A Two-part Rule for Naming Your Startup

73 Comments

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:

ArchiText
: 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 Comments

Lisa Merriam

Actually Lycos is not made up–refers to spiders–just too techy to be good. Your point about what the name makes you “feel” is right on. No one will get out a dictionary to study meaning and etymology (like knowing lycosidae is a kind of spider that actively goes out to hunt its prey). People will look at a name and make an instant association that most likely will have nothing to do with the word’s dictionary definition. More practical and detailed advice on naming: http://bit.ly/avbmHA

Vishu Gurav

Thanks Evan…I really needed this article. I am naming my Start-up now. Article gave me pretty good direction.

Thanks,
Vishu

John Smith

Evan.

Let’s see:

Google
Yahoo
Oracle
Intel
Adobe
Amazon

Yep, you’re right the names above would never work. Thank you for your insightful comments.

Are you a dot.com wannabe?

dumbfounder

I think PermaPage and ArchWeb are ginormously generic sounding. Xobni is excellent, it is inbox backwards, and that’s basically what they are doing with their product. It’s hard to say if Paypal is a good name, or it’s just that it is so well known that we think it is very good (might be too generic). Brightmail is too generic, never heard of IronPort. Vidoop is indeed terrible. Twitter is simply excellent. And yes, we have taken flak for the Searchles name, but some people do like it a lot. (we are often called search-less)

First impressions do matter, but they certainly matter less so on the web than in real life, when all you have to do is click on something to see what it’s all about.

@Dave Winer: you came up with the name Radio? You are older than I thought.

Brian Kirk

Evan-

I like where you article takes us. Of course, regardless of the name the start-up really needs to focus on what it is they are offering & whether or not there is any value for what they are offering. No matter how good the name is, they aren’t going to get far if their product/service doesn’t make any sense.

One thing that concerns me about your approach is that naming your start-up based on your initial product/service can hinder your growth with new products or services. If PayPal realized after 6 months that no one wanted to use their product & to stay alive they’d need to switch gears & roll with a new product/service wouldn’t they be hindered with a name like PayPal if they wanted to offer some sort of web-based marketing solution?

Evan Paull

More great comments! I love Kathy’s description of the Lycos etymology: it really is a very clever name, but as she explains, that doesn’t always translate into a good user reaction, and that reinforces my theory that there is really a science to naming a company.

Dave has some good names in there, I think NewsJunk, Manila, and FlickrFan work especially well. Also a good list of names for first gen software hits — lots of good names there.

Microsoft is actually a great name! In programming terms ‘micro’ refers to code that is fast, simple, elegant, and generally bug-free: the polar opposite of the software Microsoft actually produces (irony anyone?). A great example of the power of naming…

Danny

when choosing a name for our company, we had lots of great names, but all the domains were taken, untill we found tonepedia.com. so i guess that the most important name for a unique company name on the web sphere is a free domain :D

Batavier

Perma… not sure I’d like to have that in my company name… Anyway, nice article, but the names you came up with aren’t that good. And if the product/service is good enough, it seems the name doesn’t matter (see your own Twitter example and of course Google or even Apple).

Paypal, Ironport and Brightmail are good examples of the naming rules you give. You could have mentioned Microsoft as well. :)

Scott Germaise

Two parts isn’t enough. For starters, let’s take “ArchWeb” Is that pronouced, “Arch – Web” or “Ark Web?” There’s ambiguity there so unless all the appropriate domains can be had, that’s potentially a bad name for online.

Here’s some thoughts on naming:

“What”s a brand? A singular idea or concept that you own inside the mind of the prospect.” – Al Ries

“A brand is a living entity – and it is enriched or undermined cumulatively over time, the product of a thousand small gestures” – Michael Eisner, CEO Disney

‘A brand name is more than a word. It is the beginning of a conversation.’ – Lexicon

Here’s good features:
• Have positive associations
• Easy to pronounce, (plus no homonyms.)
• Easy to remember
• Suggest product benefits
• Be distinctive
• Not infringe existing names / trademark, (which can be widely interpreted by some, even if you think they’re wrong or outright ridiculous in challenging a trademark application.)

Brand names can be categorized in tons of ways, but the top four I’ve seen include: Functional, Invented, Experiential and Evocative.

Considerations need to include it’s appearance, (visually in terms of how it might look in online and off line typography), is it distinctive? Are there any layers of meaning besides the surface denotation? Does it feel alive/human? What about positioning with regards to the product itself? What does it sound like? Is that sound pronounceable in all target market languages? (And the obvious “Is it a curse word or just wrong thought in other languages?)

Are you prepared to order the domain as soon as you realize it’s available? (Otherwise, poachers may have seen your attempt to check depending on which registrar you check with and snap it up.) How much are you willing to pay for an existing name that – in the case of domain names – may already have some type-in traffic.

There’s probably more. But in any case, the naming of a thing is any thing but just a two-part exercise.

Scott

Kathy O'Reilly

The name Lycos is derived from the Latin word “Lycosidae” (wolf spider), an anarchid famous for being the hunter rather than the hunted. A good fit when Lycos was originally launched as a search engine. Lycos’s very first mascot was a black wolf spider, which appeared on bumper stickers and Tee-shirts. Not surprising, the wolf spider failed to create a warm and fuzzy connection with our users, thus, we transitioned to Lycos the loveable Black Lab, as part of our very successful marketing and PR campaign in 1998. Lycos the Black Lab and the “Go Get It” campaign continues to resonate with users today.

Karl S.

A lot of good insight here – especially in the comments.

I agree with everyone that says this is a formula – one formula of many. But as pointed out repeatedly, a lot more should go into a name than just two words.

Instead of re-iterating what’s already been said, I’ll add the following: People tend to make the same mistakes over and over again when coming up with a company name.

First, they forget that a name really is more than a name. A great name can do a lot – serve as your most compressed marketing message, distinguish you from competitors, etc. – but it is hard for a name to do it all. So, you need to decide what is most important for you and your company. For startups with limited marketing/advertising budgets, a lot of the weight will fall on the name.

Second, people limit themselves creatively. It’s good to look outside of technology and mythology for name sources. Perhaps worse, people will limit their naming choices to URL availability – a big mistake.

Third, people choose names that won’t grow over time. This is especially true if you choose a name that says what you do or your product does. What happens if you change directions?

Fourth, people often don’t give themselves enough time to name. Coming up with a great name takes time. Yes, it can be based on gut feeling, but usually you’ll want to be more systematic and objective. If you have to have a name by next Friday, you’re probably going to miss out on a lot of the creative possibilities.

Fifth, people forget that once you’re on the Internet, your business is global, so you’d better make sure your name isn’t going to insult someone in Argentina or Guangdong.

@Varun – Check out http://www.wordlab.com. In their forums, people often present names and have others comment on them. The site isn’t about crowdsourcing names (which, in my experience, gives you the most watered down, uncompelling names) but gives a lot of naming resources.

Full disclosure: Like @Devon, I too am with a naming and branding firm that helps name companies and products.

Varun

I have a suggestion for Om. Why don’t you start a new website where new startups can ask for a good name, and the names can be crownsourced. Something like pickydomains.com , but as your reputation is good, that thing may work

Dave Winer

What do you think of the first gen PC software hits: VisiCalc, Wordstar, dBASE, Multimate, Powerpoint, Word, Excel, Lotus 1-2-3, PageMaker, PhotoShop.

Dave Winer

I think this is brilliant. Here are some of my product names: ThinkTank, Ready, MORE, Frontier, Aretha, Clay Basket, Manila, Radio, OPML Editor.

Evan Paull

I see a lot of insightful comments here, but I also need to clarify a few points, as there are some bad assumptions as well:

First, this isn’t designed to be an end-all be-all ‘magic formula’ to categorizing company names, in fact most names don’t fit anywhere within my rule. This is just ONE of many ways to finding a great name for your company.

Second, I’m not attempting to make any kind of value judgment about the companies listed here based on the names they’ve chosen: companies like Twitter and Vidoop make great products, regardless of how they’ve chosen to brand themselves. Sometimes a name really is just a name.

And, I think we can agree that picking a solid name isn’t going to replace a full branding/marketing campaign, nor will it singlehandedly guarantee success or failure. If all you had to do to ensure success was pick a clever name then our lives would all be a lot simpler. This is really just a way to help bootstrapping companies get on their feet.

-Evan

Robert Einspruch

I think the name “lycos” had 0.01% to do with its failure. The fact that it was a crummy search engine relative to Google accounted for the other 99.99%.

By this logic pets.com should be in great shape :-) And Apple is in trouble. Same goes for HP, Dell, Samsung, Sony & Lenovo. :-)

Cavenger News

Insightful article, Paul. Coming up with the right name is almost as difficult as coming up with a great product.

Redeye

Great little article, so now that we’ve established our new business (teledildonics based) our new business name spurred on by this fabulous read is, drum roll please, happyfuck… Genius!

herval

frankly, not sure your naming rule makes any sense at all. Take the startups that succeeded on the web – flickr, facebook, yahoo, google, amazon, ebay, paypal – and you’ll notice that AT MOST 50% of them follow the rule. Which, statistically speaking, means that this variable is irrelevant

By the way, ‘architext’, ‘permapage’ and ‘archweb’ are really really really AWFUL names.

Here’s my thought on what makes a good company name – based on companies that succeeded, so it’s actually not an idea of mine, but rather an observation:
a) it can be ‘verbed’
b) it is A NEW WORD, in the sense that it’s pushed to mean something in a new area
c) the most important of all – it SOUNDS GOOD…

Mike Giggler

I don’t know why all these people are giving you such a savaging here, probably they’re all successful multi-millionaires and have earned the right to do so.

I think we can best sum this up by saying “There are no absolute rules, but here’s one method you might find useful.”

And we can probably also say that a lot of people on the internet are sore losers.

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