My Kind of Town, and Now Maybe Your Kind of Domain Name
By JAMES WARREN
If Amy Rule needs a Hanukkah present for her spouse-mayor, I have a loving idea: buy him an e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org.
It will soon be available. But so will email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and a conservative estimate of 25,000 other first names and 88,000 surnames in the Chicago area.
What will the market be? The answer may interweave intriguing notions of scarcity, status and the extent to which self-identity is tied to location.
The person most interested sat in a Bridgeport cafe Wednesday morning, discussing the imminent transformation of a prized piece of digital real estate: chicago.com.
Josh Metnick, 38, is a bright and self-effacing north suburban native, a techie and an Internet entrepreneur who was writing computer code for a game called Mario’s Pizza by age 9 and cutting seven-figure deals by 24. During his senior year at the University of Illinois, where he majored in finance, he started an Internet service provider with three friends, including Jared Polis, who is now a Colorado congressman.
He and two others invested $5,000 each, while Mr. Polis invested $40,000. They sold it four years later for $20 million.
In 2001 Mr. Metnick beat out The Tribune Company and bought chicago.com for $500,000 from Karl Swartz, a California man who had acquired it for nothing from the nonprofit group that administers the domain system. Mr. Swartz used it as a home page, replete with photos of his dog, and Mr. Metnick has since spurned many offers to sell.
He makes money off it, but it’s limited and utilitarian, like many such city sites. Most owners coast on inherently potent brands and don’t invest much. And while Mr. Metnick is not a content producer, possibilities for enhancing chicago.com would seem ample.
Now his four-person operation is retooling the site to offer e-mail addresses with chicago.com domains.
He has sold a few names to friends and prominent businessmen whose identities I agreed not to disclose. Businesses include Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, the restaurant chain, which bought email@example.com, and Seyfarth Shaw L.L.P., a big law firm, which got firstname.lastname@example.org, and he’s in talks with Microsoft.
As a result, Mr. Metnick believes that individuals and companies may be willing to spend substantial sums. Initial pricing for individuals’ names will be $295 for a year, $735 for three years, $975 for five years and $1,750 for 10 years. A buyer will have right of first refusal when its time expires.
Just as many people crave vanity license plates — Mr. Metnick prefers the word “identity” to “vanity” — they may desire a personalized chicago.com address. As for the maximum 26 addresses using a letter of the alphabet, he thinks they could fetch $250,000 each.
Regardless, you can imagine the business potential of smartly exploiting subject addresses like @hotels.com if you’re a hotel chain or @ford.com if you’re a local dealership. Maintaining a relationship with an addressee would be crucial.
When I mentioned Thorstein Veblen, Mr. Metnick smiled. He knows well the economist-sociologist (and University of Chicago professor) Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class,” which proffered the notion of “conspicuous consumption,” a link between status and the products we buy or associate with.
Forces shaping a person’s identity, Veblen said, may often be genetic, cultural and social, but they can also include the surrounding physical environment. We may see ourselves as a city or country person or specifically, say, as a Chicagoan.
Mr. Metnick attended Glenbrook North High School and has just moved to Israel — he owns illinois.com as well as telaviv.com — and is typical of his world. There have been other successes, like selling guitar.com, but far more failures. He has spearheaded a worldwide association of city sites too, though the joint sales effort he envisioned sputtered and is split into two groups.
“The reason I love Josh is that he is the living embodiment of iteration,” said Howard Tullman, a Chicago lawyer turned entrepreneur who is Mr. Metnick’s friend and mentor.
Mr. Tullman runs Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy, a two-year for-profit vocational school for digital production and design.
“He’s never at rest and is always asking how can this be cooler, faster, easier, etc.,” Mr. Tullman said. “Whatever ‘this’ is.”
And if you buy an address, Mr. Metnick will ask one thing in return: the name of your favorite Chicagoan.
It will tell him a bit about you and prompt a monthly communication — and, he hopes, “the start of a lifelong relationship.”