How To Name A Startup: The S.M.A.R.T. Checklist

What’s in a name? Wouldn’t that startup we call [x] be as sweetly successful by any other name?

Probably — but maybe not. And, why risk it?

I know, I know, you’re an entrepreneur and so you’re intrinsically impatient. Besides, you have future customers to talk to, product to build, and a thousand other things on your plate. Who has time to spend trying to come up a great name? Do company names really matter?

Although a great name will not save a terrible startup — and a terrible name probably won’t keep a great startup from succeeding, on the margin, names matter.

A great name reduces the friction between your company and the market. It makes it easier for people to find you. Easier for people to talk about you. Sometimes, even easier for people to trust you.

I don’t advise spending hundreds of hours or thousands of dollars to hire a “branding expert” to help you come up with a name, but I would advise you to spend a few hours and get some external feedback. It’s time well spent, because it will save you heartache later. A lot of heartache.

OK, so what constitutes a great startup name? What makes one name better than another? I’ve been asking myself that question for 20+ years. Though naming/branding is more art than science, I thought it might help to take a look at some data

I started with a custom list of 4,000+ tech startups from MatterMark (disclosure: I’m an investor, but pay for the product). I ran some numbers on things like length of name, starting letter, TLDs (.com, .ly, .io, etc.). I compared some of the fastest growing startups with those on the other end of the spectrum.  (Note to self:  If there’s interest, write a separate post with the results of some of the data analysis).

I also did some qualitative analysis. Dug through the list of startups to see which names I “liked” (Note: I’m not a branding consultant, and don’t play one on TV). I looked for patterns.

Based on this, I came up with what I call the S.M.A.R.T. checklist. It identifies some of the key attributes of what I think makes for an effective startup name.

The S.M.A.R.T. Startup Name Checklist

So, let’s start with my handy-dandy checklist for what makes for a good startup name. I call it the S.MA.R.T checklist. Your company’s name should be short, memorable, available, repurposeable and timeless.

Simple

What makes a name simple?

For one thing, your name should be short. There are several reasons for this. Short names are:

  1. quicker to type-in (especially on mobile)
  2. easier to spell-out to someone over the phone
  3. more efficient to include in a tweet (or other “length constrained” channels)
  4. simpler to come up with a logo for
  5. less likely to be acronymized or otherwise shortened by others

Great examples of short names: Domo, Gusto, Trello, Uber.

But, your name doesn’t have to be as short as those. How short does it have to be? Based on my analysis:Your startup name should have nine or fewer characters.

But, in addition to being short, the name should be clear and easy to share.

Tip: A company’s name is the fundamental UI for its brand. The best UIs are simple, direct, and accessible. So are the best startup names.

Memorable

You want people to remember your name (be able to recall it). The more readily your name can be recalled, the easier it is for you to expand your reach to users/customers/investors.

In order for a name to be memorable, it should be unambiguous and somehow distinctive. If it sounds like many other names out there, people are not going to recall it (or if they do recall it, they’re not going to recall the right one).

So, how do you know if your name is memorable? You don’t. That’s why you need to test it. Tell people your company name in various contexts (on a website, in an email, in person, on the phone, etc.) — and see if they can recall it a few minutes or a few days later. It takes a bit of work, but it’s worth it. The good news is that if your name is not memorable, it’ll show up in the data pretty quickly. And, as disheartening is that the name you love just doesn’t test well — better to know now than years from now when you have a bunch of equity (emotional and otherwise) invested in it.

Available

I know this one’s obvious, but so many startups make this mistake, I had to include it.

YOU MUST MAKE SURE YOUR NAME IS AVAILABLE! And by “available” I mean two things:

  1. You can get the legal rights to use it (trademark, etc.)
  2. You can register or acquire the “.com” domain name.

Now, I know many of you are going to question whether a .com domain is really all that important in this day and age. And, instead of making the argument myself, I’m going to ask you to go read this short article from Paul Graham (founder, Y Combinator who knows a lot about startups and is super-smart): Change Your Name. While we’re on the topic of YC, interesting data point from that article: 100% of the top 20 YC startups have the .com for their company name. And, 94% of the top 50 do.

Repurposeable

This one’s tricky (oh, and repurposeable is not really a word).

Let’s say you have a brilliant name. It’s short, it’s memorable, and it describes directly what you do. But, a year or two or five later you are going to come to an unsettling realization. What your startup did when you came up with the name is no longer what it does now. Maybe you pivoted into a different business. Maybe you just expanded the scope of what you’re doing. Then, your name is going to feel either inaccurate, constraining or both. Case in point: Gusto (disclosure: I’m an investor). The company used to be called ZenPayroll which I thought, was a great name. And it was, if the company had remained in the payroll industry. But, they expanded into things beyond payroll. So, Josh Reeves (the founder/CEO) changed the name to Gusto. Which is an even better name. It’s shorter, still memorable and now gives them much more headroom in which to grow.

Timeless (not Trendy)

Every few years, there’s a new trend in startup names. Sometimes, it’s dropping vowels (Flickr). Sometimes it’s using “.ly” domains and other popular country domains that happen to help complete words (like .us).

Why do startups do this? Often, because they feel like they have to. Here’s a good article about the basis fortrendy startup names.

Why do I think it’s a bad idea to do this? First, because when something is “trendy”, chances are there are a hundred other startups all following that trend. This makes it harder for you to stand out — and hence harder for anyone to remember you. Also, hopefully, your goal for the startup is to grow into a successful business. This usually takes several years. Do you really want to wake up five years from now and have a startup name that you’re kind of embarrassed of and likely going to want to change? That’s an expensive proposition. Easier to just kind of get it right-ish in the beginning. Pick a name that will stand the test of time.

Other resources:

There is a fair amount of good content on the topic of naming a startup — and lots of mediocre stuff.

Here are the ones that I find the most useful (warning: I’m biased when it comes to blog articles I’ve written myself — but I wrote them to be useful).

  1. 17 Mutable Suggestions For Naming A Startup (one of my previous articles)
  2. The Igor Naming Guide (if you’re overly obsessed with naming, this is a great, detailed guide by some branding experts)
  3. Instant Domain Search (the tool I often use to check on domain availability — instantly)
  4. Do Startup Names Matter (hint: yes, they do)

What Are Your Ideas?

As noted earlier, startup naming is more art than science.  What do you think is important when picking a name?  Which startup names do you love?  Which ones do you think are just kind of meh?

Would love to geek-out on naming in the comments.

From Dharmesh Shah

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