Go Daddy founder gives advice to University of Baltimore students

Don't get into business to make money. The temptation to quit will be strongest just before you succeed. And take big risks — even if that means angering a ruler-wielding, 6-foot-tall nun.

Those were among the lessons billionaire Bob Parsons, the founder of GoDaddy.com, shared with students at his alma mater, University of Baltimore, on Monday evening.

Parsons, a 1975 graduate of the university, gave $1 million last summer to endow a professorship in digital communication, which blends computer programming, Web design and writing, among other skills.

Parsons, the executive chairman of Go Daddy, a company that registers Internet domain names and has become famous because of its racy commercials, said university President Robert L. Bogomolny persuaded him to fund the program.

"It's critical in this day and age," Parsons said in an interview. "The Internet has changed everything. We expect to know everything instantly. If you don't understand digital communication, you're at a disadvantage."

Sean Carton, who directs the university's Center for Digital Communication, Commerce and Culture, received the Parsons professorship last month.

In a low, raspy voice with a hint of a Baltimore accent, Parsons told the crowd of about 150 how he had failed fifth grade at St. Elizabeth of Hungary School in Highlandtown.

Sister Brenda, a tall nun with "a ruler she didn't use for measurement," decided to hold back Parsons, who described himself as a kid "who would be pumped full of Ritalin" if he were growing up in these times.

Young Parsons kept the secret from his parents all through an anxiety-wracked summer. In the fall, he headed to the sixth-grade classroom and discovered the nuns had decided to promote him despite — or perhaps because of — his audacity.

"I learned at that young age that sometimes a really big chance pays off," said Parsons, a burly man with a diamond stud twinkling in his earlobe.

Parsons struggled in school until graduating from Patterson High. He enlisted in the Marines in 1968 and was awarded a Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam, where an explosion injured both his legs and his left arm.

He returned to Baltimore and worked as a machinist at Bethlehem Steel for a few years before enrolling at the University of Baltimore. He majored in accounting, he said, because it appeared first in the school catalog.

For the first time in his life, Parsons applied himself to his studies and graduated in three years with highest honors.

In 1984, he founded his first company, Parsons Technology, in the basement of his home. He had created a program that allowed families to do their own accounting during the first wave of personal computers. Parsons tried for years to sell the program with little success until he dropped the price to $12 and started to aggressively advertise. Sales soared.

In 1994, Parsons sold the company for $64 million and moved to Arizona. A few years later, he started the precursor to Go Daddy, which allows people to stake their claim to a piece of the Web. For a small fee, anyone can register an Internet domain name through the site.

Go Daddy also struggled initially, and Parsons said he was ready to shut it down when his savings had dwindled to $6 million. But he decided to risk losing all his money — and the burst of the dot-com bubble in 2006 turned out to be a great gift to him.

"Go Daddy was really born at that moment," said Parsons. "We were paying our bills. We had a plan."

The company captured the spotlight in a series of racy advertisements, including an ad that was yanked after airing early in the 2005 Super Bowl. It remains, Parsons said, "the network standard for indecency."

Parsons sold two-thirds of Go Daddy for a reported $2.25 billion last year and ceded his role as CEO, although he remains as the company's executive chairman and largest shareholder.

He and his wife have formed a foundation that has helped fund nonprofits that serve AIDS patients and the homeless and that is financing the construction of two schools in Haiti, he said. The Parsonses recently gave $1 million in matching funds to Semper Fi, an organization that helps severely wounded veterans.

George Rice, a 49-year-old studying real estate and economic development at University of Baltimore, said he found Parsons inspiring.

"It's another story of a person who had persevered over the obstacles and made it big," he said.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

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