How to Name a Unicorn: What You Need to Know About Naming a Billion Dollar Startup
Using our company Mylo as a case study, as well as a handful of unicorns and established tech companies for reference, we’ll explore the elements of a solid name and determine the best path to naming your startup.
The advice here is startup/domain-name specific, so if you’re looking for broad advice that might apply to the non-startup world, there are a host of resources available. Hello My Name is Awesome and Wordcraft are two titles I’d definitely recommend for more traditional businesses.
What Makes a Good Name?
It’s important to consider the primary goal of your name. The two most common directions to consider are:
- descriptive: a name that clearly communicates your service
- abstract: a name that serves as the basis for a brand
There will likely be some overlap between the two directions, but it’s helpful to choose a path in order to anchor your brainstorming and decision-making process.
It’s also important to consider the future.
For example, Dollar Shave Club is an incredible name for a brand that sells inexpensive razors every month, but if they’d like to extend their product line, their name becomes slightly confusing and potentially misleading. In contrast, Harry’s, their main competitor, is building a premium bathroom brand with a wide range of products, and their name doesn’t pose any problems.
Dos & Don’ts
The following qualities are central to a great name. It’s not necessary to possess all of them, but they are definite DOS:
- It is short, simple, and catchy.
- It creates a strong mental picture.
- It’s SEO friendly to ensure it will show up in Google results when someone searches it directly.
- It can be “verbed” easily. For example, people often say they “Googled” something.
- It explains your mission or celebrates your benefits.
- It is meaningful in a way that will resonate with others, and the story of its genesis is interesting. People are going to ask!
Does your name possess any of the following qualities? If so, consider it a DON’T:
- Spelling issues: Will someone have trouble Googling your name?
- Copycat: it’s too similar to a competitor’s name.
- It’s too random and disconnected from your brand.
- Your domain is not available.
- Your name is offensive in another language.
- It has an awkward character sequence. For example: Fashionnews (the double n is not doing them any favors).
- It’s hard to pronounce.
How to Brainstorm a Name
Below you’ll find an exhaustive list of ideas and resources for naming startups. Not every direction will apply to every company, but taking a few minutes to consider the entire process will help generate ideas and potentially lead you on a path you might not have taken otherwise.
Build a Web of Related Words
Devise a long list of words associated with your company: its values; the product you’re developing; the industry you are a part of; etc. Be exhaustive.
Once the list is complete, comb through each entry on your list and start to build a web of synonyms associated with every word. Introduce yourself to a thesaurus, it will become your best friend. It will also help to Google image search from time to time, as it might unearth a handful of unconventional associations you might not have generated on your own.
For example: If, like Mylo, you happen to be building an app that focuses on high fashion value basics, your list might consist of words or phrases like fashion (menswear), high quality (worth, distinction, virtue, purity, perfection), and accessible (user-friendly, affordable, playful) — synonyms or associated words are obviously listed in brackets.
As you continue to develop a set of synonyms and associated words, it’s wise to build a wordmap to help visualize your progress. A few avenues to explore might be:
- A web of words associated with basics: essentials, timeless, ordinary, needs, simple
- Qualities commonly associated with the word timeless: classic, durable, functional
- Typical phrases associated with ordinary: hello, salut, wink, welcome, hola
- Feelings elicited by basic needs: comfort, happiness, love
The key is to brainstorm a ton of associative angles and generate an exhaustive web of synonyms until you find yourself gravitating towards something substantial. Ideally, you’ll have enough material that you’ll be able to cherry pick your favorites.
Once you delve into a specific direction below, we’ll recommend a variety of corresponding tools. That said, we’ve also created a short list of valuable resources for general brainstorming, including:
This is the only tool on the list that costs money ($12 for 30 days) but it’s well worth the fee. Namestation performs the tasks of almost all of the other tools combined, and you won’t need more than 30 days to brainstorm a name (so the $12 fee is a one time expense).
If you’re feeling especially lazy, you can put the public to work for you: Namestation will organize a name contest at your behest. Another good tool for those who’d prefer not to pay for a name contest is Business Name Generator.
The compound word is likely the most common breed of startup name, and for good reason: they’re the most satisfying to brainstorm. The process is fairly simple: brainstorm a collection of descriptive or abstract words related to your company, combine them, and repeat until something sticks.
Some well-known examples of startups that utilize compound words include: Facebook, Snapchat, EverNote, Firefox, Photobucket, Salesforce, Wordpress, YouTube, Flipboard, Paypal
Phrases & Puns
Another common trend among startups is the combination of two commonly used words that would otherwise function as a part of a grammatically sound sentence.
We recommend Ubersuggest and The Free Dictionary (use its Starts with and Ends with functions) to help you find common phrases associated with your wordlist. Pun Generator will help with twists on common phrases.
Well-known examples of startups that utilize compound phrases include: DropBox, LinkedIn, MySpace, SecondLife, StumbleUpon, About.Me, Kickstarter, Opentable
Mylo Rejects: BacktoBasics, SoSimple, MyNeeds, EveryWear, ShopDrawer
If you’re a relatively unknown startup, word of mouth is valuable, which means it’s important for your name to stick. If you’re chatting with someone about a streaming music service, it’s fairly easy to remember a rhyming name like Soundcloud off the top of your head.
The last thing you want is someone to Google search “streaming music” when they’re looking for your product specifically. Chances are, the brand leader in your category will show up long before they find you. In short, compound rhyming names tend to stick.
Well-known examples of startups that utilize compound rhyming names include: SoundCloud, GrubHub, SeatGeek, Fitbit, Sunrun
Mylo Rejects: BestDressed, Hi!Buy, RequiredAttire, He’dNeed, DudsBud
Without a major budget, it’s tough to crack open a dictionary, choose a word you like, and create a web domain. The reason? Domain squatters have probably beat you to it. Fortunately, if you’ve found a word that you like, there are a number of creative ways to alter your potential name and secure a solid domain.
A portmanteau is a linguistic blend of words that combines their respective sounds & meanings to create a brand new word.
Portmanteus make for extremely strong names because of their potential to communicate your company’s ethos, purpose, and direction. If you’ve created a solid portmanteau, it will sound like a word that’s always existed.
Well-known examples of startups that utilize portmanteaus include: Pinterest, Zenefits, SpaceX, Yelp, Netscape, Microsoft, Instagram, Epicurious
Mylo Rejects: Simplenty, Refineed, Needit, Grabasics, Yessentials
Prefixes + Suffixes
Adding a prefix, suffix, or number to a preferred word is an effortless way to find an available domain. On occasion, this can result in a great name, but you also run the risk of sounding contrived and/or similar to other companies.
A more conservative direction is to add a common word to the front or back end of your name to secure a domain. Mylo’s domain (www.mylo.com) is owned by a squatter, so we devised a list of simple, catchy words to compliment Mylo, and we eventually decided on okmylo.com.
Well-known examples of startups that utilize suffixes include: Spotify, Cloudera, Friendster, Napster, Shopify, Visual.ly, Bit.ly
Mylo Rejects: Simplete, Incommon, Eversimple, Commonwear, Basic.ly, Himylo, Heymylo, Seemylo, Myloshop, Mylogoods
Misspelling a word by substituting, adding, or removing a letter is another common tactic used in domain acquisition. Names generated this way can be distinctive, meaningful, and short. Unfortunately, they can also sound contrived, so it’s important to take special care when brainstorming this way.
Well-known examples of startups that misspell words include: Flipkart, Lyft, Houzz, Flickr, Tumblr, Digg, Reddit
Mylo Rejects: Basix, Grabbit, Simpl, Fownd, Sollo
Common misspellings to consider include: er>r, i>y, le>l, z>x, ck>k, c>q, ph>f
Unfortunately, re-purposed words are difficult to use. If they’re utilized in a descriptive sense, they’re not protectable trademarks. It’s possible to use them in an indirect or metaphorical sense, but you’ll need a great deal of money to secure a dormant domain.
The following tips take this into account, and reflect these limitations.
Since the dawn of trade, businesses have been named after real people. In the tech world, the most famous examples are Dell, Hewlett Packard, and Craigslist. In recent years, a trend has emerged where fictional personas function as a company namesake.
Well-known examples of startups that are named after non-existent people include: Oscar, Warby Parker, Alfred
Mylo Rejects: Milo, Mijlo, Kiko, Umi, Jan
Slightly Abstract, Brand-Descriptive Words
On occasion, a random, slightly unrelated name might strike you out of the blue — a name so perfect you can’t believe you hadn’t thought of it earlier. These occasions feel magical, but they’re usually the result of hours of research and brainstorming, and often surface the moment your mind is given a second to relax.
The following names may or may not have been a result of the “lightning bolt” effect, but their brilliant ability to communicate their brand’s core values while maintaining an abstract distance is interesting.
These brands include: Apple, Amazon, Google, Slack, Vice
Mylo Rejects: Sift, Keep, Select, Solo, Nab
While the previous batch of names seemed to be plucked at random, they at least possess an associative tie to their brand — they manage to communicate something about their business in a symbolic way.
There are other brands, however, whose names seem to have fallen from the sky without any sort of tie to the business they conduct. At times, these names work, but it’s difficult to provide a strong reason why. It’s a subjective field at best. Fire away!
Well-known examples of startups that make use of miscellaneous words include: Uber, Square, Stripe, Monster, Sun, Lotus, Wink
Mylo Rejects: Kin, Tab, Tandem, Ilk, Mint
Made Up Words
The clock is ticking, your deadline fast approaching, and you’re no closer to finding a word that captures your brand’s purpose, let alone its ethos. Your thesaurus is bone dry, you’ve mined all of your father’s compound puns, and you’re still exactly where you started.
It may be a Hail Mary, but it’s not uncommon for brands to create a brand new word in order to capture their essence.
Well-known examples of startups that invented brand new words include: Zynga, Zappos, Theranos
Mylo Rejects: Oomi, Vound, Iba, Mibro, Robi
If your startup already has an established name that feels a touch dated, conservative, or dull, you may have an easy solution on your hands, especially if your name happens to be three or four words long.
It’s also fairly common for businesses that feature the names of founders to use an acronym. IBM (International Business Machines Corporation) is an excellent example of a company with a previously sterile name.
Other well-known examples of startups that use acronyms include: AirBNB, AOL, ICQ, AIM
If you’ve mind mapped extensively and come up with an impressive list of words, chances are you have a solid grasp of your brand values and how they interact with each other. Here’s where your subconscious is about to shine.
When I’m naming a company, the name I choose often surfaces in a quiet moment. It may feel lucky and unexpected, but it’s always the result of a ton of conscious work, research, and investigation.
While brainstorming Mylo, we were philosophically and aesthetically inspired by MUJI and IKEA. We liked the degree to which they were rooted in the identity of their nations: Japan and Sweden, respectively. While developing our brand, it became obvious that we should be rooted in my Dutch heritage.
The Netherlands embodies many of the values we’d already considered, and my mother’s family owned a prominent auction house that sold furniture near Amsterdam. The foundation seemed to be laid, especially when our ultimate plans to move into basic homewares and furniture were considered.
After searching unsuccessfully for a Dutch word that captured our ethos, I remembered that my mother originally intended to call me Kiko, a name I hadn’t given much thought since I was younger.
The name wasn’t quite right, but it prompted me to research Holland’s most popular male names — a list that included Milo. The name stuck out — it felt right immediately. It was short, catchy, and friendly. To avoid confusion with Milo, a very popular chocolate milk drink in Southeast Asia, we switched the i to y, and Mylo was born.
How to Choose a Name
You’ve created mind maps, exhausted every resource on the internet, and brainstormed a list of your favorite names, so how do you finally choose? Usually there’s one name that “feels right”. In the case that you don’t have a clear winner, the following tips may help.
Check Names for Availability
Most of the aforementioned tools automatically check for domain availability, and ideally there aren’t any unavailable names on your list, but if you haven’t checked, now is the time. GoDaddy can do this easily.
Check Names for Legality
If your domain, social, and Google searches haven’t yielded a competitive term for the name you’re interested in, chances are it doesn’t exist. That said, it’s best to double check to make sure that no one else has trademarked the name.
To determine whether your name may cause you legal trouble, check competing names to see if their trademark is still live. It’s always wise to research their industry and locale as well. This can be done quickly in the U.S. at uspto. If you’re unsure about any of the above, it’s wise to consult a lawyer.
Test Your Final Options
Have a conversation about your company with friends and family. When you’re describing what you do, namedrop your favorite name option. After the conversation, ask them if they remember what the name of the company is, and if so, ask them to spell it to you.
If they’re struggling to remember your name or how to spell it, you may want to consider making a slight revision to make it simpler.
It’s also a great idea to test the names you like at Survata, which allows you to create surveys for up to 24 options. Survata is great because you can target key demographics for $1 per response.
Now that you’ve read our tips and devoured the aforementioned resources, you’re a step closer to choosing a name for your startup. If you’re lucky, you dreamt one up as you were reading.
If I missed any key resources, let me know and I’ll incorporate them into the article. Please share this article via Twitter or Facebook if you enjoyed! Thanks for reading :)
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This article was co-authored by Shaun Roncken.
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An interactive essay I wrote exploring the past, present, and future of anthropomorphic design. Also available as a talk for conferences, events, etc.