Re-Branding Walk-Through, Sean Harper of FeeFighters Mixergy Interview

I love Mixergy and Andrew Warner’s interviews. Over the last few years I’ve listened to Andrew interview hundreds of startup entrepreneurs. I’m sharing this particular interview because it’s covers my favorite territory – domains and naming your company. You can find this interview, a transcript, and an audio version at Mixergy.

Sean Harper kept hearing that people didn’t like his company name, which at the time was TransFS.com. They’re a credit card processing price/feature comparison engine that helps you get the best deal for your merchant services. Somewhere around the time Sean heard his father mispronounce the company name, Sean and crew decided to go ahead and begin the painful process of renaming.
If you want to cut directly to the discussion of finding a name and then acquiring the domain, that starts around the 11 min mark. By the 24 min. mark, Sean has acquired the domains and then begins discussing implementing the changeover.

These are my notes. The process Sean describes is helping me formulate a process for an idea I’m working on called CrowdNamer.

FeeFighters.com is a service that helps it’s customers, usually merchants, optimize their credit card processing costs.
Formerly TransFS –Transparent Financial Services
Understanding we had a problem with the name.
They would say things like “How do you spell your name again? What’s your domain name?” Or, “I mentioned you to one of my friends.”
Started keeping track of how often the difficulties around their name came up.
Sean’s father mispronounced the old name.
It was more than a quarter of our customers that were having confusion with our name, when we looked at the data.
“Basically the methodology we followed was one of coming up with lots and lots of ideas and then filtering those ideas according to a methodology. The one we used the most is this methodology called Igor  I-G-O-R, which is a methodology for branding and scoring each name and then keeping a list of the ones that scored the highest.
http://www.igorinternational.com/
Free naming guide:
http://www.igorinternational.com/process/naming-guide-product-company-names.php
I called them Vectors -for naming.
Two word name. One describes, the other more emotional.
A lot of time with the dictionary. Bugged our friends, a lot.
Name brain storm.
Crossword dictionary- synonyms, by number of letters
Paper on the wall, writing all over them, hundreds of names.
Narrowed down in batches.
Ranked them by IGOR
Factors: Memorable, easy to spell, emotional, how close to your value proposition, how descriptive
8 variables.
Y axis all the names they’d thought of
X axis all the criteria
Rank them in a Google spreadsheet, independently of each other
Trying to add an objective framework on top of something fundamentally subjective
Personally loved CostHammer but the rest of the team didn’t like it.
Very exhausting. After a week. All start to sound the same.
Whittled it down to about a dozen names.
Used Survey Monkey to get opinions from friends, advisors etc. using same framework they’d used themselves.
Had people rate 12-15 names by survey with a small section for opinion
Tabulated the numbers.
Scores made clear: best, medium, dogs
Wanted a .com with no hyphen
Weren’t going to pay more than $10k
Some of the names were being used legitimately, some they couldn’t reach the owner,
some owners wanted too much.
Contacting and pricing domains very time consuming, lots of back and forth.
Needed to buy Feefighter.com and Feefighters.com Different owners, took days to contact each.
Ended up paying about $8k total for both names. ($4500 +$3500)
Were very happy (with the price) thought they’d have to go higher.
Had a few names they could have lived with. But going into it, everyone liked FeeFighters.
Had already thought through the whole branding, imaging, process for the top few names.
Sean then goes into details about getting the word out, switching the domain over etc. etc.
Thank you Sean and Andrew for sharing such excellent information.

How We Got Sal (KhanAcademy.org) ConAcademy.com

But why ConAcademy.com?
According to the Whois info, ConAcademy.com was registered October 28, 2010. That’s only a few weeks after Google announced a $2M prize to Khan Academy as part of their Project 10^100 and about a month and half after Sal’s Fortune article.

Update: 5/25/12 (HatTip to domainnamewire.com) Oversee and NameKing are being sued by(pdf) jeweler Tocari for exactly what I describe in this post.

————-
Note: The views expressed here are my own and not those of Khan Academy for whom I freely volunteered my time.
Long story short in case you’re in a hurry. Discovering that ConAcademy.com was registered led me once again down the back alleys of behind-the-scenes domaining. This time the owner turned out to be Oversee.net, who own upwards of a million domains. I’m happy to say that eventually Oversee gave us the domain, no charge, and without legal wrangling apart from my emails. It’s a little more complicated than that, if you’re curious read on.

In our last episode, I’d helped (with help from Andrew Warner) Sal and KhanAcademy.org acquire their dot com. We traveled down a murky road that left a lot of basic questions unanswered. We discovered a web of companies inside of companies that led back to Demand Media (DMD) and wondered if the IPO had anything to do with how “only solid six figure offers” suddenly turned into an auction at Namejet where we won KhanAcademy.com for $2,988.

In the Ustream chat of Sal’s This Week In Startups interview with Jason Calacanis, someone asked if it was spelled ConAcademy and I was shocked to realize I’d never checked the obvious typo! ConAcademy.org was available, but the .com led me down another path I’m happy to share with you today.

conAcademy.com20101119.jpg

This is a classic example of ‘parked’ page. The owner of this domain is hoping someone who had typed conacademy.com into their browser bar, not finding what they were looking for, will then click on one of the links. When that happens, the owner of the domain will earn a rev share of whatever the advertiser is paying for a click. Seeing as this (online education) market is quite competitive, a click (there may be a secondary click required after this first one) can cost an advertiser anywhere from $3-$20 for some of the keywords listed on this page. Usually the clicks are monetized through Google or Bing. The business model has been very lucrative. While parking income is ‘down’, it’s probably the main reason we have large, publicly traded companies owning hundreds of thousands of domains. Not to mention individual domainers with 10s of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of domain names. I should mention now that I don’t have a problem with parking per se. If you were early enough and clever enough to register valuable generic keyword domains when that was still a risky business model, congratulations. (I will say though how grateful I am for my AdBlockPlus plugin.)

In fact ConAcademy.com was owned by Oversee.net.

Oversee.net owns one of the largest portfolios of domain names in the world–more than 1 million names.
Monetizing domain “real-estate”
For owners seeking ways to monetize undeveloped domain “real-estate”, Oversee is a pioneer in offering landing page optimization technology that renders highly relevant keywords, PPC ads, and layout configurations customized for each domain.

Oversee’s entire business model is built around technology that populates domain landing pages with ads to click on. They also own a registrar- Moniker.com,  a domain buy-sell auction platform- SnapNames.com [update: Oversee sold both Moniker and Snapnames to KeyDrive in early 2012], and run an annual high-ticket domain auction conference called DomainFest. They are a major player in the world of domaining.

But why ConAcademy.com?
According to the Whois info, ConAcademy.com was registered October 28, 2010. That’s only a few weeks after Google announced a $2M prize to Khan Academy as part of their Project 10^100 and about a month and half after Sal’s Fortune article.

The registrar for ConAcademy listed on the Whois, was NameKing.com. NameKing is a landing page for domain inquiries. The form led eventually to a quote from someone at Moniker who informed me that the ‘owner’ was willing to except an offer of $2500 for the domain name.

In our previous example, KhanAcademy.com, there was the possibility that a prior customer had registered KhanAcademy.com, that it had eventually dropped, that Enom noticed the traffic, and so rather than releasing it, they kept it for themselves. But in this case ConAcademy.com was registered after a lot of attention was being paid to Sal and KhanAcademy.org. So it makes me wonder if some of this “optimization technology” Oversee is talking about isn’t actually programmed to find available misspelled dot com domains of trending searches and register them! [This just in 4/18/11! Recent UDRP decision confirms Oversee using automated domain registration process! Story from DomainNameWire, WIPO decision. That Oversee is ALSO auto-registering typos of trending search terms wasn’t mentioned in the WIPO decision.]

So there’s the why of it, sort of.  It’s profitable to own these kind of typo domains where type-in traffic generates income through clicks on ads. This, in the case of ConAcademy.com, in my layman’s opinion, was a classic example of typosquatting – benefiting financially from misspellings of someone else’s brand. IF a case could be made that ConAcademy had ANY generic value, I would be forced to concede that Oversee had every right to own it and offer it for sale. But it’s ONLY value derives from Sal’s IP. So I determined I would fight for this one.

I worked on this for months. People were busy, out of town, the conference, the wrong person, that person lost my email, and forwarded it to her who passed it on to legal who wanted documentation of the Trademark etc. Sometimes I knew the person’s name and other times it was ‘Admin’. My point here is that there was obviously no point-person to handle this kind of situation. I was trying to be patient, but when weeks went by without a response I decided to see if I couldn’t acquire some leverage, in a way I knew these people would understand. I was surprised to see, considering they own over a million domains, that OverseeSucks.com was available. With that in my subject line, someone got back to my email within a day and things started to move in earnest.

Let me state here- I do not hate Oversee (and want to thank Howard for his help). I do not think that automated registration algorithms are necessarily evil. I AM saying that if you’re going to own a million names you better have a system in place for promptly giving back domains you have no business owning! It took me FIVE MONTHS to get ConAcademy. Meanwhile Sal spoke at TED and the press hit the fan.

I think my mission is mostly accomplished now. KhanAcademy.com, ConAcademy.org, and ConAcademy.com all point to KhanAcademy.org. We now pass the ‘radio test’.  It’s a pleasure to have been of service to such a great cause. Go Sal!

 

How We Got Sal (KhanAcademy.org) His Dot Com

I discovered that KhanAcademy.com was registered with Enom. It was parked (the schoolgirl photo with lots of ads) with a link to ‘buy this domain’. That link took me to a site called AcquireThisName.com where I was presented with a ‘make an offer’ form. I did. My offer led to a brief exchange part of which was…

Andrew Warner & Sal Khan
Andrew Warner & Sal Khan

I was already a big fan of Sal and KhanAcademy.org after I heard him interviewed by Jon Udell on IT Conversations. Here was a guy really making a difference. I could relate too, because if I’d had such a resource when I was a kid (Sal has hundreds of short-form math and science instructional videos online) I might have had a workaround for some horrible teachers that completely turned me off math.

A few months later Andrew Warner interviewed Sal for Mixergy (an awesome collection of interviews with entrepreneurs) and I heard this exchange as the interview came to a close…

Andrew: All right. Well, thanks guys. If you have any feedback, any suggestions, want to be part of this in any way, xxxxx@khanacademy.org, right? But you also have the dotcom.
Sal: No, I don’t. Somebody claimed the dotcom. I don’t own the dotcom.
Andrew: Who is the evil son of a bitch who has the dot com, who does not…
Sal: Well, I don’t know. I was almost able to get it, and someone got it. I don’t know. There are people more sophisticated at squatting domain names than I am.
Andrew: I guess so. Somebody get that domain name back for him. If anyone out there is listening, get that domain back. All right. Thank you…

I think it was the part about ‘almost getting it’ that really piqued my curiosity. So I began to look into it.
I discovered that KhanAcademy.com was registered with Enom. It was parked (the schoolgirl photo with lots of ads) with a link to ‘buy this domain’. That link took me to a site called AcquireThisName.com where I was presented with a ‘make an offer’ form. I did. My offer led to a brief exchange part of which was…

John,
To be honest, I’m not sure if the registrant is motivated to sell this domain. At this time, he is only asking for solid 6 figure offers for consideration. Please let me know if you have a offer you would like to be presented. Appreciate your interest.
Kind Regards,
Bxxxxx | AcquireThisName.com

Hmm, a ‘solid 6 figure’ offer for a domain whose value derives from the fact that Sal’s Khan Academy gets a lot of traffic? That made me mad. I started looking around the net. There were plenty of people mad at AcquireThisName.com. They had also been involved in numerous trademark suits, (see also). I found that Acquire This Name was incorporated in Nevada and that two of its board members, Michael Blend, and Matthew Polesetsky were also on the board of Demand Media. Demand Media owns Enom and a LOT of other domain related companies.

I checked to see if Sal had a trademark. If he had I would have suggested a WIPO action. It would have been a slam dunk. But Sal, busy teaching kids trigonometry for free, hadn’t gotten one yet.

A couple of months later I got an email from Acquire This Name informing me that KhanAcademy.com was about to go to auction at Namejet. Huh? Great! I signed in to Namejet and placed the $69 minimum bid. You HAVE to have placed the minimal bid before the auction starts in order to participate in the auction. I was able to contact Sal through Andrew Warner and Sal was happy to have me bid on his behalf. The morning the auction opens I log in and discover there are 30 people in the auction! The first two days the bidding stays well below our budget but on the morning of the last day I wake up to discover the price has shot up to $1600. I get on the phone to Sal and he gives me the go ahead to keep bidding. We’re down to 4 bidders now as the auction winds down to those last few nail-biting minutes but finally the clock runs out and we have it – for $5000.

So who was bidding against us? KhanAcademy.org is up to (by Compete’s numbers even) @250k visitors a month. Googling a couple of the bidder’s handles suggested Asian game site owners, probably looking to siphon off the .com type-ins. But who knows-  a shady domainer after a higher end-user sale to Sal down the road? A shill bidder from AcquireThisName?

Interestingly, about a week after the auction closed Namejet informs me that they had detected fraudulent bidding in the auction (bad credit card), and were refunding me $2012,  so in fact we got KhanAcademy.com for $2,988 (my highest bid before the fraudster bid it higher).

Sal has been so busy we haven’t had time to even transfer the name over yet. He’s just won a Google prize and recently Bill Gates declared Sal his favorite teacher.

So there’s the story. But I’m left with a lot of unanswered questions.
Who got Sal’s money? Was it Namejet? They call themselves a partner of eNom. So is Namejet also owned by Demand?
And why the change of heart? Why sell now if you know how much traffic KhanAcademy is getting?
Does it have something to do with the attic cleaning going on at Demand around their IPO?
And who is Mark Barker Incorporated? They show up on the Whois as registrar now (it was Enom). They’re also owned by Demand.

My hunch is that Enom retains some domains that drop even when they don’t  have any generic value. If you look through the domains available through AcquireThisName.com there’s all kinds of names that look like they once belonged to a real business. For example, I found existing exact match companies for domains like BankOfElgin.com KentuckyHomeBank.com BudapestBank.com MichiganTalentBank.com FraminghamCoopBank.com ClevelandFurnitureBank.com. For what other reason could Enom own these domains except to sell them (though Acquire This Name) to the companies that are building value into their brands? No wonder people hate the domain industry. That’s sleaze!

I’m glad we were able to help Sal get his .com. In fact all it took, in this case, was Andrew’s information, my attention, and Sal’s checkbook! It’s not the first time I’ve been able to help someone out, but it’s the first time I’ve written about it. Usually it’s as easy as buying the name and putting up a “This is a present.” page. I call it Good Will Domaining.

See Also:
Hey just discovered a TechDirt article about this post. Interesting comments as well.
Michael Berkens: Here We Go Again: Now Enom Has A Site To Sell Its Own Domain Inventory: Where Did These Domains Come From?

How We Acquired Groupon.com

Mixergy’s Andrew Warner recently interviewed Groupon’s Andrew Mason. This clip discusses how Groupon got Groupon.com.
Full interview with video and transcription can be found at Mixergy.
Andrew calls it ‘the perfect name’, but another fellow with a similar idea already owned Groupon.com. He didn’t want to sell it and he didn’t want to work together. Only later, after obtaining a trademark for ‘Groupon’, which extended to the domain owner’s home country of England, were they able to talk him into selling. Did they pay too much? Andrew doesn’t think so. It helps to remember that Groupon is now doing hundreds of millions in sales annually, but in the interview he states, “We bought it in May of 2009 or something like that, for maybe $250,000 dollars, which seemed like a lot at the time, but now seems cheap.”

(Click arrow to hear clip) How We Acquired Groupon.com

Is a Hyphen Worth $15,000 Dollars

Mixergy’s Andrew Warner recently interviewed Blank-Label.com‘s co-founder Danny Wong. This clip discusses Danny’s frustration with trying to acquire the domain BlankLabel.com
Full interview with video and transcription can be found at Mixergy. [Note: Danny was Skyping in from China so the audio clip is a little funky.]

Danny calls the owner of BlankLabel.com both a ‘squatter’ and an investor. Using the real estate analogy, a squatter would be someone living in a house someone else actually owns. The person who owned the house might be a ‘slum lord’ but nevertheless, anyone can see he’s holding the property as an investment.  So sure, in my opinion, the guy who registers Gooogle.com would be a squatter- looking to profit from someone else’s property, but the guy who owns BlankLabel.com (and 29,000 other dot coms) is an investor. The problem seems to be that when people’s passions around building a business are involved, they lose sight of the fact that domain names are simply another product a market grew up around. That some domains are available at registration price somehow allows people to imagine buying the domain they want at that price. Well, you can get a house in Detroit for next to nothing! It might have all the pipes and wiring ripped out, but the city is giving them away in hopes people will move in. That doesn’t make anyone think the house in Beverly Hills should be free does it?

(Click the arrow to hear the clip) Is a Hyphen Worth $15k?

PS $15k seems like a lot, but it’s all relative. IMO it would be worth maxing out a few credit cards or doing another round of friends and family to get the domain.

Inane Domain Names – InaneDomainNames.com

I’m starting a collection of inane domain names. InaneDomainNames.com will resolve to this page on the blog. If it generates enough interest I’ll move it to it’s own site at some point. Please send me your favorite Inane Domain Names (and why you think they’re inane)!

TaskRabbit.com? Are you kidding me? Task + Rabbit = TaskRabbit! Perfect Tommy, fire up the bong!

Andy Sack, a smart, successful VC, and co-founder of VC fund and incubator Founder’s Co-op, recently ran a few articles on the difficulty of re-branding Revenue Loans. He painted the picture of he and his team of developers burning the midnight oil for weeks trying to come up with a name that the ‘domain squatters’ hadn’t snatched up. In the end they chose Lighter Capital. I must say I was highly underwhelmed and, but for the remark in the comments suggesting a cigarette lighter would make a great logo, had forgotten the name by the time I closed the tab. Why would a VC with millions of dollars at his disposal tie up his time and the time of his development team for upwards of three weeks trying to come up with a very average available domain? Why not invest some cash and get something really cool! Honestly, IMO, Andy didn’t just come up with an average name, but he sent a signal to potential future partners about his priorities.

Just listened to a great interview with the founder of Pachube.com, pronounced “Patch Bay” throughout the interview. [Wow! The very day I post this TechCrunch announces that Pachube has been acquired by LogMeIn for $15MM.]

An article I read today suggest we bow our heads for a handful of startups that fell into the deadpool in 2010. While I am not even suggesting that there is a direct corollary between their names and what happened, it is interesting to note that the domains themselves are probably worthless. Wattzy UserMojo YouCastr Riotvine Sponty Shortbord Rangle.me Geolenz If you can’t find a genius available domain (Hipmunk comes to mind) you can get a pretty good domain for a couple of grand. Your name is social proof number one – resist the urge to build out on a crappy available domain.

This just in. Kevin Rose is launching a subscription email newsletter. Granted, once you’re signed up you’ll probably never have to see it again, but for the purposes of talking about it at least he’s got to have a url. It’s being called Foundation, but the url is foundat.io/n. I think that actually raises the bar! Top that inane domain namers!

25 million in venture capital so far and the best we can do is Blekko.com. Are you kiddin’ me?

I’m overwhelmed. Just watched ThisWeekInVentureCapital and one after another Mark Suster is rolling out these recently funded multimillion dollar companies whose names are, IMO, horrific!
Xobni.com  Sendgrid.com  Swipely.com  Assistly.com Burstly.com Telepart.com? Earlier in the day Jason Calacanis talked about paying @$18k for ThisWeekIn.com (for his network of shows). He gets it! A good name is going to cost you a little dough. If VCs are pouring in cash- stop! Get a new name! Your customers will thank you- they won’t be embarrassed telling their friends about you (and then spelling the url, and then spelling it again).

10/20/10 Deal site Postabon.com relaunched today as SignPost.com. Nice! Are we seeing a pattern emerge- startup-> traction -> Angel round -> more traction ->A round – NEW DOMAIN NAME!

Sorry, even the press articles covering the launch are calling it unvarnished.com, but it’s actually GETunvarnished.com I feel for these guys, that’s one crappy domain name. [Update 10/19/10 There is a god! Unvarnished has just changed its name to Honestly.com. Thank You!]

Kevin Rose just sent out a tweet announcing his investment in a new startup. He links to a NY Times article about said startup. I’m just sayin’, if Kevin Rose is investing in you and the NY Times is writing about you it’s probably too late to change your domain/company name, but give me a break! formspring.me? For another question/answer site? Amazing.

This looks like a great product and I loved Andrew Warner’s Mixergy.com interview with Harry Lin that hipped me to it but, really, Lottay.com? Described as a cross between lottery and latte. More like a cross between can’t spell and can’t remember. I think this was one of the situations where by the time they had some money and momentum to run with the idea, they’d actually become fond of the name.

The Crunchpad fiasco is ongoing, but in the meantime the manufacturer is offering the tablet pc for sale as the Joo Joo. Bad enough they don’t even own the domain name joojoo.com but doubly inane because of the the.
theJooJoo.com

This has been mentioned elsewhere on the blog. Vark itself isn’t all that bad a domain name. The problem here is that the company is called Aardvark.
vark.com. (Wow! Aardvark/vark.com sold to Google for $50 Million! Wonder if they’ll keep the name.)

See also: http://goodurlbadurl.blogspot.com/


Domains ARE Brands!

I’ve been listening to a LOT of startup related podcasts. Especially ThisWeekInStartups.com mentioned earlier and Andrew Warner’s Mixergy.com. I’ve pretty much spent the last month going over every one of Andrew’s podcasts. It’s surprising how many startups miss the boat on domains and how that can impact marketing efforts. I think this clip from an interview Andrew did with Grasshopper.com founder Siamak Taghaddos pretty much sums up what I hear over and over again.

Siamak Taghaddos

Seems pretty obvious, right? But here’s an example (from another excellent Mixergy interview) of what so often happens.
Noah Kagan

Matt (WordPress / www.Ma.tt) had to get it. Would like to know more about that story.
Matt Mullenweg

Otis (of Goodreads.com) definitely gets it. Exactly, “a good domain will give you a 30% extra chance of success”.
Otis Chandler

Sure, domain names can be expensive. But the trouble is, the larger you grow your company, the more you
run the risk that someone is going to hold that domain name hostage (and why shouldn’t they, really?)
I guess my point is that getting the right domain name upfront will save you a lot of money in the long run.
If you would like help finding or acquiring a domain name for your startup please drop me a line. I love to
brainstorm domains and can help broker a deal for a domain that’s already owned.

In The News.
From: DomainNameWire.com

Social gadget company upgrades its domain name.
Sedo
has brokered the sale of Poken.com for $75,000 to a company that bills itself as a mobile social business card.

According to the web site, “poken is your ’social business card.’ it’s an easy way to share your contact details and online social networks in the real world. just hold two poken palms together – high4! – and you’re connected.”

The web site makes it look like a product primarily for teenagers. This domain is a big upgrade, as it appears the company has been using DoYouPoken.com as its web site.

From: DotWeekly.com

Ad.ly Purchases Adly.com Domain Name
Ad.ly is becoming a very popular in-stream advertising platform for Twitter.com users and they just purchased what would be considered a typo of their domain name, Adly.com for $6,000 at Sedo.com .

Adly.com was first registered in late 2001 and changed hands to Adly Inc. on 10-31-2009.

This is a very wise purchase for Adly Inc. because not only could the domain name be considered a typo of it’s Ad.ly domain, but it also matches the company name exactly.

I think Adly Inc. got a Great Deal on the new domain purchase, as Adly is a nice 4 letter brandable domain name… Just like Ad.ly decided to name their company!

.