Domain history : The man who registered 99% of the Zip Code .com domains

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An incident of domain theft involving six valuable Zip Code domains, turned into an opportunity to hear a great story from 1999.

Mr. Steven A. Chan is in the process of reclaiming these stolen domain assets, and shared with us some facts about the early days of mass domain registrations.

Many people believe that numeric combinations representing Zip Codes, the mailing codes used by the US Postal Service, span all permutations from 00000 to 99999.

This is not the case.

There are approximately 43,000 valid Zip Codes in the US, and at some point Steven A. Chan’s company owned 99% of them as .com domains.

stolen-domain-names

Stolen domain names.

Says, Mr. Chan:

“From March 19-25, 1999, I registered with Network Solutions, approximately 43,000 domain names – literally every Zip Code in the United States that was available for registration.

A history of most Zip Codes with dot com will show a creation date of 3/20/1999.

That was us.

We referenced and sorted out the correct Zip Code list.

Incidentally, a Zip Code in a metro area will usually have 15,000 mailboxes give or take. There are special Zip Codes for the military, and large mail volume entities such as the IRS, have  Zip Codes all to themselves.

Another firm up in the Bay Area, California, had registered some twenty or forty-odd Zip Code domains in that area, concentrating mostly on the “expensive neighborhood” Zip Codes. Our business model, however was a little bit different.

At that time, Google was still a little company that launched search in 1998. Yahoo seemed like the big dog along with the likes of AOL and Altavista. DMOZ was contemporary, and Lycos, Infoseek, and AskJeeves were going strong.

This was the heady days of the original dotcom days, and my idea was for a “portal” where users could remain anonymous, and local search was attenuated by distance.

For example, a search for pizza would give search results within a mile or two, however a search for a garage door company would “snap out” to 20 miles in big metro areas.

The portal would be entered by simply using the user’s Zip Code followed by dotcom.

We could determine the centroid of the Zip Code, built software for those search functionalities, and started pitching venture capitalists on the guts – we would provide every single business and organization with web space – a site! Something we wondered why Microsoft didn’t do, since they could easily provide every single business in the country with a website, every nonprofit, etc.

We saw the equations valuing networks based upon the number of users: the more users, the more valuable the network was. We created software where we could feed in databases and spit out multi-page websites. We built software known as content management to go with them and called the company VIA5.

After the dotcom crash, we bootstrapped self funded in Costa Mesa, California, and hired people to literally hand these sites out with access passwords, and offered design and enhancement services. Door to door.

But there was indeed a dotcom crash. We were late to the party, and had minuscule funding.

At the time of initial registration, we had to lease two years at a time from Network Solutions; each year was $35, and we received literally mail by the bin from Network Solutions, each domain name was billed separately, so we had a bill and and an envelope for every single one, over 40,000 bills!

We floated the company with credit cards and every thing else we could think of, and had a small hosting operation, but, we could not keep all those domain names, and huge chunks at a time went back to the registrar.

The original Marchex Zip Code dotcom hoard came from that. We hung on and on.

The last big trove was California’s Zip Codes, and we finally could not pay those bills so those too, presumably got scooped up from the inside of Network Solutions by Marchex.

Marchex had funding; they were publicly traded, and their hoard of Zip Code dotcoms got their public company a $500 million dollar market cap. Today, it is about a third – that period was their peak.

I continued hanging on to just a handful, for example the two Zip Codes for Costa Mesa, 92626, and 92627. I used a few as DNS servers, etc. For a variety of reasons, my trove of Zip Code dotcoms whittled away – to just the handful above.  But I kept paying the renewals, if I could afford them.

Network Solutions monopoly was busted up right after the dotcom bust, and with the advent of competition, the wholesale prices got just below ten bucks each from the upstarts.

I moved what I could keep back then to Bulkregister.com, a sister company to eNom.”

This remarkable testimony from an early dotcom era insider shows how far the domain industry has come along.

We are thankful to Mr. Steven A. Chan for sharing this information with us, which opens up a window to the early past of domain name entrepreneurship.

We will continue to monitor the stolen domain names for updates, and we’re confident that these valuable assets will be returned back to their original registrant.


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Comments

6 Responses to “Domain history : The man who registered 99% of the Zip Code .com domains”
  1. jZ says:

    i guess its not always a rags to riches take for those who got in early.

  2. DomainGang says:

    jZ – The dot com bubble of the 90’s that burst in the early 2000’s was a big lesson for many of us.

  3. I had a conversation abourt “surviving until reward” yesterday. You can have a great idea way ahead of everyone else but managing basic expenses can make you go broke while you wait for that payday. Ever hear if a “20 year overnight success? You understand the perils and obsticals that need to be overcomes in order to reap success. It’s never easy.

    Mr Chan was a visionary and entrepreneur in a world that was fast changing. As a risk taker, he was correct in knowing that his portfolio would be worth $100 million some day. But the logistics wouldn’t get him to the promised land. Luck is also needed. It would have cost him at least $10 million in registration fees alone to get to the point where he could have profited 15 years later. That would have been impossible for someone with moderate wealth. This is a real world lesson and a great read. Thanks to Mt Chan for his truthfulness.

  4. Amanda says:

    We all want our ideas of today to pan out to the accomplishments of tomorrow and sadly some can take too much time and money. His idea was great and his foresight on point. Too bad he couldn’t get investors or a few partners to help keep up with registrations and develop his idea to finish.

  5. That idea of attenuating relevance in search results based on distance was years ahead of its time. At least, if I’m remembering the internet back then correctly, the web couldn’t begin to localize like that.

    Ambitious project! If they’d found funding, maybe they could have survived those crushing bills long enough to bring it to fruition. It’s like leaping across the Grand Canyon, though. There’s a world of difference between making it all the way and falling a quarter inch short. Sounds like the wind was blowing against Mr. Chan. Sounds like an impressive leap anyway. Few of us would dare go as far in 1 direction.

  6. Logan says:

    These days, Google’s organic search algorithm would much prefer to see all that content on one domain name, not strewn across 43,000 domain names. He could have just registered NearMe.com or CloseToMe.com (I own) and built out a site with all the same content across all 43,000 zip codes and it would rank better today than 43,000 different local websites.

    The company I work for at my day job does exactly this for Domino’s Pizza at http://pizza.dominos.com/ and it works great for local, non-branded, geo-modified searches like “Dallas pizza”, “pizza delivery 90210”, “Miami pizza coupons”, etc. Domino’s picks up lots and lots of extra orders each year from the site, which has 100,000+ web pages of content on it, all highly localized to city, town, and zip codes, and highly relevant to the searcher, wherever they may be.

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