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Illustrations: Ariel Davis

The Dot-Com Don: Meet the Domain Prospector Turning Stray URLs Into Real Businesses

Most entrepreneurs acquire domains to fit their businesses. Peter Askew does the opposite.

IInside the Switchyards, a buzzy Atlanta co-working space, local tech founders like to plaster the elevator with stickers for their companies.

There’s one for Soylent, the Space-Age nutri-gunk whose founder went to Georgia Tech; there’s one for MailChimp, the email behemoth that does almost half a billion dollars in annual business.

Then there’s VidaliaOnions.com. For between $35 and $95 a pop, the site will mail you box of Vidalia onions, a prized varietal known for its sweetness and grown exclusively in 20 counties in south Georgia. Shipping and handling are included, and every order is processed by the site’s founder, a twangy, rhapsodic guy named Peter Askew.

Askew loves Vidalia onions. Onions pay his bills. And they’ve propelled him to minor celebrity in his field — which is not onion farming, but domain investment.

In addition to VidaliaOnions.com, Askew runs sites devoted to farmworkers, dude ranches, and, perplexingly, the tiny North Carolina mountain town of Brevard. As we stood in the Switchyards elevator, the 6-foot-8-inch tall Askew debated where to place the logo sticker for his newest project, BirthdayParties.com, a sherbert-colored search engine for party venues. Though most entrepreneurs acquire domains that fit their businesses, Askew takes the opposite approach: buy a good domain, then build a business on top of it. “I rarely ever come up with an idea,” he says. “The domain is the inspiration.” According to Askew, only one of his domain-inspired businesses has failed so far and he says he still sold the domain, CallTracking.com, for a $100,000 profit.

Askew is far from the first or only domainer “developing” dot-coms rather than flipping them — an underrated tactic, he says, in the art of domain investment, which is almost as old as the commercial web itself. The strategy is founded on the belief that building property on a site — even the semblance of a functional enterprise — can make the domain that much more attractive, in much the same way that developing land can make a property more valuable. For Askew, these sites have evolved into real, stand-alone businesses, complete with Shopify accounts, paid contractors, and a customer service line, all manned by Askew himself.

“I rarely ever come up with an idea,” he says. “The domain is the inspiration.”

Within the rarefied world of domain investing, Askew’s enthusiasm and record of success are unusual, says Andrew Allemann, an industry analyst who has twice featured Askew on his Domain Name Wire podcast. And Askew is as bullish as ever on domains, even as the wider market grows more competitive and complex. In January, he doubled down on onions, purchasing Onions.com for $14,800 to compliment Vidalia Onions.

Photo illustration by Ariel Davis, original photo courtesy of Peter Askew

At a time when internet optimism feels cringingly callow — and when the web’s possibilities seem increasingly small — Askew is the rare, unjaded online prospector who still believes he’s sifting for gold. Enough gold, in fact, to make an onion salesman of a balding nerd in horn-rimmed glasses and a gingham shirt.

“He’s the most unusual person and the most unlikely person to do what he’s doing,” says Bob Stafford, the 79-year-old president of the trade board that oversees Vidalia onions and an early VidaliaOnions.com advisor. “Really, I’ll be honest with you — because he don’t look like he’s ever walked through a farm. But he knows figures and he knows how to work the computer… And he made something of that, let me tell you.”

OnOn a scorching morning in late May, I traveled to Atlanta to watch Askew work. His downtown co-working space lies two and a half hours and many worlds away from the small town of Vidalia, Georgia, a place so obsessed with the Vidalia onion that it built a museum in its honor. You can find onion plush toys at local hotels in Vidalia; a walking onion named “Yumion” serves as the town’s mascot. Vidalia onions are ultimately such a niche product, and Vidalia such a remote place, that I couldn’t fathom how Askew — a 47-year old from Atlanta with a background in internet marketing — found himself enmeshed in it.

Askew sometimes can’t seem to fathom it either. “I so enjoy being associated with this onion,” he says, in his excitable patter.

He cold-called the Vidalia Onion Committee and, within a year of acquiring the domain, had shipped his first order to a New York City address

Askew bought VidaliaOnions.com for $2,200 in 2014. At the time, he says, he liked the domain for its Georgia connection. But months later, while ordering pears from the premium food and gift distributor Harry & David, he realized he could start a similar business for onions. He cold-called the Vidalia Onion Committee and, within a year of acquiring the domain, had shipped his first order to a New York City address.

Askew and the Vidalia onion farmer he partners with, Aries Haygood, have a simple arrangement: During onion season, which runs from April to August, Askew takes phone and online orders for five, 10-, 25-, and 40-pound boxes of onions, the middle two being their most popular. He then draws up the UPS shipping labels and forwards them to Haygood, who mails the onions direct from his farm.

Vidalia onions are popular with discerning home cooks, as well as some professional chefs and corporate gift-buyers. While neither man wants to say how much money the operation makes, Askew says they shipped more than 40,000 pounds of onions last season — and they charge between $2.73 and $7 per pound, depending on the quantity they’re bought in. A back-of-the-envelope calculation puts revenue somewhere north of $100,000. Askew wouldn’t confirm that number, citing a culture of “privacy” and discretion among Vidalia farmers.

“I don’t think it would have been even close to a success without Peter,” Haygood said. “He’s a very over-the-top type of person.”

Askew didn’t grow up loving onions. Or domain names, for that matter. But as a compulsive autodidact, he tends to fall in love with arcane subjects — Taoism, for instance, or the lead-up to the Civil War. In the mid-2000s, he fell into domain investing after reading blog posts by Jim Boykin, an internet marketer, and articles about entrepreneurs like Warren Royal, the founder of 11-year-old Bobbleheads.com.

“I’m always trying to educate myself because I think I started this game very, very late,” Askew says. “There are lots of times I think I have to catch up.”

In fairness, domaining wasn’t exactly a well-worn career path when Askew graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1995 with a degree in Southern history. At first, he thought he’d pursue film — he had gophered on Hollywood sets and interned in the mayor’s film office in New York City. But after a few months away from home, he grew to miss what he calls “the Southern personality.”

He returned to Atlanta in the late ’90s, and began recycling used carpet pads with his brother for 15 cents a pound. It was as analog a business as you can imagine, but the experience was formative for his future career: Profits and overhead were both slim, and Askew learned how to play the margins. Within two years, he’d landed a marketing gig at the search startup eTour, the first in a long line of SEO and paid-search jobs. “That was it,” Askew said. “The rabbit hole opened up.”

The late ’90s and early 2000s were a roller-coaster ride of a time to work on the internet. (“Lived through the dot-com-bomb,” Askew would later blog, “although my 9–5 job did not.”) Askew taught himself to code websites, and manipulate and monetize invisible flows of web traffic using the new ad platforms deployed by Google, Yahoo, and MSN. When he encountered a blog post about domain investing in 2006, he immediately wanted in on the action.

By then, Askew was already years too late for the first domain rush, a period in the ’90s when far-sighted investors snapped up thousands of never-before-registered dot-coms. But 2006 was still what Allemann calls the “easy money” era of domain investing — a halcyon time, in hindsight, when even middling dot-coms and dot-nets turned profits via reams of display advertising. Domain names are bought and sold much like real estate, and investing inevitably gets more complex as the number of investors grows.

If the domain you want — GetRichDomaining.com, for example — has not yet been registered, you can do so for a nominal fee of $10, $15, or $20 per year, paid to domain registrars like Bluehost. But if GetRichDomaining.com is already registered by someone else, you must either negotiate its sale directly with the current owner or wait months or years for its current registration to expire and go back on the open market.

Few good domain names slip back onto the market without attracting the attention of multiple investors. Services like GoDaddy and Namejet compile daily lists of expiring domains and vie to “catch” them as they drop, allowing would-be buyers to bid prices up in frenetic, fixed-length auctions. Buyers then make money by “flipping,” “parking,” or “developing”: reselling the domain, running ads on it, or building content on it, respectively.

These first two techniques were most popular when Askew started in 2006 because they required little effort and could be quite profitable: Vodka.com sold for $3 million that year to a Russian distiller, and Diamond.com commanded a reported $7.5 million when it sold to an online jeweler. Askew couldn’t hope to land that quality of domain; instead, he set his sights on a third-tier domain, Arthistory.net, which he bid up using his Palm Treo 650 as he was driving back from a bachelor party in Key West. The auction price climbed as his faceless competitors trash-talked him. He was hooked on the whole process — and after Askew landed the property for $4,200, he set out to buy more domains.

He snagged the name of a picturesque lake in Banff National Park and the outdoorsy Appalachaintrail.com. He went through a brief Ole Miss phase, scavenging domain names from Vaughtemingway.com and Swayzefield.com to OleMissMotel.com. He got philosophical. “Expect to view the world as one un-registered domain name,” he wrote in a 2010 blog post. “Physical objects and banter on TV and radio will begin to transform into potential names to acquire. Don’t let this frighten you. This is normal.”

But by 2009, when Askew had entered a fugue state of acquisition, neither flipping nor parking worked as well as they once did. While the internet is nowhere near running out of dot-coms — there are, per the domain registry Verisign, 10^98 possible combinations, with 141 million registered now — competition for the best domains has grown fierce as massive, mainstream registration services like GoDaddy exposed more people to the market. Drop-catch sites, like the ones where Askew buys properties, battle for domains with automated software systems that borrow their tactics from high-frequency traders. According to a 2018 research paper, one in 10 domains is re-registered the second it expires.

Thies Lindenthal, a professor of finance at Cambridge University who has studied domain markets, says that it is likely that the rise of these systems has moved more and more domains into the portfolios of sophisticated, professional domain investors: both well-financed individuals and corporations, like GoDaddy, which has paid tens of millions of dollars to acquire top-shelf dot-coms. They have historically seen their holdings appreciate in lockstep with the NASDAQ 100, following the overall returns of the tech industry.

But marginal domainers like Askew face enormous challenges. “Parking” doesn’t return even a fraction of the profits that it used to. And flipping has grown risky because, among other reasons, new top-level domains, like .io and .ia, have depressed non-premium domain prices. “The majority of domains will see maybe one offer in 10 years,” said Lindenthal, who holds a small portfolio of domains himself. “It’s a massive, massive gamble that people take… It’s not a ‘get-rich-without-risk’ kind of market.”

Given that environment, it’s perhaps no wonder Askew’s model has become attractive. While flipping and parking domains was fun — and this is something Askew comes back to a lot, the bold-faced, Monopoly-board fun of it — he realized, roughly three years in, that he also had a knack for turning domains into quirky, miniature businesses that could withstand the whims of an increasingly turbulent market.

DudeRanch.com, his first full-fledged project in this vein, became an extensive, editorial directory of Western ranch vacations in 2009. Some ranches paid for feature listings, which began to justify his $18,000 investment. Building out the site also juiced its value as a domain.

In addition to DudeRanch and VidaliaOnions, Askew now also runs RanchWork.com, a job board for ranchers, and Brevard.com, a travel guide for the North Carolina mountain town. Askew went to summer camp there as a kid, and still takes his wife and eight-year-old daughter. They hike, mountain bike, and shoot short videos to compile listings for the site, which only accepts ads from locally owned hotels, restaurants, and tour operators.

“I sometimes say I prefer projects that focus on purpose over profit,” he wrote, in a recent blog post about his domain philosophy that hit the front page of Hacker News.

“I think people like the fact that he built the business based on passion and not just money,” Allemann says. “People [in the domain industry] are always looking for the easy money, versus building something that can potentially have a long-term future. It takes a lot of work… It’s aspirational.”

These days, Askew is selling onions, sure, but he’s also an unlikely testament to the belief that anyone can succeed on the internet with a little elbow grease and the right URL. Askew now makes enough money that he quit his last conventional 9-to-5, as a consultant to UPS, eight years ago. He says he’s not rich — his family still relies on his wife’s income, too — but his businesses generate combined revenues in the six figures. Askew hopes to cross the $1-million mark when BirthdayParties.com goes online this September.

OnOn the morning we meet, as on most mornings, Askew spends 30 minutes clicking through the day’s list of expiring domains at his Switchyards office. Though just 47, he’s prone to waxing retro when he talks about his work, dropping “oh boys” and “holy molys” and “so neats” as if Paramount just offered him HappyDays.com. His enthusiasm for the wide-open possibilities of the internet — his wonder at the sheer size of the thing — feels like an echo of a different era: an era before massive online corporations tracked our every click, and neo-Nazis cavorted openly on our largest social networks.

In recent years, Askew says he has grown choosy about his domains, letting his portfolio fall from “several hundred” at the height of his buy-and-flip days in the late 2000s “to roughly 50” now. He recently listed 19 for private sale, including BeardButter.com and GoatRental.com — suggesting, perhaps, that there are limits even to Askew’s entrepreneurial escapades. But he’s eager to develop the properties he still has. After BirthdayParties.com, he may experiment with CharterYacht.com, which he envisions as an Airbnb for boat rentals.

He passed on Napkin.com, even though he knew it would turn a profit. “But am I gonna sell napkins on the internet?” he asks. “Do I want to sell napkins on the internet?”

Askew says his bar for buying new domain names has moved higher. Two years ago, he passed on Napkin.com, even though he knew it would turn a profit. “But am I gonna sell napkins on the internet?” he asks. “Do I want to sell napkins on the internet?”

“Menshandbags.com,” he mutters, scrolling through listings of available domains. “That could be good for, say, a leather-maker.”

“Chocolatechip.com, kind of a cool name. Too expensive for me right now.”

“Ramblings.com, there’s a neat name. If you want a neat little blog.”

In the end, Askew places no bids — he has onion orders to take, plus a BirthdayParties.com beta to review this afternoon, and an impromptu Brevard trip to make with this family. Askew has just remembered that this upcoming weekend, is the town’s famous White Squirrel Festival. (The animals are worth feting because Brevard’s white squirrels have brown eyes, while most white squirrels have red ones, which you can see on Brevard.com.) Askew has already posted a listing for the festival on Brevard.com, with a promotional video from the town’s actual, official tourism agency.

“That’s what I find most fascinating about these domains,” Askew says, cheerfully. “The odd adventures they take me on. It’s oddly addictive.”

Enterprise reporter @thebuffalonews, formerly @washingtonpost.

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