The one question you need to ask when choosing a name for your startup

Alan Clayton
Jan 29 · 5 min read

We all wonder why car makers like Mazda went with names like the Laputa (meaning “the whore” in Spanish), or Chevrolet’s Nova (meaning “doesn’t go”), but deciding on a company or brand name which you hope will become the next Netflix, Tesla, or Alibaba is not easy.

Before the world became so connected, when everyone shopped locally, calling your company “Sean O’Sullivan Alchemist Ltd” would be all you need. And even when trade became international, “East India Trading Company” would be sufficient to communicate your intentions effectively to potential customers.

Fast forward to today. Unless you’re working in the teeny tiny world of venture capital, getting invited to the “A16Z” summer picnic would mean less than nothing to most of us.

At SOSV I’ve seen founders christen nearly 1,000 companies in the last decade, so I understand the pain involved, and the need to label your endeavours in a way that is memorable, meaningful, and for sale on GoDaddy for a lot less than LasVegas.com at $90,000,000.

You tell me, what do you think these companies do? Particle? Darma? Pequod? Hey, the domain name was available — or at least the dot.io or the dot.co.

Maybe it’s just me, but when I hear a person’s name mentioned in a conversation, it immediately conjures up an image — tall or short, smiley or grumpy — based on friends I used to have at school 50 years ago, which has nothing to do with the person in this conversation. I still can’t stop the “meaning” of the name being triggered.

So, how should you choose a name? And why is it so important?

Unless you’re Apple, Ferrari, or Disney with a treasure chest of marketing dollars to tell people what you’re about and quite a few years under your belt, you have to be smart (and cheap).

Agencies like Squadhelp suggest your name should be from one of five categories: Emotional, Clever, Classic, Pragmatic, or Modern. It’s an interesting approach — but how do you decide which is best for you? And don’t all names generate some kind of emotional reaction?

Terry Heckler, the interestingly named guy who made sure Starbucks got the nod ahead of the name “Pequod”, thinks you need “power words” which begin with sounds like “ST…..”

Forbes magazine provides a very basic set of things to think about, including making a name easy to spell, and yes, buying a dotcom if at all possible.

Keep it simple. Naming the company one thing and the product another is just complicating things, and introducing inefficiency into the brand building process.

But why so much fuss? Founders forget that this name or label (just like your own name) is ultimately the answer to the question “Who are you?”. It’s a question of identity. And that’s a very big subject. Think about when you show up at an event and are asked “Who are you?”. The standard response is to give your name or maybe job title. One is a label that maybe meant something to your parents. The other is a temporary label from your current employer. Neither is the real answer to the question, which goes much deeper.

The impact of a name can be enormous. Just think about Buddha, Mandela, Musk, Trump. Simple words — but they convey meaning, and influence people’s behaviour far beyond what their owners ever imagined. Your reaction to a name is triggered by the combined accumulated references to that name that you carry in your memory. So if you only heard (or experienced) bad things about Trump, you respond accordingly. And worse still (from his point of view), that’s a reaction you then pass on to others. No surprise then that celebrities and large corporations spend so much on PR. They are desperate to make sure when their name comes up in conversation you always react in positive ways, which obviously includes buying their products, and recommending them to friends.

It even works with entire countries, try it: Germany? Sweden? Syria?

Our identity is not something we like to have challenged. It goes right to the core. So if you are an actor (e.g. it’s what you do but also how you think of yourself), and I say I think actors are crazy; even though you are probably a super nice person in every way, your animosity is triggered immediately and our relationship is doomed before it begins. Likewise, if all you know about McDonalds is that a friend of yours went there and told you it was dirty, the simple mention of the word McDonalds will trigger a bad reaction for ever after, regardless of what the food tastes like, or the fact the other 10,000 branches are spotlessly clean.

As a startup, every email you send, every conversation you have, every pitch you give, in fact every interaction you have with anyone however trivial, is slowly but surely building your reputation in the marketplace. You are adding to the memories that are accumulating in people’s minds and being shared. You can’t halt the process. It happens by design or by default. So I recommend you proceed by design. Decide how you want people to react, or the words you want people to use, and only ever do things and say things that are likely to trigger that response.

So how do you know how you’re getting on, or if the name you’ve chosen is a good one or not? Here comes that one question you need to ask from the outset:

“What’s the first thing that comes into your mind when I mention [NAME]?”

As long as what comes into their mind is positive, you are on the right path!

Of course, symbols and images are all part of the package, and arguably the pictures speak a thousand words, but only after time. So when you see Shell, Apple, or Netflix out in the wild, the name is no longer necessary, because the association of the name with the image is already in your memory. They just have to hope it’s positive!

I like the two questions Jeff Henderson suggests you should always be asking about your company, in his book FOR. “What do you think your company stands for?” and “What do your customers think your company stands for?”.

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SOSV: Inspiration from Acceleration

Insights from The Accelerator VC—including our programs (HAX, IndieBio, Chinaccelerator, MOX, Food-X, dlab) & our startups.

Alan Clayton

Written by

Roaming Mentor @ SOSV - Chinaccelerator, HAX, IndieBio, FoodX

SOSV: Inspiration from Acceleration

Insights from The Accelerator VC—including our programs (HAX, IndieBio, Chinaccelerator, MOX, Food-X, dlab) & our startups.

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