Back in December 2016, just weeks before I was to start as the new CEO of Donuts, I met with a good friend and colleague, John Borthwick, for advice. As usual, our conversation was far reaching — ranging from tech trends, to startups, to innovation to personnel. We remembered some of the good projects we’ve worked on together, and some of those that haven’t gone so well and where we could improve. I was readying myself for my next phase, and the conversation turned to the DNS and the future of domains. And, we started talking about the power of combining short-links with domain names — principally new domain names which provide relevance, meaning, and branding to an otherwise commodity service.
I left that meeting knowing I wanted to do something special, but not knowing that I was about to embark on BL.INK.
The basic problem we set out to fix was that it was just too hard. Many were using custom domain names for their links, for example Microsoft using MSFT.SOCIAL, Pappa Johns using PJ.PIZZA, Bill Gates using B-GAT.ES, and I began using JAFFE.TODAY — but in order to set these up as short links, the user needed to go through several poorly explained and disparate steps — and the last one included changing name servers. All far too complicated for the average person to implement. So, I thought, all we need to do is fix setup, provisioning, and management of domains as short links and we’d enable a broad array of new users.
Almost a year and a half later, I am proud to announce that we’ve not just solved the problem we saw that day in NY, but have built a solution that far exceeds expectations.
We began with the how. We knew we could build this into the product, but we also knew that it would take us a long time to build a product with the feature set needed in the market. So instead, we looked at acquiring a link shortening business and build our unique functionality on top. After looking at many companies, we discovered Andy Meadows and team in Austin running BudURL which turned into a perfect fit. Small, nimble, technically excellent, great culture, and an enthusiastic customer base. There was an immediate meeting of the minds between their passion and our vision.
Meanwhile, as we were scoping the technology needed to simplify the workflow, we stumbled upon a breakthrough experience. What if we made every link a function of real words? What if we took our domains, looked at the content of the page, and created a relevant link? So, instead of the link http://ow.ly/4r#rTT7q (I made that up) it would be http://candy.forsale/licorice? People could use their own custom domains which we would sell to them, or generic ones that we can provide. Why would we do this? Well, first it’s cool. But also, due to the billions of potential impressions that the links could generate, it would help people see and become more used to new domains — which is our business. Smart Links were born. It’s early days, and the algorithms will improve with usage and iterations, but our beta version is up and going and is fantastic.
In addition to re-thinking the product, we considered how we would sell it. Donuts is a wholesaler of domains to registrars, like GoDaddy, who sell to their retail customers. These same registrars sell other related products to their customers across enterprise, consumer, and small business — lots and lots of small business. And, when it comes to short-link solutions, we saw the small business market as being largely unaddressed. Our current partners were already selling to small business, what if we gave them a new service that they could sell to their small business customers?
Everyone wins — the small business who is underserved, our partners who have more to sell to their customers, and our industry who sees more demand for new domains.
A big congratulations and thank you to JP, Paul, Tim, Wolfgang, Gage, Ben, Judith, Andrea, Shannon and especially Andy, Mike and the entire Bud team, and everyone who was able to translate that first conversation about the need to innovate around short links into a world class product.