Do Not Obsess On Names – Obsess On Delivering Awesome Customer Value

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A version of this article previously appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

“With a name like Smucker’s, it has to be good.” Really?

If Smucker’s can annually generate hundreds of millions in sales for a variety of food products, there is little risk that a mediocre company or product name will preclude you from achieving similar success.

The value of an ideal name, attached to a product or company that does not deliver an economically viable value proposition, is zero. Beyond names, the only thing you should spend less time obsessing over is your logo.

Thus, do not obsess during the naming process. Instead, expeditiously pick a reasonable moniker and then get back to work delivering value to your customers.

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Name Game

To illustrate the extent to which a company’s name is largely irrelevant to its ultimate success, let’s examine the genesis of six successful technology companies’ names. All of these successful companies have imperfect names – before they became widely known, many of these companies were difficult to spell, pronounce and even recall. Even so, their imperfect names did not hamper the companies’ ultimate success.

In all cases, these names were derived by the Founders, without the involvement of consultants, MBAs, focus groups, statistically valid surveys or other hindrances to a startup’s ability to make quick, sound decisions.

Yahoo – Merriam-Webster defines “Yahoo” as “a boorish, crass, or stupid person.” The term was first used by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, in which he encountered a brutish race of hideous humans. Jerry Yang and David Filo, Yahoo’s Founders, chose the name, as they considered themselves to be “Yahoos.” When the company was initially launched, its name was awkwardly similar to the chocolate drink YooHoo. After the company became successful, the backronym, Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle was devised to by the  marketing department “explain” the name’s origin to inquisitive journalists.

Google – Based on “googol,” a term devised by mathematicians to describe inconceivably large numbers that are smaller than infinity. When included in mathematical expressions, it is represented as 10100. The term is obtusely related to Google’s quest to catalog all of the world’s information, but wholly irrelevant from a user perspective. Google was not descriptive of the company’s initial core competency (search) nor was it particularly easy to pronounce or spell when the site was first launched.

Amazon – While arguably better than the company’s initial name, “Cadabra.com”, “Amazon” does not convey the company’s original core competency of selling books online. Legend asserts that the name change from Cadabra was prompted by Yahoo’s alphabetized listing of search results. However, if this is true, “Aardvark” would have been a more clever choice and equally as relevant to online book sales.

eBay – Derived from Founder Pierre Omidyar’s consulting company, Echo Bay Technology Group. The URL “EchoBay.com” was not available, so the startup’s name was shortened to “eBay” in order to acquire an appropriate URL. “eBay” is short and relatively easy to spell, but it has zilch to do with online auctions and is descriptive of absolutely nothing.

Cisco – Originally called “cisco Systems,” the name was derived from San Francisco. The lowercase “c” was eventually capitalized after nearly 10 years, due to the confusion the small “c” created when the company was referenced in print.

“Cisco” is descriptive of nothing, offering no hint as to the company’s initial router design and development proficiency. In addition, in its early days, “cisco” was phonetically similar to SYSCO, the $20B food distribution company.

Microsoft – Initially descriptive of the company’s software developed for the “micro” computer market, it quickly became less relevant as the “personal” computer market matured. The original spelling of “Micro-Soft” was not changed until twelve years after its founding, once the MBAs had transformed the scrappy startup into a big dumb company. The company continues to generate billions of dollars of annual sales, despite the fact that no one has used the term “micro computer” during the past 30 years.

Do's And Don't Do's

Some of the issues you should consider during the naming process include:

Buzz Free - Avoid incorporating trendy terms in your company and product names, as today’s buzzwords become tomorrow’s passé clichés.

Intuitive URL – A reasonably intelligent person should be able to determine your URL with little detective work. To minimize confusion, your company's URL should be devoid of hyphens, numbers, acronyms and abbreviations. Tragically humorous URLs often result from awkward attempts to keep them brief. Some of my favorites are listed HERE.

Phonetically Spellable – Due to the importance of obtaining a reasonably short URL, a number of startups settle for suboptimal company and product names, resulting in spellings that challenge even the most ardent, motivated customer (e.g., substituting "Gre8" for "great").

Readily Pronounceable – In the 1996 movie, That Thing You Do!, Tom Hanks' character discovers a small town band named “The Oneders.” A running gag throughout the movie is that no one can properly pronounce the band’s name, calling them “The oh-NEE-ders,” rather than “The ONE-ders.” Eventually, Mr. Hanks changes the band's name to "The Wonders." Follow Tom's lead and make the pronunciation of your company and products obvious.

Extensible – The greater extent you can leverage a name across a product family, the better. For instance, Citrix utilizes the “GoTo” moniker for its line of remote access solutions, including, “GoToMyPC,” “GoToMeeting” and “GoToWebinar.” Apple utilizes a similar approach with the prefix “i”, as in “iPod,” “iTunes” and “iPhone.”

Single Connotation – Make sure your name works beyond your native tongue. Consider “Rabobank.” This regrettable name is derived from the Dutch word “Boerenleenbank” (i.e., a farm credit bank). Unfortunately, when viewed quickly, it is easy to transpose the “a” and “o,” resulting in “ROB-a-bank.”

Names Are Like Streetcars

Another reason to not obsess about your venture’s name is because your business focus, markets served and value propositions will likely evolve over time. As such, if you tie your company name too closely with your initial go-to-market opportunity, you might achieve success with a company name that does not ultimately reflect the true nature of your business.

This occurred at both Expertcity (creator of GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting, sold to Citrix) and Computer Motion (NASDQ: RBOT, sold to Intuitive Surgical), two companies in which I was a senior executive.

Expertcity was initially named to reflect the company’s “marketplace for services,” which enabled independent, global experts to directly access customers’ computers and fix their technical problems.

Expertcity was a great name for that business. Unfortunately, we completely abandoned the “technical support marketplace” after the dot bomb crash and began licensing our screen-sharing technology. Our name was so disconnected from our business model that we were in the midst of a protracted and expensive name change initiative (along with a small army of consultants), at the time we sold our company to Citrix.

Computer Motion was named after a clever software algorithm that allowed primitive (circa 1990) computer processors to render graphics in 3-D. The company’s logo was a three dimensional bouncing ball. Unfortunately, we never made a dime from the 3-D algorithm. Instead, we evolved our technology to power medical robots and eventually pioneered the medical robotics industry, which led to the company’s eventual sale to Intuitive Surgical, a far more aptly named company.

In both of these instances, the highly specific nature of the companies’ names proved to be problematic once they matured and refined their respective product / market fits. 

$30M Name In 15 Minutes

Product names clearly have a more direct and significant impact on your company’s success, as compared with your company’s name. This is especially true of consumer-oriented products. However, most startups do not have the financial wherewithal to build a brand based upon a product’s name and image. Because of these constraints, a startup's branding efforts should be focused on communicating product utility.

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As we morphed our business model at Expertcity, we began licensing our screen sharing technology. With no product  name whatsoever, we closed deals with a number of substantial companies, including Cox Communications, CompUSA, CDW and Colgate-Palmolive. Our technology streamed pixels from one desktop to another, allowing support agents in call centers to solve technical issues directly on users’ computers. Our enterprise customers were interested in the utility our product delivered to their customer support agents and were indifferent to its name (or lack thereof).

Once we proved that we could license our “marketplace for services” technology, it was evident that we needed to christen the technology with a product name. As such, I did something unusual. I called a meeting.

I wanted to name the product “Tsunami” – a terrible name which we quickly rejected. After a few minutes of discussion, when it was clear that Tsunami was not a winner, we reviewed the URLs we owned, which included “BuddyHelp.com” and “DesktopStreaming.com.”

We walked out of the meeting after about fifteen minutes, with the product name DesktopStreaming and without wasting undue time attempting to devise a perfect name because we knew it would have no impact on our enterprise customers’ buying decisions.

Once GoToMyPC became a highly successful product, we renamed DesktopStreaming GoToAssist, but not before DesktopStreaming had generated over $30 million dollars of revenue.

Did the name suck? Yes. Did it matter? No.

Hall Of Shame Names - The Oneder Of It All

The time and money spent seeking an ideal name is likely better applied to signing up customers and refining your value proposition. However, there clearly are “bad” names that can make it more difficult for your venture to succeed. It is more difficult to swim upstream, so you should obviously apply a reasonable amount of time playing the Name Game.

Smucker’s and DesktopStreaming prove that terrible product names (or even no name at all) will not preclude you from success, given that the product delivers to its customers a worthwhile value proposition. Smucker’s grew from a family-owned, small Midwestern business into a $4 billion, global enterprise. Rather than being hampered by its wretched name, it achieved a degree of pop culture notoriety, as evidenced by the following excerpt from a Saturday Night Live skit, entitled “Jam Hawkers” and written by Michael O’Donoghue.

Jane Curtin: . . . And so, with a name like Fluckers, it’s got to be good.

Chevy Chase: Hey, hold on a second, I have a jam here called Nose Hair. Now with a name like Nose Hair, you can imagine how good it must be. MMM MMM!!

Dan Aykroyd: Hold it a minute folks, but are you familiar with a jam called Death Camp? That’s Death Camp! Just look for the barbed wire on the label. With a name like Death Camp it must be so good it’s incredible! Just amazingly good jam!

John Belushi: Wait a minute . . . Dog Vomit, Monkey Pus. We offer you a choice of two of the most repulsive brand names of jams you’ve ever heard of. With names like these, this stuff has got to be terrific. We’re talking fabulous jam here!

Chevy Chase: Save your breath fella! Here’s a new jam we’ve just put out. It’s called Painful Rectal Itch. You’d have to go a long way to find a worse name for a jam. And good? MMM WAH! With a name like Painful Rectal Itch you gotta bet that it’s great . . .

Jane Curtin: So if it’s great jam you’re after, try this one, the brand so disgusting you can’t say it on television. Ask for it by name!

By selecting a brief, logically spelled and readily pronounceable company or product name, you can be sure that when you customers “ask for you by name” they will actually be able to find you.

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never tweet you about lousy music or tell you about that killer burrito I just ate.

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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