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Chris Cardell

BT Viewpoint overview

Over the past few months I’ve been interviewing startups and the people behind interesting projects online. As the Internet is enabling global employment, the service discussed in this article is becoming increasing relevant. Envato …

Interview with Eric Case (Domainr)

Domai.nr is an online application and iPhone app that finds domain names and short URLs. It allows you to instantly check availability and register for all top-level domains.

I interviewed Eric Case, Domai.nr/nb.io partner to find out more. This interview is the eighteenth in a series of DoesWhat interviews. Big thank you to Eric for the interview! You can follow Eric on Twitter.

How would you describe Domainr in under 50 words?

Domainr is a search engine for the entire namespace of domains — not just com/net/org, but all countries, sponsored, and internationalized domains. It’s also great for finding short domains — if you have an idea for a domain, type it in, and Domainr will tell you if it’s possible to register it.

How and when did you come up with Domainr?

Randy and I came up with the idea one evening in April, 2008 when we were talking about domain hacks (like del.icio.us) — it occurred to us that we could take the full list of TLDs from wikipedia and use JS to parse words into domain hacks as we typed them, in real-time. Randy coded up a simple prototype on my Mac Mini that night, and when we tried to figure out what to call it, it ended up naming itself (inspired by Flickr, of course).

He and I had recently left our jobs (me from Google, and him from Six Apart), so we were hanging out a bunch, and brainstorming random product ideas. We found that we were constantly using Domainr as we brainstormed (to help name the things we were dreaming up), which meant that Domainr itself could probably be a useful product — that’s when we decided to register domai.nr.

How long did it take you to build Domainr?

It basically existed as a single piece of html+js parked on App Engine for most of 2008, until we partnered up with Cameron and the three of us decided to start a company together (that was September, 2008). Cameron liked Domainr and agreed with us that it had product and business potential, so we hashed out a rough plan to build out its backend (for checking registration status) and establish affiliate partnerships with registrars.

To build it, we rented a house with wifi up in Mendocino (in northern California), and road-tripped up there for about a week to hack on it. Our goal was to launch it by the end of that week, and we did. Randy worked on the frontend and interaction model, Cameron worked on the backend, and I worked on the dataset — gathering all the TLD, SLD (second-level domain) and Registrar information and relationships. I actually used Mechanical Turk to help round it all up, because every TLD has its own rules (like for character lengths, whether or not you can register at the top-level, etc.), and there are thousands of second-level domains at each TLD that were inexpensive to gather with mturk.

Has Domainr got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?

To be honest, our only hope for it was that other folks building products and doing startups might find it useful for brainstorming, as it had been for us — and this has definitely happened (just search twitter for ‘domainr’ and you’ll see people finding domains with it). We joked that it would be nice if it could end up passively paying our respective apartments’ rent each month, which ~three years later it’s just about doing.

It’s grown very slowly for a variety of reasons, and we didn’t really expect it to grow quickly. We built it for ourselves and thus it’s most useful to folks like us — designers, hackers, web product developers, etc. — which is definitely a niche group. We’ve also done no marketing beyond the occasional AdWords experiment, so we basically leave it up to Domainr’s fans to promote their successes with it (like on Twitter and blogs).

One interesting area of growth that happened accidentally, however, was the short domain craze that thanks to Twitter and Bitly. Because of the 140-character constraint, lots of publishers are registering secondary domains to use specifically for sharing. By going with a two-character country-code domain, you can save a few characters and have more room for actual text. So we added some vowel-stripping functionality to Domainr to make short domains easier to find.

Has your initial vision changed since launch?

Not really — we initially envisioned Domainr to be the first of a series of things we intended to create, and it has remained our side project over the years. It’s basically a playground for us to experiment and hack on web things, and it also happens to generate revenue, which is interesting business-wise.

How is work split up between you and nb.io partners Cameron Walters and Randy Reddig?

Randy and Cameron are both programmers, and Randy’s also a brilliant designer, so they do all the implementation — frontend, backend, tech choices, etc. I’m not a programmer but I have some product experience from my time at Google, so I help with the product when we’re working on it. I also do basically everything non-tech — manage our company finances and affiliate relationships, respond to questions in our forums, etc. I call what I do, “Product Operations.”

How difficult was it creating an iPhone version of Domainr? Do you have plans for an Android version?

How our iPhone app came to be is actually a great story — we got an email out of the blue from a guy named Sahil (@sahil) who loved Domainr and happened to be a programmer living here in the Bay Area. He offered to build the Domainr app just for fun, so we met up with him for coffee, and ended up building out Domainr’s API as a result. It took a while to ship because we all have day jobs, but eventually we got it out the door. And we sent Sahil a healthy Amazon giftcard to thank him.

Since initial creation and launch, how much time have you spent on Domainr?

Honestly, not much… and definitely not enough. We’re all very busy with our day jobs — Randy and Cameron are co-founding Engineers at Square, and I run Product Operations at Rdio — but there’s lots of product stuff we’d still like to do with Domainr. We probably get together once a month for a meal and bit of hacking, and a few weekends each year we rent a house with wifi somewhere interesting (like Big Sur) and hack. I check on our metrics every day though, to make sure all the numbers (traffic, revenue, etc.) look right.

Domainr generates revenue from affiliate sales with domain registrars. As Domainr has grown in popularity have you seen sales move at the same pace?

Yes! This has actually been somewhat surprising, because initially we never ran any numbers to see what Domainr might be capable of, revenue-wise.

Who do you see as your target audience?

The audience we had in mind initially was folks like us — web product people, designers, people doing startups. But we built it to be general enough that it should be useful for anybody looking for a domain name.

Who is your biggest competitor?

Hmm, I’m not sure. There are a bunch of sites that do domain search, but fortunately they all have a unique approach to it so we don’t feel like we’re in serious competition with anybody in particular. Domainr’s focus on the global namespace (and domain hacks in general) keeps it uniquely positioned.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

Randy and Cameron are working on porting Domainr to a new codebase and infrastructure, and it’ll be great when that’s done. One reason we haven’t done much to Domainr’s frontend in a while is that the current codebase is sort of fragile. There’s a bunch of product stuff we want to do, which we’re holding off on doing until the port is done. For example, we’ll html5-ify it so that it works great on smartphones and tablets (in addition to desktops).

Can you convince the reader to use Domainr in under 50 words?

Domainr is the quickest and easiest way to find a new domain, try it out!

Finished reading? Check out Domai.nr!

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