How to Name Your Startup

Naming sucks.  Seriously, have you ever had a pet? Did you name it something stupid?  The truth is if you call your hamster Hammie, it really isn’t the end of the world.  But name your startup John Smith and Associates and you’ve got yourself a problem.

I’ve never named a company but I’ve named products a handful of times with decidedly mixed results (See my post on product naming here).  I had 2 conversations with startup founders this week that are trying to decide on a name for their company and I felt their pain.   Here’s what we discussed (take it for what it’s worth, which by the way is exactly what you paid for it):

  1. Findable – The most important thing your company name does is identify you so that people can find you.  That might be tricky if your name is Ubbnoxx.us. The big things to consider is how easy your name is to spell and how unique it looks to search engines.  For example, it would be pretty hard for people to find this blog if I called it RokkettWatcha and naming my site Rocket Launcher might have had me competing with the Guns and Ammo crowd.
  2. Connects to the product/service – Connecting the name to the space you are in helps make it memorable and can help you communicate the value of what you do.  Be careful here though because things can and will change.  Be wary of connecting your name to a specific technology.  Ages ago I worked on a product family called Olectra – the name coming from OLE controls.  When Microsoft changed OLE to ActiveX our stuff looked dated.  Even when it comes to your specific value proposition, chances are you going to make some big pivots so don’t get too specific about things that can and likely will change.
  3. Differentiated – Have a look at other companies in and around the space you will be playing in.  When you pick a name it helps to stand out from the crowd and you want to make sure that there will be no chance of confusion between you and other companies in the space.
  4. Memorable – There is a company that competes with a company I’m working with now called PBInnovations or GRInnovations or something like that. I don’t know, I can never remember what they are called.  Don’t be like them.
  5. Trendy (or not) – You wouldn’t think that something like naming would be so influenced by fashion but it really is!  In the early days of tech we had the big corporate names – International Business Machines, Digital Equipment Corp. Computer Associates.  Then we decided it was cool to shorten those down to acronyms. Then we started calling our companies sort of arty one-word names like Oracle and Apple.  Then all of those names got trademarked and we had to get more creative which gave rise to the made up word names like Accenture and the like.  Then Web 2.0 companies produced their own cheeky version of that which involved taking a word and spelling it all funny like flickr and Digg.  Lately the trend is more to take a couple of words and stick them together like Facebook, Firefox, YouTube, etc.  This post – 10 company name types on TechCrunch from TheNameInspector is a great read if you are looking for ideas.  There are pluses and minuses to each of these approaches but be aware that 5 years from now we’ll be creating names in a new way.
  6. You CAN rename your company later – yes, it will be a bit of a pain, but it isn’t the end of the world.  OnStartups had a great post a while back detailing the process OfficeDrop went through to rename themselves.  This is a good thought to keep in mind while you are picking a name because, hey, you named your cat Whiskers didn’t you?

Good luck (you’ll need it).

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42 thoughts on “How to Name Your Startup”

  1. Would also add a suggestion about pronounceable names, too. Every time I go to a trade show, I see company names where I have to stop and say, “Help me out here. How do you say your company name?” People try to get clever and wind up with something that could be pronounced 3 or 4 different ways. Not good. Most are so bad they are memorable because you can’t remember them 5 minutes later.

    1. Hi Tim,
      Thanks for the comment – I totally agree with that. If I can’t figure out how to say a company name, I avoid saying it. So much for word of mouth marketing….
      April

  2. I don’t like all of these mis-spelled names, I can never figure out how I’m supposed to spell them let alone say them.

    1. I think people do it because they have great Google ranking. The problem, as you point out, is that that only holds true if you can figure out how to spell it in the first place 🙂
      April

  3. Great post. Never had to name a company (not at that level) but product naming is just as bad.

    And for the LOVE OF GOD, keep the engineers our of the decision loop. You will either get references to whatever video game is rockin, or some unintelligible string of letters and numbers.

    1. Thanks for the comment Geoffrey. When I worked in telecom there was a culture of naming products with names and dashes. I never did understand that. 🙂
      April

  4. Jonathan Beech

    We have a corporate naming standard at my company for products which guarantees that everything is named something really catchy like Word Processor or Browser. Yeah, that stuff is going to just FLY off the shelves.

    1. Oh I feel your pain on that one. We had a pretty strict naming policy at IBM when I worked there. I was responsible for naming a product called IBM WebSphere Information Integration Server. Try working that into your marketing materials. It later got changed to IBM InfoSphere Information Server – better but still pretty long and there’s a lot of “info” in there still.
      It used to frustrate me but I totally understood the need for a naming standard. When you are dealing with literally hundreds of products it gets pretty hard for customers to find what they are looking for. Descriptive names help with that.
      Still, it makes for some pretty darn boring product names…
      April

      1. April, we at IBM as still as inventive as ever when it comes to product names. We just launched our public cloud called IBM Smart Business Development and Test on IBM Cloud.

        I have an idea. You need to get an iPhone app where you put some of the attributes you describe in this post and then shake it. See what name comes out. Can’t guarantee that you will beat iFart but I would pay $0.99 for it.

        1. LOL – I love that – IBM Smart Business Development and Test on IBM Cloud – it just rolls off the tongue!
          I’ll get working on that iPhone app. Once i get it built, I will build an app for the IBM naming folks to use that says “Should I approve this name?” and you shake it and it always says “No.”
          Yeah, I probably won’t be retiring early on that one… 😉
          April

  5. The biggest problem is over-naming. Companies like GE and Sprint have 1000s of offers sold under their master brand name. So why do start-ups create a name for everything they sell?

    -axle

    1. Hi Axle,
      Thanks for the comment. Having worked at a couple of very large companies I see your point. At IBM naming was a real issue. Most startups start out with only 1 or 2 offerings and often aren’t thinking about how things might fit into a naming architecture. Nor should they, I think. It’s not that hard to rename things down the road. I’m a big fan of having the company name and the product name be the same for most startups. It’s easier to do branding and since nobody knows about you at the start anyway, it’s better to have only one thing for customers to remember instead of 2. That said, as the company grows that can be a real problem so something will have to change. Lots of companies never make it to that stage though so it’s the kind of problem you’re happy to have 🙂
      April

  6. Good post April. I’d like to recommend everybody to verify their new names to eliminate inappropriate words in different languages. You can pay companies to help you with this or use the free site above. Do not repeat misstakes like Honda’s car “Fitta” which didn’t work out on the Swedish market 🙂

  7. Pingback: How to Choose a Meaningful Name for Your Startup « Zeus River

  8. Pingback: How to Choose a Meaningful Name for Your Startup - Zeus River

  9. I work at a business naming consulting agency called http://www.namella.com. 

    One of the biggest things that people miss is that when you’re thinking to yourself “What do I name my business?” or “Business name ideas,” is that they should be thinking of the intersection of two things, brand-ability and SEO quality. Everyone starts with the brand and most of the time neglect what Google thinks of your name. Our process is to start with SEO scores and work backwards to find a brand that fits and works beautifully with the company’s image. 

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