whatever the number is, in a relatively linear fashion six or seven months after launch, which I think is potentially positive if one extrapolates that out.

The full interview, which also addresses SEO, dot-brands, registrar pay-for-placement and smart search, can be read by DI PRO subscribers here.