Recently Paul Graham, a VC and entrepreneur whom I very much respect, wrote a post called Change Your Name in which he argued that a startup should seriously think about changing their name if they are not able to get the “.com” TLD for their brand name. Graham also stated some statistics that are meant to make us think that his position is mostly irrefutable. He said:
100% of the top 20 YC companies by valuation have the .com of their name. 94% of the top 50 do. But only 66% of companies in the current batch have the .com of their name. Which suggests there are lessons ahead for most of the rest, one way or another.
I’d argue that having the .com domain is not the most important thing (and I don’t think that’s what Graham was saying). What’s more important, in my opinion, is consistency. In fact, I’d even argue that not having the .com is missing the forest for the trees. Let’s dig in.
How Many Had Their Now-Brand .com When They Started?
Graham argues that the top 20 YC companies by valuation all have their .com name. They’re also well venture-backed and have the money to pay the previous .com owner *almost* life changing money in order to get the .com for their brand name.
Here are the top 20 YC companies by funding, which we can be pretty confident is also a pretty solid list by valuation. This data came from Mattermark. If someone has a better list by valuation, I’d love to see it. I’ve also taken the liberty of adding their other domain names they’ve owned and have links to (found via a lot of investigation online) (click for bigger version):
Graham is absolutely right that all of the top 20 own their .com. They’ve also raised, at minimum, $52.5M in venture funding.
What Graham failed to mention is that 4 of the top 8 started with a different domain name than what they ended up with. What matters isn’t the .com – what matters is starting and taking over or creating an industry. Also, at least 4 of the top 20, and likely more, own other domain names where they may have started.
Also, remember that Facebook started as thefacebook.com, And if your site is international, you’ll also want to consider buying the ccTLDs. The .com, while most popular, is not always best for building a company in another country. AirBNB takes this approach (insight courtesy SpyOnWeb, h/t Mike King:
Find A Name You Can Dominate
I run HireGun.co, which is a project (business?) I started to connect great companies who are ready to grow with the best marketing consultants in the world who are equipped to take those businesses to the next level. Unfortunately, hiregun.com was taken. This is what that site resolves to:
Hiregun.com also serves a 503 (server error) status code and isn’t even cached.
When you search the exact phrasing of their company, “Hiregun Solutions”, in Google, guess what site shows up?
Here’s another example. Take online marketing agency Distilled (which I worked for in New York City for 2.5 years). Distilled uses the .net domain, aka www.distilled.net. The .com is owned by a 9/11 conspiracy theorist and it redirects to 911hoax.com. Check it out:
But check out what ranks for the term “distilled”:
And while it’s a woolly metric, I dare you to try to guess which site has more links (and therefore in the algorithm eyes is more trustworthy). Alright I’ll save you the investigation.
I’m shocked. Not.
Why The .Com Might Not Make Sense (At First)
As I’ve shown with the HireGun and Distilled examples, it doesn’t necessarily matter that much what your domain is at least at first. Longterm, when you are more concerned about type-in and other forms of direct traffic, it may behoove you to try to acquire the .com domain. In Distilled’s case, they have tried many times but the owner refuses to let it go. In my case with HireGun, I have no need to have the .com domain right now because it is a small project (albeit one I am investing in) and there is no reason for me to go barter and try to buy the .com when I am not even sure how well the business could scale up. Why waste the money? Pick a name, ship it, and start doing the real work – building a product, marketing that product, and proving out that it’s a viable business model.
I’d also like to point out that a lot of successful companies don’t own the .com for their brand name, or have some permutation of their brand name just to get started. This also carries down to things like Facebook brand page URLs, Twitter handles, and more. Sure, you can use a service like KnowEm to see if all of the important sites on which to have a profile have your brand name available, but in this day and age with so many online companies, so many social media users, and so many domain and social media name squatters, it’ll be hard to find a meaningful name with not one taken.
As one astute Redditor pointed out, depending on who your audience is having something other than the .com might actually help you short term. And it makes no SEO difference:
What’s more important, in my opinion, is consistency. Using HireGun as an example, this is the company presence:
Domain name – hiregun.co
Twitter – @hiregunco (though I am trying to get @hiregun)
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/HireGun
Google+ - https://plus.google.com/+HireGun/
Angel List - https://angel.co/hiregun
I have made a point to get (@/+)HireGun wherever possible, and when possible with a capital H and a capital G to keep the brand consistent as often as possible. I have made the choice to do this because I believe that I can get all of the @/+/hiregun names where needed, because my brand name has essentially no competition. However, if I wanted to be truly consistent across the board, I should get @/+/hiregunco across the board. This is a decision that everyone has to make to keep their brand consistent.
Related read: Jason Calacanis’s point 7 in this post about How To Save Your Startup Money. tl:DR – fake it till you make it.
What Matters Most in Startups
What matters most in startups is traction. When you’re in a new space or working to take down an incumbent, you need to move as fast as possible. You’re shipping product, you’re doing market analysis, you’re testing new growth channels and trying to get that first 500, then 1000, then 10000, then 100,000+ users.
Focusing on something like getting the ;.com is, in my opinion, counter productive. Go after that once you have product-market fit, have a solid revenue model, and aren’t concerned with shutting down your company next month.
So my advice is to find a name that works for your company, buy a sensible version of the domain name, and start working as hard as possible to get traction. Start doing great marketing and building a brand, and it won’t matter at the end of the day what your domain ends up being. And what’s the worst case? You start with a .co and train people to go to it, then you eventually acquire the .com and redirect .co to it. You save all your traffic, customers, and links if you do it right, and you’re already off to the races.
Good luck. I welcome any comments.