Name A Startup

I’m often in the process of naming a startup. I decided to do a bit of research on “industry best practices” for this task. Here’s what I found:

1) Qualities of a good name.  The following is a list of qualities of a good name for your startup.  The prioritization of these qualities is highly subjective and specific to the project/product being named.  Given that so many good domain names are already registered, it will be difficult to achieve all of these without buying a domain name.  Bootstrappers may need to compromise on some of these and/or spend lots of time being creative.

  • Available in a .com (though this seems less important recently as people are more creative with names using alternative TLD’s – eg bit.ly, del.icio.us, drop.io, etc)
  • Does not violate an existing trademark (a trademark search using the TESS system on USPTO.gov is a first step. Also try the company search on Hoovers.  Engage an IP lawyer for more thorough analysis)
  • Available as a username on various websites and social networks (eg Facebook, Twitter, Google/Gmail, LinkedIn)
  • Memorable
  • Distinctive
  • Easy-to-guess spelling (this is particularly important if you expect most users will hear the name rather than see it somewhere clickable – like on another website, in an email, or tweet)
  • Short (helps for memorability and easiness-to-guess)
  • One that does not produce a lot of search results when Googled (so you won’t have to expend lots of SEO resources for your own name to show up when someone searches for it directly)
  • Something that can be verb-ized (eg “I Googled it”, “Facebook me”)
  • Something that doesn’t mean something offensive in another language

2) Name types.  Below are some examples of types of names that have been used to build major Internet brands.  Note some names can fit in multiple categories.  The Name Inspector has a similar listing of name types.

The “Descriptive” Name:

  • Describes what the product is, helps make the site memorable
  • Examples: Microsoft, LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, TechCrunch, Wikipedia, Twitter, Yammer

The “Nonsense” Name

  • A made-up word that may be memorable but does not have a dictionary definition.  Often evocative of the product/service.
  • Examples: Ebay, Google, Brizly, Zynga, Gowalla, Hulu, Loopt, Skype, Zappos

The “Unrelated Word” Name

  • A real word, but one that is not particularly descriptive of the product/service
  • Examples: Apple, Amazon, Monster, Sun, Lotus, Yahoo

An Acronym

  • Initials of a phrase that means something
  • Examples: IBM, AOL, ICQ, AIM

A Proper Noun

  • Typically the last name(s) of the founder(s)
  • Examples: Dell, Hewlett Packard, Borland, Craigs List, Angie’s List

Add-a-letter

  • Add a letter to a word
  • Examples: iPhone/iPod/iMac, eBay, eLance, iContact, oDesk

Two words

  • Two (ideally short) words put together.  Can be descriptive, evocative, or neither
  • Examples: Facebook, FourSquare, HotPotato, WordPress, TripIt, YouTube

Misspellings:

  • A misspelled version of a real word
  • Examples: Twittr, Flickr, Tumblr

3) Approaches to naming.  Here are some approaches described by various sources surveyed

From GigaOM - A Two-part Rule for Naming Your Startup

  1. A word that relates to the company product in a direct, literal sense, establishing a clear association between the brand and what the company does.
  2. A word not literally related to the product, but rather a metaphorical adjective to evoke a differentiating characteristic or “feeling” about the company’s product.

From MessagingLab

  1. Define your brand with a positioning statement (see herehere, and here)
  2. Analyze the competition.  Develop a 2×2 grid with Evocative-Descriptive along one axis and Memorable-Forgettable along the other.  This helps you think about how you want your name to stand out.
  3. Brainstorm with a dictionary.  Use niche dictionaries (eg science dictionaries, foreign language dictionaries, etc).  Do not remove any names from the list during this step.
  4. Rank each potential name in the list according to the importance of the various “qualities of a good name” (as mentioned above)
  5. Test shortlisted names using trial Google AdWords campaigns to see which names get the best click-throughs (the tactic is described in The Four Hour Work Week and on Marketing Experiments)
  6. Do not be afraid to use non-.com top level domains (eg del.icio.us, bit.ly, drop.io, etc)

From The Name Inspector - 10 tips for naming your company, product, or service

  1. Quantity and diversity yield quality
  2. Selection is as important as creation
  3. Try different types of name
  4. Use collective intelligence
  5. Use linguistic resources
  6. Do exercises to explore connections to relevant concepts
  7. Pictures are important, even when you’re just thinking of words
  8. To avoid embarrassment in other languages, ask the experts
  9. Forget etymology
  10. Know when to let go

The Igor Naming and Branding Agency – 6 step Guide to Creating Product and Company Names

  1. Competitive Analysis
  2. Positioning
  3. Name / Brand Development
  4. Trademark Prescreening
  5. Creative / Testing
  6. Name and Tagline

Top 10 Naming Tips by The Delve Group

  1. Develop a naming criteria to be sure you are in agreement regarding the strategic and tactical objectives the name needs to fulfill.
  2. Set some parameters on the types of names to consider: will it be descriptive, a coined expression, metaphoric?
  3. Generate names! The more names, the better.
  4. Never call a name “bad”; rather, communicate to the group it doesn’t reflect the naming strategy.
  5. Assess the names based on alignment to your business, the naming criteria and their availability. Use The Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS), Google, and general URL availability as key check points.
  6. Narrow the selection down to a handful of group favorites.
  7. Live with the names for some time. Imagine answering the phone with the new name, or what you would say when handing someone your business card.
  8. Don’t get excited about just 1 name. Send at least 2 names into trademark legal review to ensure the names are own-able in your marketplace.
  9. Select a name!
  10. Create the story around your new company name with a message platform and a unique look and feel.

From OnStartups - 17 Mutable Suggestions For Naming A Startup

  1. Make sure it’s legal!
  2. Hint At What You Do
  3. Make it easy to remember
  4. Make it unambiguous when spoken
  5. Make it unambiguous in Google
  6. Start early in the alphabet
  7. The “.com” has to be “gettable”
  8. The twitter handle has to be available
  9. The facebook page should be available
  10. Keep it short
  11. Don’t leave out vowels or add punctuation
  12. Try to get your main keyword into the name
  13. Start with an uppercase letter
  14. Don’t name your company after yourself.
  15. Don’t Use An Acronym
  16. Have a story
  17. Pay attention to character sequences in multi-word names
  18. Seek timeless instead of trendy

Other Resources

  1. WordLab features ideas, commentary, tools, and links to branding and naming resources
  2. Entrepreneur Magazine has a great writeup on How to Name Your Business
  3. DomainNameNews seems to have regular information on what prices names have actually sold for.  So does Afternic Sales Performance
  4. BrandBucket has a series of posts on the topic
  5. Vinicius Vacanti, co-founder of Yipit (and Ultra Light Startups speaker in December 2010) tells how he used a Python script to search for “needles in a haystack”
  6. Now there’s LeanDomainSearch to automate this. Very cool!
  7. And How to Find a Name For Your New Idea by John Turner of UsersThink

If you run across any other helpful qualities, types, or approaches please mention them in the comments.