One of our values at ConvertKit is Work in Public. That’s why we share all our metrics, our journey, and lessons learned. That’s an easy value to live out when everything is going well and you stack up win after win. It’s a lot harder to work in public when that means sharing a major mistake.
This is the story of the boldest move I’ve made in my business career and the hard lessons I learned on the way. It’s in three parts, the first third written in July 2018, the next a few months later in October 2018, and finally a conclusion written in July 2020. After you read it, you’ll understand why.
Before you dive in, one last note: it’s written—largely unedited—from my perspective at that moment in time. As you read the entire post you’ll see how my perspective changed over time.
I just did something crazy.
If you haven’t already heard, we just renamed ConvertKit to Seva. We have nearly 20,000 customers, send billions of emails, and are at $12 million in annual revenue. It’s rare to have a company as established as ours make such a large change.
While the announcement happened in an instant, it’s been in the works behind-the-scenes for two years now. If you have a few minutes, I’d like to tell you that story from the beginning.
ConvertKit: a name that served us well
Back in January 2013 I worked hard to find an available .com that I could purchase for under $10 for my email marketing app. I didn’t want the lack of a name to hold up development, so I named the Rails app “MailApp”. It’s actually still called that today.
With the help of Lean Domain Search I combined thousands of words to find available .coms. Eventually settling on ConvertKit.com. The idea being that it is a set of tools (a kit) to help you convert more visitors to customers. You can read the full story here.
I still remember saying the name to Jason Cohen from WP Engine at a conference. He immediately said, “that’s a great name!”
Other people didn’t love it. Leo Babauta from Zen Habits (One of our earliest influential customers) didn’t want the name to appear anywhere on his site. He didn’t want his audience to feel like they were being sold to, in a marketing funnel, or converted to anything (except perhaps minimalism).
For me the name always worked, but I thought we could come up with something better.
Telling the team
3 years into running ConvertKit we had our first ever team retreat. 20 amazing people met in person in McCall, Idaho for the first time. That’s when we started to document our mission and values that had been forming as the company grew. That’s when we also established our long-term vision for serving creators and doing more than just surviving as a company. Part of that new vision involved changing the company name.
At the time it felt crazy. We were at nearly $300,000/month in revenue, had a team of 20 people, and our brand was really getting established.
What was even crazier is that I had no idea what the new name would be. That’s when the real work started.
Finding a new name
For the next two years we brainstormed names, scoured the web for available domain names, and searched trademark databases to find that everything we wanted was already trademarked.
We had a few criteria:
- It should be one word.
- We need the .com.
- It can’t sound too techy.
- It should be easy to hear and spell over the phone.
- It should mean something tied to our mission.
A year into the name search we had three strong contenders that were all shot down for various reason. I shared them with the team in an internal post in Basecamp:
Legend has three meanings that I love:
- Legend: a story or tale. As in “The legend of…” Storytelling is critical part of building an audience.
- Legend: a person of influence or fame. “______ is a legend.”
- In addition to fame it speaks to creating great work. Legend: the explanation in the corner of a map. The legend brings clarity and an explanation to a complicated subject.
Unfortunately, after a lot of research, I learned that legend.com is owned by Lenovo (the computer company). And despite never having used the domain, they don’t want to sell.
We named the blog Tradecraft, but I considered it for the entire company. The name points to both creation and craft, but also commerce through the “trade” part of it. Also since the cold war “tradecraft” refers to becoming a spy (think CIA/KGB), so I like that it points to a technique, skill, and secret method.
Unfortunately there’s a training company that has tradecraft.com and has no interest in selling.
Last week I thought of “[redacted]*” as a name. Specifically, “[redacted]: Email marketing for creators.”
[Redacted].com is available for sale, though they want a lot of money for it. That’s an obstacle we could overcome. Unfortunately there’s a software company at [redacted] that has the trademark for SaaS software of the word “[redacted]” which our attorney says is too similar.
Back to the drawing board.
*Note: this is redacted since there’s a very small chance we may buy this domain for another unrelated project and I don’t want my name tied to the negotiation.
This is the part of the story where if this was a movie you’d see a montage of training b-roll. But instead of hard workouts and practice, it would be furious scribbling, frustrated paper crumpling, brainstorm sessions at team retreats and depressing conversations with attorneys.
The hard thing about naming a company is that you can’t make gradual progress. It’s not like after a year you are 50% of the way through and you can keep chipping away at it over time. Instead you are 0% or 10% of the way there until you find one that actually works and then you are 90% of the way done.
Late last year I told my assistant Elizabeth that I wanted to meet great leaders of mission-driven companies. Her previous role was as the executive assistant to the president of Columbia Sportswear, so she has her own substantial network. She immediately suggested Russ, who is the President of Prana—an amazing mission-driven clothing company in the San Diego area.
Russ and I talked on the phone a few times, then he invited our leadership team to meet him at the Prana office after our team retreat in February. During that visit Russ apologized that the office was rather empty that day because the team was out doing a Seva Session. Intrigued, we asked, “What’s that?”
Russ explained that Seva is a sanskrit word meaning “selfless service” and once a month they give team members at Prana a day off to go give back to the community. So most of the team was out that day doing trail maintenance at a local nature preserve.
After a great meeting with Russ and some shopping at the company store (yay discounts!), Barrett asked a simple question, “Did the name Seva stand out to anyone else?”
A few of us said “Yes!”
Could it work as our new company name?
Seva.com was owned by a premium domain broker called Venture.com. Their business model is to lease premium domains for a monthly amount. In this case, $2,000 per month.
That immediately had me thinking they would sell it for something around $100,000 (just over 4 years at $2,000 month). That was exciting!
We had our broker reach out to find a buy it now price for the domain.
Initially they wouldn’t name a price (they just wanted to lease it), but after some back and forth they put out a number:
I knew we couldn’t afford that. So I asked if they could come lower and work out a payment plan. They immediately came back with this offer:
15,625/mth X24 months*
*Buyer pays Escrow.com fees.
I quickly did the math. That’s $500,000, just spread out over two years. Still too high.
After another week of negotiation they came down to $460,000 paid out over two years. I made a comment to my assistant Elizabeth about this being a really tough negotiation. She replied, “Yes, it must be tough to be negotiated like that.”
Point taken. So far this was one-sided and they were clearly in control.
After another two weeks we received this offer from them, which they said was final:
$450k purchase price
$90k down, followed by 36 monthly payments of $10K each.
Securely managed via Escrow.com throughout the term, buyer pays fee.
Anything short of the above price/terms will not likely get board approval at this point.
Around this time the team asked for an update on our Monday team call. I had to tell them that after a month of negotiations, we had only made it from $500,000 to $450,000 and it wasn’t looking like we would be able to acquire the domain at a price we could afford.
In an effort to get them to come down further I increased my offer with these two options:
A. $275,000 cash up front.
B. $350,000. $50,000 up front and $8,333 a month for three years.
They had said their last offer of $450,000 was final, so I wasn’t sure they’d come lower. But they did!
Their reply included:
Our absolute FINAL counter is 340k for an outright purchase.
Any installment deal requires 20% down payment upfront.
Your client can choose from the following tiers:
1 year- $360k
2 years- $375k
3 years- $390k
Basically the sooner we paid it off, the less we had to pay. Since that also included “FINAL” in all caps I had to decide whether or not to risk the deal by pushing further.
After running the numbers on each of the different prices and payout periods we decided to offer them $310,000 with the added value that if they accepted we would send a wire transfer for that amount first thing in the morning.
I hit send and waited.
2 hours and 25 minutes later I got the news. They accepted!
On March 20, 2018, nearly two years after telling the team we were going to change the name, and 42 days after first hearing the word Seva, we had a new name!
Creating a new brand
Once the domain transferred we knew for sure Seva was the future of ConvertKit. We also knew that we wanted to announce the rebrand at Craft + Commerce on July 1st, which only gave us a few months to create an entirely new brand.
We have three in-house designers, but decided that since we were all so busy and non of us specialize in logo design it would be better to hire an agency. Out of four agencies we considered we hired Eddie Lobanovskiy’s design agency Unfold.
Over the next few weeks we reviewed dozens of logo concepts. Finally narrowing it down to four we considered. Here are a few of the early concepts up on my wall so I could spend more time with each one.
Ultimately we decided on a concept inspired by the golden ratio. In another post we’ll go into more details on the logo design process.
When planning the announcement we knew it was going to cause confusion. Not everyone would immediately love the name. So our goal was simple: tell stories and be human.
That started with Barrett (our COO) and I recording a casual video announcing the change. You can see that on Seva.com (or right here) [Note: I had this embedded directly, but Wistia kept autoplaying so I had to remove it. Watch it here.
Then we started planning how we’d announce it to the world. Craft + Commerce, our annual conference in Boise, Idaho, was a great opportunity to make sure we spread the message exactly the way we wanted to. So it would become the “one more thing” in my update on where we are at as a company.
If you have time, watch the full video. If you don’t want to hear about new features, skip to a bit later on (about 17 minutes) to hear more thoughts behind the name change.
One small, but fun detail is that when I announced the new name and logo the colors in the room changed from blue to red. My favorite part is about 21 minutes in when the audience laughs nervously realizing I’m about to announce a name change.
A few audience members noticed small easter eggs in my presentation that mentioned Seva. First, our book I Am a Blogger says “Made by Seva” on the cover. And second, at one point when adding a link in the new editor the URL is seva.com. It was fun to leave these in to point people to later.
Everyone we heard from at Craft + Commerce was really excited about the new name. Dozens of people came up to me and said they loved it! The initial reaction online was equally positive. A few people said they thought ConvertKit was a better name, but they were the small minority.
Then over the next couple days the negative reaction started to get stronger. At first the reactions were maybe 5% negative, but then a few days in they were 30-40% negative. Plenty of comments said things like: “It’s not too late to change back.” or “It sounds like the ConvertKit team got hoodwinked by a brand consultant.”
Here are a few of the most common objections I heard:
- It’s confusing to pronounce.
- Seva sounds like how “sever” is pronounced in Australia and New Zealand, so that gives it a negative connotation.
- This sounds like what happens when a leadership team gets bored.
- ConvertKit was a better name.
Through this I continually reminded our team of a few key points:
- People dislike change. Every time Facebook or another popular app is redesigned there is an uproar, then everything calms down.
- It’s good that people feel so strongly about our brand. That means they care and we’ve done a lot of things right building this company!
- This is a short-term problem. Customers will get used to the new name and in a year it won’t even be a topic of conversation.
Most importantly, we tried to get on conversations with our biggest critics to listen to their perspective. Often people were more frustrated by the work to change their affiliate links, logos, and reviews (which is quite a bit of work) than they were about the name itself.
Ultimately, even with the negative criticism, my Facebook feed and text messages were packed full of people saying how much they loved the new name.
As I write this we are in the middle of transitioning from ConvertKit.com to Seva.com. We considered doing it all in one big switch, but that is more likely to cause issues and mistakes, so we are changing piece by piece between now and August 1st.
That will result in some odd times where a logo says Seva, but the domain still says ConvertKit. So long as that only happens for a couple days we’re okay with it!
Seva wasn’t available to be registered on a single social media platform. So we made a todo list and set out to acquire them on any platform.
Facebook and Instagram both have a new policy where they reserve four-letter usernames. That worked in our favor since it meant we just had to convince Facebook to hand them over. It took some time to get in touch with the right person, but we were able to make the switch quickly once that happened.
Twitter will be the most difficult. They won’t let us have the username until we have a registered trademark, which is still a few months away.
YouTube, Github, Pinterest, and Slack are just a matter of convincing the current owners to part with them. Though really Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are the most important. So already having 2/3 feels pretty good.
Switching Google Apps and our email addresses was surprisingly easy. Once we verified the new domain with Google it just took a little back and forth with their support to get the transition complete. Oddly enough someone had recently setup a Google Apps account for seva.com—which is odd when they didn’t own the domain.
But now if you email us @convertkit.com or @seva.com they go to the same inbox.
Our business runs on a ton of different domains. From sending domains, to link tracking, to all of our other projects there is a lot to move! So we’ve been buying a lot of Seva-related domains. Though not having a requirement to swap everything on the same day has made this a lot easier.
The next step will be to reach out to all of our integration partners (there are over 100!) and ask them to update our name and logo in their app. I expect this will take time, but we’re tracking it in a giant spreadsheet.
For years to come we’ll be finding instances of ConvertKit around the web and then emailing them to ask for the change.
As I write this we don’t rank at all in Google for “seva”. Granted it’s only been two weeks, but we’re going to need to fix that. So help out by giving us a link or two to seva.com from your blog!
Once the transition is complete we’ll be ready to go with an entirely new foundation. We’re more focused than ever on building a great product. And I can’t wait to show everyone over the next few years how we work every day to live up to selfless service on our mission to help creators earn a living.
That’s where I left off writing in July. 2,800 words on a bold bet that I thought would be the future of how we helped creators earn a living online. Now as I sit at my desk to write the next chapter it’s difficult to find the words. I can’t help but get emotional. Even 3 months later I still feel a deep sense of loss.
My idea was to write a book about the story and lessons learned growing ConvertKit to $1 million per month. The rebrand to Seva would be the surprise twist ending. A perfect conclusion to the first 5 years of business. Even as the one planning to write the story I wasn’t ready for what the surprise twist ending actually was.
About a week after announcing the switch to Seva we started to see a different kind of feedback. It wasn’t “I don’t like your new name” or “I don’t like change.” But instead, “your use of the word seva is hurtful to me.”
Hurt is an interesting reaction. Anger is very common online. If you’ve spent more than a year or two as a creator online you’ve probably had angry reactions at one time or another. Anger is such a common reaction it barely stands out anymore. But hurt is different.
When members of our audience said they were hurt by our use of seva, I noticed. I reached out to each social media post and asked them to get on a call. About half were willing to. On each call I asked questions to understand what seva meant to each of them.
What I learned is that for Sikhs seva is not just a word that means “selfless service.” It’s not just a word that means “serving without the expectation of anything in return.” It is a holy and sacred practice that involves giving generously to others out of love, tied so deeply to spirituality that it cannot be separated from spirituality itself.
That was powerful.
But it was also balanced by other customers from India writing in and saying that seva was a common word in Hindi simply meaning “service.” It appears on the post office and passport service. They even liked our use of seva because it incorporated part of their culture into their favorite software.
There was a third group that didn’t have a connection to Sikhism or the word seva, but was concerned that another western company was taking something that wasn’t their’s from another culture.
This flurry of feedback resulted in dozens of social media posts, Medium posts, emails, and phone calls between our team and customers.
All the initial conversations were, “how do we move forward with the name Seva in the most respectful way possible?”
We didn’t have a choice. We’d spent so much—not just money, but also attention and loyalty. We were too far invested to go back.
One afternoon I was talking to Barrett (our COO at ConvertKit) and he asked, “If we knew everything we know now, back in February when we started to pursue Seva as a name, would we have chosen it?”
It was an interesting question to ask, because it points to the sunk costs. It’s also the same question we asked when deciding to move away from ConvertKit as a name.
Jeff Bezos talks about how it is always “Day one” at Amazon. How they will always make decisions and serve customers as though they are just getting started, rather than being stuck in a rut that years of decisions and progress has put them in.
That they aren’t afraid to reinvent themselves and start from scratch, no matter the sunk costs.
So, if we could go back would we have chosen Seva as our name with the knowledge we have now?
That answer, combined with our day one philosophy, meant that sunk costs couldn’t factor into our decision.
An act of seva
In order to better understand the word seva and the community I asked to get on calls with anyone who was willing—offering to pay them for their time or make a donation on their behalf. At the time we were planning to move forward with Seva as the name for the company and wanted to best understand how to do it in the most respectful way possible.
At the end of one of those calls I asked the gentleman I was talking to—someone who had practiced seva as part of his religion his entire life—if he would advise us on how best to proceed with the name.
He paused and said he’d have to think about that. He’d just spent the previous 30 minutes trying to convince me to walk away the name and I was asking if he would instead help me push forward with my company goals while balancing the desires of the Sikh community.
After a minute he said, “Yes. I’ll advise you.”
“I don’t agree with what you are doing. But if that’s what you’re going to press forward with it anyway, then I’ll help you do as little harm as possible.”
Before I could say thank you he added, “It will be the best way for me to live out seva. An act of selfless service.”
That’s when it hit me. Through all these conversations I’d been starting to understand a tiny fraction of the true significance of seva. I loved the name because it meant selfless service. Putting others needs ahead of your own. Giving without the expectation of anything in return.
I believe businesses can be a force for good and felt seva represented that. But in that moment I realized that if we wanted to live out even the smallest amount of what seva means we would give back the name and become ConvertKit again.
The realization hit me so suddenly and with such clarity that I knew what I had to do. The next day I gathered the team and announced that we would be returning to ConvertKit.
Once we made the decision to roll back the name change there were still a lot of logistics. First, we made a new page to announce it and explain our reasoning on Seva.com. Then we prepped communications to our customers, affiliates, and marketing list.
Rather than rush into it and get a message out immediately we decided to take a week and a half to get the messaging right, have people we respect read our letter, and plan our announcement.
During that time we still had a business to run.
I remember being at Podcast Movement behind a Seva branded booth with people telling us they thought the name change was brilliant. I smiled and nodded. Then the next person said, they thought ConvertKit was way better. Again I smiled and nodded.
My favorite was the person who heard all about our offering and said, “Huh! I’ll check it out. I use ConvertKit right now, but I’ll definitely consider switching to you guys!”
I gave one of the worst workshops of my speaking career. After the last month I just didn’t have the emotional energy to really deliver for the audience.
Once we were ready, less than 30 days after switching from ConvertKit to Seva, we announced we were rolling it back. You can read the post here.
The silent majority
When we switched I expected the groups that liked ConvertKit better as a name to be happy and I also expected the group that was upset about our cultural appropriation to be happy. The storm would die down and we could get back to running our business.
But in the noise of the first wave I overlooked the silent majority. Plenty of people liked our move to Seva (or didn’t care) and were silent. Once we announced the reversion to ConvertKit a second wave hit.
My inbox filled with comments like, “you just gave in to the social justice warriors”, “ConvertKit sucks as a name”, “you represent everything that’s wrong with America” and so on.
Cancelations rolled in. Someone tried to get #cancelconvertkit trending on Twitter. Not enough to truly hurt the business, but this wave was at least as big as the initial backlash.
Even a good friend and well known blog canceled his account since we weren’t going to move away from the name ConvertKit.
All of this hurt, but this time we knew the decision was inline with our principles and true to who we are. I’ve heard the phrase “A principle isn’t really a principle until it costs you a ton of money.” and now it’s something I feel to my very core.
It’s now been 2 years—almost to the day—since announcing our change to Seva, and then rolling it back less than a month later.
I was recently a panelist on a townhall hosted by our good friend and customer Rachel Rodgers on how to build an anti-racist organization. It was incredible. Over 3,000 people joined live with well over 10,000 people watching the replay. It was also covered in Forbes and other media outlets.
During the townhall diversity and inclusion consultant Ericka Hines shared a quote: “be humble and ready to fumble” referring to the fact that we’ll all make mistakes as we try to increase diversity, fight racism, and build inclusive communities and companies.
Then Rachel said, “Nathan, you have some experience with making a major fumble and recovering from it. Want to share?”
In front of 3,000 people I froze. What mistake? …we hadn’t prepped for this question. What was she referring to? I don’t have anything to share… oh.
She meant Seva.
Seeing the look on my face as I processed her question, she added, “Unless it’s too soon.”
No, after two years it’s not too soon. So I shared the story of changing our name to Seva. As I spoke I could see the other panelists faces change. They didn’t know the story and looked more and more concerned, shocked, and then horrified as I detailed how we had naively appropriated a sacred word from another culture and used it to name our marketing company.
While it hadn’t been intentional, we had still misstepped in a major way, and taken something from another culture that wasn’t ours. But we learned from our mistake, apologized, and moved away from it. Ericka’s words were encouraging: “Be humble and ready to fumble.” We fumbled in a major way, but made the right moves and recovered from it. Today our business is almost double the revenue we were then.
ConvertKit’s name today
For a year or so after the rebrand people would ask, “are you going to come up with a new name?”
No. There are some things in life you only get one shot at. Another attempt to rebrand would be too big of a distraction and too costly. While I still think there are better names out there, we’ve come to appreciate everything that ConvertKit stands for.
We think of ConvertKit as a tool to convert visitors into fans. While the name isn’t what I’d choose today, we’ve built an incredible brand telling stories, hosting live concerts, and helping over 100,000 creators earn a living. That’s pretty special.
And we’re just getting started.