What’s in a Name?

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 eRacer.net (eRacer.com 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 eRacer.net/Fast 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 Hoover.com. 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 Buydomains.com, 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. Wambo.com. 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! Noturningback.com, I wonderf if that is available? ;)


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