Learning From Mistakes

Making $125,000/Month Selling Hacker TLDs

Mike Carson, a computer programmer, built park.io, a service that allows you to backorder top level domains that have expired and will be available for registration again soon. He started it as project to solve a problem he was facing. But, with almost none marketing, he was able to grow it to a business generating +$125K per month.

Park.io Mistakes

Hi Mike! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?

Hi! My name is Mike Carson and I am a computer programmer and identify as a hacker. I am 41 years old and I am based in the Philadelphia area. A few years ago, I built park.io.

Park.io Website

park.io is a service that allows you to backorder domains that have expired and will be available for registration again soon. It focuses on "hacker" TLDs (top level domains), like .io, .ly, .me and .to. There can be a lot of competition to get good expiring domains, and I've built scripts to accomplish this.

I don't really have a job title, since I am the only employee. I guess "founder" is best. As the saying goes "a founder wears all hats" - so my job duties are basically everything that needs to be done.

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I'm a hacker and spend a lot of time reading Hacker News and building projects that I think are fun and interesting. To do this, you need domain names. One day I was looking for a domain name and found that it had expired. I did a lot of research to see how I could get it.

I didn't get it, but it lead me to explore the domain name system in more depth.

I started park.io in my spare time while I was working full time at WizeHive. I co-founded WizeHive and was CTO there for several years. I quit last summer to focus on park.io and other projects for Humbly.

I failed at a million other projects before park.io. This is the advice I give other entrepreneurial-leaning hackers: Launch a lot of different things. 99% will fail, but there will be one that is a hit. It is obvious when it doesn't work, and it is obvious when it does work. Try a lot of things and when you get the one that works, focus on it for a while.

As a developer, there isn't a lot of risk to launching a software service. Mostly it is just a risk of time, but even if nothing comes of it, you get the experience of trying. And the potential reward is huge. It is a good risk/reward bet to keep launching projects. 

In the case of park.io, I didn't really start with an idea. It was more of just doing things I was interested in during my spare time. Eventually, I had done enough work on my own that I realized I could set it up as a service.

How did you build park.io?

It started as simple scripts to check when expired domains would be deleted and available for registration again. I would just hand-register these domains when they became available. I got some really great domains this way.

Eventually, my manual registrations were not fast enough, as someone else was doing it automatically with a script and was able to register domains before I could get them. I reached out to the guy - a German programmer – and we chatted a lot about it. It was interesting because we were the only two people in the world who had decided to do this, so we had something very much in common. Yet, we also were competitors.

Eventually, I got to the point where I was able to get every expiring .io domain that I wanted, so I decided to sell it as a service on park.io. Since I already had the infrastructure in place to grab the domains quickly as they became available, it was simply a matter of setting up a user interface and tying it together with the backend. It was a week or two of grunt work. I remember the quote "Rome wasn't built in a day" going through my head a lot during that time. Then I launched park.io in June 2014.

The initial product was pretty bare bones, but it provided the user a way to backorder domains and manage the domains that they owned. My goal was to just get the most basic, usable version live, and then to automate the things that people used the most.

I think probably the biggest doubt I had at the beginning was in regards to the ethics of the service. Was I just a domain squatter? Was I supporting domain squatters? Eventually, after seeing how happy people were to buy the domains, I realized it must be doing something good. One time I received a thank you card and gift in the mail from a happy customer who was able to get a domain for their business. I think a lot of this lead me to realize the importance of having happy users. I think it is really important and makes the business and your life so much better.

As for pricing, I wasn't sure what to charge. I remember getting advice from a Wharton professor, who had studied pricing for his entire career, and his advice was something like "if you aren't pricing it so high that people turn away because it is so expensive, then you aren't pricing it high enough." So, I thought $99 was a good number because it was pretty high, but still in the 2-digit range. Honestly, I didn't think about it that much, but luckily it worked out pretty well.

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Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

I never did much advertising. I feel like this is one indicator that your project is going to be successful. If you don't have to do any advertising and you get more and more users every day, then that is a good sign. I put up a parked page that linked to park.io for every domain that we were able to catch, and this lead to many of the first users.

I was surprised when I launched it and I had a couple of orders the first day. It just happened like that - each day a few more users would sign up and place orders.

I haven't done much to grow park.io. I have tried to make the service work really well and I have added some TLDs. I have also done some interviews. But other than that, I don't think I have done anything else - it has grown by word of mouth and I think just the growth of .io domains, in general, has helped the growth of park.io.

I would advise hackers to simply focus on the product and put love into their product. Build it so that you have happy users. You can do some interviews or blog posts and put them on Hacker News, or things like this, but you shouldn't have to do too much or spend too much time or money on marketing. If it is one of the 1% of your projects destined to success, it should grow quickly on its own.

What were the biggest challenges you faced and obstacles you overcame? 

One thing I have learned with park.io is that it can often seem like there is a big obstacle that is going to bring down the whole business, and yet usually you can find a way around it.

One example is the .io registry decided to sell their own backorders only a few months after I started park.io. I thought I would surely have to close the site and quit, because how could I compete with the registry? Luckily our systems were different enough that there was still value in the service that park.io was providing. Also, I was able to incorporate their system and leverage it with our own.

What I learned from this and other obstacles is that being a hacker with programming is similar to hacking a business to make it work. It's about being resourceful - you just need to find a way to make it work with the situation you find yourself in.

Which are your greatest disadvantages?

I am very introverted and sometimes have a hard time expressing my opinions to others. This is probably part of the reason I have not built a team for park.io. Perhaps I could do more with a team - it can be difficult as the only person doing everything for the company.

A big disadvantage is not having a second opinion or a second set of eyes to review code and business decisions. My wife helps me a lot, but she isn't a developer and can't review the code.

Mike Carson Family

During the process of building & growing park.io, which were the worst mistakes you committed?

The worst mistakes, in my opinion, are the mistakes that affected the users in a negative way. Like one time I sent a hundred duplicate emails to a user, or one time a user was charged three times for one order. Things like this cause me a lot of pain. I want to be helpful to my users and provide them with a service that makes their lives easier or better, so it hurts me to make mistakes that do the opposite of this.

With mistakes like these I always try to reach out personally and be very honest about the situation, and I usually credit their account or offer something like this. I hope to turn it into something good for them.

It is difficult for me to come up with mistakes, mostly because I believe that everything happens for a reason and even the things that seem to be the worst are actually great things.

But one other thing I can think of is pretty early on I listed the company for sale on Empire Flippers. I thought to myself "why not? There isn't really any risk and maybe I will sell the company." But I think this was a mistake because it ended up taking a lot of time and energy. There were several calls, and many questions to be answered, many reports to gather. It was a lot of time and energy that I could have spent on the company and code.

I would recommend to others not to list their company for sale unless they are sure they want to sell and are willing to devote the time to it. I was never really that interested in selling the company, and thankfully I did not sell it at the time.

If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?

I think a lot of life has to do with your current mindset. I think most of the failed projects from my earlier years had a lot to do with how desperately I wanted them to be successful. It is like reaching out for a balloon, only to push it away with your fingertips. At some point just before park.io, I started to realize that I didn't need anything else in my life to be happy, and suddenly a successful project happened. I don't think it is a coincidence or just an indirect outcome of a positive attitude. I think it is literally a direct result of this realization. One of my projects for Humbly is a new religion I started. You can read more about it here.

Apart from mistakes, what are other sources of learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?

I would recommend to do a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat. It had a huge positive impact on my life and I use what I learned from the course every day. There are no charges for the courses - not even to cover the cost of food and accommodation. It is non-sectarian, with no hidden agenda. You basically meditate for 12 hours a day - no reading, writing, talking, or listening to music, etc. It is kind of like meditation boot camp, and you really get an idea of what meditation can do for you and how to do it.

And Hacker News is a great resource.

 

Where can we go to learn more?

You can go to park.io and my parent company, Humbly. Thanks for reading!

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