A tale of two Chinese unicorns and their domain strategies
June 1, 2019 (Sat). One night in the cold winter of 2015, several engineers went to the streets of Shanghai to test a crazy idea: Would someone rent a bike left on the street without operator assistance? They placed some 50 bikes on the sidewalks and went home.
When they opened their computers the next day, they were excited to see movement of some of the bikes. These were not ordinary bikes but ones equipped with GPS and smart locks which could be unlocked and paid for using a mobile phone. The engineers named their startup "Mobike".
At about the same time, a group of cycling enthusiasts were toying with the same idea too. They turned their project into a company called "OFO". Today, Mobike (摩拜) and OFO (ofo小黄车) are the two largest bike-sharing companies in China and they also operate in many countries across the world.
Now let's look at their domain strategies.
Mobike acquired the brand-matching Mobike.com for US$47,000 and used it on day one of their business. The name is probably based on the words "motorize" and "bike". Because of this visionary insight, they had no problem later when they expanded globally. The company owns Mobike.cn (not used) but not MoBai.com (matching its Chinese brand 摩拜).
OFO on the other hand started on the domain OFO.so (country extension of Somalia). Creativity may be the reason for its choice. If you write the letters in lower case, "ofo" looks like someone riding a bicycle, and "so" sounds like the character 搜 (Pinyin: sou) which suggests searching for bikes to rent. Unfortunately, creativity did not win. In 2017, they had to shell out more than $1 million to acquire OFO.com as their corporate domain. The company does not have a Chinese brand and it does not own OFO.cn.
What can we learn from this story? First of all, .com is a must if you want be be a global player. Even within China, .com takes priority over .cn. Also, an English-based name is preferable. In other words, EnglishDotCom is the best domain strategy if you are aiming big.