Building a business or new product is hard, and one of the hardest things you’ll do early on is choose a name. Finding the right name is crucial – for word of mouth, customer recall and differentiating your brand from competitors in your respective market – but it can be difficult to find one that works and even harder to find one that is available.
Choosing the right name can be the difference between launching a commodity product with thin margins (ex. compression undergarments) and creating an iconic, category-defining brand worth hundreds of millions of dollars (ex. Spanx).
Also, a great name essentially optimizes the efficiency of your marketing spend. For example, if you spend a million dollars in customer acquisition initiatives and your name improves the reach of that message by 10% due to word of mouth, then the value of your name is $100,000.
Create, Combine or Repurpose
I use three methods for choosing a name.
Repurpose existing words, such as Polo, Chipotle or Blue Bottle Coffee.
Combine two words or word fragments to create a new word, such as GrubHub, Birchbox or HotelTonight.
Create an entirely new word, such as Zynga, Etsy or Zillow.
There are pros and cons to each method. Personally, I prefer the combination route, evidenced by the names of my three startups: TravelPost, DealBase and HotelTonight. When initially naming HotelTonight, we considered other name combinations like ImpulseHotel and HotelNow before deciding on Hotel + Tonight. We chose tonight because it is evocative, exciting and reflects immediacy – and it gives you a use case. I was initially actually in favor of pluralizing tonight and calling the business HotelsTonight, but we couldn’t secure the domain name until a couple months after our launch. Our COO Jared Simon voted for removing the “s” because he liked the simplicity of the name HotelTonight (and the domain was available). It ended up being the right decision (point: Jared).
With a name like HotelTonight, the concept is clear: people get exactly what we do. On the flip side, the name is not as defensible as names we may have created from scratch. For us, in a category of low frequency of use and with a need to immediately sell the concept to new customers, the trade-off is worth it. Combining words from a known concept helped us stand out in the market (for example, people searching for the word “hotel” or “hotel tonight” in app stores or search engines). In the online travel industry, around half of the largest, billion-dollar companies have a descriptive, functional name (like hotels.com or booking.com), so there was a precedent for this type of naming.
The Name Test
Now that you have your name, run it through these tests to make sure it’s the right one for your business.
Is it memorable?
You want a name that is easy to say, spell and type. Test this by telling 20 people the name and asking them to write it down. If any of them spell it incorrectly, move on to your next option.
Is it thematic?
Does the name relate to your product or market? With HotelTonight, that’s obviously the case. But with created names, you have to work harder, creating a backstory that explains why the name is thematically relevant. Zillow, for example, stands for “zillions of pillows” – explaining why it is the name for a comprehensive real estate search service.
Is it short?
When you have options, choose the shorter name. Aim for 8 characters or less. This will help with memorability and word-of-mouth virality. A great example of this is Uber, which ironically was forced to shorten their name from the inferior and longer “UberCab.”
Is it unbounded?
Ideally you want a name that can extend to other product lines or categories. The founders of ModCloth, Susan and Eric, were originally focused on incorporating the term “vintage” into the company’s name. Some of the abandoned names they considered were vintagegalore.com and stylishlyvintage.com (just two out of several hundred possible names). By choosing ModCloth, they gave themselves license to do more modern clothing as well as vintage, thereby not capping their business growth opportunities.
Is it verb-able?
A seminal moment for HotelTonight was when we saw our first tweet that used our brand as a verb (“I didn’t have a place to stay, so I HotelTonighted it in NYC.”) For consumer brands, if you can transform the product name into a verb, it allows customers to feel a deeper connection to it, and thereby use the service more often. For food delivery, which phrase does the more emotionally engaged and loyal customer say? “I’m GrubHubbing dinner” or “I’m going to order dinner using Eat24Hours.com.”
Does it have negative connotations?
Make sure the name doesn’t have any unexpected meanings or innuendos. A few Google searches and a little time spent on urbandictionary.com can help ensure this is not the case, but I’ve found that it’s also important to field-test the name with real people, especially those outside of your personal demographic.
When I was starting TravelPost, we seriously considered the name TravelHead. Chuck Templeton, OpenTable’s founder and one of my advisors at the time, gave me some great advice to test this name. He said that when he’s considering a name he puts together a survey of his top five options, goes to a coffee shop and offers to buy 10-20 strangers coffee in exchange for them ranking the names in order of personal preference. I followed his advice and discovered that TravelHead ranked very low, with connotations of drug use, especially with the boomer generation, so we moved on.
It’s also vital to check common misspellings. A friend who runs a very successful mobile app company almost called his latest app JoyMe, but found out just before launch that transposing a few letters of that name redirected users to an adult entertainment website. He went with a different name that didn’t have any obvious misspellings.
Is it available?
Before you fall in love with a name, find out if it’s available.
First, do a Google search. If there’s an existing company using the name, unless it’s small and in an unrelated industry, you’ll need to choose a different name. In the case of ModCloth, Google returned zero results – a home run for this name.
Then, check to see if the dot-com domain is in use. If the name is being used by an existing business, move on. But if it’s is parked by a domain speculator, you can probably purchase the domain from them (as I’ve done for all three of my businesses.)
If you’re doing an offline, mobile or enterprise software startup, the dot com domain is great to have, but not vital. Look into using a domain with a .io, .co or other alternate extension, or add a word like “get” or “use” before the brand name (ex. www.getwillcall.com). As you grow bigger and have more resources, you can then purchase the brand-only .com domain name. Also try to register alternate spellings. We registered Hotel2night, HotelTonite and other variations of our name.
Lastly, do a search on the USPTO website. If you find an active registered trademark for your name in the same category of services as you want to provide, it will be challenging for you to register your own trademark, and put you at risk of legal action. Building a company is hard – you don't want to make it more difficult by opening yourself up to the potential of a lawsuit. Avoid this by choosing another name.
Is it fun?
Extra credit points go to names that evoke positive emotions when said or heard. Yahoo! is perhaps the best example of this.
The Next Step
If you've found a name that passes most or all of these tests, then congrats: you’re ready to begin the hard work of actually building your business.
How did you choose your startup’s name? Any near-misses? I’d love to hear in the comments.