The one tip startup founders need to know about tracking down domain name owners


Tell me if this sounds familiar. You know exactly what you want to call your company and immediately go to register the .COM. Then you realize what you were probably expecting from the beginning…someone else owns the domain. The normal reaction at this point is to think to yourself, “stupid squatter!” and instantly become both angry and annoyed at the person who bought the domain name before you and aren’t using it for anything.

Here’s the reality.

That “squatter” that owns the domain name probably isn’t a squatter. It’s unlikely that they thought about you and your founders sitting around coming up with the name and therefore with years their incredible clairvoyance went ahead and registered the domain. In many cases the owner of the domain is one of two types of people:

  1. Another startup founder like you who also came up with the name just years before you did but never got their business off the ground
  2. A domain name investor who bought the name to sell for a profit

In either case you need to first determine if the domain is for sale (much easier if it’s a domain investor since the answer is yes) and next get in touch with the owner. The truth is, domain investor want to sell their domains, and they make it easy to get in touch with them. Startup founders, like you, aren’t necessarily trying to make money selling domains. They might have the domain under privacy protection and they also might still want to hang onto the name since, like you, they bought it for a business they once (or still do) believe in.

Either way, there’s a lot of confusion about how to get in touch with a domain owner so I thought I’d share a few tips to do it. While a good domain broker can definitely help accelerate the process, and in many cases can save you a few bucks on a domain, you can still try your hand at it at first and if you don’t succeed, call in the experts. There isn’t a big multi-step process for tracking down a domain owner, just one go-to technique that I have found worked the best years ago and still is the best way to reach a domain owner today.

It’s called doing a WHOIS lookup. Note: all the domain investors reading this post will say, “duh Morgan, everyone knows what a WHOIS lookup is!” and they’d be right…if we were just talking about domain investors and industry professionals. But normal people actually don’t know about WHOIS lookups yet it’s the best way to get directly in touch with a domain owner. There are a zillion services that do whois lookups, one of my favorites is iWhois.

Here’s how it works. Enter the domain name you want into a WHOIS lookup service and the domain owner’s contact information will be revealed to you. Most of the time.

Here’s the catch.

Sometimes domain name owners choose to use privacy protection to hide their identity. In this case it looks like all of their contact information is hidden away and that there’s no real way to reach them. What most people don’t realize is that those long seemingly meaningless email addresses like, actually work – send a domain to the address in the WHOIS and it should (in most cases) route directly to the owner.

I can tell you with confidence, your average person doesn’t know this. Once again, if you’re a domain investor or domain industry insider who reads my blog, yup, you knew this. However, if you’re a startup founder, small business owner, or entrepreneur getting ready to start your next venture, this just might be news to you. Since I’ve told this to dozens of people who had no idea that those crazy privacy protection email addresses actually went anywhere, it means that for some of your reading this, I just blew your mind.

So my work is done for the day. Now go forth and email the person who owns the domain you’re looking for. Just remember to be realistic when it comes to price expectation. Sites like DNJournal and tools like NameBio can help you stay grounded in reality.

Morgan Linton

Morgan Linton