Michael Wienckowski was raised in Green Bay, Wisc., and has been a Green Bay Packers fan his entire life. His grandfather helped build Lambeau Field, and Wienckowski built a Packers-themed bar in his garage.
When the idea to set up his own IT consulting business arose, the football fan thought it made good sense to pay homage to the place where he loves to live, so he chose TitleTown Tech as a company name, in a nod to Green Bay and the Packers’ many championships.
PREVIOUSLY: Green Bay Packers and Microsoft win domain name fight after family sought cash, tickets, tablets
The Packers liked the name Titletown Tech, too. In a partnership with Microsoft designed to give an area near their stadium a tech and economic boost, the team announced plans for an innovation center last fall which will be up and running early next year.
The NFL team and the software giant now own the name, and, perhaps more importantly for Wienckowski, they own the website domain — titletowntech.com — that he briefly held after first registering it as his own.
GeekWire reported earlier this week on the saga around the domain name and the ensuing fight, which included Wienckowski at first accepting a $5,000 offer to surrender titletowntech.com before his family decided to make a counteroffer seeking 150 times that amount (plus other incentives) to give it up. Wienckowski and his stepfather Chris Harris ultimately lost in a ruling handed down in the spring by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).
We attempted, without success, to get in touch with them before publishing our original report. But Wienckowski reached out to GeekWire on Friday to tell his side of the story.
A systems administrator by trade, Wienckowski, 31, has been in IT for about seven years. When he became concerned about the potential for layoffs at his previous employer, he was already doing some IT consulting work for local companies on the side, so he figured he’d take a stab at doing independent networking and desktop work as a full-time gig.
“I started trying to find a good name to go with it, and ironically enough one of the deciding factors for going with TitleTown Tech was the domain was available. And it was cheap,” Wienckowski said via phone. “There was only one other domain that I thought would be a good name for a tech company, but it was one of those premium domains and it was like $6,000.”
Wienckowski’s stepfather, Harris, a basketball coach in the Green Bay area, was already running a couple websites and advised Wienckowski to use Yola, a web hosting company. Wienckowski paid $8 for the titletowntech.com name and $3 for a website mailbox — firstname.lastname@example.org — and was up and running on Sept. 18, 2017.
“In my list of expertise, I did not mention website design because that is not a strength of mine,” Wienckowski joked. “I just used their template, whipped up a site in probably about an hour, figured I’d try to get my name out there a little bit more.”
In speaking with GeekWire, Wienckowski was adamant that he had not heard anything — from friends or acquaintances or local news reports — about any plans the Packers had for a joint venture with Microsoft for an accelerator and lab space for companies and entrepreneurs in a real estate development called Titletown near the football stadium.
But a couple weeks after registering his domain, Wienckowski heard via email from a third party interested in purchasing titletowntech.com for $5,000. Wienckowski had already landed a new job as a systems administrator with a company called Little Rapids Corp., and he figured it wouldn’t be a big deal to find another name for his new business.
He traded emails with someone who he said worked for Big Horn Consulting, and said the $5,000 sounded good. But he grew suspicious after being unable to get his contact to speak with him on the phone.
“I straight didn’t trust it,” Wienckowski said. “She sent me a contract that was 200 pages long or something like that. I wasn’t about to sit down and read the whole thing. I could go on the internet and get a template contract and send it to you — doesn’t make anything official.
“She wanted to set up a transaction with some internet payment site,” he added. “So I kind of did some digging on the service she was using and it was getting 1-star reviews, and people were just ripping it apart at how unreliable it was. I just wasn’t having it. I didn’t trust it. I’m a sys admin, so I’m pretty wary of scams, so I just dropped it, figured I’d just keep my domain.”
On Oct. 19 2017, the Packers and Microsoft made an official announcement about Titletown Tech. It was the first Wienckowski had heard of the plans, and he said he saw the news on Facebook via a story from a local Green Bay newspaper.
“My first thought was, ‘That’s why that lady was trying to buy my site,’” Wienckowski said. “To be honest, I was excited at the thought of selling my site to the Packers and seeing what they would do with it. I was excited to see Microsoft, a company I use day in and day out in my line of work, teaming up with the Packers to bring a stronger technology presence to the city.”
At this point, Big Horn stepped aside because the anonymity of the parties involved was gone. There was no more secret, Wienckowski said.
“I started getting calls from the lawyers for the Packers. I was 29 at the time. I wasn’t really excited about that.”
Wienckowski leaned on Harris for advice. He said his stepdad has a business degree, but he called him a “more brash man” than himself.
“He’s a former Marine, he’s a tough guy,” Wienckowski said of Harris, who took over communications with the Packers lawyer. Wienckowski said the team’s rep called his simple website “bad” and said it wasn’t worth anything.
“I was like, ‘Dude, I put it together in an hour! Gimme a break!’” Wienckowski said.
Harris had heard enough.
“Eventually [Harris] sent an email and said, ‘Fine’ and listed the price, $750,000 or something like that. And we were both like, ‘That’s a ridiculous amount of money.’”
Along with the $750,000, Harris asked for eight lifetime Green Bay Packers box seats, two parking passes, eight Microsoft Surface Pro tablets, and a lifetime of Microsoft Office programs.
“With all the other stuff that he threw in there it was like a million bucks. It wasn’t serious. It was kind of, ‘You want to play hardball? Here’s what we want.’” Wienckowski said. “We were expecting, ‘OK, here’s what we’re willing to give’ type of thing.”
What if the Packers had said OK? Could Wienckowski have pictured his life being altered by that type of payment?
“How different would anyone’s life be? I’m a middle class guy with a wife and three kids. My life would be totally different,” he said. “I wouldn’t have to be struggling with student loans and all that other stuff that I have to deal with.”
But he and his step dad never heard from the Packers or Microsoft again.
The TitletownTech partners instead took their case to WIPO, with what Wienckowski described as a 60-page letter saying that the family was squatting on the domain in bad faith, insisting that they must have had some insider knowledge of the tech venture.
“It was my domain. I bought it, fair and square. There was no squatting, no bad faith — as they put it,” Wienckowski said. “I thought it was a cool name. I live in Titletown, I’m proud to live here. Sure, Titletown is connected with the Packers, but … it’s still Green Bay.”
Wienckowski and Harris had a short time to present a defense to WIPO. Harris had a couple connections and a friend down in Milwaukee, and he “took the ball,” getting representation from the firm Davis & Kuelthau.
But Wienckowski said he didn’t know how he could ever prove that he didn’t have insider knowledge.
“It’s hard to prove a negative,” he said. “I don’t know anybody who works for the Packers. I don’t hang out with any of the Packers in my free time. I have no idea how I can prove I didn’t know.”
In the end it didn’t work out. The Packers and Microsoft prevailed. Wienckowski lost his domain and he didn’t get $750,000 or $5,000 or even the $11 he spent to register everything. And Harris was out the money he spent on legal fees.
Microsoft and the Packers have declined our requests to comment on the case.
“I’m wearing a Packer polo [shirt] right now that I wore to work today. I have a Packer-themed bar in my garage, my grandfather’s name is on a plaque in the Packer Hall of Fame — he built the damn stadium,” Wienckowski said. “I grew up watching the Packers, and it’s one of the things that makes me so angry about this, ya know, I’ve been here my whole life, and they kind of screwed me over. It kinda sucks.”
Wienckowski never picked another name for his side company. He’s still doing consulting work for companies in Green Bay and he’s doing a big server and networking project for the church his family attends. He has what he calls a really good full-time job now. And despite the domain dispute, Wienckowski is still a Packers fan.
He’s watched every game so far this season, and he took his 8-year-old son to his first game at Lambeau, during the preseason.
“I know it wasn’t [Packers quarterback] Aaron Rogers sitting behind the lawyer telling him to screw me over. It’s their corporate bigwigs,” Wienckowski said. “I guess that’s just the man getting you down, as they say. The football team is the football team, and the business is the business.
“I’m not gonna stop being a Packer fan,” he said. “I don’t really know how to.”