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Who Are the Major New gTLD Applicants and… (Part Six: Starting Dot)

...what is their approach to bringing new domain names to the market?

Starting Dot (“SD”) is a French new gTLD applicant which applied for five strings: .ARCHI,  .BIO, .DESIGN, (which has been withdrawn) .IMMO and .SKI. It is the only French applicant to have applied for several open new gTLDs. Some French brands have applied too but as closed Top-Level Domains.

The “Who’s who” of Starting Dot

“The Grand Architect”: the mind behind Starting Dot is Godefroy Jordan. Not only is he the person to contact for questions and communication but Godefroy is also quite ingrained with French politics. So when it comes to playing behind the scenes in French equivalent of the pentagon, he’s a guy I would ask to pick up the phone on my behalf.

The .SKI man: Ironically when I asked Rob to give me some info on himself he was skiing. Rob is the evangelist for .SKI in the snowsports community. His passion has raised awareness for the benefits of a lifestyle new gTLD .SKI in the community and his experience in marketing is helping registrars unlock new opportunities to reach skiers globally.

What are the differences between Starting Dot and the other portfolio applicants?

While Starting Dot may be one of the smaller portfolio applicants, there is a considerable difference here in the way their projects are handled when compared to some of the larger applicants. The .SKI new gTLD is a good example to show how efficient Starting Dot can be at killing a competitor’s application. It is not necessarily a matter of money, but more a matter of whispering the right words in the right ears. Even if I personally believe that no one can really claim to represent the ski community worldwide, Starting Dot, not only convinced some institutions to endorse its project but managed to get one of them to object to its competitor’s application and managed to take it down! This is how the .SKI TLD was recently won by Starting Dot.

To sum up, the difference here was a question of choice: the manner in which Starting Dot applied for its list of strings. All the strings that still are in the ICANN evaluation process were applied for as Community Applications except .BIO—which is technically a “standard” application—and that somehow was handled as if it were a “community” one, with a partnership based on regular consultation with the European Commission, to validate registry policies. At first, I thought it was a community application one but it proved to be listed as an open one. Most other portfolio applicants applied for open generic Top-Level Domain applications as a purely commercial venture without the need to seek external endorsements which seem to be required for ‘community applications’.

Money makes a huge difference too. I was invited to the Starting Dot party in 2012 where the first fund-raising of €1.5 million was announced… not a lot compared to the tens of millions raised by Donuts and Famous Four Media.

The .project

The strategy of applying for for a community application can be a good one for small portfolio applicants since a community applicant will win over any other open applications. However, the effort required to gather enough community support to carry an application through does not make it a viable option for large portfolio players. Community applications bring their own risks in the ICANN evaluation process because you have to be able to prove that you represent the community associated with the string for which you are applying. You also have to be able to prove that it is a valid community and any evaluator or panellist—with or without knowledge of the domain name industry, honest or dishonest, logical or illogical, who hears negative feedback from the community that the application is meant to be supporting can easily stop an application in its tracks… or conversely save it from a wealthy competitor who applied for the same string.

The Starting Dot project is an interesting one because the selected strings are short ones and focus on different communities and in multiple languages. “Archi” is for “architecture” : the same word in English and French and even if it is not the same word in Spanish with “architectura”, the first five letters allow to reach the Spanish, German and… probably many other languages.

Other TLDs such as .SKI and .IMMO follow the same principle. The “open”.BIO string is endorsed too but the TLD remains open to anyone.

Communities are “the key” according to Starting Dot

When writing about new gTLDs those I speak to often say “if applicants had known about what the new gTLD application process would be, very few would have applied”. Once the process was announced, one would have thought that receiving the back-up from a community would grant almost guaranteed access to the TLD.

This is not exactly how it has worked out because it is still impossible to understand how a panellist decides how the claimed representative of a community that is endorsing an application is actually representative of the community or even if it is a ‘valid’ community. Just the same, it is still impossible to understand the logic used behind, and why some strange TLDs are approved while others are not!

Starting Dot seems to have found a way to get its TLDs, but if its communication around them is almost invisible to the public, it is because it also relies on the communities endorsing their applications and granting access to their communications networks. Starting Dot seems to be using these communications networks to varying degrees of effect. According to Starting Dot in January 2014, .ARCHI seems to be doing well in pre-registration.

Will the Starting Dot project work?

When I introduced the first version of the dotVinum project for wine Registries (.wine - .vin and .vino TLDs), I was convinced that wine institutions would endorse, follow the
development, promote and support the project. I still believe that it is a good way to develop a TLD in the long term. Unfortunately, experiences like the .AERO, the .TRAVEL and the .MUSEUM old generic Top Level Domain names have demonstrated the exact opposite.

But there are two differences with Starting Dot:

1. the potential number of registrants for these “old” TLDs was very low : 3,000 museums and 20,000 airports… compared to the 110 million skiers or 2 million architects;

2. the guys running those TLDs were coming from industry related sectors with no marketing or internet skills: Starting Dot is an internet start-up with a web savvy team that handles the projects and that may make a tremendous difference in the end.

These are now old experiences and, with the rising number of new applications and the increasing buzz around them, the development of new community projects deserves to be different in the future.

I am also confident that the .SKI new gTLD is a very good project, as there is a true “ski” community behind it. The success or failure lays in adoption both by the Registrants but probably more importantly adoption by the Registrars. It costs a lot of money to operate a gTLD, way more than most applicants ever considered and there are definite benefits in economies of scale (a fact that has been recognised by the large portfolio applicants).

Whether community applications, with their often more complicated acceptance criteria, will supported by a broad tranche of the Registrar channel is yet to be seen. And, if these strings do start to fail, it is questionable whether a competent buyer (rather than a wealthy crusader) can be found for them.

Let’s point out that the .ARCHI community project was well introduced, Paul Andreu one .ARCHI “super users”, and also…the architect behind the Beijing opera, CDG 2 (the French Airport) and “La Grande Arche”, explained that the .ARCHI will be the link between architects worldwide and his friends from the Architecture Society of China who are backing-up and promoting the .ARCHI in China. In January Starting Dot received pre-registrations from 48 different countries. It all sounds like a dream come true right? Maybe it is .. but to inject just a hint of caution, no matter how grand or noble the vision is, commercial reality suffers from no illusions and has brought more than one grand scheme tumbling down.

Last minute note: Starting Dot’s applications are now listed as Irish ones; applications are handled by “Starting Dot Limited”, which is a 100% subsidiary SD in Ireland.

By Jean Guillon, New gTLDs "only".

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