Jon Schultz is a cigarette-thin man who will, upon requests for a photograph, don a ruby robe and strike a regal pose. Schultz is a businessman and he wants to look good. There’s money to be made everywhere — even off tragedy and disaster. For the right kind of entrepreneur, Schultz said Monday night, calamity affords a very unique business opportunity. And Schultz, merchant of disease domains, is that kind of entrepreneur.
Name a disease, and there’s a chance Schultz owns it. He has birdflu.com. He has H1N1.com. He has one for the deadly mosquito-borne disease, Chikungunya, and another for Marburg. And finally, there’s the jewel of his trove. Ebola.com, which Schultz bought in 2008 for $13,500.
The time for the payout has arrived. Schultz wants $150,000 for Ebola.com — a price he thinks is more than reasonable. “According to our site meter, we’re already doing 5,000 page views per day just by people typing in Ebola.com to see what’s there,” said Schultz, who monitors headlines the way brokers watch their portfolios, to gauge his domain’s worth. “We’re getting inquiries every day about the sale of it. I have a lot of experience in this sort of domain business, and my sense is that $150,000 is reasonable.”
War and disaster have always presented business opportunity, from clandestine arms dealers hawking guns to construction barons looking to turn millions off Gaza’s reconstruction. And domain speculators like Schultz, who stewards terror.com, PotassiumIodide.com and fukushima.com, are the latest manifestation of that effect.
Schultz, of Las Vegas-based Blue String Ventures, looks at domains through the lens of a gambler. It’s not what a domain is worth today, he advised in an interview with the Washington Post. It’s what it is worth tomorrow. “Our domain, birdflu.com, is worth way more than Ebola.com. We’re definitely holding onto that one for the event,” he said, referring to an outbreak he contends could be way bigger than Ebola, turning the owner of birdflu.com into a very rich man. “That one’s airborne and Ebola would never go airborne in the United States like bird flu can.”
The candor with which Schultz speaks of a crippling tragedy, or the possibility of a fresh one, is startling. Doesn’t he know that Ebola has killed more than 4,000 people in West Africa, has breached the United States, and that international health officials now warn of state collapse and widespread chaos? Doesn’t that tug at his heart strings?
“But you could say the same thing about doctors,” Schultz parried. “They can become very well-off treating very sick patients. Besides we have sacrificed a couple of thousands in parking page income to put up links about Ebola on the site. And people can also donate to Doctors Without Borders at the site.”
Others, however, haven’t been nearly so forgiving of Schultz. “In today’s information economy, there are few more useless money-grubbers than domain squatters, and that is exactly who owns Ebola.com,” commented Elias Groll in Foreign Policy. “…On Monday, the director of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan, called the outbreak ‘unquestionably the most severe, acute public health emergency in modern times.’ Naturally, there is money to be made.”
And made now. Schultz told the Washington Post he wants to sell the domain soon because he’s worried something may “ameliorate” the outbreak, diminishing Ebola’s news value — and presumably the worth of his domain. “Ebola is either something that could become more of a problem, or it’s something that could ameliorate and not be a big news story for that much longer.”
He got into the business years ago, but only started to focus on disease domains in 2005 when he saw a strange offering on a domain auction for something called bird flu. He had never heard of it, so started doing research, quickly discerning the potential impact of a widespread outbreak. He said he bought birdflu.com for $20,000 and then “got into the kick of buying disease domain names.” It wasn’t long before he came across Ebola.
His business partner, Chris Hood, praised Schultz’s eye for a good disease domain. “He sits in front of the computer all day educating himself on health and science news … to see if things will have potential down the road,” Hood said. He added that he hopes the site can one day help save lives, “and this is the business model that we have.”
Schultz has been waiting years for a time like this to turn a profit on Ebola.com. And in the unfortunate event that there is a bird flu or Marburg outbreak, there Schultz will be again, hawking domains of profound tragedy, looking to make money.
Will it stop at disease domains? What about ISIS.com?
“You know,” Schultz said, pondering it for a long moment. “I actually haven’t thought of that one yet.”