KEVIN HAM LEANS FORWARD , SITS UP TALL, CLOSES HIS EYES, AND BEGINS TO TYPE---—INTO THE AIR.
He’s seated along the rear wall of a packed ballroom in Las Vegas’s Venetian Hotel. Up front, an auctioneer is running through a list of Internet domain names, building excitement the same way he might if vintage cars were on the block . As names come up that interest Ham, he occasionally air-types. It’s the ultimate gut check . Is the name one that people might enter directly into their Web browser, bypassing the search engine box entirely, as Ham wants? Is it better in plural or singular form? If it’s a typo, is it a mistake a lot of people would make? Or does the name, like a stunning beachfront property, just feel like a winner?
When Ham wants a domain, he leans over and quietly instructs an associate to bid on his behalf. He likes wedding names, so his guy lifts the white paddle and snags Wedclingcatering.com for $10,000 . Greeting.com is not nearly as good as the plural Greetings.com, but Ham grabs it anyway, for $350,000. Ham is a devout Christian, and he spends $31,000 to add Christianrock.com to his collection, which already includes God.com and Satan.com. When it’s all over, Ham strolls to the table near the exit arid writes a check for $650,000. Its a cheap afternoon.
Just a few years ago, most of the guys bidding in this room had never laid eyes on one another. Indeed, they rarely left their home computers. Now they find themselves in a Vegas ballroom surrounded by deep-pocketed bankers, venture-backed startups, and other investors trying to get a piece of the action. And why not? In the past three years alone, the number of dotcom names has soared more than 130 percent to 66 million. Every two seconds, another joins the list,
But the big money is in the aftermarket, where the mosl valuable names—those that draw thousands of pageviews and throw off steady cash from Google’s and Yahoo’s pay-per-clic ads—are drivhig prices to dizzying heights. People who had the guts and foresight to sweep up names shed during the dot.com bust are now landlords of some of the most valuable real estate on the Web.
The man at the top of this little-known hierarchy is Kevin Ham—one of a handful of major-league “domainers’ in the world and arguably the shrewdest and most ambitious of the lot. Even in a field filled with unusual career paths, Ham’s stands out. Trained as a family doctor, he put off medicine after discovering the riches of the Web. Since 2000 he has quietly cobbled together a portfolio of some 300,000 domains that, combined with several other ventures, generate an estimated $70 million a year in revenue. (Like all his financial details, Ham would neither confirm nor deny this figure.)
Working mostly as a solo operator, Ham has looked for ever opening and exploited every angle--—even inventing a few of his own---—to expand his enterprise. Early on, he wrote software to snag expiring names on the cheap. He was one of the first take advantage of a loophole that allows people to register a name and return it without cost after a free trial, on occasion grabbing hundreds of thousands of names in one swoop. And what few people know is that he’s also the man behind the domain world’s latest scheme: profiting from traffic generated by the millions of people who mistakenly type “.cm” instead of “.com” at the end of a domain name.
Try it with almost any name you can think of---—Beer.cm, Newyorktimes.cm, even Anyname.cm--—and you’ll land on a page called Agoga.com, a site filled with ads served up by Yahoo . Ham makes money every time someone clicks on an ad—as does his partner in this venture, the West African country of Cameroon.
Why Cameroon? It has the unforeseen good fortune of owning .cm as its own country code--—just as Germany runs all names that end with .de. The difference is that hardly any .cm names are registered, and the letters are just one keyboard slip away from .com, the mother lode of all domains. Ham landed connections to the Cameroon government and flew in his people to reroute the traffic . And if he gets his way, Colombia (cu), Oman (.om), Niger Cue), and Ethiopia (.et) will be his as well . “It’s in the works,” Ham says over lunch in his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia . “That’s why I can’t talk about it.” He’s nearly as reluctant to share details about his newest company, called Reinvent Technology, into which he’s investing tens of millions of dollars to build a powerhouse of Internet businesses around his most valuable properties.
Given Ham’s reach on the Web—his sites receive 30 million unique visitors a month—it’s remarkable that so few people know about him . Even in the clubby world of domainers, he’s a mystery man. Until now Ham has never talked publicly about his business. You won’t find his name on any domain registration, nor will you see it on the patent application for the Cameroon trick.
There are practical reasons for the low profile: For one, Ham’s success has drawn enemies, many of them rivals. He once used a Vancouver post office box for domain-related mail—until the day he opened a package that contained a note reading “You are a piece of shit,” accompanied by an actual piece of it.
Bitter domainers are one thing, lawyers another. And at the moment, Ham’s biggest concern is that corporate counsels will come after him claiming that the Cameroon typo scheme is an abuse of their trademarks. He may be right, since this is the first time he’s been identified as the orchestrator . When asked about the cm play, John Berryhill, a top domain attorney who doesn’t work for Ham, practically screams into the phone, ‘You know who did that? Do you have any idea how
many people want to know who’s behind that?”
SPREADING THE WORD
Kevin Ham is a boyish-looking 37-year-old, trim from a passion for judo and a commitment to clean living. His drink of choice: grapefruit juice, no ice. His mild demeanor belies the aggressive, work-around-the-clock type that he is. Ham quite frequently steers conversations about business back to the Bible . Not in a preachy way; it’s just who he is.
The son of Korean-born immigrants, Ham grew up on the east side of Vancouver with his three brothers . His father ran dry-cleaning stores; his mother worked graveyard shifts as a nurse. A debilitating illness at the age of 14 led Ham to dream of becoming a doctor. He cruised through high school and then under-graduate work and medical school at the University of British Columbia.
Christianity had long been a mainstay with his family, but as an undergrad, he made the Bible a focal point of his life; he joined the Evangelical Layman’s Church and attended regular Bible meetings. Ham recalls that it was about this time —1992 or 1993—that he was introduced to the Web. A church friend told him about a powerful new medium that could be used to spread the gospel. ‘Those words really struck me,” Ham says. ‘It’s the reason I’m still working.”
After he graduated from med school in 1998, Ham and his new bride took off for London, Ontario, for a two-year residency. By the second year, Ham had become chief resident, and when he wasn’t rushing to the emergency room, he indulged his growing fascination with the Net, teaching himself to create websites and to code in Pen. Information about Web hosting at the time was so scattered that Ham began creating an online directory of providers, complete with reviews and ratings of their services. He called it Hostglobal.com.
From there it was a short step to the business of buying and selling domains. About six months after he launched Hostglobal, Ham was earning around $10,000 per month in ad sales. But when one of his advertisers—a service that sold domain registrations—told him that a single ad was generating business worth $1,500 a month, Ham figured he could get in on that too.
FROM DOCTOR TO DOMAINER
It made sense: People shopping for hosting services were often interested in buying a catchy URL, so Ham launched a second directory, called DNSindex.com . Like similar services operating at the time, it gave customers a way to register domain names. But Ham added the one feature that early domain hunters wanted most: weekly lists of available names, compiled using free sources he found on the Web. Some lists he gave away; others he charged as much as $50 for. In a couple of months, he had more than 5,000 customers. By the time he finished his residency in June 2000, his two small Web ventures were pulling in more money in a month--—sometimes $40,000--—than Ham made that year at the hospital. That was enough, he reasoned, to put off starting a medical practice for three more months, maybe six. “It just didn’t make sense not to do it,” he says.
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© Church of the Science of GOD, 1993