The Game Of The Name
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Q: What do you call a company that makes the Inc. 500?
A: Not anything you want
Naming an italian restaurant Marty Bloom's wouldn't exactly give it credibility," concedes CEO Marty Bloom. "I wanted something straightforward, like Tony's, Sal's, or Carmine's, but I just couldn't find the right damn name. Then one night I was in bed watching My Cousin Vinny on HBO, and all of a sudden this light went on and I shouted, 'Perfect!' My wife says, 'What's with you?' And I tell her I'm going to call this thing Vinny's."
That's how it happens. That's what makes the difference between a modest success and the kind of company that can't do anything but skyrocket its way onto the Inc. 500 list in its first year of eligibility. Today, Vinny Testa's Restaurant Group proudly occupies the 259th slot on the list, purely because its founder had the wisdom not to burden it with his own name.
Which brings us to a simple truth: deciding what to name your company is more important to your success than anything else you're going to do, except, of course, deciding whatever it is that you actually intend to sell (not that the two need be related). In fact, our exhaustive analysis of this year's ranking suggests that if you want to land your company on the Inc. 500 list, there are some rather simple approaches you can take. Mind you, don't confuse simple with easy. Marty Bloom may have looked as if he was lounging abed watching Marisa Tomei do an Oscar-winning comedic turn, but in truth, his epiphany represented the culmination of months of rumination, scrutiny, and obsession. Not to mention his willingness to shell out extra dough for a premium cable channel.
But Testa's (née Bloom's) technique will sound eerily familiar to many of his fellow Inc. 500 CEOs. Study their naming styles and it becomes apparent that all founders of fast-growing companies rely on at least one of the five techniques revealed herein for the first (and, by popular demand, last) time:
Technique #1: Screw up your name--or somebody else's. Time was, when the companies that dominated the Inc. 500 list were straightforwardly named after their founders, a strategy no doubt responsible for propelling weight-loss giant Jenny Craig Inc. into the #6 slot on our 1988 ranking. This being the era of partnerships, however, the task has turned infinitely more complex.
Witness, if you will, Wheb Systems (#154), a forms-processing company that derives its name from combining the initials of the last names of cofounders Jim Woodruff, Tim Harvey, and Barry Brueseke. The e stands for "especially," serving as a much-needed vowel for sounding out the name. "We thought for a long time and finally came up with those initials," says Brueseke. "Harvey didn't stay with us very long, so we bought him out, and now the h is silent"-- proof that Inc. 500 CEOs are not only smart but also abundantly clever.
Similarly, Aztec Systems (#471), a designer and installer of corporate computing networks, has nothing to do with the ancient Mexican nation; its name is derived from a combination of the names of founders Andrew Levi and Steve Sigler. "It's no real whiz-bang thing," says Levi, feigning modesty. "We started with ASTech and turned it into Aztec so we could leverage the Aztec Indians and the sundial in our corporate identity." Apparently, leveraging the brand-name recognition of historic empires is not beyond the ken of CEOs of fast-growing companies.
If your own name doesn't work for your business--well then, you know what to do. The aforementioned Marty Bloom knew that Vinny's by itself wouldn't be enough for his new restaurant. After all, he had previously started an eatery named Starbucks, causing the Seattle-based java megajoint to come after him. He worried that down the road he might run into the same problem with a name as generic as Vinny's. So he splurged on a book of popular Italian surnames, found Testa, and came up with Vinny Testa's Bar Ristorante, whereupon he filed a trademark application. "To my total amazement, it was approved," says Bloom, who has kept his own name.
Technique #2: Drop names frequently. If you're not on this year's list, or if you're not pleased with your placement on this year's list, there's hope--if you'll just consider renaming your company. Sometimes it takes a few cracks before you get the name right.
Savvy CEOs know when to drop one name and pick up a new one. And not just Inc. 500 CEOs, either. In its semi-annual survey, identity consultant Anspach Grossman Enterprise discovered that in the first half of this year, companies made a record number of name changes (955, if you must know). Of those, 421 were made by corporations that had adopted names that would better define the companies to their audiences. Case in point: F.W. Woolworth, which closed its five-and-dime stores last year, changed its name to the Venator Group. Now you're clear on what it does, aren't you?
But Inc. 500 CEOs know better than to change a company name from one that has incredible brand identity to one that brings to mind, well, dinosaurs in a Spielberg flick.
Take Gary Erickson, cofounder of Clif Bar. When he started his company, in 1986, he named it after his grandmother Kali, who died three years later. Until 1997 the name remained Kali's SportNaturals, in spite of the fact that more and more people began to refer to the company by its main product, the Clif Bar, a sports energy bar named for Erickson's father. "We were very attached to the Kali name," says Erickson. "People would call up and we'd answer, 'Kali's SportNaturals,' and they'd say, 'I'm looking for Clif Bar. Is this Clif Bar?" Last year, as Kali's SportNaturals, Erickson's company was #253 on the list. As Clif Bar, it's #152, up an almost-implausible 101 spots. Coincidence? Right.
The first two months after the name change, sales slowed down, says Erickson. "Thoughts came into my head, like, 'C'mon, Grandma, give us a break.' Then things really started to pick up."
Technique #3: Choose a name that keeps everybody guessing. Who says you have to pick a name that gives prospective customers a clear impression about the type of services you perform? I mean, is it just me, or if you ran across the company Before You Move (#115), wouldn't you think it was a place you might call the next time you were relocating, rather than a company that sells address-change tracking services to large companies? Even Rick Libby, who came on board as president six months ago, admits that when he was being recruited, he "didn't have the foggiest idea what the company did." Presumably, he does now. The rest of us, though, aren't getting any help from the name.
Following the examples of Frank Zappa and Bruce Willis, some founders are only too willing to saddle their offspring with names that reek of nothing but uniqueness. If the name Parrot-Ice Drink Products of America (#365) doesn't strike you as anything special, wait. Then wait some more. It will. Say "Parrot-Ice" fast enough and it sounds like "paradise." "Basically, I was looking for a name that described the product, but not in such generic terms that it couldn't be trademarked," says founder Greg Johnson, by way of defending his choice.
Among the most refreshingly descriptive names on this year's list is Power Lift Corp. (#2), which sounds right off the bat as if it fits in with all those other makers of nutritional food bars on the Inc. 500, like Clif Bar, Balance Bar (#14), and You Are What You Eat (#441). But no. The company distributes and services forklift trucks, making it a rarity among Inc. 500 companies: a business that is too aptly named.
Technique #4: Find a really bad name, on purpose. If its name makes the company sound as if it specializes in arson rather than assisted-living centers (Torch Health Care? Hello?), then to the untrained eye something may appear amiss. The trained eye, however, sees it differently.
"The company was named after the three founders," explains Jim Wang, chief financial officer. (See technique #1.) "John Taylor founded the company with Drs. Orr and Hash, and they were trying to come up with an acronym from their names." TORSH evolved into Torch, which Wang insists is meant to be interpreted as "a light in the darkness to give off the sense of caregiving," although he does admit that some might come away thinking that the name suggests a "scorched-earth policy." Still, it's knowing when to break the rules that lands a company like Torch Health Care at the coveted 46th slot.
Although a company that sells office supplies and furniture to businesses was given the name Give Something Back (#498) because the moniker reflects its founders' commitment to their Oakland neighborhood, that label hardly hints to prospective customers that the company could be the one for them. We'd hate to think that such a variation on the technique is a leading indicator of a trend toward wearing your company values on your, er, name. What's next? Be Kind to Small Children as the appellation of an accounting firm whose founders happen to think it's keen to be good to children? Now, I like kids (deductions!) as much as the next guy, but really.
"Of course you can tell what we do," says Give Something Back founder Mike Hannigan, who takes credit (blame?) for conjuring the name. "We give something back. You just don't know what kind of business we're in. We don't think the name has hurt us, but it probably hasn't helped us a whole lot, either. Sometimes we try to fudge it a little bit by saying, 'Give Something Back Office Products." Still, Give Something Back barely squeaked onto this year's list, which suggests that perhaps it needs a little more fire in its name. (See technique #2.) "We've certainly considered changing it," says Hannigan.
Technique #5: Rely on a higher power. If techniques #1 through #4 fail you, fret not. There remains one surefire method for choosing a name that will catapult you to the topmost spot on the Inc. 500, and it's the perfectly scientific methodology known as numerology. Consider the experience of this year's #1 company, Justice Technology Corp. The company founders may give other explanations for the name, but we know better.
To prove our point, we enlisted the assistance of Widening Horizons, in Woodinville, Wash., a company that develops numerology books and software--as its name fails to imply. Numerology holds that you can predict many things based on names and birth dates.
The Greek mathematician Pythagoras developed the science of numerology nearly 2,600 years ago--and it can take that many years to master. We didn't have that kind of time. So we loaded up the Personal Numerologist software, typed in Justice Technology as well as its birth (incorporation) date--May 10, 1993--and generated a customized report.
And there it was on page two of the eight-page result: "You were born with strong leadership potential. As you develop this ability, you may be able to assume a significant position in the business world." Bingo! By aligning its name and its incorporation date, Justice Technology secured its destiny as a leader headed for prime real estate on this year's Inc. 500.
Of course, if you don't buy the numerology bit, you can do what Leon Richter, Justice Technology's chief operating officer, and his cofounder did when they were trying to come up with the ideal name. When Richter was a college student, he used the expression "justice" instead of "cool" or "phat," as kids say today. When it came time to name the company, which sells international telecommunications systems, the word felt like a fitting name. Hardly surprising. It was in the stars.
The numerology report on Jeffrey L. Seglin advises, "It's important you express yourself clearly so others can understand your pertinent ideas and not be put off by the out-of-the-ordinary way you look at things."