Weaving a tighter web of commerce at Canada's domain registration firm

David Sali
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From his office in downtown Ottawa, Byron Holland is quietly leading his organization through a period of growth a lot of other businesses can only dream of.

Byron Holland is the president and CEO of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority.

Mr. Holland is the president and CEO of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, the agency that manages the country’s .ca domain name registry and the server infrastructure for all .ca names, which are reserved for Canadian websites.

Website operators who want a .ca address pay to register their name with CIRA, which ensures that the name is available, and charges an annual fee for users to renew their names.

A not-for-profit organization, CIRA currently earns virtually all of its revenues from registration and renewal fees. And at the moment, Mr. Holland says, business is booming.

“We’re right at the leading edge of what’s happening in the Internet ecosystem right now,” he says. “We’re one of the most global technology companies in Ottawa that nobody knows about.”

Any Canadian citizen or permanent resident can register a .ca website with CIRA, as can any business incorporated in Canada. Since becoming the country’s official .ca registry in December 2000, CIRA has seen its earnings skyrocket along with the names in its database.

In the past six years, the number of .ca names registered has more than doubled from one million to more than 2.2 million. CIRA’s revenues, which reached about $20 million in 2013, have been growing at a rate of about 12 per cent annually over that time.

In addition, the organization plans this year to add more than a dozen people to its current headcount of 65, and Mr. Holland says one of his biggest challenges is finding top-shelf talent to fill those positions.

Still, he says if CIRA wants to continue growing at that rate, it needs to expand its revenue base. The agency recently launched two new products – Registry Lock, security software designed to prevent domain names from being hijacked by hackers, and “name spinning” technology that suggests alternative variations of words or terms that website owners can enter if a name they wanted is already taken.

“We have run a very robust registry for 15 years,” says Mr. Holland, who joined CIRA six years ago after a career that included launching Futura Rewards, a highly successful brand loyalty program. “Now we’re doing a whole set of brand-new things.”

As a not-for-profit enterprise, CIRA has a mandate to help develop the Internet in Canada. It funnels much of its net earnings back into initiatives such as the $1-million Community Investment Program, which helps community groups, not-for-profits and academic institutions fund projects designed to improve Internet service and technology.

A 12-person board of directors and three board advisers, including a representative from Industry Canada, oversee the organization’s business affairs.

Among Mr. Holland’s other passions is promoting the .ca domain – particularly to small businesses, many of which aren’t taking full advantage of the Internet to grow their customer base, he says.

While Canadians are clearly avid Internet surfers – the agency says the average person in this country visits more than 3,700 web pages per month, the highest figure in the world – CIRA’s research shows that only about four out of 10 small businesses in Canada have a website.

It’s no surprise, then, that two-thirds of all the money Canadians spend online winds up south of the border, he says.

“It’s remarkable to me that a country like Canada has only about 45 per cent of all businesses online and 41 per cent of small businesses online,” says Mr. Holland, who is also chair of the Country Code Name Supporting Organization, an international body that represents country code domains such as .ca.

“Other developed economies have far higher penetration than that. Our businesses should not be letting that happen. There’s huge opportunity there for Canadian businesses to come online and repatriate those dollars.”

Having a .ca domain name not only gives businesses access to an online market that generated more than $22 billion in sales last year, he says, it also gives customers peace of mind because .ca sites are some of the safest in the world.

CIRA maintains robust security measures on .ca sites, he says. Online shoppers also know they don’t have to worry about cross-border headaches such as customs duties, he adds.

“You want to be able to say to your potential customers, ‘I am Canadian,’” Mr. Holland says. “A .com (site) could be the Nigerian prince. You really don’t know.”

There are a number of reasons why Canada is trailing the world leaders in the Internet economy, he says. Just three per cent of all retail spending in this country is done online, compared with seven per cent in the United States and 23 per cent in Great Britain, CIRA research shows.

Internet service is still relatively expensive in Canada, Mr. Holland says, and we tend to lag behind competitors such as the U.S. when it comes to embracing cutting-edge tools of commerce.  

“Canadians aren’t as fast to adopt new technologies to enhance productivity,” he says. “We don’t tend to invest in capital at the rate that our cousins to the south do.”

But it’s not something business can afford to ignore any longer, he adds. Even though Canadians aren’t big online spenders yet, he says, most consumers now do their comparison shopping online before heading to the store.

“The whole notion of e-commerce clicks vs. bricks is going away,” he says. “Even if you’re focused on your bricks and mortar still, you’ve got to do the e-commerce side to get (customers) to your bricks and mortar.”   

Organizations: Registration Authority, Industry Canada

Geographic location: Canada, Ottawa, United States Great Britain

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