Crunchbase is a very valuable database of new companies and the people behind them. As such it has a ringside seat at trends in naming startups. I’m not the only person fascinated by the process of naming new companies. Sherwin Greenblatt, President of the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, presents a list of VMS companies who have changed their names at every monthly mentors meeting. And he admits it’s one of his favorite part of the meeting.
While you won’t find an entire category on my Mentorphile blog devoted to posts about company names you’ll find a few posts, including what I consider the best article on how to name a company that I’ve yet seen. But company names, like many elements in the startup ecosystem, are always changing, so the article by Joanna Glasner on Crunchbase News, Startup Names May Have Passed Peak Weirdness, is well worth reading if you are in the process of naming, or renaming your startup.
I remember being very puzzled as a kid by product names like Kleenex and Trix – these words weren’t spelled right! Only years later did I learn that the best way to trademark a product was by making up a word, like Kleenex, or changing the spelling of an existing English word, like tricks.
An then years later, with the advent of the world wide web and the gold rush for .com domains, did I see a tsunami of new company names.
Ms. Glasner’s article does a good job of listing the major ways that companies generate their names, and what’ going on within each category.
According to Athol Foden, president of Brighter Naming, a naming consultancy, founders are getting less comfortable with weird names.
Crunchbase News does an annual survey of startup naming trends. The latest trend is for startups to choose simple words to describe their businesses including companies like Hitch, an app for long-distance car rides, Duffel, a trip-booking startup named after the popular travel bag, and Coder, a software development platform. However, there’s a problem with having an overly descriptive name for your company – what happens when you pivot? This can happen to even large established companies. Apple Computer, Inc. had to drop the “Computer” when computers became a small portion of their product line compared to the iPhone. And iTunes has become a catchall for music, movies, TV, and software used to sync your iPhone with your Mac. What I like are names that are evocative, like Amazon – the largest river in the world, not descriptive. With descriptive names, one pivot and all that brand equity can disappear as your descriptive name becomes obsolete. When “fried” became a bad ting for you diet Kentucky Friend Chicken was forced to change their name to KFC.
One of the most wide-spread, and frankly easiest way to create a unique name is to purposefully misspell a common word, like Flickr, the early photo-sharing site.
However, creative misspellings are getting less popular, Foden said. Early-stage founders are turned off by the prospect of having to spell out their names to people unfamiliar with the brand (which for seed-stage companies includes pretty much everyone).
It seems like only a few companies with pun names have gone public or been acquired, according to CrunchBase. Both Foden and Glasner are in favor of seeing more Internet startups with pub-based names. I’m afraid I can’t agree, as I find that often people just don’t get puns. And then when they do, they can be irritated at the cuteness of the pun. My original name for the company that became Course Technology, Inc. was Of Course, Inc. But the straitlaced VCs at Greylock hated that name and told me in no uncertain terms that “No company with a cute name would ever go public.: Of course, that was before the days of Yahoo, Google, et al!
Made-Up Words That Sound Real
If you are clever enough to pull this off it can be a real win, as not only will you be able to snag a valued .com domain, but you will also be able to trademark your name. Names like Invocable and Locomation are good examples.
In the industrial age companies had boring and obvious names like Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, General Electric and International Business Machines. But the problem with the latter two, and many others, is that their names quickly became shortened to just their initials: GE and IBM, not to speak of AT and T. Know what that stands for?
There’s a major category that Ms. Glassner leaves out of her article, the category that probably works best now that virtually every word in the English language has either ben taken by a startup or by a domain squatter. That category is the compound name. Two of the best known examples being Facebook and Microsoft . The approach is to concatenate two short words, like Bitpipe. I’m sure any good coder could whip a program to auto-generate compound names. In fact domain squatters probably have. But even so, this is a proven way to generate an easy to spell, easy to pronounce company name.