Domain name registrar and Web-hosting firm GoDaddy was founded by businessman and philanthropist Bob Parsons in 1997. The colorful entrepreneur sold the majority of the firm to private equity investors in 2011 and stepped down as executive chairman in June 2014. The company went public on April Fool’s Day in 2015. While GoDaddy is still his largest investment, Parsons now owns shopping malls, motorcycle dealerships, an ad agency, a lending firm and Scottsdale National Golf Club. He introduced a new line of high end, pricey golf clubs, called PXG – Parsons Xtreme Golf, in April and has opened the world’s largest Harley-Davidson dealership in Scottsdale, Arizona.
It’s been a wild ride. Forbes spoke with Parsons recently to learn more about how he went from being “poor as a church mouse” living in inner-city Baltimore to one of the richest people in the world, worth $2.2 billion. Much of his success has come from his willingness to take risks and be risqué. He essentially took a relatively mundane business – domain names and Web hosting – and made it into a recognizable brand with help from controversial super bowl ads and Nascar driver Danica Patrick. Here are 7 lessons from Parsons, in his words.
1) Always Hustle
I grew up without much but I always managed to have a few bucks in my pocket. I always found a way to make money. I’d do odd jobs. I mowed lawns, shoveled snow, delivered papers. I was always a go-getter.
2) Survival Instincts Required
The thing that made the biggest difference for me was being in the Marine Corps. It taught me how to discharge responsibly. It also taught me that you don’t have to like doing something to do it right and that, no matter how tough things were, if I just hung in there and took things a day at a time I could survive. There are many similarities of being in combat and starting your own business. The hazards and consequences in combat are more brutal, but for both combat and business there is seldom any music or drama. Quite often it is very unexciting, but then it’s punctuated by moments of extreme excitement. Sometimes in combat it’s lonely and a bit spooky. In business it’s the same thing. When you are working to get your business off the ground and things aren’t going well, you feel like the loneliest person in the world. You have to have discipline to see it through and keep going. I learned that in the military.
3) Be Ready to Fail, Fail, Fail
In business you wind up trying a lot of things, most of which won’t work. The way you become a good business person is to fail, fail, fail and fail. I started Parsons Technology in 1984 when I decided to try selling the software I wrote. I bought some small ads and hired an answering service. I called the service to ask how many calls we got after the ad launched. They said none. That happened time and time again. I lost all of the $15,000 I put into the business the first year. The next year, I used a $25,000 bonus I got from my real job and lost all of that. I kept trying and eventually Parsons Technology took off. Ten years after I founded it, I sold Parsons Technology to Intuit for $64 million.
Three years after that deal I had $35 million to invest, so I started in the dot com boom era what later became known as GoDaddy. Early on GoDaddy burned through a lot of cash – all my cash. I had no partners. I kept telling myself I was not going to worry about it until my losses had my cash pile down to $30 million, then $25 million, then $18 million, then $12 million. I eventually got down to $6 million. At that point I decided to shut the business down while I still had some of the money left from the Parsons Technology deal. So I went to Hawaii to be alone and figure out how to wind down the business and pay all the creditors and employees.
Then one day an epiphany happened. This guy parked my car who could not have been happier. I kept thinking he’s probably broke, but he’s happy as a lark. Yet here I was with $6 million and I was miserable. It was at that moment that I decided I would not shut down GoDaddy. Instead, I decided that if it didn’t work out, I would park cars or work as a stickman at a craps table in Las Vegas. So I strapped myself to the mast – if the company sunk I’d go down with the ship. Accepting the worst that can happen, something I also learned as a combat Marine in Vietnam, is very empowering because you let go of all debilitating worry. In February 2001 the big event that saved my bacon – the dot com bubble burst. Two or three companies we did business with closed each week. I was one of the few who stayed in business and was still paying the bills. We finally became cash flow positive in October 2001. There is an old Chinese saying that the temptation to quit will be greatest just before you are about to succeed. That was sure true for me.
4) Be willing to adapt
When I started GoDaddy I had no idea what I was going to do. I had money but no ideas, which is a dangerous combination. I tried selling everything from intranets and extranets to ISPs and other people’s software. The only thing that got traction was building websites. Then people started coming to us asking if we could put together a program where they could build their own site. That led us to becoming a registrar and selling domain names. It was selling domain names where we hit our stride and became successful.
5) Be Memorable
By 2004, GoDaddy was making good money but not growing the way we wanted. At the time we were advertising entirely on the Internet. We hired a market research firm to talk to potential customers. They came back and said many potential customers didn’t know we exist. That is when I decided to start advertising on main stream media (TV, Radio, Print) and thought it would be cool to debut on the Super Bowl. I knew the ad had to be something special that not only got attention, but would be talked about later. I also knew there was no way I could explain the domain name business in 30 seconds, but I could make the GoDaddy name fun and interesting.
Janet Jackson had a wardrobe malfunction the previous year so we decided to do a spoof on her. We set it up in a fake court room and got a well-endowed young lady to wear a tight t-shirt with the GoDaddy name on the front. Her tank top strap popped. You see nothing. At first the network approved it, then they bounced it. A week before the Super Bowl it was approved for two spots. It ran once in the first quarter and the response was great, but they yanked the second ad and in its place ran a commercial for the Simpsons that showed Homer stabbing a baby. I called the president of Fox Sports to find out what happened and he told me Fox pulled the ad. So I wrote about it on my blog and it got picked up everywhere. Soon GoDaddy was talked about on every news show, newspaper and radio station. Our ad was shown again and again. Our market share went up from 16% to 25% in one week. And that’s how we got started doing that kind of advertising.
6) Do what you love
When you do what you love everything seems to fall into place. I always loved technology and my passion turned into success beyond what could have imagined. Now, I am focusing on two of my other loves – golf and motorcycles. My new golf equipment company, PXG, is turning the industry on its head and I just opened the world’s largest Harley dealership. I couldn’t do either nearly as well if they weren’t an absolute passion mine – possibly even an obsession.
7) Always Have Fun
We are not here for a long time, we’re here for a good time! I try to make sure myself and all my employees are as much as possible having a good time. The rest seems to take care of itself.