March 7, 2014 6:23 pm

Frank Schilling and the rise of the web domain name industry

If the internet is a virtual world, names are its real estate
Frank Schilling, founder of Uniregistry, on the veranda of his Grand Cayman condo©Amy Strzalko

Frank Schilling, founder of Uniregistry, on the veranda of his Grand Cayman condo

Tucked inside a nondescript building on Seven Mile Beach in Grand Cayman, a stone’s throw from the island’s largest and glitziest hotels, Frank Schilling’s home feels a bit like the Batcave. A lift leads to a large intercom-protected gate, which reveals a pair of oversized double doors that open into a huge marble-covered entrance passage.

“We refer to it as ‘the house’ even though it’s technically a condo,” says Schilling, the owner of Uniregistry – a top-level web domain name registry – as we walk through an endless maze of rooms. They include a set of guest quarters with a private entrance; a cosy library, a spacious craft room for his two children; and a screening room with suede-lined walls and a Capiz chandelier that he refers to as “Talitha Getty chic”.

Schilling, who was born in Germany but grew up in Canada, attended film school in Vancouver before taking screenwriting classes at UCLA and then the American Film Institute. “I was young and in my early twenties and realised there were a lot of people who were 35 and not working. I didn’t want to be that guy. That scared me into mainstream real estate, which led to the electronics business and then selling wholesale glass.”

The domain name industry, which he stumbled into by accident, marries his creative impulses with business pragmatism. “I was interested in names as a commodity and the human behaviour behind naming,” Schilling says as we sit on his terrace watching the sun set while waves crash below. He talks about “the gravity of names” such as antarctica.com, which he owns. Like the continent itself, the site is in the early stages of development, and it contains little more than a link to domainnamesales.com, but that doesn’t stop people from visiting.

The wood-panelled library©Amy Strzalko

The wood-panelled library

“A name that gets 20 visits today will get 18 tomorrow and 22 yesterday, but it will never get 300 unless something changes,” says Schilling. “In technology circles, names are derided as overly simplistic. You’re just a speculator if you have names. There’s no technology there. After everything burns down though, the names still have value.”

The end of the 1990s dotcom boom seemed inevitable to Schilling as he watched as an outsider from Vancouver. “The only thing honest in it to me was the name.” When food.com went bankrupt, he participated in the auction for the name. Though he lost, it was the beginning of his empire.

If the internet is a virtual world, names are its real estate. As the prime locations of .com get acquired, other places need to be explored. Hence, the focus on .anything, the new domain expansion that Schilling is leading with Uniregistry.

The screening room©Michelle Schilling

The screening room

“Only 1 per cent of the population owns a domain name – some own more than one. I have hundreds of thousands of domain names, and I’m one man. I’m betting that there might be interest for 2 or 3 per cent of people to have them. Somebody has to make those names for the residents of the future. There aren’t enough good ones in the spaces that are already held.”

Schilling likens the growth of the web domain industry to the westward expansion of settlers in the US in the 19th and early 20th centuries. “New York will still be there which is .com, .org, .net, and they’ll be worth more than ever, but somebody’s got to live in LA. Somebody has to live in Houston, Seattle, Portland and all these great cities in the west.”

Schilling moved to Grand Cayman with his wife Michele 11 years ago. The couple initially wanted to move to California. “We were just going to roll up and become American. It was our dream,” he says. It was just months after 9/11, though, and immigration rules had been tightened up. His lawyer suggested Grand Cayman instead, citing its tax-neutral status, diversity and the abundance of Canadians and Americans.

View of the beach from the family’s veranda©Michelle Schilling

View of the beach from the family’s veranda

“Cayman, I think, is the most live-able Caribbean island,” says Schilling. “You can wear expensive jewellery on the beach and not be looking over your shoulder. You can drop me anywhere on the island at 3am, and I’ll walk home and be OK.”

Given the choice, though, he would rather drive. Schilling’s Ferrari FF is his favourite car but because the island is so small, he only clocks up about 5,000 miles a year. He hasn’t bought a boat yet, although he recently installed a buoy on the beach that can support a 60ft vessel. The coral reefs surrounding the island keep the waters calm, making them ideal for water sports.

Despite this, California still holds a place in his heart. He has bought two beach homes (one in Carmel-by-the-Sea, the other in Laguna Beach) for “hotel avoidance” when the family escapes there for a month or two in the summer.

The living room with a grand piano©Michelle Schilling

The living room with a grand piano

Echoes of “the Golden State” radiate throughout their Cayman home. A large three-panel painting of Salt Creek beach (near Laguna) by French landscape artist Jean Tierant (Joanny) hangs prominently in the living room. “He did this work when his wife was stricken with cancer and wrote us the loveliest inscription on the back telling us how the painting helped him get through the difficult phase of caring for her and reminded him of happier times in California,” says Schilling. Another picture of the family at Zuma Beach was painted by a local Californian artist.

“We bought the piano in San Diego and had it barged out. I joke it’s been played by Elton John and Chopin,” he says of the high-tech grand piano that will play on command or allow you to take over the keys. Both his children are learning to play.

A hand-carved cuckoo clock stands in contrast to the apartment’s sleek modern style. It was bought in Seewald in the Black Forest during a family trip last year and reminds Schilling of his German heritage. “[It’s] like a Hansel and Gretel town that you can only reach by driving through the most isolated of roads from east to west. It’s terrifying to get to,” says Schilling. “I was asking Michele if we had enough water in the car to hike out if we needed to.”

Schilling’s apartment block©Amy Strzalko

Schilling’s apartment block

Schilling, whose lucky number is 13, doesn’t shy away from grand statements. His friend John Ferber likened him to George Washington after a night of drinking and then commissioned two portraits of Schilling as Washington. One hangs in Schilling’s home office and is as much a caricature as an inspiration.

“A tsunami is coming but nobody knows,” he says gleefully of the impending .anything boom. “Three years from now at the Country Music Awards when you see someone use a .country name, people will be like, ‘Oh, that’s the Uniregistry guys’.”

He likes to compare domain names to electricity. “Everyone takes for granted that you put the prong in the wall and the current comes out, but somebody has to make that magic behind the curtain firing a turbine generation plant.” It seems Schilling is more than happy to be that man behind the curtain.

The ‘great hall’, with a triptych of a Californian beach by French artist Joanny©Amy Strzalko

The ‘great hall’, with a triptych of a Californian beach by French artist Joanny

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Favourite thing

Schilling does not live a monastic life by any means, but of all the things he has acquired his most precious possession is a small framed photo (below) of his daughter helping him to feed her baby brother. “It was a very sweet, unstaged impromptu photograph,” he says. “I love this thing because it reminds me how real life is and never to take anything or anyone for granted. Here is the smallest and most trivial of moments captured by my wife. It cost nothing to capture. When I’m an old man in a rocking chair, I will happily trade all the financial wealth that I have accumulated to feel the lightness and joy of the moment captured in this photo.”

A small framed photo of Frank Schilling's daughter helping him to feed her baby brother©Amy Strzalko

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