How .CO Became .COOL in 2 Years

July 20, 2012

9:29 am

“Nobody really cares about a domain name.”

When .CO Internet negotiated with the Colombian government to sell .co domain names in 2009, they had an uphill battle ahead of them. Not only was dot-com synonymous with the Internet, but they had to get people excited about something technically called a “country code top-level domain.”

Today, exactly two years after launch, .CO has stirred up that excitement by branding itself as the cool, modern domain for startups and technology companies, including Google and Twitter.

With a generic name like .co – rather than .biz or .museum – .CO Internet could have gone after a wide market. But they chose to target startups, who nowadays need to come up with funky names like Zaarly and RAVN or spend thousands of precious dollars just to get a .com URL. Plus, founder and CEO Juan Diego Calle is a serial entrepreneur himself, who sold TeRespondo.com to Yahoo! in 2005.

Before launch, .CO Internet gave away around 100 free domains to get the ball rolling, including t.co for Twitter and angel.co for AngelList, a network where startups can connect with investors. These sites may have been drawn by the underdog appeal of .CO, then a four-person team, and they were willing to take a risk on an unproven idea (just like startups do). .CO kept the price of domain names more expensive than .com’s to help ensure that the people who bought them would actually develop and use them — thus helping the extension to grow and flourish.

.CO Internet grew to a team of nine by the end of 2010, and they began shifting their focus to the startups themselves. “It’s everyone’s job to be a marketer and it’s everyone’s job to be an evangelist,” says vice president Lori Anne Wardi, whose Skype tagline reads, “I heart .co.” They bought a billboard in Times Square that read “When an idea hits, own it,” and they would invite a handful of .co companies out to dinner whenever they visited a new city.

“People just can’t believe like, ‘Why is my domain extension calling me?’” says Wardi. Through those conversations, .CO realized it could stand out by giving more value to its companies than just a URL.

In February of last year, Go Daddy approached .CO to partner with them for a somewhat risqué Super Bowl commercial, where a mysterious woman with a hot body (who makes onlookers swoon as she registers a .co domain) is revealed to be 77-year-old Joan Rivers. The ad would reach around 100 million households, and .CO finally signed on. In the commercial, Joan Rivers is not what you expect but smart and funny, explains Wardi – descriptions that also applied to .CO.

But .CO still had far to go to get on the radar. At the SXSW conference the following month, Wardi says they were newbies “trying to get attention,” who didn’t really understand what was going on. But by June, .CO had sold 1 million domains, including four to Amazon (a.co for Amazon, k.co for Kindle, z.co for Zappos, and cloud.co), and one-letter domains like those were worth over $1.5 million. And Google made g.co its URL shortener in July. (See our post on the .co boom last August.)

Fast forward to this February, when .CO started a “domain scholarship”: a free year of .co domains for startups that go through Startup America (now s.co) and Startup Weekend. After another successful Super Bowl commercial with Go Daddy, .CO traveled to SXSW and was met with a much warmer welcome. In partnerships with 500 Startups, Startup America, and Tech Cocktail, .CO helped its .co startups get exposure, pitch their ideas, and attend events.

Now two years old, .CO is working on a big program to keep promoting innovative .co’s. They’ve reached 20 employees and sold over 1.3 million domains in over 200 countries (see the infographic below for more stats).

Throughout this journey, .CO’s hardest challenge has been the inertia of .com. “Our biggest competition is literally an 800-pound gorilla,” says Wardi. In true startup fashion, .CO’s advantage is being small, nimble, and – now – cool.

Tech Cocktail’s SXSW #StartupLife Celebration was presented by .CO.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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