How Wedgies Sidestepped a Domain Squatting Felon to Offer Shareable Online Surveys

By Michael Carney , written on July 12, 2012

From The News Desk

What’s in a name? For embeddable online survey tool Wedgies, the name perfectly captures the irreverent yet divisive nature of the product. It was the only name founders Jimmy Jacobson and Porter Haney could ever imagine for their creation. Unfortunately, the domain was harder to come by than a tequila shot at an AA meeting, so much so that the founders began our meeting by asking, “Have you ever heard of a URL doing 10 years in jail?”

Like all good entrepreneurs, the pair simply rolled up their sleeves and figured out a way to get things done. This is their story, which was pitched to me as “dark, seedy, and involving Ron Paul supporters, domain squatters, ankle bracelets, and bribery.”

Wedgies is a product founded on the belief that the existing options to create and distribute online surveys were painful enough to make the average person gouge his eyes out with a blunt object.

“Have you made a survey using Survey Monkey?” asks Jacobson. “It takes 15 minutes to make. Then you have to spend the next day begging and bribing people to vote. No one comes away happy.”

What Jacobson and Haney have created instead is a lightweight, sharable survey tool limited to one question, two possible answers, and offering users the ability to share it around the world (via Twitter, Facebook, SMS, etc). Participants need only click on one of two answer links and survey creators get real time results displayed graphically -- simple, fun, and in many cases extremely useful.

What started out as a weekend project for the founders six months ago has gotten more traction than expected. The pair are now thinking business models and scalability.

“I’m really committed to giving everyone in the world a Wedgie,” says Haney. “In the long run, we really hope that we have millions of people using Wedgies as a lightweight tool on top of their social networks to aggregate opinions in real time.”

Now back to the domain name. When Jacobson and Haney started developing Wedgies, they could only get the Spanish domain Cute, but certainly not as cool as the real thing. The problem was that the “.com” domain had sat dormant since it was purchased in 1995, and all contact information for the owner was outdated.

After several months of no progress, the founders contacted the Webhost for assistance in reaching the owner. Perhaps he was a fellow entrepreneur, or perhaps he was frustrated by one too many deadbeat domain squatters. But the Webhost was far more helpful than may have been expected (or may have been completely ethical). He offered to turn off the DNS to the site, so that the owner could no longer gain access. This is the digital version of “smoking him out” (like you would a rabbit in a hole, not a pothead in a dorm room).

The domain owner contacted the Webhost in short order, and his information was passed along to the Wedgies founders. This was when things started getting weird. The founders sent him an initial offer to purchase the domain, expecting a few counters and an eventual sale. What they got back was a terse response that they would have to pay $500 for the privilege of entering negotiations.

Surprised by the tactic and curious about who they were dealing with, Jacobson and Haney cranked up their Google machine and started sleuthing. All they had was a name and an email address. What they came up with is a testament to the power but also general creepiness of the Internet.

Their negotiating counterpart was a friend of (believe it or not) Ron Paul, from more than a decade ago. There were pictures of him and the future Presidential candidate strewn all across the Web. In most pictures, the pair were holding guns. The reason he had been so difficult to reach is that the domain owner had spent the last decade or so in prison for a violent felony and was a newly parolee.

In a final twist, the rental fee on his ankle tracking bracelet was up, and he needed money in a hurry to avoid being sent back to jail -- hence the frantic request for $500. This was getting weirder and weirder.

The young founders were at a critical juncture. They asked each other some tough question. “Is it worth it to trust a stranger and felon? How much was the domain worth? Could the owner’s situation work to their advantage? If so, should they capitalize on this unfortunate situation?”

The founders decided to send the $500 in good faith and in an effort to keep him out of jail long enough to complete the sale. They wired the money and pushed to wrap up the negotiations quickly. Things could have gone in any direction at this point. Fortunately, the seller lived up to his word, and the transaction was soon completed. The founders wouldn’t disclose the final purchase price, only saying that it was “less than $10,000.” Given the familiarity of the term, this was a fantastic result.

Wedgies itself is a fun product that may have some legs in a casual, but viral way. There’s nothing too spectacular in the technology -- or much technology at all, really -- but at least the name is a winner. The company hasn’t raised any capital to date, although they plan to ramp up fundraising efforts after the Summer VC offseason, at which point they hope to have grown usership even further.

In the long run, Jacobson and Haney foresee Wedgies evolving into a content business, where the company creates infographics and other content based on the survey data collected through surveys.

“We’ve already found that people who don’t know each other ask the same questions,” says Jacobson. “Tupac vs Biggie, East Coast vs. West Coast... What’s more interesting though, are the answers to the question, ‘Of people who prefer Tupac, do they prefer skiing or snowboarding?’ These are the nuggets that marketers dream of.”

There’s a long way to go before any of this becomes a reality. Today, Wedgies is not much more than a way to engage an audience by asking online friends a question and quickly tallying the answers. That, and one hell of a story.