8 Notorious Mistakes Made in Naming Start-ups

By Michelle McIntyre

Naming start-ups can be fun. When I advise clients on name ideas, I just let them know what sounds good and what makes sense based on their target market and growth plans.

However, the biggest mistake they make is naming for the present and not for their business climate many years down the line.

Here’s an example. International Business Machines (also known as IBM) has a name that lends itself to global expansion. It’s more than 100 years old and top investors like Warren Buffet like it. (It’s public knowledge that he owns a lot of stock.)

The name isn’t as exciting as Uber but it makes sense and the acronym is nice.
I love the name Uber. It’s short, cool, easy to say and easy to spell.

After using it recently I’m a huge fan of the private room-or-house-for-rent service Airbnb. But when I tell people to download the Airbnb app to look for their own dream getaway cabin or bargain business trip room, I have to explain how to spell it five or six times before they get it. By the way, you can also rent a houseboat, yurt, hammock or tree house through the service.

Naming a company after its headquarters city may not sound great when it expands globally, especially if that name is hard for someone elsewhere to spell or say.

Or what if the city has a negative connotation somewhere? Suppose I named a store Moscow Chocolates but I wanted to sell them online to the U.S. President? That may not work at this moment.

In any case, whether you are planning to sell software apps or chocolate bars, it’s good to put some careful thought into your new company’s name.

Here are eight of the biggest mistakes start-ups make when choosing a name.

1. NOT SECURING OWNERSHIP. It costs both time and money to take ownership of the new name. Make sure you take care of this early on or you might be sorry later. That doesn’t mean you have to shell out $80,000 to a naming firm although some of them do a great job. A 2013 Mashable article recommends checking your company name here first: http://namechk.com/

2. STEALING SOMEONE ELSE’S. This mostly applies to companies in the same market. If two companies have similar names but sell completely different things, it typically is not a problem. Did you know the game Angry Birds is being sued because there allegedly was already a stuffed animal company named “Angry Birds” in Europe formed years before the popular app came out? Granted the video game came before the “new” Angry Birds stuffed animals came out but if they are both plush toys, it’s definitely a conflict.

3. MAKING IT HARD TO SAY. Do you want people to muck it up when they introduce the speaker from your company at an awards ceremony? Of course not!

4. MAKING IT HARD TO SPELL. This is especially true in the age of social networking when everyone posts news stories and tidbits so quickly. If you are start-up CEO speaking at a trade show and you want people to tweet your awesome quotes and attribute them to you and your company, then make its name clear and easy to spell. When I’m live tweeting at a SVForum event, I get frustrated when I have to leave out a speaker’s company name because it takes too long to look it up.

5. THERE’S CONFUSION BETWEEN THE COMPANY NAME AND THE PRODUCT. The company Facebook is called Facebook but then the company has an app called Facebook and another one called Instagram. Thinking back, maybe Mark Zuckerberg should have made the company name different than the app to avoid confusion. As widely popular as Facebook and Instagram are, “Facebook’s Instagram” still doesn’t roll off the tongue. Same goes for Google’s YouTube. When I think of Google, I think of Google search. Google’s YouTube sounds awkward to me still.

6. IT MEANS SOMETHING AWFUL TO ANOTHER CULTURE. Again, plan for global growth! Most experienced business people know the number or word four is unlucky in several Asian countries. It’s because it sounds like the word death in some East Asian languages. There are a few of these zingers out there. Here’s a great Mental Floss article about this topic: http://mentalfloss.com/article/31168/11-product-names-mean-unfortunate-things-other-languages

7. NOT THINKING ABOUT INTERNET SEARCH ENGINES. Make your company name easy to find when people are searching for that topic. “Quality Dog and Cat Grooming” will likely come up first when people search for that service.

8. MAKING IT EASY TO LOOK SILLY. This story “50 of the Worst Business Names” at http://bestonlinemba.net/50-of-the-worst-business-names has some hilarious but sad examples of naming gone wrong. No offense to the person who owns Hooker’s Funeral Home but don’t they know what the word means? Is this a place for ladies and gents of the evening to be put to rest? Or is Hooker a highly respected family name? Probably the latter.

In any case, tell your name to a few different people before solidifying it. If at least three of them tell you it’s awful, believe them.

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Michelle McIntyre is the president of MMC PR, on the executive team of TEDxSanJoseCA and director of marketing communications of the Silicon Valley International Association of Business Communicators. Follow her on Twitter at @FromMichelle.

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