I first met Michael in person when he was in Los Angeles for a few days late last year. We met for coffee and by the time we were done I had an entirely new appreciation for who he is. Going into that meeting I thought of him as Michael Cyger, the Domain Sherpa, that guy who does those great interviews. I left the meeting seeing him still as the wonderful and affable Domain Sherpa, but also as a successful entrepreneur and very sharp businessman. Michael built a serious business in the Six Sigma space and had a great exit, one of those exits all entrepreneurs hope for. In short time he has turned Domain Sherpa into one of the top Domaining resources on the planet, all while building another empire somewhere behind-the-scenes.
That empire is Hashtags.org and it’s the combination of a great domain, with a great brand, and a visionary like Michael to turn it into what it is today. As you all know I don’t do a ton of interviews, but I couldn’t help but ask Michael a few questions about this venture and the road he’s taken to get here. Enjoy and read carefully, there are a lot of golden nuggets in this one.
1) What gave you the initial idea for Hashtags.org?
In 2010 when I was planning the launch of DomainSherpa.com for January 2011, I knew that I wanted to make Twitter a big part of my marketing plan for new articles and interviews. Twitter is a phenomenal communication platform. I think the platform that is the most open and concise will win in the end; Twitter is that platform today. Nowhere else can you learn about earthquakes, social unrest, political snafus or product launches as quickly…or follow industry luminaries, friends and interesting people as easily.
Hashtags are well known on Twitter as a way to allow people interested in a certain topic to follow a stream of discussion. But as I read others’ posts, I saw a multitude of hashtags attached to posts. “Which hashtag will get my tweets the maximum exposure,” I thought. I went to hashtags.org and found my answer. Here, for example, is #domains versus #domain versus #domainnames versus #domainname:
Hashtags allow you to track marketing effectiveness, spot trends, and communicate with a group of like-minded people. Hashtag chats, for example, happen all the time: http://www.hashtags.org/chat/educhat/ No barriers to entry, cost or hurdles to get over.
2) Did you register and launch Hashtags.org yourself?
The domain name was registered and the website launched soon thereafter by Cody Marx Bailey and Aaron Farnham in December 2007 (full history). After some early slow growth, tweet volume grew exponentially from Twitter’s launch in 2006; today it’s well over 340 million tweets per day.
Archiving this amount of data is serious work. This is your classic “big data” problem if you’re trying to store tweet data for further analysis, so database architecture, retrieval and presentation were massive issues to deal with — they could be crippling if not done properly. In 2007-2009, hard drive storage was much more expensive than it is today. So while the site made early progress in indexing Twitter and creating an analytical software solution, the previous owner lost interest in the service in the 2010 time period.
3) What was the site like when you purchased it?
I purchased Hashtags.org in January 2011, recently after selling CTQ Media (www.ctqmedia.com, which I have since re-purchased in November 2011). I knew hashtags were big, and would get bigger as a way to allow individuals to self-classify their information. Today, you see hashtags in football stadium endzones, on top of the Seattle Space Needle and on almost every TV show. The Republican and Democratic National Conventions, for example, both had a hashtag (#GOP2012 and #DNC2012, respectively) in the corner of the TV screen for their multi-day events watched by tens of millions of people.
From January 2011 through September 2011, Hashtags.org was literally a two-page dynamic website. You could see a homepage and search for any hashtag, see a basic trend chart and look at recent tweets. There wasn’t much to it, although pre-2010 it had been an exciting measurement platform and service.
If you look at the back-link profile of Hashtags.org, you can see it’s quite expansive and authoritative. Majestic SEO Site Explorer shows 6,576 referring domains and 1,272,300 external back-links. It would take years and tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to build this type of profile through marketing today. We also have more than 275,000 organic Twitter followers (twitter.com/hashtags) interested in hashtags (about 200,000 when I purchased Hashtags.org).
4) Why have you started publishing in addition to offering the paid analytics service we’ve heard about?
It was always my intention that if I couldn’t figure out a way to solve the “big data” problem of indexing Twitter and storing analytical information — which I knew was a needed service for bloggers, marketing pros, businesses and agencies — then I’d just make Hashtags.org a publishing website about social media and marketing analytics. Publishing is what I know, so It was my fall-back plan. But software as a service is where the massive revenue potential is.
The publishing site runs at www.hashtags.org and our paid analytics service runs at analytics.hashtags.org. It’s a great combination because the publishing site promotes the software service to prospective customers.
5) What is the biggest mistake you made when you started the site?
Finding the right technology partners was my biggest issue, and the wrong partners significantly set me back on the timeline.
For the publishing website, my usual developer was busy on other work so I hired a new developer who flaked out after two months of not accomplishing much. In fact, I had to throw away what he’d done. Then I hired a second developer who just didn’t have the technical skills to accomplish what I specified. Finally, I took matters into my own hands, replicated much of the code base from www.iSixSigma.com and then brought my usual developer onto the project when his time freed up.
On the analytics side, I had asked a really good friend and CTO of a Fortune 100 company to partner with me. Indexing Twitter is no easy feat, and after a couple of months it was clear we weren’t going to get there without an infrastructure in place — so I shelved the analytics service. Then about 10 months later, after I had re-purchased CTQ Media and www.iSixSigma.com back and was setting up my custom search engine with www.Fusionbot.com, the software provider I’d used for years prior to the sale, I asked — offhand — what they thought about indexing Twitter for an analytics service on Hashtags.org. They had experience with Twitter’s API already and two months later we were up and running with a paid service. The Logika.net team that owns the Fusionbot.com custom search service is a fantastic partner and are unbelievably intelligent, technical and FAST.
6) What was the best move you made in the relaunch of Hashtags.org?
Buying a website with built-in readers was the best decision I could have made. When we took the new website live, we immediately had 100,000 monthly unique readers and 275,000 Twitter followers. Every article we write and promote is seen by hundreds of thousands of people and retweeted by many of those. We don’t have to pay for marketing our product as our future customers already have an affinity to our brand and service and are using our website. Hashtags.org is currently ranked #1 in Google, Bing and Yahoo for the word: hashtags.
7) What advice would you give to someone else that wants to build a brand like this?
Building a brand, like I’ve done on www.iSixSigma.com and am doing on www.DomainSherpa.com, from the ground up is a great, low-risk, low-cost way to start a business, but it takes years of consistent work to accomplish it. If you can find a “diamond in the rough” website and domain/brand that you can repurpose, it will potentially shave years off your marketing efforts and give your business traction a lot sooner. As an example, we saw paid subscribers to our analytics service at analytics.hashtags.org starting on the day we launched. Without an established brand, we likely wouldn’t have had paying customers that soon.
8) Are there any other companies offering what you do? If so what differentiates you from them?
Yes, there are a few — such as Radian6, a social media monitoring and engagement software service bought by Salesforce.com in March 2011. Their service starts at $600 per month, but covers many social media networks. We’re laser-focused on Twitter and hashtags. We plan to differentiate ourselves form competitors by offering plans for the individual blogger up to the major agency that are much more detailed than our competitors, integrate more completely with their systems, and are more cost effective.
9) How important do you think having the exact-match domain Hashtags.org is to the brand? Do you think there are any issues with building this brand on a .ORG vs. a .COM?
Having a single word, premium domain name is critical for building a top-of-mind brand and service. All other factors being equal, I would have preferred the .com, of course, but the previous owner built the service, goodwill and millions of back-links on Hashtags.org. In my opinion, that is worth much more than a parked .com.
My wife always asks me, especially when I’m arguing a point with one of our kids, “Would you rather be right or would you rather be effective?” In the case of Hashtags.org, I’d rather be effective, take advantage of the thousands of daily visitors, and sell advertising and cost-effective analytical subscription plans to those who haven’t had access to them in the past.