Dotzon experts in digital identities

Berlin, Germany

Katrin Ohlmer and Dirk Krischenowski created the top-level domain '.berlin', and founded Dotzon. The spacious office in Schoenberg is located on the third floor with an open floor plan. At the entrance there are posters of all institutions that use a '.berlin' address.

Through the glass conference room, over black desks and storage, you can see the whole office. This is where digital products are sold and marketed. In the interview Katrin and Dirk reveal how this works, when their fascination with the Internet began and why the analogue world has not yet had its day.

Do you remember the first time you went online?
Katrin: That was in the early 1990s. At that time, you had to go online with a modem and there were no browsers yet. The first application I can remember is online banking. To use this, you had to work with a command prompt and enter the commands. So that's hardly comparable to today's interfaces.

Dirk: Then computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee shaped the World Wide Web as we know it today by developing HTML code. The first browsers and graphical interfaces were launched in the mid-1990s.

At that time, the Internet was not yet a mass phenomenon. What fascinated you about it so early? 
Dirk: I studied biochemistry and worked with computer-aided modelling of molecules in my diploma thesis. This is how I became fascinated with everything digital, and knew that I wanted to continue working with it because something new was happening there.

Katrin: My father is an electrical engineer. In Hanover, he worked on a project in which the medical university was connected to the Internet for the first time. At home he always talked about this huge undertaking. That was my first contact with the internet. I actually studied economics, but my diploma thesis was about software development.

Why did you go to Berlin? 
Katrin: We have always found Berlin good because “live and let live” applies here. The dynamism of the 1990s, the club life, you could feel it all. So we both tried to find a job in Berlin. Among other things, I worked for a software manufacturer. Finally came September 11th and the attack on the World Trade Centre. The positive visions of the future were gone.

Dirk: With the dot-com bubble, the notion that the internet would make everyone rich and that we all had to work less also burst at the beginning of the 2000s.

In 2004, 2005 we still naively founded the company. The idea was to have your own internet address for a city, your own ending. With this we made ourselves independent.

- Dirk Krischenowski

How do you get such an idea for a company?
Dirk: Back then, many domains were already in use and you should have bought them for a lot of money. I wondered why South Sea states with 20,000 inhabitants have their own ending, but cities don't.

Katrin: All countries have their own ending, an abbreviation with two letters. These are so-called top-level domains, the origin of the internet extensions. They are all on a list and new endings like .info, .biz or .travel were only added between 2000 and 2004.

Who decides on the endings?
Dirk: The country endings are subject to national sovereignty. All others have a contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the ICANN. This internet authority has a list of all endings and its main task is to manage this list.

How does your business model work?
Dirk: We assign domains under the top-level domain '.berlin' which we operate ourselves.

Katrin: We also offer advice for cities, regions and companies. This way they can get and operate their own top-level domains. In the past, only a small group of experts ensured that Internet extensions were given out. We democratised that.

How did you finance your project?
Katrin: We raised it like a cooperative, for 100 euros you got a share in the company. Then there were different sponsoring models and we assigned domains in advance. This raised over two million euros.

Dirk: In 2005 we were supported by craft associations, Berlin entrepreneurs, guilds and city marketing. When you've won over two or three, others want to be there too.

Katrin: We now have a total of almost one hundred shareholders.

Would you say a cooperative model fits the entrepreneurial spirit in Berlin?
Dirk: Yes, it fits well, there is a certain sense of community here. You might not do that in other major German cities.

Katrin: Ultimately, it's a bottom-up project: by Berliners for Berlin.

How did you get the idea for Dotzon?
Katrin: We founded an advisory board. This included the managing director of the top-level domain .de, the professor who received the first e-mail in Germany, and a professor of e-commerce from the University of the Arts in Berlin.

Dirk: The advisory board assessed our projects feasibility. This confirmation was important, especially dealing with something that no one has done before.

What does your work at Dotzon look like?
Katrin: We carry out feasibility studies and advise companies whether it makes sense to strive for their own top-level domain or if there are concerns, for example, if a company name being very similar to a city name. If these things are clear, it's like an Olympic application that you have to submit to ICANN.

At the time we were the first management consultancy worldwide for people who want to become part of the global Internet.

- Katrin Ohlmer

Was it only the two of you at the start?
Dirk: Yes and at some point there were three of us. Dotzon didn't even start here in this office, but at home at the dining table.

When did you move into this office?
Dirk: We moved in 2015, using the first money we raised to purchase USM furniture. Our previous office was a classic apartment in an old building and passage doors, so it was very noisy. This was no longer possible because we talk a lot on the phone and have a lot of conference calls.

Here you have an open floor plan. What was in these rooms before?
Katrin: There used to be a gym here. We removed the equipment and moved in the glass walls for the conference room. Otherwise we keep it open and communicative. When new people join the team, we have plenty of space for them.

It certainly helps that your USM furniture is modular, right?
Katrin: Exactly. If the cupboards are full of files, we can add another one, after all, the requirements change with the operation. Nevertheless, the clean look and the clear structure remain. I find that very important for daily work. The clear structures help me to concentrate.

You sell products for a highly connected world. How is the work in your office forward-looking?
Dirk: Our processes are largely digitised, but we still work with paper. There are still customers who send invoices or materials in writing.

Katrin: We are already trying to do almost everything digitally. We go to conferences a lot and I can log in to the server from anywhere with my computer. After all, the products we sell are digital.

It is interesting, that individual targeted mail is successful marketing digital products. A simple envelope with a flyer remains on the desk for up to six weeks. It's actually fascinating. We produce paper to promote a digital product.

- Dirk Krischenowski

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