Six and a Half Tips for Naming Your Startup

1. Names are hard. When naming your startup or company you have to consider what you would normally do, and then do the opposite. Seth Godin, marketing guru, says ‘the less your name has to do with the category of your business, the better.’ Starbucks is a minor character in the novel “Moby Dick,” Nike is the goddess of victory and Apple is a fruit. These have all become powerful names because they are unique and yes, have little to do with what the brand ‘does’ – but express a lot about what the brand stands for.

2. Names should express what you stand for, even if it takes a little explaining. Red Cup Agency got its name because my mother was an artist, and every time she started a new project, she drank out of a red coffee cup. It’s my origin story and signals that I respect creativity.

3. Names should be easy to spell and pronounce. Here’s a little story about that. I named my first documentary production company Conspiracy Theory Productions. It was an inside joke. Way, way inside. People would ask me ‘what’s the conspiracy?’ and I wouldn’t have a good answer because we made documentaries that had nothing to do with conspiracies. Then on 9/11, I answered the phone at the production office and the name of the company would not come out of my mouth. Literally. I couldn’t talk about conspiracies on that day, and so at that moment, I changed the name to DocuCinema, which was a domain I had on reserve. I thought it worked. Documentary Cinema, right? It didn’t work. Nobody could spell it. People would ask me over the phone, ‘Did you say Doctor Cinema?’ Google Voice translated it as Donkey Cinnamon, which was worth a laugh. Not great for our corporate identity, though. You can see why I like Red Cup better.

4. Most of the time made up names are bad. I know Altria is an important company, but the name tells me nothing about what they stand for. (And what they stand for isn’t so great if you care about health.) Prius is a bad name. Blackwater is good – is scares you, and that’s a scary company. They changed it to Xe. Now I don’t know what they do, which is probably best. Vonage? You be the judge.

5. People might hate your name at first. That’s ok. If you like it, stick with it. There’s an expression worth remembering: If everybody likes your idea, it’s too late.

6. Your name should convey what you want people to feel about your company. Digital Fundraising School is descriptive and functional, but not all that emotional. Startup Office Hours Guru is better, as is StartUp Superteam. TechStars – good. Instagram – good. You may know nothing about Seth Godin’s new venture, HugDug, but the name makes you feel good. Just thinking about Mallomars makes me hungry.

6 and a half. If your name isn’t distinct, you will have trouble establishing authority for it online. Better to pick something unique and even a little strange than getting into a keyword battle with all your competitors. Search (Google, Bing, etc) has changed the way we find each other online, so Ikea works, and so does Intelligentsia Coffee.