16 Startups That Became Unicorns and What Their Domain Name Brands Teach Us

2018 Unicorn Domain Names

16 Startups That Became Unicorns and What Their Domain Name Brands Teach Us

By Michael Cyger, Founder of DomainSherpa & Publisher of DNAcademy

Published: June 15, 2018
While there’s less than a 1% chance your startup will become a Unicorn with a valuation of $1 billion, there’s a 100% opportunity for you to learn from the 16 Unicorns of 2018 about their branding and domain name choices.

There’s less than a 1% chance your startup will become a “Unicorn” with a valuation of greater than $1 billion, but there’s a 100% opportunity for you to learn from the 16 Unicorns of 2018 about their branding and domain name choices.

I chose five of the most important characteristics of a domain name and analyzed the latest 16 Unicorns to see what we could learn as entrepreneurs and investors.

This is my analysis.

5 Important Domain Name Characteristics of Unicorn Startups

Before we get to the Unicorns, the five characteristics are:

1. Top-level Domain (TLD)
2. Keyword Type
3. Character Count
4. Word Count
5. Plural vs Singular

Before I get into the companies and their names, I want to first apologize to all my Chinese-speaking audience members. I do not speak Chinese but I’m going to give it my best shot at the four Unicorns from China. Feel free to correct my pronunciation in the comments below. I would appreciate it. 🙂

The 2018 Unicorn Startups

The 16 companies, in alphabetical order, are:

Canva.com – graphic design website
Cabify.com – ride hailing service in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries
Caocaokeji.cn – China-based ride-sharing company
DoorDash.com – food delivery service
Douyu.com – live-stream gaming service like Twitch in China
HeartFlow.com – medical imaging software
Intercom.com – customer communication system
Medmen.com – retail marijuana dispensaries
Meicai.cn – connects Chinese farmers with restaurants
Nubank.com.br – financial products like a no-fee credit card
OrCam.com – AI-equipped technology for the visually impaired
Samsara.com – internet-connected sensors
Snowflake.net – store and analyze data using cloud-based hardware and software
Tempus.com – collects data for efficient cancer care
UIPath.com – automates mundane computer office tasks
Qutoutiao.net – a news and entertainment app in China

TLDs of Unicorn Startups

Let’s take a look at top-level domains, or TLDs, of these billion dollar companies.

Of the 16 Unicorns, 11 are .com, 3 and country code top-level domain names, and 2 are .net.

Without surprise, top-level domain names are dominated by .com, unless a company is operating in only one country like NuBank or Meicai (my ky).

There are a couple of .net TLDs: snowflake.net for example is a great brand that likely couldn’t secure the .com version of their domain name when they launched, but I’m not sure why Qutoutiao went with the .net rather than the .com…but they did.

It’s funny, when I read about these Unicorns they did not provide links so I initially — and incorrectly — assumed that all were .com when I was researching them. I was correct 69% of the time.

What did I take-away? Startups like .com.

And as legendary investor Paul Graham of Y Combinator said in a blog post, “The problem with not having the .com of your name is that it signals weakness. Unless you’re so big that your reputation precedes you, a marginal domain suggests you’re a marginal company.”

It will be interesting to see how many of the non-.com domain named companies upgrade to .com, like Intercom.io did in 2016 when it upgraded to Intercom.com.

Keyword Types of Unicorn Startups

Let’s take a look at the 6 keyword types that DNAcademy teaches.

Keyword types include Generic, Exact Match, Brandable, Acronym, Numeric and Alphanumeric. I’ve done a video on the difference between these 6 types of keywords, and will link to it below this video so you can watch it next.

Here’s what I learned by analyzing these 16 Unicorns:

13 were brandable, 2 were generic, 1 was exact match, and zero were acronym, numeric or alphanumeric.

I believe that every founder would love to have a generic domain name, like Amazon.com, but few have the resources to go big from the start. Even Amazon.com was originally named Cadabra.com, but changed to Amazon.com a year after launch.

Brandables domain names can be acquired relatively inexpensively and allow startups to get going and prove a business model before investing heavily and upgrading to a premium domain name.

For example, NuBank may prove their model in Brazil before expanding to other countries and trying to purchase NuBank.com.

And OrCam, an Israeli startup, combines a word of Hebrew (“or” which means light) with a acronym of English (cam for camera) and likely only cost them $10 to launch.

And in most cases, a domain name upgrade isn’t necessary down the road. Tempus.com and Cabify.com may never need to upgrade.

But in other Unicorn cases, like TheFacebook.com upgrading to Facebook.com and GetDoorbot.com upgrading to Ring.com, upgrades were necessary. It depends on the brandable domain name selected to start.

And I don’t speak Chinese, but I’m going to guess that meicai is an exact match domain names since I’ve read online that it translates to “buy vegetables” (although another article I read said it translated to “beautiful vegetable” which would make it a brandable domain name).

If it is exact match, it is the only exact match domain name of this Unicorn list. Like hotels.com or storage.com, the brand and domain name explains exactly what they do but the past few years most startups have chosen the brandable path, perhaps because they want more flexibility if their business model needs to change, perhaps because exact match domain names in large industries and segments are costly to acquire, or perhaps a combination of the two reasons.

None of these Unicorns have selected an acronym, numeric or alphanumeric domain name.

So, in summary, brandables — which include both made up and combinations of words, are the top pick, followed by single, generic words you can find in the dictionary, followed by exact match domain names with search volume.

Character Length of Unicorn Startups

Now let’s take a look at the character count for each of the 16 Unicorn domain names.

We’ll count left of the dot, or in other words just the length of the second-level domain name.

There were 3 companies with a character count of 5, 6 companies with a character count of 6, one of length 7, two of length 8, three of length 9 and one company with a character count of 10.

The most common length is 6 characters.

What do we learn?

In general — shorter is better, within reason.

These companies may argue that they’d never go with a three character domain, because their brand benefits from the impression their brand leaves with customers. For example, HeartFlow means something, it helps doctors analyze and diagnose patient heart flow problems.

Would they prefer to go with hf.com or heart.com? I’m not sure, but I’d guess no in more cases than not.

So, in summary, shorter domain names are better.

Word Count of Unicorn Startups

Let’s take a look at word count.

7 companies have a single word as their domain name, and 9 companies have two words as their domain name.

What isn’t clear on the graph is that zero companies have three word domain names.

And I want to add that no companies have four word domain names. 🙂

Shorter is better, again within reason. There are no Unicorns with three, four or five word domain names. That’s important to understand.

That’s not to say that three and four word domain names have no value. This is a sample size of 16 Unicorns of 2018.

In summary, one and two word domain names are the way Unicorns are heading.

Plural vs Singular of Unicorn Startups

Finally, the last metric I wanted to analyze is plural versus singular.

It’s a characteristic that many entrepreneurs wrestle with.

Let me put it to rest.

If you’re not selling hotel rooms or cars, then don’t brand as hotels.com or cars.com.

Go with a singular.

100% of the 16 Unicorns of 2018 are using singular domain names with no S at the end of the second-level domain name. Although I will put an asterisk on that statement in that Meicai.cn could translate to “buy vegetables” which could technically be considered a plural.

But if I did that, my point of singular versus plural would be lost so I’m sticking with the “go with singular” to find more value in your domain name branding.

2018 Unicorn Startups Domain Name Summary

That’s it.

I hope you found this video, podcast or article — however you’re consuming it — valuable.

If you did, would you do me a big favor? Would you please go to DNAcademy.com/itunes and leave a review? It helps other entrepreneurs and investors discover our podcast and I would greatly appreciate it.

Finally, if you want to learn a methodology, master a set of tools, and think more analytically on your journey to become a more profitable domain name investor or more effective entrepreneur, consider signing up for DNAcademy.

If you don’t have the funds for tuition, consider buying me a cup of coffee using the link in the right sidebar of this webpage or by visiting buymeacoffee.com/dnacademy. If you’re on YouTube, there’s a link down in the description. All coffee funds raised go to research and editing of new videos like this one.

Thank you so much for making the decision to watch, listen or read the DNAcademy Insights blog.

My name is Michael Cyger and I’m here to help you become a more successful entrepreneur or investor. Please subscribe to this podcast, and I’ll see you in the next episode.

Comments 20

  1. Thank you for the analysis. My favorite is snowflake but it’s really too bad they didn’t get the .com extension. Canva is my second fav because it’s so short.

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      I like both of those too, as well as Tempus. Not sure why, it just sounds significant. πŸ™‚

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  2. Thanks for the analysis. I’m a newbie, and seeing it explained like this is very helpful. The two that quickly stood out to me were medmen.com and cabify.com. IMHO the marketing, branding, advertising, etc for both are pretty obvious and that means more focus on the product or service.

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      My pleasure, John. Thanks for watching.

      What’s interesting related to Cabify is that Uber launched as UberCab.com but changed their name to simply Uber.com when the city authorities in San Francisco sent them a cease and desist order back in 2010: https://techcrunch.com/2010/10/25/ubercab-now-just-uber-shares-cease-and-desist-orders/

      I don’t think this will happen to Cabify as 2010 was early in the ride sharing industry’s history. Just interesting to note. πŸ™‚

  3. I look to invest in names that could be are generic enough for search, a brand by themselves, usually two word combos, only .com and can be easily passed by word of mouth. Spelling and enunciation are very important. Most of the sixteen on that list pass that test.

    I think it helps to describe the business function better in the name. Some of the other unicorns have that presence. SalesForce.com, could be better than Sales.com. The extra word helps define more of a niche, but still very broad. Snowflake.net, I don’t beleive is a great name for a couple of reasons, first it’s a .net. They must lose tons to the .com. Although the word snowflake may seem like a way of describing something unique, what does that have to do with data analytics and this is why it’s not as memorable as a name like KeyInsight.com would be.

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      Hi Andrew,

      Great criteria for investing. Thanks for sharing that so others can learn from what you’re doing.

      I fully agree with your analysis on SalesForce.com. It’s a great example of exactly your strategy for buying brandable domain names.

      Buying a .net domain name is a recipe for disaster for exactly the reason Paul Graham said: β€œThe problem with not having the .com of your name is that it signals weakness. Unless you’re so big that your reputation precedes you, a marginal domain suggests you’re a marginal company.”

      I really like Snowflake.com, however. Yes, it may not be as descriptive of what their business model serves, but it provides a flexible option for them should they have determined that their business needs to change based on customer requirements. It gives them more flexibility. And it checks the box on all criteria of a good domain name.

      Thanks for your thoughts. Have a great weekend!


  4. Hi Mike…
    that is a thorough and solid explanation..and reflecting present trends clearly!


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      My pleasure, Ravi. Thanks for watching and posting a comment. Have a great weekend.

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      There were so many things to look up and research when I was putting this analysis together. You found one statement I made but didn’t actually research! πŸ™‚

      1999 is a pretty old registration date. And it turns out — after I looked at WHOIS History at DomainTools — that OrCam.com was registered many times prior to the current Unicorn’s use. It even once expired at Network Solutions and was picked up again after auction, which maintained the original registration date of 1999.

      OrCam Vision Systems purchased it from Azeras LLC in May or June of 2010, well before the current boom and popularity of brandable domain names. So I’d suspect they probably bought it well back then, but again — me making assumptions. πŸ™‚

      Thanks for commenting so I could dig deeper on this domain, Bludex.

  5. Domaining does not to be completed – specific but not complicated. The sales acronym: KIS(no 2nd “S” needed) works very well in domaining. Thank you for another clear and usable article Michael. I greatly appreciate your insights.

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      Great point, Steven. I’m going to remember the new and improved “KIS” model that you’ve shared. πŸ™‚

      Thanks for taking a moment to post your thoughts.

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  6. THANKS Mike for fantastic info!
    What you think about singular/plural ” googleresearch.com vs googleresearching?
    youtuberesearch.com vs youtuberesearching?
    (Tips: 2 of them are still free to register) Enjoy πŸ™‚
    Best, Domaininnovator Peter

  7. Thanks Michael! Great video and analysis! I liked DoorDash.com the best! Cheers, Carl πŸ™‚

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