What’s in a Name?

In rowing, there’s a concept called “open water.” It’s used to describe the distance between two boats at the finish line. In close races, the front of the trailing boat overlaps with the leading boat. That’s normal.
But sometimes, when one crew has truly pulled away from the competition, there’s no overlap at all between the boats. There’s just open water. Our name conjures up our commitment to advancing our solutions and ourselves. One that evokes limitless possibilities and unbroken horizons. And one that reflects upon the people with whom we do business — the visionaries, the go-getters, the people doing everything they can to get ahead of the pack … and stay there. That’s OpenWater.
Boats on the Left = Normal Victory. Boats on the Right = Victory with a margin of open water.

The story of how we decided upon this name continues below:


When we started the company, we thought for about 2 days to come up with our company name. We sell virtual offices! Duh vOfficeware; virtual office software. It made sense, we got a cool logo made, we had a tech looking vO brand made. We were really happy.

The Original Logo Developed by Maia Gancheva in 2007

We never sold a single “virtual office.” We started releasing other products for invoicing, email, document management. vO Invoice, vO Mail, vO Paper. “What is VOPAPER?” “HUH? VOIN VOICE?” I’m confused. The name vOfficeware never really made it.

In late 2009 we launched “nonprofitCMS” — a content management system for nonprofits! Another great and logical name. It also was one of the main reasons we achieved such a high ranking on google — lot’s of people looking for a “nonprofit CMS.”

Well as of this year, we abandoned web site development. The shift has gone 100% to our product lines. We no longer plan to market exclusively to nonprofits; we need to target a wide net of prospects: magazines, researchers, trade associations, and corporations. We also offer a platform that helps automate awards competitions, abstracts for conference proposals, board of election votes, scholarship applications, and event registration. We struggled to capture “what we do” in a concise manner like vOfficeware or nonprofitCMS.

Screenshot from Internal Memo about the launch of NonprofitCMS (September 2009)

We could not come up with a good enough name for ourselves; the best Tim came up with was “Open Water.” The problem with naming things is that the .com is never available. The owners of OpenWater.com wanted six figure offers before even considering a bid! We worked with the marketing company to help brainstorm names for us. They came up with a list of 150+ names that ranged from meh to really really bad.

The best they came up with was “Convergio” — since our software converges lots of data… or the scientific sounding 373 KELVIN (the boiling point of water). Neither of these .coms were available either; but they were costing in the single digit thousands. Then they sent us http://www.brandbucket.com/ — a site where you can buy brandable domain names at a list price (instead of an auction). We liked things like StackBot and Technoto.

The worst was “Olly olly oxen free” — I lost all respect for them for even presenting that to us.

As we thought it over; we needed to have good visuals to go on our marketing collateral. Sure convergio sounds cooler than OpenWater, but we’d face an uphill battle to determine what it means. Then we’d have to convey that brand and drill it into people. Also telling people on the phone Kunal at convergio dot com would involve a lot of hell in spelling disasters.

Finally, we concluded that we wanted real words. This way the marketing company could hit the ground running. We decided to list a few names we could live with just to move on with the process. We settled on OpenWater and Kelvin — for domains OpenWaterTech.com and Kelvin373.com. At first I thought we’d put it to an office vote, but then I heard Tim start pitching open water to the team; once he’d leave the area, I’d go and make a pitch for Kelvin. Sneaky — but probably not the best way to make the company name.

In our elevator lobby, I just asked a stranger, “what do you think when you hear Open Water?” He answered “I think clear, transparency, trustworthy.” “OK — how about Kelvin?” “I don’t like Kelvin, it sounds weird”

F**K

I liked Kelvin! I thought it could make a cool, futuristic sounding name. Kelvin 373 — the boiling point of water. The name really grew on me. @Kelvin373.com — easy to say — easy to type. What an ass, ruining my big pitch.

Zack and I came up with the idea of putting out a survey, ask our clients, ask our friends, and settle this. I asked questions cold turkey, like which name is better; but also drove people through our issues like hearing it on a phone or seeing it as a brand.

The closer the friend, the more hate that was spewed in both name options. Minutes after sending the survey email, I get a text from Connie: “Both of these names suck balls; one sounds like a plumber, the other sounds like an HVAC company.”

Alex: Where is the option for neither

Brandon: I like OpenWater and Kelvin; but not OpenWaterTech or Kelvin373 — I don’t see the option

Robyn: Kelvin sounds like the name of a fobby chinese man

Some friends asked, why not just use vOfficeware (something I thought long and hard about).

I described this process as choosing a presidential candidate. Neither option was good, but it was the cards we had to play. Every day we don’t have a name, we are a day late on our new strategy — and our backs are pressed up against a wall financially.

Outside of the friends though, the clients were more polite and overwhelmingly chose OpenWater over Kelvin. Even OpenWaterTech was better than Kelvin373. I was shocked. I was beaten badly, 93% to 7% — with 70 responses.

We’re now going to be OpenWater. I have very little, if any, buy in from my friends on this. I figure their opinions are honest; and frankly I believe it myself. I’m sure over time, the name will grow on me and develop a meaning of its own. For now though, I’m happier to have this decision made and to move on.


I wrote the private memo above in 2014. I wanted to publish it unaltered.

Pretty crazy to think now that there was a time we were not called OpenWater. At the time I wrote the memo, most of my friends knew that I had a company: vOfficeware (they pronounced it voff-iss-ware not the intended vee-office-ware), it stood for virtual office software. The idea was to take paper based offices and help them get to the digital age.

Tim and I had sold a grand total of zero virtual offices and rebranded to nonprofitCMS. This is the name our customers knew us by. Unlike vOfficeware we built over 100 nonprofit websites on a CMS (content management system.

Nas and Connie stopped by to use the restroom at our offices near the after volunteering a few blocks away at the national mall (MLK 2014). This was our second logo developed by Ti Tong (2011). We lowercased the n since that was the cool thing to do in that era.

5 years is officially the longest we have stuck with a name, so I think this one is a keeper :)

Me — Move in Day when OpenWater moved from DC to Northern VA (December of 2017)