5 With... Antony Van Couvering, gTLD Expert | DomainInvesting.com
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5 With… Antony Van Couvering, gTLD Expert

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Antony Van CouveringTwo years ago, I was introduced to Antony Van Couvering by Frank Michlick, because we both live in New York City and were interested in getting together with other industry professionals in our area. Since then, Antony and I have attended all of the NY domain get togethers, and he has been a resource for me when I’ve had questions about gTLDs. In fact, he is one of – if not the most knowledgeable person about gTLDs.

Antony has a diverse background, having grown up in the U.S. and overseas (Africa, Europe, Middle East), and he holds a degree in comparative literature from Columbia. He started NetNames and NameEngine, which handled domain names and associated marketing and intellectual property issues for large corporations. After Antony sold NameEngine, he worked for VeriSign for two years.

After this, in 2005, Antony founded his web consulting company, Names@Work. During this time, Antony worked in collaboration with DomainsBot, assisting the company with business development, product development, and marketing. He also set up and negotiated a major investment in DomainsBot from Sedo.  Antony is now the CEO of .NYC, the top-level domain for New York City, and the founder of top-level consulting firm, Minds + Machines, with other industry veterans.
EJS: Other than acting as a supporter, what role will the city of New York have in regards to .nyc, will city offices use .nyc for their websites, and will they be involved with promotions?

AVC: We see the City of New York is a vital part of the .NYC top-level domain. .NYC should be run on behalf of New Yorkers, and the City is the best representative we have of the wishes of the people who live here. The City will receive a substantial portion of our revenues and we hope to involve them in a serious way in the outreach and marketing of .NYC to the residents and businesses of New York.

The City will have a permanent advisory role with regard to policy. For instance, several officials have expressed concern about spam, phishing, and some of the other ills that plague the Internet. Our view is that we need to do everything we can within the law to make .NYC a livable namespace. So we look forward to putting together policies that reflect our experience in the domain name world, with the assistance of the City to make sure that they reflect the wishes of New Yorkers and are consistent with the laws of New York. We will also look forward to their suggestions. There will be some learning on both sides; I’m sure that not everything that the City wants to do will be permissible under ICANN guidelines, and on the other side not everything that we think is a good idea is going to work in the real world of New York. But I am sure that .NYC is a great thing for New York City, and all the people I’ve talked to in City government agree — so we’ll find solutions to the issues as they come up.

As far as use of the .NYC top-level domain for City uses, we’re reserving a lot of names for use by them — names of city agencies, names of official City divisions (e.g., brooklyn.nyc), and other names that reflect official city business. New York City has a very successful web presence using nyc.gov, and it’s up to the City if and when they want to transition to .NYC. In any case the names will be there for them, we’ll hold the names off the market for their use.

I view this as a partnership, so the City’s role is important and indispensable. I’ve been a resident of New York City for over 30 years, but that doesn’t mean I know everything about it. On the other side, the City has a lot of experience in delivering city services through the web, but that doesn’t mean they know about domain name governance.

I should add that our experience is very similar to what applicants are seeing in other new TLD cities, such as Barcelona, Berlin, Paris, and Tokyo, as well as for regions, such as Scotland, Wales, Brittany, and Galicia. Governments are interested and willing, and are partnering with people who know the space. The form of the partnership may differ, but the essential effort is the same.

EJS: How will .nyc deal with local marks that might not be in the USPTO? For example, what happens if someone wants to register DallasBBQ.nyc, knowing that there are a few Dallas BBQ restaurants in the city, but no federal TM in the USPTO?

AVC: That’s a great question that I’m sure a lot of people are asking. I’m not a trademark lawyer, but I think I can be helpful. In the U.S. we have common-law trademarks, which means that you acquire rights in a mark by using it in commerce. So DallasBBQ would qualify under U.S. law as a valid trademark and they would have no problem qualifying for a .NYC domain name. As other TLDs have done at launch, we’ll hire a trademark validation expert who would decide which trademarks are valid, according to our policies and the law.

EJS: How can your company’s services be used to help other companies who want to apply for their own gTLD?

AVC: I run a company called Minds + Machines as well being CEO of DotNYC LLC. That happened because I was searching for a registry operator for .NYC and I realized that I knew just about as much as any of the incumbent registries, and that they all wanted to charge an arm and a leg. So I licensed the CoCCA registry platform for new gTLDs and added consulting services on top. CoCCA is currently used by over 20 ccTLDs, but they didn’t want to get into the gTLD namespace, and since we’ve had great relations for a long time, they were happy to help. I founded the company with Jothan Frakes, who’s the COO, and Elaine Pruis, formerly of CoCCA, who’s our VP of Client Services. We have 4 other people working with us full or part-time, and we expect to grow that substantially.

Recently, we signed up .ECO, which is supported by Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection, as well as the Sierra Club, Surfrider, and a host of other environmental advocacy groups. We got them up to speed on ICANN, told them what would and wouldn’t work, and just helped them through the process. This is an example of great idea for a new TLD, run by experienced business people who know how to do their own marketing, which is something completely new to the TLD world. We think it’s going to do really well, and it’s one kind of TLD we want to work with.

At Minds + Machines, we work with anyone who meets two criteria. First, that they want to start a new TLD. Second, that we believe in their idea. It could be a brand, a city, a region, a membership organization, an entrepreneurial TLD. We explain the ICANN landscape, do some reality checks on their financial projections (or help create them, if they don’t exist), give advice and assistance with the ICANN application, meet their investors if they need that, help design their Sunrise and Landrush efforts, establish relations with existing registrars, find them staff to hire, and so on. The whole nine yards. Then we’ll run the registry on their behalf. Our prices are a lot cheaper than anyone else’s, and we’re very service-oriented. We try to make it workable for good ideas — for instance, if you hire us for consulting, and then use our registry, we’ll refund you the entire amount of your consulting fees from our registration fees once the TLD is live. We’ve had a great response, we’re currently in discussions with over 20 potential new TLDs.

EJS: What do you think the annual costs will be to maintain a gTLD registry (.Elliot for example), and what things do companies or individuals need to consider before applying for one?

AVC: There’s a lot of different ways to respond to this question. At the startup phase, if you just look at ICANN fees, you would need to spend $185K for the application fee, and maybe (if you’re unlucky) fees to deal with any competing proposals or to objections. If — and it’s only an if — that happens, you could be looking at $500K. And then there’s the possibility of an auction, where it could go very high. So if you want .web, or any of the “obvious” TLDs, you should be prepared to spend quite a bit. On an ongoing basis, you’re looking at $25K a year minimum from ICANN (up to 100,000 names), plus whatever it costs to maintain the registry. At Minds + Machines we charge $1.50 per name per year, and the competition charges up to $4 per name.

If you’re thinking about doing a new TLD, you need to think about a few things. First is, do I need to make a quick exit? Almost every TLD makes money in the medium term. Suppose you match VeriSign’s wholesale price (about $7 per name per year) to registrars. With an industry-wide 75% renewal rate, and the across-the-board annual domain name growth rate is 15%, it’s a nice annuity even for a medium-sized TLD. That said, it may take a year or two before you get to a comfortable size.

I would also think hard about the business model — not every TLD is going to get huge numbers, but there are so many other ways to use a TLD. For instance, you could get a name for a profitable vertical niche and do extremely well with just a few sites. For instance, if you applied for .limo, you could have sites for each major city — nyc.limo, vegas.limo, etc. — as well as functional names such as weddings.limo, graduation.limo, and so on. That’s just one business model. There are others too — it’s a question of using your imagination and then seeing how to accomplish what you want within the ICANN rules.

Don’t depend on the registrars to market your TLD. Registrars are interested in marketing themselves, not you. The smart TLDs will be thinking hard about how to reach their target market and putting resources behind that effort. “Build it and they will come” is not a strategy that will work anymore, if it ever did.

Finally, if you’re thinking about doing a TLD, do it now, and announce it as soon as you’re able. It’s very possible that someone else is thinking about doing “your” idea, and you really don’t want to be the second person with the idea. There are so many possibilities for TLDs that announcing will probably just convince the competition to do one of their other ten ideas, where there’s less chance of an expensive auction. Even if they don’t go away, they may well come to you looking for a deal, and you’ll be in excellent shape.

EJS: When do you hope to see new gTLDs approved, and when do you realistically think we will see them in the market?

AVC: It looks as if the application window will be Feb – March of 2010. Realistically you will see new TLDs in the market by summer 2010, with the majority opening toward the end of the year.

BONUS Questions!

EJS: Why are you so bullish (as opposed to bearish) on gTLDs?

AVC: In an already very crowded online world, you have to have visibility to get noticed, and a top-level domain (you can’t go any higher), especially if you get it in this window, provides that. I’ve seen the same issue in the ccTLDs, a space I worked in for a long time. How many companies and individuals from India have domain names? Millions. But how many use the .IN domain name — not very many, though recently the number is growing. For many years it was nearly impossible to get a .IN name, and as a result you rarely see it on the web. That has been a huge cost for India, which allowed their innovative tech entrepreneurs to brand VeriSign’s .COM instead of their own country TLD.

For a brand owner, having your brand name as the destination for your customers on the web is ideal. How much money do major corporations spend on branding, and how effective is Internet visibility? To me, it’s a no-brainer to brand yourself instead of a domain extension like .COM which has nothing to do with your brand. For a city, it’s a tremendous aid to tourism and local business, with great possibilities for civic initiatives. Another key advantage, if you keep your TLD clean (in other words, take steps to discourage warehousing, non-working sites, and template sites), is that search engines will pay attention. For instance, .NYC will be about New York City in a meaningful way, and if Google wants to deliver relevant searches (which it does), then it will favor the .NYC TLD when someone types in “nyc” or “new york city” or “manhattan” or any other New York-related term.

Also, I just love the innovative business plans I’m hearing around new TLDs. There are so many things to do with a TLD, and if you own a name at the top level you can never be usurped. People talk about how users automatically default to using .com, and how that will never change, but frankly that’s just silly. No-one has ever produced any empirical evidence to support that idea. In fact, the evidence points to the opposite: everyone used a radio, and they still do, but it didn’t take long to switch to television. Everyone used 8-track tapes, until cassettes came along, and they were displaced by compact disks. If there’s a benefit, people will switch. Outside of the U.S., people routinely use multiple TLDs without a second thought. I’m completely convinced that this is an inflection point in the Internet, and that there are green fields, and great rewards, for people with imaginations and a few dollars to spend.

EJS: Wild card

AVC: If you just want to throw your .COM names up on PPC pages and hope and pray that revenues go up again, and that Google and Yahoo one day decide to mess up the whole parked pages ecosystem, then probably you should stay away from new TLDs. Each one is a business that requires the things that businesses usually have: staff, meetings, web design, customer relations, insurance, all that stuff. It’s really not dissimilar from what you do, Elliot, when you decide to develop one of your .COM geodomains, such as lowell.com. A new TLD is just another domain with a business wrapped around it, which needs care and attention to its strengths and weaknesses. Its customers could be registrars, but they could also be consumers, it just depends on your business model. Find your idea, run to your corner, protect that space, and develop it. This is a great time to be imaginative and bold.


About The Author: Elliot Silver is an Internet entrepreneur and his company earns revenue from domain names. Elliot is President of Top Notch Domains, LLC, a company that has sold seven figures worth of domain names in the last five years. Elliot is the publisher of DomainInvesting.com. Read this blog's disclaimer for information about the publisher, comment policy, disclosures, and conflicts.

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Comments (16)

    Alexander

    I still think new extensions hurt domain investors. They dilute the value of current names. The exception is if the new extension actually provides a new function or capability (.tel perhaps?). But if it strictly a matter of branding, it hurts .com, .net, .org etc. and I think in the long run makes things more confusing for non web savvy end users.

    April 8th, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    Alexander

    Forgot to say…great interview!

    April 8th, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    David J Castello

    I’m all in favor of dotNYC, dotNFL, etc doing their thing because they have an in-house audience, but the chance that more than a few generic TLDs are going to become a legal and financial nightmare is high. The one argument proponents of these TLDs never discuss is the dotTravel saga. DotTravel is one of the best generic TLDs you can have and it has been a disaster against little competition. The TLD was well funded, but there have been few “successes” such as Utah.travel and it took the aid of a multi-million dollar advertising campaign to even get it off the ground (and I’d still rather own Utah.com).

    That being said, I see this as being a boon to dotCom. As we all know, Corporate America is not known for taking chances and the moment one of them trips badly on their own TLD the rest will embrace dotCom as the “safe” Gold Standard for Internet Marketing.

    April 8th, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    Tim Davids

    kudos to Antony…your selling picks and shovels.

    Will be interesting a few years from now if we will see gtlds sold at domainer auctions like we see individual names now…

    April 8th, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Josh M

    Hi Antony,

    Is Icann restricting the minimum number of characters allowed in a gTLD?

    I’m going to guess they have to be 3 characters or longer.

    Are there any restrictions on not using certain characters or numbers?

    thanks.

    Josh

    April 8th, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Antony Van Couvering

    @Josh – 3-character minimum for new TLDs, that’s because the country code TLDs are all two letters and ICANN doesn’t want to muddy the water. BTW the maximum number is 64 characters, if you happen to be crazy you can get one of those without much competition ;)

    April 8th, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    Steve M

    Thanks Elliot & Antony for your time; good to hear your thoughts.

    That said, however…

    “People talk about how users automatically default to using .com, and how that will never change, but frankly that’s just silly. No-one has ever produced any empirical evidence to support that idea.”

    Well…other than the fact that it’s actually been shown for many years now (sorry I don’t have the studies in front of me) that that is exactly what people do: Take the product/service type/category they’re looking for (or the name of the specific company/entity if they know it) and add a “.com” to the end to see what shows up.

    “…everyone used a radio, and they still do, but it didn’t take long to switch to television. Everyone used 8-track tapes, until cassettes came along, and they were displaced by compact disks.”

    These types of comparisons are misplaced. A new TLD is more akin to a new language, or in the least a new “form” or variation of an existing language than to a radio or cassette.

    Far, far more difficult (and expensive) to get people to speak (or act) differently than it is to get them to change from what they’re used to, comfortable with, and trust.

    “If there’s a benefit, people will switch.”

    These kinds of “if it’s better, they will come” statements have been loudly trumpeted by all or virtually all the leaders of the various “not-com” extensions.

    Yet .com remains the world (and to an even higher degree here in the largest economy in the world) leader.

    Furthermore, exactly what makes .nyc; or any new TLD for that matter, “better” (for any purpose or use) than .com?

    Saying so doesn’t make it so.

    “I’m completely convinced that this is an inflection point in the Internet, and that there are green fields, and great rewards, for people with imaginations and a few dollars to spend.”

    For no less than the reasons I’ve given (and there are others), these new TLDs (including .nyc and .eco) will prove to be…not green fields with great rewards…but scorched earth financial and emotional wastelands for any but the largest of companies…willing to suffer the huge monetary losses these TLDs will slice from their income & profits…for as long as they own them.

    April 8th, 2009 at 10:00 pm

    David J Castello

    Good points, Steve, and I’d like to add my own experiences to refute Antony’s statement, “People talk about how users automatically default to using .com, and how that will never change, but frankly that’s just silly. No-one has ever produced any empirical evidence to support that idea.”

    Antony, here’s some “empirical evidence” for you.

    We own Rate.com. In 2003 Rate.com suddenly went through the roof in traffic – an immediate jump of over 1200%. My brother and I were stumped until we saw an advertisement for a huge new financial site called Rate.net.

    In 2004 LagunaBeach.com jumped overnight from 2,500 uniques a day to 11,000. We discovered that the night before MTV launched the show Laguna Beach (and LagunaBeach.com was # 3 on the search engines – the sites above us did not show an increase in traffic). MTV was strongly promoting their own web site for the show, but a lot of them simply assumed it was LagunaBeach.com.

    And let’s not forget Dick Cheney during the VP debates when he told viewers to go to FactCheck.com – instead of FactCheck.org.

    There are countless other times I’ve watched newscasters give the wrong address for a site because they assumed it was dotCom. I could go on and on, but it would be (sorry, can’t resist) silly.

    I never say never, but I assure you that Sean Miller of NYC.com will be loving the massive accidental traffic he’ll receive from dotNYC.

    April 8th, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    Jothan Frakes

    Great comments here.

    There is a panel on this at the GeoDomainExpo from April 23-25 in San Diego, where I have the distinct privilege of participating on a panel with David Costello and Phil Corwin.

    Candidly, after spending time following all of this, there’s a lot of opportunity on all sides without speaking ill of the new or established.

    We’ll have a good session, and I am sure that a lot of the things on this thread will be discussed and more.

    See you at GeoDomainExpo.

    April 9th, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    Antony Van Couvering

    If Sean Miller sees a huge surge in traffic from nyc.com, which I hope and expect that he will, it just means that there’s an even larger amount of traffic going to .NYC sites. And Sean will only benefit from typed-in traffic, not links or search engine result pages.

    The figures I’ve seen suggest that about 15% of Internet traffic is type-in/bookmark traffic. That’s a very respectable number, but not nearly a majority. A much larger proportion comes from search-engine result pages. So if Google determines that .NYC is meaningful for searches where “new york” is a search term, then that will drive traffic to .NYC sites.

    I don’t disagree that in the early days at least, new TLDs are going to have very little typed-in traffic. So, if someone were to suggest that a new TLD needs to live or die on typed-in traffic, I would agree that it’s not a very good idea. But the vast majority of Internet traffic comes from other sources, and although it’s painful to lose up to 15% of traffic to someone else, that number will come down over time. Also, although I may make a mistake from time to time (e.g. craigslist.com instead of .org), I usually know that I have, and re-navigate to find the correct site. So a site owner using a new TLD won’t “lose” all of the type-in traffic.

    New TLDs are going to re-introduce semantic meaning to extensions. .COM, .INFO, and .BIZ mean nothing. .NET used to mean something, but doesn’t any more. .ORG still retains meaning as a place for not-for-profits. .NYC will mean New York City, and that will aid user comprehension and reduce confusion.

    April 9th, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    Elliot

    Antony – how many applications do you think will be made?

    April 10th, 2009 at 9:11 am

    David J Castello

    Antony:
    DotCom means nothing? Seriously? C’mon. It’s perfectly fine to promote your perspective, but to try and denigrate dotCom to prove your point is ridiculous.

    Also, my statement about Sean Miller was not based upon intuitive traffic. People get hung up on search engines as the proof positive about successful branding and the truth is that search engines have absolutely nothing to do with branding. Successful branding is based 100% upon the viewer’s or listener’s ability to remember (memory) and the number of people who will see or hear an advertisement for a site that ends in dotNYC and then accidentally default to dotCom when they look it up will be much, much higher than 15%.

    April 12th, 2009 at 5:21 am

    Antony Van Couvering

    @David – When I wrote that .com means nothing, I was not trying to insult the TLD in any way, only to say that it really doesn’t mean “commercial” any more, just as .net doesn’t mean “network” anymore. .com today is general catch-all extension and, as you and many others note, the default TLD — which is all fine and wonderful, except that there’s nothing specific or targeted about it.

    While you are correct about a successful brand being memorable, there are (at least) two aspects to memory that are useful for this discussion — recognition and reproduction. Recognition means that someone can identify the brand if it’s put in front of them. Reproduction means that they can recreate (by speaking, typing, whatever) the brand entirely from memory. Reproduction is much much harder than recognition, as anyone who has taken a language test in high school or college can attest — it’s a lot easier to read French than to speak it.

    A user looking at a search engine result page or a link only has to recognize a brand in order to click — here the advantage of the “default” .com is negligible, especially because the search result page or the website containing the link will provide lots of context and other clues about what the “correct” choice is.

    A user reproducing a brand by typing it in to a browser has a much harder task. They are much more likely to get it wrong and end up with a misspelling or a misremembering — which can easily include the TLD extension.

    In either case, a very high percentage of people get it “right.” In the case of recognizing a brand and clicking it, the percentage is very high; in the case of type-in navigation, user error is higher, but certainly not even close to a majority, especially given that so much of type-in traffic is either to a frequently-used site where a mistake is immediately recognized and corrected (which I would not count as a navigation) or is from a bookmark.

    So, if 15% of all traffic is type-in and the rest from search, and mistaken navigation is rare in search and not a majority from type-ins, then the actual % of mistaken navigation is much less than 15%, and will decline over time as the default position of .com declines.

    This is clearly already the case in Europe, Asia, and Canada, where multiple TLDs are the norm; there is no reason to suppose it will be any different in the United States. That’s still a lot of mistaken traffic, and owners of .com names will still benefit, but as percentage it’s small, and certainly not enough to outweigh the benefits of a great name to the left of the dot, compared to a mediocre name with a .com at the end.

    Truthfully, if you were registering a new name, would you rather own hotels.nyc or gothamlodging.com?

    April 12th, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    David J Castello

    Antony:
    Good points all, but asking me choose between hotels.nyc or gothamlodging.com is really stacking the deck. To be honest, I wouldn’t choose either, but I would resell hotels.nyc to a starry eyed speculator (who’d spent a lot on dotMe) in an instant.

    The power of the Internet lies in its limitless reach. And that is where some of these Geo TLDs may lose their luster. Yes, you can capture the “flavor” of a city by branding yourself with a dotNYC or dotParis, but most business owners, including myself, wouldn’t consider branding (limiting?) ourselves with anything but dotCom because all other TLDs, including ccTLDs, brand somewhat contrary to the power of the Internet. DotCom is the definitive brand for the Internet because it has no boundries. They don’t call it the dotCom revolution for nothing. Tim Berners-Lee (the father of the WWW) makes a strong case against new TLDs here: http://www.w3.org/DesignIssues/TLD

    And as I’ve written on this blog before, we had a powerful experience with Rate.com. Rate.net spent a small fortune on advertising and Rate.com’s traffic immediately spiked nearly 1200%. You and I may be too deep in this business to fully understand all the reasons. The bottom line is that the herd thinks differently, they react differently and they will always have the final say about our business.

    April 12th, 2009 at 7:07 pm

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