When you start a business, one of the most important decisions to make is choosing the right domain name. From our experience, we’ve found that on the web, the domain name you choose is arguably just as important as your company’s name. We originally launched our site at www.solvingtheweb.com, and quickly learned some valuable branding lessons.
Squatting Vampires Ahead
When we started Solve Design about 3 years ago, we ran into a problem right away, in that our top choices for domain names – solvedesign.com and solve.com – were already taken. That’s understandable. ‘Solve’ and ‘design’ are very common words, and naturally anything that common will either already exist as a company or website, or have been sucked up by domain name-hoarding vampires that buy and auction popular domains at unreasonable prices through a process called cybersquatting. How this is legal, I’ll never know (because technically it isn’t), but suffice it to say, it is a huge industry and has now sadly become part of doing business on the internet. Solve.com was owned by a legitimate business, but solvedesign.com was unfortunately one of these poor villagers, a victim in Dracula’s clutches.
After doing some research and finding out that our top choices for domains were taken, we did some brainstorming, and came up with two available domain names: solvedesignnyc.com and solvingtheweb.com. Being a remote web design company, we weren’t sure where the next few years would take us physically, so we didn’t want to tie ourselves down with a location based domain. The latter was somewhat clever, and said exactly what we did, so for us this was a win/win. We purchased both domains, built a website, procured some clients, and everything was gravy.
Branding Issues Arise
After a while however, from time to time we started hearing colleagues and clients refer to our company name as Solving the Web. ‘That’s weird,’ we thought. ‘It’s quite clear when you visit our website that our name is Solve Design. It’s right in the header!’ And then we started to think about it.
I’d venture to guess that 80% of our business communication is via email, so our email addresses tend to serve as our online avatars, so to speak. When you see an email from email@example.com over and over, the natural unconscious association becomes, ‘Oh, that’s Tim from Solving the Web.’ Furthermore, your clients aren’t going to your website every day, so you can’t rely on a website to do your heavy lifting for you.
We realized we were beginning to have a branding issue. Our domain was fun and informative, but we were missing a crucial opportunity for brand awareness & association. So we went back to the drawing board again.
(Calculated) Risk and Reward
This time, we staked out our original first choice, solvedesign.com by looking at the whois information, and lo and behold, that domain was set to expire within the next few months. We tried reaching out to the owner, but had no such luck. So we waited patiently in hopes that it would eventually be freed to the general public.
Now I’m not sure if this was by coincidence, or because our company name is an exact match, but about a month later we started receiving multiple emails from domain auction houses asking if we’d like to purchase the expiring domain. These emails ranged anywhere from sketchy to possibly legitimate, but given that we knew the domain was expiring, we thought it might be worth playing the game. After a bit of research, we chose to take a chance with one of the less spammy looking ones. We had a quick internal meeting, chose our maximum bidding price, and said a prayer that our bank accounts would not be emptied by some prince in Sudan.
A few weeks later, we received an email congratulating us on winning the auction. After a few days we were handed a login to the registrar, and we began planning our transition to the new domain. Now, I can’t say I’d recommend the process we went through, but sometimes you have to take a chance if the opportunity is there.
Now came the fun part. How do you go about changing a domain that every business contact now associates you with? We followed a simple process that I think has worked out well.
For the website, we wanted to migrate to a new host anyway, so this one was easy. First, we ported over our site to the new server, set up our nameserver records, and then simply pointed the DNS record from the solvedesign.com registrar to the new host.
Our email is hosted on Google Apps, so this was a simple transition as well. We simply made sure the MX records were set up properly on the new host before we pointed the DNS. We then added the new domain to our Google Apps account, and edited the primary address for each mail user. All mail to the old address will now automatically forward to the new address by using the old address as an alias. Now we’re able to capture all mail to the old address during the transistion. To learn more about this, check out this article, as well as this one.
Finally, we needed to tell the world. We created a Mail Chimp account, and sent out a newsletter to our colleagues, clients, and friends notifying them of the new change, and requesting that they update their address books. We still get emails sent to our old email address, but once we send a reply from the new address, the email chain continues with the correct one.
Our last step is perhaps the most time consuming, which involves now changing our email address in every online account we’ve created, including banks, software, stores, etc. This one is going to take a while, just trying to remember all of those accounts. In hindsight, if you’re just starting a business, make sure you document every account you create for that business, in case you change emails/domains at some point. Future you will thank you.
Everything said and done, the process of changing our domain has been much smoother than I’ve anticipated. That said, we did learn a few lessons along the way.
- Research is key – Take the time to research your company name against multiple factors (competition, domain availability, key word association with your industry). It will save a lot of headaches in the future.
- Think hard about domain association – People may associate your company name very closely with the domain you choose, so make sure it’s inline with your company name and brand.
- Your website is not your main point of visibility – In fact, the people you email may never see your website, so don’t rely on it as your only point of branding yourself.
- Keep a list of accounts that use your email address – You’ll thank yourself if you change domains and need to update those accounts
- Picking a wrong fit is not the end of the world – If you do need to change your domain name, it’s not the end of the world. With a solid plan for migration, it can be a mostly seamless process.
Oh, and watch out for vampires.
What lessons have you learned from choosing, using, or switching domains?