The light bulb went on in 1998.
That’s when entrepreneur Mike Mann sold the domain name menus.com for $25,000.
He had paid $70 for it.
“I could not imagine anything having a higher profit margin than that,” Mann recalls.
District native Mann, 47, has been in the domain-name resale business ever since, making millions.
People call him the Mann. The Domain King. The Human Robot. Others call him the Used Car Salesman of the Internet. Speculator.
“I am a speculator,” he admits.
Like a high-end scalper who buys and sells sports tickets on the secondary market, Mann buys and sells domain names on what he calls “the premium market.”
“I changed this from a behind-the-scenes industry to a legitimate one,” he said.
He is founder of DomainMarket.com, which owns 350,000 domain names. For $2 million, you can buy happybirthday.com. Same for obey.com or angola.com. Mali.com runs $1.5 million. Tasty.com is $1 million. Skincraft.com, $1.3 million. He bought sex.com for $11 million and resold it for $13 million in November 2010, making the Guinness Book of World Records for most ever paid for a domain name at the time.
He is a born self-promoter.
“My nature is to hustle and survive,” said Mann. “I can absorb an enormous amount of information and am capable of going without sleep for days at a time.”
His background includes — in no particular order — building, running and managing messenger companies, importing trinkets from Guatemala, running away from home, funding charities, managing a D.C. pretzel (yes, pretzel) start-up, getting married twice, getting divorced twice, owning one of the most prestigious addresses in Potomac, making millions, owning real estate, losing millions.
He claims he is cash-poor, but he splits his time between an $8 million oceanfront home in Delaware (it’s in a trust for his daughter) and a luxury rental on Florida’s Gold Coast. He said he is a capitalist who wants to make money so he can fund charities through Grassroots.org, one of his many endeavors.
When he called me out of the blue, asking me to write about him, I asked why.
“I have a bit of an ego, so I don’t mind the attention,” said Mann, who gets lots of Internet-industry press. “And it helps my businesses and charities.”
He owns several businesses.
The biggest is probably DomainMarket.com. The business grosses around $4 million a year in domain name sales, but it spends $3 million alone in buying new names. After legal fees, payroll, network expenses, technology upkeep and purchases, Mann gets a $5,000-a-month draw, which he pretty much lives on.
He owns a company in Salt Lake City called SEO.com that helps get corporate Web sites to the top of Google search lists. He owns Phone.com, which sells Internet phone service, toll-free numbers, various applications and even vanity phone numbers. Its investors include New Jersey’s state economic development office. He also owns WebDevelop.com, which helps clients build an online presence.
He said any net worth he has is tied up in his companies. Right now, “I am $2 million in debt, which is ridiculous for somebody who has earned as much as me. I have a lot of small failures.”
Some big successes, too.
He sold his first domain company, called BuyDomains.com, in 2005 to a venture-capital firm for $80 million, pocketing around $25 million as his share. He was in his mid-30s and rich. He gave away $6 million to charities, invested in real estate and businesses and lost a bunch in divorce settlements.
“I screwed up,” he said.
Mann was born in Washington and grew up mostly in Bethesda, where he lived near Winston Churchill High School.
He wasn’t a good student. “I was a juvenile delinquent.”
He ran away from home and made his way to California, trolling the streets, living among the underclass and earning extra money gathering trinkets, jewelry and stones on trips to Arkansas and Guatemala. He resold them to stores in California and in the Washington area that catered to the hippie culture.
With his earnings and with help from his family, he attended Santa Barbara City College, which has a reputation for placing its graduates into the labor market. Mann earned an A in business management, for the first time showing an interest in academics, he said.
He also developed a passion for charities while he was a runaway, enhanced by an older sister who had died from a chronic lung disease.
“I am predisposed to charity,” he said.
His first start in a Washington business came when he was 19. Mann and a friend in Washington launched Marathon Delivery Service, a 15-employee messenger company that ran around the streets of the District, delivering packages by bicycle, motorcycle and car. They sold Marathon after three years, and Mann eventually ended up with Quick Messenger.
Even then, he showed assertiveness, negotiating a deal based on how many customers he could bring in. He became a star salesman, earning more than $100,000 a year while still in his early 20s. After he left, the company continued to pay him commissions for three years, which Mann used as a sabbatical to figure out his next move.
“I spent a huge amount of hours at the library, reading business magazines and books . . . studying, studying, studying. I was studying which businesses to go into.”
His heart was set on launching a chain of vegetarian restaurants, but his research told him it was too risky.
Instead, he went with technology. That eventually led to Internet Interstate, an Internet service provider that morphed into a maker of Web pages. After selling the company in 1998, he had a couple of million dollars and a bunch of domain names — menus.com, government.net, resume.net — as part of the Web-building business.
“I didn’t know how valuable they were,” he said.
Then a guy called up and offered him $25,000 for menus.com.
Mann hired a technologist and told him to create a software tool that made it easy to find highly recognizable domain names. They called the software tool NameFind, and it works like this:
People type keywords into NameFind, which “spins” the keyword, suggesting similar domain names. For example, type in “Tom” and NameFind may throw out etom.com, tomonline.com, tomcentral.com, buytom.com, trytom.com and so on.
NameFind will tell the user whether the name is available for registration or whether someone already owns it and how to buy it.
Mann incorporated NameFind into a company he called BuyDomains.com, which he sold in 2005 for $80 million to some venture capital firms.
He made several investments and wrote “Make Millions and Make Change,” a book that contains his business and philanthropic philosophies. He also started a bunch of businesses, some of which have worked and some of which failed.
I asked him if he had any advice for other entrepreneurs.
“Don’t sleep,” he said. “Follow your passion. You can sleep when you are dead.”