(Editor’s note: Dharmesh Shah is a serial software entrepreneur and the founder and CTO of HubSpot, which provides marketing software for small businesses. This column originally appeared on his blog.)
Naming a startup is hard. Very hard. Many pragmatic entrepreneurs have thought: “I shouldn’t be wasting time on this — for every successful company with a great name, there’s one with a crappy name that did just fine. It doesn’t seem like a name has much influence on the outcome at all. I’m going to get back to writing code.”
I sort of agree with this. You shouldn’t obssess about your name. But, you also shouldn’t dismiss it as unimportant. Part of the startup game is to try and remove unnecessary friction to your growth. Sure, you could build a spectacularly successful company despite having a lousy name — but why not stack the odds in your favor?
Also, keep in mind that it’s a one-time cost to get a great name — but the benefit is forever. Conversely, if you short-change this and dismiss it completely, you’re going to incur what I’d call “branding debt”. Not bad at first, and maybe not a big deal for you ever, but every year, as you grow, you’ll have this small voice nagging inside your head “should I change the name of the company…”.
It’s going to be annoying. And the longer you wait, the more expensive the decision is, and the less likely you are to do it. Save yourself some of that future pain, and invest early in picking a decent name. You may still get it wrong, but at least you’ll know you tried.
That said, here are nine suggestions – not laws – to help you pick a name. They’re not weighted equally and they’re also mutable.
Make sure it’s legal! This should be obvious, but it’s an important step that too many entrepreneurs skip. Before attaching yourself to a name, make sure that someone else doesn’t already have claim to it by way of a trademark. In the U.S., you should take a quick peek at http://uspto.gov. The good news is that if you satisfy some of the other conditions below (domain name, twitter handle, Facebook name), odds are relatively low that someone’s already using the name.
Hint At What You Do: You have two paths to go when picking a startup name. You can pick a name that is “synthetic” and made-up (example: Wufoo or Quora) or you can use somthing that is somewhat descriptive of what you do (example: Backupify or KISSmetrics). I lean a bit towards the descriptive side of the spectrum. But, a lot depends on what you’re building. Synthetic names are often great in the long, long-term (easily trademarkable, and you can truly “own” them and infuse them with meaning) — but most of the time, I’m more worried about surviving in the short-term. So, I like simple names that convey a bit of what the company actually does or stands for.
Make it easy to remember: How do you know whether a startup name is easy to remember? You don’t know. So, test it. Talk to people. Describe the company. At the end of a 2–10 minute conversation, casually ask them if they remember what the name of the company is. If it didn’t “register” it’s not a failure on their part (and make sure to tell them that), but a failure on your part for not having something that’s memorable enough.
Make it unambiguous when spoken: A quick way to test this is to ask friends and family what they think of the name over the phone — and ask them to spell it back to you. If a decent percent of them get it wrong — or are uncertain, you’ve got a problem.
Make it unambiguous in Google: Many of the tricks of the trade you’ll use to monitor conversations that mention your company on the web will involve doing some sort of search. If your name is something like “Pumpkin”, you’re going to have a harder time distinguishing when people are talking about the generic term, or when they’re talking about your company. Of course, there are plenty of examples where a startup started with a generic word and went on to be pretty successful (Mint.com jumps to mind). That’s why these are suggestions (not laws) and they’re mutable.
Start early in the alphabet. In the pre-Google world, this was done so that you’d show up earlier in lists of things that are often sorted alphabetically (like when you win an award). In the post-Google world, a similar rationale applies, but what’s more important is the position of links to your website when it shows up in a list of things (like a directory). If possible, you want to be in the first page of a multi-page article that mentions a bunch of companies. The first page of a multi-page directory usually passes more SEO authority to your website than subsequent pages.
The “.com” has to be “gettable”. By “gettable”, I mean that it is either not registered yet — or, it is available for purchase at a price you’re willing to pay. Don’t play tricks with the domain name either — like including hyphens. Also, stay away from clever domain names like del.icio.us. The reason is simple: It’s not natural for people to type domains that way. (Note: Even del.icio.us eventually switched to the much easier domain, delicious.com).
The twitter handle has to be available. No tricks with numbers and underscores and stuff. You want the most natural, obvious twitter handle that matches your company name. This is not quite as hard as .com domain names — but getting harder every day.
The facebook page should be available: To test this, try visiting facebook.com/yourname and see if there’s something there. Or, do a search on Facebook and see what you find.
I’ve got several more suggestions, but this story is already running a bit long. I’ll detail those next week, but in the meantime, what do you think? Any other tips or rules of thumb you use when coming up with startup names?