Is Your Startup Named Right?

October 14, 2013
By Rakesh Sharma



Serial entrepreneur Mike Rauta took eight years to figure out an appropriate name for his last startup, an after-school tutoring service.

He started with Foundations for Education. A couple of years later, that name was shortened to a combination of letters and numbers that did not make much sense.

Eventually, though, Rauta settled on Think. “Still, it took us eight years to get there,” he says.

For his next startup, Rauta consulted Lynn Nichols, a name development consultant. After a process that involved extensive discussions and analysis of his company’s goals and objectives, Nichols offered a couple of choices to Rauta. He chose Pivvit (a play on pivot) because it captures the changed nature of his commerce platform, which combines shopping with social causes.

“Just like in retail (where physical location is considered important), a name is like an address for a startup,” says Rauta.

Names might seem like simple things. But, in an increasingly cluttered information highway, startup names are important markers for startups to distinguish their products from competition. A new breed of consultants – name developers – are helping startups come up with the right name that fits their product and brand.

“Names generate emotional responses,” says Paul Parkin, creative director of San Francisco-based SALT branding. Parkins agency is responsible for  terms such as Wifi (which was developed for the Wifi consortium) and company names such as Jawbone (a product design agency that designed one of the first wearable technology products). “They are incredibly personal things, as anyone who has named a child knows,” he says.

However, there is a difference between personal names and company names.

Children grow up to have personalities that help distinguish them from other adults with similar names. For example, my namesake is the first Indian astronaut in space. Despite the balding pate that we share, it is fairly easy to distinguish between us (the main point of reference being that he made history while I am history).

Plus, personal names are not used as verbs. As attractive as it may sound, “to armstrong” is rarely used for someone who is aspiring to become an astronaut. However, we Google, Facebook, and Tweet all the time.

Those names are an evolution for technology products.

Previously, technology companies rarely experimented with names. International Business Machines or IBM’s name does not leave much doubt about the company’s business. Although it entered daily lexicon as a synonym for photocopying, Xerox hardly sounds like a consumer product. With its unconventional name, Apple broke the naming convention (and mould) back in the 1970s. Since then, technology companies have mainstreamed their names and products. Consumers have responded accordingly.

In fact, twenty-five technology companies, including well-known brands such as Apple and Google, made the cut recently in an Adweek survey that measured emotional responses from consumers to major brands. However, brands are an eclectic collection of characteristics. Names are an important one of those characteristics.

Good Names And Bad Names: A Case Of Priorities?

“If there is only one thing that you could tell your audiences, what would it be?” is Lynn Nichols value proposition to startups. I met her at the recent Inside 3D printing conference in San Jose. In a conference that was about hardware and 3D printers, she was selling a soft skill: name development.

Nichols, who is a former Harvard and Berkeley linguistics professor, started her company in 2011 after helping a student name his startup. According to her, name development is a combination of competitive analysis, positioning, and a brand story. “So startups looking for “just” a name in fact get more than a name,” she says.

After attending a conference recently, Nichols told me that 75-80 percent of startup names there were “poor.” She is not fond of acronyms as names. Fanciful takes on daily objects are also out. For example, Korean company Samsung’s attempt to conflate a smartphone with the inter-galactic vastness of our galaxy does not impress her. “No one’s going to say, “Hand me the Galaxy,”” she says, referring to a colloquial use of the product’s name.

Apple’s iPhone wins her approval. “That (Apple) is the gold standard,” she says.

Apple, however, is the exception rather than the rule in a tech industry dominated by companies with unimaginative names. Consider the functional- and prosaic-sounding Microsoft, arguably one of the most successful technology companies of all time. Or, the more recent Salesforce, a name that conjures legions of sales teams marching as soldiers.

Part of the problem for this is due to the low value accorded to names in a startup’s scheme of things.

After spending “a few hours over a couple of days,” Paul Baumgart, cofounder of the no-nonsense-named, came up with a name that was “reasonably relevant and memorable.”

“It wasn’t a very involved process,” he says.

Mihir Sarkar, co-founder of Musikara, a music technology startup, took a more personal approach. The MIT graduate wanted a unique name that combined his Indian roots with the startup’s domain: music. “I think a name should mean something to the founders,” he says.

Two notable companies – Google and Twitter – both mean something to their founders. The former is a misspelling of a large number while the latter was named after an extensive dictionary search.

“Short bursts of communication, like a birdsong,” is how Laurel Sutton, principal at Catchword Branding, characterizes Twitter’s name. “It is also fun and playful, which is a good match with the company’s personality,” she adds. Of Google, she says it can be an “an empty vessel who don’t know what a googol is.” “The repeated letter “o” could look like eyes; the name itself could be that of a children’s toy,” she says.

According to her, good company names share common characteristics. “They are memorable, easy to spell and pronounce and reflect something important about the entity name,” she says.

To that list, Parkin from SALT adds other adjectives. They roll off his tongue with the practised ease of a human thesaurus: descriptive, suggestive, arbitrary, and fanciful. Some names, according to him, last despite lagging product sales. As an example, he says he didn’t expect RIM’s flagship product name – Blackberry – to last. “But, it has lasted inspite of their product,” he muses.

On the other hand, bad names are, well, just bad.

Sutton points to Zaarly (which is hard to spell), Clinkle ( which has negative associations, according to her) and, my personal favorite, Shodog.

At first glance, that name sounds like a rapper’s name. Picture a hip bro, talking cool jargon, and spinning awesome beats. Closer inspection, however, reveals that the startup is, in fact, a staid mobile communications platform.

This is not to say that being different is not good. Distinctiveness (of the Google and Twitter variety) is good and can add to a product’s value.

During the previous dotcom boom, Parkin’s branding agency worked with the oddly-named Fatbrain, an online bookstore for professional and technical books. The name, according to Parkin, was deliberately provocative. Fatbrain got fat returns when the startup was acquired for $64 million by Barnes & Noble.

So, how do you name a startup?

In their broad outlines, name developers follow a similar process.

An initial consultation and analysis of the company’s goals and objectives is followed by a linguistic and context analysis. In the former, language patterns are analyzed while the latter resolves cultural nuances of a name.

For example, Nichols contextualized Baungart’s startup name across multiple contexts. “Did you check (on) whatweorder? Did you check (on) what we ordered? Or, did you look at whatweorder,” she reasoned (I did not inform her about the actual domain for his startup). “There could be some misunderstanding in spoken language here,” she concludes. “I would guess they are changing it in a couple of years,” says Parkin, adding that the name does not have lasting value. For his part, Baumgart welcomes the latter conclusion because it presupposes success. “It’s a good problem to have down the line,” he says.

Sarkar’s approach resonates with Nichols. “Nice stress pattern (strong weak strong weak) very sayable.” she says. “Good sayable rhythm in a name is a plus for a music platform name.” Remember, however, this is only part of the analysis.

From these analyses, a list is constructed and, after consultation, whittled down to a few names. More analysis (this time for legal issues, domain availability and trademark issues) follows.

Although it might sound long, the time period for the entire process is flexible. For example, Nichols says that, although she prefers four to six weeks of lead time and consultation, she can work with startup founders to reduce it to a week.

With average costs that range between single thousands to tens of thousands of dollars, name development is not cheap. As a result, several agencies. such as SALT, offer the service as part of a larger branding initiative. Some, such as Sutton and Nichols, prefer to offer it as a standalone service. The delineation between name development and branding works well for startups, according to Nichols. “They (startups) can shop a range of styles,” she says, referring to the range of name developers available for startups.

Would You Pay For A Name?

“I believe people can get used to any name,” says Sarkar, adding that while their company’s individual products might differ, the company name will remain “as is.” But, his approach to naming remains personal; as such, he is not in favor of paying a name development consultant.

Baumgart, on the other hand, says he might consider the idea after a series B investment for his company. His list of priorities is simple: product followed by cost-effective pricing and, subsequently, effective branding through name development.

That list of priorities is not necessarily wrong.

Sutton and Nichols says they have worked with several entrepreneurs who have been asked to change their names after receiving venture investments. However, both agree that naming is only part of the game.

“A good name cannot substitute for a crap product,” says Parkin from SALT. Serial entrepreneur Mike Rauta took eight years to figure out an appropriate name for his last startup, an after-school tutoring service.He started with Foundations for Education…


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