I’ve always enjoyed my interviews and conversations with Rob Monster of Epik.com. I first interviewed Rob back in July of 2010 where he shared his vision of the internet and what he was doing to take things in that direction. You may recall the success of the product portal sites he offered to keyword domain holders until the Google algorithm change took a toll on the model. I connected with Rob a few years later in a Skype interview, in 2014, where he brought us up to speed on what Epik was up to at that time. In 2017, Rob talked to me about the acquisition of Underdeveloped.com. Most recently, Rob and I caught up just a couple of weeks ago where he gave me the details behind his involvement in DigitalTown.
Speaking with Rob is always insightful. He has vision, futuristic ideas and a passion for what he does. I always walk away with a new perspective on domaining, business, and other areas. He inspires me to think out of the box like no one else. This conversation was reminiscent of my first conversation with him back in 2010, but exponentially more advanced. With that said, let me share our conversation with you.
Mike: Rob, it’s been a while, how have you been?
Rob Monster: I’ve been good. It’s been a busy few years. In addition to running Epik, in May of 2015 the board of directors of DigitalTown approached me about coming on board to run their company and I’ve been very much active in running both companies although DigitalTown has taken on a life of its own. But personally good and in a good place. Making wise choices and generally speaking at peace with the Lord and very much governed by the Lord’s will. And part of the Lord’s will for me has been to work on this project called DigitalTown while at the same time looking out for the interests of people who hold the names and protecting their intellectual property rights, oftentimes serving as an ombudsman on their behalf in an environment where I think we’re seeing growing amounts of censorship and a desire to take away personal sovereignty. That’s something that I feel strongly about. Domain names, in my view, is part of personal sovereignty. People should have the right to own domain names and to maintain their own digital identity and digital presence and that too should not be infringed. So whenever, to the extent I can support that, this is certainly a priority for me.
Mike: Sure. It sounds pretty consistent with when I spoke to you way back in 2010. Seems like a lifetime ago but back then you had a pretty grandiose vision of the internet and where it should be for people and how it should work. I don’t know if you recall back then we were talking about things like linking the domains together, things like comments.com and questions.com and bridging from site to site.
Rob Monster: I would say that to a large extent that vision of global interoperability is what’s being manifested in DigitalTown. The idea that we can have single sign-on for the world and be able to, with one login, work with both the public sector and the private sector and be able to transact peer to peer, peer to merchants and peer to government, and that you should have the ability to maintain portable identity and portable reputation as you go from site to site and use case to use case. Questions and Comments and those types of projects which by the way were a co-development with the guy who owned the domains. We didn’t own the domains. And so those projects basically didn’t get commercialized due to kind of a lack of vision of that particular partner. But the idea of an interoperable web that is user centric, I never lost sight of that idea. In fact, I would say the move to the new TLDs to a large extent and now the arrival of blockchain as the catalyzing technology, is opening up vast possibilities to deliver on the vision that we first talked about back in 2010 when I was actually relatively new to the domain industry.
I started Epik in 2009 with a primary emphasis on mass development as you may recall and only because of Google taking away the Punch Bowl did that particular strategy not pan out. But had Google continued to index the vast number of sites that we were producing at the rate of about 250 new sites per week we would’ve had a vast, vast content and media network all connected through single sign-on and all empowering these various components like questions and comments and so forth. But when Google took the Punch Bowl away, that economic engine which was basically mass production of sites went from being a complete cash machine for both us and our clients to being basically a money loser because we were dealing with people who had bought a site that was not producing enough cash within the first year to recoup their investment. This is what we guaranteed.
I think that were it not for Google taking away the Punch Bowl, I think we would’ve been able to deliver the vision of a global media network connected to single sign-on where people could own their own sites but the user experience would’ve been interoperable between sites would’ve been achieved five years earlier.
Mike: You were definitely headed in that direction and I can just remember kind of randomly visiting sites and I could see they were powered by Epik and it was easy to link between the different keyword domain sites that were backed by your platform.
Rob Monster: It was quite an economic engine. It was making a lot of money for a lot of people.
Mike: I remember that sweeping change that came with…
Rob Monster: Google Panda.
Mike: Yes, Google Panda and it pretty much undid everything there. But let’s switch the focus to DigitalTown. It’s very much tied to your vision, your original vision. I see you bought hundreds of thousands of domain names and it looks like a major focus is on the dot City names. Is that the direction that you’re continuing to follow?
Rob Monster: DigitalTown is built around the premise that every city can be its own Google, Amazon, Expedia, OpenTable, Airbnb, PayPal and Coinbase all in one, branded in the identity of the city and owned by the citizens through the mechanism of blockchain. Every city platform which is typically branded in the identity of, say, austin.city, dallas.city, toledo.city, you name it. It gets tokenized as a jointly owned platform at the rate of 10 city shares per capita.
A city share is a blockchain Ethereum smart contract that defines the relative ownership of the perpetual rights to the city platform branded in the identity of that particular city. The reason why we did it this way was recognizing that, in many cases, the municipalities where people live will not be as quick to adopt DigitalTown as a movement as might be the citizens who live there. When we approach promoting DigitalTown as a direction for the world, in terms of an economic model to restore local economic sovereignty, we’re really engaging the dialogue on three levels. We’re talking to NGOs, non-governmental organizations, and people that are involved in global models for how we can cooperate economically, UN, World Trade Organization, American World Chamber Federation, groups like that.
Then the second is we’re talking to the municipalities themselves as well as to some extent, state-level leadership and in some cases even federal level leadership, in essence, government. The third level is the consumers themselves. Saturday I’m scheduled to give my first TED Talk in Budva, Montenegro. I hope my voice will hopefully recover by then. I spent the last two days with a couple of very long days in San Francisco at an Impact Investor Conference. But the point is that this is a movement and we’re advocating it on a global level, working already on four continents and concurrently educating both the global organizations, the local governmental organizations and at the same time starting a consumer level movement with a particular emphasis on youth.
We will announce next Saturday at the occasion of the TED Talk the launch of a global youth ambassador program based in Las Palmas, which is a city in the Gran Canaries off of the African Coast. It’s part of Spain where the EU and the Spanish government have agreed to subsidize the hiring of new university graduates to work as youth ambassadors and to allow people from all around the world who are selected to come to Las Palmas to be trained in how to build a DigitalTown and they’ll bring that movement back to their home cities where they live or where they are studying.
This is really about how do you activate a new economic paradigm where we, as a community, instead of just be habituated to using services like Google and Amazon and Expedia and OpenTable and Airbnb and so forth, we actually have a reason to adopt this new behavior that is local first. Number one because it will lead to our own economic benefit because we are a stakeholder in the ownership of that platform, but number two because we’re also making intervention to reverse a trend that is not looking very promising for the youth generation. You think about your own encounters with youth. I don’t know how many children you have or what their ages are but, you know, these kids are graduating with hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loans, taking jobs where they are clearing almost nothing after they pay for their rent and their living expenses, being told that you look forward to living in a tiny house or a micro apartment and not owning a vehicle because they’ll have mobility as a service, and at some point you’re going to wake up and say, “You know what? This is bullshit. That’s not what I looked forward to for me or my children or my children’s children. I want a better way,” right?
We are engaging these youth at a time when they are waking up to the reality as they clear the haze of the smoke-filled rooms whatever it is they’re smoking or vaping, recognizing that they should maybe reconsider their future and how to basically empower them to be able to work for a better outcome. That’s fundamentally is when this thing will really become a phenomenon is when you have youth from around the world working together to co-create a different outcome that they own or they part own. That’s what I think is particularly exciting.
Mike: Talk about that ownership piece a little bit. It seems a little complex to understand.
Rob Monster: Well, it’s very simple. It’s really very simple. The basic idea is for every citizen in a city, we have created a fixed allocation of blockchain-based city shares. So if you’re familiar with how Ethereum works or how Bitcoin works there’s a finite number of units that can ever be produced. In the case of DigitalTown we actually fix it so the number of the population determines the number of city shares that are ever to exist and now we give them to the citizens. You can claim them at the rate of 10 city shares per capita and if you want to buy more than the 10 free city shares that you are given for free you can buy them for a fixed price if you are an accredited investor and are willing to go through KYC and AML, right. Know Your Customer and Anti Money Laundering. So that kind of works.
Basically, every citizen can be a stakeholder and even if they later choose as you can see and austin.city is an example. I know a number of other city sites that are live. If they choose to sell their city shares they still maintain a democratic vote in the future outcome of the fate of their digital platform for which they’re still a registered user. So you don’t necessarily have to maintain your ownership interest. If you wish to sell it, you can sell it peer-to-peer through our peer-to-peer marketplace. We’re not a market maker, we’re not a broker-dealer but we are allowing people to buy and sell city shares peer-to-peer and that’s how we get around the SCC regulatory frameworks that exist for that particular class of security token as it’s called.
Mike: Okay, got it.Those 10 free shares per capita… would the 10 shares be tied to my hometown or how does that work?
Rob Monster: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. So basically the way it works is single sign-on, you know, one login for the world…each city has its own ownership framework based on city shares and…but your wallet that is tied to your single sign-on, if you go to like austin.city and log in for example or you download the mobile app, right, which is on iOS and Android you can download the DigitalTown mobile app. Some cities like Austin already have their own app. We have an austin.city app. It’s basically a private label version of the DigitalTown app. But, most people will just download the DigitalTown app and even if you use the Austin app it roams globally. When you go to another town or simply wanna change your city, it will now let you navigate what that city has to offer. Think about your own experience going from city to city and town to town how you need a different app for a different login to use a ride share, a bike share, public transportation or if you buy from a local merchant online, right? It’s very, very cumbersome.
Now you go to another city and it’s the same thing all over again. You need a new login for every one of those use cases in every city where you go. And what does it mean? It means that people throw up their hands and say, “Forget it. I’m gonna take an Uber. Forget it. I’m gonna buy from Amazon. Forget it. I’m gonna go to BestBuy.” They have their go-tos, they have their winner take all platforms that they habituated themselves to as being the place where they go to solve this, that or the other problem or use case. The problem with that is the cumulative effect is a massive hollowing out of the local economic base. And so the root of the tiny house movement and the root of the micro-apartment movement and the root of mass indebtedness and homelessness and opioid crises and all of the problems that humanity is dealing with now, the root cause of all of that is rigged capitalism.
The only way we’re going to be able to get out of this is to address the root problem. We have to overcome rigged capitalism because if we don’t then the powers that be are going to herd humanity towards choosing universal basic income but there’s a problem with that and the problem is that universal basic income is when the government that can give you everything that you want can take away everything that you have. If you believe, as I and many others do, that sovereignty is a good thing then we need to figure out ways to restore sovereignty. You’ve got people who are trying to find sovereignty by living the lives of a digital nomad. Or they’re embracing the gig economy thinking that it’s giving them sovereignty. What they don’t realize is even the gig economy is rigged because Uber takes more than 50% of the gross revenue. Anyone of these different platforms that you might identify as being some last gasp of sovereignty is actually another leg of the rigged system.
We want to systematically restore sovereignty down to the local level and down to the individual. Every individual has sovereign authority over who knows what about them. This is called self-sovereign identity. That is your single sign-on which allows you to project directly and locally with merchants all around the world, bypassing the extraction economy and purchasing directly from that local merchant so that that local merchant has more margin left over as opposed to paying 40% commission to Expedia and getting paid next day after stay for getting most of that revenue and they’re getting it on the day of booking or latest on the day of stay. Now that means that they have more resources available to pay their suppliers on time, to be able to give their workers wage increases and to reinvest in their community through philanthropy.
This is the positive cycle that we have lost over the last 40 years. And if you look at the charts, and this will be in my TED Talk, it shows you very, very clearly that basically the game has been rigged since the mid-1970s when productivity continued to rise at the rate that it’s been rising for the last 40 something years but wages stopped growing. People are working longer. Now you’ve got two-income households. You’ve got people working multiple jobs to be able to put together an income. You’ve got people who’ve blown up their 401K. They have no safety net and so now they are not only working until well into their retirement years but they’re also working without any safety net.
Our capacity as a humanity to look out for each other is predicated on us having sufficient reserves to be able to help each other out. If you think about it, walking down the street, “Brother, can you spare a dime?” Well, in this one guy, you might have the ability to stop, have a chat with the guy and to give the guy a little bit of money. When there are two guys it’s a little harder. When it’s five guys it’s pretty hard. When it’s 10 guys it’s a crowd. You cross to the other side of the street. You can’t help them because there are too many
When it’s man-to-man you got a fighting chance, you know. You wanna have a subsequent conversation about this guy and where he’s been and what troubles he has and, you know, give him some words of encouragement and give him some money. But when you’ve got a crowd you can’t even have that conversation.
So the problem is that we’re basically heading down this spiral where we get to a point where people don’t help, not because they can’t help but because they’re outnumbered. And then people can’t help because they don’t even have the ability to help. And at that point what are you left with? You’re left with basically a hollowed-out economy whose last hope is to basically surrender sovereignty to the state. Tthis has been a designed implosion of the middle class going back to at least the 70s and probably going back to the time of Karl Marx.
Mike: Wow, that’s a lot to take in. Let me dig a little bit into how the business works. I’m just trying to think through how you spread the word about this and it sounds like one of the great ways you’re doing that is the global youth ambassador program. In what other ways are you spreading the word about this?
Rob Monster: The main method we use right now during the early launch phase is we are recruiting community leaders at the local level. We have in various cities, head of community, one or more community leaders and then a much larger number of community influencers and citizen journalists who are part of a movement to activate the DigitalTown in their particular community. These people are typically compensated through the mechanism of city shares and in some cases through also revenue share of the merchants that they onboard. We are hand selecting them now. It’s not necessarily kind of a grassroots open source movement.
Anybody in any city anywhere can sign up at digitaltown.com and find their city of which there are about 3.7 million cities, towns and villages around the world of which only 4,400 have 100,000 or more and they can activate their city, town or village. When there’s a 100 or more people that sign up in any city, town, or village we will activate their DigitalTown for free. Every citizen gets a smart wallet, every merchant gets a free storefront and they can typically see it in their own currency and their own language and we’re adding more languages and more currencies all the time including our four cryptocurrencies and 16 fiat currencies.
Mike: And how does it work for a merchant, a local merchant? You said they get their own storefront.
Rob Monster: Yes, there’s no setup fee, there’s no service fee. We cover solutions for retail services, dining and lodging and they only pay for what they actually use and that is for actual sales. If you do payment processing of an actual merchant sale where we’re selling the item, like you’re browsing and searching and then we sell that item, the National Commission for Retail Services and Dining gets 8%. The National Commission for Lodging gets 12%. But peer-to-peer payments are free. Point of sale…the payments in other words that are made direct by cash are commission free. People can, in fact, use this platform to do peer-to-peer payments without cost including across borders.
Think about all the people who are doing overseas remittances. They have the ability to bypass the Western Union extraction economy, the PayPal extraction economy and use DigitalTown to transmit funds across borders and be able to spend them in their local community where the currency is transferred in real time. I can pay somebody in dollars and they’d get paid in pounds. Somebody can pay me in Bitcoin and I get dollars. The translation of the currency is in real time. If you download the DigitalTown smartphone app on iOS or Android and create an account, you can see how it works. You can fund your wallet and use it to do seamless payments in any currency currently in 16 fiat and 4 cryptocurrencies.
Mike: Could a merchant run an e-commerce platform?
Rob Monster: They can. We provide them an e-commerce platform, a service provider booking platform, lodging booking platform and a restaurant dining management application including digital venue creation, the ability to book tables and the ability to process online orders and to take payment in store.
We’ve done seven acquisitions in the last two years. So we didn’t have to build everything from the scratch. We’ve had the ability to also combine both organic development, partnership technology but in particular seven acquisitions that have been done in 2016 and ’17 and more than one acquisition pending here in 2018.
Mike: How many employees are there at the company?
Rob Monster: About 34 worldwide.
Mike: How have you been able to juggle managing leading this huge effort and running Epik at the same time?
Rob Monster: Number one, Epik is an established product with an established brand and an established platform but number two we have a fantastic team. Many people who will use Epik as a registrar have firsthand experience with the caliber of the team that we’ve assembled to provide ongoing 24/7 support and customer service with software that was designed, you know, from the ground up by us. All of the engineers that built the original software are still with us and have continued to improve the product in response to customer feedback and it runs more and more like a well-oiled machine. The addition last year of Joseph Peterson who, former navy Shipman.runs Epik like a well-oiled military machine. He dots every I, he crosses every T. You know from his punditry that he is a guy who loves retail.
We’re very fortunate to have assembled a fantastic team of very diligent and dedicated people that have allowed me to spend more time on working on this other project. But there’s a very important overlap between DigitalTown and Epik that the casual observer sometimes overlooks and that is this notion of the smart web. The smart web is about making a web that is intuitive, personalized and secure using descriptive domain extensions to provide consistent and familiar user experiences as you go from website to website. So .city is an example. You go from city site to city site and you have a consistent user experience. But we’re doing the same thing with .work, .fit, .law, .wedding, .profession and many, many more that are part of the smart web initiative. And ultimately that backs into a certain level of confidence that as we move to the new domain economy of the descriptive TLDs that there is a place for them but it’s not the same model as what the traditional, you know, com, net, org, everybody do whatever you want, you know, no interoperability paradigm, Wild West space of the internet.
The internet just like telecommunications is becoming more interoperable and we need interoperability because if we don’t have interoperability we are basically surrendering to the winner take all economy. Let me explain that. In an era where Google and YouTube and Facebook are the ones who decide what you see, then your ability to stand out from the crowd with your .com is much reduced versus where things were 15 years ago where you could actually go and produce pre-Google a website and brand it and people would hear about it and they would share it and you would have a fighting chance. But the moment that the world becomes curated by an engine like Google that, you know, takes away as much as it gives you’ve lost your sovereign ability to stand out from the crowd.
By virtue of introducing a more intuitive web based on descriptive direct navigation standards like go.vertical, right, dallas.law, seattle.wedding, we actually have a fighting chance to reeducate the consumer about the possibility of direct navigation. Now technology will help because not only are we giving them a direct navigation URL in the form of a couple of keywords that are easy to remember like miami.work but we’re also giving them QR codes which are going to be hacks that are basically URLs rendered as a 2D image which you can then scan with your smartphone if you are able to do it with a free hand, and if you’re driving you can rely on the keyword hack of simply remembering vertical.geography for example.
If you look at the list of the main names that we’ve been acquiring they are predominantly vertical .geography. That’s the pattern that we have adopted. To a large extent, we’ve done it with partnerships with the individual registries who believe in our vision for a smart web and who would like to see somebody curating and advancing a new and better way for direct navigation. So that’s what that’s about and the reason why we have been able to buy so many domains is because of, A) a view over the future is going to look like but, B) because we have that cooperation from registries that have vision that they too would like to see a way to overcome the stranglehold of Google and the other winner take all platforms that are basically eroding the value of domain names.
Mike: Talk to me about that vision. If everything goes as planned, as you see it today, where will DigitalTown be 10 years from now?
Rob Monster: I think that what we are building is a future state where every city, town and village in the world has the opportunity to be its own sovereign local economy powered by technology that they can sovereignly own. I think that’s probably the big shift that I see unfolding is this move towards restoring local economic sovereignty on a global scale through a network of locally-owned cooperatives that are digitally interoperable. I think that blockchain is going to revolutionize large segments of our economy. The limitations that you see of current blockchain architectures are going to go away. Distributed ledgers are going to be capable of processing tens of thousands of transactions per second and be able to do it for little or almost no cost which means that it becomes practical to be able to allow every city and every community to be able to have trust economies that bypass the winner take all profit-maximizing extraction economies like Amazon and Expedia and Open Table and Airbnb and PayPal.
Not only that but also restore the flow of funds so instead of, for example, you and I as a consumer depositing money in the bank and getting 1% and then somebody that goes and borrows from that bank being able to borrow for say 2% or 3% and then lend it out as a payday loan for up to 600% per year, we’re going to have people be able to borrow money locally peer to peer, be able to do direct banking, peer-to-peer banking and public banking where you’re going to have the ability to allow people to easily reinvest funds back into their community without being constrained by the regulatory limitations that basically deem certain people as being not credit worthy. I don’t know what your experience is with the banking system, but if you have any experience you will recognize that there is a vast number of people who have very good ideas and are very honorable people but they spend all their life savings overcoming a crisis.
Somebody whose wife died of cancer who was a 20-year, you know, organic baker and now would like to open a bakery where he needs $60,000 to buy equipment and do a modest amount of tenant improvements but can’t get $60,000 from the banking system for anything less than, say, 20% interest which he would never be able to service. So as a result, he’s basically not able to practice his craft and instead has to go take a job at McDonald’s. Well, what a shame, right, that we can’t have people like that engaging the community with a product or service that would improve people’s quality of life and give people a reason to go sit down and meet a stranger at a café that is operated inside of the bakery run by this third-generation baker who makes fantastic baked goods. These are building blocks for restoring local economic sovereignty but it’s more than that. It’s building blocks for restoring the quality of life at a local level.
Mike: Just tying back to the shares and economy of it all, how do those shares increase in value, if I were to invest or to get those initial free shares?
Rob Monster: That’s a good question. Number one, the theoretical value of the city shares should correlate to the economic activity that is happening on those city platforms. At the starting point, the valuation of these city platforms is about $1.60 per capita or about 16 cents to share, 10 city shares per capita. But as the economic activity ramps and it becomes, you know, the de facto search engine and transaction engine for purchasing local and purchasing directly from people in the community and engaging in peer-to-peer commerce the value of it should grow quite significantly. And the endgame in most cases is for the municipality itself to be the owner of the platform. If the city…there’s license to the platform from DigitalTown at the outset, and the community of citizens owns it initially as a cooperative, that’s what we call platform cooperative is the academic term. Then when the city is ready to buy it they’re buying it from the citizens and the citizens get cashed out for right out to their ownership based on city shares.
Mike: Okay. I see. I’m just thinking through some pieces. As far as the local base and the commerce, are you also targeting big business as far as business travel and that type of thing to be able to focus in on location?
Rob Monster: Yes. If you download the app then you can see that that app also is suitable for like booking business travel. I use our own app for booking all our hotels. All hotels at Expedia and Booking.com are on our platform and the prices are as good or better which you will find on Expedia or Priceline. There’s no reason why somebody couldn’t use that app as a way to, for example, book local, book direct for both lodging and dining and, you know, service provider booking. It will get easier and easier but the funny thing is a large amount of that inventory now exists already as structured data. And so it was possible for us to add all of that lodging inventory, all that dining inventory from the abundance of sources that are already…that have already aggregated and curated this data with a high degree of precision but were not transactional.
We’re adding the transactional layer so that you can not only find the restaurant that is serving jambalaya tonight but you can actually book an appointment or book a table or push an online order from that provider and do it natively within the app or within the city website. The merchant activation is the next big phase. But already right now you can, for example, book lodging with any of the hotels that you would find otherwise on Expedia or Priceline.
We use the public stock as a vehicle for rolling up acquisitions. And right now, with the market cap of under 10 million, I submit to you that DigitalTown is woefully undervalued, and consult your investment advisor. But if you figure out an appropriate way to, you know, draw people’s attention to the fact that the company might be undervalued then they should take a look and gauge from their own opinion if I’m right about a local first digital future for the global economy and if you think the thesis is correct then you have to ask yourself, “If not know, then when?” And then secondly, “If not us, then who?” And I believe that we are the company that is going to do this globally.