A start-up builds an identity from a car horn, Sir Edmund Hillary, and an irate father-in-law

If you're a character in a spaghetti western or a Kafka novel, you can get by without a name. Dot-com start-ups don't have that luxury. Not only do you need a name, but you need one powerful enough to etch itself into the gray matter of consumers hard-pressed to remember anything beyond Amazon.com and "the one that sounds like yodeling."

My partners and I spent much of last summer in search of such a name. We already had a business plan, venture money, and subleased space in Redwood Shores, that Silicon Valley community-cum-office-park-on-a-landfill dominated by the shimmering cylindrical towers of Oracle Corp. But we couldn't go much further until we fixed on who "we" were going to be.

After all, a Web-based company doesn't have a business till it launches a site. It can't launch a site till it determines that site's look and feel. It can't determine the look and feel till it creates a logo. And it can't create a logo until it has a name.

Dot-com coinage is even more of a hassle than it used to be, thanks to Bigstep.com, a company that builds and hosts E-commerce sites. Before its launch as Bigstep.com, last June, the company's founders decided to keep the nature of their business under wraps by masquerading as "the Springfield Project," presumably on the assumption that if they used the name "Bigstep," everyone would instantly think, "Oh, yes, they must build and host E-commerce sites." Of course, the less people know about something, the more they talk about it; soon, knowledge of the Springfield Project's true identity became a Silicon Valley status symbol. The buzz reached a crescendo when Red Herring magazine included the Springfield Project on its list of 10 private companies to watch in 1999. What you would see it doing was still unclear.

The Springfield Project was the first popular example of a so-called stealth name, and soon hordes of company owners were waltzing around town with the corporate-identity equivalent of bags over their heads. Our venture capitalists urged us to adopt a stealth name too, but we decided it was a trend worth bucking. Devising a brand that is wildly intriguing, wholly misleading, and ultimately disposable just seemed like a waste of time. Anyway, we were having enough trouble coming up with a real name.

For the first few months of our company's existence, we had referred to ourselves as "SendToFriend.com," a bland summary of the business plan. (We help companies set up Web-based referral programs that reward site users for getting friends to visit, register, or make a purchase.) "SendToFriend.com" lacked pizzazz, so we were not surprised when the subject of a new name came up at the first operating meeting with our VCs. When I suggested that we name the company ourselves, the investors reacted as if a bunch of kids with plastic stethoscopes were proposing to perform real brain surgery. "I'll give you the number of a good consultant," one of them told me kindly.

We decided to interview two consultants, one representing a high-profile corporate-identity firm, the other a tiny independent. The big-name namer showed up at our office wearing a suit and carrying a fat loose-leaf binder. His portfolio was full of appellations such as "Tecra," "AXP," and "Fortiva," words that conjured up images of synthetic fabrics and microprocessors. It wasn't us.

Then we met Mya Kramer. Mya dresses like someone who works in a hip San Francisco design firm, which in fact she does. An 18-year veteran of the design business, she told us she had gotten fed up with "constantly doing design work for brands that sucked" and had turned to naming as a creative alternative. Her portfolio, sent by E-mail before she arrived, bristled with funky monikers like "Zeum," "BabyCiao," and "CampSix."

The high-profile guy wanted six figures. Mya would do the job for one-tenth that price. I told her to start naming names.

To kick off the process, Mya asked me and my two cofounders, Zen and Shanti, to look through magazines for pictures evocative of the brand we wanted to create. We soon had a pile of 30 images, including Sir Edmund Hillary drinking tea after his 1953 ascent of Everest, a teenager getting into a new CD, and a champion female windsurfer. They were people with experiences worth sharing, people whose recommendations you'd trust.

Armed with these stimulants, Mya returned to her office to brainstorm with her design team, which includes a science writer and a TV producer. In short order she sent us 500 possibilities. A few days later our naming committee, composed of the founding team plus two investors, convened in our conference room to discuss the list. Mya asked us all to pick our 10 favorite names. A few of us were hot for "BigVine," but Zen objected because the v sound is hard to pronounce in Japanese. I voted for "Zamza," but one investor had had a bad experience with a similarly named start-up. "Don't go there," advised our part-time chief financial officer.

No name tickled all our fancies, but we agreed that a nonsense word was the way to go. We sent Mya back to the drawing board with a mandate to come up with something "Dr. Seuss­ish."

The next week brought another 70 names, and we repeated the exercise. This time one of our investors seized on "Gazooba," which Mya told us was inspired by the ah-ooga sound made by an old car horn. It didn't do much for the rest of us at first. Then Zen stood up. "If we want to be reasonable about this, we'll pick a serious name," he said. "But 'Gazooba' would really piss off my father-in-law." Zen's father-in-law is an elderly, conservative gentleman living just south of Tokyo; Zen figured a name that got under his skin would have the same effect on others. And if old Soma-san went into a tizzy about his daughter's being married to a guy who worked for something called "Gazooba" -- well, as far as Zen was concerned, that was pure gravy.

Being amused by a name is one thing; living with it every day is another. Like a clerk in a shoe store, Mya insisted we try walking around in "Gazooba" to see how it felt. We began by introducing ourselves to one another. I extended my hand to Mya: "Hi, I'm Andy Raskin, CEO of Gazooba!" We pretended to answer our phones: "Gazooba, how can I help you?" We envisioned the ultimate sign of branding success -- our company's name transformed into a verb: "Hey, can you gazooba that site to me?" We were in love.

Further confirmation that we'd made the right choice came when a customer told me that Mork, of Mork & Mindy fame, had once owned a gazooba, which he defined as "a crawling, hairless form of Orkan animal life, considered more advanced than human beings." So if we ever need a mascot. ...

A few weeks after Gazooba Corp. was born, Zen's phone rang. The caller identified himself as an employee of a nearby start-up. He offered us $4,000 for one of the names that we had considered earlier and reserved as a domain just in case. Zen brought the proposal to me, and I made him an offer that no chief technology officer could refuse: anything over $20,000 that he could negotiate would go straight to his engineering budget.

Bidding for domain names usually starts around $100 when small fry are involved. I figured someone opening with a few thousand would probably agree to pay more. Zen, who loves a good haggle, got the phone guy up to $32,000. I took that figure to our VCs for approval, and they passed along an interesting tidbit: our suitor's company was a Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers­funded start-up. That meant pockets. Deep ones.

The phone guy insisted that he couldn't go higher. What a shame, we said. Good-bye and Gazooba. A few days later the company's CEO called. Would I be willing to meet him at Jamba Juice to discuss a price? As I walked in the door of the smoothie chain, I knew we were about to make a killing.

What's in a name? As it turned out, a month's operating cash.

Andrew Raskin is cofounder and CEO of Gazooba Corp., based in Redwood City, Calif.