By Mike Feerick, Alison CEO & Founder
As I travel around the world visiting Alison Learners and Graduates, now in 195 countries worldwide, I am often asked, “Is Alison your wife’s name?” or more simply “How did you come up with the name Alison?”. The story goes as follows:
When I first came up with the vision of a website that could teach for free anyone, anywhere, on any subject, at any time, I knew that coming up with the right name was very important. As the old Chinese sage Confucius was reported to have said (and I paraphrase!) “Calling something by its right name is the beginning of all wisdom”. The name of the project/website had to have certain basic qualities:
(i) It had to be a simple name easily said. The name phonetically had to roll off any tongue in any language, as our goal from day one was to have a large global website with learners studying in every country.
(ii) It had to be a generic, benign word to begin with – something like “Google” that could morph into many things. What I did not want to call the website was “Free Online Learning.org” as what we were planning to build was so much more than providing free learning alone.
(iii) It should begin with the letter “A”. It’s one of the most basic marketing strategies, as starting with “A” gets you placed naturally at the top of many listings. I remember some years later listening to an interview with Jack Ma at the World Economic Forum in Davos, in which he said he came up with the name Alibaba partly also because of the letter “A”!
There was another reason for the “A” letter: the original company (which sold IT Desktop Training courses online) was called “Advance Learning”, so from there, I got the “A” and the “L”. When I thought of the “Alison” name, I had to look to see if the domain was taken, and indeed it was, by a very nice American lady by the name of: you guessed it, “Alison”.
Not only is the right name important, but having the matching domain/URL equally so. I found out that “Alison” was living in New Jersey, USA. I reached out and got a speedy reply. No, she wasn’t interested. “I like having this domain name” she said, and who would not like to have their own matching namesake domain for themselves? Unsurprised, I persisted. Alison told me she had over 100 inquiries from China alone trying to buy the name. Then she asked me the golden question after some friendly exchanges: “What do you want it for?”
I knew I had a chance when she asked that question. As carefully as I could, I wrote out my vision for educating the world for free. I shared with her some of my background; that I had already started a number of web-based businesses, and how the social mission and impact of what we could do was what excited me most. She asked for some time to think about it. She really did like having that domain name!
Sometime early in 2007, I received the email I was hoping for. Yes, we could have the domain name. A month later, for a once-off payment of $10,000, and a dinner and show on Broadway (Yes, how theatrical!), the domain was ours.
While we notched up our 13 millionth registered learner a few days ago, we are still at the beginning of our free global learning journey. I have not been in contact with Alison for many years, but I hope she is happy with how we have used her precious domain name around the world. It reminds me how many acts of goodwill around the world have helped us to get this far.
What’s in a name? Well, everything. You make it become something that in time stands alone. We hope the Alison name will become even more synonymous with free learning and empowerment in the years ahead. For my part, I invite you too to help build the brand of Alison by telling someone new about Alison when you can!
Hope you enjoyed the story!
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