in Tech

Everything is a Startup Name

There are plenty of ridiculous tech startup names out there. From cutting off vowels (Tumblr), to intentional misspellings (Lyft) to misappropriations of completely unrelated words (Yelp, Uber), you can smell out these apps and web based gimmicks as soon as you hear them dropped in conversation.

Yet there is a rhyme to their reason. These one off names are what they are because they are short, easy to pronounce, and show up first in search rankings. Viral growth and easy spreadability are what makes companies such as these succeed – a complicated sounding name like Halcyon Molecular doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and the B2B ones like Accenture sound like the bland corporate speak that fills up their lawyer copy. It’s not the sort of thing you can throw in during water cooler conversations.

Short little fun sounding names are easy to say, hard to forget, and lead straight to the company page when you stick them in Google. Things can get confusing when users aren’t clear exactly how you artfully misspelled the original word (I remember Julien Smith‘s friend being unable to find his startup Breather because they expected the final ‘e’ to be cut off), or forget exactly which unrelated monosyllabic word is the name of the service that solves their current problem. That’s why the best names combine existing short words to make one off combinations that are just as short and search engine optimized as gibberish, but easy to understand. Snapchat, GroupMe, SoundHound – these all make sense  given their subject matter, yet are instantly reproducible.

What isn’t as obvious is that every brand out there faces this same conundrum – how to be easily said yet unique. While browsing a SXSW music festival lineup the other week, I noticed that many bands could use a lesson in branding.

‘NO’ is too short of a an artist name, and may get confused with ‘NONONO’. I’m not even sure how to pronounce names like ‘!!!’ or ‘SBTRKT’. And DJ names like Gesaffelstein or SebastiAn are  difficult to find online, given that they’re impossible to spell off the top of your head or share the same first name as real people. this forces me to search unwieldly terms like “SebastiAn artist’ or ‘SebastiAn music’, which is certainly sub optimal. If your startup name is a common term, searches for it will return those common terms before your personage, which is not good.

Meanwhile, band names like Vintage Trouble or Deadmau5 roll right off the tongue (and into the search engine) because they use words I already know, but arranged distinctly and artfully. Bands need to be aware that their name is more than a name – it’s also a brand that can help or hurt their word of mouth popularity depending on how easy it is to say and remember. The worst case scenario would be a friend telling you about a band, only to have you unable to find it online due to it being spelling super oddly or un-phonetically. That’s a lost customer.

The formula for the best viral name would thus appear to be ‘Adjective Noun’ or ‘ShortRelatednounShortRelatednoun’. Simple, short, and relatable.

Or, if you ask Seth Godin, it should be “Short unrelated English Double Noun

But this principle doesn’t apply only to music and startups. Every single branded entity out there needs to abide by it. You can’t refer to a person, law, gamertag, book, blog name, management concept, learning theory, or product  without their name, and if you don’t make it simple, people will democratize it for you. ‘The Affordable Healthcare Act’ becomes Obamacare, while already shortened names like SXSW (South by Southwest) become colloquials like ‘South by’. Or people will completely mangle the pronunciation of your painstakingly researched foreign title. It’s gotta be easy.

So if you’ve been cursed with a hard to spell or remember name from birth (as could be said of me, always having to remind people of the extra E’s), you’d better come up with a stage name if you want to brand yourself, or a slickly named product to hide behind. (just look at all the awkwardly named celebrities who dumbed down their names to appeal to a mass audience.)

Make it easy, make it short, make it pronounceable. Don’t use foreign words, common terms, or break rules (like purposefully adding punctuation marks or randomly capitalized or lowercase letters in). If you don’t, people are going to dumb down your name for you and it will be like your real one doesn’t exist anyways. So you might as well come up with it yourself.

Remember that when you’re naming just about anything else in life, too. Everything is a startup name – as silly are they are, they fulfill their purpose well by being easy to say and spread.