Albert White sits and takes a long sip of iced tea. It’s summertime in Maryland and he’s preparing for the annual family get-a-way out of the country for several weeks. But if things had turned out just a bit differently in the tech industry several years ago, White would actually have joined the ranks of multi-millionaires and billionaires who retire early and spend slow-paced days golfing, investing and buying islands. Not so, however, for this man who just happened to find himself under the wrong circumstances albeit at the right place at the right time many years ago.
Years before Google, before tablets, heck, before the Internet was a popular term, and even before the first domain name was offered to the general public, a predominantly African-American team actually once controlled the Internet; or at least your domain access to it. Few may know it today, but Al White was a vital part of that team and still thinks longingly about those heady days when sink or swim business decisions were made by the minute and when untold amounts of money were within grasp’s reach — if they just could have held out long enough.
Once upon a time a couple of friends got the idea that this tech stuff might be a good business opportunity. Emitt J. McHenry was working diligently at the time as a vice-president at the former Union Mutual Insurance Co. Between this position and a former one which he held as a systems engineer at IBM, he could see how the dots were beginning to connect in a new way in business so he, along with some partners, started a little company called Network Solutions in 1979.
The venture actually began as a consultancy company providing engineering solutions for such corporations like Nations Bank (now Bank of America); but one day the group got a tip from the head of the National Science Foundation (NSF) that the Internet was going to be big. It was suggested that Network Solutions, given its expertise, track record and core competency, put in a bid to the government to manage the domain name registration services for the Internet. They figured, “Why not?,” put in the bid, and won the contract. Won sole authority to develop the system and issue web addresses ending in .com, .net, .org, .edu and .gov.
“You have to understand,” explains White. “We had no competitors for the bid. Not AT&T. No one. No one really knew what this Internet thing was, so it was not on anyone’s radar. And had it not been for the head of the NSF at that time, it would not have been on ours either.”
Around this time, White had been brought on by his friend McHenry in order to head up corporate marketing at Network Solutions. His role included many responsibilities, but one of the main ones was to evangelize about this new platform called the Internet. He remembers that it was tough-going but that, in time, Network Solutions grew to approximately 400 employees.
“Slowly some people began to understand or at least be curious about the Internet, and we started to get more and more requests for the domain names,” says White. But the tech architecture to handle such an emerging industry was costly to create, to say the least. “We had no income producing model for this,” White explains. “The agency (NSF) would not let us charge for issuing the names. That was part of the deal, and we had no idea the thing would move the way [it] did. When you hear it now it seems crazy but, yes, we actually gave away all those domains for free. Had to.”
Capital was needed, and now. The issue was how to raise it, and that issue quickly became two-fold. One, White says that Network Solutions could not raise money because people did not believe the Internet was ever going to be anything of great value. Two, if it were something of value, it was perceived that anyone African-American couldn’t possibly be on top of it. “ I know as I was out doing my thing, I could sense that it was literally like, ‘if it was going to be big, white people would already have this thing,’” says White. “We got dismissed again and again, by white and black investors alike.” So, after 16 years of both good and bad times, they sold it to an outfit called Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) for $ 4.8 million in 1997.
But this is not where the story ends.