I Spent A Weekend Building A Site That Generates Domain Names For Businesses Using AI

Published: May 15th, 2023
Kirill Zubovsky
Founder, Smartynames.com
$1K
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$1,000
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hi, I am Kirill Zubovsky, and I am the founder of Smartynames.com, a domain name generator that uses AI to generate available domain names based on a business description.

While traditional domain tools ask you to spend hours brainstorming keywords and name ideas, Smartynames only needs one thing from you, a description of your business or project. It was the first name generator that used AI to understand your business and to create domains based on that understanding.

We started by offering only two-word dot-com domains, but now we support generating names across hundreds of different new TLDs, as well as short and hacked domain names. Whether or not you are looking for a domain, generating names with Smartynames is so much fun, I guarantee you will buy one anyway.

Smartynames started as a solution to my problem. I wanted a domain name for a project, and could not come up with anything good. I built a prototype over the weekend and launched it on Hacker News with a roaring success.

Fast forward four months and I am making about $1000/m from domain sales and ad revenue, and growing steadily. I am selling more domains, as well as getting more paying partners to sign up for the platform.

Given the extremely short time it took to go from an idea to revenue, and infinite growth potential, I consider Smartynames to be a success. Domaining is a ruthless arms race, but it is also incredibly fun, and potentially very profitable.

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

While I am technically an Industrial Engineer by training, I’ve never really worked in that field. Instead, I like coding and design, and helping people figure out solutions to their problems. I might be addicted to the process of discovering the unknown and making things. It’s just extremely delightful to create something that doesn’t exist and learn how it behaves, what users do to it, and how to improve it.

About 10 years ago my wife and I had a company that was funded by Y Combinator, SV Angel, and 500 Startups. That was an epic experience, but unfortunately, it didn’t work out. We could never hit the venture scale, and instead of beating a dead horse, decided to kill it.

Since the end of that company, I have worked on some projects and companies, but have never really had the time to take a new venture seriously. We were having kids, traveling, and working on various gigs. I had toyed with a few things, from food delivery to podcasts. We even opened a coworking space in Breckenridge. All of that had kept me very busy, and distracted, and only in the recent few months, I have been able to find the time to sit, focus, and make something people wanted again.

Building products is very similar to making art, where you get to envision something, and then bring it to life. Likewise, you might think something is a masterpiece, but to get the traction your art still needs to appeal to a large audience, and hopefully do so while you are still alive!

I started Smartynames because I was bored, looking for a domain name for yet another project. OpenAI ChatGPT was blowing up at the same time, and it occurred to me that I could use it for my needs. I tried with a few prompts, got a few decent results, and then spent the weekend building a web-friendly version.

The first version was very basic, just a landing page and a way to generate .com domain names, and only 10 of them at a time. There was no way to buy them from the page either or get any other information available today, like the theoretical value of a domain, or a way to look up its trends on Google. Take a look at the TechCrunch coverage of our launch. It was laughable how simple it was at the time.

Take us through the process of building the first version of your product.

A decade ago after finishing my engineering education I decided that what I wanted to do was learn to code because when you code, no one can stop you and tell you what not to create. You can make anything, at any time.

At the time Ruby on Rails was on the rise, and a lot of successful startups like Airbnb were using it to launch their empires. I tried Ruby and it too resonated with me. It was a simple language, easy to read and understand, and Rails gave it a straightforward way to go online. I was also inspired by how DHH founded Rails and made a living out of it. Ever since then, I’ve been using RoR to get stuff done, and Smartynames wasn’t any different.

To build the very first version of Smartynames, I used the latest Rails 7, which comes with great features like Turbo and Stimulus. It took a minute to wrap my head around it at first, but once I got going, the development process was smooth and delightful. In my view, it was 100x more user friendly than having to wrestle with React and its dependencies. It of course also helped that I have been programming for the last 10 years, and instead of building from scratch, I had all the components ready.

I am not a big fan of bloated frameworks and normally try to do a minimal amount of work to get something done. In this case, I already had bits and pieces I needed for an app. Be that CSS for the layout, components for navigation, and passing data to/from the backend ..etc. To get Smartynames up and running I was mostly copy-pasting code from my older projects.

Also, I didn’t spend any effort on anything that I could get off-shelf faster than making it myself. For instance, I have no user management, and no password shenanigans of any kind. I just use Auth0 for that, with a quick 10-minute integration.

Oh, there’s a fun fact - Smartynames generated its name and logo!

When I started writing the code of the project, it did not have a name. When I finished writing the web version, I launched it locally and instructed it to find a name for a “website that will generate domain names using AI.” Smartynames found itself and then made itself a nice logo. I was thrilled!

If you take only one lesson from this entire post, take this one. The first version of the product has to be as basic as humanly possible, and it’s your job to figure out how to make that happen. There is only one job for the initial launch - to test whether users want whatever it is that is unique about your offering. You don’t need user management, you don’t need a fancy looking website, and you don’t need the ability to like, share and subscribe. All you need is what is special about your product; that’s it.

Describe the process of launching the business.

The first version of Smartynames was incredibly basic. You know how they say that “if you launched and you are not embarrassed, you launched too late”?

I was embarrassed!

smartynames-com

Web video of the product on launch day:

Smartynames, on the day that I launched it on hacker news, was only able to do one thing. You gave it a description of your business, and it gave you 12 dot-com domains. That’s it. That simplicity was the key to success! Because the site was simple, it was easy to explain its value proposition, and there was no way to make a mistake using it. As I learned later, not knowing anything about the domain space helped me as well.

MVP only has to test one objective - does anyone want the “special sauce” about your product.

Professional domain buyers have a whole set of rules by which they identify good domains. They look for brandable names, short names, names that rhyme, and all kinds of other criteria. In my case though, I was simply looking for something good, rather than great, so I was generating dozens of surprisingly good results that disobeyed the norms. Turns out, retail buyers, people who are not professional domain investors, were also quite satisfied with my work.

"This will wreck havoc on domain squatting business!"
- ivoras, a user on Hacker News.

Hacker News comments are a gamble, and sometimes they can get pretty mean. “This will never work,” “has been tried many times,” and “this is just a stupid idea,” - comments like those are not uncommon at all. So imagine my surprise when I started reading through the launch day comments and couldn’t find anything mean, instead I only saw friendly commentary and suggestions to make the site better?

As the comments on Hacker News started to roll in, I knew I needed to get the most out of that day, so I started to engage with them, commenting on the requests and suggestions, and providing answers where they fit.

It helped that in the first 20 minutes of my launch, I exhausted an API limit on one of the services I was using. Instead of being embarrassed, I posted a message to the thread, explaining that one of the functions was temporarily offline, while I was looking for a solution.

The solution I found worked for about an hour, after which I once again exhausted the limits. Finally, I found a very expensive paid API, but it allowed me to have unbound access, which eventually cost me over $800 in expenses for just that one day. But, I kept writing about my process right there on the launch post and it got me more goodwill from the crowd.

I won’t lie, it was a great feeling to know that even though some technical things were crashing, the community was supportive of me, helping me find ways to bring it back up. Hacker News launch brought in 8,000 users.

The only downside of my extremely fast launch was the lack of any affiliate integration. Smartynames stayed on the front page of Hacker News the whole day, and I got so much traffic from them, I would have made hundreds of dollars of referral commissions on just that day. I did not. There’s always a trade off, and in my opinion, it was better to launch early and not make the added revenue, knowing I was making something useful, rather than not be making any revenue because I had a useless product.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

The best source of customers were launched, and blog coverage. Not only did I get revenue from that, but I also got a massive morale boost from it too, as well as valuable long-term connections in the domain space.

First, I was lucky to get covered by Haje at Techcrunch, who responded to my cold email. Whether I got him on a good day, or my pitch was compelling, he wrote an awesome post about Smartynames, which in turn showed up on newsfeeds all over the internet. Besides just getting thousands of retail customers, I got on the radar of business people in the domain space.

Techcrunch was, for example, how I got connected with guys at Identity. Digital. They own more than 300 nTLDs, and Nic, my contact there, has been incredibly helpful and supportive of Smartynames ever since.

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Another great news launch was when I got interviewed by Todd at Geekwire. Todd has been a journalist for many years and he was genuinely interested in the topic, so that was a fantastic experience.

We had a long conversation about my past, Smartynames, and the future of AI. He admitted it was one of the most inspiring conversations he too had in a while. As a result, Todd even got inspired to buy a domain - http://upaboveseattle.com/ - which I still need to help set up for him. (thanks Todd ;)

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As I was getting press, I knew I could benefit from more, so I started reaching out to some journalists that were writing about the topic of artificial intelligence. I am not a big fan of automation when it comes to personal outreach, so I’d just write a few emails a day to a short list of names I collected by reading tech publications. Most of that effort had gone nowhere, but there were 2-3 journalists that have followed me back or have signed up for my newsletter, The Novice. Relationships aren’t built in an instant, so we’ll see where it gets me over the next few months.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

It’s been 4 months since our launch and we are doing pretty well in my opinion. We’ve got about $1000 in monthly revenue, which is enough to cover all kinds of expenses, like Heroku costs, domain validations, and occasional ads. It doesn’t cover my time yet, but analytics are showing steady growth, so it’s only a matter of time.

The demand right now is fairly unpredictable. I might get 5k users in one month, and then get 5k users in one day because someone’s mentioned Smartynames in a newsletter. There are also interesting uncorrelated events when domain purchases skyrocket on a random day. I don’t yet know why that happens, but I do know that users are directly proportional to revenue, so the more traffic I can get the more money I eventually make.

That’s why my short-term goal is to figure out how to make inbound user flow more predictable. I hear frequent newsletters are a good way of doing it, but if you have any suggestions, I am all ears.

There are known ways of making more money in this space, such as becoming a registrar so I could retain long-term revenue for each customer, instead of just getting a one-time commission on the first sale. That might be one of the routes I choose to do, but I think first I want to explore less traditional parts of the business. Established players are big and wealthy, and I wouldn’t have a good time going head-on with them as a one-man operation.

Instead, if I add value to users and in the process add value to the big guys, we can all benefit. What can I do that others don’t dare to do? What are my unique skills which could be applied to this space to make the user experience better? What areas around domain buying I can improve along the way? In my mind, those are the right questions that will ultimately make me more revenue.

Ultimately, Smartynames started as a fun project and I would like to keep it this way. The more seriously I take it, the less interesting it becomes, and the more tired I feel working on it. On the other hand, whenever I do something “stupid” by traditional domain standards, it leads to a positive outcome and makes me happy. Here is an example of a silly project that isn’t yet launched, but will be in a few weeks - Free Kids Books. Who in the right mind would launch a site to use AI for pet names? I would. I think it’s going to be wildly interesting to see where it leads!

Business should be about making money, but business is also hard and unpredictable, so in my opinion I might as well make it a little bit fun! Otherwise, honestly, just get a job at Google, it would be an overall better ROI.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Build it and they won't come

The old days of “build it and they will come” are long gone. It is not enough anymore to build a good product and expect it to get distribution. The opposite is more likely. Subpar products with great distribution will win. So that’s something you have to constantly think about and build features into your products that will increase your chances.

For Smartynames, for example, I made searches shareable. Now I can tweet them out @Smartynames account. That’s one simple example, but it works to grow awareness of our capabilities.

This is where sites like Starter Story and Indie Hackers are invaluable, especially for indy hackers who are trying to launch a product on a tiny budget and no team.

While I wouldn’t overthink an early version of the product, as it would change, I think it’s useful to know what your goals are and have a way to monitor your progress. For Smartynames, my friend Rafal helped me build a dashboard in Google Analytics that shows week-over-week changes in user behavior.

We were trying to understand whether I make more money from logged-in users, or logged-out ones. Turns out it was actually more for those users without an account, and while power users (logged in) require more features, I just needed more of the “drive by” users to make more money. The result of our observation was pretty simple - hose the site with more traffic, get more money.

Always test your core value before investing in other features

MVP only has to test one objective - does anyone want the “special sauce” about your product. That means you have to launch not just something unique, but also package it in such a way that your particular offering is useful without a ton of overhead features. I learned it the hard way.

For example: if you are going to launch a competitor to Google Photos, you are not just making a better photo album, you have to compete on the very hard features that users come to expect, namely privacy and reliability while storing petabytes of photos.

More importantly, you will have to convince your users that YOU are more trustworthy than Google. It’s practically impossible. I know because I once launched Waddle. Photos and failed flat on my face.

Meanwhile, launching Smartynames all I had to do was convince the public that my name generator was better than anything they had seen before; and it truly was better. I did not provide registrar features, DNS features, or even a shopping cart. None of that was important to stand out in the name generation space.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

No one is going to tell you the truth, or the full truth, so I would be very wary of any inspirational resources. Your circumstances, experiences, desires, and goals in life are unique and will not match up 1:1 to someone else. You could admire Elon Musk for his efforts and achievements, but unless you are willing to be Elon, taking on all of his flaws, stress, weakness, enemies, and friends, then it doesn’t make sense to compare yourself to him.

Same goes for everyone and everything you read, hear, and consume. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t indulge in inspirational content, but you have to filter it accordingly and treat it for what it is.

I would put more weight into established content, like Zero to One, or Hacker and Painters, over quick blog posts and podcasts. I have a short list of books I found valuable on my website.

If you ask for advice, then go to people who are a few steps ahead of you, and ask them. If you are starting a small indie business, there’s not a lot of immediately actionable advice you will get from a billionaire who’s been running a company for 15 years.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Don’t over think and don’t overdo it, just start. You will learn a lot more as you do, than by thinking about it and listening to others. Startup world is littered by failed experiments. No one is going to notice when you fail, but they might pay attention when you get it right.

There is no silver bullet, no guide, and nobody knows anything for certain. Some people might have a good idea on how to be more on target more often, but that’s about it.

You’ve got one life, so stop comparing yourself to others, and figure out what’s important to you. The tricky part is that you are not going to do it by sitting motionless. You’ve got to get vulnerable and do stuff, and probably fail. Every failure is an opportunity to find success, big or small. Even a small success is a magnitude better than what most people will get out of life.

P.s. Be nice to people. Most people are trying their best.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

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