Bob Parsons has a saying he's fond of: "We're not here for a long time. We're here for a good time." So when the CEO and founder of Go Daddy, the world's largest Internet domain registrar and web-hosting provider, isn't scheming to increase his market share, he can often be found in one of two places: riding his Ducati Streetfighter motorcycle through the Arizona desert or knocking a golf ball around Whisper Rock, a course near Go Daddy's Scottsdale headquarters.
Today, it's the latter. Parsons, who grew up in East Baltimore, is playing a morning round of golf and answering questions over the phone between holes. "Look at this, look at this, look at this!" he can be heard hollering, at one point. "Go in!"
A pause: "Son of a bitch!"
"I just really chunked the ball," he says, resuming the interview, "and it went right up by the pin. I have the Go Daddy logo on my ball, and I think I knocked his hair off."
That Go Daddy logo—with its four strands of gravity-defying red hair—was barely recognizable six years ago, when the company held a 16 percent market share and was struggling to get noticed. But that changed after it aired a commercial during the 2005 Super Bowl that spoofed Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction and prominently featured the company logo on a buxom woman's revealing T-shirt. The racy ad generated controversy and lots of media attention, spawned the "Go Daddy Girl" phenomenon, and turned Parsons into a star CEO practically overnight.
"That ad launched us," says Parsons, who followed a market research firm's advice to advertise via traditional media. "The week after it ran, our market share bumped to 25 percent."
It's grown steadily ever since, and Go Daddy now has approximately 50 percent of the global market and registers or renews a domain name every second. The company generated close to $1 billion dollars in revenue last year.
It also continues to air racy ads during the Super Bowl. In fact, it's become something of an annual event.
"If you ran an edgy ad like that and got that kind of result, would you do it again next year?" Parsons asks, before quickly answering. "You're goddamn right you would!"
Parsons just finished shooting commercials that will run during this month's big game, but their content is top secret.
"I can't say much," says Parsons. "They will be edgy and Go Daddy-esque. We'll have two during the game and one during the pre-game."
He seems more interested in discussing the prospects of his favorite team. "I'd like to see the Ravens in the Super Bowl," says Parsons. "Beyond that, I don't care, because I'm a Baltimore boy."
When told you can still hear the Highlandtown accent in his voice, Parsons exclaims, "That's right, baby! You can't take it out of us."
Parsons grew up in the 400 block of Northeast Avenue, playing curb ball, wall ball, or games of pick-up football in the park.
"I had a great time there, playing in the streets," he recalls. "And I read a lot, anything I could get my hands on, but mostly comic books—Batman, Superman, Metal Man, X-Men, Green Lantern, Green Hornet, Flash, Captain America..."
"Family life was good," he says. "I have a younger brother and a younger sister, Pop was a furniture salesman, and Mom was a homemaker. We didn't have a lot of money, but we didn't need a lot of money."
Parsons went to St. Elizabeth of Hungary through the sixth grade, before moving on to Hampstead Hill Middle School, which he refers to as "Hampstead hell."
"I was never good at school," he explains. "I was mostly a pain in the teacher's ass, because I was daydreaming or thinking up some scheme."
Parsons struggled through Patterson High and, during his senior year in 1968, enlisted in the Marines.
"I got my orders and showed them to my teachers," he says, "and they all pity-passed me. That's a good trick to remember during war time."
He ended up in Vietnam, a Delta Company rifleman patrolling in the bush. After getting wounded, he was reassigned to military intelligence as a courier delivering operation plans. He left the Marines as a decorated combat vet.
"My time in the Marine Corps is responsible for everything I do today," he says. "It taught me discipline, in the sense that, if you say you're gonna do something, you do it. The Marine Corps taught me how to be tough, how to suck it up, how to hang in there. It's where I grew up."
"The Marine Corps transformed Bob," notes Go Daddy chief marketing officer Barb Rechterman, who's worked with Parsons for 25 years. "We see that military influence every day. It's part of him—when he gets on a mission, there's no stopping him."
Returning to Baltimore, he worked at Bethlehem Steel as a machinist's apprentice, but the guy he was working with had a beef with the union and made life miserable for Parsons. That grim experience inspired Parsons to try something completely different—college.
After deciding on the University of Baltimore, he found himself in a long line of incoming freshmen waiting to see a counselor about choosing a major. He had no idea what he wanted to major in, but he was sure he didn't want to wait in line to do it. Told he could skip the counseling session if he signed a waiver and declared a major right away, he jumped at the chance and turned to his course catalogue.
"I opened it up, and the first thing I saw was accounting," says Parsons, chuckling. "I asked the guy what it was, and he asked if I was good in math and business. I said, 'Yeah, I like all that,' and he said I should be an accountant. So that's how I became an accountant. If I'd opened the book from the back, I'd probably have been a zoologist."
This time, school proved to be a much different experience. "I loved it," says Parsons, who went full time and took night classes so he could graduate in three years.
At the time, he was married (to his first wife) with a baby boy, which provided extra motivation. He worked at Waverly Press during school and at Commercial Credit after graduating in 1975. "I was a worker bee, that's for sure," he says, "but I aced everything and passed the CPA exam the first time."
He also happened to take an Introduction to Data Processing class, at a time when personal computing was in its infancy, and it was one of the few courses he didn't ace—he got a B. But it shaped the rest of his life.
Parsons took a shine to computers, but he wasn't a typical hobbyist. In fact, when he wanted his PC to do something, he wrote the code. If, for instance, he needed a spreadsheet or a program to manage the family checkbook, he wrote it himself. In 1984, he started selling money-management software out of the basement of his house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where Commercial Credit had transferred him.
Parsons Technology lost $15,000 the first year. The next year, he dropped the price of the software from $99 to $49 and lost $25,000. The third year, he slashed the price to $12, cobbled together $5,000 to advertise on the outside cover of Computer Bargain Line magazine, and started making money. He made $250,000 that year, and according to Parsons, "It just went up and up from there."
In 1994, Parsons sold the company for $64 million and relocated to Arizona—"Life is short, you might as well be where the weather's good," he quips. He started Go Daddy three years later—he reportedly chose that name because it made people smile and seemed memorable—and struggled to find a niche.
"I tried all sorts of things," he says, "like building networks, being an Internet service provider, and selling other people's software and hardware."
Nothing turned a profit, but it eventually dawned on Parsons that anyone who wanted to establish a web presence needed a domain name. He felt the existing domain registrars were doing a poor job, so he jumped into that market, with an eye toward providing better service, offering lower prices, and selling Go Daddy software.
The company turned its first profit, ironically enough, when the dot-com bubble burst and cleared away some of the competition.
But the company's major breakthrough was the Super Bowl commercial—Parsons estimates that the controversial spot generated $15 million dollars in media value. Go Daddy's subsequent ads and high-profile sponsorships (of NASCAR, the Indy 500, and even a college football bowl game) helped propel the company to the top of the domain registry market, but all the exposure also made it a target. Critics have decried the TV ads as too sexual or sexist, charges that rankle Parsons, who says his marketing department has "learned how to get up to that line, but we don't cross it. That's what we've always done."
On his personal blog and Twitter account, he addresses such issues, exuding enthusiasm while dispensing no-bullshit business advice ("lucky things don't happen while you're sitting on your big, wide ass") and self-help suggestions ("follow the golden rule") that can be downright grandfatherly—though most grandfathers aren't racing motorcycles and hanging with a clutch of Go Daddy Girls. Parsons also answers customer complaints on the blog, responding thoughtfully to those he considers legit, although he's not above telling someone to "f*** off," either.
When asked about criticism that Go Daddy deactivated some domains without giving customers ample notice, he acknowledges that—with nearly 3,000 employees and millions of customers—there can be occasional glitches. "We don't always get it right," says Parsons, "but once we're aware of not getting it right, we make it right. When you're an industry leader, everyone targets you. That's a double-edged sword—it means the wolf's always at the door, but it always keeps you sharp."
It helps Parsons maintain his competitive edge. "Bob approaches business and life very similarly—with gusto," says Barb Rechterman. "Bob has run with the bulls in Spain, he's stood trackside in the pits for every lap of the Indianapolis 500, he's driven his motorcycle cross-country (several times over the last few years), and that's how he approaches business—he takes risks, he calculates carefully, but he is fearless."
All that activity means Parsons doesn't get back to Baltimore very often, but when he's in the area, he likes to eat in Little Italy, visit family, check in with his buddy Duff Goldman—who made a life-sized motorcycle cake when Parsons remarried in 2009—or play some golf at Sparrows Point Country Club.
When asked how the round's progressing at Whisper Rock, Parsons offers a typically blunt assessment: "It sucks. If you're looking to see how it's done, you wouldn't necessarily want to be watching me. But the idea is to have a good time, and I'm having a helluva time."