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Start-up helps connect firms with prime Internet real estate

By Sharon McLoone
Special to Capital Business
Monday, April 26, 2010; 7

These days, it's not uncommon for a new start-up looking for an easy-to-remember Web site address to lament that all the good domain names are gone.

But during what he called a "random shower moment" back in April 2008, Frank Langston hit upon an idea to solve that problem. What if multiple people or businesses could operate the same Web site address in different geographic markets?

He bounced the thought of off former college roommate Camilo Acosta. Two years later, the idea became a Silver Spring company called Root Orange.

Root Orange has developed patent-pending technology that allows people in different areas to share Web addresses. The fledgling firm has made revenue-sharing deals with large private equity firms and other groups that hold coveted domain names such as attorney.com, comedyclub.com, and autocenter.com to lease to others.

"We're the property management company for Internet real estate," Acosta, 25, explains, calling Root Orange's service "domain splitting" technology.

Last May, the company founders, both Princeton graduates, won the Princeton University business plan competition and the accompanying $35,000 prize. About $25,000 of that award came in the form of legal and marketing services, with the remainder in cash.

Acosta and Langston, 26, then raised additional money from an angel investor they connected with through Princeton's alumni. After working out of the offices of Acosta's mother's government communications company, Root Orange in November moved into the Silver Spring Innovation Center, a business incubator run by the state of Maryland.

Langston said his firm has experienced big benefits through its relationship with the innovation center. The business incubator helped Root Orange access the Maryland Intellectual Property Legal Resource Center, which aids start-ups in applying for patents and trademarks.

The "orange" in Root Orange's name comes from the founders' collegiate roots. Princeton's colors are black and orange. The root refers to the founder's notion that they are involved in the routing or rooting of Internet traffic. The name was a working title, but friends and family liked it so much, it stuck.

The founders don't have a technical background. Acosta, a graduate of Sidwell Friends School in the District, received a degree in politics from Princeton, where wrote his thesis on microfinance in South Africa. Langston, who is originally from Memphis, received a degree in public policy and moved on to oversee Mr. Pride, a chain of four car washes owned by his family.

After deciding to pursue the plan, the duo spent five months searching for a tech whiz and ultimately hired Tony Primerano, a former systems architect at America Online. He is now the vice president of technology for the start-up.

"He built it all," said Acosta.

A friend of Primerano's told him about Root Orange. He liked that the founders were working in Silver Spring, as he was growing tired of commuting to AOL's Dulles offices from his home in Maryland.

"I went on the interview thinking it was going to be a dumb idea," Primerano recalls. "There are a lot of start-ups that do halfway cool things, but they often don't even have a business plan. But when I started talking to these two young kids from Princeton, I was amazed by the idea."

After the interview, he went home and started writing code to create the technology. Primerano, 40, had a prototype to show Acosta and Langston within a few days.

"I didn't even care if I got the job," he said. "I was just so fascinated by the problem . . . All these parked domains are wasted assets. It's like the black hole of the Internet right now. They aren't well used, and people can't afford them."

He said he likes working for a start-up. He was 39 when he joined the team and said maybe the move was part of a mid-life crisis, but that after working for IBM and AOL, he was eager to be a big piece of a little company rather than "a little piece of a big company."

Being an entrepreneur has its ups and downs.

"The most liberating aspect is our schedule. The most difficult is also our schedule," Acosta said. "It's liberating in the sense that we run our office hours however we like and don't answer to anyone. 'Late to work' doesn't exist, but falling behind does."

Langston echoes the benefits of being an entrepreneur. "The most liberating aspect for me knowing we're in control of our own destiny," he said. "I'm not worried about my boss making a bad decision that affects my success. We get all that worry for ourselves. At the same time, it's important to keep perspective on the things that are outside our control."

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