How to name a startup

November 16, 2016

Equipped with the brand foundations that we talked about in the previous article in this series on startup operations, now it’s time to pick a name for your company.

For most branding experts, this is a painful process because on one level the name doesn’t really matter (i.e. you make the brand), and on another level it matters a lot (i.e. it shouldn’t annoy or confuse customers).

First, don’t forget the obvious stuff

It’s easy to forget the obvious points when you are deep into name brainstorming, so remember: 

Yes, the .com still matters

Some companies can get away with other Top Level Domains (TLDs), but remember that the initial impression of your name matters a ton and comes down to trust. A huge audience already trusts the TLD “.com” — so if your customer base will be big, the .com will give you a leg up. 

If you absolutely can’t get a hold of the .com, then a “.co” can be acceptable, but it’s not nearly as trustworthy (and people will often misspell it by adding the “m”). You’ll need to eventually pony up the cash to buy the .com and/or go after a trademark infringement, which is not fun and not always possible.

If your customers are cool with it, you can grab a “.tv” or a “.io” domain (or something else related to your market), but even in those cases you’ll want to grab the .com if you can and redirect it. If the .com isn’t available, then make sure it is being used for something very far away from your market. Talk to a lawyer if you aren’t 100% sure. 

Yes, the social media username matters

While not quite as important as your domain name, your “@______” should be available across all the major social media platforms. Similar to domains, however, if the exact one you want is taken you can roll with a “_” in the middle of the name or add your TLD. Ideally, however, you should avoid this. 

Decide whether to go the direct or indirect route 

Philosophically, there are interesting differences between going with a more “direct” name like eTrade or Cars.com, or a more indirect name like Amazon or Nike. 

Direct names are great because they bring clarity. Just by looking at “Cars.com”, for example, you can correctly guess what the company offers and where to find them. 

On the other hand, while indirect names are a little more dangerous territory for ambiguity, they can allow you to carve out a completely new association in people’s minds with the word (which is powerful). Just make sure that if you go with an indirect name, be sure it is reasonably neutral and uncontroversial.

Of course, there are plenty of name types that are somewhere in the area between direct and indirect (e.g. one part of the name is direct, the other is indirect). As long as you follow the principles above if you go with one of these, you should be OK. 

Execute the nuts and bolts of brainstorming name ideas

There are a ton of great naming tools out there, including ones that will check domains and social media namespaces at the same time. Often these can be helpful to automate putting various words and word endings together that you haven’t thought of, but — whether you use these tools or not — the basic practice of listing out and thinking through words associated with your space is helpful. 

How do you generate such names? Well, think back on the brand persona and brand values that we discussed previously. List out the values and persona qualities alongside the practical words associated with your product/service and see what comes together. 

If you come up empty on any “direct” names from these combinations, then you can dip into more generic words/names that are short and simple. 

Reduce the ideas down to “the realistic list”

Usually it is obvious that only a small handful of name ideas that you and your team have generated are realistic. List those ideas out in the simple format of “Written Name / Domain / Namespace” as you are making your final decisions and bouncing them off friends.

For example: 

Red Widgets / redwidgets.com / @RedWidgets
Widgetia / widgetia.com / @Widgetia
Widget Land / widgetland.com / @Widget_Land 
etc... 

Take your list, debate them like crazy, and then let your CEO make the final call. You’ll often have a certain amount of regret for the first week or two after a name is decided on as you mind races and considers the other ideas, so give it a few weeks to settle in before you decide to change it.

Remember, you made the decision for a good reason, so give it time to sink in. 

Author’s note: this is the 22nd post in a series of articles outlining a framework for startup operations that my partners and I developed at Prota Ventures. We’ve built a web app to help founders spin up new ventures efficiently and keep stakeholders updated on progress. Check it out for free here. Finally, subscribe to my newsletter and I’ll let you know when I get new content up. Thanks!

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