Naming your new business can be harder than it first appears. The perfect company name should convey what makes you unique but also grow with you as you add new products and services. The right name should be easy to understand quickly, yet unusual enough that it hasn't already been trademarked.
Most important, you need a name that won't hinder your company's success, yet that's a mistake too many smart business leaders make. Ten years ago, Netflix announced it would spin off its DVD-by-mail service under the perplexing name Qwikster. Negative reaction was so strong and so swift that the company changed its mind only 23 days later. The name wasn't the only problem, but it sure didn't help.
More recently, entrepreneur Jamie Siminoff launched Doorbot, a startup that made doorbells with video cameras in them so users could see who was outside from wherever they were. It was a great idea and a great product, but the name was holding the business back. "People would bring it home and the spouse would say, 'I'm not putting a Doorbot on my door!'" he recalls. "It resonated with only some customers, the early tech adopters. It was not something customers understood would be on their front door or help them feel safer."
One day, Siminoff was practicing his pitch in front of an early Doorbot investor. "I kept referencing 'rings of security,' 'ringing doorbells,' ring of this, ring of that, throughout the presentation," he tells Inc. "When I finished the pitch, the investor said, 'You keep saying "ring"--just call it Ring!'"
Doorbot struck out on Shark Tank, but rebranded as Ring, it drew $200 million of investment from such luminaries as Richard Branson and Shaquille O'Neal. Five years later, Amazon acquired Ring for more than $1 billion, and Siminoff returned to Shark Tank as a guest Shark.
1. Avoid names that describe your product.
This is the mistake Siminoff and his teammates made with Doorbot. "The temptation is to try and tell your story in that one word. But in today's very crowded marketplace with distracted consumers, trying to describe something will not get the attention or generate the interest you need," says David Placek, founder of Lexicon Branding, which has named a lengthy list of household-name products and businesses, including Pentium chips, Swiffer dusters, and Sonos speakers.
Instead, your name should send a strong signal about what makes your company or product special. Consider Impossible Foods, which Lexicon named. "We saw people's reactions to the idea that this tastes just like a great sirloin burger," Placek says. "It was kind of unbelievable and there was skepticism. When we saw those reactions from consumers and our own staff, we simply walked down that path. How do we make the promise that what we are doing is unbelievable--or impossible?"
2. Don't fall in love with one name.
In fact, don't even start with a short list of names. Your beginning list of possible company names should be very, very long, according to Anthony Shore, chief operative at Operative Words, and a naming expert.
Why do you need so many name candidates? Because of trademarks. "There is a lot of low-hanging fruit, words that you might easily identify as potential brand names, but it's so very likely that those words are already in use as trademarks for something similar to what you're doing," he explains. You should assume that when you or your legal counsel check your list of names against existing trademarks, most will be eliminated.
How do you come up with that long list? Begin with the message you want to convey about what makes your company or product special. Then open your mind as wide as you can. Get creative. "You have to have the right mindset to think about these ideas expansively and very abstractly," Shore says.
For example, let's say your product is faster than its competitors and you want a name that sends that message. "First, you need to think about speed in a way that will be generative," Shore says. "Speed has to do with time and pace and brief intervals. Then there are all the areas where speed comes into play. There's travel, there's music, there's speech, people moving, animals moving." You can find words that suggest speed in each of these domains.
Once you've found all those words and concepts, Shore recommends several free word-related sites: RhymeZone (which offers a lot more than rhyming help), Wordnik, and OneLook. All these sites will help you find new synonyms for words, and associated ideas. For example, RhymeZone lets you search for definitions of other words that include your target word. That search on fast led to a lot of related words such as kudzu, wahoo (a speedy fish), and foxtrot.
Feel free to start from words like these and combine them or modify them in ways that make sense to you. In a previous role, Shore helped the consulting firm then known as Arthur Andersen find a new name. The winning candidate, Accenture, came from "accent on the future" and was suggested by an employee as part of a companywide competition.
3. Look beyond the URL.
A lot of company names come about because the founders were able to register that name with ".com" on the end of it as a domain. But, Shore says, your domain should be the last thing you think about, not the first.
"Your domain name matters very little," he says. "A study was done a few years ago showing that 97 percent of the time, people get to a website by way of a search engine. No one is typing an address into an address bar from scratch."
So, he says, if you've found a name that works for you in other ways but the .com domain is unavailable, there are plenty of other options. Alternative top-level domains, such as .us or .co are gaining greater acceptance, he says. Or you could combine your name with another word, such as hello[name].com. "Tesla's domain was teslamotors.com for ages, until they finally bought tesla.com," he notes.
4. Choose a name that's original, yet easy to understand.
Finding a good name is a neuroscience balancing act, Placek explains. "With a little knowledge of how the brain processes information, you become aware that humans like new ideas," he says. "That can be taking a word that's in one category and putting it in another. That's what we did with BlackBerry when we created that name for Research In Motion."
On the other hand, he says, "Keep in mind it's got to be accessible. Cognitive science researchers will tell you that our brains lean a little on the lazy side. We like simpler ideas rather than complex ideas." We also like words that are easy to understand, spell, and pronounce, one reason why Qwickster was such a poor choice.
5. Don't expect to love the name right away.
"Comfort with a name, or 'I'll know it when I see it,' are not helpful for developing names," Shore says. A potential name will be unfamiliar when you first encounter it, at least in the context of your company. "It's natural to feel uneasy with a name that is very different because it's so surprising," he says. "That feeling goes away once you've been living with it."
In fact, Siminoff was skeptical when his investor first suggested Ring: "I didn't realize how applicable and perfect the word was for what we were building." He only changed his mind when the investor called to tell him the domain ring.com was for sale. "I had always wanted a four-letter domain," he explains.
This is why Shore never presents his clients with a list of names. He mocks them up on webpages instead. "You want to be judicious about how you unveil names to others," he says. "If you have three or four names, you want to show the name in context and talk about what the name can do for you. What intriguing assets are there that the name gives us?"
Eventually, he says, when you choose a name and start using it, "Everyone grows to love it. And no one remembers not liking it."