Wednesday, April 17, 2013

On Naming Startups

Create new names for seven startups in three days: that was the challenge I faced last month when consulting at the Nexus Innovation Centre at the University of Limerick. I spent three intensely productive days brainstorming, creating, debating and negotiating with the startups. Here are some thoughts and observations arising from that work.

Given that creating one corporate brand name can often require between 40 to 60 hours of work, it was always going to be an interesting experiment to work on seven company names in parallel in such a compressed time frame. In contrast to the normal practise of working with a single client, in this case it turned out that leveraging the cross-pollination between all of the startups on the programme was the key to achieving successful results. As the startups have been participating in the programme since last September they all had familiarity with, and sufficient understanding of, each other’s business models to contribute effectively to the different phases of the name generation process.

Standard naming brainstorming methodology is based on generating related sets of lexicons around a core suite of agreed key words. I think of it as a linguistic equivalent to creating Venn Diagram sets representing the unique concepts underpinning the business and then locating potential company names at the central intersection of those Venn sets.

Therefore, in practice, this particular methodology is primarily successful at generating names that combine two or three words or ideas. Many successful company names follow this portmanteau pattern. ‘Instagram’ is a mash-up of ‘Instant Photo’ and ‘Telegram’. In contrast ‘AirB&B’ combines the business concepts of ‘virtual’ and ‘room rental’ rather than the actual words. Pinterest, Evernote, LinkedIn and YouTube are some other notable examples of such mash-up names. (The inclusion of an InterCap is obviously optional.)

Mixing and matching words arising out of those initial brainstorm lists is an enjoyable creative challenge. You can generate a large volume of these combinations once you get proficient. The next step of the process is to filter the various combination names built from the generative output of the initial brainstorms. To manage that filtering the candidate words and names are evaluated based on an agreed Naming Plan – a concise document summarising the relevant corporate intentions.

Where company names are nouns that co-opt the names of existing things (for example, the playground game called ‘Foursquare’, or the annual ‘Facebooks’ that were published by US colleges, both nouns which have now been co-opted by well-known companies) then this second stage can happen quickly, as the noun is selected from the filtered lists. But those names have become more the exception rather than the rule these days. Most nouns have already been claimed, hence the dependence on neologisms and mash-ups.

When the branding requirements call for a non-descriptive, arbitrary name, then the mash-up methodology is less useful. As when naming a rock band, an album or a hip clothing label – if you are going to be idiosyncratic then you ought to reflect the idiosyncrasies of the individual personalities driving the enterprise. In those instances, the best results are achieved when the initial long list of possible names comes directly from the founders themselves. The best use of a Brand Consultant in those cases is as an impartial expert advisor who can critique, assess and filter the naming lists. Google, Flickr, Etsy and Spotify are all examples of arbitrary company names which had no specific meaning when they were introduced. The desired meanings and connotations in the minds of customers can only be built up and accrued over years of use. If that strategy plays off, the names will have another unique advantage over their competitors

While holding seven naming brainstorms in one week is certainly intense, it is feasible. However,the subsequent task of working through the outputs from all of those workshop sessions needs a more open-ended time frame, depending on the different types of company names required. The final company name may be arrived at relatively efficiently if it is a word pair (such as ‘EverNote’). If you are combining phonemes (parts of words) to create completely novel names then you need to apply a combination of linguistic finesse and high volume word-crunching to the task. In my experience, the optimal way to tackle that is still one person sitting down and just iterating through multiple variations of phoneme combinations. I find that the element of skill or art here is to have a discerning linguistic inner ear that can steer you away from the endless dead-ends potentially lurking within such list-making. You need to have a clear sense of the essence of the company and what neologisms will best suit it.

The key driver of success is whether the founders can objectively evaluate the positive and negative aspects of the various name options arising out of the naming process rather than falling into the trap of being overly subjective and needing to “fall in love with the name” before being able to make a final decision. The skill lies in leaving aside their own preferences and biases and being able to evaluate the names from the point of view of their potential clients.

The final negotiation and decision-making phase of the naming process is usually challenging enough, even when the startup has both a clear business proposition and marketing positioning. Where the founders struggled to give a cogent elevator pitch, they then had problems deciding between the sometimes subtle nuances different name possibilities. This demonstrates that even if founders have progressed their technology sufficiently towards launch, if they have not thought through their top-level market positioning at an early stage they are going to encounter communications issues.

Note: I have not included any of the startup names we generated last week in this post, as firstly I consider myself under ‘FrieNDA’, and secondly as the founders have not yet completed any legal availability checks or registered any trademarks. I may update this post whenever the company names are eventually released into the public domain.

Finally, as an amusing aside, I want to share this great Quora answer from Chris Maguire, one of the founders of Etsy, explaining how they derived their corporate name. I will leave for you to decide for yourself whether his answer is tongue-in-cheek or straight-faced. Either way it is an amusing counterpoint to a lot of the pseudo-science and marketing jargon that tends to obfuscate naming methodologies.