Lousy Products Might Break Your Bones - But A Name Will Seldom Hurt You
"With a name like Smucker's, it has to be good." Really? I would think that with a name like Smucker's it has to be a vile disease or possibly a large, poisonous, South American leech.
If "Smucker's" can be
slapped on food and annually generate billions of sales, chances are
that your company name, no matter how mediocre, will not preclude you
from achieving significant success. Thus, join the ranks of Yahoo, Google,
Amazon, eBay, Cisco and Microsoft and focus your limited time and resources
on perfecting your customer value proposition, not on devising an ideal
When selecting your company
and product names, consider the following:
- Uniquely Familiar
- Intuitive URL
- Avoid Hyphens
- No Numbers
- Sans Acronyms
- Not Abbreviated
- .com Suffix
- Phonetically Spellable
- Readily Pronounceable
- Single Connotation
Each of these naming considerations
is discussed at length in the remainder of this entry.
Successful entrepreneurs have
a bias toward action, as illustrated in Tom
and Huck. Endlessly
analyzing and contemplating your company's name is unwarranted
inaction, as your venture's name will have little to do with
your ultimate success or lack thereof.
Correspondingly, your products'
names contribute to, but do not dictate, their success. Great product
names help and bad product names hurt. However, your ultimate victory
will be predicated upon your ability to economically deliver on the
promises you make to your customers a.k.a. your products' "value
propositions." If you focus on delivering value to your customers,
your products will have a reasonable chance of succeeding, irrespective
of what you name them.
Do not fall prey to self-proclaimed
naming gurus who will gladly take your money and join you in the navel-gazing
pursuit of perfect names. As noted in Beware The
such pay-for-hire charlatans barter their time for your money the
more time they trade with you, the more of your money they take. If
you allow yourself to be sucked into the Name Game, you can be assured
it will be an expensive, time-consuming endeavor.
To illustrate the extent to
which a company's name is largely irrelevant to its ultimate success,
let's examine the genesis of six successful technology companies'
names. All of these successful companies have imperfect names before
they became widely known, many of these monikers were difficult to spell,
pronounce and recall. Even so, their imperfection did not hamper the
companies' ultimate success.
In all cases, these names were
derived by the Founders, without the involvement of consultants, MBAs,
focus groups, statistically valid surveys or other detriments to a startup's
ability to make quick, sound decisions.
defines "Yahoo" as "a boorish, crass, or stupid person." The
term was first used by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels,
in which he encountered a brutish race of hideous humans. Jerry Yang
and David Filo, Yahoo's Founders, chose the name, as they considered
themselves to be "Yahoos.".When the company was initially launched,
its name was awkwardly similar to the chocolate drink YooHoo. After
the company became successful, the backronym, Yet Another
Hierarchical Officious Oracle was devised to "explain"
the name's origin.
Google Based on
"googol," a term devised by mathematicians to describe inconceivably
large numbers that are smaller than infinity. When included in mathematical
expressions, it is represented as 10100. The term is obtusely
related to Google's quest to catalog all of the world's information,
but wholly irrelevant from a user perspective. Google is not descriptive
of the company's search core competency nor was it particularly easy
to pronounce, spell or remember when the site was initially launched.
Amazon While arguably
better than the company's initial name, "Cadabra.com", "Amazon"
does not convey the company's initial core competency of online book
sales. Legend asserts that the name change from Cadabra was prompted
by Yahoo's alphabetized listing of search results. However, if this
is true, "Aardvark" would have been a more clever choice and equally
as relevant to online book sales.
Derived from Founder Pierre Omidyar's consulting company, Echo
Bay Technology Group. "EchoBay.com" was not available, so the firm's
name was shortened to "eBay" in order to acquire the corresponding
URL. "eBay" clearly has nothing to do with online auctions and is
descriptive of absolutely nothing.
called "cisco Systems," the name was derived from San Francisco.
The lowercase "c" was eventually capitalized after nearly 10 years,
due to the awkward representation of the small "c" when the company
was discussed in newspapers and magazines. Other than a second-rate
musician, "Cisco" is descriptive of nothing, offering no hint as
to the company's initial core competency in router design and development.
At the time of its launch, the name "cisco" was also confusingly
similar to SYSCO, the $20B food distribution company.
descriptive of the company's software developed for the "micro"
computer market, which eventually evolved into the "personal" computer
market. The original spelling of "Micro-Soft" was not changed until
twelve years after its founding, once the MBAs had transformed the scrappy
startup into a BDC. The company continues to dominate a variety of markets,
despite the fact that no one has used the term "micro computer"
during the past 25 years.
Even though the names of the
preceding companies are less than ideal, they clearly did not stand
in the way of these organizations' success. Despite their imperfections,
some attributes of these company names are desirable and illustrate
conventions you should consider when naming your company and its products,
as discussed below.
Familiar A name that sounds familiar but is not confusingly
similar to another company is powerful and equally elusive. Proper nouns,
such as Amazon, engender a feeling of familiarity. The risk with this
approach is that it can lead to a name that is too generic and indistinguishable.
These "Acme"-sounding names often couple empty words with proper
nouns, such as: Phoenix Technology, Eagle Systems, Lewis Enterprises,
Malibu Industries, or suffixes such as, "plex" or "tronics."
Such neutral names are neither detrimental nor additive to a firm's
Buzzless - As
noted in Buzz
incorporating trendy terms in your company and product names, as today's
buzzword darlings become tomorrow's passι clichιs. By avoiding chic
terminology, your venture will never end up on the wrong side of the
ever-changing buzzword bandwagon, such as the unfortunately named "NanoOpto."
Legacy companies, which were named before the advent of the Internet
and subsequently did not have the financial resources to purchase their
company name URLs, are forced to shoehorn their names into URLs they
can acquire. However, there is no need for a startup to compromise with
respect to its URL.
When devising your company
and product names, keep in mind the following impact that such names
will have on your ability to conform to the following URL guidelines:
- Brief The shorter, the better
- Avoid Hyphens Many customers will not know where to position hyphens, so do not settle for a hyphenated URL.
- No Numbers Some customers will be confused. Should they spell the number or enter the numeral? Yes, you may be able to purchase all the URL variations, but why add this element of potential confusion to your name?
- Sans Acronyms Acronyms that are crystal clear to you and your team may be utterly foreign to your customers.
- Not Abbreviated You cannot expect your customers to figure out your abbreviations. If the only URL you can acquire requires you to abbreviate your proposed company name, select a different name for which the non-abbreviated URL is available or can be reasonably purchased.
- .com suffix Minor league suffixes, such as.Net, .TV and .BIZ, will confuse your customers and make your company difficult to locate and contact.
Your company name will also
impact your employees' email addresses. A cumbersome, non-intuitive
company name will make it more difficult for potential customers and
other stakeholders to communicate with your venture.
Due to the importance of obtaining a reasonably short URL, a number
of startups settle for suboptimal company and product names, resulting
in spellings that challenge even the most ardent, motivated customer.
Steer clear of Americans' penchant for unique spelling conventions.
"Amy" should not be spelled "Aimee" and "Storage" should
not be spelled "Stoaredge.".
Even if the name's meaning
is obvious when read, the proper spelling of such names may be difficult
for a casual user to recall. For instance, "Hautespot" might be
a clever name for a wireless video company, (as in "hot spot"),
but it is difficult for uninitiated users to spell correctly.
Netflix has been widely successful,
despite its phonetically challenging spelling. A quick search of "Netflicks"
shows over 50,000 unique instances of this misspelling (contrasted with
the nearly 12 million distinct references to "Netflix"). Even after
spending hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing, numerous potential
customers still misspell the company's non-intuitive name.
Pronounceable A name's proper accent should be obvious,
as made painfully clear in the 1996 Tom Hank's Movie, "That Thing
You Do!" in which Mr. Hank's character discovers a small town band
named "The Oneders." A running gag throughout the movie is that
no one can properly pronounce the band's name, calling them "The
oh-NEE-ders," rather than "The ONE-ders."
The band's leader is emotionally
attached to the cleverness of the band's name and thus blames
everyone else for their inability to "get it right." Avoid this
mistake never become irrationally fond of a company or product name.
Perception is reality. If the market "does not get it," you
are wrong and they are right. Emulate the fictional record company
which signed The Oneders. It promptly changed their name to "The Wonders."
are also prevalent in the business world.
- The small "e" in "eBay" caused many early users to improperly place the accent on "BAY".
- The telephony company Vonage suffers from a name that is both difficult to pronounce and challenging to spell (the proper accent is on "VON").
- The insurance provider Geico has to use a gecko "spokescreature" to reinforce the proper pronunciation of its name.
- The Southern California Tody car dealership in is forced to waste its mantra on explaining how to properly pronounce its name ("Not Toady its Todey (toddy)").
The greater extent to which you can leverage a name across a product
family, the better. A common prefix or suffix which can be applied to
a variety of products is an effective way to generate awareness and
promote sales across a product line. If the brand is properly managed,
this naming convention can foster a halo effect over all the company's
products. For instance, Citrix utilizes the "GoTo" moniker for its
line of remote access solutions, including, "GoToMyPC," "GoToMeeting"
and "GoToWebinar." Apple utilizes a similar approach with the prefix
"i", as in "iPod," "iTunes" and "iPhone."
A non-native English speaker whom I once worked with devised a company
name, without realizing it had negative connotations. After a great
deal of buildup, the name was proudly announced: "Soar." After I
stopped laughing, I said, "Like an oozing sore on your face?" The
diligent marketing person was devastated, as this was not a meaning
they had contemplated. Even worse, the marketing person had worked with
a consultant and spent over ten thousand dollars coming up with the
name. Shameful. Your names should not be open to such misinterpretation.
example of a name with a deleterious connotation is "Rabobank."
This regrettable name is derived from the Dutch word "Boerenleenbank"
(i.e., a farm credit bank). Unfortunately, when viewed quickly, it is
easy to transpose the "a" and "o," resulting in "ROB-a-bank."
The Company You Keep
Another reason to not obsess
about your venture's name is because your business focus, markets
served and value propositions will likely evolve over time. As such,
if you tie your company name too closely with your initial go-to-market
strategy, you might achieve success with a company name that does not
ultimately reflect the true nature of your business.
This occurred at both Expertcity
and Computer Motion, two companies in which I was a senior executive.
Expertcity was initially named to reflect the company's "marketplace
for services," which enabled independent, global experts to directly
access customers' computers and fix their technical problems. Expertcity
was a great name for that business. Unfortunately, we completely abandoned
the "technical support marketplace" after the dot bomb crash and
began licensing our screen-sharing technology. Our name was so disconnected
from our business model that we were in the midst of a protracted and
expensive name change initiative (along with a small army of consultants),
at the time we sold Expertcity to Citrix.
Computer Motion was named after
a clever software algorithm that allowed primitive (circa 1990) computer
processors to render graphics in 3-D. The company's logo was a three
dimensional bouncing ball. Unfortunately, we never made a dime from
the 3-D algorithm. Instead, we evolved our technology to power medical
robots and eventually pioneered the medical robotics industry, which
led to the company's eventual sale to Intuitive Surgical, a far more
aptly named company.
In both of these instances,
the highly specific nature of the companies' names proved to be problematic
the companies matured and modified their value propositions.
$30M Name In 15 Minutes
Product names clearly have
a more direct and significant impact on your company's success, as
compared with your company's name. This is especially true of consumer-oriented
products. However, most startups do not have the financial wherewithal
to build a brand based upon a product's name and image. All branding
efforts within a startup should be focused on communicating product
utility, as the value derived by end-users ultimately dictates a product's
success or failure.
As we morphed our business
model at Expertcity, we needed a name for the technology we had begun
to license to large enterprises. With no name whatsoever, we
closed deals with a number of substantial companies, including Cox Communications,
CompUSA, CDW and Colgate-Palmolive. Our technology streamed pixels from
one desktop to another, allowing support agents in call centers to solve
technical issues directly on users' computers. Our enterprise customers
were interested in the utility our product delivered to their customer
support agents and were indifferent to its name (or lack thereof).
Once we proved that we could
license our "marketplace for services" technology, it was evident
that we needed to christen the technology with a product name. As such,
I did something unusual. I called a meeting.
I wanted to name the product
"Tsunami" a terrible name which we quickly rejected. After a
few minutes of discussion, when it was clear that Tsunami was not a
winner, we reviewed the URLs we owned, which included "BuddyHelp.com"
We walked out of the meeting
after about fifteen minutes, with a product name and without wasting
undue time attempting to devise a perfect name as we knew it
would have no impact on our enterprise customers' buying decisions.
Hopefully you can guess which name we selected.
Another reason not to obsess
over product names is that you can later modify them by relaunching
the product under a new brand. As noted in Max
can be expensive and painful, but you only have to go through the process
if the initial product, with its suboptimal name, is successful. This
was the approach we took with DesktopStreaming.
Once GoToMyPC became a highly
successful product, we renamed DesktopStreaming "GoToMeeting," but
not before DesktopStreaming had generated over $30 million dollars of
revenue. If we had named the product BuddyHelp, we probably would have
generated a comparable amount of revenue. However, we felt that BuddyHelp
was too casual and unprofessional for a mission-critical, enterprise
Hall Of Shame Names -
The Oneder Of It All
The time and money spent seeking
an ideal name is likely better applied to signing up customers and refining
your value proposition. However, there clearly are "bad" names that
can make it more difficult for your venture to succeed. It is more
difficult to swim upstream, so you should obviously apply a reasonable
but modest amount of time playing the Name Game.
Smucker's and DesktopStreaming
prove that terrible product names (or even no name at all) will not
preclude you from success, given that the product delivers to its customers
a worthwhile value proposition. Smucker's grew from a family-owned,
small Midwestern business into a $4 billion, global enterprise. Rather
than being hampered by its wretched name, it achieved a degree of pop
culture notoriety, as evidenced by the following excerpt from a 1976
Saturday Night Live skit, entitled "Jam Hawkers" and written by
Jane Curtin: . . . And so, with a name like Fluckers, it's got to be good.
Chevy Chase: Hey, hold on a second, I have a jam here called Nose Hair. Now with a name like Nose Hair, you can imagine how good it must be. MMM MMM!!
Dan Aykroyd: Hold it a minute folks, but are you familiar with a jam called Death Camp? That's Death Camp! Just look for the barbed wire on the label. With a name like Death Camp it must be so good it's incredible! Just amazingly good jam!
John Belushi: Wait a minute . . . Dog Vomit, Monkey Pus. We offer you a choice of two of the most repulsive brand names of jams you've ever heard of. With names like these, this stuff has got to be terrific. We're talking fabulous jam here!
Chevy Chase: Save your breath fella! Here's a new jam we've just put out. It's called Painful Rectal Itch. You'd have to go a long way to find a worse name for a jam. And good? MMM WAH! With a name like Painful Rectal Itch you gotta bet that it's great . . .
Jane Curtin: So if it's great jam you're after, try this one, the brand so disgusting you can't say it on television. Ask for it by name!
Do not obsess over your company
or product names. The value of an ideal name, attached to a product
or company that does not deliver an economically viable value proposition
is zero. The only thing you should spend less time obsessing
over is your logo.
By selecting a brief, logically spelled and readily pronounceable company name, you can be sure that when you customers "ask for you by name" they will actually be able to find you.John Greathouse has held a number of senior executive positions with successful startups during the past fifteen years. At Computer Motion (RBOT), he was the CFO and VP of Business Development. At Citrix Online (CTXS - formerly Expertcity), Greathouse served as CFO and SVP of Strategic Development. At CallWave (CALL), he served as the SVP of Sales & Bus Dev. In his capacities at Computer Motion and Citrix; Greathouse spearheaded transactions which generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including Computer Motion's initial public offering and the sale of Expertcity to Citrix for over $230M. Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners (www.rinconvp.com">http://www.rinconvp.com">www.rinconvp.com).