TL;DR: It sucks.
Alec Khoury and I are working on Kowalla, a platform for showing off the projects that you’re building in real-time. After a few months of work developing a pitch deck and fleshing out the concept, we hit a wall.
We had to pick a new name.
Alec started working a demo he called “Actualizeur” earlier in the year. The name worked on a conceptual level. We wanted to build a place for people to actualize the projects in a community of like-minded builders. But it had it’s faults too. Mainly, I haven’t found anyone but Alec who could spell it correctly.
Actualiezer… Actualizr… Actualizer… Actualizur?
We launched into the process of finding a new name. We hoped to find another name-product match like we had with Actualizeur, but with a lower vowel-to-consonant ratio.
Three weeks, hundreds of Slack messages, and 182 ideas later, we found Kowalla. Here’s what we learned:
#1: Naming sucks, but you’re not alone
Have the fifth episode of Gimlet’s StartUp
podcast on repeat, although the ending may leave you wanting. Odds are you don’t have the clout to have a marketing consultant offer up a list of options for free, but we found solace in Gimlet Founders Matt Lieber
's and Alex Blumberg
Over the course of the episode Matt and Alex explore many genres of names, including inspiration from other languages. Alex ends up stuck on the name “Orelo” — Esperanto for “ear." A name that his wife calls “the worst thing she’s ever heard” between bouts of laughter.
“Hey Alec, what’s Esperanto for hustle?”
Learn to laugh at your ideas, because the more desperate the domain search becomes to the goofier the concepts get. You’ll brainstorm names until you’ve gone down a mental path you’re absolutely certain no other human could’ve ever possibly traveled, only to find that the only available domain extension for your brilliant idea is a .pizza.
Learn the latest themes.
Crunchbase wrote up a guide
from startups they see come through their platform. Tech Crunch also wrote up a guide to the latest weird naming trends in tech
that might help expand your horizons.
Look to the fallen.
CBInsights has been compiling postmortems
of various failed startups since 2014. These post mortems are interesting reads, and while naming your startup they’ll help give you some insight into naming trends over the years. Kowalla’s name was actually inspired by Gowalla, a former Austin-based startup mentioned in this list.
If all else fails, here’s the translator
we used while looking for our ‘Orelo’. It’ll allow you to translate into a few dozen languages at once.
#2: Brainstorm better with reverse dictionaries
Reverse dictionaries allow you to plug in a word and get back other related words or phrases. It turns out they’re not just helpful for cheating on crossword puzzles.
Below is an example from OneLook’s Thesaurus
, which we stuck with throughout our search. A simple search for “community” brings up plenty of diving off points for new brainstorming.
#3: Say it aloud. A lot
Looking through our ‘#namestorming’ Slack channel, about three quarters of our ideas came after 11PM. These sessions often went on until 1:00 AM - 2:00 AM. Every name was on the table, and a cheap available domain will make you fall in love with terrible names.
See: flowtide, kodachii, hamlett, kozmo, eyas, kazare (read: quasar), whirlwork, moonkey (like monkey)… and the list goes on and on.
While you’re free-associating new names, you can’t afford to kill an idea that might lead you to something better. But circle back around to your favorites and be ruthless.
Say them out loud, have your friends say them. If they sound stupid, it’s because they are. If your friends laugh, they’re probably right. Let brutal honesty be your guide.
Some names have a ring to them, and unexpected ones will stick. Kowalla wasn’t a top contender until we spent a week saying it out loud. It floated to the top of our list because it felt fun to say and sounded like a product that already existed.
You’ll say your product’s name thousands of times over its lifetime. Pick one you like to say and stick to it.
#4: Try out simple designs
Once we had settled down to a handful of names, we ran them through a quick design gauntlet. We settled on a few fonts we liked, and some randomized color palettes, then plugged them into Google Slides for quick mockups. This process gives you an immediate feedback loop on whether you can actually tolerate the sight of your name.
One of my favorite names that came out of our process was a play on ‘blueprint’. I had this idea in my head of a CAD drawing style logo, with some grid lines or some other splash of engineering imagery involved. Only ‘Bloooprint’ was available as a domain, but I wasn’t deterred until I actually got a test logo up in Slides.
#5: Your name is not your product
It’s easy to look out into the world and find startups with perfect name-product fit or strong branding. What’s harder is remembering a time when those brands or names meant nothing to you.
Every successful product survives because it solves problems for its users. Solution seeking and quality problem solving is what should drive early engagement, not branding.
Imagine a world where Medium launched with a horrible UI and their target blogger market hated it. Their clever branding and sleek logo would’ve done them no favors beyond driving initial click-throughs. In that environment, they would’ve been vulnerable to even the worst spelled tech branding I can generate. “Campfyre.xyz, a place to share your stories” could be the platform that I’m writing on now if Medium failed to find strong product-market fit.
I’ll say it again because it’s easy to lose perspective when you’re stuck in he weeds of naming process: your name is not your product.
Humans are born story-tellers. If your product solves a user’s need, they’ll build a positive association with any name. If your branding perfectly represents your idea, the dots will be easy to connect. If it’s 80% there, they’ll color in the lines. Worst case, they won’t think about it at all and keep using your product because it’s valuable to them.
Here are some examples that kept me sane:
- Twilio. What exactly is Twilio?
- Oscar. Is it hotdogs or health insurance?
- Plaid simplifies banking AIs. It's not disrupting woodsy clothing.
None of these names were anything when their first users found them. Now, these three companies are worth $16B. If you take a look through a list of unicorn startups, you’ll find plenty of other weird names sprinkled in between the AirBNB and Twitters of the tech world. These companies have a brand that extends out beyond the direct definition of their name. They bought the opportunity to craft their brands with the value they provided to their customers.
At the end of the day, if your product doesn’t solve a need, who cares what you named it? You’ll be insolvent by the time anyone hears about it.
So, pick a name that you’re happy with. Pick a name people can spell. Most importantly, pick a name you won’t mind saying thousands of times a month.
Then, buy the domain and build something great. You’ll make it yours over time.