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“.CO Provides Much More Value Than Just a Domain Name,” – Lori Anne Wardi, .CO Internet

“.CO Provides Much More Value Than Just a Domain Name,” – Lori Anne Wardi, .CO Internet

I remember being very apathetical when the new generic top level domain (gTLD) application system opened on January 12, 2012. With the exception of .CO, new gTLD launches of the past like Biz, Info, Travel, Mobi, etc. had failed to marginalize .COM’s dominant position and there was no reason to think otherwise for the forthcoming ones.

I’ve been proven wrong overtime. The industry has shown great interest in the new gTLDs. With as many as 1930 applications received by the ICANN, the new gTLDs are touted to be the next big thing in the domain arena. Their journey once they hit the market will be a very interesting one to watch; some of them’ll be successful and some won’t. But I genuinely doubt if any one of them will be able to have as big an impact as .CO has.

The only extension to have carved out a market niche for itself, .CO is not just a very interesting product, but it is a success story. It is an epitome of innovation, of breaking existing norms, of setting new standards and most importantly, of having faith in your own ideas. It would be hyperbolic, but totally justified, I think, to say that .CO is apposite for great ideas building online.

Now before this begins to look like a paid prologue written by the folks at .CO themselves, over to Lori Anne Wardi, Vice President, .CO Internet, whom we recently had an opportunity to interact with. Read away as she speaks about the genesis of .CO, .CO Membership program, .CO Scholarship program, new gTLDs, plans for Q3 and Q4 and much more. Its a long read, but definitely worth it.

Our vision was to make .CO a global brand, one that was synonymous with innovation, entrepreneurship, big ideas coming to life and people fulfilling their business aspirations online.

– Lori Anne Wardi, Vice President,.CO Internet.

Lori Anne Wardi, Vice President,.CO Internet.

Lori Anne Wardi, Vice President,.CO Internet.

Q: Let’s begin with a brief introduction of yours and a broad overview of .CO Internet.

A: I am Lori Anne Wardi and I am the Vice President of .CO Internet.

I am also one of the co-founders of the company. When we launched .CO 3 years ago, our intention was to disrupt the status-quo that existed in the domain industry.

Because when we looked around the internet landscape, we noticed that disruption was everywhere, especially in the area of internet infrastructure. Everyone was doing interesting and innovating things and everything online was shifting and morphing.

But for some reason, in the world of domain names, it was a stagnant scenario. Everybody assumed that with .com exhausted, they had to pay billions of dollars to get a domain name of their choice. There was a sense of scarcity and everybody kind of accepted the status-quo.

Also, there was not a single domain extension that created a brand around itself. They were just viewed like a commodity to get on the internet; there was no brand association, affiliation or sense of identity to any of them. It didn’t seem right.

Therefore, we thought why can’t there be a change in the domain industry and why does .com have to be the only game in the town with other TLDs just lingering without adding any value!

When we had the opportunity to launch .CO, we decided to do things differently and shake up the industry a little bit.

We wanted to de-commoditize the domains. Our vision was to make .CO a global brand, one that was synonymous with innovation, entrepreneurship, big ideas coming to life and people fulfilling their business aspirations online.

And we’ve been able to do it successfully. We have grown really fast since we launched. We have more than 1.5 million domain names registered by people in over 200 countries, the US being the largest percentage, closely followed by the UK and a lot of other English speaking countries like Canada, Australia and India.

Q: .CO is probably the only TLD that has been able to marginalize .COM’s dominant position significantly, that too in a very small period of time. What according to you are some of the key factors that made .CO a relatively bigger success than .info, .mobi or .tel?

A: Well, I think there are a few things. One of them is branding. As I said, we started to create a brand around the domain. Other domains until now had only competed on the price and placement in the drop down box at the registrar. Those were the only few ways in which a customer could decide between one domain or another. We decided early on that we wanted to market directly to the consumers so when they showed up at the registrar ready to buy a domain, they came looking for .CO, they didn’t just find it on the list and then try to figure out whether or not they should get it.

Also, when we tried to find businesses on some of the domain extensions that had sold a lot of names, we came across only parked pages, phishing and link farms. We didn’t want that. It’s one thing to sell a lot of domain names, but if you sell a lot of names and know that no one is building anything of substance on your extension, then its kind of a hollow victory. We didn’t want to be a domain name ghetto. We wanted to have a thriving community of entrepreneurs building really cool things so that we would have the next Facebook or Instagram or Twitter building on .CO.

So we tried to get to know who the people and companies were who were using .CO and to support, encourage and promote them in their efforts and give them access to opportunities. In fact this was one of the primary reasons why we started our membership program.

Q: Please throw some light on .CO’s Membership Program. What value can bootstrapped entrepreneurs expect to derive from it?

A: We realize that most entrepreneurs and small businesses don’t buy a domain name because they want a domain name (unless they’re domainers who’re buying domains to buy and sell them), it’s because they have a business dream or an aspiration that they want to fulfil or something else that they are trying to build. So we thought, let’s get to the heart of why people buy a domain name and try to get to know who these people are and what they are trying to do, so that we can help them. And if we can help them succeed, then we can sustain our mission, which is to create a really exciting community of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Our membership program lets us do this by giving startups access to educational and networking events, where they can meet with people who would give them opportunities like pitching their business, fund raising etc.

Q: Do you provide some sort of financial backing too?

A: No, we don’t invest in the companies. What we do is that we invest in their success by finding opportunities to promote them and showcase what they do to our network, and since we end up supporting a lot of startups and innovators that are like minded, they all start to support and help each other.

For instance, when there is a really interesting story about a new .CO business, we contact a couple of blogs that’re built on .CO and say ‘hey, you should check out this story you might want to write about’, and every once in a while they will.

So it is a community where everybody is vested in the success of .CO. The early adopters took a bet to go with a new domain extension and build their business or blog on .CO, and now that it has started to pay off, they want the new businesses that pop up every day on .CO to succeed too.

Advantages of .CO Membership Program

.CO Membership Program

Q: .CO has gained huge traction among small businesses. Were SMBs your primary target from the word Go?

A: I would like to say yes, but, in the very very beginning, we were going for everybody, because .CO is such a broad word, it could mean company, community, contact, commerce etc.

As soon as we started, we realized that the world is a pretty big place and we can’t effectively go for everybody. We are a small business and a startup ourselves and we have to hone in on our target market.

Now even the SMB market is really big. So instead of going straight to SMBs, which are our target market and always will be, right now we have honed in on the ecosystem of tech savvy entrepreneurs and startups that may have an idea that can easily work online and that’re interested in taking risks and destructing the status quo in their own industries.

So yes, we are going for the SMB market, but we are taking the path of first targeting entrepreneurs and innovators in the tech savvy community.

Q: And recently you also met with success on enterprise level too with twitter registering Vine.co.

A: Yes, that was a huge win for us. Wallmart also just launched a new business on the .CO called goodies.CO and I think that only happened because of the traction we have gained during these 3 years. I don’t think that they’d have done this when we first launched because we needed a little time to prove that we really were going to build a space where companies like Twitter and Wallmart can build their new products.

To get a pat on the back and passive endorsements from companies like Vine.CO and goodies.CO is really exciting for us and we work hard to make sure that we live up to the faith they put in us. We do everything to keep this faith as clean as possible and make sure that there are no real security threats like phishing, farming, cybersquatting etc.

Q: Any more examples of big enterprises who’ve recently adopted .CO?

A: There is a big insurance company called Aspen Group who is using Aspen.co. Some companies such as CISCO (CS.CO), American Express (amex.co), Virgin America (virg.co) and Starbucks (sbux.co) are using .CO for URL shortening in social media.

It is really exciting for us because to be honest, when we launched we didn’t expect to have a lot of big brands that needed branded URL shorteners using .CO to complement their existing URL. We never intended to get people to switch their domain; our intention was just to get new businesses to launch on .CO.

I guess the recent happenings are a sign of evolving internet landscape and we happen to be a great URL for that.

Q: Please give our readers a brief overview of the recent .CO Survey conducted by Wakefield Research.

.CO Internet Wakefield researchA: We conducted this survey because we wanted to get into the minds of the consumer and try to understand what is it that they are thinking about when they come to buy a domain name and why do most people have a pervasive feeling that .com is synonymous with the internet.

We wanted to know whether they are even aware that there are other domain extensions out there, do they think about them and do they understand the distinction between one and the other.

The results were very interesting as we learnt that not only do they lack knowledge about different domain extensions, but nearly half of them don’t have even a web presence at all. Which is kind of shocking and also an interesting opportunity for anyone in the domain business, website building or website hosting business to identify all these people who don’t even have a website.

Also, we found that among the ones that do have a web presence, there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the website they have. I think that this is due to the fact that until now, there has been a sense of scarcity around domain names., so people thought they had to settle for really long silly sounding names with hyphens, weird spellings and numbers just because they couldn’t get the name that they wanted.

One of my favourite stats from the survey is that 46 % of small businesses say that they are more likely to find a 100 dollar bill on the street than find a .com name that hasn’t been taken.

So it’s a common frustration among small business owners who don’t understand the Internet well, don’t know about other domain extensions and think that if they can’t get their first choice .com, they’ve to settle for something on the lines of bobsbagelsnewyorkcity11297.com.

Q: 63% of business owners revealed that they don’t pay attention to the TLDs while choosing a domain name. Does .CO have any roadmap in place to educate these SMBs and public in general about the importance of the right side of the dot?

A: Definitely, because we found that the main reason that prohibits people from buying a .CO is the lack of awareness that exists. They don’t even know that we’re a credible option besides .com.

So we do have plans to educate them. In fact, the key reason behind our partnership with GoDaddy for the last few years over the super bowl commercials is just to create a global awareness that .CO exists. And we worked really hard on the messaging on this year’s YourBigIdea.co super bowl commercial in particular, because we wanted to let the average persons sitting and watching the super bowl realize that their own ideas are meaningful and they shouldn’t sweep them under the rug, and to inspire them to get off the couch, take their idea seriously and put it online before someone else does.

Q: How has the response to YourBigIdea.co commercial been so far?

A: It’s very hard to identify the benefits and value that we receive from doing the ads, because the main reason we do an ad is not for immediate sale on that day or that week, but to create an awareness and to get the world to know that .CO exists .

Since the time we did our 1st super bowl ad in 2011, the number of .CO names under the management has more than doubled. There has been a considerable growth in the revenue, market share and most importantly, brand awareness.

That said, we think that this year’s ad was by far the best we did. It met with a huge amount of critical acclaim, which is exciting because the last two ones were panned by the critics. It also set a record for the highest internet traffic on the website and we know that it engaged the community in terms of conversations on social media.

And while we definitely got a surge in the number of registrations throughout the whole week the ad ran and on the weekend, the real value of the ad, for us, is going to be seen over the course of the whole year because it will be re-broadcast frequently. It was never intended just for the week of the super bowl. It was an investment for building awareness among the global audience and potential business owners.

Q: The 52% of SMBs who’re willing to change their current web address will have a plethora of options with the new gTLDs that’re going to hit the market soon. What according to you makes .CO a better choice for them than the generic TLDs?

A: To be honest with you, there is a lot of uncertainly in the industry in general about the forthcoming change in the internet landscape. No one knows exactly how is it going to look.

But, we have looked at the list of every name domain string that has been applied for, and one thing I know for sure is that there is not a single domain extension that even comes close to the perfection of .CO. Everyone around the world recognizes domain.CO as a company. It’s already used in a lot of different domain extensions around the world already, like .co.uk, .co.jp etc. You don’t have to define, explain or educate people about what it means. That’s the first thing.

Second, In the age of social media we live in, CO is a prefix for communicate, collaborate, connect etc., so it has a very rich social media meaning.

Third, .CO is shorter than all other domain extensions. A lot of the new ones will be 3 characters long and some even longer but none of them will be 2 characters. So .CO is shorter, memorable and meaningful.

But the one most important thing that I think would help us stand out and be ahead of the pack is that we have a 3 year head start, in which we have been able to demonstrate that we are building a community and are vested in the success of people building on .CO.

And lastly, I’ve to say that our team is really excited about new gTLDs coming in the market. The reason being that until now everybody thinks of the domain arena as a .com world and that nothing is legitimate unless its on .com.

So when they suddenly start seeing billboards for cars like .bmw and sneakers like .nike, they’ll realize that everything isn’t .com after all and that they can choose to go for other extensions as well.

Q: You mentioned how .CO is more recognizable than the new gTLDs coming out and that it is going to benefit from the 3 year head start it has. Isn’t this picture somewhat same to the one in 2009 when .CO launched, as in .com then had a head start of 27 years, was more renowned and people didn’t know about .CO?

A: That’s exactly right. It was not easy in the beginning. There were a lot of loud naysayers up front that said things like ‘oh! It would never work’, ‘no one needs another domain extension’, ‘.info and other TLDs have failed and this is going to be another one’, ‘it’s just a typo of .com and it’s going to confuse everybody’ etc.

All of this was hard to cope up with but we decided to block all the naysayers out and prove everybody wrong. We had a really big vision and a clear goal that we’d never allow .CO to be construed as a typo of .com.

We worked very hard early on to find the right kind of companies that would use .CO and then to further showcase them to other people so that they would want to build on .CO. This helped us gain traction in the very beginning. We are still obviously tiny compared to .com, it has a 27 year head start and 100 million plus people using it, but I think we are probably the first domain that .com has paid attention to.

Q: Any specific measures you’re taking in the wake of the new gTLD wave?

A: I wouldn’t say that there will be a significant change in the measures we take. We’ve always been focused on not just selling domain names but on building value for .CO users too, and we’re going to continue to do that.

We plan to double down on our community and being a value and up service to them, so that people don’t think of .CO as just another name in the dropdown list. We want to be the one and only name that people would consider building their businesses on.

We also have an internal think-lab where we try to come up with innovative products and services that would support our members. This year we launched our membership program which we discussed earlier. We are also the only registry to have an affiliate program.

Q: What is the rationale behind .CO having a higher registration fee than some other TLDs?

A: That’s a good question and I think you will understand and appreciate the answer as a person in this industry.

When we launched our company 3 years back, we looked at the landscape and tried to analyse the steps taken by other registries in the past, as in which ones of them had worked and which ones didn’t. One of the things we noticed was that in some of the better registries, a lot of the good domain names were sat on by people squatting, not using the name, but just having parked pages on them.

So we thought that we could either price .CO at 7 or 8 dollars like the rest of the domain extensions, generate the maximum amount of sales with people who’d buy hundreds or maybe even thousands of them early on just to hoard them and not to build anything on them, or, we could charge a relatively higher wholesale price (around 20$ on average) to disincentivize people from buying names in mass quantities and hoarding them.

We want people to think long and hard if they plan to buy more than 5 or 10 domains. Since .CO costs more, they can’t buy hundreds of them and then just sit on them.

However, that’s not to say that we’ve anything against people reselling them. We’re capitalists too and we think that it’s fine for people to resell, but we also know that the fastest way to kill the excitement of a great space would be to have nothing on it but parked pages.

Q: That’s a good point, but if you look at it from a different perspective, doesn’t the high price of .CO deter the 63% of the business owners bracket that doesn’t pay attention to the TLDs from choosing it over .com?

A: Yes, definitely. I wish I had a better answer for this as we don’t want to lose these customers because they’re really building something but we do miss out on them

I wish we could capture them all but it’s sort of a trade-off that we decided to make early on. As I said, it’s not about the short term money, but the long term development of .CO space.

Right now, we’re trying to educate people about the kind of value that we provide.

One of the things we have is the .CO scholarship program under which we give free .CO domains for a year every week to people who attend Startup weekends all around the world.

Wherever there are students getting together to start businesses in a structured way over a course of either weekends or a few days, we provide them with free .COs. We don’t want them to pay us anything, we’re just happy that they’re building on .CO because then they’ll stick around for 10 years as their company gets off the ground.

Also, the value of our membership program is much higher than that of a domain name. There are people who get tickets to 1000$ events for free just because they have a 25$ domain name.

So the example you gave me definitely falls through the cracks but I think that over time, as these customers start to learn that we offer them more than just a domain name, we’ll stop losing them.

Q: Tell our readers a bit about the team .CO?

A: Sure! We have an amazing team. At the core of every great company is a great leader and we have an amazing CEO in Juan Diego Calle.

He is a young man who is very wise beyond his years. His best skill as a leader is being able to identify the right people for the right role. He sets a really great vision and then gets out of the way. He is there when you need him but he doesn’t micro manage, he just inspires employees to do great things and then lets them do it.

There are four co-founders of the company. The whole concept for .CO was started by Juan himself and he pulled together a team of three others of us early on.

Our COO is a gentleman by the name of Nicolai Bezsonoff. Nicolai was working at Citi group earlier and had worked in various consulting firms before that. Juan had known him for long and thought that he would be a great COO. So he talked to him about the vision of .CO and inspired him to take risk on a startup and leave his job at the Citi group.

Eduardo Santoyo is our Corporate Vice president and he has a lot of experience running domain extensions. He used to run the domain extension for the country of Peru and he is currently the president of the Latin American and Caribbean Association of ccTLDs. He is very active in the ICANN policy making and makes sure that everything that we do at .CO is aligned with the best business practices.

And then there is me. I have a little bit of an odd background for the domain industry. I began my career as an attorney at Proskauer LLP and left to start a business of my own, which went under as a lot of sartups do, so then I had to start thinking about what I was going to do next.

I started having many ideas for businesses I could start and for every idea I would have, I would buy a domain name. So before I knew it I had a whole bunch of domain names but no business.

I was then contacted by someone who wanted to buy one of my domains and that’s when I realized that domain names have a value. So I started to study domain names and get to understand the marketplace and over time I got to know the industry very well.

Through the years, I had gotten introduced with Juan and when this opportunity came up, I couldn’t have been more excited . We all came together, won the bid and made .CO happen.

Since then we’ve grown and now have a small but an incredible team of 22 full time employees. We are passionate about what we do and think that every day when we wake up we sort of change the world a little bit.

Lori Anne, Juan Diego, Nicolai Bezsonoff .CO Internet

(L-R) Nicolai Bezsonoff, Juan Diego Calle and Lori Anne Wardi

Q: What are some significant changes that you expect to see in the domain industry in the coming years?

A: We already have a lot of new players that have never been in the domain space before but have now just flooded in. With Google and Amazon applying for around 100 and 70 new TLDs respectively, you know that there are going to be significant changes.

I think that companies that are starting new domain extensions are going to feel the need to offer more value than just a domain. There are also going to be a lot more new business models around domains in the coming years. For instance who knows what interesting business model .music might have around it or what interesting applications community domains like.nyc or .berlin might see.

But as of now, it’s anybody’s guess what that would look like. It only depends on how creative people are in choosing their new extensions and I think that it’s really exciting that there are going to be a whole lot of new opportunities that weren’t there before.

Q: Wrapping up, do you have any plans in the pipeline for Q3 and Q4 of 2013?

A: Yes, we do. We’ve got our 3rd anniversary coming up in July so we’re gearing up to do major look back on the past 3 years. We also have an upcoming product launch in the next couple of months.

We plan to keep pushing the industry forward by doing unexpected things and to inspire the world to go .CO.

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