Whats in a Name?

I wasn’t surprised at the recent announcement that some 90 percent of the English dictionary has been used in registering Internet domain names. Even more amazing is this fact from my friends at Register.com: Some 60,000 names are registered every day and that’s just for .com/.net/.org.

Names are so scarce that people are paying huge sums of cash ($7.5 million in one case), and a dubious new cottage industry, name appraisal, has been spawned to dupe nascent entrepreneurs. This raises the question for most Internet start-ups: “How does one find a suitable name?”

Six months ago, I found myself facing this same challenge. We were about to launch our company, an Internet incubator, and had a working name that wasn’t quite working (Net2Future echh!). On top of that, it looked like the space we were in was going to get crowded with companies whose names all sounded the same (lots of e‘s and i‘s followed by words like “hatch,” “idea,” “venture,” followed by the ubiquitous “dot-com” or “dot-net”).

We set out in earnest to create an evocative name that would help us stand out from the crowd and reflect who we were, and what we were trying to accomplish as an organization. After a two-week process that included the assistance of the name and design consultancy Mya Kramer Design Group, we selected “campsix.”

How did we get from Net2Future to campsix? The following tips might give you some idea.

Decide Who You Are. What type of personality do you want your company name to reflect? Are you bold, innovative and aggressive, or friendly, playful and outgoing? Are you a technology company or are you service driven? Do you want to come across as big, traditional and all-encompassing or comfortable and intimate? All of these traits can be reflected in a name, and the best names should match the traits you want to reflect.

Know Thy Competition. If you read last week’s column, you should know that this mantra will be repeated in this space often. Understanding your competition is critical to beating them, and the naming process is no exception. Take a look at all the names of your competitive set and you will typically see a trend in names develop very quickly. Your key decision here is either to go with the herd, or be the maverick and go against it.

Descriptive or Provocative? To be literal, metaphorical, esoteric or foreign: that is the question. Do you want your name to describe what you do (Evite.com), be a metaphor (campsix), be more esoteric (Gazooba.com), or would you like to spice things up in a foreign tongue like Mercata?

In our case, we set the direction from the very start toward metaphor, looking for a name that associates the difficulty and challenges of building an Internet company to the scaling of Everest. And while Everest in itself was clichi, campsix, the last base camp on Everest, was not.

One caveat here: When selecting a literal name, be careful. Don’t paint yourself into a corner. A highly specific name might not give you “permission” with your customers to branch out to new, yet related areas of business.

Names Should Be Easy. Names should be easy to spell, pronounce and hear. While Adauction looks good on paper, it sounds like Addauction or Atauction when you say it. Don’t make your target audience work that hard. If your web site is the primary tool for business, the company name must be the company URL (not an easy task to accomplish).

Be Relevant in the Future. I always tell people that they are building a business, not a web site. So lose the e‘s, i‘s, and dots. Five years from now, names with these appendages will sound like dinosaurs. Don’t be trendy. Name your company so it sounds relevant in the future.

Hire an Agency or Consultant. It takes enormous amounts of time and energy to name a company; having a strong process and experienced leadership will make that time more fruitful. When looking at firms, make sure they take you through what their process is. Also, look at past projects and contact references. Fees can range anywhere from $15K to $100K or more, so make sure you get the service, attention and experience you are paying for.

Buy or Build? Sometimes, you just gotta have a name someone is selling. In that case, what’s it worth to you? The eCompanies folk paid $7.5 million for the name Business.com. I guess they wanted it pretty bad. Perfect.com paid the somewhat less figure of $100K for its name much better. Some names can be acquired for $5K or less. My feeling is that unless you must have the name up for sale, don’t spend more than it would cost a consultant to work with you on a new one.

The Empty Vessel. You may have heard of the empty vessel theory. It postulates that a company name is an empty vessel, and it’s the company track record and marketing that fills the vessel with meaning. Today’s most valuable company names like Coca-Cola, Kodak, Nike, Cisco and Microsoft were once worth no more than the paper they were written on. It’s the performance of these companies over time that has enhanced their name and actual value. Alas, a rose by any other name…

A name can inspire, excite, motivate, and entice. At the same time, it can repel, bore, confuse and polarize. Coming up with an original, compelling and appropriate name for your company will be one of the most difficult and critical early challenges your start-up will face. My suggestion? Choose wisely.

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