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Roses By Any Other...

June 22, 2008

Names. In startups why do we obsess about them? Naming things is fun. It's a direct application of creative energies. It's also something anyone can do so people feel free to give you their two cents at every turn. But how much of an effect does the name of a company really have on it's success?

Since the inception of our company this is the single piece of feedback we've consistently gotten. Usually it's someone looking at the name, never bothering to check out the service, and giving a reaction tainted with web 2.0 cynicism.

ZOMG it's like totally web2.0! Worst company name EVAR! Total Flickr RIPOFF! I'm, like, so tired of these, like, missing vowels and stuff.

Originally my hope was that people would ask why the company was named grazr, then we could move into describing "Grazing information instead of drowning in it", the basic philosophy the company was founded on. Domain squatters forced us to drop the 'e' but we also thought it would be kind of funny. In hindsight I guess we should have suspected that the "dropped vowel" company name would become popular then unpopular.

I thought this inability to see past the name was a major factor contributing to the friction we've had to gaining users. The truth is, I fell into the same trap as these commenters, it's easy to focus on the name because it's "simple". It's easy to do "drive-by critiques" without thinking of all the factors involved. Counterintuitively, I think that because there's so much focus on names it actually indicates that success is not, or only slightly, related to the name choice. Since startups are so hard, and name critiquing is so easy, there is a disconnect there. Trying to bring a new product, code, service, and company to life is very difficult and usually we focus on the easy stuff.

I think the name of a startup has substantially less effect than what would seem to be indicated by the disproportionate amount of energy and effort we put into devising them and critiquing them. We are obsessed with expert rules and guidelines for naming a companies. Even when those rules are overly simplistic, contradictory, and mostly about a "subjective feel". As startup founders we're desperate to gain any edge we can, and we're always on the lookout for tales of experience, rules of thumb, and other things that can help us avoid mistakes. Most naming rules come from a basically flawed process: look at successful companies, assume somehow the name had some serious impact on their success, come up with a rule to fit those names. Unfortunately these rules always contradict themselves because: the name is not what made them great. For any set of companies you use, there exists a set, equal in number, that contradicts the rule you arrive at. There is no way to find the formula for how names increase success because, except for possibly extreme cases, it has very little effect.

Now this is just my personal musing, I wonder if there'd be way to prove this scientifically? Although I know of no one doing this experiment, I’d love to actually get data on naming and how it affects success. Take the entire pool of startups at a particular stage and have experts chose the good names vs. the bad names (with only the names as data). Track those companies over their lifespan. I wonder if the ones they choose as good would show any greater success rate than the others. I’d wager that the predictive ability of experts in choosing names as a success factor would be barely better than random (some names are so truly, dreadfully, awful that they might impinge the success of a company).

So without further ado:

Mikes rules for startup names

  1. There are no rules, so even these are probably flawed
  2. Don't obsess.
  3. Try and make it easy to remember, say, and write

Supplemental guidelines:

  1. Try not to make it sound like (or be) swear words or distasteful concepts.
  2. Careful with other languages and unintended meanings

I didn't make the second set rules because I could easily see something like schitter.com becoming popular, depending on the context I suppose. :)