Five Essential Steps to Naming a Tech Startup
By Phil Davis
President of Tungsten Branding
With over twenty-five years of company naming and branding expertise, Tungsten founder Phil Davis is a marketing and advertising veteran, having personally named over 250 companies, products and services worldwide. As a sought after branding expert, Phil has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Inc.com, Businessweek, Entrepreneur, and Newsday.
Why wing it when you can follow a proven process?
Naming a new company is never easy, but naming an IT/tech company is especially tricky, given the tens of thousands of aspiring new startups each year, all vying for notoriety, that coveted “white space” that sets a company apart. The importance of a good company name cannot be understated. It forms the cornerstone, the foundation, and conversation starter for every encounter you will have, so having the right name, the best name for your business, will get you moving forward vs stalling out. So just what are the key criteria for a great IT name? Here are four steps that will make all the difference.
Step 1: Form the team
Decide who the key decision-makers will be. Typically with a start-up, it’s the founders, but consider the role the investor(s) may want to play. Make sure whoever is on the team commits to attending meetings and participating in the process, not just having veto power. Keep the group small and focused, e.g. those who really get the essence of the brand. Naming should not be subjected to the democratic process, a camel is a horse made by committee, so gather input widely but decide narrowly.
Step 2: Define the project
Are you naming the parent company? The main product line? Both? Should they be the same name? Do you plan to have future products, and if so, how will that affect the naming? Are you naming an actual product or a consulting service? Spell out the project in a creative brief which outlines the goals and objectives you wish to achieve.
If you are naming different technologies, go with a “constellation of brands” approach, with a parent brand and then individual ones nested underneath. With one Malaysian client we did just that and here were the results.
If going with a constellation of brands, the sub-brand names can be more definitive and descriptive (not literal) and hint at what the technology does.
If the product and company are the same, or it’s a parent company, or if it’s a consultancy, then base the name more broadly on attributes. This avoids being pigeon-holed in the future. For example, we had a client with a 90’s era company name, PCnet-inc.com. The name carbon-dated them as old and outdated. They had evolved to provide cloud, security, and data solutions, so we created the name Corserva, based on “core services” and “core processors,” “servers,” and “service.” We call these “ish” names, open concept names that contain morphemes or word parts that sound “tech-ish.”
Another IT consulting firm had the acronym SIC Consulting (I guess they could have repositioned themselves to say “Our services are totally sick!” but that would have been a stretch.) Instead, we rebranded them as 1Rivet, based on their pivotal role in managing and implementing enterprise-level IT projects.
A third company we branded had the tool-ish moniker TestCraft, which made them sound small and app-like. They also evolved to provide broad-based human intelligence that provides wisdom and insight into the company decision-making process. They needed a bigger name that highlighted their strength. The result was Brillium… “The power to know better.”
Step 3: Make a list of attributes
Whether you are naming the company, or the product, make a list of the attributes that the business or service will provide. Remember to sell the sizzle, not the steak. Your customers are after the benefits of your products and services, not the functionality. Products and services are constantly subject to change, whereas attributes are timeless. Try this exercise…
List your attributes on a big whiteboard and then do a “Sophie’s Choice” exercise. If you could only be known for one thing… what would it be? Be ruthless in your identification of what you are bringing to market that separates you from the pack. For us, it’s clarity and illumination, insight, brilliance, things that create an “ah-ha!” moment. What is at the jelly center of your donut? What is the common thread? What is the pivot point around which everything you do will revolve?
From that list of attributes, pick the top one to ideate around. Using various naming strategies to form possible candidates.
- Invented names – (ex. Brillium, Claricent, and Lumagent are all IT company based on insight, clarity, and brilliance. Cerora was a hint at cerebral, cerebellum and aura, or aurora)
- Wordplay – Inugo is a more functional/instructional type of invented name, but makes use of wordplay to create a fun and engaging quasi-invented name. Gangup is another example. Greynium is yet another, grey matter in the brain/cranium.
- Positive Connotation or Evergreen Name – Using this strategy, we created brands such as StrideKick, Keyspring, and TeamLogicIT.
- Descriptive Hybrid – This is a combination of both literal terminology and key attributes. As an example, Urethane Supply Company was renamed Polyvance (advance polymers.) The client then created comic superhero characters Polly and Vance, that came to the rescue when needed. PlanetMetrics is another company that used this approach to name their eco-technology platform.
- Metaphors – These are tricky since any industries can borrow on the same metaphors, but when done right, these names can be the big winners. Amazon is a good example of a metaphor name, capturing the sense of size, scale, and diversity of products. We assisted a client in naming Jigsaw, with the notion of putting the pieces together and seeing the complete picture.
Examine all the possibilities and see which name offers you the best jumping-off point and the best overall platform.
- Practice introducing yourself and see where the conversation naturally takes you. Does it start in your strong suit? Does it further the discussion in the right ways? Does it point to your main attribute? Ex. Altacent – achieving, climbing, attaining, summiting.
- How much story do you need? If you have a lot of one on one conversations with potential clients, which name provides the biggest platform, the most “story/back story” vs. just being creative, catchy, or original. Ex. Blue Taco… what do you say next?
- Can you “one putt” the name? Ex. “We’re Brlllium, we give you the power to glean more insight from your information systems.”
- See if the matching .com is available. You can also try it with a descriptor word after the domain, but that often weakens the brand and can limit you if the descriptor word is too specific. If you add “data” to the name, make sure you never venture out of that niche. Same with geographic references, such as adding “USA” to the end of the domain. You will kick yourself as soon as you expand overseas.
- Check USPTO.gov for ™ and consult a good trademark attorney with your final two to three picks.
Step 4: Add some spice
In addition to the various naming strategies, consider adding some linguistic candy such as alliteration (PayPal) or rhyming (StubHub) to make the brand name more “sticky” and memorable. Don’t let these devices be the main driver, but consider them as tiebreakers. Also work to keep the name short, as these names tend to work better on several levels, from the ease of recall to ease of typing.
Step 5: Choose the winner!
Decisions, decisions. It’s time to pick the name, and this can be the most difficult task of all. Practice introducing yourself with the name and see where the conversation naturally flows next. Does it lead to your pivot point, to a deeper discussion of your core value proposition? Does it invite intrigue in a way that furthers the discussion vs. devolving into the idiosyncrasies of how you named your firm? Typically the winner is not the most outlandish or original name, but the one that grows on you, the one that’s easy to articulate and has “legs” to it. These are names that provide a platform and a marketing lexicon that help support and build the brand messaging. We like to ask “Can you one putt the name?” In other words, can you introduce the company name, and in one easy sentence, connect the dots between the name and benefits provided by the company.
Once you’ve made your pick, fully embrace and commit to the brand and messaging. Devise a plan to roll out the name, internally first and externally second. Make sure your own team is fully informed and on board with the name, rationale, and ways to introduce the brand. Consider putting together a brand storybook or style guide as an easy reference for new employees, social media managers, and others who will have front line contact with your customers.
Be sure to have fun with the rollout and find ways to use swag, contests, social media, and PR to promote the new brand. This is an opportunity to shine, so take full advantage.
Use the new name or rebrand as a way to take charge of the narrative… e.g. “We are growing bigger to serve you better.” Don’t just announce the name, tell why you named it that way or why you renamed it. Don’t leave your staff or your clients guessing, do the work for your them so they don’t have to figure you out. Make it easy for them. As Tom Hopkins said, the secret to sales is making it easy to buy. If you want buy-in, spell it out.
Naming an IT company can be a challenging exercise. By following these five steps you can avoid the common pitfalls and have a better, brighter experience.