Tuesday 17 September 2019

Startup diary: agonising over perfect name is a massive waste of your time

Don't get too hung up on details - its what you do, not what you are called that will define your business

'I wanted a name that would work as a nonsense word and give me unique searches in Google' (stock image)
'I wanted a name that would work as a nonsense word and give me unique searches in Google' (stock image)

Richard Rodger

Let me take you on a journey. I'm writing about my startup. And I'm going to reveal a lot more about our strategy and numbers, than is normally considered appropriate in polite business society.

But first, the name. You need a name for your company. But choosing a name is a huge waste of time.

I don't agree with the view that names are essential and a key factor in success. This is delusional. Take Nike. If you read Phil Knight's (CEO and founder of Nike) book, 'Shoe Dog', you'll discover that the company was originally called Blue Ribbon, and only had to change its name to solve an import licensing issue. Nike was chosen at the last minute, as the least-worst option.

Or take Google. A Googol is a technical term for a very large number. One followed by a hundred zeros, to be exact. Sergey and Larry misspelled the name. I remember telling people about Google after I discovered how brilliant it was, and people laughing at the name. The meaning of names comes after the fact. Accepting this makes your life easier, because you can focus on your business requirements for the name.

Here's what I needed in a name. I absolutely needed the .com domain name for the website. Non-negotiable. This is going to be an international business, a software-as-a-service business, so you need the .com. Now a bad domain name is not fatal. Just ask Peter Coppinger of teamwork.com, Cork's very large and very successful enterprise project management SaaS company. They originally used teamworkpm.net (which, they now freely admit, sucked). They ended up buying teamwork.com for €700,000 or so. This is a great story, and that's another requirement - your name should have a story behind it, an emotional hook that helps people to remember it.

The typical software startup approach is to use a simple formula: pick two ordinary words, and stick them together. This is what worked for my last three companies: ricebridge, FeedHenry and nearForm. This gives you a unique name for Google searches. But that trick is getting old. If you have the cash, like Intercom or Stripe, you just use one word. But your Google search results aren't so great, as ordinary words have many other uses. The Silicon Valley way is a variation: take an ordinary word and mangle it: flickr, tumblr, pinterest.

On a side note, I recommend watching the HBO TV series 'Silicon Valley' which, despite being a parody, is basically accurate in all respects. In episode three of the first series, our intrepid entrepreneurs attempt to name their baby. Failing to find inspiration on a whiteboard, they turn to hallucinogenic mushrooms so they can ask their spirit animals for guidance. This only works in California.

I return to my main point: names are nonsense, they are not spiritual, and they do not matter. What you do defines your name, not the other way around.

I wanted a name that would work as a nonsense word, and give me unique searches in Google. A side effect is that such a name is easy to trademark, as no one has ever used it before. You can register an EU trademark for €850 on the euipo.europa.eu site.

I also wanted a name that would be free on all the necessary social media sites: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and so forth. This is important too. You need to be credible, and owning your name, exactly as it is, demonstrates that you are serious.

Finally, I wanted a name that was easy to say and spell, even for non-English speakers. So it needed to have simple common sounds. You often have to say your name over the phone, so it needs to be comprehensible and phonetic so people can open your website later.

With this set of requirements I went through three names. Unfortunately I got overly excited about each one and paid for the domain name each time. The first name I came up with was AtlasRostra. This was generated by opening Google Translate and looking up Latin and Greek translations - which is not a bad trick for finding a name.

The name AtlasRostra failed the "what do you think?" test. None of my friends and family liked it. I did, but an important entrepreneurial skill is to listen to your advisers.

Also, the name has complex consonants, so is tricky to say clearly. It hit all the other requirements, especially uniqueness, but it just wasn't working. It had no story behind it. A name needs a genesis story. The thing I loved about FeedHenry was that the Henry comes from Henry Shefflin, the Kilkenny hurler. (For real. I was there.)

Trying to find a story, I turned to the South African half of my heritage. I was born in Johannesburg but grew up in the Bushveld. My grandfather's farm was under a mountain range called the Waterberg, located about 200 km north of Johannesburg. My grandfather was a conservationist and knew the scientific name of every plant on the mountain on sight. This mountain range is home to dinosaur-era plants - the cycads. They are strange fern-like things with a stubby pineapple-like stump. Perfect! I would call my startup cycadian.com.

The name Cycadian has a nice enterprise ring to it. It was better received by friends and family. Impulsively I registered the domain name, before doing a trademark search. Well cycadian is just one letter away from circadian, which is the name for your natural sleep cycle. And of course there's a company called cycadian.com. This name is a total failure!

I then left the naming issue for a few weeks and just worked on other parts of the business. I ended up pitching to quite a few people despite not having a name. It made little difference. So again, names are nonsense.

Eventually I really did need a name, as the time had come to register a limited company. Going back to the South African well, I played around with the original name for the Waterberg mountain range - Thaba Meetse in Northern Sotho, the language of the region.

I decided to modify this a little to make the sounds a little simpler. Thus: metsitaba. This name hits pretty much all my requirements, apart from the phone call clarity requirement.

But the first rule of startups is: good enough is good enough, and I had run out of time. The clincher was the number of Google results: a big fat zero - the name was totally unique and new.

Now that I had a name, I needed a product. Stay tuned.

Richard Rodger is the founder of Metsitaba. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford

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