When dot-com ventures turn personal

June 13, 2007

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Here's some food for thought: If you are running a web site, make sure that you maintain as much control over your domain name as you can. That sounds like a no-brainer, but I made a mistake back in 1999. I realized it later but I let it go for a long time (years) and I didn't rectify that mistake until 2006. In trying to rectify it, I thought it was going to turn into a major pain in my ass. In the meantime, I almost unknowingly made an even bigger mistake.

In 1999, I found out that my site, Star Trek: Hypertext, was getting too much bandwidth and it was going to cost an absurd $200 a month to keep it hosted where I was. So I went looking elsewhere. I coincidentally around this time was contacted by Christian, the co-owner of a series of sites: TrekToday.com, TrekZone.net, Trekseek.com, and TrekBBS.com.

The idea was to have a full-fledged Trek-based online resource/network/community based on these sites. TrekToday would be Trek-related news headlines, Trekseek would be a site search engine/directory, TrekBBS would be a discussion forum, and TrekZone would be ... well, I don't know what it was supposed to be. Christian's partner in this dot-com venture was Saleel. This was around the time that dot-com startups were a dime a dozen and the subject of absurd overvaluation. I have no idea if this network was intended as a hobby or a serious business venture, and I didn't much care. Personally, I wasn't in it for the money and have no idea if they were.

Christian wanted to bring me into the network fold, and I agreed. He offered me free hosting. I decided to go with a subdomain on the Trekseek domain because I didn't want to be a .net, and the other two domain names didn't seem to fit my site. My URL was st-hypertext.trekseek.com. (Why didn't I just register and host my own domain name? Because it was a different time and site hosting was not as easy or cheap and I didn't properly educate myself before I made this decision. It was a mistake.)

A month or two went by and there was some kind of disastrous fallout between Christian and Saleel. I don't know what happened or why, and I can only guess. But to the best of my estimation, based on what I could piece together from the e-mails, Saleel owned the Trekseek.com and TrekZone.net domains, and Christian owned the TrekToday.com and TrekBBS.com domains. Christian told me he was unhappy with the lack of development with TrekZone and Trekseek and that he was parting ways with Saleel. He offered me a place on his network and my own domain name (st-hypertext.com, which he had already registered for me). I could see where the good bet was. TrekZone and Trekseek were going nowhere fast, and TrekToday and TrekBBS were gaining lots of users and were far superior sites. So I went with Christian.

Saleel was furious. According to Saleel, he was betrayed by Christian and locked out of the admins for both TrekToday and TrekBBS, and I wasn't the only contributor to leave Saleel's portion of the network. Christian apparently (according to Saleel) took as many others with him as he could recruit and then declared himself owner of the network. But of course no one stayed with Saleel, because his sites were clearly dead in the water. Trekseek and TrekZone were soon abandoned and died a quiet death. TrekToday and TrekBBS continue to thrive today.

I often wonder what the whole story was. Christian always seemed helpful and friendly to me, but there are two sides to every story, and who knows what happened. This could've been an orchestrated dot-com power play because he owned the more useful of the domains and knew that. I'm not suggesting that's the case, but it's a tricky business to conduct all correspondence strictly through e-mail across thousands of miles and oceans and national borders.

So for seven years, I was hosted on Christian's servers. Christian became busier and busier, expanded his Trek network into "CSI" and "Desperate Housewives," and we almost never talked unless I had FTP problems. Eventually it got to the point that it was hard to get a hold of him even when I had FTP problems.

In March 2006, I finally decided it was time to leave, a decision I'd been putting off even though it was what I'd wanted to do for some time. I'd been locked out of my own FTP access one too many times due to server changes, and reaching Christian and his server people was more difficult every time. The simple fact of the matter is, when you aren't paying someone for a service, you feel like you're at their mercy and on their timetable and have to beg them when it comes to support, because they don't owe you anything. And that's no way to run a web site.

I already had hosting space (Lunarpages, which I highly recommend), but I feared the fact that my domain name, st-hypertext.com, which had become my site's identity after so many years and was not registered in my name, was going to become a problem. It was something Christian was going to have to hand over or sell to me, and I had no idea whether he was going to be a hard-ass about my leaving. Pessimist that I am, I started thinking about that explosion between him and Saleel, and started bracing for the worst-case scenario. I had already decided to change my domain to jammersreviews.com (independent of my decision to leave, but the timing made sense), but not having both names to make the transition would've caused some problems.

For the next two months, I tried to acquire the domain name. E-mails I'd send to Christian would go unanswered time and time again. For a long time, I thought he was ignoring me. Eventually I was pleading with him just to respond to my mails and give me answer. It was very frustrating. It stressed me out. I felt powerless over the fate of my own web site. I could always proceed without the domain, but that was not what I wanted to do.

Finally I heard from Christian's server guy, Anthony. Apparently Christian's spam blockers kill a lot of his e-mail and many of mine weren't getting through. Finally, Christian replied and agreed to release the domain. All I had to do was initiate a transfer request. I was relieved. Christian was a good guy after all. (Not great about customer service, but since I wasn't paying, I wasn't a "customer," thus the dilemma of that kind of relationship. He agreed to release the domain, and that's all that mattered.)

About this time, I was shopping for domain registrars, and a friend recommended RegisterFly. Seemed okay, and the prices were good, so I went with it. I registered jammersreviews.com through RegisterFly and attempted to perform the domain transfer of st-hypertext.com from Christian to myself through RegisterFly.

This was another mistake. Almost a huge one.

The transfer would not go through. RegisterFly's web site would simply tell me "awaiting server response from current registrar," or some BS. Days went by. Nothing happened. No change on RegisterFly's admin panel. It didn't take me long to realize that RegisterFly's technology was flaky and unreliable (JavaScript errors when you click "submit" and nothing happens are never a good sign). I contacted their customer support (via e-mail; they didn't make their phone number available).

Finally, I said screw it, I need this done, and I went over to GoDaddy and initiated the transfer request for st-hypertext.com there. It went through, Christian approved it, and within days I was in business and had officially set st-hypertext.com as a redirect to jammersreviews.com and it was done.

But jammersreviews.com was still registered through RegisterFly. And something about the web site and its flakiness and their poor customer support made me feel uneasy about having my new identity registered through them. I initiated another domain transfer request, moving jammersreviews.com from RegisterFly to GoDaddy. It went through and GoDaddy was officially the registrar.

However, because RegisterFly's technology was screwed up, the domain still showed up as active from their control panel, even though they no longer held it. The information was simply wrong. I e-mailed their customer support to get them to correct the listing in my account. After several tries through their poor support, they finally corrected it. I was out, free and clear, and I decided I was through with RegisterFly.

Not long after, RegisterFly began to implode. The company was inundated with complaints because their customers' domains were being mismanaged and lost and worse. I thought I had stress trying to get my domain from Christian; this would've been 100 times worse had I not dodged the bullet by leaving.

The alleged circumstances surrounding RegisterFly's collapse are astounding. Read the Wikipedia entry. Seriously, read it. It's bizarre.

Basically, the company's two CEOs (who were also lovers) were wrestling for power of the company after their personal relationship disintegrated. The apparent mismanagement of the company's funds were the kind of corporate abuse that you hear about in corruption scandals. Quoting from Wikipedia: "RegisterFly filed suit against Kevin Medina, alleging he had stolen company funds for a $27,000 escort service, a $6,000 liposuction procedure, a $10,000/month penthouse apartment in Miami, Florida and a $6,000 chihuahua dog. This alleged misappropriation of funds was said to have caused the company's woes."

The company's mismanagement led to a prolonged lawsuit and ICANN pulling RegisterFly's accreditation. Thousands of customers were locked out of their RegisterFly accounts and couldn't transfer away their domains even though they obviously wanted to. Ironically, on May 29, all existing domains registered through RegisterFly were finally ordered to be bulk-transferred ... to GoDaddy. Who knows how many domain names were lost and how many web sites were disabled in the months during this mess. I'm glad I wasn't there went the bombs went off.

When the dot-com world gets personal, these messes affect thousands of customers and their domains. It makes you wonder what kind of oversight the domain registrars should be subject to. Certainly, the RegisterFly situation was an epic debacle for those customers unlucky enough to be using them.

The lesson here: Make sure you own your domain name, and choose your registrar carefully, because your Internet presence starts and ends there. It's the key to the castle.

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15 comments on this post

    Alas, it's sometimes hard to know when an online service will go bad. I was an early Registerfly customer and at the time their service and pricing was pretty good. You know how picky I get. :) I was actually recommending them to people. Then their website started flaking, customer service and tech support quality declined drastically, and I transferred all my domains out. Maybe I was lucky or got out early because my transfers encountered little or no snags. I'm a big DIY type and would love to own/run all the components. I want to be my own registrar, web host, mail host, ISP, but all this can become expensive (in time and money) real fast. Plus, I have a regular job so I can't really manage all this on the side. Therein lies the dilemma.

    I know you were recommending RegisterFly to people. You were the one who recommended them to me. Don't think I forgot. :P

    Yea, sorry for the bad recommendation. They weren't bad at the time I made the recommendation! After the rfly debacle, I'm now especially paranoid about the cheaper registrars. Makes me wonder if some of the longer operating companies charge more because of reputation. Network Solutions was the original registrar for com, net, org (I think) and afaik, their price has been and still is $35/yr. I've also heard they've engaged in shady practices like making it difficult to transfer out, essentially holding your domain hostage until you jump through all their convoluted hoops. Meanwhile, you're still paying their high prices. I forget if it was NetSol or an affiliate (Verisign?) that redirected all non-registered com, net, org domains to their own pages. Many people were crying foul because they abused their position as the com,net,org authority to capture all the traffic resulting from typo'ed urls. Not only were there political reasons but this broke how DNS was supposed to work. Instead of getting a "host not found" which was useful for network troubleshooting among other things, *all* domains now resolved to *something*. Stupid shady companies.

    dyndns.org FTW! (Well, at least for the name hosting. I don't know if they do registration or not; I don't think so.) Actually, I've heard a lot of good things about Register4Less at UserFriendly. I have a feeling R4L is UF's registrar, and I know they run ads there every so often. But I've heard good things about them from other members there too, which confirm the ads, so I'm a bit more confident that the ads aren't lying. However, I've never tried them myself. (My 2 DNS names are in the dyndns-owned domains: is-a-geek.net and homelinux.net. Basically, that means I can use them for free, as long as dyndns exists. But now that I think about it, that may not be a good idea. Hmm.)

    To Bryan K: Heed Jammer's first sentence: "If you are running a web site, make sure that you maintain as much control over your domain name as you can." The more valuable your site is to you, the more control you should probably have. I think dyndns does registrations too, at least recently. Last I checked they're pricy though.

    Yeah -- it's not the web site that I care about, though, it's the email domain. (I run my own mail server.) I guess it's a question of how well (and whether) dyndns will survive. I'm not sure why, but they seem to me like one of those groups that'll be around for a long time. Could be wrong, though, and that's what I'm wondering about now. When I first got these names, I didn't see anywhere on their site where they'd act as a registrar. The only option was to act as the host (if I already had a domain through a separate registrar), which I believe would have cost me a fairly small one-time fee. They may be a registrar now, though. In any case, if I moved to my own registrar, I'd have to change the domains I use as well. (The domains I use are below the two mentioned above.) Or I could just run my own DNS server, and point to that in the registration, but that means I need to keep a second view up to date. Plus the server itself. (I already run BIND 9, but it'll only serve requests from the internal network, and there's only one view.) But yeah, I should probably reconsider.

    You might want to check what their registrar policies are. A lot of hosting services will register domains on your behalf. You own them, but they register them for you and put their information in as the technical contact. Lunarpages, for example, registers their customers through Tucows (you get the domain free of charge as long as you're with them). The customer still maintains control of the domain and can take it with them if they choose to leave Lunarpages for a different hosting service. Technically, they could still leave the domain registered through Tucows since the admin for the domain name is separate from the hosting plan.

    Right, just change the NS (and possibly the glue) records for the domain in the TLD zone to point to the new host. (Or at least, that's what the registrar does for you.) But anyway, it looks like their DNS-hosting service (for domains outside the ones they own) is $25/year, and their registrar fee is $15/year. That's not too terrible IMO (though it is more than some other hosts/registrars). OTOH, what I have now is free. ;-)

    To Bryan K: Free = 3LD under dyndns. Pay = your own 2LD. Depends on your needs I suppose. Not a sign of a good business if your corporate website is something.dyndns.org. I was happy dyndns started offering registrations because I had bee previously happy with their dyn services. I've been a long time user and have noticed consistent quality. $25 is a bit much tho, compared to other offerings out there that are still of decent quality. I now use Godaddy and 1and1. They're been occasional rants to tech support, but I expect that when dealing with any online service nowadays. :P

    Ah -- you're right, I wouldn't use it for a business setup; a business can certainly afford to pay $40/year for a "real" (2-level) name. For a personal site, though (with nothing on it -- the most important bit is the mail server), it's fine. (For that matter, it's not like I couldn't afford it, either. But zero is still less than 40, and I think it's fairly adequate for what I'm doing with it.)

    Jammer, I've noticed that you opted not to use Lunarpages for the domain registration. Are there other disadvanatges, other than having Tucows listed as the technical support contact? I'm thinking of creating a site with Lunarpages but I'm not sure whether to go with the free domain or not. How much control do you really get? If the site was shut down by Lunarpages themselves or they went out of business, would you still have the domain?

    I agree this means nothing lots of registrars will do the job for you.

    As I mentioned in the post, I use Hover to reeistgr my domains and I think they're great. If you want to try them out, feel free to use my referral link and I'll get a discount: (Thanks in advance!)

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