Blog Post

A Two-part Rule for Naming Your Startup

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

What’s in a company name? Plenty. It’s your first opportunity to brand yourself. Get it right and you’ll stand out as clever, useful, and memorable to potential users and investors — even if your product isn’t any good. But get it wrong and you’ll flame out before your product even gets out of beta.

So, what makes Brightmail, PayPal and IronPort great names, but Lycos, Xobni and Vidoop really lousy? It turns out there’s a formula for effective naming and it’s surprisingly simple.

Look at many of the most successful brands and you’ll notice they’re often compound names, consistently made up of two components:

  • a word that relates to the company product in a direct, literal sense, establishing a clear association between the brand and what the company does.
  • a word not literally related to the product, but rather a metaphorical adjective to evoke a differentiating characteristic or “feeling” about the company’s product.

Our minds are built to make connections, mostly at a subconscious level. When a metaphor is detected, it triggers a process in our brains that associates the metaphor with the next object or reference. This naming system forces the mind to take the cognitive step of associating the metaphor to the product it represents, thus forming a positive association to the brand. And once your brain has woven the connection, it sticks, so there’s a great chance your company name won’t be forgotten.

So when we break down the name Brightmail, we see that “mail” indicates what the product does — they make email — while “bright” is metaphorical, framing their product in a positive light. This same logic applies to PayPal; “pay” is literal, “pal” is metaphorical. Ditto with IronPort, a provider of email and web security products — “iron” is a metaphor for strength and “port” is a literal reference to what the company product protects: network ports.

Search company Lycos tried a made-up word, to ill effect. After all, what’s a lycos? Xobni makes a cool email service, but someone had to tell me that xobni is “inbox” spelled backwards. Vidoop is just yucky. Reminds me of, well, you know.

Of course there are startups that get so far out in front of their competitive fields, or whose products are so exemplary, that names which ought to have been tricky are nevertheless well received.

Consider Twitter. If you had asked me a year-and-a-half ago, I’d have said it was a terrible name — all I could think of was “twit.” But people’s associations with Twitter are good because its communication tool is first-in-class and offers a great experience.

I was recently asked to consult with a startup that is considering re-naming itself. It’s a good thing, because the name they’re using now is totally confusing. It’s one of those Google-wannabe made-up words that sounds vaguely Latin, but isn’t. Worst of all, it doesn’t tell users like me anything about the company’s product (they archive web pages). When the company explained the name to me, I got even more confused.

In my view, while site archiving is useful (and they do it well), this probably isn’t a broad-based enough service to be elevated to the level of a consumer utility, as search or micro-blogging (Twitter) have been. This means their made-up name is unlikely to ever be turned into a verb (like “to google” or “to tweet”).

I suggested some new names, based on the two-part formula:

: Archi sounds like architect, a good association. It also refers to archive. “Arch” as a prefix is “chief,” so metaphorically it evokes priority. Text is literal for content. Combined you might get: “storage for vital web content.”
PermaPage: “Perma” evokes impermeability. “Page” is literal.
ArchWeb: “Arch” for “archive,” and the metaphorical “priority.” Web is web.

Evan Paull is software engineer for Mark Logic and a startup consultant.

73 Responses to “A Two-part Rule for Naming Your Startup”

  1. This is and excellent article for web 2.0, but web sp2 with build 132 kind of makes it irrelevant. Word+ was replaced with wordenator and no matter how well you designed your word+ name, a 2 year old would wipe you out with wordenator. Even with the lite version. But I guess that’s why you write about business names instead of spending the money you made from one.
    … sorry, insomnia.

  2. Cool. This is helpful. I know hindsight is 20/20, but your reasoning totally explains why all these were successful…


    and of course…


    Oh, wait. I just remembered. Those are some of the most epic _failures_ in memory.

    But I think your point still stands, though with examples of failures like…

    Apple, etc.

    Oh, crap. These totally prove you wrong also. Sorry, my bad.

    Well, you’ve got one thing going for you… Like all nobodies, you know how to use important company names in your irrelevant blog to draw attention. Enjoy your 15 minutes on _your_ way to the irrelevant pool.

  3. This is an astoundingly amateur post. Why is this on GigaOm?

    With all due respect, the author should stick to software engineering and leave the branding advice to people who know what they are talking about.

  4. Sure, coming up with a good name is relatively easy. How the heck do you then find an open domain to register? I spent 8 full days doing this. The name I settled on is less than great. What irks me is most of these domains are parked or spam with no way to contact the owner and make an offer.

  5. brklynsurfer

    This reminds me of what Billy Corgan said about how he came up with Smashing Pumpkins. He said that he wanted two words: one that was a verb, agressive and violent and another word that was not related but gave an emotional feeling of warmth. other examples are Grateful Dead, Screaming Trees, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin.

  6. Evan, I think you’ve made a lot of good points, particularly regarding the power of metaphor in naming and the need to strike an emotional, human chord.

    If I may be gently frank… Where your inexperience in naming shows is understanding that coming up with good names is easy–finding good names that are available to use is the hard part.

    Jack Trout, marketing guru who authored the seminal book “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind” some 30 years ago, recently said in a Forbes article that we’re running out of brands, and the #1 problem facing marketers today is the availability of names.

    @ the skeptics… When Logitech introduced the Scanner 2000, sales were tepid. Then they renamed it to the ScanMan, and sales doubled in 18 months without any additional advertising. That’s one example of what a strong brand name can do.

    A great brand name will not make a bad business model succeed, nor will a bad brand name cause a good business model to fail. However, when all other things are equal, going to market with a powerful brand name is like sailing with the wind at your back. It makes marketing easier and cheaper, because it takes fewer repetitions for the brand promise to sink in with the target audience.

    Conversely, a weak, meaningless brand name requires more repetitions to deliver the brand promise. If you have the marketing budget of a Nike or a Vonage or a Toyota or a Xerox, go ahead and launch with a name that doesn’t mean anything. People will understand what you’re selling… eventually.

    Most startups I know don’t have that kind of cash, so my company (a naming and branding firm) strongly advises our clients to adopt a name that inherently speaks to their brand’s promise.

    @Berislav: Having the prima facie .com domain name is not the mandatory it used to be. People’s online navigation habits have changed, and most users are not accessing sites by direct input of URL anymore. Instead, they’re using search engines as a waypoint–by entering the brand name as the search term and clicking from the results page. (In 2006 “Yahoo” was the #1 search term on Google.)

    We advise our clients to always think brand name first, URL second. The availability of the .com name should not be the highest priority. Instead, focus on finding a powerful, message-conveying brand name that can be protected by trademark. An appropriate domain can usually be figured out from there.

  7. @Hasan: none of the names you mention in your comment were invented:

    – Nike is the Greek goddess of victory (originally pronounced neeke, not naike)
    – Google is a misspelling of googol, name of the number ten to the tenth power (that might account for an invention, but when they started such “cutesy” names were a rarity)
    – Apple: well duh
    – Mercedez Benz: Mercedes was name of one founder’s daughter (it’s actually the Spanish version of the name Grace), while Benz is the last name of the other founder

    @Evan: one of the most important considerations when choosing a name for a business, especially a Web-based one, is whether the .com domain is available. If it isn’t, all other considerations loose value.

  8. To expand on what Markus said about Lycos: Yes, Lycosidae is the family of wolf spiders. The story is that the name was selected because wolf spiders hunt their prey at night, just as web crawlers (“spiders”) back in the day were configured to go after their prey at night, to even out the load on the servers they hit. (Of course, this was also when “day” vs. “night” was more distinguishable on the Web, since most traffic was to servers in the western hemisphere.)

    So the name Lycos is not made up at all. It’s too cerebral, if anything. One dark joke at Lycos was that some day, more people will know the word “Lycos” for the greek meaning of the word than for the Internet search engine. “Google” has the opposite problem :-)

  9. I think this article is breathtakingly naive and unbalanced. It omits any reference to the target segment, brand extension opportunities, brand hierarchy implications, legal exposure, and of course the countless examples of hugely successful companies that contradict the recommendations. There is no one expert to consult and in this void the most respected opinion has to come from your target customers.
    This is what we practice at Vidoop.

  10. A CSS problem: I believe the headline is being chopped off, at least on Internet Explorer 7, Windows XP SP3. Obviously, the head is meant to read “A Two-part Rule for Naming Your Startup Just Like Everyone Else’s”, but I can’t see the “Just Like Everyone Else’s” part on my screen (1280×1024).

    @Hasan: I believe, following the rules in the article, you would rename hoodiepeople to CoverHead, or JacketSmart.

  11. Skeuomorph

    ArchiText is an apt name indeed, which may be why it was selected as the name of one of the earliest search engines and dot com wunderkinds:

    The Short History of Architext Software

    Fall 1989 : Joe Kraus, Graham Spencer, Mark Van Haren, Ben Lutch, Martin Reinfried, and Ryan Mc Intyre live in the same freshman dorm at Stanford University. Mark was the dorm’s Resident Assistant.

    Spring 1990 : Kraus, Van Haren, and Mc Intyre form Where’s Julio?, a jazz and funk band reminiscent of Oakland’s Tower of Power.

    February 28,1993 : Spencer suggests, over a low budget Mexican dinner at Rosita’s Taqueria in Redwood City, that the six join forces and build software that helps people more efficiently search through large bodies of data on the Internet.

    June 1993 through February 1994 : The Architext team works for three months compiling research on different approaches to new search-and-retrieval and browsing techniques, and completes initial series of software tools. Team members were all holding other income-producing jobs during this period.

    May 1994 : Company makes presentation of their software to IDG, and wins service contract to complete work on a secret online service project. The $100,000 deal was actually signed in July, just as the company was moving out of a Palo Alto garage, into the Cupertino home of three of the founders.

    August 1994 : Architext creates their own Web page, complete with virtual garage, and MarketText, a program which allows entrepreneurs to create marketing slogans, with as much panache as a high priced ad agency, at a fraction of the cost. Find at

    December 1994 : Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Institutional Venture Partners agree to invest $500,000 in seed money. KPCB partner Vinod Khosla, and IVP partner Geoff Yang roll up their sleeves and start helping company write its business plan.

    March 1995 : Architext founders make cover of The Red Herring.

    — The Red Herring, March 1995

    But most folks probably better know Architext after it dropped that name and became Excite, then Excite @Home:

  12. this are some good guidelines of course everyone can point the mega brands that buck the trend: nike, google, apple, mercedez benz, but it is true that most cutsy names are actually quite confusing. I thought Xobni was a bit confusing but it certaily has not suck the company, they are doing really well.
    My next venture is an online shop specializing in hoodies, called what do you guys think of the name?

  13. Charles

    Parody. Taking this at face value does a disservice to both the author and GigaOm. “When we break down the name Brightmail….”

    The allusion to Excite’s original (and abandoned) monicker as a proposed name is a nice touch.

  14. There are no rules. For every “good” name using this system I can point to hundreds of failed startups. I can also point to hundreds of successful companies that are exceptions to this rule. It’s so highly subjective, without real data it’s all how the names make you “feel”. I could argue the “good” names above are very bland and easily forgettable, where’s the proof they are good and what’s the criteria for measuring their ‘goodness’?

    Most names become “good” after their names have been reified with their companies and/or products. The name being reified with success after the fact. Why is ‘google’ a good name? Trying to tease them apart historically is a fallacy. Although I know of no one doing this experiment, I’d love to actually get data on naming and how it affects success. Take the entire pool of startups at a particular stage and have experts chose the good names vs the bad names. Track those companies over their lifespan. I wonder if the ones they choose as good would show any greater success rate than the others. I’d wager that the predictive ability of experts in choosing names as a success factor would be barely better than random (some names are so truly, dreadfully, awful that they might impinge the success of a company).

    For this reason I wince whenever an expert explains why a name is good or bad. Usually it all boils down to trying to look with hindsight at how an infinite number of factors affected the success of particular companies and trying to tease out one general pattern. Honestly I don’t believe the startup/company experience can be synthesized with simple rules like this.

  15. Jack Kornfield was Radioshack’s marketing guru in the hey day of the 60’s and 70’s when the chain was the go to place for everything hifi.

    He published a book called, “If you want to catch a mouse, make a noise like a cheese”. He took great issue with companies like Toshiba naming their new (quite good) personal copier line names like, ‘BD7210’.

    Most Web 20 names are too cute by far. They think cool, most however are copycats of other more successful trailblazers.

    Tell me what the damn product is and what the company does, dammit. In the enterprise space, we went through a time where one could not intuit what the hell they were talking about in the early days of SOA and ESB – still a cloudy and uncertain branding pool anyway, even after the dust has cleared somewhat.

  16. Evan,

    Your assessment is on the money. Too many entrepreneurs make significant branding mistakes which are quite costly. This point you didn’t address, poor branding results in SIGNIFICANTLY increased marketing costs across the board. This issue combines with the “made up word” that has no significance to the product/service, and hence the entrepreneurs are forced to “educate the market”. This is the kiss of death for startups.

    Nice post.


  17. Than you! now I have a thoughtfull reason to be happy about my product name: Podmailing, which enables to send any size file by email.

    Actually I got challenged by Apple for this brand because of the “pod” in it. But I think “pod” is really metaphorical and gives a sense of modernity. And for an email service it makes sense because P.O.D. = proof of delivery.

  18. George

    Um. Maybe you should stick to engineering. This post is so utterly simplistic and naive, it’s funny. Really not up to GigaOm’s usual standard.