Why So Many Entrepreneurs Hoard Secret Stashes of Domain Names
Dreaming up a new business starts with a domain name, and some entrepreneurs have hundreds of them
Michael Lindsey and Daniel Rubin have a tradition. At the end of each year, when GoDaddy announces that their domain names have renewed, they send each other screenshots of the notice, paired with a tongue-in-cheek caption: “We’ve got to get started on that idea.”
Since their time as undergraduates at California State University, Long Beach, the two of them have fantasized about launching a series of quasi-viable companies together, ranging from a Jewish holiday clothing line that Rubin dubbed “Mitzvapparel” to a subscription box for men (bottle of whiskey, disposable razors, a tie) called Alpha Mail. All it takes is a good pun and a few drinks, and the duo goes all in. Over the past seven years, they’ve sunk hundreds of dollars renewing about a dozen domain names tied to businesses they brainstormed together.
Whether either of them has the time or energy for the new business — or whether the idea feels commercially feasible at all — has become irrelevant. They don’t need a side hustle to boost their careers; Lindsey is a co-founder of the money management app iBank, and Rubin manages artists at the startup Element1 Music. The appeal is the fantasy: That one day they could grow this inside joke into a full company together. “The dream of carving out time and executing it with your bud is almost as enamoring as the idea itself,” says Rubin.
Like Lindsey and Rubin, many entrepreneurs have secret caches of unused websites — in some cases hundreds of domain names — kicking around. Each domain is like a beautiful little entrepreneurial fantasy, a kernel of business idea, just waiting for its owner to find the time or funds to get started (and presumably, to someday do the hard work of, you know, actually building that business). With domains costing as little as $2 to $20 per year to register, it’s tempting to buy up a website for even the vaguest outlines of a business.
“Looking through an entrepreneur’s domain portfolio is a bit like browsing through an old notebook,” says Thies Lindenthal, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge who studies the domain market. Although few of those ideas will bubble up into real businesses, says Lindenthal, “domain registrations provide an unfiltered snapshot of our collective entrepreneurial creativity. Or madness, in many cases.”
For some entrepreneurs, registering a domain is the first stage in logging a business idea, akin to jotting down a pitch or sharing it with a friend. Melanie Seibert, founder of Prose Kiln, a digital content strategy company in Charlottesville, Virginia, recently woke up with the idea to launch a chicken-farming business, she first checked available domain names. Even before researching the mechanics of owning a farm, she considered how she would brand the new venture. (Some offshoot of HeritageChickens.com or HeirloomChickens.com, perhaps? Or maybe something ending with the suffix .farm?) Seibert floated the idea to her husband, but she has yet to take the idea further.
After Seibert tells me this, she catches herself. If this gets published, she adds in an email, she wants a warning so that she can buy up those domain names. “Can’t have all the farmers in your audience beating me to the punch!” she writes.
Once that domain has been purchased, it can be hard to let go. Christina Stembel runs the flower delivery service Farmgirl Flowers, a San Francisco-based company with revenue in the tens of millions that employs over 100 people. Yet she still regularly renews 224 domains per year, all while knowing that few, if any of them will grow into legitimate businesses.
Stembel estimates that she’s purchased close to 400 domain names since her initial foray into the business world in 2010. Back then, she had neither a college degree nor a financial network, and even though she wanted to launch a company of her own, “I wasn’t going to waltz down to Sand Hill Road and come out with a big check with name on it,” she says.
So Stembel set out to brainstorm business ideas that could check her four boxes: 1) It solved a real problem, (2) it had the potential to grow into a major business, (3) it would have a positive impact, and (4) it was something she could bootstrap. In the end, she landed on Farmgirl Flowers, but not before registering a long list of domains. She only recently began culling some of the unused websites, including pockettes.com, part of a now-retired idea to develop iron-on pockets for women’s suits.
Yet even as Farmgirl Flowers has spread across the continental U.S., Stembel hasn’t stopped buying up domains. “Every time I even think of a new direction I could take this company in I look up domain names and purchase what’s available,” Stembel says. Among her current domains are xtimes2.com — a reference to XX chromosomes that she’s set aside for “something feminist related” — and everythingsnotperfect.com, which Stembel might one day use as a space “to combat the Instagram fakeness.”
She explains her desire to cling to hundreds of domains in practical terms: while it’s certainly a creative outlet, ultimately, it’s also just cheaper. “In all likelihood, it’s much more budget-friendly to do it now and buy multiple names we may never use than to try and purchase the one domain I want years down the line,” Stembel says.
Brandon Risell, a California-based software developer, is very familiar with this sort of website FOMO. “It’s so cheap to buy a domain and sit on it,” says Risell. “If I can find an available domain for the idea, I’ll usually buy it.” Until recently, he owned “somewhere between 50 and 100” domain names, but in the last few years, as he’s gotten serious about budgeting, he’s slashed that figure down to six. His favorite idea that he has yet to do anything with: a dating site for the elderly called CarbonDating.us, a play on the archaeological technique for estimating an artifact’s age.
But he’s also missed out on a few domains he didn’t snap up quickly enough. Risell recounts checking a domain registrar to see if an eponymous domain, Risell.com, was available — it was. “I didn’t think I needed any kind of urgency so I didn’t think to actually go back and pull the trigger until a couple of days later,” he says. But by then, Risell.com was gone, and when he checked the secondhand market — where domain traders list their catalog at a markup — the going rate was $5,000.
Months later, the same thing happened when Risell was considering building an app that would feature a schedule of upcoming rocket launches. He came up with the name Launch Window — he thought it had a nice ring to it. But a few days after he checked its availability, LaunchWindow.com was gone. Because you never know when a domain will disappear, anyone with a tenuous interest in a certain domain has an incentive to buy it up and sit on it.
That can easily lead to a kind of domain hoarding. Karl Ulrich, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Pennsylvania, said he buys about 10–15 names at a time for any given business idea, then whittles down to one winner later. Of the 200 domains he currently owns, he has almost a dozen reserved for a potential bike business that plays on the word volo, which means “flight” in Italian. He likes the logo potential of the two O’s (like bike wheels!), so he bought up several iterations, including volobike.com and volocycle.com.
As for Rubin and Lindsey, they are not planning to let their fantasy business websites go in the foreseeable future. “The dream dies if we delete the domain,” says Rubin. In fact, they’re still daydreaming about new ideas. In a joint phone call, they described their fascination with star registry businesses, where people buy certificates stating they named a star after a loved one. Rubin and Lindsey want to develop their own offshoot: sellyoursoul.net, a website that mails certificates announcing, “I eternally give my soul to whoever” — fodder for a micro-industry of gag gifts.
When Rubin and Lindsey begin describing another idea, a startup that ages whiskey in coordination with a child’s life cycle, there’s a pause. “This is the idea that’s maybe most viable,” Rubin says. After a back and forth, we agree that I’ll keep the details of the whiskey business to a minimum — just in case.