A Field Guide to Naming Your Startup

by Patrick Woods on

How to Name a Startup

There's plenty of trite advice out there on how to name your startup. Just google "startup naming advice" and you’ll find all sorts of 10 Tricks to Name Your Startup! and other bullet-filled listicles. Much of the name-related content would lead you to believe that naming is easy. Just follow these steps and you’ll be fine.

Thing is, finding a good name is hard. There are no shortcuts. Sure, you can pick a name at random and just go with it. But your name is the first element of your brand a potential user experiences. It's the tip of the spear, and it should be sharp.

The good news is that others have done this before. My team has named many startups, and even more non-startup brands. I've worked with them to distill the key steps they follow when working on a naming project (shoutout to Dan Price and Justin Dobbs, my two favorite brand pros). There are lots of processes out there, but this is the one that works for us.

There are four main parts to our approach—Foundation, Generation, Evaluation, and Validation. Each step is important, and the success of each phase depends on the quality of work you put forth in the prior stage.

It may not be quick, but it's worth it. And when you're finished, you'll have a name that means something, that starts a conversation about something true in your brand. To me, that's a lot better than picking a random word from the thesaurus and hoping for the best.

Ready to get started?

1. Foundation

The Foundation is crucial because it’s where you decide what it is you’re trying to accomplish with your name. The most thorough way to build a foundation for your name is to develop a sound brand strategy. We created a tool called the Brand Strategy Canvas to help founders get better at exploring their strategy. It’s worth the time to dig-in, but you can jump-start the process by exploring three areas: truths about your users, observations about the competition and market, and insights about you product.

Your strategy helps determine what to say; the name itself is how you'll say it.

As you move through the steps, we recommend recording your thoughts on a whiteboard or in a doc. You'll want to reference your insights later.

Users

As a founder, it’s likely that you’ve spent a considerable amount of time interacting with users. Customer Discovery is a key competency of early-stage founders. It informs product choices, guides decisions about markets to enter, and in general, provides real-world data for the founding team to test its assumptions against.

The Voice of the Consumer, as it were, serves as an ever-present guiding light throughout the creative development process. After all, if what you're saying and doing doesn’t resonate with the target audience, why say anything at all?

So what kinds of information is useful here? Traditionally, customer insight is split into two subsets. Demographic data consists of all the objective data about an audience, including gender, age, income, location and a host of other factors. “25–34 year old college-educated males that own one or more gaming consoles and earn more that $40,000” would be an example of a demographic description.

The other main type of audience description is called psychographic, and as the name implies, looks into the psychology of the audience. Why do they do what they do? What do their behaviors say about their desires, aspirations, and beliefs? What we’re looking for in this case is the human nature behind their behavior. As you might imagine, psychographic descriptions are a lot more interesting and inspiring than demographic descriptions alone.

To illustrate, compare the demographic description of gamers above with the following: “Despite having a great job and plenty of responsibilities, they enjoy relaxing with their friends, often virtually, over casual multiplayer games several times a week; they view gaming as a mature endeavor, and have the income to support this hobby; they believe in working and playing hard.” As you can see, there's a lot more richness there, which will prove useful later.

Additionally, what are the behavioral traits your customers share? What common threads have emerged from your conversations with them? Maybe they all really hate something about their current solution. Perhaps saving time is more important than saving money in the near term. Maybe they all listen to obscure indy bands and spend their free time perfecting the nuance of coffee roasting.

Whatever the case, this section is all about crafting a description of your audience that is both true, meaningful, and actionable.

Competition

Like the customer insights, the Competition section incorporates information you likely have gathered by now, since a reasonable level of knowledge about your competitive set is a basic requirement for launching a company.

This section is less about listing your competitors, and more about describing the themes of the category. Based on your customer insight, what are the key elements of the competitive set, and where does your solution fit into that mix?

As you consider your competition, keep in mind the distinction between direct and indirect competitors. Too many founders make the mistake of claiming that they have no competition, but what they mean is they have no direct competitors.

It may be true that your widget is the first of its kind, but you only have a business insofar as there is a market willing and able to buy that widget. And if potential customers exist, they’re almost certainly using something else to solve the problem currently.

In your case, what have your users historically used as alternatives? Maybe it’s a heads-up direct competitor. Or perhaps, you’ll have to dig a little deeper, or look more broadly, at user behavior to understand the alternatives, and ultimately, how you fit in.

Once you fully understand your competitive set, you can observe the names in the category to get a sense for how your name fits in the context. Does it make sense to follow category convention, or is a less traditional approach more fitting for your brand?

Product

In the final section of the Foundation, you’ll describe what it is you offer. It’s based on what you know about your users and the opportunity afforded by the competitive environment. What you write here is likely very close to your original idea, since it has emerged from the situation created by the overlap of user insights and competitive opportunity.

The description here should be straightforward. It’s not about nailing the language or the copy, since at this point, you’re trying to capture core truths about your product, and aren’t yet ready to begin communicating those externally. Keep it simple and true, and be brutally honest with yourself (i.e. avoid descriptions that start with "The best way to...").

That said, don’t be afraid to make a claim about what you offer. With the full context of the first two sections, this is your response to the market opportunity. Include all the things that make you unique, and begin to think about the elements of your product that most saliently address the market opportunity.

Foundation wrap-up

The answers to these questions—and their relative importance for your situation—will guide what you want to uniquely say about your brand. It’s the needle you’re trying to thread with your name.

Take some time with this step. It’s crucial. But once you’ve answered these questions properly, you’re ready for Step 2.

2. GENERATION

If the first step is about gathering wood, the Generation phase is all about igniting the spark. All the insights you gathered in the first step provide the fuel for generating ideas.

Building a solid strategic foundation is what separates name generation from simple brainstorming. At some point, I'm sure you've found yourself in a room with a few other people trying desperately to find the one big idea. It can happen, but without preparation and guidance, brainstorming usually falls flat.

As you iterate, you'll be glad you spent the time gathering those insights in the first step. Now, as you explore the vastness of the English language (and maybe a few other languages), your foundation will be your guide, keeping you focused and on-task throughout.

At Archer Malmo, the Generation step is where our copywriters take the insights from the first step and go back to their caves to summon the muse. The suggestions listed below are the actual steps professional namers follow. It's how the magic is made, so pay close attention.

Be the creative, not the client.

Don’t look over your shoulder, don’t question yourself, and do not listen to that voice in your head that keeps telling you how stupid everything is. Everybody has that voice (except for most country music stars) and it’s a good voice, it keep us out of trouble, but right now you need to ignore it.

In agency world, the client has the final decision on what makes sense and what does not. It’s the creative team’s job to take the brand strategy and build on top of that. At this stage, it’s dangerous to start cutting ideas. We’ll do that later.

Your goal here is sheer quantity and sheer depth. Writers I work with routinely generate 200 to 300 ideas. You’re looking to get beyond those surface-level obvious ideas (this is where most people stop digging) and to bigger, more inspiring ideas that are both unique and true.

But remember: this stage is about creating, not editing. We’ll edit later, but not before you’ve built an interesting list of potential ideas.

Work alone.

If you want to get past the obvious stuff you need to be able root around inside your head for awhile. And if you’re spending half your time reacting to someone else’s thoughts, or thinking about how they’re going to react to yours, you are never, ever going to get there.

Startups love collaboration, especially if a whiteboard is involved. But at this stage, it’s important to dig deeper, on your own.

Start with building blocks.

The next step is to generate a list of interesting words and initial name ideas. So tear through Thesaurus pages and Wikipedia entries Google searches and really go down multiple rabbit holes.

Say your company makes coffee mugs and you're releasing a new product that's twice the size of a normal mug. You might start researching the history of drinking vessels, the parts of a coffee plant, and the caffeine molecule. Those are three rabbit holes that come to mind first that go in wildly different directions. The caffeine molecule leads you to research on sleep, then sleep disorders, then insomnia. Maybe in the end you call the mug the Insomniac. There's a thread that you can trace back to the core of your brand or offering without it being too obscure. Your steps are traceable and the name is rooted in truth.

Also, spend some time doing free association, because especially early on you’re really just looking for fodder. You’re searching for the catalyst, not necessarily the name itself (although you may find it here). But this stage is all about words and ideas to build with.

In the process of naming a logistics tech accelerator, I once came upon a copywriter reading a Wikipedia entry on complex differential gear configurations. You never know where the idea will come from.

Use human adjectives.

When you’re building your list of words, don’t just limit it to industry or category terms. Include some adjectives, and not just ones that describe your product like “fast and reliable and simple.”

Pretend your product is a person and use adjectives to describe the type of personality you want that person to have.

Often, these are the same words that describe your personality, like friendly or fun or buttoned-up or serious. This tactic will help you push beyond technical or overly obvious names, and push you towards ones that will be more evocative.

Take an extended break.

Work on this for a day, maybe two days, but take some time off, get away from it, catch a film, sleep on it, and pick up where you left off a couple days later. You’ll be amazed how your perspective shifts and your brain just sort of magically picks back up in a completely new place because while you were watching Game of Thrones and eating Combos, your subconscious was still secretly working on the problem.

Go Mad Scientist.

So once you have a nice big list of words and thoughts and adjectives to work with, it’s time to go mad scientist. Mix it up, rearrange it, cram concepts together. Just be careful in doing so that you don’t lose sight of that initial target you’re trying to hit.

Just Say “NoDaddy.”

So many startups start with domain registration sites. I’ve seen it happen more times than I can count. Don’t start by punching words into the domain search.

If you stop and check the .com every time you have a decent name, you’re going to find most of them taken, and you’re going to end up frustrated and discouraged. You'll end up checking variations and different spellings and you’re probably going to settle for the first thing that’s available.

If on the other hand, you ignore URLs for now and focus only on coming up with great names, you’re going to end up with a much more robust, high-quality shortlist of stuff you like a lot, and you’ll have a much better chance of finding one or more available.

With any luck, you'll start generating revenue and possibly raise enough money to buy your .com someday.

So please, no domains right now, that’ll all happen in Phase 3.

(By the way, if you're exploring startup naming, you probably saw Paul Graham's essay on naming. Mostly, I think he's wrong, so I wrote a little rebuttal called Change Your Name, But Don’t Sweat The .Com.)

A few final notes on Generation:

3. EVALUATION

This is the point at which you stop being the creative and become the client. It’s time to start making choices. And that this stage the evaluation in strictly internal—you and your team. We’ll talk about external validation in a minute.

Our team has identified eight criteria for evaluation. These are all subjective criteria that you can rank in whatever order is important to you, but we’ve found these to be useful guidelines that give your team a vocabulary and framework for evaluating a list of potential name directions.

Here are our eight criteria:

In addition to these factors, we prefer names that have an obvious spelling and don’t include random capitalizations or require camel case to make sense.

Now it’s time to get a little more objective.

4. VALIDATION

So if the Evaluation phase is the process of you running your shortlist of names though your own internal checklist, then Validation is taking your final-final shortlist and running through some external filters.

Here are a few we’ve found helpful when naming startups:

Ask a few people.

If you’re talking to friends, ask only the ones you know will give you honest responses. But don’t just ask your smart startup friends. Ask your mom. Ask your uncle Larry. Ask that weird guy you see at the bus stop everyday. As the woman in accounting at your day job what she thinks.

A good way to approach this to gauge first impressions is to not explain what your idea is, just tell them the name: “Hey, I have this idea for an iPhone app and it’s called X. What do you think it does?”

See if they can fill in the blank. They don’t have to guess exactly, but see if the name gets them in the neighborhood.

It’s fine if your name doesn’t do this perfectly—it’s just one factor—but if your name is going to give most people a false or weird impression, then this is a good way to find out quickly.

Ask the Internet.

Do plenty of Googling and Google Image searching, check Urban Dictionary, just to make sure there’s not something you’re missing. Yes, this sounds elementary, but believe me, more than one startup naming horror story starts with somebody failing to perform this simple task.

Remind me to tell you sometime about the startup who didn’t find out until after their demo day pitch that their name was also the name of a relatively common, and apparently somewhat messy and painful, infection of male nether regions.

So if even you’re all clear on Google, go ahead and spend a second clicking the Images tab just to make double sure.

Ask the government.

Specifically the online search form at USPTO.gov, the website for the US Patent and Trademark Office. Now, be prepared to be a little freaked out at first when you do this, because if you’ve ever done it you know that almost every word you can imagine has at one time or another been trademarked.

But you’ll quickly figure out two things: 1. Most of those trademarks are dead, so they’re no big deal; and 2. Most of them probably aren’t in the same category you are. So if your mobile payment system has the same name as a brand of agricultural chemical, there’s probably no reason to panic.

Also keep in mind this is just a cursory search, if you decide to pursue trademarking a name you will need more than this website, definitely involve a good patent attorney.

Ask your team.

That really goes without saying, but make sure they’re really onboard. Make sure they feel as strongly about it as you do. The ability to have a frank conversation about this will depend a lot on your culture, but it’s imperative the you find alignment on such a crucial element of your brand.

What now?

Once you've gone through all the steps and have landed on a name, it's really a matter of bringing that name to life across your channels. You'll likely need to start with a logo and explore overall creative implications for your brand as guided by the name. You’ll already have a head start, though, since all the work you did in the Foundation step will still apply.

You should also consider exploring a full startup brand strategy using the Brand Strategy Canvas.

Finally, if you feel like your startup’s name is important, but don’t think you have the time or expertise to find the best name possible, shoot me an email. We’ve worked with dozes of startups just like you, and would love to partner with you in building your brand and going to market.

Good luck on this difficult but worthwhile endeavor. Please comment any questions below, or tweet me @patrickjwoods.

Still need help? I’m offering free 30-minute Google Hangout office hour sessions to take questions about startup branding and messaging. No strings attached. Complete this form if that interests you.

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