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March 07, 2015

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Changing of the Guard: How Dan Pulcrano Became The Point Man in the Historic March From Old Media to the New World Online 

If you are a domain owner you are involved in something much bigger than the domain business- you are in the media business. The success that domain owners are enjoying today is a direct result of a historic upheaval in the media business that is shifting advertising expenditures away from traditional outlets and onto the Internet. 

As one of the few publishers that have successfully navigated the treacherous straights between print media and the new world online, Boulevards New Media founder and CEO Dan Pulcrano gave us a unique opportunity to take you beyond domains for an inside look at the larger forces currently shaping our industry. Forces that are precipitating the fall of old media empires offline and the rise of new ones on the web - a seismic shift hat has put owners of high quality domains in the catbird seat. 

Of the six billion people on our planet, only a few dozen had the foresight in the mid 1990's to start acquiring domain names with the idea that they could become valuable in the future. Those very rare individuals were almost universally regarded as fools who were flushing perfectly good money down the drain. Fast forward barely a decade ahead and yesterday's fools have become today's visionaries


Dan Pulcrano 
Founder & CEO, Boulevards News Media
(photo by Dina Scoppettone (c) 2008)

"Visionary" is a word that gets thrown around pretty casually in this business today and it is often applied to folks who, by their own admission, just happened to be lucky - in the right place at the right time. But there are true visionaries in the space and none is more deserving of that apellation than Dan Pulcrano. He saw (and bet the ranch) on the future of domains. Today he owns a near priceless portfolio that includes 20 of the 30 largest American city names in the .com extension (many already developed), including LosAngeles.com, San Francisco.com and Philadelphia.com to name just a few.
















Original cover of Dan Pulcrano's 1993 paper 
warning fellow newspaper publishers about the 
challenges they would face from the Internet (they 
not only ignored him, they kicked him off their board!) 

But Pulcrano saw much more than just the increasing value of domain names. Back in 1993, when he was already a successful publisher of alternative newspapers, Pulcrano saw and warned his colleagues about the print media train wreck that we are seeing play out before our eyes today. On Oct. 27, 1993, Pulcrano wrote a private paper called The Alternative Press at the Crossroads: Will We Be Players in the New Information Age Or Road Kill on the Digital Highway and sent it to fellow board members of his industry trade group (the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies). 

About the Internet, Pulcrano wrote this, "The biggest area of competition for the alternative press, at the user information level, will be at the back of the book: music, movie and event listings, classified advertising and personals. While print offers many user-friendly advantages to electronic technologies and will likely remain the dominant player for at least the next decade, we can expect to see a gradual erosion in the percentage of readers who rely on print exclusively for these categories of information - particularly as portable wireless devices begin to proliferate and screen technologies cross the 2,000-pixel threshold, at which point electronic resolution will overtake print in terms of readability and resolution."

The accuracy of his comments, especially in view of the fact that they were written 15 years ago, is uncanny to say the least. Here's another passage that is even more compelling - "In terms of advertising, we will likely see a migration (to the web) of classified and personal advertising, along with the introduction of "electronic yellow pages" type services. The electronic medium offers several advantages to print: instant search capabilities based on predetermined criteria, direct placement of ads by readers, instant updating, and the ability to responds to ads electronically."

All of this was laughed at then, but has since come to pass. The other AAN leaders thanked Pulcrano for trying to save their skins by kicking him off the board and going on about their business - certain that their cash cows had nothing to fear from this upstart called the Internet. Bet they would like a do over on that one.

While his peers went on their merry way and kept their date with disaster, Pulcrano acted on his own advice and started preparing for the new age ahead. He started a new company - Boulevards New Media - and began assembling the great portfolio of domain names that would be his future media platform.  

Pulcrano sold off money-making print properties while pursuing then unproven digital assets. If they could have, his colleagues undoubtedly would have had him Baker acted for his own protection. Today they all wish they had been as "crazy" as Pulcrano was in 1993

OK, so we have established that Pulcrano made some smart moves - perhaps some of the smartest moves in business history, but who exactly is this guy? What path in life put him in a position to acquire domains like Dallas.com, Seattle.com, Houston.com and many more? Those were the questions that were bouncing around my mind the first time I met Pulcrano at the 2007 GeoDomain Expo in San Francisco last November. I started getting my answers after the opening day of the conference when Pulcrano invited my wife and I to join him and Boulevards executive Mauricio Mejia for dinner at the Farallon Restaurant. 

When I was in junior high school I started my own "newspaper" and circulated it among classmates, so I knew I had found a kindred spirit when Pulcrano told me he had started his first publication when he was only 11! Pulcrano grew up in New Jersey where both of his parents were schoolteachers. "During the summer they ran a day camp and were foolish enough to leave a mimeograph machine, which they bought to duplicate camp flyers, unattended in the basement," Pulcrano recalled. "It was, of course, the gun on the mantel."

"At age 11 I was publishing, quite literally, underground newspapers. That was way more interesting than my prior experiments in mass media, such as using carbon paper to make copies of Batman’s cast for my third grade friends or running to tell the neighbors about the Kennedy assassination after a news ticker appeared on a cartoon show. Within three years, it was printed on newsprint presses and distributed statewide."

By the time he reached high school, Pulcrano had picked up another obsession. "I was also fascinated by communications technology. I disassembled telephones and hacked into phone networks. The phone phreaks of the 70s were precursors to the computer hacking of the 

Pulcrano speaking at the GeoDomain 
in San Francisco (Nov. 2007)

1980s and I think those movements laid the philosophical groundwork for the Internet because one way or another individuals were going to crack the monopolies of IBM, AT&T and the Department of Defense over global information networks. These entities were not going to share computing technology and network access with a billion others voluntarily," Pulcrano said. " I once wrote IBM and asked if they would send me instructions on how to build a simple computer for a science project, but all they sent me was a sales brochure."

Former Vice President Al Gore (far left) was 
among the prominent figures Pulcrano (far right) 
interviewed as a young reporter.

"We also had a 10-watt FM radio station at my high school. I covered board of education and borough council meetings, interviewed the governor, met Secretary of State Kissinger and talked my way into a Washington party with then-Vice President Ford. Being where the action is and getting to meet smart people was part of what attracted me to newspapering," Pulcrano added.

When he was 15 years old, Pulcrano's parents moved him and his two younger sisters to Southern California where he continued pursuing his passion for media. "I convinced my teachers to let me out of class in the afternoons to write newscasts for the local AM radio station. I got credit for things like interviewing California’s then

state senate majority leader, George Moscone about his bill to decriminalize marijuana. How much cooler can you get than that in high school!?," Pulcrano smiled. 
"I wasn't exactly captain of the football team and dating cheerleaders, you know. (Okay, I was a nerd.) I finished high school as quickly as I could and enrolled in San Diego City College’s journalism program, where the average student was a decade older. I was 16 and the 

journalism adviser kept comparing me to another teen journalist who had been there a year or two earlier. His name was Cameron Crowe, who was by then working for Rolling Stone magazine and later wrote and directed the autobiographical movie Almost Famous," Pulcrano recalled. 

Then Pulcrano got the first break that would allow him to turn his favorite pastime into a profession. "The Reader, which was  then a small, struggling weekly in San Diego, hired me. That was the first time I got paid to do something that I loved so much I would have done it for free. The following year, I went overseas and studied International Relations and wrote an early exposé

Legendary music industry icon Bill Graham (left) 
chats with young reporter Dan Pulcrano.

of nuclear weapons programs in the Middle East. I returned to go to school at the University of California, Santa Cruz. A cast of characters ranging from Spaulding Gray, I.F. Stone and Eugene Ionescu to Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, Angela Davis, Jello Biafra and Huey Newton were running around campus then, so there was a lot to learn and write about!" Pulcrano said.

"While working in Santa Barbara on a summer break when I was 19, Jay Levin approached me and asked if I would help him start the LA Weekly. He was an entrepreneur and journalist who wrote about things that mattered but were ignored by mainstream media: independent film, punk rock, undiscovered comedians, emerging fashion districts like Melrose, the secret U.S. war against the Sandinistas. It became the fastest growing weekly ever launched, and had a transformative effect not only on Los Angeles, but on major sectors of the entertainment industry and the newspaper publishing industry as well. Working there was life changing for me too; from that point on I knew what I wanted to do," Pulcrano declared.

Legendary Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner also inspired Pulcrano. " He nurtured the careers of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S.Thompson, Annie Liebovitz and others, and even after 40 years, offers some of the most compelling writing about the dangerous idiocy in D.C. published anywhere," Pulcrano said." Jann was a founding investor in my publishing group and has remained incredibly supportive through the ups and downs of transforming it from a print company into a Web publisher at the epicenter of the Internet revolution, which has been a fun but hellish 15-year odyssey."

More on the "hellish" part (triggered by the web bubble bursting in 2000) shortly, but long before reaching that crossroads Pulcrano wrote a business plan for a publishing company while he was a senior in college, taking an entrepreneurship course

Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone co-founder 
and publisher  (1967 photo by Baron Wolman)

taught by the fiber optics pioneer Dr. Narinder Kapany. "That led to starting a community weekly in Los Gatos, California, where I got to watch legendary entrepreneurs like Atari's Nolan Bushnell in action during Silicon Valley’s PC and video game boom," Pulcrano recalled. " Michael D'Addio, who owned San Jose’s soccer team and an early networking company, helped me understand how computers could share information and devices when you wired them together."

An Internet-boom era copy of Pulcrano's 
Silicon Valley weekly Metro

"Around that time I wrote the business plan for Metro, an alternative weekly in Silicon Valley, on an Apple III, using the Visicalc spreadsheet program. Being in Silicon Valley, we began working with personal computers and an early electronic mail program, MCI Mail, back when everyone else was still using typewriters or dumb terminals, and when "cut-and-paste" editing involved using scissors and Scotch tape," Pulcrano said.

"We messed around with all the early online services: Prodigy, Compuserve, AOL. At one point I realized that much of the information that newspapers provided could be delivered more efficiently online. It would be archived, searchable, cheaper and more current. I knew we were in trouble. So I went to the board of our trade association in 1993 with a plan to establish a common effort to develop digital services. They thought I was nuts and booted me off the board," Pulcrano said.

However, as is so often the case, when one door closes another opens - and that proved true for Pulcrano (who by the way still has a toe in the print water with his Silicon Valley and Santa Cruz editions of Metro and a paper called the North Bay Bohemian). "That year we started Livewire, the first graphical online service in the weekly industry. It was a dialup service that had all of our articles, as well as free email accounts, live chat and forums. A bookstore sold its books through the service. People met online and hooked up. Area governments started posting their agendas and minutes. It was Silicon Valley's version of The Well, and thousands of people in the valley got their first online experiences with us. In many ways, it was a microcosm for the Web, which caught fire two years later," Pulcrano said. 

From his special vantage point, Pulcrano could now see the handwriting on the wall. "By 1995 it became clear that the browser and the World Wide Web was going to squash the early online technologies, so we launched a site and abandoned Livewire and its successor, Virtual Valley. Like many early web companies, we tried to do it all: contract website development, our own content services, and, in the late '90s, made some domain investments, which were premature and made very little business sense. By the bust of 2000, we were overinvested and spread too thin."

The sudden contraction forced Pulcrano to make a tough decision, one that went against conventional wisdom at the time - but one that again proved to be prescient. " By exploiting email, desktop publishing technologies and networked file sharing, we had grown from one to 11 publications in under a decade and were sharing a common business infrastructure and production department. We had built up a thriving community newspaper group in the Valley, which I had no choice but to sell."

"We also closed down our publications in San Francisco and Oakland. I made a decision to concentrate on the Internet and divest from print just at the time everyone thought the Internet fad was over. Some of my partners thought I should sell the domains and keep the newspapers. Luckily I didn't listen," Pulcrano said.

That could be the understatement of the year. Pulcrano now sits pretty while much  

of the newspaper business appears to be in an irreversible meltdown. His good fortune today stems from a series of bold moves he made when others might have given up and gone home. 

It started with scraping up as much money as he could to buy the domains he owns today (unlike many other holders of great domains who got their names on the drop or as new registrants very early in the game, most of Pulcrano's were purchased on the aftermarket in the mid 90s). "The first purchase was a number of domains that were owned by a film director who had produced sequels to Night of the Living Dead," Pulcrano said. "I tried to aggregate as many cities as I could after that and bought others from private owners in the belief that there would be some economies of scale in managing these as a network. Although most were purchased for a fraction of today's values, it was a lot of money at the time, and very risky."

Once he had his hands on the prizes he was after, Pulcrano set about turning them into something more than just great domain names. "As the owner of the majority of the big U.S. cities we feel a responsibility to make sure these assets realize their potential. Last year we relaunched our major sites with colorful logos for each city and a new design. It was a huge 

Pulcrano (center) with some of his team members 
at their San Jose office in 2005 after he had 
just purchased the popular city web guide 
. Kyu Kyung, head of the content 
and technology team is at far left.

effort by our content and technology team, headed by Kyu Kyung, to rebuild that many sites, and they did an amazing job," Pulcrano said.

"Boulevards also created an automated platform to empower community-based businesses and event promoters. It allows them to take control of their digital marketing. They can market their companies and promote events in an organized environment where people go for information. In integrating both time and location-based data, the Boulevards platform goes beyond one-dimensional directories and calendaring systems, and as an added benefit serves the information under a powerful local brand rather than a national one," Pulcrano said.  

"We are also developing real estatesystems and a news channel that will be rolled out on our sites as we move through this year. We want to add staffing for both sales and content in each city, but obviously this will take a lot of investment. Boulevards is a private company that bootstrapped all this without outside investment, and we are carefully evaluating what kind of partner we need to fully realize this opportunity."

"Obviously we have the virtual real estate to become a significant media company, along with the enthusiasm and historical perspective to do so. We want to do a great job for our communities, since they are losing an important local institution with the "reinvention" of daily newspapers, which is really just disinvestment and managed decline. The local space is up for grabs right now, and successors must be conscious of the ways in which media shape and enrich cities through leadership, a mix of civic activism and boosterism, economic development and social responsibility," Pulcrano said.

While Pulcrano has the world's strongest collection of large market geodomains, he says that those who hold small to mid-size city sites face a less challenging development path. "Big national players generally focus on the top markets and don't drill down into the less populous ones, so there are more opportunities for entrepreneurs in the small and mid-sized markets," Pulcrano said. "In a community with a population in the tens of thousand or low hundreds of thousands, an operator can get to know the key players in a community by walking the commercial districts, joining a service club and hanging out at chamber mixers. If they live in the community, they'll understand the pulse of the community, develop a passion for it and find out about opportunities first."

Above: The founding board members and staff of Associated Cities (left to right):
Back Row - Josh Metnick, Patrick Carleton, Sean Miller, Jonathan King, Skip Hoagland & 
WardFront Row: Michael Castello, David Castello and Dan Pulcrano

As a founding member of Associated Cities, a trade group for .com geodomain owners, Pulcrano, who currently serves as the group's chairman, has been instrumental in helping individual geodomain owners realize the potential of their properties. Their group has become a model that other sectors of the domain industry might do well to emulate. Domain owners have a history of being "Lone Rangers" but Associated Cities seems to have cleared that hurdle. I asked Pulcrano how the group has managed to keep inevitable personal disagreements from sidetracking the association's goal of pushing the geodomain sector as a whole forward. 

"It's entrepreneurial, and the geodomain industry is still in its early stages, so owner-operators tend to share business practices and develop close personal bonds that will not be as prevalent when the industry is consolidated," Pulcrano said. " Also, by only accepting pure city names with the dotcom suffix, people aren't stepping on one another's toes too much."

Pulcrano added, "It’s amazing to me that the venture capitalists, media companies and equity funds haven't yet woke up and started pouring money into this category because it really is the last mile of the Internet. The heavy lifting of creating organizations to manage relationships with local businesses and local information will require capital and persistence but the rewards will be large. The dailies' death spiral is creating a huge vacuum."

"It won't be like the early days of the Internet where a successful vertical play could lop off the most lucrative chunks of a market," Pulcrano said. "The Internet equivalents of big box stores are fine but the advantage of low cost, highly personalized communications technology is that it enables the growth of low overhead boutique businesses. Organizations that provide service at the community level will create tremendous value for their owners. And I think the geodomains are well positioned to mine this opportunity."

Pulcrano speaking at DOMAINfest Global
in Hollywood, California (Jan. 2008)

Pulcrano was a speaker at last month's DOMAINfest Global conference in Hollywood, California. I was there to cover the panel discussion he was involved in and he had some particularly interesting things to say about the decline of newspapers. Though the Internet is widely perceived to be the force that is wiping out the papers, Pulcrano said the web was actually just the final nail in the coffin. He said their decline actually began decades ago - and that they have no one to blame for their downfall but themselves.

"Daily circulation remained flat for half a century while US population more than doubled," Pulcrano said. Big Media consolidated markets and formed joint operating agreements — legal monopolies — with their competitors, or informal duopolies that had the same
price-fixing effect. They made obscene 

profits by punishing their customers with higher rates, not by delivering more readers or better value. Their smugness, arrogance and inability to innovate made them sitting ducks."

"Meanwhile community weeklies, alternative weeklies, business journals, shoppers, city magazines and other specialty publications started grabbing whole categories of advertising with more targeted offerings. My newspaper company grew quickly in the 1990s because we concentrated on offering quality local products and better value to local businesses," Pulcrano said.

"We published both alternative newspapers (free news and entertainment weeklies) around the Bay Area and community newspapers that were home delivered in Silicon Valley communities like Los Gatos and Cupertino. Lightweight companies like ours were gobbling up whole categories. Alternatives grabbed the entertainment franchise, business journals dominated commercial real estate and community weeklies became the preferred vehicle for main street businesses and local Realtors."

"The dailies raised their classified rates and stayed fat and happy with employment advertising during the great economic boom during the Clinton years, which made the dailies vulnerable to Craigslist, a competitor that outperformed them at low cost in the Bay Area — or for free in other markets," Pulcrano said.

Dan Pulcrano kicking butt and taking names as
 the 23-year-old publisher of the Los Gatos Weekly 

Once newspapers realized they had a real problem, they tried to pull the fat out of the fire by going online themselves, but their efforts were largely ill-conceived and ineffective. Pulcrano noted "The big newspaper companies invested heavily in online delivery of information early on, but just didn’t deliver a compelling offering. For example, Knight-Ridder/Dialog had products like Viewtext, which sold articles. Their web brands — like Nando, SFGate, AZJournal and SignonSanDiego — were neither musical to the ear nor intuitive."

Sean Miller, owner of 'disruptive brand'
NewYorkCity.com (and mate NYC.com)

"Web nomenclature turned out to be a great leveler," Pulcrano said. " Sean Miller of NewYorkCity.com/NYC.com calls geodomains "disruptive brands." The failure of the newspapers to mine the Internet opportunity goes beyond vague, klunky names. They presented a digital version of the 19th Century penny press rather than understanding that this was a new medium that was going to be used in different ways. It was transactional, and a package in itself."

"They thought they could deliver news, sports, business, weather and entertainment in a book, like before. But the reader had a different idea. They were going to go to a sports site for sports news, a financial site for stock market intelligence, and so on. When daily publishers bought a city domain like Miami.com or Boston.com, they put news on it and organized the information the same way as their print products. And their defensive strategies, designed to protect their golden gooses while they were feasting on foie gras, ensured that category killers like Match.com, eBay,

Marketwatch, Google News, Craigslist or Trulia would come from outside the industry," Pulcrano said.

Wired Magazine co-founder John Battelle was a keynote speaker at last month's DOMAINfest Global 2008 conference in California. He emphasized the point that we began this article with - that domains are media properties. Battelle urged domain owners to develop their domain assets with lots of Web 2.0 seasoning sprinkled into the mix - features that allow visitors to interact with the site and produce user-generated content. Battelle calls them "conversational media" sites. 

Though it is more labor intensive I believe that if you can add one more ingredient - unique content from good writers - you will fare even better. In my mind that is the surest way to create a special identity for your site that is hard for someone else to duplicate. Pulcrano agrees. "Wouldn't it be great if 

Wired Magazine co-founder John Battelle

you  could rely on your readers to create the DN Journal?" he asked. "While you can get your interviewees to contribute their thoughts and do some of the work, a good editor has to develop expertise in a subject area and select the topics that make a content offering compelling. A site that ranks content based on algorhthyms or user popularity won't push the envelope like one that extends a personality like Drudge, Salon, Slate, Huffington or Koz."


"Battelle is right though - the land needs to be developed, because without content and sales forces, the branding edge (of a great domain) can turn out to be a transitional advantage. Remember what happened to the dailies? The parking phenomenon has created laziness. The less you do with your names, the more you make. The name "parking" is appropriate, because in cities, land owners found that they could make money by not building anything or even  

managing a property. They could tear down an old structure, skin it with asphalt and put a guy in a tiny booth to put a slip of paper under your wiper blades. Think of how many great cities let their cores be reduced to skid rows through that monetization scheme. They came back to life when investors bought the land, swept up the malt liquor cans, hired good architects, placed high rises on the parking spots and created great spaces for people to live, work, socialize and do business."

"The same has to happen with the Internet real estate," Pulcrano said. "Otherwise, the public reacts in the same way as a visitor to a downtown that has decayed. The person visits once and doesn't come back. If you go downtown expecting to see well dressed people, good restaurants and entertainment venues and instead get empty parking lots with abandoned cars and malt liquor cans, you are not likely to spend time there again."

Since Pulcrano has such a great track record for predicting the future, we couldn't help but ask where he thought our industry is headed from here. "I have great faith in the future of direct navigation," Pulcrano said. "As the Internet matures, more and more people will develop relations with sites and go directly to them rather than do a new search every time. The top brands will get stronger and stronger. Over time the media buyers will understand that there are things more important than traffic. They have to understand why people are at a site, not just how many of them are there and what gender, age and income category describes them."

Pulcrano added "There is a big difference between direct navigation city guides and media sites. The former have disproportionately high conversion rates because visitors are there looking for something specific, often before a trip or purchase. Newspaper sites have high traffic but much lower conversions. Among the most hit pages on any newspaper site will be any article they carry about Britney Spears. What do you sell to that visitor?"

"A few years ago I noticed that the most visited pages on our newspapers' websites were articles about selling women's' panties on Ebay, a photographer who argued that nude portraits of children were not pornography and the alternative rock band Good Charlotte. We realized that the newspaper sites' growth was being enhanced by a global audience of pedophiles, panty sniffers and young girls who wanted to date the lead singer of Good Charlotte!"  If that doesn't explain why Pulcrano decided to change horses in the media race, nothing will.

Pulcrano is obviously a man with a lot of balls in the air at the same time. That leads to the kind of long work weeks entrepreneurs are famous for, but he does manage to combine business with pleasure whenever he can. "Luckily I love what I do, so the 80-hour weeks are fun. I've had some of the best times of my life hanging out with my Associated Cities friends in places like Acapulco, Las Vegas, Hilton Head, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago (where we spent a night buying drinks for the Bush twins)," Pulcrano said. 

"Besides travel, I like to hike in the mountains, go deep sea fishing, take road trips, collect 

Pulcrano (left) boating off Hilton Head Island with 
friends and fellow Associated Cities board members 
Michael Castello and David Castello (right).

exotic plants and have been restoring an historic house. I go to clubs and concerts and museums because I enjoy staying in touch with the pulse of cities. I'm still single so I don't have family responsibilities. Right now I'm the vice chair of a city commission on open government that's drafting San Jose's first sunshine law. I write columns and editorials from time to time and I try to find time for volunteer work in the community and stay active in Rotary, because it does great work both locally and around the world," Pulcrano concluded.

Many new chapters will undoubtedly be added to Pulcrano's story in the years ahead. As media consumers continue to usher old empires to the exit and welcome new ones to center stage, Pulcrano should be easy to find - just look for the guy standing in the spotlight.



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