Put the name down slowly and step away

I'm not a naming expert, but in my experience I've never seen a great startup name do much to propel that company to success. There are so many other much more important factors that the difference between a great name and an okay name is hardly something to lose sleep over.  However, a really bad name can be a significant roadblock, and unfortunately I see a lot of founders demonstrate an uncanny ability to conjure up and fall in love with some pretty large piles of manure. So to save them (and us) from this world of shitty names, it's time for me to share eight guidelines when it comes to selecting a name for your new startup.  As with my brand foundation advice, I'm being lazy and mostly just regurgitating someone else's work, with a few modifications.  Of course, you're being even lazier by just reading this blog instead of the actual work behind it, so don't judge. This time, the rules I'm summarizing  are from the first few chapters of a book by Al and Laura Ries called, "The 22 Laws of Immutable Branding." It's a pretty quick and easy read that can help you with more than just naming; you might want to consider actually reading it for yourself. [ Go get it here .]

To be clear, the guidelines below won't necessarily help you come up with a great name, but they should at least help you understand what not to do. If, as a founder, you find that you're not following more than one or two of these, it's likely that you've just gotten drunk on the idea of having found a name at all and you're not seeing clearly.  Put the goggles down and look at your name realistically. And whatever you do, don't go home with it; it probably has herpes.

1. Don't come up with a name by yourself. Many engineers are introverts and think that the best way to come up with a clever, usable name is to sit alone in front of a screen and type phrases into NameCheap's search box. It's not. No matter how smart you are, you need other perspectives to bounce your name off of; you need a long brainstormed list; you need inspiration from outside ideas. And, frankly, you need to have completed your Brand Foundation document. Otherwise, you'll fall in love with the name, "Fashism," and even Ashton Kutcher won't be able to save you.

2.  Make it short. To clarify, that means "not many letters." Like this explanation.

3. Make it easily communicable. This is not the same as just making it short. To be communicable, it must be simple in terms of both alphabetic construction as well as how it translates from being spoken to written and vice-versa. Think of the process by which someone might encounter your name. They might read it first: is it easy to read and pronounce correctly, even for the products of America's public school system? What about for people with dyslexia? Does it use silent letters or some sort of unusual exception to phonetic spelling? Are there a lot of different letters, or is it a nice repetition of a few simple phonics? And then, once your name is spoken, how does it translate into being written down again? Can the same addled brains hear it and consistently spell it correctly as a result? Are there homophones that will get in the way and yield a completely incorrect result? This process is basically just a version of the Telephone Game: does your name survive several iterations of being read, spoken, heard, and written down to be read again? The answer should be "yes."

4. As Al and Laura Ries put it, does your name, "suggest the category?" Does it evoke a thought or feeling connected to the problem/industry/product? I think it's worth separating out two means of "suggestion" here: one is targeted at the intellect--at the conscious mind--and the other at the emotional or unconscious.  A name that targets the intellect would cause your potential customer to be consciously aware of the suggestion because the name appeals to his or her intellect.  For example, "HotelTonight" beats you over the head with a "suggestion" of the category. There's no emotional response when you hear it, but there is an overt conscious one. One method that the authors suggest for doing this is to take a generic name and make it yours by shortening it.  Examples they give include shortening "Vanilla Wafers" to “Nilla Wafers” and “Gelatin” to“Jell-O." I guess you could also argue that "Google" is a shortened version of “Googolplex,” although not many people were familiar with the term "googolplex" before Google came around.

All of that is nice, but I think there's psychological evidence to suggest that unconscious emotional responses are better. If that's the case, then it's better to use the name to tap the subconscious to evoke a feeling about the category, rather than an overt reference to the category. This is more difficult, for sure, but worth aiming for. DieHard, for example, evokes a feeling. (It's also an example of using shock; see below.)

5. Don't choose a generic name; make your name unique. "Suggesting a category" doesn't mean being stupidly obvious.  Names like “hotels.com” actually make it difficult to build brand equity. This is due to concept overloading. The human mind organizes information conceptually, and it is difficult for a generic name to occupy unique conceptual space, since the space for that name is already occupied by a broader concept. You want your name to be a unique subcategory, not try to compete with the category name itself. If you do this really, really well, then your brand will start to replace the category naturally. For example, many people say they want a "Coke" when they really just mean some sort of cola. "Coke" has started to usurp the very concept of cola, but that wouldn't have happened if the product was just called "Cola" instead of "Coke." One way the authors suggest to make your name unique is to "personalize" it by using your own name, such as "Ford" or "Forbes," or Boeing.

6. Use alliteration. Maybe it's corny, but repeating the same letter or group of letters helps to both simplify your name as well as give it an aesthetic appeal that can assist with recall. Maybe it's corny, but repeating the same letter or group of letters helps to both simplify your name as well as give it an aesthetic appeal that can assist with recall.  [Okay, maybe it doesn't work so well with sentences.] "Volvo" is a great example. It uses only three different letters with a repetition of "vo."

7. Pick a name that you can use to launch your very own campaign of shock and awe, this time without the bombs. This idea is related to the marketing adage that it's better to be loved or hated than to be in the middle. You're looking for an emotional response, so pick a name that stirs up some sort of emotion. DieHard is a great example. I mean the battery, not the movie.  [Although the movie is a great example as well.]

8. I have a bias toward the incorporation of physical objects--nouns--into the name. Why? Because physical objects often occupy an easily recalled and readily accessed concept in the human mind. Unlike generic concepts, when you use a concrete concept not directly related to your business you don't run the same risk of having your name overshadowed by the broader category label.  When a concrete concept is borrowed and attached to the concept of your company, the result can be quite powerful. The best example I can think of here is Mint.com. To start with, the word "mint" is two distinct physical objects. One is a  biological plant with a generally positive reputation, and the other is a manmade "plant" for printing money. By using a representation of the herb as part of its logo, the company is able to get customers to infer the other definition of the word, which suggests the category (Mint.com is a personal money management solution).  It also doubles (triples?) as a contracted version of "Money Intelligence." Brilliant.


That's it. If you stick to these guidelines, the chances that you'll end up naming your company "oooooc.com" are low pretty low.


P.s.  People often ask about the importance of owning "mycompanyname.com." That's a subject for another day, but my quick advice is: in the beginning, it's not worth worrying about whether you can get the .com. Pick your name and work with whatever URL you can get. You may need to change later, but in most cases I don't think it's worth worrying about in the early stages.