Making the Trade // 006 // Ray King, Top Level Design
Ray, with an entire life of entrepreneurial endeavors, shares his story.
00:26 – Teenage Triumph: Like a magician, Ray wows audiences–with an early computer.
02:07 – Ray’s World: Something very big, that started with something very small.
04:42 – Growing Suspicion: When to floor it, and when to check the brakes.
06:22 – Feathered Cap: An industry nod that changed everything.
08:22 – Top Level Design: Ray is at it again with big plans ahead.
Early on as a teenager, you got a lot of attention for your very first venture–what happened?
My dad’s office was next to Grand Central Station, and I borrowed a card table from him [and] brought it down–right into the middle of Grand Central Station and sat it next to a newsstand because I knew we needed power. We set up this card table, put an IBM PC on top, borrowed the power from the news stand–which, by the way–meant that his light went off, but he was a really nice guy, I guess because we were attracting a crowd the whole time.
What we did was–we showed Lotus 1-2-3. We had the screen up, you could put three numbers on and right on the screen, [and] get a sum for those three numbers. Then we showed people that you could change a number and the number on the bottom changed automatically. I know that’s not a big deal today, but at the time–people were literally, just falling down, dead on the street. [They] couldn’t believe it, had to learn more, so we brought them right upstairs–we packed six people in a room at a time and provided computer training.
It was fun, we were young…just sixteen, seventeen years old–had a few friends with me. The New York Times picked us up–we had a full page article on what we had done during the summer between high school and college, we were seen on Eyewitness News and we made quite a bit more money than the most our friends that summer.
Your previous web domain-related company SnapNames grew to a substantial size–how did it get started?
Towards the end of my first business which was Semaphore, I was getting a little itchy and I was experimenting with purchasing domain names. At the time, this is back in 1999, I had wanted a domain name raysworld.com, kind of like Wayne’s World. So I called the guy up and I asked him–the current owner of the name–I said “Can I buy the same from you?”, and he said “It’s no problem, I’m just gonna let it drop it you can pick it up because I’m using this other name anyway…”.
I waited for the day for the name to expire, tried to register it…and it wasn’t available… So, I said okay, I’ll just wait a little while, try to get in a week…it still wasn’t available. So it turns out that it takes a little while for the name to break free out of the system…it was an indeterminate amount of time. So I found myself checking hour after hour if the name was available…and finally got so frustrated that I wrote a little utility to check in an automated fashion–actually look at the Whois record. I had this utility email me back if there was any change in the status at all. And then, lo and behold, a month or two later the utility came back and said “Aha, I’ve noticed a change in the status of this domain name…” and turns out it was available, I went and registered it. When I told my friends about this story, almost everybody had a domain name that they wish they could have had, so people were saying “Can you run your utility on this name or that name…”.
That was the the genesis for SnapNames, which was “Tell us the names’ you’re interested in, we’ll watch them and if they become available…we’ll snap them up.” We went for checking every hour, to every minute to–at the end it was an arms race–we might make ten or twenty thousand requests for name…within the first five seconds that name’s available–using servers that were right next to the central registry–but the concept was the same the whole way through, and what I loved about that business was, it was kind of like a…just a cool, small innovation, but around the area to was important for people, and one that we were ultimately able to make a pretty big business out of.
AboutUS.org experienced immense and rapid growth as a Wiki-based directory–what challenges did you face during that time?
It got off to a really good start, we managed to get close to ten million unique visitors per month, mainly because we were using an algorithmic method to build these Wiki pages–the problem was that we built so much so quickly, and we didn’t really understand how to get people to edit for the right reasons. So most folks were on just on, to correct information about their company, and using the site more like a directory or a way to promote their businesses…and I think that the value proposition wasn’t really there…at the same time, because the site was very popular we were generating quite a bit of ad revenue–we got addicted to that. So we couldn’t change our direction, and yet it was the wrong direction. And it put us into slow downward spiral and despite many pivots we weren’t really able to commit to a proper pivot in a direction that would make sense–mainly because we couldn’t wean ourselves off the revenue that we were getting for, in essence, the wrong reasons…and that did not produce a great long-term result…super painful.
What was one of the most significant and impactful experiences you’ve had as an entrepreneur?
With Semaphore, which was a business that sold financial software to architects and engineers, we had an interesting moment in the summer of 1990. Architecture Magazine called seven companies that provided financial software to architects and engineers, of which we were one of those seven and said “We’re gonna do a shoot-out to figure out what the different features are and who likes what software best…” It was conducted in Chicago; and I remember that there were two companies assigned to each piece of software to evaluate it and kinda share their thoughts. The idea was to go out and work with your to customers and all those customers would get in a room and ultimately opine on the different products that were out there.
I got on a plane a full week earlier and decided that I was going to meet with every single customer whether they were on my software already or the competitors. It was really cool because we ended up winning that shootout, and the shootout was never done again afterwards because the none of the competitors could agree on the format that would be fair. So we had the results of this very prominent Architecture Magazine article, and for ten years we printed out like a one-page reprint that article with a grid on the bottom showing that we were number one, and our competitors hated us so much but that one the single moment was a way that we turned the corner and we were able to grow our business basically from seven people to over a hundred over the next decade.
TOP LEVEL DESIGN
How is your latest venture Top Level Design helping shape the next era of the internet?
Top Level Design is a registry and we’re trying to bring new domain extensions, which are technically top-level domains, to the world. I’m super excited about this because I’ve always loved the domain name businesses. Domain names exist so that we don’t remember IP addresses, and from 1995 until now domain names have been pretty much dominated by dot-com. We’ve been a dot-com equals internet mindset. New extensions allow us to bring more semantic meaning to the domain name. So if you see a name that ends in .dentist, or .basketball, .art, .music you know roughly where you’re going, and that adds a lot of value.
Breaking people out of the dot-com into the not-dot-com mindset is something that I think will take place over the next two years as the new extensions get rolled. So what’s fun right now for us is that we can kind of tell this story and it’s a mini aha moment for people. It’s great because there’s going to be so many more descriptive domain names and the internet will be a better place for it, and a wider place for it.
For more information on Top Level Design, visit www.tldesign.co