From Robots to Registries: A Fireside Chat With Paul Stahura at NamesCon 2016

(l-r) Paul Stahura chats with Ron Jackson at Namescon 2016 Paul Stahura, Co-Founder and CEO of Donuts Inc, got into the names game in 1997, starting eNom in his garage. From that humble beginning, Stahura grew eNom to an $80 million company. He's been an influential ICANN and industry mainstay ever since, and is a go-to expert at the federal government level, and co-founded Donuts in 2010. Stahura sat down with Ron Jackson, Editor of DNJournal.com (and experienced Stahura documentarian) for a fireside chat in the NamesCon 2016 Keynote Hall.

Jackson got into domaining as a hobby, and encountered eNom as a customer. "eNom really was a go-to registrar for domain pros," he recalled. "First time I saw him was at a conference in '05 or '06 - Paul's story is one we could spend a couple of hours on."

Turns out Stahura's first career was as a roboticist. "It was Tobor the Great," said Stahura with a smile, recalling the old-school sci-fi flick that inspired him: "I tried to build a robot in my basement."

Stahura learned to code in high school, and eventually was able to get his robots to move, and later get a grad degree in robotics. A robot mishap taught him a valuable lesson: "It taught me a lesson: take a risk. Sometimes you break a robot, and my boss didn't fire me." People make mistakes, he said; a good rule of thumb for people in management. Is Stahura himself that good a boss, asked Jackson. "I try to be," replied Stahura.

The Big Idea

In the mid-Nineties, Stahura started a client-server consulting firm with some friends. This, of course, was in the Floppy Disk Era. On his honeymoon, the lightbulb went on as he read an article in Wired Magazine: "I told my partners that the Internet would be bigger than electricity." He didn't want to miss out on what would become such a massive opportunity. His partners weren't quite on the same page, though they realized that "they wouldn't have to mail floppy disks around."

"The consulting business wasn't really my bag," admitted Stahura, who wanted to start a company that would earn money even when its partners weren't working. Considering the DNS, he envisioned a web interface for name-servers. "I convinced my consulting partners to essentially start a new company called eNom, which was an email interface for a name-server."

The secret to eNom's success, said Stahura, were the team's lack of marketing knowledge combined with it's surfeit of tech knowledge: "We came from a technology background, and we had a really good architecture for our system." They opened their API to third parties and dubbed them "resellers"; eNom went on to become the second-largest registrar in the world. It would later be acquired to become part of Demand Media.

In 2009, Stahura left Demand Media, resurfacing to form Donuts having missed out on several nTLD attempts. "I kicked it off by investing $10 million, and then we got a number of other investors on board, and in our first round we raised over $100 million." That money would be needed, since acquiring all those nTLDs was a monstrously expensive proposition. The strategy, said Stahura: "Let's get any TLD that we thought was worth it." The stiff competition from Amazon and Google, added Stahura, only validated the play.

CityTLDs present a particularly big opportunity, said Stahura. Jackson added that the phenomenon is global. Examples of nTLDs in the wild include hungergames.movie, nowyouseeme.movie, dirtygrandpa.movie ("I haven't seen that one," replied Jackson). Now .wine and .vin are coming up. These are not yet publicly available, though Donuts has a founders' program for it. "It got a lot of awareness in France," said Stahura, "since we had a lot of controversy with the French government."

Stahura said that the growth of that awareness is inevitable. A case in point was hungergames.movie, in which the studio reached out to Donuts and ended up registering the very first .movie domain.

Donuts has registered 2 million names, with an average price $25. The renewal rate is about 70%. This adds up to about $85 million from which Donuts can take its cut. As for the benchmark of $100 million in revenue, Stahura said, "We think we'll hit that in March of this year."

"We tried for 307 [nTLDs], but we knew we wouldn't get all of them," said Stahura. Donuts doesn't buy any ol' TLD, but does aim to amass a large portfolio. "Estimates are all over the board," said Jackson in terms of awareness of nTLDs in the next few years. "It's already started," said Stahura, "and it's inevitable that it will finish." That growth in awareness builds its own inertia. For example, the more restaurants use .restaurant, the more other restaurants will start using it as well.

Stahura noted that using a not-com does not put you at an SEO disadvantage, according to Google's policies: "They treat them the same; they aren't the same."

Donuts continues to grow, and now has three offices around the world. "We have a no-jerks policy," said Stahura with a laugh, proud of the work culture his team has created.

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