The world's biggest AI startup is from China but its domain is not .cn
July 7, 2018 (Sat). My college days at The Chinese University of Hong Kong were about fun, friends, and sometime aimless activities. Yet, to some, it's a place to germinate great ideas. Take Xiaoou TANG and Li XU, a CUHK professor and a PhD student respectively who in 2014 had an "aha!" moment and founded the AI startup SenseTime.
Acclaimed for its facial recognition algorithm, SenseTime's technologies have been applied in many areas such as mobile devices, robotics, and autonomous cars. In just four years, the startup has expanded both regionally within China and globally by setting up offices in Japan. Four funding rounds totaling $1.6b have propelled SenseTime to become the world's biggest AI startup according to Fortune.
Now, let's look at the startup's brands. The full name of the company is SenseTime Group Limited in English and Beijing Shi Shang Tang Keji Kaifa Youxian Gongsi (北京市商汤科技开发有限公司) in Chinese, but it is commonly known as SenseTime and Shang Tang (商汤) respectively. So, the company's corporate brands are SenseTime and Shang Tang. Note that they started with an English brand and then created its Chinese equivalent by finding Chinese characters which rhyme with the English name. Funny though, Shang Tang literally means "commercial soup" but it is actually the name of the legendary founder of the Shang Dynasty (c.1600-1046 BC).
The startup aspired to become a global player on day one, as seen in their choice of a brand made up of two simple English words "sense" and "time". "sense" is related to their research into human senses and "time" may be related to their belief that now is the time to deploy such technologies. The Chinese founders also chose to build their business not on their country extension .cn but the global extension .com. (SenseTime.com follows the English+dotCom domain strategy I advocate for global players.)
Using my favorite tool Wayback Machine, I investigated the history of the domain and found out that SenseTime.com was first registered in 2001 by a domain investor likely from Korea but was not used for a long time. In 2014, the domain had a list price of $3,500 when it was picked up by the AI startup. Let's pause and reflect on this transaction. A mere investment of $3,500 put the company on the path to becoming a major global player! That's the power of a domain.
The founders are probably not concerned about acquiring related domains, as they don't seem to own SenseTime.cn and both ShangTang.com and ShangTang.cn are still available for purchase. I've found no evidence of their owning related domains in other extensions such as .org, .net, and even the hot .ai, not to mention the less popular Chinese extensions such as .网 址 (web address), .公司 (company), and .在线 (online).
What can we learn from this story? First, domains are powerful as they put you on the world map with just a small investment. Domains based on English words are viable both inside and outside China, and .com is the first choice. In other words, English+dotCom is an effective domain strategy for those who aspire to become global players, regardless of where you are physically located.