I’ve always found naming things to be particularly challenging. That is because a bad name is way worse than a good name is good - naming your car the “No-Go” (as the Chevy Nova was in Spanish) is far worse than a decent name like the Passat is good. Naming is, unfortunately, a negative sum game.
And yet, it’s a decision that is often taken incredibly lightly when stating a company because it seems to pale in comparison to the others (where will we get money, who should we start this with, what should we do?)
I can’t help but take this issue seriously because my name (Stefan Seltz-Axmacher) is bad across most dimensions. It’s long, unfamiliar, and incredibly unphonetic. I get a comment about it almost every week. In my entire life few strangers have ever read it off a list and pronounced it the way I do. In fact, probably over 50% of the people I’m closest to pronounce it incorrectly (I say Stef-IN Seltz-Ox-Mocker, in case you wondered).
When coming up a name for your startup (or any business, really) there are a few general guidelines that you should bear in mind.
A good name should be a word which is familiar to your target audience. If it’s a term or concept they already know and associate with something positive, it’s easy for them to move past the name and productively onto the core of what your company.
If your name is super unfamiliar the beginning of many of your conversations will be focused on it, spoiling some percentage of them. My first job was at Gigya, a SaaS company, where I made cold calls to prospective clients. 10% of the calls started with “Gigya!? What’s that? Can you spell it?”
If that lowered conversion rates by 1%, choosing Gigya as a name might have cost them millions of dollars over a more familiar name.
Another common trend is to take a word foreign to your users with a relevant meaning. A good example of this is Rakuten, the rebranded name of Buy.com to match its Japanese acquirer. While there are a number of reasons why the rebrand makes sense, it probably doesn’t outweigh the cost of their national ad campaign focused on teaching customers how to pronounce their name. From experience, I can tell you that’s time you never get back.
At a high level you don’t want to spend time educating your customers on why your name is relevant to your company. You want to spend that energy educating them on why your product is relevant to their needs.
The easiest way to have a familiar name is to co-opt a previously existing word, ideally one that you can change ever so slightly (like Zenefits) or one used just enough to be recognizable but so rarely that you can come to own the word (like Uber).
The one dimension that my name is good at, though, is specificity. I’ve almost always been the only Stefan in a room, no matter how it’s spelled. And I’m the only Seltz-Axmacher in the world, which makes my Google Alerts incredibly relevant.
A good name should be one that you can own in your primary markets. Outside of german-speaking countries, the word uber has been entirely subsumed by the brand Uber. Throughout the much larger (and product-relevant) English-speaking world, however, Lyft does still not own the word lift. I would reckon a guess that the company has spent tens to hundreds of millions of dollars on search advertising to regain its most frequent misspelling.
More than just owning the word, you shouldn’t choose a name that directly puts you into name competition with an established company. I once knew an early entrepreneur whose 2-person company was named Tablo, pitting them head-to-head with 4000-person Tableau Media. They didn’t win, and 2 years into the company had to make the expensive choice of changing their name.
Name competition is the stupidest type of competition. If you lose everything costs more. If you win, you still need to build a business.
Names, like Newtonian apples, are subject to the laws of gravity and will become shorter as time goes on. Just as Starsky Robotics became Starsky, and Ubercab Technologies became Uber; company names are said too frequently to not become shorter as time goes on.
This turns out particularly poorly when the namers refuse to have an initially disciplined naming process and choose something long and wordy. These sorts of names might become shortened into confusing, forgettable and hard to own acronyms (like the CIA - whether the intelligence agency or the prestigious cooking school). Alternatively a wordy name might be abandoned altogether for malign nickname (like how the Troubled Asset Relief Program is now primarily known as ‘The Auto Bailout.’)
Your company can have a multiple word name, but you should pick it knowing that one of those words will eventually be the commonly known name of the company.
With the above principles in mind, form a list of 10-30 potential names for your company. A good place to look is a thesaurus, or any glossaries of words in your industry. For Starsky Robotics I ended up going through the wikipedia entry for trucking slang where I found Starsky & Hutch as a code word for team trucking.
Starsky was a fairly recognizable word among older blue collar Americans (a big part of my audience), and it was almost only used in conjunction with the 70s TV show or it’s 2004 cinematic remake. It was a familiar and specific name that we could quickly come to own (within months of coming out of stealth, we were the top google result for our name).
After you have your initial list (which you shouldn’t spend more than 5-10 hours on), form a short list and email them to your friends and early supporters as a survey. See which ones people hate and which they respond well to. And then make a decision, and stick with it.
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