Subscribe to The Startup Stack
This week, a journey into the weird and wonderful world of domain name brokerage with longtime expert, Bill Sweetman.
Bill’s business, Name Ninja, rode the wave as domain buying transformed from a cottage industry into a complex international market of (literally) unknowable size. To explain how he built his business, Bill went back to the early days of the dot-com era — and we came along for the ride.
“My job is like a cross between detective work and hostage negotiation.”
🎙 Highlights Include
- Why domain brokerage is a little like home-buying
- How NOT to acquire a domain name
- Current trends, including a COVID-19 uptick and demand for social media handles
- How to pick a great domain name (and buy it!)
This Week’s Guest
President & CEO of Name Ninja
Bill Sweetman is the founder of Name Ninja, a company that helps entrepreneurs acquire domain names and social media handles. A self-confessed domain name fanatic, Bill registered his first domain in 1994. He later sold it for five figures.
The Startup Stack’s Host
CEO, Co-Founder of Rocketplace
Rocketplace is a curated marketplace of high quality professional service providers. A 3x founder, investor, and board member, Louis began his tech career as a partner at Andreessen Horowitz. When he’s not working or podcasting, Louis enjoys cooking for his family. His pizza, he’d like you to know, is incredible.
Full Episode Transcript
Louis Beryl: So, I wanted to jump in and start with a little bit about the industry you’re in. So, you know, it’s it’s domain names are really fascinating thing because I think all entrepreneurs, no matter where they are all around the world, have this experience where when when you’re starting a business and getting going, or even you’ve been going for a while about thinking about what is the domain name, how does it affect the naming of my business, how do I register it? I have certainly been there where almost like this sense of panic can set in and your domain has been taken or is currently being used. You can’t figure it out. How do you how do you acquire it? So I think this is really probably very common you probably deal with a lot of entrepreneurs that have no idea how much it cost or how they’re going to solve this and could be very emotional. But maybe just just to start, I’d love to hear from you to describe for our listeners, like what is domain name broking? And what what what is it that you do and do not do?
Bill Sweetman: So there’s two two types of domain brokers. There’s a buyer broker, which is what we are. And then there’s the seller brokers. So a buyer broker represents the buyers best interest. Buyer brokers goal is to help that client acquire the target domain name or domains within the specific time frame and ideally within the specific budget. A seller broker represents domain owners. Their job is to find potential buyers and sell the domain to them. Some brokers wear both hats. Here it Name Ninja we focus exclusively on the buy side.
Louis Beryl: So maybe you could tell us a little bit more about your story. How did you become a domain name broker? How long have you been in this industry?
Bill Sweetman: So, I’ve been helping people with domain stuff for twenty six years at this point, but not full time. I started because I was working for a television network and helping trying to help them understand this newfangled web thing. And as part of helping to understand that I had I wanted to create my own website so I could understand what was involved in building a website. And in order to do that I needed to register a domain name. And so I figured that out. In fact, I couldn’t get my first choice. I had to settle for something else because I didn’t know there were brokers at that time. You know, and over time, as I worked in different sort of media and marketing roles, that people would come to me or know to come to me as that guy that knew something about domain names. And I became more and more sort of fascinated by the creativity of domain names. And I stumbled across this sort of almost at the time, kind of underground economy of people that were actually buying domains as investments with the aim of reselling them.
Louis Beryl: And what year is this? What what are we talking about?
Bill Sweetman: Oh, boy, oh, boy. By maybe fifteen years ago is when I came across the, yeah, about fifteen years ago there…
Louis Beryl: So like post.com bubble?
Bill Sweetman: Yes. There was a seminal article, it was a cover story in I think it was Business 2.0 magazine, which I don’t know if it’s still around and but I think that was the magazine. And they did this cover story about this Canadian doctor who was one of the leading domain speculator’s at that time. And they put them on the front cover. And it was something like “The Man Who Owns The Internet”, something something like that. His name is Kevin Ham, brilliant gentleman. And this was I think, the first mainstream article that kind of blew the doors open about this huge underground business of speculating in domain names. So around that time, I’m you know, I’m I’m dabbling in domains. I’m helping people with domains. I’m working as a VP at a big ad agency in Canada. And I actually get the opportunity to join a friend of mine who works for Tucows. Which at the time was, I think, the third or fourth largest domain registrar in the world. And they they were looking for somebody to help manage their internal portfolio with domain names. I eventually got that job, and that was just a life changing experience for me because that was, I think, 2007. So that was my full time, first full time gig in the domain industry. I’m just seeing it from all different angles there, plus managing this portfolio of about 300,000 domain names that were for resale.
Louis Beryl: And and this is this is what the larger company owned.
Bill Sweetman: Yes. So they own this this portfolio of resale for resale.
Louis Beryl: I’ve always wondered about that. So we have these larger companies like Tucows, like GoDaddy, and they’re the registrars. But then we also have all these speculators out there. But then, as you point out, some of the registrars have large portfolios. And it’s kind of always, I’ve always wondered, why don’t the registrars why didn’t they just own all the like, why do they sell them so cheaply? Why don’t they just gobble them all up for for cheap prices and then sell them at more expensive prices? Are there laws around this like…
Bill Sweetman: The law has evolved over time? Yeah, I mean, the the the domain registrars actually owning their own portfolios was sort of allowed through a bit of a loophole. And companies like Tucows especially which is a very ethical company, was and still is. They they struggled with this. But there was just too much money to be made and it wasn’t illegal. So they they built up a portfolio and it became a very successful business line for them, which I ran. They subsequently divested themselves of that portfolio. In fact, they sold it to GoDaddy. So GoDaddy and GoDaddy didn’t have a portfolio for a while. They secretly had one for a while. That got shut down. And then they eventually started picking up portfolios. And now GoDaddy actually has one of the largest portfolios for resale.
Louis Beryl: Fascinating. And so, you know, in these early two thousands, you know, you’re you’re starting to meet people like Kevin and you’re starting to work at Tucows. How big was the industry back then? You know, how many how how many domain name speculators are we talking about? Is is this a really small community and everyone kind of knows each other? And has that changed a lot as the technology landscape has exploded?
Bill Sweetman: I mean, ten plus years ago it was a cottage industry. It really was very small. There might have been ten or twenty people who had great sort of technical expertise and just kind of knew the secrets at the time. And they were you know, they were some of the early stage investors that figured out how to acquire domains and build up these portfolios. They started to mentor other people and it grew. But in terms of size, nobody’s ever been able to figure out how big or small the industry is. But I’ll give you a sense of it, let me back up. One of the reasons people don’t know how big it is is because most of the sales are not publicly disclosed. And and in fact, the bulk of the sales are big ticket sales and they’re never disclosed. But when the the industry as a whole would get together for, like the annual conference, that would be 300, 400, 500 people tops. I think the biggest attendance at any domain industry conference for the domain speculators may have topped out at around a 1,000 people. That includes vendors and suppliers. So, yeah, that’s a pretty small industry.
Louis Beryl: Yeah. And, you know, it’s it’s fascinating. You know, just a second ago you were saying, you know, the title of this article was “The Man Who Owns the Internet”. And it you know, it feels like an industry that is perfectly positioned to be more heavily regulated. And I’m wondering why isn’t it more heavily regulated? How have the regulations changed over the last decade or two?
Bill Sweetman: Yeah, I’m thinking the the registrars, they’re subject to the guidelines of ICAN, which is sort of a multi-stakeholder community driven organization that sort of is in charge of managing the domain space. But the speculating side, there’s not really any regulations there, partly because it’s like where do you what bucket does it fall in? So and that’s kind of on the one hand, it’s like the Wild West. And there’s great opportunities. But then there’s people that, you know, are that are the villains of the piece and, you know, that’s they behave in the most ethical manner. But there’s there’s not a lot of regulation and and one thing I find a little challenging is that because it’s unregulated, anybody can hang up a shingle and call himself at the domain broker. There’s no certification, there’s this, so so anybody that operates in the sort of domain speculating space that is not ethical kind of tarnishes the image of the majority who are very ethical players.
Louis Beryl: Well, I think that’s a that’s a good segue to to get into Name Ninja and and what you’ve built and how you founded it. As a person who has purchased a lot of domain names for businesses and struggled through that, I imagine that most people you meet actually start with the services offered from GoDaddy or Tucows. And so maybe you could tell me a little bit about how Name Ninja fits into the industry of these larger competitors. And what were you seeing that motivated you to start Name Ninja? And what were some of the struggles that you’ve had with building your company?
Bill Sweetman: So the motivation to start happened, I was working at Tucows and because we had a portfolio of desirable domains, a lot of times I was dealing with buyer brokers, independent buyer brokers approaching me on behalf of their clients. And so I got to know these people. And, you know, I started to see that, you know, some of these people were they were working off a laptop. They were traveling the world. It seemed like an amazing lifestyle business. And they seemed to be making good money and seemed to be enjoying the work. And I started to think about, wow, I was always getting asked to do effectively what I call buyer broker work. People always asking me, hey, I want to buy this domain. How do I how much is it worth? Who should I talk to? And so I was helping friends and colleagues.
Louis Beryl: Can … can I….can I jump in? You’re saying people are always asking you. But this is also like an industry that note that practically no one even knows exists. So how are they even finding you?
Bill Sweetman: Well, this is my place to be, my personal professional network. I will be working at an ad agency or a television network. People would know I’m that freak that knew something about the Internet, knew something about domain names.
Louis Beryl: Got it. Just because of your background working at Tucows.
Bill Sweetman: Yeah, so people just say, hey, Bill, know something about domain names? So I, I started to think about how much I enjoyed just sort of as a side thing. I enjoyed the buyer brokering work. And I also, you know, at that point in my life, I realized that there were some things I was good at and some things I weren’t. And I loved working at Tucows. But but the what I my strengths and weaknesses got really laid out for me. And I started to think, I wonder if I could focus and just be a buyer broker. I wonder if there’s a possibility I could do that. So I thought about that probably for a couple of years and ultimately decided, you know what, I’m going to take the leap. I’m going to take a swing at this. I figured worst case scenario, the folks at Tucows would have me back because I would part ways with them on very good terms. So I kind of made a decision sometime in around 2006 that no no sorry, 2012, that I would put together what I thought would be a service offering that would end up becoming Name Ninja. And I would try it for a year and see what happened.
Louis Beryl: And what before you did that. What do you think was the biggest thing holding you back from starting Name Ninja?
Bill Sweetman: I’m very risk averse as a person. So the thought of leaving, you know, at that point a VP level job to go out on my own was kind of terrifying. And I was the, you know, the primary breadwinner in the household, too. So that was kind of terrifying. And I I really didn’t know if there would be enough business for me. So, you know, I kind of hedged my bets a bit because when I launched Name Ninja, I offered a suite of services, including buyer broker work. But I also sort of alluded to I could help people manage their portfolios. And this was around the time of the launch of what we call the new TLDs so .club, .ninja, .whatever. So I sort of said I could help people figure that out. And I even sort of hinted that we could help with naming. So I sort of strategically, it’s like, OK, Name Ninja will offer a broader set of services and we’ll see what the clients want. Magically, as it turns out, people wanted buyer broker work and there was enough of it. It’s not like I left knowing for sure this would work. In fact, it was it was the most painful difficult decision of my life. But it did work out. But I did sort of feel I had a fallback plan. I figured Tucows or some of the other companies I’d gotten to know in the domain industry, they would they would welcome me into their fold if this Name Ninja thing didn’t work out. But thankfully, it did.
Louis Beryl: You know, I should tell the story of some of the mistakes I’ve I’ve had in buying domain names. And, you know, if I look back to my last business, Earnest. You know, we did eventually own earnest.com. I won’t go into the full story here, but we actually launched with meetearnest.com. You know, when at the very, very beginning we tried everything, both figure out and purchase that domain name. I think I called up or use the domain name brokerage services or via their Tucows or go, GoDaddy. That didn’t work. I hired a private investigator to try to figure out who it was. I think eventually I thought I knew who it was. So I just started emailing them and offering them money. I even at one point had an investor suggests that we should just show up at the person’s house with a bag full of money. Anyway, it took years but we did eventually get the domain name and, you know, it wasn’t cheap. But, you know, I wonder, you know, what do you think about that story? And really, more more importantly, when should an entrepreneur be calling you to think about purchasing a domain name? And and what shouldn’t they do before they call you?
Bill Sweetman: Lots to unpack there. You know, I mean, congrats on getting the domain name after all those years. You know, the things you have to watch out for are if you’re the buyer, if you’re going direct to the owner, that’s risky on a number of levels because you’re revealing your identity as as the buyer to the owner.
Louis Beryl: And and why is that, why is that important to not reveal your identity?
Bill Sweetman: Because they could have assumptions that are incorrect about your your financial status, you know, the scope and scale of your company, your intentions, and, you know, so that can significantly spike the price, not in your favor. Another reason it’s good to work, perhaps with an intermediary, is it removes or it should remove some of the emotional aspects of this, because it’s understandable if you’re the startup founder and you really, really want this name, you’re going to get worked up about that. Then you’re going to get worked up in the negotiations.
Louis Beryl: I mean, oh my God, I was so worked up it was practically all I thought about for years. I mean…
Bill Sweetman: Understandably, too.
Louis Beryl: I was obsessed.
Bill Sweetman: But at the same point, you know, it just takes you one human slip of the tongue to say something, you know, a little hot to the owner and the whole deal or potential deal falls apart. And that’s why…
Louis Beryl: I would love to hear a story about a deal falling apart.
Bill Sweetman: Oh, yeah. I mean, I’ve had I’ve…I mean that why you should hire a buyer broker to act as that sort of neutral intermediary. But I’ve had some situations where we had one deal, it probably took nine months to get the deal kind of into escrow. We’re at the final stages. The owner was very sensitive for a bunch of reasons and the buyer was great. But what happened was the buyer’s lawyer got involved and wanted to speak directly to the seller and I was on that call. I would never allow that to happen without me being on the call. But it was such a personality clash that the seller felt understandably felt quite disrespected. And basically, he was sort of saying, yeah, I’m going, we’re going to cancel this deal. And so I took another month or two for me to get the seller kind of appeased and back to the table.
Louis Beryl: Do you still let that happen or are you like, no, we can’t we can’t let the any discussions between the buyers and the sellers?
Bill Sweetman: As a general rule of thumb, I try to avoid that. I discourage that immensely because it’s kind of like, well, if you if you’ve made the decision to hire an expert to get a job done, don’t start meddling in it, particularly in the final stages, like. And…
Louis Beryl: It’s very, very similar in home buying to where the you know, the it’s usually broker between. broker.
Bill Sweetman: Absolutely.
Louis Beryl: It can be very emotional.
Bill Sweetman: And it’s good to separate those emotions. And it’s good to have somebody…actually let’s use that analogy, because unfortunately, a lot of people buying homes sometimes will walk in and deal with a seller broker and not realize they’re dealing with a seller broker. You seller broker works for the seller. They’re not they’re not looking after your best interests. So with a domain name, a lot of people, you know, they’ll sort of reach out to like a marketplace or they’ll they’ll reach out to the the for sale link on the domain. And they end up talking to a broker and they sort of think that that brokers working for them. And it’s like, no, they’re not. They’re working for the seller.
Louis Beryl: I’ve made that mistake, by the way. I mean, did that exact thing. I mean, part of the problem was I didn’t even know how to find folks like yourself. Right. And so, you know, if the domain name isn’t is listed as not for sale on one of these large registration sites. You know, I think a lot of entrepreneurs are just like, well, where do I go next? And then the next place to go, the next most obvious place is, you know, GoDaddy’s or Tucows brokerage service. Right. But to your point, they’re really more seller brokers.
Bill Sweetman: Well, it depends like GoDaddy has. You know, they have I think it used to be called domain by service. They’ve renamed it something else now. But they they have a team there. And, you know, they will they will help the buyer like they they’re actually a bit more neutral than some of the brokers out there. But at the end of the day, you know, a client may choose to work with Name Ninja because they’re getting a more direct relationship with a senior person such as myself. And, you know, we’re going to we’re going to go that extra length to figure out who owns the domain, how to reach them and how to, you know, how to get a deal done.
Louis Beryl: Well, and I think that was one of the issues that we faced was I think we did reach out to the domain by service at one of these companies. And actually, they pretty quickly came back with we don’t know who this is. Right. Maybe they you know, they sent some email into the ether got no response and that was just like that was it. So it just went nowhere because they they weren’t even able to contact the seller.
Bill Sweetman: It’s partly you get what you pay for too right? Like, if you’re if you’re paying sixty nine dollars for broker services, I mean, what do you expect they’ll there maybe send a few emails, maybe try to make a couple phone calls like are you really going to get a lot of investigative work now. So what’s different with, you know, a professional buyer broker that focuses on this is I talk about it being like a cross between detective work and hostage negotiation. You know, what we do is we we spend a lot of time and a little using a lot of different tools to figure out who the identity of the domain owner is. We also spend time trying to understand the psychology of that person. We, we’ll look for videos that they may have been in on YouTube. We really want to understand who it is we will eventually be dealing with.
Louis Beryl: My investors suggested showing up at the house with a bag full of money. Do you have…what what other crazy creative tactics have you had to try?
Bill Sweetman: The the most recent newest tactic we deployed. I gave it a name. I don’t even know if this is. A real phrase, but I called it flyer bombing. But what we did there was a gentleman in where was he in Southern California, and we just could not get him to really engage with us, even though we had his emails and his phone numbers and his fax numbers and we sent postcards and letters like, come on, dude, let’s have a conversation. So and this is during the height of the COVID pandemic, too. So it’s like, OK, how can we get somebody’s attention? Like, we would not want to send somebody to his door. Right. Because that that that’s just a particularly because they were under lockdown in California. So it’s like so I ended up I ended up hiring a guy who was recommended to me was a sort of freelance person. But he had a background that he was in special forces, in the military, in the US military. I didn’t know this, though, later. But he he got up very early one morning. He mapped out his route. He took a couple of hundred flyers that we designed. And I think it was like desperately seeking John Smith, like the name of the man with a message for politeness. And he printed them on different colored paper. And he got up really early this morning and he went to this guy’s office and to his home and he and using painter’s tape. So I told him we don’t want to damage the paint or the property. But so using painter’s tape, which is removable tape, he plastered, he covered the two front doors of the place so you couldn’t come in or out without seeing these hundred posters. The other one that we did, I was just I thought I just loved it was we discovered that the Spanish businessman would be attending this trade conference in London, England. And and we knew that they had a booth there. So I actually got one of our agents who’s multilingual. I think she speaks six different languages. And she was in London at the time. So we sent her to the conference with our offer letter. And she, you know, basically staked, staked out the booth. And when she spotted him, she went right over and introduced herself and reminded him how serious we were about buying the name. He actually signed the the purchase agreement right there. So…
Louis Beryl: I mean, that’s crazy. It’s like a mix of Harry Potter and Mission Impossible. It’s just like international practically espionage, tracking people down and getting domain names. But, you know, it’s kind of funny in a certain sense this is exactly what I thought domain name brokering was all about, like this level. And it really resonates with the experience I’ve had. I’d like to ask you kind of two very related questions. And it would be interesting maybe to talk a little bit about how this has changed over time. I’d love to kind of understand for the majority of your work, what does it really cost to acquire a domain name while at the same time I want to know what’s the most expensive domain name you’ve ever helped someone purchase? Not the actual name. You don’t have to tell me that. But like, how much was like the or like how many figures was the most expensive one you’ve ever seen?
Bill Sweetman: Oh, I’ll give you both sides of that. So most expensive was, I think, $1,700,000 US for a two letter .com. And that’s kind of the two letter dot coms these days. They are there’s a there’s a very limited supply of them. Yeah, entrepreneurs in China own most of them as investments.
Louis Beryl: I know that there’s been a lot of domain speculating over the last decades. But how did China how to entrepreneurs in China happen to acquire those wide in the same domain name speculators? How did those all end up with Chinese entrepreneurs?
Bill Sweetman: Well, there was a period of time, I’m going to say, five, five, six years ago where Chinese investors were looking at alternative assets to invest in because of the Chinese rules about where they could and couldn’t put their money. So domain names were seen as a potentially safe haven. In fact, there was there was this crazy was in the domain industry has called the Chinese boom. There was this period, about an 18 month period where some of the perhaps not so ethical business people in China were literally running around convincing farmers and taxi drivers and people that didn’t even have a computer that they should invest in domain names. And they were selling them tons of crap at over inflated prices and making a killing. But that aside, a lot of Chinese investors and successful Chinese entrepreneurs are very interested in English one word .coms and these ultra short domains. And so that’s why the most of the a good chunk of the two letter .coms that aren’t already spoken for by businesses are owned by investors in China. But we were talking about biggest, most expensive name. Then on the cheapest. And I mean, I’ve had I love when this happens, we’ve had clients approached us and they’ve got a target domain in mind. And we’ll take a look. And a couple of things could happen. One could be potentially even try to acquire the name. And the two sides just can’t agree and, you know, it doesn’t happen or something else happens. But either way, it’s not possible. But, you know, a few months may go by, a few years go by, and we always track to see if the domain is going to expire. And sometimes if a domain is going to expire in the next three months and the client can wait, we’ll say, hey, we don’t even recommend approaching the owner. We think there’s a chance here this domain might expire. And if it expires…
Louis Beryl: Bill, I think that happened with us, I think that on both levels, when we rocketplace.com, I remember we met you and we we engaged with you to hire…to help us purchase rocketplace.com. And then I think it was like a Sunday, just like a week or so later you emailed Ben and you’re like, if you go to this link right now, you can buy this for $1,500. I don’t know if that was the exact price, but it was on that order and then just bought. It was like, oh my God, we couldn’t believe it. I mean it was so much cheaper than we thought we were going to get it for. And I think on a second one it wasn’t the .com…
Bill Sweetman: No that one wasn’t…the second one which we don’t have to say what that domain was. But but we had actually attempted to buy the name from the owner over whatever a three, six month period. And he just was just had outrageous expectations of price. So we collectively agreed to part ways. And like amazingly, he let the domain expire and we were able to get it for you. And, you know, I think a domain that you you were, I think, willing to pay, I don’t know, let’s say ten grand for something like that. You know, your bill was here’s your seventy five dollar domain name.
Louis Beryl: So what do you what’s your kind of average? You know, we don’t we don’t have to get into exact numbers, but like most clients that come to you, are they are they are they buying domains in the tens of thousands of dollars, the hundreds of thousands of dollars? What’s the kind of your bread and butter?
Bill Sweetman: Yeah. So a lot of clients come to us wanting to buy a one word .com, and then we have a very frank conversation with them about what sort of budget is required for a one word .com. And that kind of budget is typically six figures. And then there could be an immediate sort of adjustments like, oh, OK, yeah, we think we want a different type of name. And then it may be a two word .com and two word .com. That’s typically in the tens of thousands not hundreds of thousands. I found that on average, our clients are investing about $50,000 for their target domain name. That’s just an average asset. There’s there’s the $1,000,000 plus and there’s the the the pick it up in the expiry auction for a $100. We’ll talk to anybody and help anybody. But if a client’s budget is under $5,000 we may sort of suggest they go the do it yourself route or may suggest some other option for them.
Louis Beryl: Yeah. Let me ask the question that I’m sure all the listeners and entrepreneurs out there are asking themselves is, what should they expect to pay a domain name broker like yourself for helping them with the service? And and does that have you what should they not be doing when they are engaging with someone to help them?
Bill Sweetman: Well, they should only choose to work with one broker at a time. I mean, shop around if you want, but never have more than one broker pursuing a domain, the same domain for you at the same time. That’s just I think it’s unethical. It’s certainly stupid because you’re competing against yourself. You know, we all get to kind of sort of pricing and stuff like that. But if I wanted to talk about compensation models, because there are different compensation models for buyer brokers. The most common one in the industry is a percentage of the purchase price, and that percentage is somewhere between 10% and 20%. A lot of our competitors have that model. A lot of people are used to that model. It’s very common. We deliberately don’t follow that model because as one of our very early customers pointed out, well, if I’m paying you a percentage of the purchase price, what’s incentivizing you to get me the low, get me the domain for the lowest possible price? So we came up with this kind of hybrid model, which involves usually there’s an upfront retainer and it’s pretty modest, especially compared to the overall budget it’s pretty modest. And then there’s a success fee. And the success fee has two parts. There’s a flat fee component. Once again, it’s it’s more than the retainer, but it’s way less than, what, 10% of, let’s say, the budget would be. And then the other half or the other portion of the success fee is based on a saving you money on the deal. Net, if a client is talking to one of our competitors to charges, let’s say, 15% of the purchase price, almost every case, the fee is going to be lower than that. But also, more importantly, from my perspective, our fee is better aligned with the objectives of the buyer.
Louis Beryl: Yeah, and I from again, putting my entrepreneur hat on, which I do 24/7, that feels better because what we’ve done is we’ve aligned expectations around what we think this should cost. We feel like we’re on the same side in terms of saving money and that that feels really good.
Bill Sweetman: I also structure our compensation based on the specific scenario. So if it’s like a very early stage startup and, you know, the overall budget is modest, but we think it’s achievable for the domain. And if I already know the owner of the domain or if the domains listed for sale with a buy it now price, then we might even go with kind of an eat what we kill kind of model where there’s no retainer. You do have to sign a contract usually with us. But will you know, maybe there will be a small success fee plus a percentage of the of the savings we get. So we do take it on a bit of a case by case basis. We have an internal rate card. But I do look at the scenario. If it’s a not for profit, I’m going to, you know, come up with a preferred model for them, the repeat client, you know, we’ll work something out.
Louis Beryl: What about COVID? Have have how has that affected the industry? Has it has it affected it at all? Has it become more of a buyer or sellers market as a result of COVID?
Bill Sweetman: So I would say in March, maybe late March, let’s say March. I think in the domain brokering sort of domain speculating world, there was a little bit of fear. I think some of the clients I know, we had one client pause a project. We had another client cancel a project. So I think for maybe one or two weeks, it looked kind of dire and sales dipped in terms of the what they call the aftermarket, the premium domain market. But just for a couple of weeks. And then the unexpected happened. Certainly for me and for a lot of people is, you know, the world had to figure out how to move online. Those that weren’t moving on weren’t online already. And suddenly the domain speculators were telling me that all of a sudden they were getting way more offers, especially on their kind of lower end inventory, like the two word names, the three word names. And it became a seller’s market and still is. Which I think surprised everybody. And it surprised us. We we were talking to clients maybe, let’s say in April and sort of saying, hey, you know you know that domain you’re interested in. Would you like us to talk to the seller? Because maybe the sellers sort of feeling a bit of pain now and wants to kind of maybe liquidate might be more reasonable in terms of price expectations. But it just didn’t happen that way. People were the speculators were doing really well. And it there was some softness on the very high end for a period of time, a couple of months. But people came back. And so I’m very blessed that I happened to work in the online space and in a particular weird niche vertical that was not significantly impacted by COVID at all. I just I count my lucky stars every day. And I’ve also been blown away by the ingenuity of the creative mind and the entrepreneurial mind to come up with short and long term solutions to this crisis. I just look in awe what people are doing and go, wow, where don’t count the human race out just yet.
Louis Beryl: What’s your prediction for the future of the domain name market? How do you think it’s going to change over the next 5, 10 years?
Bill Sweetman: Well, I think it’s important to have a global perspective because you’ll sometimes hear people like, let’s say in North America and they’re kind of like, well, everybody that wanted a websites already got one. So like who who needs another domain name or or people will say, oh, there’s apps, you don’t need domain names or there’s VR, there’s voice recognition, you don’t need domain names.
Louis Beryl: There’s just Google, you know.
Bill Sweetman: There’s the search engines. But first of all, not true. You need an address for the platform that you own. You don’t want to build a brand on a Facebook URL that you don’t own. That would be very foolish but people still make that mistake all the time. Email needs a domain. Domains can be a call to action. You have to think about the rest of the world. You have to think about Africa and India and and some of the growing countries in Asia where their Internet penetration and their online business status might have been in the single digits or low double digits. You know, you look in China where I think the number was something like 2,000 new startups a day happening in China. Most of those are going to need a domain name and the ones that aspire to be to be a global startup, a global business, they’re going to want a .com. There is a lot of demand coming. You know, people will say I’m biased, but I honestly don’t see the demand lessening. But what I do see is people tend to want the same kind of names. As I said, most of the people approaching us, they want to get a one word .com. There are only so many one word .coms in the world. Those assets are very rare and they are increasing in value. Cause you can’t invent you can’t make new Park Avenue real estate you can’t make it out of thin air, I that’s why I said at one point that I find that people engage with domain buyer brokers too late in the process. I try to encourage clients. I wish this happens, happens maybe only 5% of the time. I consider it a best practice. It’s like if you’re going through a naming process, whether you’re doing it in-house or working with a naming agency, get it down to five or 10 of your short listed names. Then go talk to your friendly neighborhood domain buyer broker. Have them give you that perspective on whether that domain or whether each of those what are the chances of each of those being acquired and what might the ballpark budget be and and have that influence your decision. Because sadly, so many times clients will come to us…I mean, God bless them for coming to us, but they come to us and they’ve already painted themselves in a corner. They’ve already booked they’ve already building the website using the domain name. They’re already booked television ads. They’ve told everybody we’re going to be fluffy.com. And it’s like, guys, the lady that owns that, she’s never going to sell that or she’s not going to sell it for the budget you you’ve got we’ve got to come to us earlier. Let’s figure out some alternative options here.
Louis Beryl: Last question for you, Bill. You’ve now built a very successful business. If you could go back. 20, 25 years and give the young Bill a couple of pieces of advice about building a business and entrepreneurship, what would you say to yourself?
Bill Sweetman: Couple of things. I would say if if you have a good network of people that know and like you and think you’re good at something, don’t don’t be afraid to kind of niche yourself and make the leap, because that network, they’ll be there to support you and refer business to you. And and, you know, if things go south may help you kind of recover from a mistake. So that’s that’s one thing. I would also say don’t be afraid to lean on or just ask for help from your potential partners, even if those partners are kind of competitors. In a sense, I think it was last year was kind of a turning point for Name Ninja in that I worked even more with “competitors”. But it’s a small industry and we were able to collaborate on projects. So I think people tend to be afraid. It’s like I can’t possibly ask that competitor a question or maybe have them work on the project with me. It’s like, yeah, you can. Another thing I would do is very early on find ways to measure what’s important in the business, you know, and we did that by putting a CRM in place within six or nine months of starting the business. And I found that that has given me insight that I didn’t even know I would get. Things like not only the source of leads, but which source actually converts into business. Which for me gave me really good insight as a small business as to where to allocate my marketing time and my marketing budget. Really helped me be able to get analysis of projects and kind of go, oh, you know what, that type of project, we think that they’re lucrative, but they’re not or were burning way too much time on this type of thing or, you know, oh, do we really need to go to that many conferences to get business?
Louis Beryl: I mean, it’s it’s a really common thing that we see with a lot of our service providers on Rocketplace. Which is a lot of their business does come in by word of mouth. But just even if you think about breaking that word of mouth down like word of mouth can be an umbrella category. A lot of our businesses aren’t as good at is, well where is the word of mouth coming from? Is it certain folks? Is it like you said, is it coming from conferences, et cetera? And so because they they put everything in the umbrella category of word of mouth, actually, it’s hard for them to understand, like just what you’re saying, where should we be focused, really focusing our resources so that we can grow our business?
Bill Sweetman: We specifically asked, you know, anybody that comes to us, if it’s not if they haven’t already been introduced to us by a specific person, we sort of say, how did you first find out about us? Because we have to know, because then they were referred to us by somebody. We want to thank that person that referred them to us. And if it was some article they discovered that I wrote or was quoted in or if it was at an event I attended, I want to know because then it’s like, OK, should I still keep going to events or not?
Louis Beryl: Well Bill, this has been amazing. So interesting what experiences you have had. And just peeling back a little bit of what happens in the domain name industry, which practically every entrepreneur has had to deal with, has just really been fascinating. I have enjoyed this immensely.
Bill Sweetman: Thanks for having me. Been great to be here.