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 figure.)
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.
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.
"It's in the works," Ham says over lunch in his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia. "That's why I can't talk about it." He's nearly as reluctant to share details about his newest company, called Reinvent Technology, into which he's investing tens of millions of dollars to build a powerhouse of Internet businesses around his most valuable properties.
Given Ham's reach on the Web -- his sites receive 30 million unique visitors a month -- it's remarkable that so few people know about him. Even in the clubby world of domainers, he's a mystery man. Until now Ham has never talked publicly about his business. You won't find his name on any domain registration, nor will you see it on the patent application for the Cameroon trick.
There are practical reasons for the low profile: For one, Ham's success has drawn enemies, many of them rivals. He once used a Vancouver post office box for domain-related mail -- until the day he opened a package that contained a note reading "You are a piece of s**t," accompanied by an actual piece of it.
Bitter domainers are one thing, lawyers another. And at the moment, Ham's biggest concern is that corporate counsels will come after him claiming that the Cameroon typo scheme is an abuse of their trademarks. He may be right, since this is the first time he's been identified as the orchestrator.
When asked about the .cm play, John Berryhill, a top domain attorney who doesn't work for Ham, practically screams into the phone, "You know who did that? Do you have any idea how many people want to know who's behind that?"
Kevin Ham is a boyish-looking 37-year-old, trim from a passion for judo and a commitment to clean living. His drink of choice: grapefruit juice, no ice. His mild demeanor belies the aggressive, work-around-the-clock type that he is. Ham frequently steers conversations about business back to the Bible. Not in a preachy way; it's just who he is.
The son of Korean-born immigrants, Ham grew up on the east side of Vancouver with his three brothers. His father ran dry-cleaning stores; his mother worked graveyard shifts as a nurse. A debilitating illness at the age of 14 led Ham to dream of becoming a doctor. He cruised through high school and then undergraduate work and medical school at the University of British Columbia.
Christianity had long been a mainstay with his family, but as an undergrad, he made the Bible a focal point of his life; he joined the Evangelical Layman's Church and attended regular Bible meetings. Ham recalls that it was about this time -- 1992 or 1993 -- that he was introduced to the Web. A church friend told him about a powerful new medium that could be used to spread the gospel.
"Those words really struck me," Ham says. "It's the reason I'm still working."
After he graduated from med school in 1998, Ham and his new bride took off for London, Ontario, for a two-year residency. By the second year, Ham had become chief resident, and when he wasn't rushing to the emergency room, he indulged his growing fascination with the Net, teaching himself to create websites and to code in Perl.
Information about Web hosting at the time was so scattered that Ham began creating an online directory of providers, complete with reviews and ratings of their services. He called it Hostglobal.com.
From there it was a short step to the business of buying and selling domains. About six months after he launched Hostglobal, Ham was earning around $10,000 per month in ad sales. But when one of his advertisers -- a service that sold domain registrations -- told him that a single ad was generating business worth $1,500 a month, Ham figured he could get in on that too.
It made sense: People shopping for hosting services were often interested in buying a catchy URL, so Ham launched a second directory, called DNSindex.com. Like similar services operating at the time, it gave customers a way to register domain names.
But Ham added the one feature that early domain hunters wanted most: weekly lists of available names, compiled using free sources he found on the Web. Some lists he gave away; others he charged as much as $50 for. In a couple of months, he had more than 5,000 customers.
By the time he finished his residency in June 2000, his two small Web ventures were pulling in more money in a month -- sometimes $40,000 -- than Ham made that year at the hospital. That was enough, he reasoned, to put off starting a medical practice for three more months, maybe six. "It just didn't make sense not to do it," he says.
With a new baby in tow, Ham and his wife moved back to Vancouver, settling into a one-bedroom apartment. Ham's timing, it turned out, was spot-on. Tech stocks were tumbling, dotcoms were folding left and right, and investors were fleeing the Web. More important to him, hundreds of thousands of valuable domain names that were suddenly considered worthless began to expire, or "drop." Ham and a handful of other trailblazers were ready to snap them up.
Figuring out when names would drop was tedious work.
At the time, Network Solutions controlled the best names; it was for a long time the only retail company, or registrar, selling .coms. It didn't say when expiring names would go back on the market, but twice a day it published the master list of all registered names -- the so-called "root zone" file (now managed by VeriSign (Charts)). It was a fat list of well over 5 million names that took hours to download and often crashed the under-powered PCs of the day.
So Ham wrote software scripts that compared one day's list with the next. Then he tracked names that vanished from the root file. Those names would be listed briefly as on hold, and Ham figured out that they would almost always drop five or six days later -- at about 3:30 a.m. on the West Coast. In the dark of night, Ham launched his attacks, firing up five PCs and multiple browsers in each. Typing furiously, he would enter his buy requests and bounce from one keyboard to the next until he snagged the names he wanted.More at http://money.cnn.com/magazines/business2/business2_archive/2007/06/01/100050989/index.htm