What’s in a name – Tips for naming your startup

Finding the right name for your company can be a long an laborious if not even costly task. There are however a couple principles that can help you along.


Back in the days, when I was a young and hopeful rock-star, we always struggled with finding a perfect name for the band. It always created the odd discussion that was more kindergarten than university. Well, we were young and restless, what can I say.

The main problem was that we always tried to come up with a name that would be as great as the bands we idolized, Faith No More, Metallica, Megadeth, Winger, WhiteSnake, Prodigy, Kinky Boot Beast all great names right? Well no. In retrospect we were wasting our time, valuable time, that could have been used to make music.

As I later learned, what made these names great were not the names themselves, but the music behind the names. The names were merely identifiers of great music, not the other way around.

To witness, Metallica is a pretty ugly name, when you look at it from an intellectual point of view – “we play metal so lets call ourselves Metallica”. An agency would probably never have come up with a name like that, unless it was meant as a joke. But Metallica is a great band, and we still accept their overdone chrome logo and overdone name, in fact we do more than that, we love it (well those of us who like their music at least) because it represents something we appreciate.

This might sound obvious when you think about it, but I am still puzzled by the naming game to this day. Many people still have the same idea about naming their start-up or product as we did back then.

Conventional wisdom says that you need a great name to let the greatness of your product really shine, but in my experience, great names are the byproduct of great products not the other way round.

Zyb.com was named Zyb because that was the only 3 letter .com domain name they could get at the time. Zyb was later sold to Vodafone. Definitely not because of their great name, but because of their great service. Moving forward Zyb will be called Vodafone People (see pressrelease).

Flickr.com is also one of those names that came into being by accident. The owner of Flicker.com didn’t want to sell so they went with something that phonetically sounded like the real deal. The success of Flickr spawned a whole new breed of companies, who along with gradients, drop shadow, round corners and other web 2.0 bling-bling, registered names for their phonetic character rather than their grammatical correctness.

In short, great names emerge from the great products they are associated with not the other way round. Be prepared to kill your darlings. There are no perfect names only great products.

So here are a couple of observations that might help keep your cool when deciding on a name:

  • It’s harder to make a decision about what name to choose than to come up with one. Therefore, find a name that says something about your company or product or something about you. That way it’s easier to make that decision. It’s nearly impossible to decide between StarFish and StarFlash if your company does music application. There is no inherent quality in either of them.  Its easier to figure out whether you should choose StarTune, StarFish, FlashTune or StarFlash.
  • To verb or not to verb. Yes we would all love that our company or product became so popular that it would change into a verb. When everybody walks around and say “just google it” or “I will skype you” isn’t that indicators of success? Yes, but don’t bet on it to happen for your own company and don’t waste to much time trying to find a name that can be turned into a verb. If your product is a success of that magnitude people will find a way to “verbify” your name. After all we don’t twitter each other, we tweet each other. Concentrate on finding a name that you like, your success will take care of the rest.
  • Don’t get to caught in the quest for the holy .com extension. If your product is great, people will find it. Besides most non-techy people use the actual search field in google when they want to look you up. Even more will get to your page by clicking on a link from somewhere else. Last.fm is a good example of a company with a domain extension that are not obvious. Also DropBox only recently acquired dropbox.com before that the domain name was actually getdropbox.com. Be creative and don’t worry too much about breaking the conventions. As long as your company does well, people will find you and put the effort into remembering or bookmarking your name.
  • If you are not in the business of domains no domain name is worth more than $50.000. Business.com was sold for $7.5 Million in 1999 then $350 Million in 2007. Needless to say these are the exceptions and you will be hard pressed to argue for any price above $50.000 unless you are also buying access to users. If you are a start-up there is no need to spend much more than $5000. Remember what has value is your product not your name.
  • Your name is not your brand, interface is brand. To conclude. Your brand cannot make your product better, only you can make your name better. By making sure that your customers and users get good experiences when they interact with you, your name will gain value. Therefore concentrate on your customer service, optimizing the service, providing superior experiences and maximum utility and your name is well on it’s way to be the perfect name you wanted it to be.

Helpful links:

Make allies with one of the many great domain name tools and services out there. Here is a great list from the ever relevant Smashing Magazine.

If you need to do bulk search you can also download this little perl-script our CTO Benny Johansen did for me.  It was done because I got frustrated with the challenge of finding a proper name and checking if it was available. We often have a couple of hundred names we need to check so you can imagine how tedious that can be.

The script is very simple and you can put it everywhere you want and launch it through your terminal window.You just create a list with the names you want to be checked (domainlist.txt), set which domain extensions you want it to check (topleveldomain.txt) and then type: perl checkdomains.pl then the script will make a whois check and filter those names available into a new list (domainsavailable.txt). It doesn’t become much simpler than that.

Hope this was useful.

Update1: Vineet from http://www.architexa.com pointed me to http://www.pickydomains.com/ which use crowdsourcing to help you find the right name. go check it out.

Update2: A lot of people seem to be commenting (and understandably so) on the name of my blog some suggesting 000fff should be blue with a tad of green. #000 #FFF translates into black and white so that is what I was aiming at, but in the spirit of my blog post I stand by it :)