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.

Names

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 :)


20 Comments on “What’s in a name – Tips for naming your startup”

  1. 1 Joseph Thibault said at 9:56 pm on October 28th, 2009:

    37signals talks a little about the get/have/own/go dropbox.com tactic in their book _Getting Real_. Makes sense and keeps domains on the cheap.

    I’m in full agreement with you though, a name is a name. I’m not any less of an entrepreneur because my name is Joe.

    Nice post!

  2. 2 Jeff said at 11:30 pm on October 28th, 2009:

    Excellent post! Great does of reality about the value of a name (although a good name is still very important as an *internal* guiding light to say “here’s what we’re about”)

  3. 3 Nicolas said at 6:30 pm on October 29th, 2009:

    Hi

    Nice post ! There is also domainr (http://domai.nr) that can help you find some nice names with unusual extension and also give you the information about the most given domain’s availablity.

  4. 4 trevelyan said at 6:41 pm on October 29th, 2009:

    I got the 000FFF thing. You should underline your links so they’re clear though. There’s lots of bold text on the page that isn’t a link and it’s sort of disconcerting.

  5. 5 richtaur said at 6:46 pm on October 29th, 2009:

    I’m curious where you got $50k from for a cap on domains. I’d say domains are worth much, much lower, especially to startups with little or no funding. I believe a domain should be ~$8, because that’s how much they are new. If you’re buying the traffic associated with a domain (eg, business.com), then that’s a different story.

  6. 6 Thomas Petersen said at 7:13 pm on October 29th, 2009:

    richtaur

    Thanks for you response and I agree with you if your funds are very limited you could set it as low as that.

    But in my experience at least sometimes you just know that you want a name, cause you know exactly what you want with it.

    I have worked with entrepreneurs who have very strong visions for what they want and is ready to pay to get what they consider the right domain. $50K is where most will draw the line even if they are ready to go far and have the money.

    For most $5K would be the threshold and yes if you really don’t care ~$8.

    I am not saying don’t care at all I am just saying. Don’t think that you need to get a perfect name and therefore need to pay insane amounts. But to some $50K is not insane and is worth it.

  7. 7 Spencer Fry said at 9:29 pm on October 29th, 2009:

    Great post. I definitely agree with you that time spent thinking up a name is better put into development. If you’re successful, you can always rebrand and buy a “better” domain as you suggest.

  8. 8 Timo Reitnauer said at 11:56 pm on October 29th, 2009:

    “Don’t get to caught in the quest for the holy .com extension.”

    There’s a huge variety of country code top-level domains that can be used for your product.

    For example, the most popular and brandable country extensions at iWantMyName are:

    – .IO (British Indian Ocean Territory)
    – .FM (Federal States of Micronesia)
    – .AM (Armenia)
    – .ME (Montenegro)
    – .IM (Isle of Man)
    – .AT (Austria)
    – .IN (India)
    – .MU (Mauritius)

    They’re all based on stable registries and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t go with one of them. Just be creative and have fun when chosing a name… :)

  9. 9 Floriday Properties said at 8:14 pm on October 30th, 2009:

    Remembering a Fast-Food Icon; The Rise of NYC Start-ups :

    [...] to come up with a company name. Don’t stress. That’s the advice of Thomas Petersen who says that a great product will more than compensate for a bad name. So focus on that. [...]

  10. 10 Happy Reader said at 7:15 pm on November 1st, 2009:

    Very helpful. Really removed a lot of stress over this subject for me. Keep up the good work.

    cs

  11. 11 Cake-Roll.com » Blog Archive » Remembering a Fast-Food Icon; The Rise of NYC Start-ups said at 10:14 pm on November 1st, 2009:

    [...] to come up with a company name. Don’t stress. That’s the advice of Thomas Petersen who says that a great product will more than compensate for a bad name. So focus on that. [...]

  12. 12 Tweets that mention Black&White™ — What’s in a name – Tips for naming your startup -- Topsy.com said at 11:45 am on November 2nd, 2009:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tamim and fredboya, bomeandean. bomeandean said: tips on how to name your start up http://bit.ly/4gxRRx (via @hello_world) [...]

  13. 13 SL said at 8:59 pm on November 2nd, 2009:

    I would add to that, research your competition. One of the companies I’m working with has the problem that they selected a name similar to another company in the same industry (one has an “e” one doesn’t). Don’t choose a name similar to anyone currently operating in your niche unless you want to create confusion.

  14. 14 Anthony Shore said at 5:44 am on November 3rd, 2009:

    That’s really good advice, Thomas.

    Regarding heavy metal band names, I do hope you have a copy of All Known Metal Bands.

    I reference this incredible compendium of heavy metal band names in my naming post, “Where are the most creative names?”

    http://operativewords.blogspot.com/2009/06/where-are-most-creative-names.html

    Thanks for sharing your words of wisdom.

    – Anth

  15. 15 Tobias said at 10:12 am on November 3rd, 2009:

    Let me add my 2 cents from a domain investors point of view (we buy and develop premium domains like Denmark.net).

    I absolutely agree with the sentiment “if your product is great, people will find it”. We all know this is true. Google is not exactly a common name.

    I don’t agree with “your name is not your brand”. As long as people need to remember you, your name IS your brand – at least a significant part of it. We have also seen this, even in the examples you cite – how much traffic does Flickr loose to Flicker? According to flicker.com, 3.6 million visitors per year.

    What kind of startup are we talking about? If you are about to sell candy online, candy.com may be worth millions to you. If you are about to sell flights, fly.com may be worth something to you. If you are a news site in Germany, news.de may be your perfect name.

    If you are about to do something very innovative (few start ups really do), you may be fine with using a creative artificial name. But even then, if you don’t go for a decent domain, you have to be prepared to buy it later at significantly higher cost than $50,000 – see Dropbox. Or lose and confuse millions of potential users.

  16. 16 Thomas Petersen said at 8:05 am on November 4th, 2009:

    Tobias

    Thank you for your 2 cents. I don’t disagree with you as such, but I think we should be careful not to confuse things here.

    Flickr had no value before the service became a success, neither did Zyb, neither did Skype. And the question is whether flicker had 3.6 million visitors per year before flickr became a success. I don’t know but I highly doubt it.

    I don’t say don’t go over $50K, what I am saying is if you are a startup don’t do it unless it comes with traffic. Money are better spent improving your product or service.

    Buying traffic is not the same as buying success.

    So it becomes a pseudo argument.

  17. 17 Tobias said at 8:18 pm on November 4th, 2009:

    I’m sure that flicker had no value before flickr. That’s why it would probably have been easy to get the domain before – if they try to get it now, it would hundreds of thousands of Dollars.

    So to add to your advise, I’d just say that you should get try to get a good domain in the sense that you should avoid obvious mispellings or proper spellings that you would have to get later if you turn out to be successful.

  18. 18 Online Shopping Mall said at 10:47 am on June 17th, 2010:

    I think once the product is good enough, the name's irrelevant!

  19. 19 Hjælp til at finde et godt bandnavn | Making Waves said at 11:31 am on July 20th, 2010:

    [...] 000fff.org/whats-in-a-name-tips-for-naming-your-startup/ [...]

  20. 20 MC said at 2:04 pm on September 28th, 2010:

    Archive