Choosing what to name your startup is the first chance you get to make an impression.
On an emotional level, a great company name should help your customers understand your brand, attract attention, connect to your audience and cultivate trust. On a technical level, it must be available for you to use and there – ideally – should be an online domain that you can use to set up your business website.
Many startups jump on a naming trend, like the suffix -iphy or -ify, or a human-sounding name, like Stuart.
But it pays — sometimes literally — to take a holistic view of everything you’re hoping the name will do for you.
Your company name is your introduction
The name you give your startup will very often drive first impressions of the business – not only for customers or clients, but for investors, job candidates, journalists and others.
If you achieve monumental success, your name rarely continues to have any bearing on how your business is perceived.
More often than not, words in everyday language like “amazon” or “google” conjure up thoughts of the tech giants, rather than the companies being associated with the rainforest or a very very large number (googol).
But most startup names never enter the everyday vernacular, and all startups go through an initial period of obscurity. For most points on the startup journey, the name will be an introduction for every new person who encounters the business.
“Your name sticks with you,” says Jenny Stanley, managing director of Appetite Creative, a branding agency covering Europe and Dubai.
“One of the first things that comes out your mouth when you talk about your company is the name. It needs to be something you feel connected with that comes from the heart.”
Your name should capture the essence of your business
Brandon Walder, who works at the Austria-headquartered branding and naming agency Ferras, says that a startup’s name should be aspirational to sell the big vision of the company to investors and to customers.
“A great name can help instil faith and confidence in the entrepreneur,” he explains. “Their endeavour, their venture has a name now. Their ‘idea’ or ‘energy’ is one step closer to manifesting. Names fall somewhere between the idea and the reality.”
This doesn’t make for the most practical advice, but the takeaway is that a startup name should capture something intangible: the essence of the business.
Walder refers to Tesla as a great example, because the company chose the name over another shortlisted choice: Faraday. Even though Faraday is a good option to represent the concept of scientific discovery and innovation, Walder says that it didn’t capture the right “vibe”.
“Faraday is too clean, too light, too rational. But Tesla is darker, more mysterious — somehow strange, both phonetically and historically. Basically, it's a genius/prophet positioning. Genius gets away with a lot.”
So what is the best advice for naming a startup?
1) Aim for allusion, not description
When it comes to choosing your name, it may be tempting to choose a descriptive or functional name; especially for specialised and high-tech businesses. For example, Payslip is a descriptive or functional name – it's also the name of a Dublin-based digital payroll service.
Modus Seabed Intervention is another example of a functional name – and the name of a UK provider of autonomous machines for underwater maintenance of internet cables and wind farms.
But a straightforward name like this isn’t always that straightforward.
The trouble with descriptive names
Descriptive and generic names run into problems with trademarking, can be harder for people to remember, and are sometimes not differentiated enough to stand out in online search results.
If your startup really is the first to offer a new and specialised service, then going for a descriptive name is a reasonable idea. But if you are competing for attention and customers, literal descriptions don't make up a compelling name – and you may struggle to build the emotional connection mentioned earlier.
Examples of appropriate descriptive names, Walder says, are ‘General Electric’, whose name stood out as a pioneer of the industrial revolution, and PayPal, the first major peer-to-peer online payment service.
But specific descriptions can date quickly, as the company grows and pivots. What if Danish EdTech startup Shape Robotics wants to start offering non-robotic games? Do they add a word? Change a word?
Charlotte McCrum, managing partner at Harper Gray, a communications consultancy for early-stage startups, says it’s a mistake to always prioritise explanatory power when choosing a name for your startup.
“One of the biggest mistakes I've seen with early stage companies is that they choose a name that is too specific to one product or vertical. That means that they paint themselves into a corner in terms of growth and diversification. It's a balance between having something that easily describes your current offering and doesn't require too much explanation and matching the long term vision of where the business could end up.”
Habana.ai: Israeli startup developing AI processors
What were you originally looking for?A name which meant “understanding” in Hebrew
Why did you choose Habana.ai?The word is associated with understanding, which is linked to what AI models try to do
What type of reaction to you tend to get to the name?People ask what the name means as most do not know Hebrew
2) Give yourself room to grow
Descriptive or not, the limitation of an overly defined startup name is a common problem. It’s one of the main reasons a company might go through a rebrand or change its name.
To avoid this, Walder suggests focusing on the company’s aims and customers’ expectations, rather than any specific product or service. The “promise” to offer something can raise more questions if anything changes in the business plan. If you need to explain why your startup isn’t living up to its name, you’ve already started on the defensive, he says.
“You have to react to the expectations of your audience, because every name, like it or not, is a promise. And the promise of being a startup can be limiting at a certain point and in certain industries. The perfect name is perfect for the spirit or the vibe of the company throughout its life. It allows for growth and development.”
3) Try to stand out from the crowd
The worst approach a company can take is to mimic its rivals, according to Walder. Any money spent on customer acquisition is wasted if the customers can’t remember whether it was “Officeteam” “Officepower” or “Officechoice” one month later.
It’s not just a matter of memory; psychologically, people searching for a product online are more likely to click a name that stands out from all the similar search results.
“The biggest horror stories in startup naming are the silent zombies that tried to play it safe,” Walder says.
Not everyone agrees. “There's often pressure to choose a unique, non-dictionary word (Yahoo, Google, etc); tech industry people tell you it's impossible to rank on search engines or app stores without one,” says Will Allen-Mersh, head of brand and marketing at online therapy app Spill.
“The SEO argument isn't true: yes, it's harder in the beginning stages, but companies with dictionary words like Stripe and Box are now on Google above the dictionary definitions of those words.”
Albert: bookeeping app for freelancers
What were you originally looking for in a name for the company?Financial products often alienate people. They’re typically difficult to understand, hard to use, with language nobody understands and no emotional connection to the user whatsoever.We wanted a name that captured the essence of our product vision: a friendly bookkeeper in your pocket that is super easy to use, friendly, accessible and takes away most of the hassle for you — Albert.
Why did you choose Albert?As per the above. In addition, dealing with people’s finances is a serious matter and it was essential the name conveyed this.We came up with a few names we thought embodied all these principles. Albert came across as a friendly, dependable buddy who is good at what he does.
What other names were strong contenders and why were they rejected?We visited several startup events with a shortlist of potential names in our back pockets to gauge initial reactions. My co-founder Dan Bruce did a presentation with Albert and the responses were brilliant. So, the choice was made.
What type of reaction to you tend to get to the name? Any unexpected problems?People love it! People recognise it. And it stands out in a crowded market.We think it hits exactly the right tone in combination with our product. Albert is a bookkeeper you can trust and is highly rated by others too (it's the highest rated finance app for freelancers in the UK).A funny consequence is that my co-founder, Dan and I are sometimes addressed as 'Hi Albert," on emails
4) Think globally
Even innocuous names can have undesirable connotations in another language — the “translates to something awkward” mistake is easily made.
Mario Dzurila, creative director of German agency Startling Brands, mentions a San Francisco startup with "Volk" in its name. For Dzurila volk, which means a nation or ethnic group, does not have completely positive connotations.
Name-selection should involve international research, adds Walder. “International brands require linguistic and semantic background checks in the languages of the target region. Especially consumer brands, online brands and product names need to be screened for meaning, associations, connotations, and pronounceability to assure there are no-surprises brand launch.”
Mistakes aren’t necessarily fatal though. Walder named Wix.com — which is apparently pronounced exactly like the word for “masturbating” in German — as an example which proves: “A great company cannot be ruined by a bad name.“
Nava, formerly Kompas: AI-powered travel app
Why did you change your name from Kompas to Nava?Whilst Kompas certainly had some obvious connections with travel, there were some practicality issues — namely that our customers were struggling to find us in the app store due to the spelling!Spelling aside, our business has grown up from the simple exploration app to a far more impressive AI-based product for travellers and local small businesses alike, so we wanted to refresh the brand in line with our new and improved offering.
Why and how did you choose Nava?Nava has a real sense of adventure about it and reflects not only how it helps travellers to navigate their trip through personalised recommendations, but also how we help small businesses use AI to drive customers to their business. It was also practical; it’s easy to pronounce and easy to remember. We wanted a name that would be simple to say and spell whilst at the same being friendly for the consumer. This is why we went for Nava, which could also pass as your mate’s first name.
What other names were strong contenders and why were they rejected?During our naming and brand workshop with Founders Factory, we were able to create a decent shortlist, but it became easy to whittle that list down:
- Wander — Great name, but proved difficult to own.
- Ramble — Didn’t quite have that sense of owning your own journey or the modernity of the product we've built.
- Wise — The sense of adventure was a little lost here but we liked how it reflected our customers are ‘in the know’.
- Valley — Has connections with storytelling but just didn’t have that freshness we wanted.
- Rover — Also a strong contender but in the end, we rejected it after seeing there would have been trademarking issues down the line. It also didn't feel new.
5) Be practical
A great name is all well and good, but you also need a corresponding domain name for a website, and want to avoid any trademark disputes.
Jenny Stanley says she is surprised by how many startups decide on their top choice name without checking whether any closely related domain name is available. One startup she worked with almost had to pay a huge amount of money to a domain name “pirate” who had bought the domain they wanted. Instead, they chose a new name.
Checking domain name availability is crucial, including international domains. If you ever hope to be discovered by clients in different countries, it’s good practice to check you can also buy the same domain name with international extensions.
There are mixed opinions on using one of an array of tools out there for name generation and testing. Stanley says using surveys is “brilliant” for getting a sense of how real-life customers or clients would respond to a name. She’s less enthusiastic about name generators.
“A name generator fine, but you might regret the choice because it hasn't come from your heart.”
If you are going to use these techniques, do it properly.
Financial crime-fighting platform, ComplyAdvantage (now called Mimiro after successfully fundraising for global expansion) chose the original name using a rigorous generation and testing process. Founder and chief executive Charles Delingpole explains: “We chose the name via a survey of 100 algorithmically generated names, then tested the top 3 highest rated names for their conversion on AdWords A/B tests.”
6) Use subtle psychology
Getting into the psychology of words can be a trip down a rabbit hole. The range of advice includes choosing a two-syllable word, rather than one or three, and finding an onomatopoeia to evoke a sound associated with whatever service you are providing.
Then there’s the heap of research around the emotional impact of certain word categories; fruit names are apparently calming (Apple, Blackberry), while “email” increases stress responses.
Psychology naturally factors in to all of the other advice too. Ultimately, choosing a name is less about the specific word or literal meaning, and more about understanding human behaviour and using it to your advantage.
Case study: Spill: Online counselling app in the UK
Other useful resources if you're building your own startup: