How to Name Your Startup – More Rock N Roll

A month or so ago I wrote a post about how being a musician was a lot like being a programmer-startup-dreamer type. This post is part two or a series that will include a few parts

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Naming your startup is not hard. At all. Unfortunately, it’s the thing that most people starting a company fret over the most without good reason. My theory is that picking a name is something that can be done easily (i.e. no money required, no engineering, no financing, no selling). You can sit at your desk brainstorming as easily as you can sit in the pool with a beer thinking of what to call your new baby. The process of thinking of a name is easy, cheap, and taps in to a person’s creativity, so it makes sense that people would spend a disproportionate amount of time working on it. Plus it can be fun.

The most obvious problem with this activity is that it takes time from, you know, actually starting the business. Having endless meetings about how a name will play in the market and spending a lot of time making sure the Twitter handle and domain are available is not nearly as constructive as sitting down and saying, “We’re going to call it Acme Inc. until the site/app/product is ready. Now everyone quit thinking about names and let’s get to work.”

Not ironically, naming a band is exactly the same thing. When you are not a good musician, you spend an inordinate amount of time thinking of band names. I spent most of high school not learning anything but becoming a sensational “band logo drawer.” I drew logos for bands I was in, bands I wanted to be in, other people’s bands, bands I might start one day, bands that would be my side project after I was in the rock n roll Hall of Fame. HUNDREDS of band logos.

And even though I was in school while I did this, I wasn’t spending as much time as I could learning to actually be a good musician. I opted for art class over music (drawing vs. learning to play the guitar better). I drew logos while I should have been learning English lit, which included some sensational poetry that would have helped me as a lyricist. Without exception, I spent time doing the easy work (thinking of band names) instead of diving in to the hard work that would have actually been worth something.

As I became a better musician I became less interested in the name. It was apparent to me that the band makes the name, not the other way around. I was in a college band called Billy Ruben and the Little Fat God. That’s a terrible band name, but we were a really good band and people really took to us. By the time I was out of college, naming the band took two minutes: someone would say, “Let’s call it Broken Stars.” And everyone else nodded and we got back to work practicing that new song we’d just written.

As I mentioned above, naming a startup is much the same. Even worse, there are dozens (hundred?) of articles online about how to name your startup that bring back memories of the interviews I used to pour over trying to crack the code of how bands found their names. “So that’s what Alice In Chains means…a ha! Pearl Jam is really about this…”

Some of these articles about naming startups go so far as to break down how many letters, vowels, etc. “successful” startups have in their names compared to unsuccessful. Some of them talk about picking a name that explains what you do (TripAdvisor) while some say to think of something memorable and unique (Twitter). There is so much advice out there about naming a startup that – like most other advice having anything to do with startups – it is easy to find your head spinning in the midst of it all.

And most of it is complete and utter bullshit. Most of it is someone saying “this did work for me!” or “this didn’t work for me!” and the reader is somehow supposed to take that information and process it in to their own unique startup and take something from it. OK, sure, whatever. The truth is there is one rule about having a startup: Get to work. Do something. That’s all you need to know.

And there is only one rule you need to follow about naming your startup, and its the same rule to follow when naming a band:

Name it something that you are excited to hear come out of your mouth.

Period. The end. That’s it.

If Eddie Vedder likes telling people his band is called Pearl Jam then that makes it a GREAT name and people will be sold on it based on his enthusiasm. If John Lennon was more fired up stepping up to the mic saying, “Hello, we’re the Beatles” then he was saying “we’re the Quarrymen..” then that makes it a GREAT name. If Joel SPolsky (sp?) thinks “Trello” is a great name for his new list of lists product, then it is. If “HipMunk” is exciting for those guys, then great.

It doesn’t matter if the name conveys what you do or not. It doesn’t matter how many letters it has in it or the language origin or if its nonsensical or whatever. There are some bands whose names give you an idea of their music (Motorhead, Metallica, Megadeth) just as their are names of bands that don’t give any insight at all (Naked and Famous, Silversun Pickups). The Afghan Whigs could be ethnic music. The Twilight Singers could be a boys choir. There are great bands with awful names (R.E.M.) and awful bands with great names (…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead). In the end, the band names don’t matter but rather the confidence and excitement that comes when the members of the band open their mouth at a keg party to tell someone for the first time, “Yeah, I’m in a band…we’re called Sixteen Deluxe.” or whatever.

Starting a business is the same. Your customers’ first impression will be the name of the company. If you want to call it “Alien Ghost Factory” and you make T-Shirts, then that’s a great name as long as you are excited about saying it and having it on business cards and telling your friends about it. If you want to call it “Standard T-Shirt Company” then that’s a great name too for the same reasons.

In the end, there is no math and no metric and no test for naming your startup. No one can tell you a great name for your startup and you shouldn’t want them to. You wouldn’t let fans name your band so don’t let anyone else name your company.

Pick something you LOVE to say. Something you love to write on a piece of paper. Something you love to see in the subject line. Something you are excited to say to the people you meet at SXSW and the people you meet at the club and the people you meet for coffee on Tuesday morning.

THAT is the only thing you need to know about naming your startup. Because if you follow any other guide or metric or suggestion, everyone will see through you and know. And while “Warrant” wasn’t an outright awful band name, the guys in the band hated it and now none of them even likes to talk about the experience at all because the whole thing, starting with the name, was so damn awful from start to finish.

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