One of the early defining moments in the life of a startup is choosing a name. It’s generally the first thing the public knows about you – your first business “pitch” when you really think about it. And it serves as the centerpiece of your brand, so it’s important that you select something that you’re proud to put out into the world.
You brainstorm, wait for inspiration, ask for feedback – the process can drag on and on. For a year, my best friend and I devoted the majority of our phone conversations to the all-important topic of what to name the various business ideas we were working to hatch. Finally, after settling on names that suited both of us, the real work began. Could we get the domain?
In today’s era of the Internet and mobile services, the reach of your company is only limited by your customers’ ability to find you. So it makes sense that most startup founders stake the company name on the availability of the domain. But with the ever growing scarcity of good “.com” options, what do you do when a top level domain is not available for your enterprise?
Many startups fall prey to these common pitfalls when forced to think outside the “.com” box.
So how can you choose a good business name?
1. Drop Vowels: Famous internet brands, like Flickr and Twitter (known as Twittr when it first launched), have popularized the trend of dropping the vowels in their company name, which makes it easier to score a .com domain.
In fact, Flickr founder, Catarina Fake credits domain acquisition challenges as the driving motivations behind the name: “We tried to buy the domain from the prior owner… He wasn’t interested in selling…. We liked the name “Flicker” so much we dropped the E. It wasn’t very popular on the team, I had to do a lot of persuasion.”
While some might argue that a deliberate misspelling makes for an edgier – more distinctive – identity, other founders have faced challenges with this approach. According to Ustav Agarwal, founder and CEO of the gamified music sharing app “nwplying.” “Nowplaying described the product in its simplest form, but it was too common a hashtag for us to possibly differentiate ourselves and create a brand around it – hence the term nwplyng, i.e. ‘nowplaying’ sans vowels,” he says. “Plus, the domain name nwplyng.com was easily available.”
But would he recommend this approach to other entrepreneurs? No. “Users misspell it way too often,” he shares, “even the ones using it regularly – and that means you lose out on network effect and app downloads.”
2. Add a Verb: When DropBox wasn’t initially able to acquire DropBox.com, it settled for GetDropBox.com. Same for Atlanta-based startup Gather, which you can find at gatherhere.com. While this is may be a better alternative than abandoning a name you really love just because the .com version is unavailable, there are some practical downsides, explained in detail in this article.
In short, be prepared for customer confusion – from lost emails sent to the official owner of the top level domain to less effective marketing campaigns, diluted by the traffic diverted to the domain reflecting your company’s name. Not to mention inevitable questions from investors, anxious to see your company legitimized by securing the straightforward “.com,” sans verb. For customers and potential investors, the “add a verb” approach can often amount to a red flag that begs a larger question – when will your company be legitimate enough to buy the original domain?
3. Choose a Country Code Domain. Enterprising companies like Bit.ly and About.me played the .com scarcity to their advantage, embracing country code domain alternatives to the point that they incorporated the whimsical suffix into their name.
This trend is here to stay, with the creation of more and more generic top level domains to choose from (such as “bike,” “food,” and many other common nouns), but keep in mind the reality that customers still have to find you. And a trendy new domain – while it may work for your company name – can cause consumer confusion. As explained here by Eric Bieller, founder of Sqwiggle, “Letsfeast.com used to be found at lesfea.st, which is clever, but extremely difficult to explain to someone audibly.”
With a matter as critical to your company as its name, make sure to consult with a domain attorney before you settle for anything less than the top-level domain of your dreams. A solid understanding of the legal leverage you have – before you try to negotiate with a cybersquatter – can literally translate into a cost savings in the hundreds of thousands. At least that’s what it meant for a recent client.
This is especially true for companies that have expended considerable resources developing brand goodwill. Your hard work should be leveraged to make the acquisition of a top-level domain much easier and more affordable, so you don’t have to settle for the compromises listed above.
If you are interested in more detail related to your specific situation it is best to speak with an attorney. Schedule a consultation with a Founders Legal Intellectual Property attorney