Herrera’s Mexican Grill is a burrito joint in Boston’s Downtown Crossing, an area densely packed with retail businesses of all sorts. Recently, its building has been under construction, with janky scaffolding obstructing the sidewalk and possibly discouraging passersby from stopping in for a bite to eat. At the same time, the city has put a new bus stop nearby, adding to congestion on the narrow street–but then again, maybe there’s an opportunity to sell Mexican food to hungry people on their way home.
Without actual data, it’s tough to know what impact developments such as these have on businesses. But Herrera’s is part of an experiment designed to help it understand what’s going on with foot traffic in its neighborhood. Sensors mounted inside the restaurant and on lampposts outside count people as they mill about, collecting information that could give Herrera’s an idea of how well it’s doing at converting pedestrians into diners.
This experiment is being conducted by MIT’s Media Lab. It’s exactly the sort of inventive, even futuristic use of technology that you can easily envision the famed research organization coming up with. And it has a partner in the enterprise: GoDaddy, the world’s largest domain registrar.
GoDaddy being part of this effort–now, that is a surprise. The company’s core customers for domains, web hosting, and other services are very small businesses, including the sort of neighborhood shops and restaurants that are plentiful around Downtown Crossing. For much of its history, though, what it was best known for were crass Super Bowl ads and the misadventures of its founder, Bob Parsons. GoDaddy teaming with the Media Lab would have sounded like no more likely a proposition than Hooters forging a relationship with the James Beard Foundation.
The Boston project could lead to some sort of service that GoDaddy can offer to small businesses. But even if it never evolves into a money-making enterprise, it will serve its purpose as part of the company’s ongoing effort to reinvent itself.
Parsons, who made his first fortune selling PC software such as a personal-finance package and a digital Bible, founded GoDaddy in 1997 and went into the domain business in 2000. Its price–$8.95 a year–was remarkably low at the time. That helped it become the largest registrar of new domains in 2002; by 2005, it had more domains under management than anyone else.
As GoDaddy scaled up, its advertising tactics became increasingly trollish. Parsons bought time for two spots during the 2005 Super Bowl, then had some of his proposed ads rejected by Fox. (“Personally, I am going to miss the crotch-biting dog and the farting horse,” he blogged mournfully.) The network decided on the fly to cancel the second airing of the commercial it did approve, which involved a “GoDaddy Girl” who almost falls out of her tank top during a mock censorship hearing.
The company used this dust-up as a template to manufacture ongoing controversy–involving both actual tacky GoDaddy Girl TV commercials on TV, but also even tackier Internet-only rejected spots and extended versions. Generating publicity by being polarizing became a strategic goal. “In order to be ‘GoDaddy-esque,’” Parsons explained in a 2006 blog post, “a commercial must be edgy, hot, slightly tasteless, and just a touch inappropriate.”
In another post a year later, Parsons defended his ads in response to criticism–“they all not only don’t make me want to use GoDaddy’s services, but leave me feeling like I should go door to door beseeching other people not to”–from a journalist who happened to be . . . well, me:
After reading Mr. McCracken’s review, I sat back and smiled. I loved the review. In a nutshell, Mr. McCracken told me that our commercials are indeed working. You see, after most people read his review, if they look up any commercial at all, they will look up Go Daddy and watch our commercials. And after watching our commercials, the vast majority will smile, then try our company. Then after they have a chance to experience our outstanding customer service, great products, and prices, they will become customers for life. That’s why GoDaddy.com is now the world’s largest registrar–more than twice the size of its closest competitor!
GoDaddy’s way of promoting itself–whatever you think of it–was potent stuff. It continues to color the company’s reputation, even though the roots of its present-day desire to be taken seriously go all the way back to its 2011 acquisition by three private-equity companies. The new owners hired former Microsoft and Yahoo executive Blake Irving as CEO in December 2012. Founder Parsons stuck around as executive chairman until June 2014, when the company filed for an IPO; today, he spends his time running motorcycle dealerships, manufacturing high-end golf clubs, and engaging in philanthropy, among other pursuits. Along the way, the company has ditched the racy Super Bowl ads, announced plans to terminate its sponsorship of Danica Patrick’s Nascar team, staffed up with technologists who rebuilt its products, and generally tried to recalibrate both its image and its products.
In the fall of 2012, Blake Irving was wrapping up a few months of time off after leaving Yahoo, where he had put in a couple of years as chief product officer after spending 15 years at Microsoft. He was ready for a new challenge and pursuing leads when he got a call from GoDaddy. Was he interested in talking about being its new CEO?
It was not the most obvious opportunity for someone whose background was in products and technology. Irving recalls his reaction: “It doesn’t feel like a tech company, it feels like a great marketing company.” His attitude towards GoDaddy’s products, he says, was “Eyyyyeh“–a sound effect that seems designed to convey something between indifference and mild distaste.
But as Irving began to think about GoDaddy’s strengths–more than $1 billion in annual sales, 10 million customers, 79% brand recognition–his interest was piqued. In conversations about the CEO job, he laid out a vision. For one thing, the company was long overdue for a technology upgrade. It had built its various services–domain registration, hosting, and a bevy of other offerings–one at a time, rather than as part of a coherent platform with a consistent interface.
GoDaddy also needed to go global, Irving believed. “Really, if you’re a technology business, you ought to have more than 50% of your revenue coming from outside the country,” he remembers arguing. “If you don’t go in the local language, and payment, tax, and currencies and vernacular and imagery, you’re not going to have that happen.” And the marketing that had made GoDaddy famous, with its emphasis on Super Bowl hoopla and Nascar driver Patrick, was about as American as a branding statement could be.
It turned out that GoDaddy’s new owners were already thinking along the same lines. Irving–who bears a certain resemblance to the company’s venerable, bespectacled mascot–got the gig, with a mandate to reimaging GoDaddy as a technology-centric company with global aspirations. That would require staffing up with the sort of technologists who were not exactly plentiful around its Scottsdale, Arizona, headquarters.
To lure talent, Irving would have to overcome the same impressions that he had himself when he first contemplated the possibility of joining the company. When word got out about his new position, “My in-box goes crazy with people saying, ‘GoDaddy? What in God’s name did you go to GoDaddy for?,'” he remembers. One message, which Irving summarizes as “WTF? GoDaddy? What, are you kidding?,” came from Arnold Blinn, a longtime Microsoft employee who Irving had worked with during his time at the company. Irving gave Blinn the same vision he’d used on GoDaddy’s owners, and Blinn ended up joining the company as chief architect.
“Arnold now gets a hundred emails from all of his friends,” Irving says. “I get a bunch more from mine, people that I’ve worked with, saying ‘Okay, now Arnold Blinn’s showed up. What’s going on there? What’s going to happen? What do you think is going to happen?’ I just walked them through the same thing.” Some of those people ended up signing on to work for the company at a new facility outside Seattle in Kirkland, Washington, where GoDaddy now employees 150 people. (The company remains headquartered in Scottsdale, where its sales and support operations are located, and some engineering continues to be done.)
From Yahoo, Irving poached Elissa Murphy, who had also been a colleague at Microsoft, to serve as GoDaddy’s new CTO. “I had reservations, absolutely,” says Murphy, who sports a sticker of secret-agent rodent Danger Mouse on her MacBook, a Danger Mouse case on her iPhone, and an impressive engineering résumé dating all the way back to the golden age of PC software in the early 1990s. But she found Irving’s pitch about the company’s new focus on helping small businesses alluring. “The people and the culture of the company were so different than the perception,” she adds. And GoDaddy’s desire to rebuild its platform from scratch gave her “a blank canvas to build on some of the newest open source [technologies].” Murphy, who works out of a GoDaddy office in Sunnyvale, California, is one of a couple hundred staffers in the Bay Area.
Murphy’s mission was to replace the creaky plumbing behind GoDaddy’s disparate products with unified, modern technologies, often built using open-source software–the sort of carefully thought-out platform that is second nature in Silicon Valley, but which GoDaddy had never had. “There were a lot of silos, both in technology and in data,” she says. “Unless you’ve built out a distributed system, you don’t really think, ‘Oh, this is a component that I can reuse.’ It was just an application company versus an infrastructure company, and we’re shifting that. It’s still really early.”
As with many tech companies–and unlike the GoDaddy of yore–another part of Irving’s strategy involves snapping up startups with interesting projects and capable teams. In August 2013, it acquired Locu, a local-information specialist that catered to the sort of small businesses that were GoDaddy’s core constituency.
“Locu started sort of as the idea that you could take unstructured information, turn it into structured data, and help improve local search,” says cofounder Rene Reinsberg. “Along the way, we realized that small businesses would like to have better tools to manage their information online, and so we built a tool that would allow restaurants to manage their menu and other data about themselves. We partnered with OpenTable and Yelp and others, and built direct API connections, so that a restaurant could very simply come to our dashboard, change a price on the menu or special or the opening hours, and it would automatically update it across the partners.” Over time, the service expanded to address everyone from plumbers to spa operators.
When Reinsberg and his cofounders were still MIT students putting together the idea for Locu, a Stanford professor and former Google head of personalization named Sep Kamvar came to the university to give a talk at the Media Lab. “We met up with him and just talked to him about Locu, and he basically became a key mentor on that journey,” says Reinsberg. When Kamvar joined the Media Lab as director of the Social Computing group, and Reinsberg was named as GoDaddy’s VP of emerging products, they continued to talk. That relationship segued into discussion of how MIT and GoDaddy might work together.
Corporate collaborations are a basic part of how the Media Lab operates: its partners include everyone from Coca-Cola to Ikea to Toyota. Kamvar was fascinated by the Internet’s ability to change how tiny companies operated–such as the way unlicensed food trucks in San Francisco used Twitter to alert customers to their current location–and that tied in nicely with Reinsberg’s efforts and GoDaddy’s general focus on very small businesses.
“Developing software to enable micro-entrepreneurs of that scale is something that was a shared passion of both of ours,” Kamvar says. “That’s how the conversation started with GoDaddy.”
The MIT project is taking place in the decidedly brick-and-mortar place that is downtown Boston, not online, but it fits into GoDaddy’s desire to help very small companies make smarter, data-based decisions. “One of the charters that we have, at least from a platform standpoint, is democratizing big data for small business,” says Murphy. “You have that starting to take form now.”
At Downtown Crossing, the big data is being collected by sensors devised by the Media Lab. With the city’s permission, MIT students equipped with ladders descended on the area and stuck them in locations such as on the tops of lampposts, as well as inside participating small businesses lined up by GoDaddy.
“With all these sensors, the idea is to capture all the inputs that matter to us as humans and use proxies to capture them in a data fashion,” says Reinsberg. One type of sensor is a motion detector that can identify when a pedestrian, bicyclist, or motorist passes. “It does it in a very privacy-cautious way, so it doesn’t track who walks by,” he explains. “We just want to know if a person is walking by. When you put a lot of these sensors out, you can start to see flows of people through a city and from the outside, from the street, inside to small businesses. If you think of using analytic software on the web, this would be your equivalent offline.”
Another sensor measures air quality. And a third measures noise, which is a useful way to gauge popularity in busy areas, and can also be used to identify disruptions such as loud construction sites.
Part of the purpose of the whole exercise is to figure out how the factors that the sensors are monitoring could be turned into actionable information for the small businesses in the neighborhood. Herrara’s Mexican Grill, for instance, currently closes at 4 p.m. after the lunch business winds down. Data on evening foot traffic could help it determine whether it would be worthwhile to stay open for dinner.
A restaurant with a second-floor location is also participating in the project. “The landlord is very restrictive on what they can do in terms of advertising outside,” says Reinsberg. “On the ground floor, they literally have just one spot where they can put something up. Right now, there’s a menu there. Online, this is the equivalent of a banner or a landing page. What they’re interested in is how many people are walking up and looking at that, and then what the bounce rate is. They don’t say it in those words, but whether people are actually coming upstairs versus keeping walking.” If the current menu isn’t drawing people in, the space might be better devoted to promotion of another sort.
GoDaddy is involved in this project in several ways. It’s dedicated several employees to working on the effort, and provided financial backing. And the depth of its expertise in dealing with extremely small businesses has helped. “Access to customers has been really great,” says Kamvar. “To be able to say, ‘Here are three or four GoDaddy customers who are interested, and let me introduce you guys.’ That kind of facilitation is something that would have been much more difficult for us to do on our own. That’s one thing that GoDaddy has brought to the table. The other is an enthusiasm in guidance for things that small businesses need, which has been very useful for us.”
The company also plans to mash up the Downtown Crossing stats with big data it’s aggregated from its millions of small-business customers to see if it can correlate information across the physical and digital worlds. The clearer it is about what it’s learned in Boston, the better positioned it will be to understand whether there might be an opportunity to turn it into a business.
“The MIT partnership was helping us experiment in areas where we think there’s going to be value,” says Irving. “We don’t know if there’s a product there. We don’t know if it infuses itself into every product that we’ve got.”
Meanwhile, the plan to reinvent GoDaddy as a technogically sophisticated, global business continues apace. It’s ditched all evidence of its racy past–though it did manage to tick off puppy lovers with its 2015 Super Bowl ad–and now brands itself with ads that are just slightly cheeky, small-business-centric, and tailored to the countries where they appear. In the past 18 months, it’s launched in 37 countries, a pace it was able to achieve because its new technology platform was designed with such rollouts in mind. It hopes to be in 60 by the end of 2016.
Irving starts to list other signs of change. “The open-stack [software] community embracing us and saying, ‘Wow, you guys are really contributing.’ The Anita Borg institute naming GoDaddy as one of the top 12 companies in the world for women technologists to work. That’s kind of different, too. The amount of mounting evidence that the company is very serious about technology, that we are credible, progressive, focusing on a problem that’s a real problem in the world that needs to be solved, that can help the world be a better place.”
GoDaddy isn’t done building out its platform and making over its image. But “I’m talking less about the shift than I was two years ago,” Irving says, “Now there’s evidence that it’s happening, and a lot has happened already.”
Over the next decade, he adds, the company aspires to “help shift the economy towards tiny businesses that otherwise would struggle to find relevance with technology–regardless of whether they’re baking cakes, or mowing lawns, or washing windows, or cutting belts, or building wallets.” It’s an audacious goal. But the fact that he’s talking about it at all is yet another sign that GoDaddy is not the company it once was.