May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the U.S. and Asian Heritage Month in Canada. Whether you are Asian American or Asian Canadian, May is a time to celebrate and take joy in Asian culture and community.
Ray has been a friend of .ASIA for many years. We are so happy to see his new registrar, Porkbun.com, take off along with his domain registry business Top Level Design — the parent company for top-level-domains .DESIGN, .WIKI, .INK, and .GAY. Ray started his first domain name business with SnapNames, a company he co-founded close to 20 years ago.
I sat down with Ray over Zoom and caught up with him about everything from his Asian American upbringing, to entrepreneurship, to tips on choosing high-quality domains for a business.
Leona: Ray, congrats on the success of Porkbun.com and Top Level Design. You are founder and CEO for both of these thriving businesses. What does your day look like these days, and how does it compare to an average day before the COVID quarantine?
Ray: I’m really enjoying it! Working from home has been great; it feels like I’ve picked up two or three extra hours a day! I’m calmer and more focused.
As for the team, we’re pretty structured already; I believe structure sets you free. After COVID struck, our team went entirely remote, just like pretty much everyone else in our industry. Every Monday, we have our 90-minute all-hands meeting; same time, same format, same agenda. Every meeting we go through KPIs, review to-dos from the previous week, and go through our priorities. To finish, we do a five-minute recap so that we all know what goals to focus on and which tasks to complete in the coming week.
I think going fully remote is going to be the norm for us post-COVID; we’re not going back to a traditional office environment. We’ll have a once-a-week face-to-face meeting and then work independently. I’d been thinking about ditching the office for years and then boom, COVID just pushed us over the edge.
Leona: I totally agree, having good structures in place allows your business to be more agile and adaptable to market forces. From your bio on Porkbun.com we know that you went to M.I.T. and built at least two successful businesses. Have you always been tech-driven and entrepreneurial? What is it that motivates and draws you to entrepreneurship?
Ray: Entrepreneurialism has always been in my veins. When I was small, I used to play music on the streets of New York City for money. I tutored, babysat, and even taught kids math, origami, and paper cutting, true to my Asian roots.
When I got to high school, I dabbled with computers. Getting my hands on an Apple II was a game changer for me. It was so accessible and had tons of programs — I absolutely loved it. I taught all the kids in my neighbourhood and then their parents. I eventually grew that business with a buddy by setting up a computer next to a newspaper stand on the streets. We showed accountants how to use Lotus 123 on their lunch breaks and even got written up in the New York Times.
Starting a business is really fun for me, almost like a game. I think entrepreneurship is about building, and building is fun.
Leona: I know your parents were originally from Shanghai. Where did you grow up? And how has growing up in an Asian American household shaped your values and career choices? Did your parents deliberately (or inadvertently) raise you to be an entrepreneur?
Ray: I’m first-generation American, born and raised in Manhattan, New York. My parents were super focused on education. Of course, Asians are not the only ones who value education, but my parents were singularly focused on it. They used to say $1 spent on education will be worth $1,000 for you later in life. So it was so important for them to provide me with a good education.
It was my dad’s dream that I go to MIT. And therefore it became important to me. In terms of career path, because my dad was an entrepreneur himself, my role model was never the corporate world. Climbing the corporate ladder was not something I aspired to.
My mom is incredibly artistic and talented. She studied ceramics and managed my grandfather’s artwork and collection. Although I’m not an artist by trade, I am a great fan of the arts.
Leona: You’ve come up with some clever names for your businesses. Top Level Design has the same acronym as top-level-domain (TLD), the product category. What about Porkbun.com? Furthermore, how did you get a hold of the domain? I think it’s such a fun and unique name, and you guys have done an amazing job with branding.
Ray: Porkbun.com is a domain I’ve had since 2000 from my SnapName days. I can’t help myself, I love Asian food. For me, Porkbun has an emotional appeal and evokes fondness and affection. In addition, it’s representative of getting together, family outings, and collaboration… Nothing is better than dumplings and dim sum.
As to how I got the domain, it all started with Raysworld.com. I really wanted this domain in 1999, and I thought: okay, when the domain expires, I’ll just go pick it up from Network Solutions. But back then, when a domain expired you had no idea when it would become available. So I made an utility to look at the WHOIS record periodically, then compared the results. If the record was different, I would be notified. That’s how I eventually snagged Raysworld.com. When I told other people about it, everyone had a name they wanted. I quickly recognized that this was a business and not just an utility. So I sold the software company that I was running at the time and moved to Portland to start SnapNames. Porkbun.com was one of those names that I got while experimenting before we made the service available to the public.
At first, the name Porkbun was a little controversial because it included the word pork. Some folks said the name would be upsetting to others for various reasons. All the feedback was valid, but I think you can’t always please everyone. I try to do what’s right for ourselves, and our team loved it. So that was a naming decision moment for us, and I believe we made the right choice. We made Porkbun into our mascot and she’s been a great mascot for us. I love the playful branding we’ve created and I think it resonates with our audience.
Leona: What advice(s) would you give someone who’s searching for memorable and brand-able domains for their business today, given the volume of choices out there?
Ray: I like names that are short, brand-able, and fun. I tend to stay away from domain names that are highly descriptive. You also want something that is easy to spell.
The right domain name is super important for any business. In my opinion it’s more important than getting a trademark because it’s very real and people use it every single day, with every email and every link clicked. You should always take the time to find a domain name that you feel pumped about to build your business around.
There are a lot of great names available both in .COM and other new TLDs like .DESIGN or .ASIA. New TLDs are excellent choices because they carry more meaning. Don’t get me wrong, .COM is great, but I personally stay away from long descriptive domains like FloridaRealEstate.com. I don’t think you can build an impactful brand with a descriptor like that.
The new .DESIGN extension, for example, is for designers of all types. Everything’s better with good design. To appreciate design is to care about form and function, and create something that is a joy to use, and a joy to look at.
.DESIGN can be used by graphic designers, interior designers, furniture designers, architects, etc. If you can get a great .DESIGN name that matches your brand, it’s better than having a longer .COM name. For example, ‘Smith.design’, it’s beautiful, concise and says it all.
Porkbun.com also sells .ASIA domains; we know they are already popular in Asia. Outside of Asia, if you have a business connected to the region then a .ASIA domain helps you stand out even more. For me, as a personal website I would consider .ASIA because I am Asian. Asia represents an enormous geography and multiple cultures. Many businesses are tied to Asia in some capacity. Using a .ASIA name may work perfectly for an import-export company; for others, using a .ASIA domain in conjunction with a primary website may work well to highlight and consolidate that business’s connection to Asia.
Most new TLDs are designed to carry more meaning, their usage and adoption will be the norm as time goes on.
Leona: All great advice for businesses looking for domain names. As a lifetime entrepreneur, are there lessons you wish someone had imparted upon you about entrepreneurship when you were just starting out?
Ray: I think most people make good decisions, most of the time. However, some decisions are life-defining moments. And the trajectory of your life often comes down to just a few of these defining moments. I came to this realization through playing the game Go. I’ve been analyzing my games after the fact with an AI engine that shows your winning chances as a graph over the span of the game. What I realize by looking at it, is that there are critical moves, which have a vast effect on the outcome of the game.
Applying this to real life, I look back on certain key decisions and ask myself why I chose what I chose. My worst decisions have been shortcuts and my best have been long term and value based. So I’d say trust your gut and make choices that feel right with a longer horizon in view.
The decision to start SnapNames was one of these defining moments. I had over 100 people working for me in my software company, Semaphore, at the time. The lazy choice would have been to just continue, but I was gradually getting frustrated with writing accounting software and I felt stagnant. So I made the decision to sell the company, uproot from my home, and move to Portland to do a crazy startup. Looking back 20 years later, despite it being a rocky road, this industry is fascinating and I’m happy with the choice.
Leona: Thanks Ray, this has been super fun! I hope we can catch up in person again soon! Before we sign off, could you tell us something that most people don’t know about you.
Ray: I make paper cuts for my mom… It makes her happy, which makes me happy.
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