For the millions of people who equate the Web with .com, . CO Internet is out to change that mindset.
The Miami company that manages and markets the .co domain is already making impressive gains — more than 1.4 million in 200 countries have hung their businesses, blogs, personal projects or dreams on a .co virtual shingle. Still, that’s just a tiny fraction of industry titan VeriSign’s 105 million .com registrants.
“We want to change the fabric of the Internet,” Juan Diego Calle, founder and CEO of .CO Internet, said during an interview in .CO’s Brickell office. “We can only make that happen not by changing what happened in the last 25 years of the Web, which is owned by .com. We want to change the next 25.”
About 2½ years after the launch of .CO Internet, .co — the country code of Colombia — continues to be one of the fastest-growing Internet domains in the world and grew by 24 percent in 2012. .CO Internet is profitable and is projecting to bring in more than $25 million in revenues this year, the company said. The early success of .CO Internet, with operations in Miami and Colombia, is powered by passion and perseverance.
Calle moved to Miami from Colombia at age 15 with his family. He started several businesses, including one he sold in 2005 providing seed capital for what would come next. “I can’t say I ever sat still.” When he learned Colombia would be commercializing the country's .co domain extension in late 2006, he said it hit him like a lightning bolt.
With the right strategy and by “marketing the hell out of it,” the entrepreneur believed .co could solve a huge problem in the market — vanishing Internet domain names. If you’ve tried to nab a new .com address lately, you can relate — it’s difficult to find one that hasn’t been snatched up.
Calle thought that by appealing to the hearts and minds of the entrepreneur, .co could go where .info, .biz, .net or .me had never gone before. But first he needed the right team.
One of this first stops: The Big Apple, to visit Nicolai Bezsonoff, who had been an advisor and shareholder in Calle’s TeRespondo.com, a sort of Ask Jeeves for the Latin American market that was sold to Yahoo in 2005. At the time, Bezsonoff was the director of technology and operations at Citigroup.
“We went out for coffee, he started pitching me on a napkin. I said ‘really dude you want me to leave a big job at Citigroup for this?’ ” said Bezsonoff. “But he kept showing me the numbers … Later, that napkin was on my desk and it was one of those boring days and I kept looking at it and thought maybe I should.” He would become .CO’s chief operating officer.
Lori Anne Wardi, a lawyer and serial entrepreneur who was working at a venture capital firm at the time, became vice president in charge of brand strategy, business development and global communications. “She’s the heart and soul of the company,” said Calle. Eduardo Santoyo, based in Bogota, would become corporate vice president over policy and be the liaison with the Colombian government. “Some would say it was overkill talent but I needed the best. ... When you have a big dream, you have to think big and hire the right people,” Calle said.
With the team together, the four co-founders now had plenty of research to do to win that Colombia license — and their competitors included VeriSign, the huge public company behind .com. It would take them a full year to put together their application package. “1,165 pages, I will always remember that number,” Calle said.
“No one thought we would win against VeriSign,” said Bezsonoff, who was also born in Colombia. “When we went in and won, it was like, ‘all right, let’s go build a company.’ ”
With the business model based on registrations and renewals, volume is key as the vast majority of customers are paying an average of $20 a year for .co domain names (although some single-letter names have gone for upwards of $1 million). Over the next few months, the team would develop a massive marketing campaign.
Tech startups seemed to be a natural market because they are early adopters and naturally rebellious. “It’s the entrepreneur who is up at 4 in the morning with a great idea for his business and can’t find a domain name,“ said Calle, who launched his first business as a teen selling stereo systems out of his garage. “It’s us, we are the people. We’ve been through that process.”
Before launch, the team believed they needed to establish credibility by getting some big names to sign on. “Of all the two letter names, .co was literally perfect. It means company, community, commerce, communications, everything social,” said Wardi.
They knocked on a lot of doors and sent a lot of emails before they scored with a big one. Twitter would start using t.co. “That was huge for us and gave us instant credibility,” Calle said.
.CO Internet launched on July 20, 2010, Colombia’s Independence Day. Flying pigs, symbolizing anything is possible, flew across screens each time a new website signed up. That was a lot of flying pigs — 233,000 signed up the first day.
“We said we could do what everyone else has done or we can create an emotional connection with the domain,” said Bezsonoff.
Marquis names of the startup culture switched from .com to .co — beginning with AngelList ( Angel.co), the go-to site for connecting accredited investors with startups around the world.
AngelList, which signed on even before .CO’s official launch, was initially attracted by the availability of good domain names and the ability to have a compact name, said Naval Ravikant, founder and CEO of the San Francisco-based company.
“But equally important, a lot of the new registries are used by squatters and spammers and Google doesn’t index them and end users don’t have a good impression of them,” explained Ravikant, citing .biz. “But the .CO domain registry has been really good about making sure there is not too much squatting going on, and as a result Google indexing has been strongly positive, engendering trust.”
Startup America ( s.co), Founder Institute ( fi.co), Launch Festival ( launch.co), and others followed suit. “CO is quickly becoming the hot new geeky TLD [top level domain] in Silicon Valley,” said 500 Startups founder Dave McClure, when announcing its change from 500startups.com to 500.co in 2011.
In South Florida, dozens of startups, including sewlove.co, nightpro.co, punchme.co and mijaresart.co have embraced the domain, as well as organizations such as Launch Pad Tech, Startup Florida, HackDay and SuperConf.
Since its launch, .CO Internet has starred in two Super Bowl ads with Go Daddy – and a third will air next month, reaching an audience of more than 100 million people.
The company also attends and sponsors major entrepreneurship events worldwide and often gives out “.co scholarships” to register for .co sites. “There are three to four Startup Weekends every single weekend somewhere in the world. Everyone gets a scholarship,” Calle said. “We want to be at the point of inception, the point where ideas are formed.”
And increasingly, unlike most domain registries that act more like a utility, .CO Internet wants to continue the relationship. When the team visits a city, for instance, it will hold a “co-er” dinner for local entrepreneurs with .co websites, said Wardi. Last month, a dinner in San Francisco had grown to 40 people and turned into a party at Bun Mee, a restaurant owned by a “co-er.”
“When we would find someone building on the site, we’d get really excited, we’d email them, tweet at them, call them, and we’d say ‘we’re your domain registry, how can we help you?’ We got so inspired by the reaction from them, that it dawned on us the only way we can differentiate ourselves is to do that all the time, touch them in a human way, give them connections and support to help them fulfill their dreams,” said Wardi.
About six months ago, Charlie Hilton, founder of Urban Times in London, which launched in 2010, said his team met for lunch with Calle and Wardi after LeWeb, a huge technology conference in Europe where they received one of those free .co domain cards. “We got on famously and decided this is right for us because they really support the startup culture.”
Since then .CO Internet has helped Urban Times in numerous ways, such as connecting the company with partners, helping them with the link shortener ut.co, and giving the company SEO (search engine optimization) audits, all smoothing the transition from theurbn.com to urbantimes.co without losing traffic. “There may be quite scary implications of changing your website, but we aren’t finding that,” said Hilton. “Nothing was disrupted, it just got better... We can contact them and know that they will be supportive and helpful in any way they can. That’s really quite novel.”
The challenge now, Wardi said, is how to continue this level of support as the .CO community continues to grow. “That’s what keeps us up at night.”
The company’s current push in that direction is i.go.co, which is being beta tested and will be formally launched at the giant tech and cultural conference South by Southwest in Austin, Texas in March. The idea is that the free i.go.co membership can offer .co site owners tangible benefits such as free tickets to startup events, Google Adwords credits, personal SEO consultations or vouchers for free co-working visits, as well as inspiration and a sense of community. Members can read about .co success stories, for instance, or share their own offers of expertise.
“We want to eventually go down to a local level and make people realize they are part of a neighborhood. .Co is a neighborhood where everyone is taking advantage of awesome offers and helping each other,” said Tom Lackner, the company’s chief technology officer.
For Calle, the early success of .CO Internet is coming full circle. With each new domain registry, Colombia gets a royalty averaging about 25 percent, and the millions of dollars generated is being reinvested in initiatives to promote digital literacy and Internet usage throughout that country as part of Colombia’s commitment to build a world-class technology infrastructure. Related government initiatives, such as ViveDigital and Apps.co, have been created to help incentivize foreign investment and build a robust startup ecosystem within Colombia.
.CO Internet has also become increasingly active in the South Florida tech community, sponsoring numerous meetups and conferences and speaking at events, such as the upcoming SuperConf. Calle is bullish about .CO Internet staying in Miami and supports current efforts to accelerate a tech hub here, even while admitting growing a tech company in Miami hasn’t always been easy.
Looking ahead, Calle said at the recent Americas Venture Capital Conference that the company will address tackling other problems entrepreneurs face building businesses online. “What if setting up domain name, email and website could be done with one click? There are regulations and technology challenges. That is a problem we will tackle in the next five years.”