more of the 33-year-old Orwell online and in
national magazines like Forbes
Fitness who took notice of the
groundbreaking work he has done at his highest profile
site - Examine.com.
Sol Orwell (right) in Japan
many extraordinary people who found their way
into the domain world, it was a destination
Orwell, who lives in Canada, never
could have envisioned when his journey started
in a different country under a different.
name. "I was born Ahmed Farooq in Pakistan,"
Sol began. "My father was a mechanical
engineer and when I was two years old he got a
job in Saudi Arabia. This petrochemical
company he worked for would create new plants
all the time and they would have to outsource.
As a result, I also got to live in Japan
and I actually finished up my 8th grade in Houston.
In Saudi Arabia, the American school in our
city only went to 9th grade, so my parents
decided to immigrate to Canada. it was the
best place for opportunity for their kids
(plus we had quite a few friends who had also
been there), so I ended up going to high
school in Canada."
think the best part of all this moving around
taught me that at the end of the day, humans
are mostly the same," Orwell
observed. "They want to live a
comfortable life and they want their kids to
do better than
should also say that while I did experience
racism, it was never through my peers.
As a kid living in Saudi Arabia (where I was a
minority in the American school) and Japan, I
never ran into any issues because of my skin
was always a very brash and independent
student. I was heavily into programming, and
assumed whatever I did would have some kind of
programming-tilt to it (be it consultant,
developing our own software, etc). With my
independent side, I had absolutely no desire
to ever work for The Man™. I remember
one of my teachers telling me I was one of the
smartest and laziest kids he had ever
come across. I told another teacher that they
would end up working for me! I guess I was a
bit hot headed," Orwell smiled.
the end of high school, I had finally hit
upon something that was making me money
– a gaming top site (basically
websites would sign up, and put a “vote”
button on their site. For every vote they got,
they would be listed higher on our page). I
then used that to segue into MMOs (massively
multiplayer online games – for example, World
of Warcraft)," Orwell recalled.
while I went to university (computer
engineering) with a full scholarship, I
lost it within the first
semester (unable to keep the necessary 80%
average). Instead I was too busy focusing on
my burgeoning online empire. I came close to
failing out all together – you need at least
a 50% in each class and an overall 60%
average. One semester I had 54% in one class
and my overall average was 60.3%! I got lucky
because the final exam in one of my classes
required explaining the 5 pillars of Islam and
I aced it!," Orwell grinned
the time I graduated from university, my
Orwell high school
top site was on
fire with over 100,000 daily visitors, my
online gaming network was just as hot (also
over 100,000+ visitors per day), and I also
had started up a local search site in
Toronto (I had just moved into a new
neighborhood and had no clue what was there,
so I did the obvious thing and walked around
and indexed the entire neighborhood by foot).
We were advanced for the time as we had user
rankings, badges and all that jazz. Mind you
these were also the “good ol’ days” of Google
when they would update once a month, and
buying a link from a high page rank site
almost instantly guaranteed high rankings. We
wrote amazing content, bought strategic links,
and did very well."
this time I was making more money than I knew what to
do with. The gaming top site was pulling in over
$10,000 a month passively – I had built an
ad-system so that the various signed up sites could
buy ads into the site. The online gaming network was
making even more money - selling virtual currency and
guides (as middlemen) was extremely profitable.
Imagine telling gamers that we had their dream job
available for them – all they did all day was play
the game and become renowned in the community as
experts! The local search site had attracted attention
from over a dozen a VC - all of whom I all rejected as
I still valued my independence more," Orwell
2.0 - Digital Nomad
"At this time I did what any normal person would
do – I gave the company to my #2 to run, paid him
more than I paid myself, and basically became a digital
nomad. I spent five years living in the United
States and Argentina and just traveling and
enjoying life. This came from my immigrant background
– I had no desire for fancy cars or wines or watches
or anything of that sort."
you, I had some epic failures too. The worst
was starting up a software development company. I lost
low six figures when it was all said and done. It was
a brutal lesson, but one I learned a lot more
from," Orwell noted.
this period, domains were already on Orwell's
radar even though he wasn't in the domain business.
"I actually picked up on the values pretty
quickly (around 1998-99 when I was 16)," Orwell
recalled. "I had no real money so I couldn’t go
after the .com market and my dad (being an
immigrant) only saw real estate
as the right
way to invest. So I took all of the allowance I had
saved ($250) over the past 3 years and gave it to my
cousin in Pakistan. I told him to buy WebDesign.com.pk
and Advertising.com.pk for me (which were
unregistered at the time). Unfortunately, due to a mix
up, the purchase was never made."
along the along the way I read the story of Business.com
and others and I would chat about domains with one of
my friends, Christopher Crowther, and we both
kind of dragged each other into domains. DNForum
was the big forum at the time and it was mesmerizing
to us." Orwell said.
immediately knew the value of domains – I’ve
always been a big fan of clear communication,
and that is exactly what a strong domain makes for!
Even today, when I tell people my website is “Examine.com”
half the time they do a double take to make
sure they heard it’s that simple. Inevitably they
ask how I got it, I tell them the price, and we
get into opportunity cost and what not," Sol
he understood the importance of domains to an
enterprise, Orwell still believed (then and now) that
there is more to the equation when it comes to
building a successful website. "I think the
reality is that at times domainers overstate
the value of a domain. And the context I give to that
is they think that acquiring a high end domain is the
start of their marketing plan. I find that
extremely foolish. A domain name is a great
part of your brand, but advertising and
marketing is far more than just the (relatively)
pithy amount of traffic a domain gets. The domain is
but a part of the big picture."
marketing image from Bigstock
you have a budget of $100,000, blowing it all on the
domain is naivety," Orwell continued,
"Sure, over 10 years you may make that
amount back – but what about the ensuing time?
Alternatively, you could have bought a $40,000 domain,
and then spent $60,000 on buying traffic - and
provided you did it right, that $60,000
investment in buying ads would have massive
think that mindset applies to why some domainers have
failed building out some of their top domains.
Instead of taking things step by step (to figure out
what exactly their niche is), they drop $250,000 on a
domain. With no experience and knowledge on the
market, that $250k ends up going up in smoke
and you’re left going back to PPC (and whew has that
taken a beating since I first started in 2003),"
I always saw domains as a means to an end. I
had some nice ones (the best one being Beat.com),
but to me, building something out had a LOT
more value. And I still have quite a few ccTLDs.
Plus I’ll admit – I just did not have the mindset
that someone like Frank
Schilling had (like when he acquired
PersonalLoans.com). I knew what I was good at - building
something - and decided to focus on that. Just
look at Examine.com. The domain alone cost me a bit
above $40,000. But that was not my only
expense. I invested in a platform
and in a person to do the research. And now you
can argue that the website is worth 10x what
the domain is."
image from Bigstock
went on to detail where the business idea for
Examine.com and how he set about executing his vision
for the site. "Having lived abroad for five
years, I had gained significant weight (Argentina had
online ice cream delivery – a fresh liter of ice
cream ever night for only $5!). However, after moving
back to Toronto, I had lost a significant amount of
weight. I was vacationing with some friends in Colombia
and we were talking about how supplement companies
take scientific research out of context to
peddle their wares. My two friends (both PhDs)
took me to task – I wasn’t doing anything, so why
not build a website that exposed the context? I
immediately emailed my co-founder, Kurtis Frank,
and a rough agreement on how to make this happen was
reached," Orwell recalled.
Colombia I went to Panama to hang out with my
aforementioned friend Chris. He owned Examine.com and
I saw the obvious connection to what I was
about to do and the deal for the domain was done.
Development was slow and tedious – just like
I like it. We originally focused on bodybuilding
supplements (dominate a specific niche, then expand),
and put it live. Immediately as the feedback rolled
in, we iterated, over and over again. The site
is currently transitioning from its sixth to its
seventh version!," Orwell added.
overhead was almost non-existant - Kurtis was paid a
nominal amount (knowing that the potential was there
as we grew), and I hosted it on my servers. For
development, I coded the website, and then used Bootstrap
for CSS/webdesign purposes."
remember our “aha moment” was when Dr.
Oz mentioned raspberry ketones for the first time.
We were ranked #5 for “raspberry ketones dosage”
and got 1900 visitors in a span of 24 hours (our
normal traffic at that time was roughly 200
visitors/day). That moment we knew that we were doing
something legitimate – making a dent in the
of the biggest complaints I hear from other developers
is they don’t know what their users want. What’s
so amazing about this is that they do not even bother
to survey their own users
to find out what they
want!," Orwell marveled. "About 2 years in,
we were established (over 50,000 page views a day)
and by surveying our users, we found out that our Human
Effect Matrix (HEM) – a table that collated
scientific research done on each supplement in humans
– was a big hit and that users wanted it in a
to-go manner. So we packaged it all up into a PDF
(almost a thousand pages at the time), and sold
it. Bam! – we generated roughly $150,000
in revenue right there," Orwell said.
used that revenue to expand our team –
instead of hiring a “superstar” (impossible in
research), we went for breadth – a doctorate in
pharmacy, a PhD in biomedical and a double MBA/MPH who
was on hiatus from his PhD in nutrition due to chronic
image from Bigstock
next survey showed us that while our users loved the
product, it was too complex for the layperson.
So we created our Stack Guides – 16 different
guides that gave explicit instructions on what to (and
what not to) take. Massive success – almost $500,000
in sales. This revenue has let us continue to expand
our team and surveying our users has continued to help
us offer the best content and paid products for
the way there have been some fun accolades. I’ve let
Kamal (who now runs the organization) and Kurtis
(my co-founder) get all the quotes and bylines, but
whenever it comes to business-related matters, my name
gets pushed forward. So in 2014 Men’s Fitness
dubbed me as a game changer and it was cool
seeing my name next to Pharrell and Stephen
Colbert! Furthermore, because of our independent
and unbiased approach, I was invited (and did) join Arnold
Schwarzenegger’s advisory board," Orwell
accomplished what so many other domain owners have
dream of, we asked Orwell what advice he would give
those who want implement his game plan. He came up
with t his list:
is a bit overrated, but definitely be
interested in the market you’re in. All of
the industries I’ve been in (a few of which I
did not mention) were all because of
up an email list. Social media is far far
inferior in building up a direct connection with
your users. An email list wallops in terms of
engagement and revenue generation (for a quick
comparison – each Twitter follower is
worth 10 cents to us. Each Facebook fan is
$2. Each email subscriber? Roughly $15!)
Survey your users. We survey non-stop –
when they sign up, when they buy, when we have an
article that becomes really popular. It’s the
best way to know what your own users want!
I want to note again. Domains are awesome,
but they are a piece of the puzzle. They are not
the entire puzzle!
– focus! There is a legitimate “cost”
of switching mental state from one project to
another. Just focus on one, bam done.
had so much success with Examine.com we wondered if
Orwell was tempted to tackle another big
development project and had anything in the works you
could tell us about? "Beyond the fact that I just
said “focus,” I do have a few projects I’m
cooking. The two main ones:
a big believer in networking and knowing
the VIPs that use your services. Our first
magazine mention was in Men’s Health UK
– I noticed one of their editors was on our
email list, reached out to him, and 4 months later
we were in there. So what I created was an
email data miner – you give us a bunch of
emails, and we try to find out who they are –
Facebook, Twitter, etc. You can check it out at www.AudienceOwl.com.
Orwell speaking at the 2007 Domain
Roundtable Conference in Seattle.
a digital nomad and being an entrepreneur
are “hot” these days. It drives me
crazy how many of these people teaching
others how to make money online have no experience
- other than
teaching others how to make money online. Not to
mention all the link bait headlines with little
substance. So I will be blogging one or two
in-depth posts a month to www.SJO.com
covering how I’m managed my balance of lifestyle
is firing on all cylinders now but there is still a
little part of him that misses his earlier domaining
days, "I gotta admit – domaining was a bit of a
rush. Acquiring a domain and then reselling,"
Orwell allowed. At the same time, I was never good
at it – my best results were (back in the old
days) buying a decent domain, throwing in some
content, and flipping it. For example, I bought
BusinessLoan.org for $150, got it to #5 on
Google for “business loan” and flipped it for $10,000."
closing Orwell showed why he was so popular with the
domain investor crowd a decade ago -
opportunity to acknowledge other people. "I just
want to thank Elliot Silver, Adam Strong,
and Nat Cohen for being domainers who have
always been super helpful to me at all times.
And of course you - it’s gratifying to know I’ve
been reading your work for 10+ years and now here I
am!," Orwell smiled.