The names of today’s celebrity tech companies seem almost obvious and inevitable. How could Google be anything other than Google, with its fun and colorful logo? What would Twitter be like without the cute little bird?
But there was a time when these names, too, had to be thought up. Google was named after a “googol” (10 to the 100th power); Twitter describes phones buzzing in pockets around the world and was allegedly picked out of a hat. If your startup’s at the naming stage, here are four steps to bring you closer to a memorable name.
1. Identify your culture and values
Naming your startup may take place around the same time that you’re forming and shaping your brand. Do you want to be quirky or serious, funny or intellectual, happy or helpful? Before you start thinking of specific names, set some guidelines for the emotion or personality you want to convey. Or, if you already have a few ideas in mind, see if you can identity a common tone or connotation.
“You don’t want to just brainstorm a cute name with your friends, partners, or family members and leave it at that,” says Susan Baroncini-Moe in Business in Blue Jeans. She recommends listing the problems that your target market has, and then coming up with adjectives about the type of person they’d want to solve that problem – like trustworthy, fun, exciting, or personable. Then, look up synonyms for those words, and mix and match different combinations.
The goofy name Koofers, for example, fits their target audience of college students because of its youthfulness. Undroppable – sounding like “unstoppable” – evokes the spirit of determination in high schoolers fighting not to drop out. Treehouse makes learning sound fun, and Betterific captures the happy, positive nature of its community, which brainstorms ways to make the world better.
2. Talk to customers
The reason you can’t just “brainstorm a cute name” with your team and family is because you’re too close to the company. You already know what it does, so you attribute meaning to the name that it might not have. The question really is: what impression will the name give to people who don’t know your company?
Luckily, early startup life should already be filled with talking to customers, as you identify problems and hone in on a target market. You may prefer to have a name by then, but it’s really not necessary. Instead, have a second ear open during those interviews for clues.
“Pay close attention to the people you’re talking to; they just might give you more than you bargain for,” advises Kyle Kesterson, founder and CEO of Freak’n Genius.
If your name includes real words, make sure to focus on the benefits, not the features of the product. BetterDoctor is a much better name than DoctorSearch; Happier is a much better name than ShareMoments. How you do something is not nearly as important as what you’re actually doing (helping people find better doctors or be happier).
“One of our products is called Thunderclap because it helps people synchronize their social media and make a massive impact and be heard louder online,” says Hashem Bajwa, CEO of DE-DE. “We could have called it ‘WeCast’ since what the product does is bring groups of people together to send a message, but we called it ‘Thunderclap’ because it evokes the effect, the emotion, the benefit of the product in a more exciting, conceptual way.”
Another trap to avoid is following trends. Think of how annoyed all the Jaydens will be when they discover how common their “unique” name is – and how they’ll lose a notch of originality in the eyes of others. Buyerly cofounder Vanessa Ting experienced this when they followed the -ly/li/-lee trend before it went crazy.
“We decided to name our B2B startup Buyerly as a nod to our startup-like brand identity and company culture. Little did we know this trend would explode like it did and garner ‘eye rolls’ like it now does in 2013,” she recalls.
3. Check the tech: SEO and URLs
You have a choice of real words or made-up words when coming up with a name. And they both have different effects on SEO, or search engine optimization.
Real words, especially when you only use one by itself, can be challenging. Companies like Industrious, Guide, Cluster, and Treaty don’t rank first or second for their name and may never climb to the top of search results. But combining two common words into a key phrase that people search for can boost your page. PillowPocket, Free Lunch Friday, BillTrack50, and FindTheBest all rank first for their names, plus they pull in additional traffic from people searching for similar phrases (“pillow with a pocket,” “free lunch,” “track bills in Congress,” “find the best computer”).
“ADORNIA has ‘adorn’ as the root, and so jewelry and embellishment would clearly be conveyed. But the -ia suffix makes the term abstract enough to fill with our own meaning. The suffix adds a bit of exotic, expensive, and sounds feminine…we could also take the name across other categories without being tied to jewelry. We joke around that ADORNIA is the Greek goddess of luxury and beauty because she sounds like she would be a stylish Mediterranean femme fatale. Some people actually believe us when we say this, which is even funnier!” says Moran Amir, cofounder of ADORNIA.
“Modavanti is a play on Italian for ‘fashion’ (moda) ‘forward’ (avanti). Aside from the fact that my girlfriend is obsessed with Italy, we chose the name because it is representative of the company we want to be. ‘Fashion forward’ speaks to our progressive commitment to sustainability and in the fashion world Italy is synonymous with elegance, fine artisanal work, and big fashion houses, many of which are leading the sustainability movement,” explains founder David Dietz.
The question of real vs. made-up words raises a related debate: should your startup name be straightforward or mysterious? Aliens would have no idea what Google does, but Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Pinterest would give them at least some clue. According to Iain MacDonald, CEO of SkillPages, the answer may have to do with whether you’re innovating a completely new category or providing a familiar product or service:
“We believe that if you are developing a relatively new concept, you are better off having a name that is moderately descriptive of what you do. This helps your users get a handle on the general area in which you are operating, reducing one of the barriers to adoption (e.g., YouTube vs. Vimeo, SlideShare vs. RockYou),” MacDonald explains.
In the end, the question of SEO may be less important than making sure your name resonates with customers. That will guarantee you more traffic, which helps you rank higher in search results anyway.
4. Test your name
Finally, don’t forget the fun part – testing! According to Idar cofounder Bryan Leeds, Mechanical Turk is one of the cheapest and most useful tools out there. You can create a Google Docs survey and hire 100 people on Mechanical Turk to answer questions about your name, like the emotions it evokes and the thoughts it sparks.
Some other factors to test for are the following:
- Can your name be made into a verb? That’s been helpful for Google, Twitter (“tweet”), and Pinterest (“pin”).
- Is it easy to pronounce? It’ll get old fast if you have to write “Clicue (pronounced as Click)” every time you mention your company.
- Is it easy to spell? Taylor Aldredge, the ambassador of buzz at Grasshopper, points out that if you’ll be doing advertising on radio or TV, it’s better to have a name that’s spelled like it sounds.
- Can you pivot or expand? Choosing a name like Bookacoach that locks you into a specific product means you’ll have to rebrand if you pivot or add new verticals.
- Does it work in different languages? Do a final check to make sure your name isn’t funny or offensive in a foreign language, so you don’t get picked for lists like these.
Naming is an art and, as much as you may want to do it overnight, it takes time. After a frustrating brainstorming session, you may just have to take a break and let your subconscious do some work. If you’re still stuck, consider giving yourself a nickname and letting the real name emerge over time – like Project 100 in Vegas, originally called the Black Card.
In the end, while naming is critical, it’s not the most critical thing.
“We knew that the name comes secondary to the product. When I talk to new startups, I try to get them to stop focusing on the name so much. There are bigger challenges than spending time going over the name,” says Chris Sonjeow, cofounder of LoveBook.
“I hate the naming process – the company, the products, all of it. No one is an expert when it comes to the process and everybody has a (strong) opinion,” says FindTheBest founder and CEO Kevin O’Connor. “Great products trump great names every time.”