There’s something very privileged about being in the domain name business, explains CentralNic Group CEO Ben Crawford. "Domain names changed the world a quarter of a century ago," he says. And today, for any budding business, registering a domain name is the first moment an idea crystallises into something tangible. "It means we are right there at the very beginning of the entrepreneurial impulse, supporting the first act that turns an idea into a reality."
In his own words, CentralNic "sells people the tools to build their own new parts of the internet." Online presence tools such as domain names, hosting and email are the first toolset, grouped together in a one-stop global marketplace serving online retailers and direct customers of all types. The other set is the online marketing tools used to acquire customers. "We’ll help you monetise your website or even your domain name on the one hand," he explains. "On the other hand, if you’re trying to sell something online, we have the tools to find internet users who will convert into your customers."
CentralNic’s customer base has a global scope "from the world’s largest companies, wishing to protect their brands on the internet, to governments building their local digital economies, to micro-businesses, who are reshaping the future of the internet," Ben says. The company is also one of the very few to work directly with domain registries all over the world. "These are the operators of the country codes, from .ae for the United Arab Emirates to .zw for Zimbabwe," Ben explains.
The company today is very different from the one I took over.
CentralNic was founded in 1996 and Ben was appointed CEO in 2009. "When I joined, we had 12 staff and US$2 million [A$2.7 million] in revenue," he explains. "At the end of last year, we had 650 staff and US$410 million [A$553 million] in revenue, with customers in virtually every single country in the world". He’s not exaggerating when he says that "clearly, the company today is very different from the one I took over".
As Ben has looked to fulfill his vision for a curated suite of complementary businesses and services, key milestones have included an initial public offering on the London Stock Exchange in 2013 as well as the almost annual addition of new companies into the fold: Germany’s DomiNIC Software (2013), Australia and New Zealand’s Instra (2016), Canada’s Hexonet (2019), Poland’s Codewise (2020) and France’s SafeBrands (2021) are just some of the companies purchased under his leadership.
Ben, who today has 30 acquisitions under his belt, says he was mentored in mergers and acquisitions (M&A) financing and negotiations by some of the best in the business. But he can also trace much of his skill set back to a childhood spent following his diplomat father around the globe, and his early career negotiating international licensing and distribution deals with magazine publishers and movie studios. "I realised quickly that I excelled in negotiating international deals," he says.
After an early career in academia and journalism, Ben shifted to the executive suite and, in the lead-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics was appointed Executive Producer of the official website. From there, he moved to London to run a global sports media business owned by eminent British financier Stewart Newton, a position that gave him his first taste of the M&A business. In his next role, as founding President of Louise Blouin Media in New York, he consolidated eight acquisitions. CentralNic is his third buy and build project.
Despite the pandemic and the challenges of the last 24 months, he’s in the fortunate position of reflecting on the period as a time of growth. "Our business has accelerated to a new level of growth as COVID’s influence has diminished," Ben says. Investments made, including the injection of over A$13.5 million towards hiring new staff and building new systems, have paid dividends. "This past year, our organic growth was 39 per cent, a massive record for us. Combined with our non-organic growth, we’ve grown at 78 per cent year on year," he says.
He also knows he’s been one of the lucky CEOs to have good news to share. "Unlike the CEOs in industries like airlines, sports and hospitality, I have been so fortunate to be able to tell my team that their jobs were secure, that our customers would have continuity of service and that our supply chain was safe," he says.
I have been so fortunate to be able to tell my team that their jobs were secure, that our customers would have continuity of service and that our supply chain was safe.
A Forbes Council member and widely published writer with bylines in the The New York Times among others, Ben uses his voice to promote collaboration across all stakeholders in the sector. "Some tech companies view the government as an unwelcome hindrance to innovation," he says. "We take the opposite view: we want to partner with governments because it takes all three groups – governments, entrepreneurs and enterprise – to make the digital economy work."
In addition, CentralNic is a member of the World Economic Forum and advises the European Parliament on policy and helps governments in many of the world’s smaller countries build their digital economies. Plus, CentralNic’s own business is entirely in line with government priorities such as data privacy, as the company never went down the path of collecting and exploiting personal user data. "We’re building a different, more socially responsible model of what a tech company looks like and how it should behave from what’s gone before," he says.
Some Key Lessons
Ben says one of the key lessons he has been taught in M&A financing and negotiations is that somebody has to drive the deal. "Because, if it’s not somebody’s number one focus, then the deals don’t get done." At CentralNic, a team of experts with extensive experience gives it the advantage in the competitive M&A landscape. "The more creative you can be to come up with a solution where others can’t is what gives you the lead," he says. "Lastly, it may seem really obvious, but if you always act with integrity, you attract people wanting to do business with you – including selling their company to you."