The business and techbloggers who covered the episode found nothing amiss in the story. But to anyone who knows how business names work, it betrays the naïveté of the show’s creators.
The protagonist of “Silicon Valley” is a programmer, Richard, who’s inadvertently developed a file-compression algorithm. For reasons that haven’t yet been explained (and may never be), he named the algorithm—and the start-up he creates around it—“Pied Piper.”
Everyone but Richard hates the name. But that’s not his biggest headache.
Apple introduced its looped-square “control” icon⌘ in 1983, but the symbol’s origins go back to sixth-century Scandinavia. Tom Chatfield traces the historyof the symbol also known as “St. John’s Arms.”
The dripping-heart symbol was created “in a few hours” by a Finnish graphic designer, Leena Snidate, for the security firm Codenomicon. “Heartbleed” was originally Codenomicon’s internal code name; the bug’s official name is CVE-2014-0160. CVE stands for “common vulnerabilities and exposures.” Read more about Heartbleed in TechCrunchand in Fast Company Design.
And here’s naming news from another corner of the animal kingdom: The Scientific American blog Running Ponies reports on six new species of “child-eating Dracula ants” with “cool ninja names”: Shadow, Labyrinth, and Mirror. The scientific name for this ant subfamily is Amblyoponinae; the genus name, Mystrium, was chosen to evoke “the uncertainty surrounding their general biology, ecology and behaviour.” (Via Our Bold Hero.)
“In the globalized, consumption-fired 21st century, branding is the air we breathe,” writes Frank Viviano in the Spring 2014 issue of California, the Cal Alumni Association magazine. “The Plato and Newton of that volatile universe is David Aaker, a congenial professor emeritus of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, born and raised in the placid calm of Fargo, North Dakota.” Aaker is vice chairman of the global brand consultancy Prophet, the author of the influential business book Brand Relevance, and the creator of the Aaker Model, which, writes Viviano, “asserts that a brand is a vital form of corporate equity, a measurable asset whose value is as important to a business as its capital infrastructure and staff.”
The headline says “On the Internet, All the Good Company Names Are Taken,” but the story (in the Globe and Mail) is really about a different problem. “For all its focus on innovation and disruption, the tech startup world can be downright risk-averse when it comes to naming conventions,” notes tech reporter Omar El Akkad.
Arduinois “an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It’s intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments.” (Source: Arduino.cc.) The company was founded in 2005 in Ivrea, a town of about 25,000 in northern Italy; its products are popular in the worldwide maker community. The company is Arduino; its microcontroller board is “an Arduino.”
Arduino is a low-cost microcontroller board that lets even a novice do really amazing things. You can connect an Arduino to all kinds of sensors, lights, motors, and other devices and use easy-to-learn software to program how your creation will behave. You can build an interactive display or a mobile robot and then share your design with the world by posting it on the Net.
The first few times I encountered the Arduino name I associated it with “arduous,” which is not only conceptually inaccurate but historically and etymologically false. Arduino is not related to Latin arduus (high, steep). Rather, this very 21st-century company and its primary product are named for an 11th-century monarch who ruled for just two years.
Here’s how IEEE Spectrum tells the story:
The picturesque town of Ivrea, which straddles the blue-green Dora Baltea River in northern Italy, is famous for its underdog kings. In 1002, King Arduin became the ruler of the country, only to be dethroned by King Henry II, of Germany, two years later. Today, the Bar di Re Arduino, a pub on a cobblestoned street in town, honors his memory, and that’s where an unlikely new king was born.
The bar is the watering hole of Massimo Banzi, the Italian cofounder of the electronics project that he named Arduino in honor of the place.
The personal name “Arduino” is derived from the Germanic name, Harduwin or Hardwin, composed from hardu “strong, hardy” and wini “friend.” (Source.) It has cognates in French (Ardennes, site of the Battle of the Bulge in World War II) and English (the Forest of Ardenin Warwickshire, the setting of Shakespeare’s As You Like It).
Arduino uses the .cc domain extension, the country code for the tiny Cocos Islands, a territory of Australia. It’s the preferred domain of many Creative Commons (open source) projects—another example of when a non-dot-com domain is the more appropriate choice.
As for Ivrea, its name comes from the Latin “Eporedia.” Arduino isn’t the first technology company to have made its home there: the business-machine company Olivettiwas founded there (as a typewriter manufacturer) in 1908. Known for advanced industrial design, Olivetti was also a technology pioneer: the company’s Programma 101, released in 1965, is considered the first commercial desktop personal computer. Olivetti was sold to Telecom Italia in 2003 and rebranded as Olivetti Tecnost.
Ivrea is also known for a peculiar carnival celebration, the Battle of the Oranges, with roots in the 12th and 13th centuries. Fest 300, hotelier Chip Conley’s world-festivals website, describes it thus:
It’s a familiar story: commoners rise up against an oppressive ruler. At the Carnevale di Ivrea, however, the battle isn’t waged with guns and swords—oranges are the weapon of choice. Every year, the tiny northern city of Ivrea in the Turin province stockpiles 500,000 kilograms of fresh oranges for Battaglia delle Arance (Battle of the Oranges), a re-creation of a historic fight between townsfolk and a ruling tyrant. Teams wage a full-on fruit war, and not even a red-capped declaration of sovereignty can protect you from getting juiced.
The carnival is connected to the Christian calendar; this year it took place between March 2 and 4, the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. But its rituals have pagan overtones:
The festival concludes with a sword-wielding Violetta watching over a scarlo, a pole with juniper and heather bushes. If the scarlo burns fast and bright, the future looks good; a slow burn is a bad omen for the coming year.
Heroes:Quidsi, the parent company of a clutch of e-tailers (Diapers.com, Soap.com, Look.com, et al.), thinks very highly of its workforce and “culture.” Its employees aren’t just model citizens. They aren’t merely heroes. They’re superheroes! With … superpowers?
Food portmanteaus: Taco Bell is testing a quesarito (a hybrid quesadilla/burrito), which will come as old news to Chipotle customers. The owners of a couple of Shoprite markets in New Jersey claim to have invented the donnoli (hybrid donut/cannoli). At the Donut Fest in Chicago back in January, an NPR reporter tasted a doughscuit (“an impossible mix of doughnut-fried sweetness and crumbly biscuitness”) And the Portland, Maine, bakery Little Bigs got slapped down in its attempt to sell a cronut imitation as a crauxnut. Little Bigs asked customers to suggest a new name. The winner: C&D (for “cease and desist”).
And this just in: The New York Timesreports on the cragel (croissant + bagel), the mallomac (Mallomar + macaron), the scuffin (scone + muffin), and other hybrid baked goods.
Of all the myths associated with naming, the bogus rule that insists on a “pure” dot-com domain—a URL that’s an exact match for the name of your company, product, or app—is perhaps the most wrongheaded and damaging to your naming effort. It’s a zombie rule: a holdover from the late-1990s dot-com gold rush. The rule’s been dead for years, but it still nibbles away at brains.
Yes, you should devote resources (time and money) to your naming strategy. Certainly you should cast a wide net in your creative effort, using lateral thinking to explore metaphorical associations. You should make sure your name is distinctive and appropriate in its market(s). You should protect your name legally through trademark registration.
But rejecting a good name because an exact dot-com match isn’t instantly available? That’s foolish, and bad business.
Gradually, company founders and marketing directors are seeing the light. A recent post about naming on the Buffer blog—Buffer is a social-media-publishing app—includes some misinformation (use “real” words, make it two syllables, yada yada). But it does contain one piece of near-wisdom:
3. The domain name doesn’t matter
I see many, many founders limiting themselves with the domain name. One thing I’ve learned and embraced with naming my own startups is that the domain name doesn’t matter at all. The name itself matters much more than having the same domain name. Pick a great name, go with a tweaked domain name.
I don’t agree that the domain name “doesn’t matter at all.” It’s a brand asset, and I encourage clients to consider buying a for-sale domain if they have the budget for it. Many aftermarket domains are available for less than $2,000.
But I do endorse the “tweaked domain name” part. If you’re able to legally own your name in your trademark class(es)—a very big, very important if—and you can’t buy the pure domain, I urge you to break the zombie rule. Your URL does not have to be an identical twin; rather, it can be a helpful sibling—and an opportunity to build your brand.
Here are some examples of what an impure domain can do:
A San Francisco startup called Gramr has blasted past its $15,000 Kickstarter goal in less than two weeks and appears likely to reach its “stretch goal” of $50,000. Before I give you any links or clues, try to guess from the name alone what Gramr makes. Language-learning flash cards? National Grammar Day T-shirts? An app that corrects your faulty subject-verb agreement?
No, no, and no. Gramr looks and sounds exactly like “grammar,” but the company has a completely different mission.
Leave it to the inventive and enterprising Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, to turn language peeves (“literally,” “could care less,” “very unique,” et al.) into a card game in which the object is “to annoy your opponent to death.” She’s raising money for Peeve Wars through Fund Anything; contribute now to claim your own card set or another nifty reward.
Some people peeve about new, “unnecessary” words. But language blogger Stan Carey defends them: “Avoiding new and ‘needless’ words in formal contexts is all well and good, but what’s wrong with a grand superfluity elsewhere? Will the language look untidy if words float around not filling vital gaps? Will they gum up the works?”
“We think first / Of vague words that are synonyms for progress / And pair them with footage of a high-speed train.” This Is a Generic Brand Video, from McSweeney’s, of course.
Orenitram, a drug for pulmonary arterial hypertension, is an ananym: The name was created by reverse-spelling the first eight letters of the name of the drug company’s CEO, Martine Rothblatt. But that’s just the beginning of a truly remarkable name story, reported by Catchword.
The new BuzzFeed style guide answers the really tough spelling and usage questions: Is bitchface one word or two? (One.) Is there an E in chocolaty? (No.) What’s the proper abbreviation of douchebag? (d-bag.) What’s the difference between wack and whack? (Look it up; it’s in there.) And, FYI, the word is spelled whoa. Don’t make us repeat ourselves.
“Writing and editing are linked but distinct enterprises, and distinct temperaments are involved. Very few people can move smoothly from the one enterprise to the other.” – John McIntyre, one of the few.
Who names the color of the year? Professional namers, that’s who. The Boston Globe interviewed Bay Area name developer Anthony Shore for his insights into color naming; the article is headlined—care to guess?—“What’s in a Name?” (I tackled the subject of color names myself for a 2011 Visual Thesaurus column.)
When you enter an crowded, established, not-very-exciting market with the goal of upending expectations, the best way to signal your intention is with a distinctive product name that avoids the naming trends in your category.
That’s exactly what Tristan Walker, a former Wall Street trader and Silicon Valley executive, has done with Bevel, his new shaving system for men with coarse, curly hair (mostly but not exclusively African-American men, like Walker himself).
The weighted razor and skin-preparation products are meant to reduce and prevent ingrown hairs and razor bumps.
To understand how revolutionary the Bevel name is—and to appreciate the elegant, understated product design—take a look at some competitors.
The companies behind these products have fixated on a common strategy, naming the problem. Bevel stands out because it names the solution: a razor whose single blade is angled (beveled) to shave close to the skin. (Yes, a single blade. Walker is “deeply skeptical about multi-blade razors,” according to a TechCrunch story about his company: “He holds that because you can’t patent single-blade razors, there’s no incentive for incumbent companies like Proctor [sic] & Gamble to invest in the best solution.”
And because the Bevel system is sold as a fairly spendy subscription service, it doesn’t require retina-burning graphics to command your attention in CVS or Walgreen’s. The products can speak with the quiet authority of good design.
The Bevel name succeeds on sound and appearance, too. Its velvety, liquid consonants suggest smoothness, while the V in the middle of the word—echoed in the logo—suggests the shape of an angled blade.
Bevel.com was, of course, taken. (It redirects to an optometry website with a different name.) The choice to go with a modified domain, GetBevel.com, was smart and appropriate.
(I was a little disappointed, however, that the company’s Twitter bio includes a pronunciation guide. Really?)
Bevel is the first product and “flagship brand” of Tristan Walker’s startup enterprise, Walker and Company. It’s pure coincidence, as far as I can tell, that this Walker evokes a much older hair-care brand—also developed by an African-American for African-Americans—with the Walker name.
The Madam C.J. Walker company of Indiana was founded in 1910 by Sarah Breedlove Walker, who used her husband’s initials as her business name. As a young woman Sarah Breedlove Walker had suffered hair loss; the products she developed to treat the condition proved so popular that she became America’s first female self-made millionaire.
Madam C.J. Walker 1998 U.S. postage stamp
The company thrived for more than six decades after Madam Walker’s death in 1919; in 1985, the company was sold to Raymond Randolph, who had worked in the black-haircare industry since the 1960s. The products are once again for sale under a slightly modified name, Madame C.J. Walker Hair Products.
There have been many published biographies of Madam Walker. The one I want to read is On Her Own Ground, published in 2002 by Madam Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles.
Fifty shades of blue. Can you discern the difference between LinkedIn blue and Disqus blue? IBM blue and Evomail blue? Test your powers of perception at Name That Blue, then graduate to pinks, reds, purples, greens, and a whole lot of tech companies you’ve never heard of.
Helvetica the perfume. “We have created the ultimate Modernist perfume – a scent distilled down to only the purest and most essential elements to allow you, the content, to convey your message with the utmost clarity.” Translation: for $62, not including tax and shipping, you get distilled water in a clear bottle with a label.
“For those who dare to be the same.” Image via AdFreak.
Hideous holiday music. I note with sadness the passing in 2013 of Jim Nayder, curator of Chicago Public Radio’s Annoying Music show (frequently heard on NPR); and of Regretsy (“Where DIY Meets WTF”), the blog that compiled the very worst of Etsy craft projects. But there’s hope for both camps of mourners: the multitalented April Winchell, who ran Regretsy for four years (posting as Helen Killer), can still be found on her eponymous blog. And in an effort that would do Jim Nayder proud, she’s compiled her own catalog of wretched holiday tunes, from “Homo Christmas” (by Pansy Division) to the Bethlehem Rap, from “I Yust Go Nuts on Christmas” and “Yingle Bells” by that great, great faux-Swedish entertainer Yogi Yorgesson (né Harry Stewart) to the world’s worst version of “O Holy Night.”
And speaking of holiday traditions, watch this space for my annual Festivus Airing of Grievances, coming later this week.