Branding isn’t as important as ‘experts’ say

(Editor’s note: Jason Cohen is an angel investor and the founder of Smart Bear Software. This story originally appeared on his blog.)

Every founder struggles to find a great name for his or her company. Often it’s the first source of good-natured strife between co-founders. It’s an exhilarating, scary combination of having to decide who you are — what you do, the persona you expose — combined with the technical issues of being memorable, spell-able, and available as a domain name.For me, the name Smart Bear Software started as a whim, was almost changed for the wrong reasons, and ended up with a punch-line I would never have dreamed of.

The origin of “Smart Bear” is John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire, a surreal novel in which a “smart bear” plays an important role; near the end we are told repeatedly that “a smart bear makes all the difference.” I chose it because at the time my (then new) wife and I were into John Irving and it was whimsical, fun, and meaningful, albeit just to us.

In other words: I picked the name with utter disregard to marketing or business sensibility.

I’m not saying that’s right or wrong; maybe all it means is that some branding principles, while interesting, aren’t as vital as they first seem.

A few years into Smart Bear I was still toiling away at the compiler when I was approached by an ex-VP of Sales from a company that had IPO’ed. He wanted to partner up — I’m the young geek, he’s the silver-haired, golf-bag-toting, sports-metaphor-slinging salesman.

The full story of that ill-fated misadventure is related here; the relevant detail is that this guy insisted that we change the name of the company:

“Our potential customers — IBM, Intuit, Adobe, Qualcomm — aren’t going to take us seriously with a silly name like ‘Smart Bear’,” he argued. “It sounds like shareware, not enterprise software. Big companies buy from companies with formal names like IBM, CA, BEA, CSC, HP, stuff like that.”

His suggestion? Software Test and Deployment Systems, Inc, which shortens to the unfortunate “STDS.”

Yeah, an acronym already taken by gonorrhea.

(The jokes, though, were almost worth it. Viral marketing! Our invoices flare up every year!)

I got lucky, though. I was all set to pair up with this guy and change the name, but in another example of serendipity being more influential on business success than purposeful action, I happened to receive a hugeamongous purchase order from Intuit, a whopping $50,000.

You know, exactly the kind of order from exactly the kind of company who would never do business with silly old “Smart Bear”. Today, as you can see from the company’s customer list, all the companies he listed are, in fact, customers, and many more besides.

All with a silly name and informal sales.

The VP of Sales’ rationale made sense though, and of course Smart Bear might have been equally successful if named STDS. But once again I learned that maybe the name isn’t as important as either of us thought.

Fast-forward six years to present day. I sold Smart Bear a few years ago to AutomatedQA — a great company with a compatible culture and similar goals where Smart Bear (now as a division) continued to thrive (meaning: more revenue, more profits, bigger-and-badder software, and happy customers).

After making a few other acquisitions and continuing to grow, AutomatedQA is now a large company which in the next few years is on a path to be successful even by a VC’s standards. If you thought “Smart Bear” was too informal before, now it’s even more out of place.

But having all these departments with different names (AutomatedQA, Smart Bear, Pragmatic Software) sucks when you’re trying to build a company which is starting to capitalize by making already-best-of-breed tools work together, especially with customers who we all share. So they decided to rebrand everything under a single name.

But which name? AutomatedQA (the one which was biggest to begin with and clearly a great name)? Smart Bear? Something new? STDS?

So they decided to poll everyone they could find in the software industry — customers and otherwise. They asked positioning questions like:

  • Do you have a good or bad immediate impression of this brand?
  • Have you heard this name before, and if yes what have you heard?
  • If you have experience with this brand, what was that like?

The result? As of July 19th 2010, the entire company has been rebranded Smart Bear.

So what’s in a name? Not as much as some folks say, it appears. At the end of the day, I took away six important lessons from this experience: It’s what you do, not what you call it.

  • It’s more effective to do/say something important/valuable than to hope a logo or name will say it for you.
  • Being memorable is more important than what they remember.
  • First impressions are important, but so are all the other impressions, and the latter can trump the former.
  • Your time isn’t well spent fretting about brand (early on).
  • You can always change your brand later.

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