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August 17, 2016

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Rook's Rise: How a 10-Year Journey Helped 2-Year-Old Rook Media Become a Domain Monetization Darling

By Ron Jackson

Every now and then someone comes along and immediately captures the public's imagination - the proverbial overnight sensation. The entertainment world isn't the only place it happens either - we 've seen it in the domain industry too. Take domain monetization for instance. Over the past couple of years a new generation of  parking companies have sprung up - seemingly out of nowhere - and become "the talk of  the town." 

Most of these new companies have been launched by people who are domain owners themselves rather than traditional corporate service providers. Examples include InternetTraffic.com (the subject of our November 2012 Cover Story) Voodoo.com and Europe based standouts ParkingCrew.com (who we profiled in our February 2013 newsletter) and RookMedia.net. They and other innovative companies have made the monetization space more competitive than ever, boosting revenue shares for domain owners and resuscitating a field than many had written off as a lost cause.

Crowd image from Bigstock

One thing our field's "overnight sensations" have in common with many of those in the entertainment world is that it took years of experience and hard lessons learned to set the stage for their big breakthrough. The team behind Rook Media is a perfect example of that - the name is new but the players are battle tested veterans including six founders and a star free agent who have a combined 55 years of experience gained through time spent at four of the industry's best known monetization services (services they now compete head to head with).

In Rook Media's case the founder's lineage can be traced back to Sedo a decade ago, with it  continuing  through NameDrive before reaching full flower at Rook. In addition to the work of the founders - CEO Ash Rahimi, COO Daniel Law, CIO Ed Russell, CSO Martin Andersson, VP of Sales Simon Pupo and Director Matthias Muller - Rook Media benefited greatly by adding beloved DomainSponsor veteran Joe Higgins to their management team as Senior Sales & Strategy Consultant. Together movie fans might look at them as the domain industry's version of The Magnificent Seven.  

The Rook Media story starts with Daniel Law, a U.S. Army veteran (enlisting straight out of high school) and Ivy League Economics & Political Science

graduate (from Columbia University) who joined Sedo as a young executive in 2003 (Daniel's role there was detailed in a 2004 Cover Story we wrote about Sedo). At Cologne, Germany based Sedo, Law (who was stationed in Germany during his stint in the military) was eventually given the responsibility of managing and overseeing the company's global business, outside of Germany. Law put together a team to meet this new challenge and three of the people he added to that team were Ed Russell, Ash Rahimi and Martin Andersson, all of whom years later would join him in founding Rook Media.

(L to R) Rook Media Co-Founders Ash Rahimi, Martin Andersson, Daniel Law, Simon Pupo
Ed Russell and Matthias Muller with Senior Sales & Strategy Consultant Joe Higgins.

"Unfortunately the efforts to keep Sedo costs low, combined with ever growing staff numbers resulted in pretty low pay for all involved on the European Union side of operations," Law recalled. "This was a real challenge for the staff and myself, and keeping employees motivated and focused on growing the business that was so obviously profitable was becoming increasingly difficult. There was no real potential on my side, not being an owner, to both effect change and share in the upside, neither with me nor my team, of what we were building and running", Law said, adding that  "being a founder myself now I very much understand the other side of it and all relative complexities involved."

"I really learned a valuable lesson in those days on ensuring that you share with your team the fruits of the labor as much as the labor itself! Making a long story short when the opportunity presented itself to help start a new endeavor in which I would have much more say on structure and operations, I jumped at the chance and helped to found and run NameDrive." 

Daniel Law
COO, Rook Media

"Together with the core of the team that had brought so much success and growth at Sedo, I managed to help grow NameDrive from a fledgling start up with no customers into one of the leading industry parking platforms. We were so successful that we caught the attention of Oversee.net  (the parent of DomainSponsor) for acquisition purposes," Law said.

"Obviously discussing a buyout with a competitor is a delicate dance and can take significant time, but after an almost two year long tango, we had come very close to terms for a buyout. Unfortunately in this time the strategic goals and visions that the partners had for the company had grown apart, and this extended as well to the potential for an exit. The initial founder, Greg Manriquez, wished to sell NameDrive to a different suitor instead (Key Systems out of Germany), who had come later to the ball." 

"What had seemed to be an elegant solution to the mounting differences in ideas for the direction of the company, the exit, sadly ended up becoming another dividing factor. We did not want to end back in the confines of our previous experience as employees with little say in the strategic direction or operations of a company which we put our all into, as we had significant differences of opinions with Gregís 

preferred buyers as to how many issues of strategy and structure should be handled. We already felt the trend of NameDrive was heading in this direction with diverging goals and wishes of the management team and Greg."

"At the end, and another lesson learned, the fact that Ed, Ash, the other managing partners, and I had focused far more on growing the business rather than attending to the proper setup and paper work, meant that we did not have a clear cut claim to ownership as we had thought we had. We were not able to easily weigh in with our will, though it was unanimous amongst all the other partners, against Gregís. After much soul searching, we decided it would be easier to settle the claims and differences with Greg and the new buyers outside of court. This granted us the freedom to start fresh and bring our common vision of what a parking provider should be to the market unencumbered with the constraints of differing view in the fold," Law said.

CSO Martin Andersson and CEO Ash Rahimi
compare notes on the front steps at Rook Media.

So, Daniel, Ed, Ash, Martin and Matthias (whom they met at NameDrive), along with Simon Pupo, set up shop in Zurich, Switzerland as Rook Media in 2011. "It was a chance to try to do the things right that we had not been able to do at NameDrive -  the third time is the charm!," Law laughed. 

This time things went completely according to plan. "Leaving aside our personal friendship, it is most certainly the complementary skills sets that drives our partnership. We really combine together well to form a complete team that covers all aspects of running not just a successful company, but a great domain monetization service. Whatever weakness we as individuals have is more than made up for by the strengths of others in the team and how we all dynamically combine to function together as a unified team."

"Ash has both great strategic vision and is an amazing task manager and executor, always pushing us to stay on target and constantly improve our execution as a team. Edís attention to detail and passion for development are constantly moving our products forward and ensuring they meet the demands of our trying industry. Martin and Matthias give us strengths in critical non-English speaking markets (between the two of them we have

French, German,  Czech, Spanish and all the Scandinavian languages covered!), and a great non Anglo-Saxon perspective on both business and general operations."

"Simon and Joeís wonderful personable nature and long years of experience as parking salesmen keep our client base both growing and well served with top-notch customer service. I honestly could not call out one skill set or need that is not met with this wonderful team of partners and friends."

"It was also a huge blessing in disguise that we were forced to build an entirely new platform from scratch two years ago," Law said. " Monetization technology was just so drastically different in 2005 (let alone 2003), and retrofitting older platforms with new monetization technology is less than ideal (and trust me, we know). We have a very clear picture of where monetization is going in the next 5 years, and we built a platform that reflects these current and future realities. This industry really functions best when populated by highly skilled lean and motivated teams, and I think this if nothing else best defines what Rook Media is."

Rook Media CEO Ash Rahimi (a Washington, D.C. native with an International Law degree from Georgetown, a Japanese Language degree from the University of Tokyo and a Masters Degree in Political Science from the University of Bonn in Germany) started in this business in 2005 as a broker at Sedo, then accompanied his friends to NameDrive where he served as Chief Business Development Officer. " After about a week of being exposed to domains, I knew I would never be leaving the industry!," Rahimi declared. "I consider myself very very lucky to be in the right place at the right time." 

Rahimi echoes what Law noted about the importance of maintaining a lean but highly motivated team, adding, "There was something wrong with the domain monetization space. Does a parking company really need 100 people? Do they need to host extravagant parties every couple of months? Do you need an account manager that probably just graduated college and doesn't know nearly as much about the industry as you do? Does this structure benefit or bring value the parking company's partners in any way?," Rahimi asked.

"Rook operates on a different philosophy. We have a small team of very experienced industry veterans who on their own could run a parking company. We're located in Switzerland, known for having low taxes and a high value on  

Rook Media CEO Ash Rahimi

privacy. What does this mean for our partners? It means you'll never communicate with anyone that has less than 5 years of experience in domain monetization. It also means that because of Rook's low cost structure, we can afford to pass on the share of your parking earnings that you deserve."

As Rook Media's CEO Rahimi has to be a "jack of all trades" but that is a role he relishes. "I love learning new things and there isnít one part of the domain life cycle that doesnít interest me. I also believe that as a service provider, you owe it to your customers to really know what you are talking about. And that means always learning something new if you donít know how to do it already."

"I started as a domain broker, and that gave me a solid background in both appraising and understanding the value of a domain. Being able to work together with a wide variety of domain investors was a great way to get to know the industry, and spending so much time negotiating domain sales with non-industry end users gave me a lot of insight into how important it is to evangelize the domain space to the public."

"It was during my time at NameDrive that I slowly transitioned to spending most of my time on the parking side of things," Rahimi recalled. "In the parking world thereís obviously a lot more emphasis on how much and what kind of traffic your domain has, and there was a bit of a learning curve I had to deal with. Other parts of the business Iíve learned mostly just to help our clients out. That might cover domain development, SEO, or SEM. I think itís especially important to understand how to it is be an advertiser, because how can you really fully grasp parking without being in the shoes of the person who pays your bills?"

"Iím not alone on our team - most of the partners at Rook Media have done it all at some point in the last six years. Iím pretty comfortable saying that youíd be hard pressed to find a team as experienced in all of the elements of our industry as ours. They live and breath domains, and are incredibly passionate about what we do.  As a team weíve been part of pretty much every major parking company out there, and weíve assimilated the best of all worlds to put together an evolutionary platform thatís focused solely on performance."

"While our team has experience in so many 

CEO Ash Rahimi and CIO Ed Russell

other fields, the focus at Rook is 100% on domain monetization. Iíve always admired people that have a singular focus. The chef that spends their entire life perfecting just one dish. I think everyone at Rook feels that same way - you canít do something really well unless thatís all you do. We just care about making our customers more money. We donít make any other claims," Rahimi declared.

London, England native Ed Russell (who holds a degree in German and Spanish from the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne) served as Sedo's Director of UK Marketing before being named President at NameDrive. He is the CIO at Rook Media - an acronym that can stand for Chief Innovation Officer or Chief Information Officer, depending on the company. Russell said the former would have applied to him a few years ago, but at Rook he wears the latter hat.

"Back in 2005, there was a lot of flexibility about what we can do on a parked page, but advertising provider directives - in line with the maturation of the industry - mean that parking companies are becoming homogenized, leaving little room for innovation on the parking page itself. In online business, Information is king and that is no different for a parking company. It is our use of information and attention to detail, which I believe sets us above our competitors," Russell said.

"My role is to look at the millions of hits we get on a daily basis and constantly analyze new trends in order to make sure our domains are as targeted as they can be to maximize revenue.  I also must constantly be vigilant and ensure that all the traffic coming via our publishers is of the highest quality and will lead to conversion for the advertisers. Ensuring a positive and satisfactory experience for all participants in the advertising cycle (user searching, advertiser and affiliate provider, and publisher and parking platform) is the best way to work towards a sustainable and value added product, and help the reputation and longevity of our industry."

Rook Media CIO Ed Russell speaking
at the 2006 T.R.A.F.F.I.C. West conference

"Overall, I would say information is a form of innovation in itself - in our industry innovation and use of information go hand in hand," Russell added.

Regarding the frequently repeated mantra that "parking is dead" heard so often in recent years, Russell said, "having been on the inside for the past eight years, parking never really went away as much as the public perception believes it did. In 2007 and 2008, the two major advertising providers did a lot of house cleaning which cut out methods of monetizing traffic which were against their policies. For customers using parking companies where these practices were rife, there was obviously a downturn, but for companies like ours which had always been running clean, performance was comparatively stable.'

"I see the downturn more as a realignment of peopleís expectations in line with the realities in the market rather than the beginning of the end as it was heralded at the time. Obviously, the world economy has suffered recently and parking revenues along with it to a lesser extent, but the current rebound has not only been one in financial terms as much as one in the publicís perception of our industry," Russell said.

"Domain owners had become disillusioned with the established parking companies taking larger margins to pay for their high overheads and to appease investors. As this happened at the same time as the realignment of parking revenues, it lead to people generally looking down on domain parking as a dying service. As domain parkingís image hit rock bottom, new companies such as Rook Media came along with a fresh new approach which was far more suited to the domain ownersí way of doing business: lean, low cost and efficient companies run by domain owners replaced the bloated companies of old, breathing new life into the market."

"At the same time as improving the perception of parking companies, our lean structure meant we could offer higher rev shares for our partners, meaning revenues increased for portfolio owners. This led to a double effect of improving confidence in the space as well as higher revenues and so the rebound was complete," Russell said."

Cost-cutting image from Bigstock

If parking is back, the logical follow-up question is, "does it have legs or is it likely to go into a tailspin again?" Russell replied,  "I remember my first Traffic show at Delray Beach in 2005 where the buzzword was ďmini sitesĒ. Everyone was going to build mini sites and domain parking would die (the first of many deaths). Eight years on and I would wager that the proportion of mini sites to parked pages has barely increased, if at all. The fact is that domain parking is an extremely robust model and remains by far the most sustainable and profitable way for owners of large portfolios to monetize traffic while focusing on other aspects of their business. While domain development is a perfect fit for a small number of domains, it is time consuming to get right. For everything else, thereís domain parking."

"As to whether it can get to where it was pre-recession, 2013 has started far more strongly for us than 2012, so things are certainly looking good. We have some new changes coming in the next few weeks which will boost revenue yet further, so the future is bright." 

Martin Andersson
Rook Media CSO

Rook Media's Chief Strategy Officer Martin Andersson has been a domain investor himself since 2005. Anderson, who speaks three languages and holds Masters Degrees in both Business Administration (from  the Stockholm School of Economics) and International Management (from Universitšt St. Gallen in Switzerland), ran Sedo's Scandinavian operations before moving to NameDrive in 2007 to serve as Director of Global Operations. At Rook Media he is in charge of both global marketing and European operations and he has also run his own consulting company in Sweden since 2010.

Andersson says his personal experience as a domain investor has been a big plus in his role at Rook. "Being a domain investor definitely allows me, us rather, a deeper understanding of our clientsí needs and the challenges they face. You can certainly learn about domains climbing the ranks as an account manager. But that can limit you to seeing things only through the lens of the parking company. When you walk in the shoes of a domainer and know what it feels like to have a UDRP filed against you, see revenue abnormally dip on a random Wednesday or feel frustrated because certain tools or reports donít exist within your providerís UI, only then can you fully appreciate your clientís needs and

have more empathy.  As a matter of fact, some additional reporting tools exist in our recently released UI as a result of frustrations I encountered when renewing domains in our owned & operated portfolio."

Like other domain investors, Andersson saw his PPC earnings fall and now that Rook Media is reversing that trend he is in a good position to know what changed the equation. "Some legacy providers were created when it was not clear how parking would evolve while others are just one of many business divisions within a larger company. We have all seen this lead to over-staffing, job redundancy and generally way more overhead than is usually necessary. We are a domain monetization company and we know it.  We have found that you donít need a huge staff to provide a first-class service for our clients. More can be done with a smaller, dedicated, and highly experienced team."

"In addition to being able to provide a more personal touch, the lower overhead results in higher rev-shares to our publishers.  I feel weíve done a great job proving this concept as we were able to win the lionís share of domains managed by Above.com in 2012, our first complete calendar year in business."  

Members of the Rook Media team in Zurich - (left to right) Joe Higgins, Ash Rahimi, Martin Andersson, Dona Dorn-Cabahug (Administration and Accounting), Simon Pupo, Ed Russell and Matthias Muller  

Andersson added the unique talents of the Rook Media team members have also been instrumental in improved results. "Because of our history together, we knew each otherís strengths long before starting Rook together.  In addition to the sales experience we all have, each also brings a unique skill set to the table.  We have a healthy amount of trust in what each partnerís specialized area is, and we give the others plenty of room to work and create."

After working in the finance sector in Australia, Rook Media Sales VP Simon Pupo entered the domain business in 2006 when he joined NameDrive and was soon elevated to Vice President of Sales. Pupo (who holds degrees in Marketing and Finance from the University of Technology, Sydney) told us why he moved from from Australia to Europe and how he ended up in the domain business.

"I kind of just randomly fell into the domain industry when I started working with NameDrive in Cologne," Pupo recalled.  "Previous to the move I was living and working in Sydney and at the time I was a little bored and unmotivated by the Finance industry, so I was keen for a fresh change. My girlfriend who is from Cologne, had to move back to complete her studies after living in Australia for 12 months so I also decided to make a move and started looking for possible options in Cologne"

"It took me around 4-6 months but I finally found a job with this online ad company called NameDrive. I didnít really know anything about domain parking at the time, but I sent off my application anyway to Ed. I had to send it around seven times before he replied, but the persistence definitely paid off in the end. Just before the end of 2006 I packed up and moved to Germany with everything I needed in one suitcase," Pupo said.

Simon Pupo
Rook Media VP of Sales

It wasn't long before Pupo also found himself personally bitten by the domain big. "It is hard for anyone not to get addicted I think," Pupo laughed. "The general vibe and the energy alone that fills the industry makes it hard not to get hooked. I think the flexible lifestyle it offers also makes it very attractive. In regards to my own personal domain portfolio, I started off slow, but being in the middle of such a strong team for over seven years I picked up my fair share of tricks along the way."

"The domain industry is definitely a little more unorthodox than others and thatís one of the reasonís why I really enjoy being apart of it," Pupo added. "The industry is still relatively young and full of motivated individuals. Most of our partners are individual investors or small to medium sized companies and each partner really has their own flair. I would say that most of our larger partners are innovators and have an entrepreneurial mind set, so working with such an eclectic group of people is really inspiring. The reach of the industry also demands a certain level of flexibility, the domain industry truly is international and our partners cover all continents. In short we help and advise our partners with online investment strategies, domain sales, portfolio management and domain monetization." 

Matthias Muller
Rook Media Director and Co-Founder

The sixth co-founder at Rook Media, Director Matthias Muller, coordinates worldwide B2B partnerships and oversee recruitment for the company. Muller is the lone co-founder who did not get his start at either Sedo or NameDrive, however he did briefly do some consulting work for NameDrive that gave him a taste for domains as an investment vehicle that never left him.

Muller was born and raised in Germany and he studied linguistics and history at universities in Germany, Portugal and France. He is also a graduate of Sorbonne University in Paris, where he earned a Masters Degree in International Marketing in 2002. 

All of the Rook Media founders agree that the addition of Joe Higgins to the team as Senior Sales & Strategy Consultant in 2011 had an exceptionally positive impact on the company. Daniel Law noted, "In addition to his phenomenal work ethic and determination to get the job done, Joe brought us an exposure to many client groups and types that we had never been able to make timely inroads into in the past with our previous parking company experiences"

"As you know this is a very relationship based industry and it can sometimes be the one the most tasking challenges to try and reach out to a whole new subset of clients that you have had little to no experience working with to date. It can literally be a labor of years (and this in such a fast paced industry!) to gain the trust and respect of publishers enough that they will decide to start testing a new platform."

"Joeís reputation and painstakingly built up network of contacts let us short cut that whole process significantly," Law said. "When paired with our top notch technology and customer service, it led to convincing performance results that greatly helped our own efforts and led us to become the number 2 parking provider on the market."

Higgins spent 6 years with DomainSponsor managing the relationships and portfolios of their top clients. In 2009, he relocated to Europe and was part of the team charged with expanding their reach into that market. Higgins, who has also spent time as a professional drummer, told us how he wound up connecting with the Rook Media team.

"I knew a couple of the founders through our paths crossing at various conferences over the years and when I initially heard chatter about the new platform and company the guys were creating, I considered then how great it would be to work with that group.  Around March 2011, I started seeing 

Joe Higgins
Rook Media Senior Sales & Strategy Consultant

some of my clients testing the new Rook platform, which was in BETA at that point. It so happened that my domestic-supervisor, Jessica Besseling, was going to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise money for The Water School, and I knew Rook co-founder Ed Russell would also be on that climb.  Two things were on Jessyís mind when she boarded the plane to Nairobi, make it to the top of the mountain and convey to Ed my interest in speaking with the team. It took them 3 months to contact me, and Iím unsure if it was due to Jessyís sales skills or some background check on me!" said with a wink. 

Higgins signed on with the task of helping grow Rookís client-base. "I also work with portfolio owners of all sizes making sure their needs and best interests are represented to my team and manage the day-to-day backend details of portfolio monetization," Higgins said. "Also, I research potential partners I feel we could team with in order to expand our service-offering and customer base.  Finally, at the top of this year, I began working with Martin managing Rookís marketing efforts."      

After two years on the job Higgins knows he made the right choice. "Because of their history together, the founders have an incredible bond that goes way beyond domains.  Consider that they all relocated to Zurich, a place only one of them was familiar with at the time. To make that move, each person had to have an immense amount of faith in the idea of Rook Media as a company, as well as each other as partners and friends," Higgins said. 

Rook Media's picturesque home town - Zurich, Switzerland

Higgins added, "This is a group who truly care about the well-being of each other outside the company walls, and that is something not seen often enough.  I have brought this up to them on a couple of occasions, and I feel very happy to be a part of this team and that camaraderie."

Given Rook Media's remarkable growth, it's becoming clear that their clients are feeling the love too.

*****   


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