When It Comes to Naming Your Startup, Simple Is Better

Doostang? Thoof? Tech companies move from bizarre to brand-friendly

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Ever hear of Doostang? Probably not. The careers site, born during the Web 2.0 era, ended up as a poster child for oddly named digital companies. Its Wiki page reveals that the name was loosely based on the Latin phrase "dos tango," translated as "I reach for talent." Even with its weird name, it managed to attract $5.8 million in funding up until 2011 when Talent Inc. acquired it. But by late last year, its social media presence disappeared, and more recently our attempts to find someone to talk to there failed.

Ironically, the company's bizarre name may have turned out to be its most lasting influence. It is regularly mentioned in lists of the worst names ever for tech startups—not quite the influence it was seeking. But Doostang is hardly alone in committing the sin of dubious digital nomenclature. Take now-defunct examples like Qoop, Fairtilizer, Ipipi.com, Heekya and Thoof.

Today, tech entrepreneurs seem to better understand the power of branding, choosing names like Dropbox, Banjo, Rent the Runway, Secret, Mailbox—you know, actual words. "We wanted a word that meant only one other thing, like Apple and Amazon," says Damien Patton, CEO of Banjo, a social analytics provider. "It is a real word, it's easy to pronounce, it's recognizable, and it's short."

Advisors are schooling up-and-comers like Patton on the marketing benefits of a simple, easy-to-remember brand name.

"Odd names are distracting and confusing," says Kelly Hoey, an investor and consultant. "Startups are often given feedback to simplify their pitch [to make it] understandable to their parents or grandparents—aka a nontech audience. The trend to use normal words is in line with that guidance. A normal word creates a clear visual association of what the product is."

Today, startups are choosing simpler names that appeal to investors. 

It's not just about breaking through the clutter and connecting with everyday consumers. Startups need to appeal to investors as well, notes consultant McAdory Lipscomb Jr. "Entrepreneurs are starting to see that they need to streamline their pitch to get their message across to investors," he explains. "I also think there's a new kind of maturity with people who are starting these businesses—they are not so dorm room-oriented. They're more business savvy. Some have spent a few years in banking or consulting. And the advice we are seeing given these days is focused on, how do I define something against all of the noise?"

In an increasingly competitive sphere online, it is wise not to force consumers to think too much about what you're selling.

"It's one thing for Procter & Gamble or Coca-Cola to develop something out of a meaningless name because they can spend a lot of money on it," says Frank Rimalovski, executive director at New York University's Entrepreneurial Institute. "But for a real startup, that's quite a challenge."

Perhaps it's not entirely surprising that new companies often choose goofy handles. After all, the more common a word or phrase, the more expensive it is to secure a Web domain and copyright. For example, b-to-b venture ViewLift was launched this past February to help marketers get in front of more people—hence its name.

A subsidiary of indie-movie streaming site SnagFilms, ViewLift vp of platforms and marketing Michael Kohn says he considered names that would have meant domain registration costs of up to $30,000, thanks to squatters looking to make a quick buck. His team even wrote a lengthy report on what the company ought to look for in a name, with clarity of purpose being the top priority. After considering a few clunkers, Kohn stumbled upon ViewLift, fell in love with it and bought the domain name on GoDaddy for $12. "We lucked out," he says. "We found one that met our needs and wasn't claimed."

Phillip Lauria is head of marketing at Qriously, a questions-based mobile ad network whose name is mocked by the technorati. His company, too, was restrained by a limited budget.

"We've gotten positive and negative feedback—some people love it, while others say it's ridiculous," Lauria admits. "We needed to find a domain name that we could purchase at a relatively low cost. And we found a mix between curious and curiosity."

One thing is certain: The unusual name hasn't kept away investors, who have put a collective $5.1 million toward Qriously over the last four years. Says Lauria: "It's a fine balance, finding a uniqueness in a name with something that's sticky or memorable."

As for the "sticky" part, Rimalovski warns against being too pedestrian. "If it's too generic, is there risk there?" he wonders. "So your name is Mailbox, which explains what you do. But there also might be Inbox and PostBox out there, and then there's less value in your name."

Kenny Eliason, CEO of the Las Vegas online marketing firm NeonBrand, says he's got a soft spot for obscure monikers, but he admits "it helps if the quirky name is also somewhat related to what they're doing." In other words, if a name is bizarre and doesn't clearly convey the mission of a business, then the product or service had better speak for itself.

Despite the pitfalls, names with a lighthearted touch can also break through.

Scott Fogel, senior strategist at interactive agency Firstborn, points to successful digital brands that combine real-life utility with more conceptual ideas—among them, Fitbit (i.e., a "fitness" aid), Snapchat (an app for chatting), Evernote (a to-do list) and Pinterest (a place to pin images).

"By joining together existing terms into something new, companies can maintain a sense of linguistic intrigue while still giving clues as to what the product does—something that's increasingly important when people are primarily finding mobile apps by scrolling through a list of search results," Fogel says.

Dashride chief Nadav Ullman employed that philosophy when selecting a name for his 2-year-old taxi-dispatch software company, though he stayed away from getting too clever. "The word 'Dashride' immediately connotes that we work in the transportation industry," he says. "When [pitching] enterprises, making your offering obvious upfront is absolutely essential."

Hoey suggests that if consumers are forced to research what a startup is about, they're just as likely to abandon the idea of downloading it. "Competitive advantage goes to the product that seamlessly conveys its value proposition to consumers," she notes.

Otherwise, a brand risks becoming nothing more than a blast from the past—or worse, another entry on one of those "dumbest startup names ever" lists. 

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.