Lessons learned from generating 182 bad startup names

Published on
March 13th, 2019
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’s desperation.
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.
Find inspiration. Jason Calacanis from This Week in Startups has some pretty solid advice on picking a domain on their YouTube channel. I even stooped to a personal low of watching a Gary Vaynerchuk Q&A about naming a startup.
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.
Published on
March 13th, 2019
Comments (6)
Charles Alexander
Always remember if you don't have access to #namestorming just get really baked, order pizza and spend a couple hundred bucks on https://park.io/
Robert Chandler
Premium Domain Names / Global Brands
Simple Rules for a successful "Company Name / Domain Name / Global Brand" ... 1) Short, 2) Easy To Spell, 3) Easy To Say, 4) Easy to Remember. It can be either "Descriptive" (One or Two Words which Describe a Startup's Product or Service) OR "Catchy" (One-Word or Popular Phrase). Choose the Right "Name / Domain / Brand" from the start to optimize Sales from Clients, Funding from Investors and Recognition from Peers. Check out http://internetaddresssolutions.com for premium Startup Name examples and ideas.
Vitaliy Yavorskiy
agree with Robert, but it don't have so much matter
Anca Sandu
Product Manager || User Researcher
@charlesalexnder thanks for sharing man! I don't feel alone anymore. I've been going through a similar process lately and you go through all states possible: from excitement, to laughter to desperation and the feeling of a never ending story. Our Slack feed probably looks like yours and yes, best ideas come after 11 pm. And then the voting, the personal preferences, the discussions, the pronunciation, the frustration piling up. And then, at one point, you finally get to see a ray of light :).
-drik S.
Creative Copywriter