Startups

What I learned the hard way from naming 30+ startups

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Image of a pink toy dinosaur holding a name tag on a yellow background.
Image Credits: Juj Winn (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

There’s a lot wrapped up in a name: feelings, emotions, connotation, unconscious bias, personal history. It’s an identity — it gives something meaning and importance.

In leading marketing and brand at High Alpha, I think about naming quite a bit. As a venture studio, we co-found and launch five to 10 new software startups every year. It is my team’s responsibility to create and build out the brands for all the new companies we start, including everything from naming and domain acquisition to brand identity and websites. Over the past five years, we’ve named more than 30 software startups at High Alpha.

As a soon-to-be first-time parent, the idea of naming has taken on a whole new meaning and importance in my life. Even though I help name new companies for a living, I now fully understand the paralysis that often comes when faced with the task of deciding the name for someone or something that’s especially important to you.

Because of this, I’ve always tried to take an objective, pragmatic approach to naming a company with our CEOs and other startups. Naming is an incredibly difficult and nuanced process. It’s fraught with subjectiveness and personal preference. And to top it all off, most founders have zero (or very little) experience in naming.

The truth is that business names fall on a bell curve — you have a small number of outliers that actively contribute to your success and a small number of outliers that actively impair your ability to succeed. The vast majority, though, fall somewhere in the middle in their impact on your business.

So, how should a founder go about effectively naming their baby startup and not picking a name that will hurt them? I’m sharing my own criteria and lessons for how to go about naming your startup, how to evaluate a company name and what makes for a good company name.

Is the name ownable?

As a founder, one of the first criteria to look at is ownability and URL availability. Nowadays, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a name where the .com is still available. I oftentimes will look at .io, .co, get_______.com, or _____hq.com as my top alternatives to a .com, but I always still prefer if the .com is potentially attainable in the future. It may be parked by a domain investor or someone asking a ridiculous price, but that’s always better than an established business using your .com. If not, you will always be fighting a search battle with some other brand that owns your .com.

This goes much further than just the availability of the coveted .com domain, though. You should evaluate the competitiveness and search congestion around your branded keywords. A company named “Apple” or “Lumber” is going to have a really hard time competing for search placements, even if they don’t sell computers or building supplies. An established name and word is also going to come with existing connotations and previous experiences in your audience’s mind. You want a name free from as much baggage as possible so you can easily build your own connotations and memories.

The last criteria around ownability is the availability of a trademark. You can do your own Googling and searches in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database, but I highly recommend you find yourself a great trademark attorney and lean on them as much as possible.

Once you narrow in on your top candidates, bring those candidates to an attorney to help you determine the level of risk those names present and the likelihood of acquiring a trademark. Getting a trademark is not the end-all, be-all, but it helps the defensibility of your name and gives you more opportunities to own the space around your company name.

A handful of our companies have been burned before in this department, needing to rename a company after a trademark battle. My advice is that it’s easier to address this early on and get it out of the way — it’s better for someone to come out of the woodwork and fight your trademark before you have significant traction and momentum.

We’ve worked through this personally with our portfolio companies Pattern89 and Canopy. In both cases, the other party’s argument was very subjective, and I still believe that the original names were not impeding on anyone’s trademarks. We found it was easier and cheaper, though, to rename the company than to fight the legal battle to stick with our original name. Changing names after you’ve already made your decision and fallen in love with a name is never fun, but it’s always turned out to be the right decision for a small startup at that stage.

What is the phonetic structure?

The second thing to think through is the phonetic structure — is it easy to say, spell and remember? Ideally, you want a name that is easy for someone to pronounce and simple to spell. Both of these feed into the memorability of your name. As a new startup with low brand awareness, you’re already fighting an uphill battle. You don’t need to give your audience one more thing to remember — like an odd misspelling, missing vowels or an unpronounceable word. This also applies to your domain — is it memorable?

We face this challenge often with our portfolio company Filo.co. Most people don’t know whether to pronounce the name as fēlō or fīlō. The more natural way to pronounce the name is fīlō, so that is how we pronounce it, and we try to train others to pronounce it in that way. The name makes up for any challenges in pronunciation, though, by having a very short, memorable spelling and domain. At the end of the day, you will have to compromise in some of these areas.

Does the name have strategic alignment?

Does it convey the right idea, tone and attitude? Can we tell a good story about the name that aligns to our business goals, values and vision? Does the name limit our ultimate ambitions in any way?

Our brand team often jokes that a good marketer or brand designer can devise a good story about nearly every name, which is why I personally place this last among my criteria. If we can find a name that’s ownable, memorable, and easy to say and spell, I can make up a pretty good story that aligns in some way to the company’s vision.

During the ideation phase, though, it is often easier to start at strategic alignment when creating your first word bank of potential words, feelings and ideas related to your product, value proposition or customers. Start with as broad of a playing field as possible and start to narrow down by concept themes and directions. From there, you can start to combine words, create new words, and qualify top concepts by ownability and phonetic structure.

One final pitfall I often see, though, is expecting a name to carry too much weight. At the end of the day, it’s just a name. The name of your company is not the only brand element someone will experience with your business. It is only part of the equation that also includes your product, brand identity, team culture, imagery, style, tone, iconography, customer experience, UI, etc.

If you strip away all the other brand elements, an iconic name like Google, Yahoo or TikTok starts to look like a pretty poor company name. It takes time, consistency and intentionality to turn a simple name into a strong, world-class brand.

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