How to Name Your Startup
Figure out why it matters before deciding what it’s called
Most startup names suck. The reason is naming your startup is not like naming your kid, and most entrepreneurs seem not to understand this.
Naming your kid is a personal and emotional process… sifting through experiences and relationships for inspiration, mining ancestry and cultural identity for symbolic significance. In the end you trade subjective associations with your partner until you find something one of you loves, the other can live with, and no one other than little Winston Onslo Bonpensiero will ever really care about.
We sometimes name our kids to say something about ourselves… about where we come from, who we are, or what we aspire to. We often do the same with our businesses, and that’s our right. But the price of that indulgence is friction getting the world interested in what we’re doing, and that’s a price few startups can afford.
Naming your startup through an entirely rational process won’t be any better, though. The engineering-centric founders of Actifio, for example, named the company using a software program to determine the shortest 3-syllable world that still had an available dot com url. Apparently Actifio was the least bad of the available options. To me it always sounded like a yogurt, or an Italian character in a Shakespeare play (“How now, Actifio?”) Neither association made my job easier as CMO.
The company was eventually acquired by Google, though, so I guess all’s well that ends well. The truth is a business’ name is rarely a value driver, with great names often correlated to disastrous outcomes (Pets.com) and shitty ones having just the opposite effect (Chewy.)
What’s in a name?
So how can a great name really contribute to the success of your startup?
A great name points prospective customers, investors, and employees in the direction of what makes you special.
A great name can effectively “tee up” the story at the core of your positioning. It can attract attention, foreshadow a key idea, and soften resistance. Effective business communication is always about changing what someone else thinks, feels, or does, and a great name begins the work of doing exactly that.
Setting aside edge cases where a precious url promises something specific (carinsurance.com, privatejet.com, sex.com…), that’s what you should be shooting for as you name your startup. So how do you get there?
How do you get there?
The key to creating a great name is thinking first about how you want customers to respond to the name you create. Make an explicit choice about the the idea or emotion you want the name to trigger in the people who hear it, and you’ll not only have taken the first step toward a name that will work hard for you, but you’ll make the process of brainstorming candidates dramatically easier.
Remember… A name is a new word, or at least a new use for an existing word.
New words don’t arise spontaneously… they evolve in common usage, most often as the derivative of other, more broadly known words. If you’re creating a word your whole company will sit behind, make sure you’re creating it from known words that will help people understand what you do, or (even better) why it matters to the people who buy it.
For example… If what you want customers to think easy when they think of you, start your search for a new word in easy’s conceptual neighborhood — easily uncovered with Google’s thesaurus search — and including words like facile, simple, effortless, painless, clear, cinch, child’s play, elementary, evident, light, and snap.
If what you’re making “easy” is connecting something to something else, combine those words with Connect to put your first 12 candidates on the table:
- SnapConnect, etc.
Switching out the order get you to 24 candidates (ConnectEasy, ConnectCinch, etc.) Use Thesaurus to explore Connect, and you’ll quickly uncover 10 words conceptually linked the that. Now you’re swimming in a pool of 240 candidates (12 x 10 x 2.) If 60% of them don’t make sense, you’ll still have 100 paths to go down, any of which might lead you to something memorable and great.
Just keep evaluating candidates against the standard of the customer response you want, rather than just your own aesthetic preference. A “great name” is one that’s effective in signaling your key idea or emotion to the target, not one that will look the coolest on your matching leather varsity jackets.
Another example… Let’s say you’re launching a tissue paper. Knowing a primary use case of tissue paper is removing things too nasty to touch, let’s say you start with the idea of “clean.”
Next play with prefixes and suffixes — without judgement — to generate a list of candidates:
UltraClean, Cleanify, Cleanorama, HyperClean, Cleanly, PowerClean, Cleanr, CleanTouch, Cleanilize, Cleanerate, Cleanify, Cleanage…
As you evaluate those words, try to suspend your literal mind, and focus on your subjective response to the name. What does it feel like when you say it, or when you hear it? That, combined with the rule of thumb that simpler and shorter are almost always better, might lead you to focus on Cleanly above, which is a fine name itself for a facial tissue.
If you hit a wall, consider adding a secondary concept. Adding “disposable” to “clean” quickly uncovers a word like “Cleanex,” and converting that into a distinctive and ownable trademark would take you to Kleenex, a name so great it came to define a category.
The key is to start with an idea, and work toward a name, so the name you create can carry that idea — even subconsciously — into the mind of the person who hears it. Patagonia is an exotic, wild place where only the most rugged people and equipment dare to tread. Though it’s hard to strip away the associations brands like that have built around names, Rolex carries the idea of mechanical precision and luxury in a way that’s hard to put your finger on, even though you can feel it in your mouth when you say it. Apple is simple and familiar brought to the emerging category of consumer tech. Band-Aid is here to help you, practically explaining what it does. All of these names are memorable, because they mean something.
The only thing better than an idea at the core of your name is an emotion. Sequoia is a name that evokes awe and rock-solid stability, which makes it a great name for a seat-of-the-pants venture firm. Bank of America was a name created by an Italian immigrant to evoke trust, scale, and enterprise. Needless to say, it worked. Mustang evokes the untamed freedom of the open plains, signaling the speed and strength of the V8 coupe it came to represent.
I just know some of you are thinking… “This, from the guy at G20 Ventures?”
Full disclosure… I never thought “G20” was a great name for a venture firm (unlike Pillar, Gaingels, and Accomplice, all great.) Besides being an SEO nightmare, it says “rich and powerful” to me more than “elite alliance,” which is what it was meant to represent.
But, you know, we’re doing fine. Like Kodak, Xerox, IBM, AirBNB, and BMW — bad names all — we’re making G20 mean something through consistent communication, in our case around the idea of human scale venture capital at the core of our story and our brand.
But it sure would have been easier to be Human Scale Ventures, right out of the gate.
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