Rebranding is a difficult process, but rebranding and simultaneously acquiring a premium one-word .COM domain can be even tougher. In this edition of On the Record, I speak to John Milinovich, a serial entrepreneur and former employee of Pinterest and Google.
Now John is the founder of Aesthetic, a design platform that started life as Plato Design. In this interview, we discuss his rebranding process as well as how he acquired Aesthetic.com, and why Y Combinator founder Paul Graham’s philosophy on domains has shaped his own appreciation for ultra-premium domains.
Can you give us a brief overview of your own entrepreneurial background and a sense of what Aesthetic does?
Both my parents were entrepreneurs and so were my Dad’s parents so I guess you can say that entrepreneurship is in my blood! I grew up right as the internet was hitting the mainstream. My first “business” was a Pokémon card marketplace, where I’d go to trade shows to buy and sell collectibles. In high school I sold t-shirts and managed a local band, and then in college I created my first side project with friends.
I started my first “real” company in 2013, called URX. We realized that the core technology behind the web—hyperlinks didn’t work for mobile apps, and we figured out a way to change that. We ended up building a mobile-first search- and ads-platform, and got acquired by Pinterest in 2016.
We started Aesthetic in 2018 after realizing that we’re in the middle of a Cambrian Explosion for digital content, but the way that businesses design content hasn’t really changed much since the advent of new creator tools. Aesthetic is a design platform that enables businesses to create brands, websites, social media graphics, digital products and other visual content. We’ve built a tool-kit for non-designers to generate or request quality design assets.
Aesthetic started life as Plato. Why did you initially brand the company as Plato? Did the possible availability of exact match domains such as Plato.com ever come into your mind when branding, and when did you consider rebranding?
When we started Plato Design in 2018, we chose our name expecting it to be temporary. We liked the name because Plato’s theory of forms reminded us of the way computer vision models work by learning representations of objects by analyzing many examples, and we thought this was an interesting homage for a tech-enabled design agency.
But, we knew it wasn’t unique; Plato has a long history of usage within the tech industry that’d make it difficult to become, “the Plato” on the web or be able to get a trademark. Up until our rebrand, we’d kept Plato under the radar, and didn’t want to dial up our marketing until we knew we could reliably support an increased scale of work while maintaining our quality.
A few months ago we knew we were close to that point, and thought it was the appropriate time to rethink our name.
Was the availability of Aesthetic.com an influence when ultimately deciding on the Aesthetic brand name?
Yes, definitely! We started the process by coming up with a list of all the design and technology words that we could think of. Bonus points if they were also somehow related to philosophy. After coming up with about 50 names, we went through the process of creating portmanteaus and increased the list’s size to around 70 names.
From here, we came up with a list of 5 names that we liked the most and moved into the domain name search. Through this process, Aesthetic immediately rose to the top of the list.
How did you go about acquiring the Aesthetic.com domain?
After making contact with the current domain name owner, we went about understanding their incentives and goals. After learning that they own a mid-sized portfolio of domain names, I knew that they’d be open to negotiation.
The sticker price on the domain was $100,000, which was well outside our budget, but I knew that he was in the business of making deals. After asking for his rationale on the price, I came up with my own data to support a lower price. I also asked if he’d be open to an in-kind exchange for some other domains that we had from prior projects.
After going back and forth a few times, we ended up with a trade for a prior domain name as well as a multi-year payment plan with little upfront payment. This hit both of our goals and made both parties feel good about the outcome.
How much did you agree to acquire Aesthetic.com for?
How did you go about evaluating the worth of Aesthetic.com to you? Did your recent funding round have an influence on your budget or perceived value of the domain to your company?
There’s no real data that you can use to evaluate the worth of a domain. Instead it was all on the perceived value of the new brand in market, which we can already say has been a dramatic business mover for us. The funding certainly helped, but we didn’t want to spend too much of our money on a domain.
How does owning Aesthetic.com help you stand out from competitors in what is a very competitive industry?
Aesthetic is the perfect name for what we do. Not only is its definition, “a set of principles underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist or artistic movement,” but it’s also a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of beauty and taste, as well as the philosophy of art. We couldn’t imagine a better name for a company that brands companies so they can feel cohesive as they grow. Startups are used to, “moving fast and breaking things,” and aesthetics are almost always an afterthought. We couldn’t imagine a better name for a company that’s flipping the traditional agency model on its head to help early-stage companies establish a cohesive brand that they can rely on as they grow.
What has been the early reaction/feedback from clients and employees alike on your overall rebranding, and your acquisition and usage of Aesthetic.com?
We’ve received a lot of positive feedback so far! People that knew us before as Plato absolutely love the rebrand and new customers are able to remember our name far better than before since it is so clear what it means.
In your previous company, URX, you used the URX.com domain. What’s your philosophy on using premium exact-match .COM domains?
I am a big follower of Paul Graham’s advice that companies should own the .com for their name. If you can’t do this, you should find a new name.
With a career that includes Google, Pinterest, and founding your own companies with investment from the likes of Paul Graham, what advice can you give to any entrepreneurs who might be considering acquiring a premium .COM domain?
It’s well worth it, but pick carefully! Don’t rush into buying a fancy domain just because you found something available. Sit with it for at least a few weeks to see if you like it as much then as you did out the gates.
This interview has been edited for clarity.