Kevin Ham is the most powerful dotcom mogul you've never heard of,
reports Business 2.0 Magazine. Here's how the master of Web domains
built a $300 million empire.
By Paul Sloan, Business 2.0 Magazine editor-at-large
May 22 2007: 2:17 PM EDT
(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- 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 Weddingcatering.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 and writes a check for $650,000. It's 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 most valuable
names -- those that draw thousands of pageviews and throw off steady
cash from Google's and Yahoo's pay-per-click ads -- are driving
prices to dizzying heights. People who had the guts and foresight to
sweep up names shed during the dotcom 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
Working mostly as a solo operator, Ham has looked for every 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 to 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 (Charts, Fortune
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
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 (.co), Oman (.om), Niger (.ne), and Ethiopia (.et) will be
his as well.