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Dreaming About Turning Your Domain Into a Booming Online Business? Better Call Sol!

By Ron Jackson

For as long as there have been domains there have been domain investors dreaming of developing at least one of their favorite properties into a successful online business. After all, one hit website can generate more income than thousands of undeveloped domains put 

together. The problem is developing a successful online business is infinitely harder than building a website. 

Some of you will remember the mini-site craze from a few years back. People reasoned that if developing one website was a good thing, then developing dozens or even hundreds of them would be even better. However, it soon became apparent that few people visited these under-developed, cookie cutter sites and if they did most never came back.

So it was back to square one for 99% (or more) of domain investors who had hoped for a more stable stream of revenue than just hit or miss domain sales and constantly shrinking PPC income. Shortcuts simply didn't cut it and there was little appetite for taking on the enormous challenge of building a real business online. Some discouraged would-be developers might even argue it is a  hopeless task were it not for people like Sol Orwell who have proven otherwise. 

When we first got to know Sol in the early years of domain conferences (2004-2006) we were impressed with his energy, outgoing personality and willingness to help people in any way he could. He was always someone we enjoyed seeing and was  sorely missed when he moved beyond simply buying and selling domains and went off on his own to build upon them. Though we no longer saw Sol at conferences, we have been seeing more

Examine.com Founder Sol Orwell

and more of the 33-year-old Orwell online and in national magazines like Forbes and Men's Fitness who took notice of the groundbreaking work he has done at his highest profile site - Examine.com.

Young Sol Orwell (right) in Japan

Like 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."

"I 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

themselves. I 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 color."

"I 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.

"By 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.

"So 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

"By the time I graduated from university, my gaming 

Sol Orwell high school 
graduation (2001)

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."

"At 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 said.

Sol 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."

"Mind 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.

During 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."

"Still, 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.

"I 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 said.

While 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."

Online marketing image from Bigstock

"If 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 benefits."

"I 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)," Orwell noted.

"So, 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."

Supplements image from Bigstock

Orwell 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.

"After 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.

"Our 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."

"I 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 industry."  

"One 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.

"We 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 pain."

Supplements image from Bigstock

"Our 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 them."

"Along 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 added. 

Having 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:

  • Passion 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 self-interest.

  • Build 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 worth about
    $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! 

  • And I want to note again. Domains are awesome, but they are a piece of the puzzle. They are not the entire puzzle!

  • Also – focus! There is a legitimate “cost” of switching mental state from one project to another. Just focus on one, bam done.

Having 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:

  1. I’m 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.

Sol Orwell speaking at the 2007 Domain Roundtable Conference in Seattle.

  1. Being 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 and entrepreneurship.

Orwell 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."

In closing Orwell showed why he was so popular with the domain investor crowd a decade ago - 

using the 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. 


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