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Over 50% of new startups don’t use .COM domains

If you founded a startup before 2006, odds are you’d pick a .com domain for your website. That’s what Y Combinator (YC)-backed startups did. From their first two years of investment — including apps like Wufoo, Scribd, and Reddit — every startup YC invested in used a .com.

Then, slowly, other top-level domains (TLDs) started showing up. These include .fm for podcast startups, .tv for video-focused teams, .io for its geeky reference to input/output, and .co, likely for its similarity to .com.

At first, these other domains were supplementary, with .com being everyone’s first choice. You’d add extra words to get a .com that worked with your brand, as Dropbox did with their early getdropbox.com domain. You’d only look at other TLDs if your .com wasn’t available and you couldn’t or didn’t want to pay premium prices to purchase it from the current registrant. 

During the first five years of YC investment, from 2005 to 2009, only five out of 145 startups used something other than a .com.

And then everything changed.

Here comes every TLD

YC startup TLDs 2005-2022

The first fun, unique TLDs weren’t intended as such. They were region-specific domains, such as .tv, run by the Polynesian island Tuvalu. There was also .io, nominally reserved for the British Indian Ocean Territory, and .fm, which was the Federated States of Micronesia’s TLD. They worked surprisingly well for tv, data, and audio-related startups, but that was a happy coincidence.

Once ICANN relaxed the rules and let anyone propose a new TLD in 2012, the floodgates opened, and suddenly your domain could end in seemingly anything. Companies registered their names as TLDs; Canon, the camera and printer company, registered .canon and uses for international sites, for example, such as asia.canon.

Startups quickly joined the fray. It wasn’t that they started buying unique TLDs; a $185,000 non-refundable application fee plus $25k/year in ongoing fees to run a new TLD is a bit steep even for a venture-backed startup. But enough new TLDs popped up that 2013 was the last hurray for .com, with 95% of YC-backed startups choosing it. It was a steady downturn from there.

In 2022, only 49% of YC-backed startups used a .com. The rest were split between 62 other TLDs, including .app, .ai, .dev, .tech, .xyz, and more.

Part of the problem is that all the “good” .com’s seem to be taken. Over two and a half decades of being the most popular TLD means almost every dictionary word — and plenty of fake words besides — have already been registered. Maybe they’re for sale, but for a startup, your scarce funds are often better used to hire staff and invest in R&D. 

On the flip side, the new TLDs offer truly unique opportunities. If you’re building an app, registering a .app (as we did for Reproof.app) makes sense from a branding perspective. Bit.ly did even better, blending their TLD into their brand name. Notion started out with Notion.so, and it became enough part of their branding that they stuck with that as their primary domain, even after acquiring their .com domain.

The decreasing usage of .com for new sites held up when you look at other startup communities. On Product Hunt, for example, of the new products shared over the past two years that hit their top thousand most popular list, 49% used a .com in 2021, while only 40% used a .com in 2022.

Or, on Hacker News, a startup-focused discussion board run by YC, you can look back at the most popular “Show HN” posts that showcased new products from the past month, year, and of all time. Of the hundred most popular sites shared there, ever, 51% used a .com, followed by 17% with a .io. But as you get closer to today, the numbers go down. Over the past year, only 44% of Show HN sites had a .com, while 8% used .app and .io, respectively. And over the past month, only 38% used a .com — with .app up to 11% and .io at 9%.

YC startup unique TLDs 2005-2022

Pour one out for .fm, which was the sole TLD other than .com used by YC startups in 2017, and rarely otherwise. Same for .ly, with a window of popularity in 2010 (prompted, perhaps, by Bit.ly’s popularity as the original default link shortener on Twitter) before being outshined by other TLDs.

The same goes for .tv, .bio, and .me, each with a brief time of popularity among startups, only to then be ignored in subsequent years.

Even the old stalwarts of .net and .org struggle to gain popularity among startups. The TLD .net was used by 3% of YC’s 2011 batch, while .org usage peaked at 5% in the 2014 batch before returning to 1% or less.

Some TLDs, though, have steadily grown their share of the startup market. The first was .io, starting with 2% of the startup share in 2018 and steadily rising to its 11% share in this year’s YC batch. Then .co started a bit later, with 2% in 2012, growing to 6% this year.

Then there are the newly popular TLDs. With OpenAI’s GPT-3 and DALL-E, among other tools powering the AI market, it’s no surprise that .ai is growing fast, from a 1% share in 2014 to a 6% share today. The TLD .app, a newer TLD started in 2018 by Google, captured 1% that first year and this year, it was used by 3% of new startups. Another even newer star is .xyz,  which also came up on Namecheap’s top ten new TLDs in 2020. It’s a TLD that could stand for anything and was first seen this year on YC’s startup list, with 3% of new startups using it. All three were also popular with sites on Product Hunt and Show HN, too.

Chicken holding TLDs

Which TLD should you pick?

If a .com is available for your company’s name, it’s hard to argue against grabbing it. After all, .com’s still the most popular TLD; you can’t go wrong with it.

But if you have to add extra words to your company’s name to get the .com, it’s worth checking around to see if there’s a TLD that’s a better fit.

When we looked around for domains when starting Reproof, for example, we considered several options, including .us, .is, and .io — but .app felt like the best option. We’re building an app, and will tell people to “go download Reproof app.” The .app TLD felt natural. Spreadsheet app Equals co-founder Bobby Pinero told me he felt the same about using .app for his startup — something that was even easier since his co-founder already owned it. He reported “no hesitation in trying to build a multi-billion dollar business on the .app domain.”

If possible, get creative. Just as Rinkevicius and his team were building Resonance as a job board, and the .careers TLD seemed like the perfect match. “The complexity you need to add to your name to have a .com was not feasible, so we looked at .io and other modern startups, and they were mostly taken,” said Rinkevicius. Then they found .careers, perfect for a place where you’d discover your next career move, and resonance.careers was born.

Then once you’ve got your domain, it’s time to plan out your links and UX copy for pricing, help, about pages, and more — something that, surprisingly enough, is more standardized than TLDs today. 72% of startups put their Pricing page at domain.tld/pricing and 61% have a Contact page at domain.tld/contact — far more than the number of startups that use a .com today. You’re better off using whatever TLD you want and following best practices for the popular copy and pages on your site than you are buying a .com and putting your product details and help on non-standard pages.

Research Data: View the full TLD data in our original Google Sheets spreadsheet. YC data via YC Startup Directory and Akshay Bhalotia’s YC Company Scraper; Hacker News Trending data via Daniel Cook; Product Hunt data from Leaderboard for Product Hunt via Pesto.

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Matthew Guay avatar

Matthew Guay

Matthew Guay is co-founder of Reproof, a new collaborative writing platform. Formerly, he was founding editor of Capiche and Zapier’s senior writer. More articles written by Matthew.

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