Choosing a name is one of the inevitable parts of a starting a business. There’s not a lot you can do right when naming your startup, but there’s a lot that you can do wrong by choosing a bad name. I’ve made a small overview of the options that are out there. I hope it will help you to find a great name for your project.
Basically, there are four distinct types of names that are used for naming products / services / businesses. All four are below, combined with examples:
1) Functional names
Historically, most people named their business after their family name. After the industrial revolution started, more and more innovative products started to pop up. These new products were often difficult to explain to the public. Especially when they were named after the founder. So, functional names started to appear. Functional names are descriptive names in the sense that they (often literally) describe the function of the product.
Good examples of functional names are General Electric, International Business Machines (IBM), and more recently: the Founder Institute. The strength of the functional name lies in its explanatory value. Especially for really innovative concepts this can be of great value. Also for Apps, functional names can be very useful. As the App stores are the only main guides for customers to find the app they need, most likely it will be that potential customers will find your app when searching for a specific function it should have. The functional name is of great value in such situations.
A) length - often, functional names are (too) long. In the age of the (mobile) Web, names longer than 11 characters are considered a bad idea. Short and concise is the way to go.
B) competitive advantage - functional names are great to explain the nature of a product in it’s early stages. But as an industry matures, the benefits and features of a product (category) become more well known. In a mature industry, a functional name gives less distinctiveness from your competitors, which can be a major disadvantage.
2) Invented names
Invented names are high-risk, high-reward. Most miserably failed startup names are invented names. Then again, companies like Google and Oreo have become very successful with names that don’t make any sense. Important to remember when considering an invented name is that they only work when there is little to no confusion about how it’s spelled. Before you name your startup Xobonko.com, ask yourself: Does anyone know how to pronounce this correctly? And if this is the case, can you tell from the name what the product does?
Google is an excellent example of an invented name that can’t be spelled wrong and is also loosely related to their search engine (“Google” is a misspelling of the word “Googol”, which stands for the infinity of numbers). And Google reaped the benefits. Big advantage of an invented name is that when it’s accepted by the public, it can easily become a standard for what you do, much in the way that “googling” has become an official verb in many dictionaries. Another (smaller) advantage of invented names is the domain name acquisition. It will probably not be expensive to register the url, as the word does not yet exist.
3) Experiential names
Experiential names are names that highlight the experience that will come from using your product or service. Good examples are Facebook (which actually relates to an experience from the physical world) and Twitter (birds chirping), but also Pinterest (pinning interesting images). Another good example is the explorative nature that’s often expressed in browser names like Internet Explorer, Safari and Netscape Navigator. Experiential names are strong in the sense that your customers will very quickly understand what your product is about. At the same time, experiential names give you a good way to position yourself against competitors, as you take a specific angle at describing your product experience. Because experiential names are good at both describing and positioning your product, they’re especially powerful for early entrants in an industry.
Downside: the over-usage of some names makes them less effective in the long run. For instance, while Explorer, Navigator and Safari are well-known browser names, they are also the names of several SUVs.
4) Evocative names
Evocative names are the best names out there, but unfortunately they’re the most difficult to think of. Evocative names are all about positioning. They summon up a specific feeling about your product’s experience, rather than describing a function or a direct experience. Needless to say, this is stronger than describing the experience, which makes evocative names stronger than experiential names in my opinion. A great example of an evocative name is Virgin, which says: “Look, we’re new at this, but we’ll give it the best shot we’ve got”. Another great example is Apple. In a time where people gave their businesses functional names like Sun Microsystems or International Business Machines, naming your computer business “Apple” didn’t make any sense. Still, in the way they’ve used their brand in sync with positioning, Apple created a branding force that dominates their industry.
The downside of evocative naming: when the experience chosen does not correlate with the positioning of the product, it can quickly become an ugly mess.
From theory to practice
So, now you know the framework beyond naming of concepts. But how do you find your ideal name from there? A good way that worked for me is to follow these two steps that are tought by the Founder Institute.
1) List 20 adjectives that describe your startup. These should be adjectives that describe the core values you believe in: the values that define your product from competition. The values that describe why you love your product.
2) List at least 10 names of competitors. Make a list of all your direct and indirect competitors. Then distribute their names over the categories mentioned above. This will give you insight into the specific naming categories of the competitive landscape your business is in.
When you’ve categorized your competitors names, the fun starts. Invite your friends, drink beer, go wild, and brainstorm like crazy. Brainstorm a list of at least 20 rockstar names that evoke the qualities of your business and that can be spelled with one or two syllables. Then, if you have a decent list, start benchmarking the names against the competitive landscape and your personal preference, and rank them. Send your top 3 to at least five people asking for feedback, and you’ll probably have a winner!
A final note on your domain name.
OK, so now you’ve done the analysis, brainstormed a bunch of names that fit your product and benchmarked your way to the ideal name for your startup. Off course, the first and most important step now is to register the ideal dotcom that fits your name. If this name is already taken, don’t jump back to your lesser choices straight away. I often hear people passing on great names just because the most obvious domain name is already gone. There are many high quality startups out there who don’t have the best url either, but have a great name. So if your ideal domain name is already taken, be like Square (squareup.com), Karma (yourkarma.com), Instagram (instagr.am) and Buffer (bufferapp.com). Pick a great name, and go with a tweaked domain name.
Names are underrated, but domains names are (increasingly) overrated. Square, Dropbox, Box.net all started with temp domains.— chris dixon (@cdixon) July 13, 2012
I hope this helps you to think of a rockstar name for your startup. Good luck, and remember, if all else fails, you can always pick your name out of a hat. That’s what Twitter did, and it seems to have worked out for them so far :)
And, before you go, share your thoughts with me on this: What are your favorite startup / product names? And, probably even more interesting: what are the worst you’ve recently heard? Let me know. Thanks!
Image credit: Kevin Dooley.
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