I think about startup branding, and specifically startup naming, a whole lot. For that reason, I was excited to hear that Paul Graham’s most recent essay was on that very topic. Graham’s essays represent some of the most challenging and important writing in the startup corpus, so I love to hear his thoughts on subjects I’m close to.
This essay, though, misses the mark, and presents a lot of opinions and anecdotes (and probably a dose of cognitive bias) as fact. It’s misleading to founders, and oversimplifies an important decision.
Is having yourname.com ideal? Sure. But is “pick a name for which you can get thatname.com” the most important, fundamental rule of naming your startup? Not even close.
Here’s why this matters: your name is the first part of your brand a potential customer encounters. It should say something meaningful about who you are and why your offering matters, and all of that should be rooted in truth.
A good name starts that conversations and leads to dialogue. A noun.com doesn’t do any of those things.
Naming is hard, and naming is important, so I’d like to submit an alternative and more holistic POV for consideration by the startup community.
Where we agree
First, I’ll say I agree with two points. One is the over attachment many founders feel towards their first name.
There’s nothing intrinsically great about your current name. Nearly all your attachment to it comes from it being attached to you.
I see this in office hours all the time. A pre-traction company 6 months in will be convinced that they’ve built “equity in this name.” No, you have not.
It’s also true that most founders are bad at naming (but that’s okay!):
Naming is a completely separate skill from those you need to be a good founder. You can be a great startup founder but hopeless at thinking of names for your company
This is what makes naming weird. Everyone has to do it, but no one really knows how. That’s the main reason we gave a talk at SXSW called When Bad Names Happen to Good Startups (video here).
So founders are bad at naming, and most have an unhealthy attachment to their (usually bad) first name. I can dig that. But this article makes several claims, expressed as gospel, that I think are dangerous.
Where we disagree
The problem with not having the .com of your name is that it signals weakness.
Of all the things that can signal weakness in a startup, it’s hard to imagine this issues would be the one to kill a company. Users hear your name first, not your URL. Wouldn’t you rather that first impression create meaning for your brand, rather the be some irrelevent noun?
Whereas (as Stripe shows) having having x.com signals strength even if it has no relation to what you do.
This only signals strength to people who value x.com over anything else, including thoughtful exploration of potential names based on what’s known about the audience, the competition, the brand’s personality, and any number of other factors that will lead to the longterm strength of a brand.
Which leads to the next issue with Grahams advice:
It turns out almost any word or word pair that is not an obviously bad name is a sufficiently good one.
This is another example of spouting an opinion as hard fact. And I know a lot of folks who would wholeheartedly disagree with this opinion. Using stripe.com as a successful example of a word that happens to work as name is simple confirmation bias. It’s correlation, not causation.
And really, the highest-valued YC grads are also among the most-funded YC grads. Little surprise they’ve been able to purchase their relevant URLs.
And finally, there are plenty of examples of successful companies that launched without their name.com. getdropbox.com and basecamphq.com are two examples that come immediately to mind.
Let’s admit it: naming is hard
Everyone loves a hard-and-fast rule to remove ambiguity. “Get the .com for your name, or get a different name” might provide a degree of comfort to some. Here’s the rule; follow the rule and you’ll be okay. Easy enough.
In reality, naming is much more nuanced than what one gets from platitudes like that. And so often, advice on naming is ex post facto. It’s all based on people’s opinions on the names of already successful companies.
Taken to heart, Graham’s advice leads founders away from relevant names that support their brand story, and toward arbitrary words that happen to be available in .com form. Founders face myriad barriers on their road to growth. Finding a good name that lowers a few of those barriers will pay off for years to come.
So in the spirit of helping wayward founders find a path forward, here are a few tips to help you identify a name that’s meaningful to your position, your values, and your personality.
- If you have to explain your name before you can talk about your benefits, you have to change your name (follow the advice in Graham’s essay and you’ll likely find yourself in this boat, e.g. “I’m Patrick from Towel.com, but what we really do is provide and API for…).
- Your name should not create conceptual hurdles to understanding your business (ditto).
- Your name should point your audience in the right conceptual direction, but it doesn’t necessarily need to explain everything on its own.
- If you hate saying your name, change your name.
- Vet your name ideas with a google web and image search, USPTO, and Urban Dictionary.
A few final observations:
- you’re not naming a startup, your naming a brand — too often founders think of other startup names when contextualizing their name choice. Reading TechCrunch and following startup celebs on Twitter makes this all too easy. But your users don’t care that you’re a startup.
- start from somewhere — naming is usually hard because you’re sitting around a table with your team throwing stuff against a wall. Nothing feels right because they’re all just generic words. The strongest names usually emerge out of a meaningful brand strategy that captures key observations about you audience, competition, positioning, and personality.
Naming is both hard and important, so taking a few minutes to gain perspective is more than worth the trouble. Start from a place of truth and build meaning into your story from a potential user’s first impression.
You might need to change your name to do that. Just don’t sacrifice a strong and meaningful name in service of short-sighted “rules” about owning a .com.