What the crazy name “Smart Bear” taught me about branding

smart bear logoEvery founder struggles to find a great name for her company. Often it’s the first source of good-natured strife between co-founders. It’s an exhilarating, scary combination of having to decide who you are — what you do, the persona you expose — combined with the technical issues of being memorable, spell-able, and available as a domain name.

My name started as a whim, was almost changed for the wrong reasons, and ended up with a punch-line I would never have dreamed of.

Storytime! (Lessons at the end.)

hotel new hampshire

An inauspicious birth

The origin of “Smart Bear” is John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire, a surreal novel in which a “smart bear” plays an important role; near the end we are told repeatedly that “a smart bear makes all the difference.” I chose it because at the time my (then new) wife and I were into John Irving and it was whimsical, fun, and meaningful, albeit just to us.

In other words: I picked the name with utter disregard to marketing or business sensibility. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong; maybe all it means is that some branding principles, while interesting, aren’t as vital as they first seem.

“It sounds like shareware.”

A few years into Smart Bear I was still toiling away at the compiler when I was approached by an ex-VP of Sales from a company that had IPO’ed. He wanted to partner up — I’m the young geek, he’s the silver-haired, golf-bag-toting, sports-metaphor-slinging salesman.

The full story of that ill-fated misadventure is related here; the relevant detail is that this guy insisted that we change the name of the company:

“Our potential customers — IBM, Intuit, Adobe, Qualcomm — aren’t going to take us seriously with a silly name like ‘Smart Bear.’ It sounds like shareware, not enterprise software.

“Big companies buy from companies with formal names like IBM, CA, BEA, CSC, HP, stuff like that.”

His suggestion? Software Test and Deployment Systems, Inc, which shortens to the unfortunate “STDS.”

Yeah, an acronym already taken by gonorrhea.

(The jokes, though, were almost worth it. Viral marketing! Our invoices flare up every year!)

I got lucky, though. I was all set to pair up with this guy and change the name, but in another example of serendipity being more influential on business success than purposeful action, I happened to receive a hugeamongous purchase order from Intuit, a whopping $50,000.

You know, exactly the kind of order from exactly the kind of company who would never do business with silly old “Smart Bear” run by non-salesy, geeky Jason. Today, as you can see from our customer list, all the companies he listed are, in fact, customers, and many more besides.

All with a silly name and informal sales.

The VP of Sales’ rationale made sense though, and of course Smart Bear might have been equally successful if named STDS. But once again I learned that maybe the name isn’t as important as either of us thought.

“Let’s just ask the customers.”

Fast-forward six years to present day. I sold Smart Bear a few years ago to AutomatedQA — a great company with a compatible culture and similar goals where Smart Bear (now as a division) continued to thrive (meaning: more revenue, more profits, bigger-and-badder software, and happy customers).

After making a few other acquisitions and continuing to grow, AutomatedQA is now a large company which in the next few years is on a path to be successful even by a VC’s standards. If you thought “Smart Bear” was too informal before, now it’s even more out of place. (If you subscribe to that theory.)

But having all these departments with different names (AutomatedQA, Smart Bear, Pragmatic Software) sucks when you’re trying to build a company which is starting to capitalize by making already-best-of-breed tools work together, especially with customers who we all share. So they decided to rebrand everything under a single name.

But which name? AutomatedQA (the one which was biggest to begin with and clearly a great name)? Smart Bear? Something new? STDS?

So they decided to poll everyone they could find in the software industry — customers and otherwise. They asked positioning questions like:

  • Do you have a good or bad immediate impression of this brand?
  • Have you heard this name before, and if yes what have you heard?
  • If you have experience with this brand, what was that like?

The result? See for yourself: As of July 19th 2010, the entire company has been rebranded Smart Bear. Come see the new website — it’s neat to see something start out so ugly and terrible and end up as the banner of what is already a massively successful, many-million-dollar business.

So what’s in a name?

What’s in a name? Not as much as some folks say, it appears.

The lessons I took from this are:

  • It’s what you do, not what you call it.
  • It’s more effective to do/say something important/valuable than to hope a logo or name will say it for you.
  • Being memorable is more important than what they remember.
  • First impressions are important, but so are all the other impressions, and the latter can trump the former.
  • Your time isn’t well-spent fretting about brand (early on).
  • You can change your brand later.
So what should you do? Here’s some things I think are still important.

Continued in the comments…

What are your experiences with naming and branding? Am I being too harsh in dismissing the value of branding? Let’s continue the discussion in the comments.

46 responses to “What the crazy name “Smart Bear” taught me about branding”

  1. I, for one, subscribe to the notion that the actual name is less important than what you do with it. I mean, with a name like pTracker, how can I not? I didn’t even fret the domain name – ptracker.com was taken, so I added a bit of formality – pTrackerLLC.com. The twitter handle was taken, so I underscored it, etc.

    The meaning of the “p” has changed in my mind since it’s inception, but since I haven’t formally incorporated it into my branding yet, it doesn’t matter much.

    Anyway, congrats on having your original name adopted, Jason. I bet that feels sweet, just like a rose by any other name.

    • Interesting point you bring up — if you use something like “p” it can evolve to mean whatever you want it to mean over time. Convenient!

      Then the other part of the name is descriptive, so together it’s quite useful. Great point.

  2. Your timing is precipitous. I am in the midst of finalizing my company name. My intended name is also based on personal interest, much the same way as was yours, although my process has been a little more involved.

    The “problem” that your potential partner saw was that the name sounded like a name dreamed up by a solopreneur to describe a relatively new, small company; which in fact it was. While he saw that as a hindrance to being taken seriously, I don’t think that is a reality anymore. Back in the day, it was important to look as legit and large as possible. With the advent of unique and small tech companies making big waves, a lot of that biased thinking has gone by the wayside.

    I find that last thought and your story comforting as I name my firm with something with meaning that will still kill as a domain name (the holy grail!)

    Thanks for the uplifting words!

  3. love the post about the grey-haired almost-mishap. Classic.

    Once you get past the basics of “hear-able and spellable”, and ignoring names whose domain costs a fortune to buy, I think of names like an empty glass. It’s up to you to fill it. If your company and your product is great, then your name will become great as well.

  4. I think we need to remember that all big guys such as HP, IBM also known to be soulless companies with terrible customer support etc.

    So even though their name and actions defines the word “enterprise” in software business also “enterprise” label itself is kind of a sore point for so many end users.

    When you have a name like “Smart Bear” it feels like there are human behind the company, when you talk about companies such as HP, IBM, STSD! it feels like there are only robots and auto answering machines.

    • I agree. Coming across like a corporate is not a good look generally!

      It really depends what business you are in but generally I think customers want to feel that the company they are dealing with is honest and reliable and cares about their needs as customers. They are more likely to feel like this about a smaller company than a corporate.

  5. This post is both clear and and very helpful. Thanks Jason.

    I as many others have struggle when it comes time to name a product, service or blog. I think we put too much effort on this because we have the wrong impression that this is important. However, you are right about the most important thing being your actual service and/or product.

    There is only one thing I still believe is important and this is the domain names. A good domain name is important because it can help you gain more traffic from search engines when using a domain name that has real words in it or it can help your business if it is short and catchy.

    • Yes as part of the rebranding for whatever reason they changed it to one name.

      That’s always been a confusing point by the way — I was never consistent with which way it was spelled, so it’s just as well that they picked one name or another!

  6. The Smart Bear brand is better than you think. It actually conveys what your company does pretty straightforwardly — Smart Bear Software implies a product that is intelligently designed, with perhaps a new or alternative approach to problems. Maybe it means you bring thought leadership from an unlikely source. Exactly what you do right?

  7. Thank you, this was awesome. I’d been fretting about our name for weeks and weeks and your post just made me relax more.

    Thanks for sharing.


  8. Jason, love the story, and yes are way too dismissive of branding. As I often say, a good brand will not help a bad product sell more or more efficiently, but a bad brand will hurt a good product. “Give a dog a good name!” So, Smart Bear was/is a great name (STDS sucks). It is easy to remember, most people like bears, and you have smarts (Hey, hey Booboo!), remind you of anyone?

    Yes, it is FAR more important to have a great product than a good name, but a good name never hurts. I like to use the example of the “Inheritance Tax” v. “Death Tax.” Same tax, different names. Changed name, killed tax. So, you decide. Your whimsical name was a lucky first choice, but your product is really what sold you.

  9. Great post. I wish I had seen it a year ago, when I was searching around for a company name. It inspired me to write a blog post based on recent experience, which I’ve been meaning to write for a few weeks, which I’ve called “How to pick a product name” in homage to this post. (Link: http://edparcell.posterous.com/how-to-pick-a-product-name).

    One thing on company names: Smart Bear seems like a great name in itself to me. I read a bunch, but still struggled to come up with a company name when I was doing that – you obviously have a better knack for that than me. At a certain point, it becomes important to have a company name. You can’t incorporate without one, for example. As a techie, I feel pressure to come up with a perfect solution, but this is a subjective task. This article is great, because it takes the pressure off: it’s more important to have *a* reasonable name, and get on with it.

  10. Have to say I agree with this and have found the same. I remember naming the first company I started – I was convinced of the above points. After all, if they weren’t huge companies, names like ‘Pepsi’ and ‘Nike’ wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever.

    So I picked a random letter and he picked a random number and that was our name. And it’s never been an issue. A name is what you make of it.

    Of course I’m probably simplifying – it’d be hard to becoming a big international when your name is a particularly egregious swear in something like Mandarin. But yeah, I’ve seen people spend far too much time worrying about things like names – that in the end, just don’t matter that much.

  11. Great post Jason for anyone out there currently stressing over a company name. It’s easy to get sucked into the idea that you’re stuck w/ your first choice of name and logo, when the reality is anything but.

    When I first had the idea for my business I brainstormed, mind-mapped, white-boarded, day-dreamed, night-mared, etc… trying to think of a name that was both a) catchy and b) told a story.

    In the end my wife said, “just say what it is you do.” So I did. We advertise what our commission will be for every apartment in Dallas (for now) and offer a 50/50 split for anyone who remembers to write our name down on their apartment lease.

    So we naturally chose “yourentwesplit.com”. And the name has honestly become one of our biggest assets.

    • Hi Mike,
      “just say what it is you do” is the approach we took too. Of course domain availability was a big factor. I guess only success makes the difference in the end. If you survive, it’s a good name, else, it doesn’t matter how appropriate it sounds.

  12. Thanks for this post Jason. I agree that building a great product/service that solves a problem for customers is the most important thing we can do as entrepreneurs. After all, lots of companies have quite obtuse names and are doing well. (37 signals and Balsamiq – which sounds like a cafe – for example!)

    I have never really been quite happy with the name for my business, but I do think it describes what I am offering to customers. (And I have the domain name.)

    Reading your post and the comments is a good reminder not to get hung up on having everything perfect but to “just get on with it” and deliver value.

  13. Yeah perfect timing. I am actually about to rebrand my business in about a month or so. I initially thought i needed to sound as professional as possible, but as i started finding companies called Smart Bear and Less Everything and seeing that people still take you guys seriously. I actually realized i don’t want to sound so corporate anyway. I don’t wear suits or khakis, purely jeans, even to meetings. My clients are glad when i do great work, the only time they care about my business name is when they write a check.

  14. I have never disagreed with your fundamental point of view (perhaps because I have know little about starting a business). Nevertheless, I find that I have a point of view on this particular post.

    Reading your post, I could easily deduce 2 alternative viewpoints:
    1) Name doesn’t matter for a software company
    2) Name is extremely important and smartbear is a great name

    I’m not sure why you opted for
    3) Name doesn’t matter

    For a consumer-based web business it seems that at a minimum, it seems to be important that it’s easy to spell and easy to remember, no? And, it should give you some bang that you’re proud of. You’ve gotta be able to own it.

    Okay, this is getting a bit long for a comment, I’m cutting myself off.

    Thanks Jason. Looking to launch Later Dog in 2 weeks :) PS: Started a smart bear blog for idiots: blog.laterdog.com.

    • You might be right, but then is “zappos” easy to remember or spell? Today it is because it’s famous but I said “that shoe site that’s really successful” for about a year before I could remember the name.

      I like your point though that different sorts of businesses have different requirements for naming; I’m sure that’s true. I wanted to make the point that sometimes even if you’re in a space where it seems you need to be formal — large-ticket “enterprise” software sales — it may not be as important as it seems.

  15. Memor-able, spell-able, avail-able… and not necessarily in that order, but trying to find a name that provides these three things is forcing us for better or worse to accept company names like LinkedIn, FaceBook, Google, OnStartups and yes, SmartBear… surely these are no more or less memorable than Amazon, MicroSoft, Apple or Zappo’s. I think what matters is market success. Once you have success an otherwise mundane name becomes memorable and therefore easy to spell.

    I’m guessing you would have named the company something else if ASmartBear, SmartBear or SmartBearSoftware were all taken, but it wouldn’t have altered the outcome of your market success — and that’s all that matters.

    It’s refreshing to hear your story however for those of us left to choose names that are available, but not necessarily memorable or spell-able.

    Would love to hear more about if and how that $50,000.00 PO changed the future of your company. Were you able to parlay that into something bigger. Was it in some way a turning point?

    When we first start out we all here from potential investors “go out and get a sale”… then we get a sale and we here crickets or go out and get another sale. I got a $300,000.00 PO and a multi-year agreement and I heard; what do you need us for?… The answer is simple: economies of scale, expansion, speed to market.

    Any advice on this front?

    • Yes the $50k order completely changed the direction of the company!

      It brought me to a crossroads — should I hire employee #1 (because now I have the money to burn in case it goes for 5 months and fails) and try to make this into a bigger company, or should I pocket the money and keep this a lifestyle business and hope I can get $100k-$200k/year out of it.

      I chose the former, but without a big check to gamble with I would certainly not have.

      On advice about taking money, that’s of course an entire post in itself. :-) But in general you take money post-traction only if you feel you need it to accelerate growth. That is, you can of course bootstrap-grow but funding makes that faster. For companies where first-mover advantage is an advantage, growing faster soon is important. For companies like Smart Bear in which getting there first isn’t a big deal, there’s no need.

      I would say “economies of scale” are NOT in the list of reasons to take money. There’s not that much economy in scale, in turns out, when your most expensive and important “resource” is “smart people.”

      You also need to take money in non-software companies where growth requires a ton more working capital. Software companies can be like that too of course but it’s easier to skate by without it.

      • Economies of scale was probably not a good use of the term… but accelerated growth, speed to market, and scale “seem” important.

        I feel that what I have done is built a lifestyle business while bootstrap-fund behind the scenes.

        Your first employee – Sales? Salary? Commissions Only? In order to get smart people that $50k would buy me about 6 months – was that true for you as well? With a 6 month sales cycle that’s a sizable risk any way you calculate it.

        Taking money – Did you? or were you able to parlay your success into a partnership, merger or acquisition?

        I think I’m at the point where I’m just going to have to make some challenging decisions about growth.

        Anyway, always nice to get feedback from someone who has been there.

        • First employee was low salary + generous stock, raised to good salary when we could afford it.

          It’s still a startup — you need “smart people” who can put some skin in it, otherwise it’s time to raise money.

          I didn’t take any money except for selling the company completely in 2007 (see the Popular Posts section in the sidebar for that story).

  16. I came up with my name almost instantly without any regard to whether the domain would be taken or whether I would need a .com .edu or .org.

    I think the name has to resonate with the entrepreneur above all things. You can’t design a company with your blood, sweat and tears if you can’t even handle telling people the name.

    Customer input is good too, but you really only need to ask a handful of people. In the end, the name is not as important as we think. What the hell kind of name is Google or Twitter for that matter?

    Turns out that the name “Google, [originates] from a misspelling of the word “googol”, the number one followed by one hundred zeros, which was meant to signify the amount of information the search engine was to handle. ”

    Did I know that until I looked it up just now? Nope. Did I use google all the time before I found out? Yes, and I probably won’t use it more now that I know why they came up with the name.

    The point: who cares? You, the entrepreneur, care. That’s what matters.

  17. I believe customers don’t care about names nearly as much as businessmen do. As long as your brand name is available for registration (including Domain/Facebook/Twitter registration), can be spelled and spoken, and does not have any negative connotations, the only people who are going to care are other business owners (do you really need to make them jealous) and investors that are too lazy to look beyond the name.

    Another question beyond the choice of a name is whether you want to push your company name or your product name. Having good product names is better if you rely on selling a single product, but having a good company name that appears on every product will help you sell different products. In the end, a lot of customers don’t know the name of the company they’re buying from, they only care about the name of the product.

    Think about the last movie you saw. Do you remember what company did the publishing? Does the name of that company matter to you at all?

  18. Thanks for the timely post. Well, it would have been even better a week earlier. Last week I filed for my first LLC. I debated with my wife on a good name and she suggested something like your grey haired friend while I was set on something more like smartbear. When I look at recent successes such as yahoo, google, smart bear, etc. I knew I wanted to stay away from formalities and copying someone else. I’m not trying to be “like” the other companies out there I’m forging my own path.

    In case you’re wondering I went with Octonerd LLC. It will be a company providing “Nerd” services such as computer repair, web development and IT for commercial and residential clients. The company mascot is an Octopus (Smart and able to multitask very well). The real test will be how I operate and create the brand.

    • Micah,

      You helped me realize something else… entrepreneurs could still choose formal names as their “legal” names – if it is absolutely necessary for the well being of a relationship with a significant other or a business partner :) and then just use a cool alias/AKA, for example IBM, is in reality “International Business Machines Corporation”.

  19. I’ve been part of start-ups where we spent way too much time trying to get the name right. My position has always been “it’s more about not getting the name wrong as opposed to getting it right”. By that I mean don’t make the mistake of calling your company something that shortens to STDS but don’t waste so much time getting the perfect name when you should be focused on getting business. Can you imagine sitting around a table today and coming up with the name “Apple” for your company, or “Cisco”, yet today these are well recognized names of successful companies. And that, I think is the key. Build a successful company and all of a sudden even a less than stellar company name can become a good name.

    At the same time, I agree that branding is critical, but that’s for another discussion

  20. I laughed when I read this post as I think everyone starting a business has grappled with this and probably received some bad advice (from the silvery haired VC equivalent).

    The thing to keep in mind is that a name isn’t a brand. It’s not even the most important part. A brand is what customers think of you. It’s something you don’t own. But you do have a modicum of control over it – your name, your product, your service, your story, your PR. They all play a part.

    You can make an obvious mistake with the name (I reckon you probably never considered ‘mysoftwaresucks’ for SmartBear :), but if you steer clear of these and use a bit of creativity and gut logic, you should be good.

  21. Jason, congratulations! Must feel good to see the name you picked carry on. A cool one, too. Would have been a shame to get lost.

  22. I always love names which have nothing to do with what you do – makes it easy to brand and gives you freedom to change.

    If I say ABC Softwares, people have a prejudice – bad for branding. If I say Apple – whoohoo they know nothing, same for smart bear.

    Wrote a post about it (click my name to check it :P) #SamelessSelfPromotion

  23. Thanks Jason.
    This post just acknowledged my gut feel about the name I have just chosen.
    After quite some desk research for a company name in design and web development, I came across all sorts of names, some with a notion of what they do, many that don’t etc. In the end, my reason is: The name I have chosen is registerable (Chamber of Commerce), has an equivalent internet domain name in all top level domains to go with it and the the brand has yet to be created.
    I strongly believe that the product, and sustained quality and actions do far more to drive the company to success.

  24. This is a great post Jason! When I choose the name of my start up (Zanthis), I wasn’t sure how much the name would matter, but I didn’t want to overlook something important either. This post confirms what I suspected to the true: the name matters, but only so much. I’ll let you know how things go when I get going!

  25. Great read Jason – what a story! Hilarious with the potential renaming acronym.

    Anyway, as many others have stated, this is timely – not because we’re changing our name but because I’m writing a post on this very topic and went out looking for inspiration – and what a find! Our name (OpenCal) came about a very different way, though we considered many options. We wanted something that would at least partially tell a user something about the product. In any case, it’s reassuring to hear from someone else that’s been there that branding is not something we have to worry about too much at this point (it’s a fairly common internal debate).

    Thanks again!

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