Naming your startup: Settle down, it’s cool!

Finding and agreeing upon a worthy name is always a struggle, especially if you have co-founders. This is one of those emotional decisions where it’s not okay to agree to disagree.

There’s a lot of advice on the Internet about naming companies; see this article from OnStartups.com for a particularly good, detailed checklist. Here’s a few additional things I’ve found useful.

Not only are you making emotional decisions about what persona to convey, how much formality to exude, and whether it “sounds appropriate,” there are the technical considerations:

  • Obvious to spell, otherwise you’ll spend the rest of your life dictating letters over the phone.
  • Short so it’s easy to say and read.
  • Evocative, either explaining what you do or evoking an emotion that’s useful to your purpose.
  • Memorable, perhaps the most important quality and yet impossible to measure.

Then of course there’s the domain name. Most brainstorming sessions nowadays are done while huddled around a domain registrar’s website, trying every combination of crazy stuff like omitting or inserting vowels. If it’s not available, it’s out.

Or so the conventional wisdom goes. Lately the trend is to get a domain name with an extra word slapped on. So if you want to be Gumdrop Party Services, and Gumdrop.com is taken (of course it is!), you can be GetGumdrop.com or VisitGumdrop.com or eMyTheGrumpdrop.com

But even this isn’t the best idea because you’re squandering a chance to get in good with search engines. All search engines consider keywords in the domain name to be vastly more important than anywhere else — even the page title. The reason is simple: The domain name is your self-appointed identity; anyone can put anything in a title to try to win the affection of Google’s search algorithm, but a company with a domain of smartbear.com really ought to come up first when you search for “smart bear.”

Your company will already come up first when someone searches for you — at least after a few months of exposure — because everyone will link to you with your company’s name, your name will litter your website, and Google will figure it out.

That means you should use your domain name for something other than restating your name. Instead of GoGumdrop.com, why not BestPartyEver.com or CandyForParties.com. Isn’t getting into the first position in a Google search for “party candy” worth it? Those domains still say what you do, so it’s still informative and sensible whether you’re telling someone over the phone or displaying in advertisement.

Besides, nowadays most links are shared over email and social networks instead of typing them in directly. It’s more likely someone stumbles on you from a bit.ly-shortened link than your own domain name!

While we’re talking about Google, they demonstrate that all the conventional wisdom about naming companies is not as important as who you are and what you do. Here’s a silly name, yet billion-dollar companies rely on them for advertising and IT services. The name is perhaps meant to convey vastness because “Google” is the name for the number with 100 zeros after the 1 (i.e. 10100). Except it’s not, because that’s a “googol,” so it’s a misspelling too.

Or consider Yahoo! (yes, with the exclamation point, but that didn’t prevent them from going public), or 37signals (a name with — horrors! — numerals, and impossible to remember, yet fantastically successful). But then there’s Mint, a pretty name conveying no information that nevertheless got acquired for $170m by dinosaur giant Intuit. And here again, an emotional, non-descriptive name like “Intuit” is good enough for a multi-billion dollar accounting company, and similar with Adobe and Oracle. But then again there’s nothing wrong with International Business Machines, Computer Associates, or General Electric, all stoic, cold, blue-chip names with respectable acronyms.

And there’s the semi-sordid history of the “Smart Bear” name.

So now that we’ve dispensed with the idea that naming your company will dictate its fate, we still come back to the simple truth that the name is important, but to you, not to others. You’re the one who has be to proud to be the founder of this company, even when all the other person knows about it is its name. So let that be your primary metric of name-worthiness.

That’s simpler to do, except when you have co-founders. You may agree on most things, but somehow naming the company isn’t a time when people easily come together. Each founder likes only a handful of names; the intersection of everyone’s top three is often the empty set. In my experience it’s too hard to do the obvious process where one person proposes a name and others reject it — you just end up rejecting everything.

Instead, start by having everyone generate her own list of names. Combine them into a super-list, then everyone has veto power over any name, but veto must only be used if you truly would be horrified if that was the name of the company. You’re looking for strong negatives, not positives. Don’t worry, you’ll still eliminate almost all the ideas. During this process you’ll be inspired to think of other names, either by association or in combination. No problem, just tack them onto the end of the list and keep doing the veto pass.

With the remaining names, spend some time with each name, both together and separately. Names, like people, grow on you over time, so it doesn’t have to be the most inspiring name out of the box to become endearing. From this final list, everyone will (by definition) be satisfied no matter which is picked, so really you can’t fail.

In the end, I’ve never heard a founder of a successful company say the name of the company was an important factor in its success; similarly I’ve not heard of a name being the fatal blow.

So just pick one; then you can focus all your worry and angst on something important. Like which of 41 shades of blue you should use in your logo….

What are your company-naming woes? Maybe together we can come to a conclusion; let’s discuss in the comments.

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  • http://www.skedtime.com Peter Alberti

    Hah – what a great discussion! We started with CronDog (“Cron” from Cronos/Chronos/Kronos, god of time, an “Dog” – something that fetches something for you.) Our icon was to be a puppy with a calendar in its mouth instead of a newspaper because we’re helping people organize (and talk about) the things they do day-to-day.

    Everyone HATED the name CronDog, so we settled on SkedTime since a Google search on the word Sked reveals that it’s commonly used as a shortened version of Schedule.

    But now we’re being told “SkedTime is not hip and cool like Quora or Flickr”. (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

    Hey – I agree with what’s in this blog post… just pick a reasonable name, stick with it, and focus more on the value you provide to your customers. They’ll work with you if they like what you give them; not what you’re called.

  • http://links.com Rich

    Almost every company puts a great deal of thought into their name. It is their NAME. For example, would you call this blog “A Smart Bear” or “A Stupid Bear”. Names count. We learn that from childhood.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Actually, I’d argue that “A Stupid Bear” would be just as good. Do you think the blog’s success was due to the adjective in the title?

      • Matt

        My instinct tells me to be careful before using a *negative* adjective. I wouldn’t name a professional entity “A Stupid Bear” for the same reason I wouldn’t name a restaurant “A Bland Plate”.

        That said, there is a restaurant nearby named “Quaker Steak and Lube”. I can’t fathom why someone put the word “lube” in the name of a restaurant, but I know people who go there and enjoy it regardless.

        • http://twitter.com/obfuscode Jace Richardson

          That name would imply an auto service center to me considering “Quaker State” IS lube..

      • http://blog.claritylawgroup.com Sue Wang

        I tell my clients to get a move on and just pick a name already. You can always change it later with a d/b/a filing. “D/b/a” means “doing business as,” and it’s a valid way to have multiple names for the same entity.

        For example, we could have formed up as “Law & Lube LLC.” After market research, we could file one sheet of paper to become “Law & Lube LLC d/b/a Stupid Bear Law Group” and change our web branding to “Stupid Bear Law Group.” If we wanted to ditch the “Lube” bit altogether, it’s also possible to do a complete name change.

    • Nick Barnes

      A Bear Of Very Little Brain?

      • http://blog.claritylawgroup.com Sue Wang

        That’s a winner.

  • http://ravenbrook.com/ Nick Barnes

    “Ravenbrook” is a good name: meaningless, but with positive connotations both clear and obscure (Google Huginn and Munnin).
    Then about six months later we found out about http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ravensbr%C3%BCck_concentration_camp

  • http://afroginthevalley.com/ Sylvain Carle

    One interesting trick we used last year to name our new product (Needium) is to use a service of recently dropped domain names. It has adds a small extra positive bias, if someone thought this name was good a while ago, it might still be… Just check previous history in Google cache to be safe, but it’s a nice hack to help choose a name, in addition to all the other tips in this post.

  • http://pro.storymixmedia.com Mike

    Good points. It is easy to get wrapped up finding the ‘perfect’ name and logo. In the end it really won’t matter, but you can burn a lot of time, effort, and hurt feelings. Although I will add one caveat. Don’t add something to your name which will soon be obsolete or not allow for flexibility.

    In our case our original name was ReeltimeDVD. We found that having DVD could cause issues related to outdated technology and confusing potential customers as to our products and services. Just imagine if we had started in the 90s and called ourselves ReeltimeVHS.

    We came up with our current name Storymix Media because the domain was available, it sounded good, and was generic enough for our industry.

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  • http://gruniverse.com Ben McGraw

    I can’t agree with the distinct-sounding part enough. I’ve had enough awkward and boring “how to spell the domain” conversations as to be sick of it.

    Another trick is (if possible) register all reasonable homophones. One of my projects I fell in love with a name that ended in -write. Thankfully the -right, -wright, and -rite variants were also available, so I went ahead with it.

  • http://www.buildasmarter.com @BenRobbins

    A decade ago, I co-founded a company named Ascent Dynamics. We thought we were very clever, until we forever had to explain that there was only 1 S in ASCENT. Easy to spell definitely belongs at the top of this list.

    • Sss

      imagine they spell it with 3 s

  • David Melamed

    You might want to read this AdAge article by branding legend Al Ries and rethink your post.

    http://www.ries.com/99/Names-don%E2%80%99t-matter.html

  • http://www.levelofindirection.com Phil Nash

    The process you describe at the end for deciding on a name is exactly the process my wife and I used recently to decide on names for our twin boys!

    For my company name it was easier. I was the only one deciding. My motivating factor in deciding on a name was how easy it would be to come up with a logo for it (plus easy of spelling etc, as you say). That’s how I arrived at Two Blue Cubes.

    I think the logo worked out ok.

  • Shaney

    Hi
    Jason…. How do I stop searching for inspiration now I have started? I can’t sleep… every word brings hope???? and then 0000h its not that one! I am constantly alert for anything that sounds…. like something! (only I don’t know what ‘something’ is!)

    My name was FaceNatural and I liked it. I am setting up a shop in Truro selling safe cosmetics. Then I discovered a skincare range in America were called FaceNaturals (why?? Couldn’t they choose something better?? very inconsiderate of them!!). So now I am stuck. In my head its FaceNatural and has been for ages. I am fed up looking at every written word hopeing its going to be the chosen one! Is that how it felt before everyone knew Jesus was Jesus?

    Books so far scoured :
    Thesaurus, Dictionary,(blah blah) Cornish Dictionary,(unprouncable blahs) Cornish Dialect Dictionary (me ‘ansum? rite-on?), John Donne’s poems (not sure why), The newspaper (cos I can’t stop), Baby name books (jason was already taken sorry), Linda Green’s SunSigns book, Linda Green’s book on Numerology (maybe the oracle will give me one that means I earn a fortune) The Urban dictionary (very weird, not using the word ‘face’!), other cosmetic websites (too many naturals). Every one thinks I should use my own but I hate it… and thankfully someone else has it! (strange irony)

    Its just all pants… and I can’t call it that someone else has it!!

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Maybe just call it FaceNatural anyway.

      All this stuff you’re doing — will any of your customers do the same? No one will care even close to this amount.

      Also you can’t wait for a name with zero tradeoffs. Doesn’t exist. So pick one that makes sense and you like and whatever “negatives” there are, are acceptable.

      Then go obsess about something that actually matters.

      • http://blog.claritylawgroup.com Sue Wang

        Trademarks are by country, so the American company can’t really stop you. In fact, if they eventually want to expand into the UK, and you own the UK trademark and domain, you might become a uniquely attractive acquisition for them. In the meantime, make sure your logo design is very different in order to avoid customer confusion (and possible legal liability).

        Or you could just name it after your favorite niece and your favorite flower. Siri’s Daffodils: always safe, always natural.

      • Anonymous

        Its not what the customers do its what the other business does…. on facebook and twitter.

        Facebook and twitter have now become as important as domain names. People are using them for marketing. My dilemma with FaceNatural was not that the business existed etc cause they are in America and I am in the UK, but that they sold natural cosmetics too and have a big Facebook site. As we plan to have one too it wouldn’t be good if people ended up leaving messages on ours that were meant for theirs etc.. too confusing. Or worse buying their products when they meant to buy ours. We plan to be a super ethical/environmental business etc.and if they do anything that is ‘naughty’ we don’t want to be tarnished with it by name association.

        But you are right… I care more than others and there are no names with zero tradeoffs. I will stop being a piglet and obsess no more. One will happen along. Reading the others comments I will make sure it is easy to spel.

        Thank you for covering this topic. It really helps to have others views.

  • http://thecontentbuffet.com John White

    I agree that being able to spell the domain name orally is important – phone messages, out of business cards, etc. – as Ben at Ascent Dynamics commented. Try to reserve a more mnemonic alias and point to your domain.

    When I was with 1-for-All Marketing (nobody could get that straight, let alone the domain), we ended up with 1-for-all.com. In those days, realtors hadn’t yet figured out the Internet thingee, so you could still reserve ZIP codes, which we did. It was easy to spell 92121.com over the phone, and we redirected it to our home page.

    I’ve never seen a post on this topic, but there are only a handful of letters in the English alphabet whose names sound unique – H, L, Q, R, W – and the numbers. Can you cobble together a company name around those?

  • http://arnorhs.com/ Arnor Heidar

    Great point about just picking one and moving on. Weirdest things have gained popularity despite their poor names and/or domains. More examples:
    – del.icio.us
    – news.ycombinator.com
    – getdropbox.com (now dropbox.com)

    But still, keeping it on the shorter side is probably a very good idea.

    I especially liked the comic and it’s reference to ICELAND! :-)

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  • http://www.twobit.se Alex

    Just need to know, was the idea for this article founded by twobit.se (the company?) :) It happens to be that we linked to your site (new year – risk taking article) and suddenly you posted this article… Some background to our company anyways…

    We are from Sweden, so we made some basic mistakes. Our initial requirement of the name was something with IT, and before that we tried everything and ended up with the unfortunate Twob IT. Which evidently ended up as our main site http://www.twobit.se.

    Well, we were unsure beforehand on our name (we googled it a few times) but felt comfortable in Sweden to go with it, besides – it reflects our company well because it means that we are cheap and effective compared to others.. However, we are just curious…

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      I write my articles weeks or sometimes months in advance and schedule them to be posted. That way I’m never under time-pressure, which means writing is pleasurable and the blog is never a source of stress.

      Which means that no, you weren’t a factor in this article at this time.

      However, you’re right that “two-bit” means “cheap, crappy” in American slang. Although I do like the sound of it from the IT perspective. Hopefully others in Sweden do too.

      • Shaney

        Damn!… and I thought you had written it for me!

        By the way… I have a name… but I’m not telling!

        And its not FaceNatural.. its much more fun than that.
        Thanks for all the help.

  • Mike

    The best way to name your start up!!
    http://www.BUZZinessName.com
    This service can tell you most of the possible name ideas for your new business! Genius thing!

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  • http://insightsintointernetmarketing.com/ Craig

    Quite informative. I’ve been trying to come up with a name to “Brand” myself.
    After reading all of this I guess I need to abandon my current choice and think a bit more.
    My current choice is personal, contains my last name, is 3 words, has a fun anagram but takes up 25 character so won’t make tweeting easy.
    I could go on but you get the point.
    So, do I break the rules or go back to the drawing board?

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Remember you can always change your name later… It’s definitely not worth taking time away from more important things that actually could help you succeed.

  • http://www.namecheck.com/ Kate Hutchinson

    This brought a smile to my face… when I joined my company, we ran our name-checking service from http://www.ud.com which was incredibly hard to brand, but was super popular with domainers because it was so short. Eventually I successfully made the case to purchase http://www.namecheck.com so I could call the site Namecheck, which describes what the site does and is much more intuitive for users.

    And your point about the name not being a company-killer… remember all the people (myself included) who thought the iPad was a stupid product name? It certainly hasn’t kept sales down!

  • http://www.lifesotherside.com Kevin Hoffman

    I have a comment in regards to this:
    “ll search engines consider keywords in the domain name to be vastly more important than anywhere else — even the page title.”

    Having keywords in your domain is not important to search engines. What is important to search engines is links going to your site and the anchor text used in them. So the reason having keywords in your domain would help you is that people will likely link to your site with the words in your domain as the anchor text.

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  • http://twitter.com/obfuscode Jace Richardson

    My web company used to be called “Web Reality” but everyone thought it was “Realty” and I got tons of real estate calls. I ended up changing it to “WR Technologies Co., New York” which was a decent brand for a while but ended up dropping it a few years later.

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