Coming up with a startup name (i.e. the 6th circle of hell)

by Giff on April 26, 2010

Few things are more painful than coming up with a good yet inexpensive name for a business on the Web.  Somehow you need to find something that is “cocktail party friendly” (i.e. someone can hear it, spell it, remember it), search engine friendly (i.e. type it in and have a shot at appearing high on list), and yet available / cheap.

thinkerNaming is also agonizing because you have more important things to worry about, like validating your concepts and building your business. I don’t recommend getting bogged down in names and logos when you don’t even know if your idea holds water. Still, at some point fairly early on, you have to come up with something.

Pain also comes from land-mines called other people’s opinions.  Trust me, you will never get everyone to agree to a name. Do not try to make everyone universally happy.

For those of us who don’t have thousands of dollars to drop on a snazzy URL, there are a few different options: a gibberish word, an unusual suffix (see the explosion of *.ly and *.io companies), and a combination of two words.  If you want to shoot for the latter, there are some services like bustaname that can speed things up.

Warmup Routine
Start by thinking about words related to your business:

  • what words might be your 1-word dumbwaiter pitch?
  • what are the actions your customer takes?
  • what are the emotional brand connotations and attributes you want swirling around your business?
  • what are some of the names of well-established brands that have those attributes?

All of this might not get you an actual name, but it is worth having them running in your mental background.  Before you start, you also need to decide if you want a name for your product or a name for your company, and if they should really be the same.

An Exercise for Gibberish
In my case, I tried word combinations, thesaurus hunts, unusual suffixes, and came up short.  Since I was not going to spend $$$$ on a name, that meant going with a gibberish word.  That did not bother me.  I happen to believe that some of the great brand names are gibberish words; they become great because the company is great, not the word.

One method is to take pieces of two words, and stick them together.

Another is the following exercise: pick a favorite and famous gibberish name and plant it firmly in your brain.  Then go through every letter in the alphabet making sounds and fake words with this name rooted in the back of your head. Think of it like mentally tossing a fishing net out to sea, and don’t get self-conscious about the stupid stuff coming out of your mouth.  You’ll get plenty of junk, but sometimes can hit upon something you like.

In my case, I picked Pepsi as my root brand name.  Aprizi was a result and passed the following checklist:

  • I liked it (short, peppy, vaguely retail-ey, reasonably spellable, start of alphabet, nice “etymology” to words like apprendre and prizi)
  • my co-founder Liz liked it well enough
  • it passed a gut-check from some people who fit our expected customer type
  • the URL was available
  • possible misspelling URLs were available
  • Google search came up pretty clear
  • U.S. trademark search came up clear

I am not a fancy name consultant (thankfully!), but this basic process helped me, and if you are struggling, I hope it can help you.

For more advice on naming:

  • kevin_swan

    Giff, have to thank you as we are going through this brutal process right now. It is the 2nd time I have been through it and it never gets easier. I appreciate how you laid out a bit of a framework to work with. Thanks!

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    Good luck! If you come up with more effective ways to brainstorm on names, please let me know.

  • http://www.zelkovavc.com/ Jay Levy

    In the past i have taken all the words that describe the business and put them into a few columns in excel, i than put in some formulas to allow excel to randomly chop and combine them. While you might not find the exact name, it can lead you in a direction.

  • http://www.zelkovavc.com/ Jay Levy

    In the past i have taken all the words that describe the business and put them into a few columns in excel, i than put in some formulas to allow excel to randomly chop and combine them. While you might not find the exact name, it can lead you in a direction.

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    nice Excel hack!until MSFT’s recent overhaul, I argued that it was the best application ever created.

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    nice Excel hack!until MSFT's recent overhaul, I argued that it was the best application ever created.