Naming a startup is one of the most consequential decisions a founder makes. Finding the perfect name is tricky, we get it. As a PR agency, we’ve learned valuable lessons from working with hundreds of companies on launching or rebranding. How can you avoid the pitfalls or pick a name you can grow into?
First, here’s what not to do when naming a startup:
- Don’t choose a common word or phrase. Is your first-choice company name a common phrase? I strongly recommend doing research to see how often it appears in writing. If it’s appearing regularly in searches (both in context of your industry and more generally), it’s going to be difficult to establish strong SEO for your brand. Searchers will have trouble finding information about what you’re doing, and you may have to pay handsomely when advertising online. A common word or phrase is also going to make measuring share of voice difficult. Even the best AI-powered tools in the world struggle when a company name is used in many contexts.
- Avoid complete abstractions. Another mistake is using a term or made-up word that doesn’t contain context clues about the company’s industry. TechRepublic’s list of worst startup names is littered with examples of this. Founders sometimes think longer is better, but this almost always leads to spelling issues. There’s a reason no company operates under the name Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. An abstract word can also introduce pronunciation questions. We’ve had clients come to us and say their name’s pronunciation is up for debate internally. That’s going to be a problem in the long run, when neither reporters nor your customers want to utter your name out loud for fear of saying it incorrectly.
- No acronyms. Intentional or not, naming a startup a long string of words often leads to an acronym over time. Any combination of letters may cross industries into commonly used medical or military terms. This makes tracking media coverage difficult and it can also create awkward confusion regarding your brand. Acronyms aren’t distinct and don’t have the branding potential of a strong, clear name.
- Reject color names. This might be my personal pet peeve more than a hard-and-fast rule, but names referencing a color are not ideal. There’s a long history of “color” + “function” as startup names because it takes into account some of the concerns of the first few rules. This naming convention locks in your branding for eternity, and because there are many companies whose names start with colors, it’s not as memorable as you might think.
- Try a compound word not already part of the English language. Pulling together two words is a great way to name your startup, especially when those words are explanatory. This opens tons of options and is easy to track with media monitoring tools because a made-up compound word isn’t going to regularly appear in other places. Some good examples include Filevine, JotForm and BrightPlan.
- Slightly change the spelling on an industry word. You have to be careful when introducing a misspelling (and autocorrect may strongly dislike your company name), but a change in spelling can be a solid naming choice. The unique spelling is good for SEO and also makes it easier to secure a domain and social handles. You just have to be careful that the change in spelling won’t distort the pronunciation for readers. For inspiration, look to companies like Prescryptive or Compeat.
- Use a historical reference or a niche art term. I’m a history buff myself and love a super obscure reference that has a sentimental meaning to a company’s founders. This allows a word that already exists to become a company name, especially when it’s no longer regularly used in media coverage. It means most reporter references to the term will be about your brand and helps establish awareness because the name is memorable. A classic example is Nike, the Winged Goddess of Victory.
- Attach numbers to a functional word. One hack for naming a startup is to add numbers to the end of a common word. The numbers make the name searchable and unique, while also giving you infinite possibilities. The hardest part of this approach is figuring out the right number that has meaning to your brand. The number needs to be part of the story you tell in your brand messaging to make it logical. Think of supply chain visibility behemoth project44, or restaurant management platform Restaurant365.
Before finalizing a name, I leave you with these final pieces of advice. I once represented a company that had to rebrand twice (in the span of two years) because its due diligence team missed a possible competitor with a similar name. It was disastrous for brand awareness, company momentum and ultimately impacted employee morale.
- Start with a Google search. There will be phrases and uses outside your current sphere of influence that might prevent you from using a certain name – run a quick Google search to see what comes up for your potential name choice. There may also be a company with regional appeal you could eventually run into competitively.
- Research social handles and website domains. The next step in establishing a brand is creating a presence across the web. This is key in figuring out the viability of a name.
- Perform due diligence with an attorney. After you’ve vetted a list of potential names, it’s time to bring in a specialist. This is not the time to wing it with a family friend's attorney. Rebranding is expensive and you never know what direction your business will head. What may not be a trademark problem today could cause issues down the line. Apple Computers once agreed never to enter the music business, which (famously) became a problem.
- Do a quick check of translation services to ensure cultural sensitivity. Every so often, a brand chooses a name that’s extremely problematic in another language. It’s important to leverage translation tools to make sure you aren’t picking a common swear word or body part.
Next PR loves a good brainstorm and naming a startup is the ultimate exercise in both creativity and brand building. If you’re about to launch, we’re here to talk about your new company’s potential and its first PR campaign.