There are relatively few entrepreneurs that really "get" premium domain names and the power they can bring to a company.
Utah-based Wesley Eames is the founder of the genealogy service Trace, which operates on the ultra-premium Trace.com domain. Eames has also created a family storytelling brand at Tales.com and has raised millions of dollars in funding for his cremation service, After.com.
Here, I chat with Wesley about his ventures and why premium domain names are vital to his operation.
Can you tell me about yourself and your entrepreneurial background?
I have a hereditary illness that is entrepreneurship. My great-grandfather, my grandfather, and my father were entrepreneurs. When I was 12, my dad came home with a commercial Honda lawn mower, and he said, "I'm your first customer, and the widow across the street is your second customer. You need to mow our lawns every Saturday, and I'd recommend you go knock on all the doors on the street and get more customers so you can pay me the $2,000 back for this lawn mower."
So that just moved up the chain from there, thinking, what service businesses could I start that would make me more per hour?
Then I was just very intrigued with the internet. Very intrigued by the creativity of video and video editing. YouTube was on the rise; we had the first people making a living on YouTube around this time. I thought I wanted to be a YouTuber, so I started a production company to pay for my camera and did wedding videos every Saturday.
I was able to make a thousand dollars every Saturday doing wedding videos, and I got to pay for the gear and the video software. I thought I was going to make it as a YouTuber, and the wedding videos were a means to that, but that didn't end up being my path at all.
A couple of years after that, I was introduced to internet businesses, specifically SaaS (software as a service) businesses. I joined a couple of startups that were not my own to learn about the industry. I had good mentors in the space, and I think the most influential role was that I was Head of Growth at what's now called FMG Suite.
Really, I came in as an intern. I was, I think, the 18th hire, and over a couple of years, they grew to over a hundred employees very quickly, and I was now leading all the marketing efforts. I was doing a lot of the sales ops and tech automation there, and that's when I learned growth and marketing skills and realized an internet company is what I wanted to build.
About a decade ago now, I got into a tech startup, and it was while at that company I was moonlighting with my first company, which is now called Trace.com.
Trace.com, along with After.com and Tales.com, are thoughtful, personal, family services. Why did you want to create these impactful companies specifically to serve families?
The story of Trace is we built a really cool marketplace, but it was a complex service. So, we pivoted a few times, and in pivoting, we found the right people in the industry to mentor us to build it into a really good business.
We were starting to get interest from influential people like the former Chairman of Ancestry.com, the Founder of Ancestry.com, and the first Uber investor. We were starting to build momentum, and it became clear that this was going to be a category-leading business.
That's when I stepped back and said, okay, AncestorCloud is no longer a relevant name because we don't do online cloud storage; we had pivoted to a marketplace. I sought out, probably for six to nine months, the most brandable verb in that industry.
It's a word that was used on everybody's landing page at the time. Find My Past, MyHeritage, and Ancestry; they all used the word 'trace'.
I thought, if we're going to build the category leader, we need the best-branded word in the space. Trace.com was owned by DraganFly Innovations, and they didn't want to use Trace.com for whatever reason.
I did a lot of sleuthing and figured out who is the Executive Team. Who can I reach out to? I knew the CEO would be too busy to respond and probably wouldn't care.
I got the COO's contact information and said, "Hey, I'm very interested in Trace.com. What's the deal with this domain?" They had no plans to use it, didn't have a trademark, and were just holding it from the acquisition.
We struck a deal and agreed on a price in the high five-figures. Then another company came in the week we were closing with a six-figure cash offer. DraganFly was kind enough to come to let me know.
I had to scramble to come up with six-figures overnight, and it was actually a friend of a friend of the family who lent me the six-figures at a week's notice to buy this thing with all cash, hoping we would close our seed round three weeks later.
We didn't have any money in the bank, but this was our one chance to get this domain. We got it and financed it over a few years, and it's been the best decision we've ever made. I'm so glad I got into that asset class when we did. Now we've gotten seven-figure offers for it.
I'm glad we did it. It felt like, especially if we were going to invest a lot of money, it felt like .io's and .co's still hadn't been proven. Even to this day, they're not as valuable as .com. So, I thought this was the safest one to invest in if we were going to make a big investment.
So, you feel that the Trace.com domain name has appreciated in value?
Every year the very serious offers go up, and I have a few parties right now that are interested in it. I think, for now, we're just going to hang onto it and keep building the business on it, but at some point, I'm sure it will be tempting to pass it on, but there's only one Trace.com!
Why do you like to brand your businesses around single words rather than two words, for example?
So, this is anecdotal, and my thinking in 2015 or so, it seemed like all the good, literal branded things like Pets.com and Shoes.com became just a little bit less brandable. But they are still powerful domains.
Then we went into this weird social phase of, you know, let's spell Flickr without the "E", and I thought that was a silly time the way they were branding companies.
But then we started to see a comeback. I feel like in the 2010s, we started to see some tech companies going public and becoming rocket ships like Uber with Uber.com, and it just became clear that this is the winning way to a brand; a novel, relevant word that either is connected in your mind, subconsciously, to what the business does or can be easily explained.
It just seemed apparent that the one-word brands were the strongest, the most memorable verbs, at the point in time, everyone was saying, "just Google it," and that was now mainstream.
An article I read in the New York Weekly said that you hit a million dollars in revenue in 2020 with Trace.com. Do you think you would have achieved that without rebranding?
Good question. I think we probably would have, just because of the industry; the domain's not that important to the consumers we serve at that business. However, I think there were partnerships, and there was reputational signaling that happened in the space that would not have happened without that.
I actually think we raised more money as a result of the domain. It's the most tangible return in addition to just the appreciation of the asset on our balance sheet.
I think it signals a lot to investors, and that has been my experience with After.com, too. As soon as you have a five-letter, one-word domain, it just immediately intros you to investors. There's a wow factor there.
Almost everyone brings it up because everyone knows if you build a big business that's a category leader, you're going to need to get your .com at some point, or you need to rebrand to something more brandable. So, if you start with that, I think it just gets the momentum rolling faster.
So, a premium domain name does make a difference when trying to get funding?
Yeah, it feels a bit intangible, but I've had a few founders, like my friend is a Founder of Grow.com. Another friend of mine, Homie.com, and they've all mentioned that it signals strength in the early stages, especially with investors. The investor's model is not predicated on whether you have a good brand or domain or not, but there is a status game that they play.
There is a herd mentality with a lot of investors where, you know, you get the name brand investor in, or the tier-one, and the others follow, and so, I think it subtly helps with all of that.
When you were deciding on a brand name for After and a brand name for Tales, was it a case of going to find the domain name first? Or did you choose the brand name first and then acquire the domain?
All of my domain acquisitions are as a result of having an existing business prior. After is the only exception to that.
With Tales, we had a children's book business. We knew we were going to go into audio format later, and we knew we were going to focus on capturing stories of the baby boomer generation.
So, I looked for probably 14 months, constantly reaching out to people, asking around, and looking for similar words that are based on storytelling and stories.
Tales was a unique one where Tale.com doesn't quite encompass the platform, and so, the plural was better for us. I looked for a long time, and then I actually talked to the owner of that domain for six months before he committed to selling to me.
I flew down to Southern California and met him in person. I spent a lot of time with him, constantly trying to convince him. I was like, "what can I do to get you to give this up?" It wasn't until the pandemic that he was in a tight spot, and that was kind of the case with After.com, too. It took a lot of patience and a lot of time before the seller was at a point where they were ready to part with it.
So, I was very patient with Tales.com. It's something me and my wife started, and we'll run forever. Very mission driven. So, we did want to be patient about finding the right domain.
With After.com, the unique story there is that I realized I was going into the end-of-life space and that we were going to make a big difference there. I actually bought that domain before we ever incorporated. That was a six-figure commitment prior, which really motivated me to build a business that made money fast.
Does the domain name matter in terms of customer acquisition, if so, why?
I think, in all cases, it signals strength to the customer, just like I talked about with investors. There is an inherent trust there from consumers that is not there if it were After-Care.com.
With After.com, I think it presented us as more established when we were a three-person company for the first six months. We're certainly much larger than that now, but out of the gate, we had to have consumers trust us to cremate their loved ones, and I think that helped quite a bit. It certainly helps us raise money.
We've raised about $5 million in the last 10 months, so it's been a very, very strong presence out of the gate. I don't think I'd ever build a business again without getting the perfect .com. For me, that matters. I know it doesn't matter to a lot of people, but I love it. I think it's the best asset class if you're an internet entrepreneur.
You mentioned that you wouldn't build another company without a premium .com domain. Is there another family-oriented service that you are thinking about providing in the future?
I think I'm tapped out. I learned that early this year. It was fine running three businesses when they were all growing 30 to 60% a year. One of them is now growing 300% a year, and it requires most of my time.
So, I'm having to replace myself as a founder right now and figure all that out. I think Mindful.com is a domain I want because I have a dating app that I acquired. I didn't start that company, but it's called Meet Mindful. We've got about a million users and a strong presence in the mindfulness space.
I need Mindful.com. That's something that weighs on me. It was for sale six months ago. Somebody picked it up, though, and it looked like it was for seven-figures. So, I'm watching that one closely. Mindfulness is on the rise and growing very quickly in the US.
Thanks to Wesley for taking part in On the Record. You can follow him on Twitter @WesleyEames, and you can find out more about the companies mentioned in this interview at Trace.com, After.com, and Tales.com