Attorney by trade Jake Wolff trusted his gut feeling and quit his day job to start his own business helping newlyweds changing their name
Deriving from New York City, Jake today lives in New Jersey with his wife and two kids.
“It all started when I got married and my wife wanted to change her last name to mine. She had no idea where to start and told me she wished she could pay somebody to do it for her. I thought to myself ‘this isn’t a terrible idea’”, says Jake.
He called his friend from law school Josh Gelb to pitch the idea. As it turned out, Josh’s wife was struggling with the same situation. They had married for 18 months without her changing her name as the procedure was so complicated. Needless to say, Josh could also see that there was a market for the concept of a name changing service.
The friends conducted research to find out that nobody else was doing the same thing. After speaking to more people, they realised there was an actual demand for the service and set up the website HitchSwitch.com.
The HitchSwitch concept is simple. The customer fills in an online form with his or her details. The HitchSwitch system then uses information submitted to autofill a number of forms needed for a name change. Depending if you want to print the forms at home or let HitchSwitch do the full process for you, there are three packages available with prices starting at $29. The aim is to ‘take the mystery out of the name changing process’.
“In the beginning, we didn’t have a developer. When the orders came through, I would write everything by hand,” laughs Jake.
It wasn’t a tough decision for him to quit his job in the Coop City’s Legal Department to commit to his vision full-time.
“I figured I could always fall back into it with my legal background but I wanted to see if HitchSwitch would take off and give it my all.
“I have no regrets giving it a go. I love it.”
With his legal background and law school behind him, Jake happily admits the newlywed name changing business is the last field he thought he would end up in.
“My wife makes fun of me saying ‘You’re working in the bridal/tech field yet you did nothing whatsoever during our wedding planning!’”
The first few months in business were a trial for Jake and Josh. Neither knew what starting their own business entailed nor had they anticipated the amount of work they needed to put in.
“Another two months of being in business, we had a total of about five clients. My dad was telling me to bartend somewhere at night to make ends meet but I assured him that HitchSwitch was going to take off and told him not to worry,” says Jake.
When the entrepreneurial duo received a message through their website from someone claiming the name HitchSwitch and threathing to sue the start-up for trademark infringement, it threw another spanner in the works.
“I was angry and scared out of my mind”, remembers Jake.
Luckily, the threat turned out to be false. But it served as a wakeup call for Jake and Josh, who were yet to register their trademark HitchSwitch.
-Jake Wolff, CEO and Co-founder of HitchSwitch
Jake called Intellectual Property Partner Ben Natter at Haug Partners LLP, another friend of his from law school. When speaking to Ben, he quickly realised their IP was an issue that needed immediate addressing.
Together, they trademarked the name HitchSwitch and filed a few of the marks the start-up was using.
“The reason why I like working with Ben so much is because when we started our business, we spoke to loads of attorneys who would just talk about incorporating. We weren’t making any money at that stage, and spending $3000 on an attorney giving us theoretical advice stung. Ben, on the other hand, never suggests something I don’t practically need or will put to use.
“He has shown me the need to protect what you have built up to make sure no one will rip you off.”
HitchSwitch was to experience more trials along the way. A former employee tried to start her own name changing service using the HitchSwitch system although she had signed a non-compete agreement when joining the company.
“Our attorneys took care of it straight away. It literally took three days and she was out of business. It was probably the worst decision of her life!” says Jake.
Another time, a Facebook page used the name HitchSwitch to get more hits. Within 20 minutes of making the phone call to Ben, the page had been taken down from the social media platform.
“These experiences really showed me the power of having your IP in place. If you have a good concept, people will sooner or later try to copy it or use it for their own profit.”
Six years after its start, HitchSwitch is now a profitable company with offices on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and plans of expansion to the EU and the UK. AWA is helping Jake and Josh with their European trademarks and domain names.
“Anyone Ben recommends, I trust. He suggested Kristian Martinsson at AWA who is now filing our IP registrations in Europe as we want to keep this market available for future business.
“We are primarily looking at English speaking countries in our expansion. You have to be on top of domestic and regional laws when it comes to name changing. In Quebec, Canada, you have to for example file in court before a judge and make a public announcement in the newspaper. In comparison to the US, where it’s the marriage certificate which enables you to change your name, it is widely different.”
Around 85% of all US newlyweds change their name when they get married and HitchSwitch is living proof that there is a market for name changing services. The company were profitable after 16-17 months in business.
“I don’t really view us as a start-up anymore as 98% of the other start-up companies we met at networking events a few years don’t exist today but we do. However, I still keep the start-up mentality. Our team consists of six people and we are very flexible and open in our approach. We never stop testing new things and there are no closed door meetings. I like to run a business that way.”
Women between the ages of 20 and 40 are HitchSwitch’s prime demographic, representing a total of 98% of their clients. However, this is slowly changing.
“When same sex marriage became legal throughout the US, we have seen a change in our clientele. Prior to this, some states even had laws stating that a man could not take the surname of his wife. Today, marriage certificates in all US states can be used to change your surname to the one of your spouse – regardless of sex.”
If two spouses want to create a hybrid of their names names, e.g. change their names from Smith and Jones to Smijo it requires a more complicated legal procedure.
Although HitchSwitch does offer name change services for divorcees, it is nothing they openly advertise on their website.
“It is like a secret menu but everyone knows about it. We originally had ‘Divorce’ on our website, but were told it put newlyweds off.”
At the time of writing, HitchSwtich has helped around 500 000 newlyweds. And as for the future of his business, Jake takes each day as it comes.
“At the end of the day, I really believe we are touching people at a point in their lives where we can really help them get through something. Most newlyweds do need help navigating through the waters of changing their names. In ten years, I hope we are still helping people out by adapting to new technology and laws, still evolving and expanding to new markets.
“I haven’t had to get a ‘real job’ in a while now. That’s always a good sign!”