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What’s in a Name?

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Picking a name for a product or service can be a random, controversial, and sometimes never-ending process. Yet, it must be done right because your name is what users, customers, investors and even employees will first (and most) remember about your company.

I’ve had a few experiences with naming start-ups. Each time the right name came about only after much trial and error and often, thanks to the suggestion of an outsider. My inaugural attempt at the naming game came in 1998, when I and my Stanford grad school classmate, Stephane, began working on our first startup. We had cool technology for speeding up Web sites. Over pizza in Escondido Village we tossed around some names with a few friends:

*Me:* “How about Beluga, Inc.?”
*Our friend:* “Why Beluga?”
*Stephane:* “Well, you know, that’s just like a cool animal.” (A big white sturgeon.)

So Beluga is a cool-sounding _word_, but clearly, it was not a good name. First, major spelling issues – and second, animals don’t make good company names unless they have an obvious attribute that’s worth leveraging (tiger, crocodile…skunk!).

Stephane and I wanted a “smarter” name. And by smarter we meant something that conveyed a message. And so we picked eRacer, thinking it suggested speed for web sites. We bought the domain ( wasn’t available) and were off to a good start. Shortly thereafter, we decided on “Fast Cactus” as our product name. A totally random cross-over between speed (Fast) and a cool plant that looked like a tower server (Cactus) – something we picked on our way back from a frustrating meeting with VCs.

*Stephane:* “Dude, Fast Cactus. It’s funny and everyone will love it. Besides, you have a cactus at home, right?”
*Me:* “Yeah, sure. Right now I’m more worried about the liquidation preferences, dude.”

We spent less than five minutes on the process—thinking we had bigger fish to fry. Wrong! Names matter. Take it from a guy whose calls get returned 50 percent of the time only because his surname is enticing. (Come on, who isn’t going to call back _Casanova_?!)

The Cactus combo didn’t work all that well. Prospective customers thought we were an office furniture company (eRacer sounded too much like “eraser”), and no one could get our email addresses right. A few months later our new VP of Marketing proposed a new name altogether: “Fireclick.” Finally. A name that was clear, descriptive and easy to remember.

One would think we’d have learned a thing or two from this experience, right? Fast forward seven years to April 2005. This time, three Stanford friends dream of kicking their day jobs with a cool P2P technology for speeding private file transfers. Arnaud, Guillaume and I breezed over a few names, but agreed on nothing. After four or five weeks, (and again thinking we had better things to focus on) our trio compromised on the name Perenety. We liked its root in the word “perennial” – which conveys the notion of something that is constant or enduring—like a successful company. But (shock!) the name proved hard to explain.

*Caller:* “Hello, my name Linda, I’m from Calling to put you guys in our company data base?
*Me:* Sure, company name “Perenety”
*Caller:* Perenty?
*Me:* Perenety. P-e-r-e-n-e-t-y.
*Caller:* P-e-r-e-n-e-D-y?
*Me:* No, p-e-r-e-n-e-T-y. With a ‘T.’
*Caller:* P-e-r-e-n-e-t-y. OK, got it. Is this a flower business?

This experience repeated itself again, and again. Months later our naming problem was still unresolved. But creativity is sometimes motivated by necessity. Desperate, we got radical: We pulled all the five-letter domain names available on, cherry picked 10, and then drove to Lodi, Calif., a town about 100 miles east of San Francisco known for hot weather. Why? We figured we’d find lots of teens hanging out at Jamba Juice. Translation: a fast and free focus group. (Teens rank among the biggest handlers of private file transfers, forming a core customer base for us.)

Hitting Lodi might be one of the smartest things we’ve done as founders. The kids were there, and in droves. We asked about 40 teenagers which name they liked best. Amazingly 28 out of the 40 picked the word “Wambo” – which means nothing, but sounds cool. (Runners-up were “Wimi” and “Okini.”) We had our name. Super! Who cares that it doesn’t refer to a living mammal, or have a root in the Latin dictionary. Wambo is punchy, catchy, easy to spell and therefore, presented a decent branding opportunity. Best of all, teens loved it—we still don’t know why—but it made us feel real good.

Here are my *Tips for The Naming Game:*

*1. Get outside help.* Take ideas from friends, family, stangers. They’ll have decent ideas about what sounds good (a good bottle of Syrah helps), and non-founders are the best judges of whether a name conveys an appropriate meaning. This is especially important for foreigners (like me). Some English words have connotations that non-native speakers can’t imagine!

*2. Keep it simple.* Limit yourself to seven or eight letters. Don’t use numbers or hyphens, these symbols just confuse people. Make sure your name is easy to spell, this is important for the stickiness of your brand.

*3. Pony-up for your domain.* The domain registration process is a joke, and expensive. Squatters will jump at the chance to extort huge sums from you. Get over it. You have no control over this, and you need your domain. Hire a broker, or pull a list of available domains that you can afford. (Variants with pronouns, “Youtube” or “RockYou,” often work well.)

*4. Take a poll.* Once you’ve got a list of 15-20 candidates, submit them to a vote of truly objective people from your target audience. Take the top three, and choose from these.

Once you’ve got your name, stick to it. Take it from a founder who has waffled on many names in the past: Consistency is very, very important for the identity of your company and the currency of your brand. When you get the right name, there is no turning back. I mean, no-turning-back. Ah!, I wonderf if that is available? ;)

10 Responses to “What’s in a Name?”

  1. bezurk

    I wish I had read this blog before I dashed off and registered my start up’s name

    2 years ago – I was scratching my head trying to come up with names which were available as a .com domain. Out of frustration I made up a misspelling of the word “berserk” as I was going Berserk search for names – at the time seemed like a good name.

    We have a successful business now – but we still loose out on customers not finding us as they type berserk or bezerk looking for us. We are now forced to spend more on SEM and SEO.

    If I ever do another start up – I am going to map out my naming requirements properly and consider misspellings . You live and learn}

  2. smook

    A good domain name works for you while you are sleeping. It’s most important.

    The right domain name is the startup for startups. I read and browse the internet, magazines, ads etc. and start thinking and checking what’s available. Create a name, put names together. You are inventing a new business, this is step one. Don’t turn the page till you’ve got a domain name you like. Talk to friends, talk out loud, keep talking. It does come sometimes early, sometimes later. Use aids, like and it’s components to start working it. The domain must NOT be spelled differently than spoken. You don’t want to explain how to spell the domain name each time you say [email protected].}

  3. bluelines

    I’d say there are two sets of criteria. First it has to pass the easy to say / spell / explain test, and you have to be able to get the domains. But I’m not a fan of research or focus groups (except the informal kind Xavier describes, which I love), since they’ll never produce a name about which the founders are passionate. Fundamental comfort with the name is in a way more important than any meaning others might attach to it, since your life will become inextricably bound up with it.

    We picked ‘Gaboogie’ despite some feedback that it was ‘dumb’ or didn’t mean anything, because we liked saying it and it was easy to attach what we were doing to the name. Oh, and because it works well as a verb. Nothing more, nothing less.}

  4. xavier

    Other than being your last name (something I don’t I could do ;) Trossen Robotics is also pretty good because I’m guessing your clients (in the robotics industry) call you “Trossen” (not Trossen Robotics), right? (which does back to short, etc).

    Another concern we had when naming Wambo was bad connotation. Prior to deciding on polling people, we would run a few names and run a search on the Urban Dictionary to check that. There are LOTS of slang words and I highly recommend checking these out…

    Example: we liked “hify”. Sounds a lot like “Hyphy” – the rap word…}

  5. matt_trossen

    Yes, that’s true about the icebreaker. Unfortunately I was trying to do phone sales on the one hand, on the other it was meetings where people had furled brows wondering why I’d used such a harsh negative word in a name.

    Virulence: The quality or state of being virulent or venomous; poisonousness; malignancy.

    If I was selling weed killer it might have been appropriate. BTW- the word choice, it was a whole concept about breaking something down to rebuild it… yada yada. Let’s just say it didn’t go over well.

    You just mentioned something else that makes a very good point. We are now Trossen Robotics, we used to be Phidgets USA because the company started as a reseller of a product line called Phidgets. Naming your own company after another companies product line is a HUGE no-no. You have immediately locked yourself down to being identified with only that product. It also is very confusing to everyone else who thinks you are the same company. So listen up dear readers, don’t do that! ;)

    After having two experiences with bad name choices I kept it simple and conservative this time around. Trossen Robotics is pretty darn to the point.}

  6. xavier

    Matt – interesting you say that, “deep philosophical explanation for it”, since I have noticed a few people do talk about where their company name is coming from when you first meet them. Sometimes that can be a good ice-breaker, or a “story”, but I don’t think it works if you are selling to the consumer. The other problem that I see, and that’s particularly true for startups, is ending up with name that doesn’t reflect what the company does anymore. That’s why my hunch is to go for punchy and short rather than smart (and long).}

  7. matt_trossen

    I’m almost embarrassed to admit what my first company name was. After reading a dozen business advice books which all had a chapter about not getting overly complex with your name I went ahead and did it anyway. I ran with “Virulence Industries”. No one could ever get it right over the phone. Just like you, I had a spelling & pronunciation nightmare every time. Not to mention the odd connotation of my word choice. I had a nice deep philosophical explanation for it, as if that should be something that begins every business meeting… The things we do when we are young and green! :)}

  8. bartolah

    Choosing a name is very difficult. For sidereel we went through many rounds research and purchased a number of domains. But what was most helpful was to get some outside feedback. To this end we created a survey (using that we sent to around 300 people. The survey listed our top 5 names and had folks rank the names across several criteria:
    – memorability
    – descriptiveness (of our business)
    – and other criteria

    The data was extremely helpful and helped us to narrow the name.}