In today’s Wall Street Journal, reporter Lindsay Gellman looks at the “increasingly quirky names” of startup companies. Her examples include Mibblio (a “digital sing-along storybook”), Kaggle (which connects companies to big-data scientists), and Shodogg (a mobile screen-sharing service). As with most stories about naming, this one is a mix of solid information and misleading assertions. (Disclaimer: I was interviewed for the story’s sidebar about naming trends such as the perplexingly popular -ly suffix.)
My take on the story:
“Quirky” names are not a recent phenomenon. As Gellman rightly points out, Yahoo! and Google were considered bizarre names 20 years ago. In the late 1990s, so were FogDog and Jamcracker (which survived the dot-com bust) and Flooz (which didn’t). Back in 2006, I wrote about startup names like Ookles, Simpy, Weekemor, and DimDim. But oddly spelled names have been with us for much longer than that. In 1999, Salon’s Ruth Shalit wrote a much-cited article on “the vicious world of corporate name-creation”; her examples included the car names Xterra and Alero and the corporate names Acteva and Aquent. Science-fiction-y names have been common in pharmaceuticals for decades (Xanax, Zyrtec, Zyprexa). And you can go back even further, to Cheez-It crackers (1921) and Tastykake baked goods (1914) to trace Americans’ enthusiasm for krazy spellings.
You don’t need a short dot-com URL. You may not need a dot-com at all. The reason for the latest of crop of wacky spellings, Gellman writes, “is that practically every new business—be it a popsicle maker or a furniture retailer—needs its own website. With about 252 million domain names currently registered across the Internet, the short, recognizable dot-com Web addresses, or URLs, have long been taken. The only practical solution, some entrepreneurs say, is to invent words, like Mibblio, Kaggle, Shodogg and Zaarly, to avoid paying as much as $2 million for a concise, no-nonsense dot-com URL.” Nonsense on many levels. Many dot-com names, even short ones, can be bought from third-party owners for less than $2,500. A short name isn’t always the best name. Your URL doesn’t have to be your name: The web address of Open, a design agency in Manhattan, is notclosed.com. And alternatives to .com abound—.us, .ca, and the many country-code domains that can be employed in creative ways. An example from my own portfolio: PostAndBeam.is (Iceland country code).
Do-it-yourselfers beware. Creating a good business idea doesn’t mean you can create a good business name. The skills simply aren’t the same. Naming consultants, on the other hand, have the knowledge and experience to point out illogical pronunciations and unintuitive spellings that will hinder your brand. If you can’t afford a full naming consultation—less expensive and more cost-effective than you think—then at least opt for a short review.
Forget the focus group and focus on the naming brief. One entrepreneur quoted in Gellman’s story, an Australian data scientist named Anthony Goldbloom, says he was “too frugal” to buy an existing domain—or, presumably, to hire a naming professional. Instead, he created an algorithm that spit out 700 names. He picked two finalists and “dashed off an e-mail to family and friends asking for their preferences.” He took their advice and chose Kaggle … which, it turns out, is mispronounced by many Americans. Goldbloom is probably very good at data science, but a) that’s a terrible and unscientific way to conduct a focus group, b) “dashing off an e-mail” is no way to do a names presentation, and c) focus groups are good for product testing and user experience; they’re bad for names, taglines, and logos. (Everyone has an opinion, but only a few people should have a vote.) Instead of polling his nearest and dearest, Goldbloom should have poured his energies into a solid naming brief that spelled out his naming objectives (what does the name need to communicate?) and criteria (which words, word parts, sounds, and letters are most desirable in the name?). Better still, he should have asked for professional help.
Almost lost in the WSJ story is this quote from Steve Manning, a principal at the Bay Area naming company Igor International:
“The primary driver for startup naming right now is the misguided mission to find the shortest possible, pronounceable [unclaimed] dotcom address,” says Igor's Mr. Manning.
Startups are likely underestimating their potential customers, and adding an unnecessary constraint, in clinging to short URLs, he adds.
Good advice. Is anyone listening?