April 14, 2009

What to name a company

Whether to name your company Bland or not is one of those decisions you’ll live with for a while – a few months at least and probably for years. It can be tough though – probably better done in a series of 10 minute discussions than with hours spent at the whiteboard or domain-name engine.

In Art of the Start, Guy Kawasaki suggests:

A remarkable name for your organisation, product, or service is like pornography: It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Coming up with a good name is easier than creating a product or service, but you wouldn’t think so based on the atrocities out there.

So the challenge is set.

Looking for a name myself, I came across the fantastic wikipaedia – list of company name etymologies – that walks through 440 (on the day I looked) company name stories.

Here’s how they break down (allowing that some names made it into more than one category):

  • 149 – based on founder names (like Adidas)
  • 142 – portmanteau words or initials (like Amoco)
  • 76 – based on location (like 3M)
  • 62 – clever names (like 3Com)
  • 31 – quirky names (like Blaupunkt)
  • 27 – language based names (like Akamai)

Three caveats: the source is wiki-selected, so not cleverly chosen to be representative of all names; my categorisation isn’t scientific (or probably repeatable, even by me); there’s no suggestion that these names are particularly good, although most are extremely well known.

However, three things strike me about the results:

  1. With all the creativity that founders show to get their new business out of the traps, fully one third have fallen back on the names they were given by their parents. Does this mean that naming is unimportant or difficult? That founders are vain? That the search for clever is overwhelmed by the need for a working title?
  2. Location – Pacific this, Brazilian that, Stanford the other. Is this a cheap form of marketing (we’re from the same place as you) or again, is it expediency?
  3. 34% come from letters a-e.

I find it comforting to know that others find naming difficult, and liberating that some of the most well known companies have changed their name along the way, some more than once.

Names are important, no more than that. A great name is inspiring, but finding one shouldn’t get in the way of building a great company. I’ve spent too many hours fretting in meeting rooms, coffee shops, offices, (and bed) often to the detriment of Getting Things Done. Not smart.

The alternative might be to get someone else to do it. A little outside perspective is always useful but take care with companies offering naming at a fee. Salon covered this a few years ago (which you can find here) – sadly they’ve deleted the main copy, this link leads to the for-printer version.

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Foundations Making Promises