Disclaimer: I have been involved in naming a lot of companies (pretty much everything here except InReach and eWork), really enjoy it, and am addicted to collecting domain names as well. This is a very tactical guide to one method that works well for naming startups. I am not a fancy naming consultant, nor am I branding expert. You shouldn’t be considering fancy people or firms anyway, unless you are starting a company that is a spin off from some existing large enterprise or is drowning in VC money. If you have the cash, you can just go out and buy a great domain name for $20k or $50k and be done with it. For those starting up with limited funds like most of us, please read on.

I often hear startup founders say that there are “no good domain names” available anymore. I also see a lot of Internet startups with horrifically bad names – not just bad because they don’t convey anything about the business, but bad because they are impossible for anyone to remember, and have crazy spellings that even your own employees will type incorrectly into a web browser. These bad names are not going to make or break your business, but since you are starting out without a big advertising budget and have no PR yet, why begin your marketing with the disadvantage of a bad name when you don’t need to?

You see Internet companies with names like Skeetrr.com or Womuuga.com (I just made those up, and thankfully no one owns those yet), where it seems that one of the founders thought of some domain names that they would like, typed them in and saw that they were all registered, and then gave up and made up some word. There are over 85 million .com domain names registered as of this blog post, so it isn’t surprising that you have to make something up to get something that someone else doesn’t already own.

It doesn’t need to be like that. Using the techniques described in this post and some patience, you can have your pick of some great domain names for your startup for just $8 to $60.

Step 1.         Devise a Temporary Business Name

Step 2.         Think of Keywords that describe your business.

Step 3.         Check for deals on the domain marketplaces.

Step 4.         Sign up with domain backordering services.

Step 5.         Register a handful of domains you like.

Step 6.         Decide on one domain you love and launch.


Step 1) Devise a Temporary Business Name.

You may already have an internal name for your business or project. If not, come up with something for internal use only. This is not the same as stealth mode, ideally this is just a domain you already own or even just a code name that you will use for internal reference while searching for your ideal domain name, because sometimes it can take a few months to find the perfect domain. So hopefully you are employing this technique early in your startup planning process.

Warning: as many founders, junior marketing people, rock bands, etc. have found out the hard way, if you pick a random name and then don’t follow through with a real naming process (the rest of the steps below for the purposes of this blog post), your temporary name will become familiar and will become your permanent name. Especially once you launch publicly.


Step 2) Think of Keywords that describe your business.

Just pick 2 – 4 keywords that you think describe your business and that you might want to have as part of your company name, or you might want your company name to reference. This isn’t an Adwords or SEO exercise, so no need to come up with hundreds or thousands of keywords, just a few that you like. Some of these keywords could be partial or shortened words that would generate more results, such as using “cast” instead of “broadcast”, “net” instead of “networks”, etc.

I should pause here and admit that I have a bias toward names that reference something about the product or type of company, so keywords form the basis of this domain search technique. Your company name doesn’t need to explain what your company does (though it wouldn’t hurt), but it should be memorable and I believe it provides a marketing advantage for the name to make sense to people once they understand what your company does. Note that many names of successful Internet companies do make sense as a reference to their services once you understand what the business is (eBay, Twitter, FaceBook, MySpace, etc.)

Once you have these keywords in a spreadsheet, try coming up with a list of combinations of the keywords that you like. You can try different orders of the keywords, and even create a column of secondary keywords you think are cool (net, storm, app, etc. are used pretty heavily but you can be more creative) to generate more combinations. One trick if you have a lot of variations is to add a column with “.com” filled in every cell, then add another column with your variation on the formula

=concatenate(a2,b2,c2)

to save you time and magically add the columns all together, creating a list of possible domains.


Finally for step 2, copy and paste your list of created domains into your registrar’s bulk domain search and see if you get any hits. No luck? Well, that would have been too easy. Let’s continue to step 3.


Step 3) Check for deals on the domain marketplaces.

Once you have your preferred keywords, and have checked that the obvious combinations are taken, the next step is to check the domain marketplaces to see if there are any deals on domains you like. Sedo.com is the largest marketplace, but lots of domains are sold on GoDaddy’s TDNAM and eBay as well. Domains can be had for as little as $10, but of course many people have unrealistic pricing listed on these marketplaces, or are experienced domainers who know the value of their domains and are not in a hurry to sell.

Sedo seems to have the best inventory in my opinion, as well as a large staff of account managers who follow up to make sure transactions happen smoothly, so I always start there. Here are my recommended criteria for domain name searches:

  • .com only

  • No Hyphens or Numbers

  • 10-12 characters maximum (unless you have a good reason)

  • Fixed price or “buy it now (BIN)” listings only

·         Try searches “begins with” or “ends with” to narrow results if you care about the keyword order, as “contains” may give you too many results

These marketplaces have some great domains available, usually starting at a few $100, though many of the better ones may cost $1000 - $2000. And the good news is that any domain listed is actively trying to be sold by someone, versus being held by a company or someone’s blog.

A note on domain negotiation: A lot of the domains on these marketplaces are listed without prices so you have to make an offer. I tend to skip these, because all the back and forth negotiation can waste a lot of your time, and I don’t like not knowing what range the sellers may want, but if there is a domain that you really love it is worth a shot. Similarly, for domains you find that a) are not for sale on the marketplaces and b) not currently in use, it may be worth sending Emails inquiring if the domain is for sale and making an offer. The downside to both of these techniques is that you often have to make a decent starting offer, say $500, or you will just end up getting ignored. So it will probably cost you more, but if it is the perfect domain name for your startup then it may be worth it.


Step 4) Sign up with domain backordering services.

Didn’t see anything you like on the marketplaces, or have a very low budget? This makes your domain name quest a longer term project, but you can still get some great domains when they expire for around $60, so don’t give up yet.

When a domain name expires, it enters a Grace Period, during which time the current owner can still renew it. This Grace Period varies a bit from Registrar to Registrar (don’t ask me why, I guess it is not regulated), but usually lasts from 30 to 45 days. Once that period is over, the Registrar (eNom, GoDaddy, Register.com or any of hundreds others you can use) will release the name to the Registry (currently Verisign monopoly for .com, .net). The name then enters a 30-day Redemption Grace period. When that is over, the name goes into Pending Delete status while the registry processes the deletion and approximately 6 days later the domain name will become available for anyone to register.

One of the secrets of the domain industry is that when domains expire, many of them don’t become available for anyone to reserve, however. The registrars have deals with backordering services such as SnapNames and NameJet, who sell off the names to people who have backordered them, and split the profits with the original registrar.

SnapNames: http://www.SnapNames.com

NameJet: http://www.NameJet.com

The way these services work, you sign up for free and tell them the domain names you want. The minimum bid for SnapNames is $59 and for NameJet is $69. Each of these services has deals to get the expired inventory of different registrars, so you should sign up for both. Even if they don’t have a deal with a Registrar to get the particular domain you want, they will still try to get anything which has been backordered when it becomes available, so it is often worthwhile because they have better automated tools than you do to grab the domain quickly. You may want to backorder the entire list you created in Step 2, or at least your favorites, just in case any of them expire.

If SnapNames or NameJet is able to acquire the domain on your behalf, you get it for the minimum bid price unless other people have also backordered the domain. In the case of multiple backorders of the same domain, it goes to an auction a few days later where the winning bidder gets it.

Important tip: One of the best features of the backorder services is the ability to create saved searches and have domains that will soon be deleted emailed to you. I highly recommend doing this, as every morning you can have a few emails in your inbox with potential domains that will soon be available, and you can backorder them. Create a few saved keyword searches using some of the same criteria as the Sedo search in Step 3, and over the course of a month or two you will have the opportunity to review hundreds of expiring domains that you can acquire cheaply. Note that both SnapNames and NameJet have some of inventory from resellers like Sedo does, so I recommend setting the searches for “Pending Delete” only.


Step 5) Register a handful of domains you like.

Don’t be afraid to register 3-5 domains you like using the steps above, since the costs are pretty low. That way you can get feedback from other team members (or contact me) at a more leisurely pace – if you see a domain you want to backorder or better yet find a domain that is available to be registered, grab it – I’ve seen some expired domains sit around for weeks or months, but lost others to someone else within a few minutes of finding it available. Plus, these extra domains could be useful later on for product names, marketing campaign landing pages, etc. You can always allow them to expire or try to resell the ones you don’t end up using on Sedo later as well.


Step 6) Decide on one domain you love and launch.

Once you’ve reviewed some of your domains with your co-founders, advisors, and others, pick a name. You can always do a survey to friends using one of the online survey sites like Zoomerang or SurveyMonkey, but beware of too many cooks in the kitchen.

I am not an attorney, but it is also a good idea to do a quick trademark check to make sure there isn’t an obvious conflict with a similar company at the US Patent & Trademark web site. A trademark attorney can do a far more complete search for you, but the free web site should at least show you if there are any obviously similar trademarks owned by an Internet or software company. That would be a deal killer for the domain in question. Keep this in mind especially if you are bidding on more pricey domains in Step 3.


That’s it! Feel free to contact me if you have questions, or leave comments below. Good luck and happy domain hunting – you too can have a great domain name and company name with a little work and the tips in this article.

--David


Links to Domain Search Tools:

·         DomainTools (Great Whois site)

·         Internet Archive Wayback Machine (Check what sites used to be on a domain – not 100% though)

·         Sedo (my favorite domain marketplace)

·         eNom (my favorite registrar – some accounts require deposit though)

·         SnapNames (backorder service)

·         NameJet (backorder service)

·         United States Patent & Trademark Office