Bob Parsons managed the sort of life leap that movies are made of: Bethlehem Steel laborer to dot-com millionaire.
The Baltimore native struggled as a student, graduated from Patterson High School by the skin of his teeth and fought in Vietnam before returning to Baltimore and a job at the Sparrows Point steel mill. No thanks, he quickly decided. "That place was no place to work," he said.
He ended up at the University of Baltimore, majoring in accounting. After a stint running a small accounting practice, he moved to Iowa, started a software company and — in 1994 — sold it for $64 million to Intuit.
Now Parsons is in Arizona, having a blast as the founder and chief executive of GoDaddy.com, the biggest registrar of Internet domain names — where people go when they want to buy a web address for business or personal use.
The businessman has a bad-boy reputation. There's his earring. His 12 motorcycles. And his intentionally provocative TV commercials featuring buxom "Go Daddy Girls," some of which have been banned from airing during the Super Bowl. (His 2005 spot — ironically, a censorship parody — was pulled by nervous Fox executives in the fourth quarter after appearing earlier in the game.)
Parsons is a University of Baltimore booster, and the feeling is mutual. UB, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2008, named him its "distinguished entrepreneur" of 2010 last month.
He talked to The Baltimore Sun recently about his company, his racy ads and his Baltimore roots.
Question: How many domains do you have under management?
Answer: I think we're at 41 million now. … Every nine-tenths of a second, I register a new domain name.
Q: Do a lot of people register their own names with you? [Full disclosure: I did.]
A: That's a phenomena that's starting to actually grow, but I would say it's still a minority. What I would say is we've noticed a trend of baby names. Parents will purchase the dot-com name for their baby. We have been aware of some instances where somebody didn't name their child a particular name because the dot-com wasn't available.
Q: How important do you expect domain names will become?
A: I would say everything in our life in the next 25 years is going to be tied into the Internet, and it's going to be the place for communications, for education, for conducting business and everything. A domain name is your address, your address on the Internet. We all have a physical address; we're all going to need an address in cyberspace. They're becoming increasingly important. I believe we'll get to the point where when you're born, you'll be issued a domain name.
Q: Who gets paid when people buy domain names?
A: All domain names are controlled by the government or an NGO [nongovernmental organization]. First, the government grants the rights to keep track of them to a registry. The registry keeps the ultimate record of who has what right to a domain name. Then there are registrars such as Go Daddy, which acts as the interface between the registry and the people that want to register. … The registrar takes a small piece. Go Daddy, I believe, most of our domain names cost us over $8 and we get $10, something like that. It's a very thin margin for us.
Q: How long were you working at Beth Steel?
A: If I was there a year, a year or more, that would have been a lot. I'll tell you what, I'm glad I worked there. I learned a bunch. I really got to see some of the problems in the workaday world, particularly … how management and labor can become alienated from each other and what an absolute drain on productivity it was.
Q: You don't exactly give off a typical CPA vibe. Why did you major in accounting at UB?
A: There's actually a very good reason why. It was because it was the first major in the book, literally. When I went to register … there was a line to see this poor counselor. Had I got in it [that line], I would still be in it today. So I went to the registrar to see if I could shortcut that. They said, 'Yeah, you can pick your own major.' … It was a very fortuitous choice, you know? … I was intrigued by it because I never knew anything about business. A lot of the success I've had since has been because of that selection. To really understand the nuts and bolts of it, there's no better thing to study than accounting. Had I opened [the booklet of majors] backwards and become a zoologist, I have no idea what I'd be doing.
Q: How much of your company's success is due to your TV commercials?
A: To the extent of our success, they've been crucial. We were successful before we started running them. When we ran our first Super Bowl ad, we had a 16 percent market share in domain registrations worldwide. … The following week, it went up to 25 percent. And right now, worldwide, we're at about 49. We are larger than our next six competitors combined. The past four years, we've not only been the largest registrar but we've been the fastest-growing.
Q: Should we expect more edgy ads?
A: We do these commercials because, I tell you, they work. … The people that like them, man, they're on our website [after an ad airs], and the people that don't like them, they're also on our website. … Most advertising is like a fat guy: People like him, nobody's offended by him, but he gets no action. That's not my advertising. We get a lot of action.
Q: You've said you've had to make multiple versions of Go Daddy ads to get network approval for Super Bowl use. How many ads have been rejected over the years?
A: I'd say 20. … I get accused all the time of sending ads, making ads that I know are going to get rejected. And here's what I promise and swear to you: I have never done that. One of the things that kind of helps me is, when I have an ad rejected and I post it [online], people will say, 'That should have been approved.'