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Avoiding the Curse of a Bad Name – How to Name Your Startup Right

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When starting a business, every entrepreneur wants to find a name that will get their new venture noticed. And get it noticed for the right reasons.

Bad names happen, especially in the tech world where playing with spellings and naming concepts is a part of most naming journeys. 

Someone, for example, thought that ‘Cuil’ was a great name for a search engine, presumably failing to notice that in many popular typefaces it looks exactly like ‘cull’. And another team, a team I can only imagine was made up of smart, creative tech professionals, named their app ‘Fashism’.

But it’s easy to avoid naming mistakes like these ones by following a few key naming steps. And the best part? You’ll learn a lot about your brand in the process.

What makes a good name?

The idea of ‘a good name’ for your business can feel ethereal. It’s easy to point out names that are failing, but how about names that are doing their job? What makes a good name?

The answer to that question, of course, depends on what it is you are naming.

Because one of the key assets of a good name is that it’s a fitting name. Your startup name should reflect its values, and should give potential customers some idea of what your business offers.

Names that are just okay don’t tell us much, and bad names are ill-fitting. They often make consumers think of the wrong type of business, product or service entirely. For example, when, a music company for indie artists, launched they were called Fairtilizer. Not only does that have nothing to do with music, it has a lot to do with gardening. And manure. 

Quick tips for a good name:

  • A good business name is memorable
  • A good business name is easy to say and spell
  • A good name is appealing – whether this appeal is emotional, curiosity based, or visual
  • A good name stands out – ask yourself, would I walk past this name on a billboard or would I take a second look?
  • A good name is tested! This is how you avoid faux pas and unintended double entendres

What is your brand tone?

Before you start coming up with name ideas, you have to decide what your brand tone is.

This means you have to work out what core values your brand stands for, and who your target audience is. Try writing up as many emotions and concepts as you can think of, and getting your team to choose the ones they feel are connected to your new brand.

Some popular tones include: 

  • Classic/High-End 
  • Fun & Playful 
  • Modern & Trendy 
  • Emotionally Powerful 
  • Simple and Descriptive

Don’t be afraid to brainstorm

Once you know the tone you’re aiming for, it’s time to get some potential names down. At this point, you can use a business name generator or try some simple naming tricks to generate app name contenders. 

One of the easiest ways to get the ball rolling is by coming up with the ‘building blocks’ of your business. Just like determining your brand tone, this is an important exercise in brand positioning that will be helpful throughout not only the naming process, but your entire brand building journey.

Building blocks are lists of concepts, values and phrases that are linked to your brand. A brand’s building blocks might look like this:

  • Innovation
  • Revolution
  • Disruption
  • Quality
  • Honesty
  • Work ethic
  • Trust
  • Pioneering

These ideas can be used in all sorts of ways at the brainstorming stage. For example, you could look each up in a thesaurus and come up with synonyms, related ideas, or even mythological characters who embody concepts that are key to your brand!

Google is a great help here too. You can look for historical characters who sum up the values your brand holds dear, or simply search for synonyms for your favorite building blocks.

This is the brainstorming stage – you are trying to get as many ideas down as possible. Yes, some of the names you and your team shout out in the heat of the moment will be bad. But you have to spitball some bad ideas to clear the way for the good ones!

Test, test, test again

If things are going well, you should have a pretty long list of potential names after the brainstorming phrase.

Now to start weeding them out.

First, think about your new business’ chosen brand tone and core values. Remove any names that are opposed to either of these things. For example, if your brand is innovative and fun get rid of anything too serious and traditional.

Next, get rid of anything you can see is obviously problematic, hard to say or remember, or impossible to spell.

Google is once again your friend here! Run a couple of searches on each word to make sure nothing negative comes up. Next, do the crowded bar test. Go somewhere noisy – do people understand the name when you say it to them? Can they write it down for you, or remember it an hour later?

These are tests you can do within your team, but you should also bring in outside help at the testing stage. Intersectional testing is important, because everyone will have different connections to the words you have chosen to make up your startup name. 

The more audience testing you can do, the more likely you are to come up with a high quality name that brings value to your company. 

Remember – ask your testers specific questions about the brand names that are in the running. Which would they be most likely to visit online, for example. Which do they connect most closely with your brand’s core values.

No shame in going back to the drawing board

You’ve done a lot of work to get to this point, I know. But ultimately, there’s a possibility at any stage in the naming process that you’ll have to go back to the drawing board. 

The thing is, going back to the drawing board is no bad thing. If you haven’t come up with a good name, or you find problems with names you initially thought promising then it’s far better to start the naming process over than to forge ahead with a name that is forgettable, problematic, inappropriate or overly complicated.

And it isn’t uncommon to make naming mistakes either. I mean, would Google be the superpower they are now if they were still called Backrub? It seems doubtful.

If you need to go through the steps more than once, just knuckle down and get it done. A brilliant name is out there somewhere, and you will find it with enough brainstorming. 

Naming 101s

To boil things down to bullet points, this is how you come up with a great startup name:

  • Make a list of your brand’s core values
  • Figure out a brand tone
  • Come up with building blocks
  • Brainstorm words, phrases and concepts related to your brand
  • Make a shortlist
  • Test, test, test

These fundamentals of naming should work across all industries, but there are also naming conventions that are specific to, say, tech, real estate or fashion. You should go into the naming process with a good idea of what the norms for naming are in your industry and a plan to either use them or push against them.

As serious a commitment as a name is, playing when you’re coming up with a name is important. This is a creative exercise, and one you can have fun with, so make sure you enjoy the naming process. That way, you’ll come up with a name that not only works, but also brings you joy.

About the author


Grant Polachek

Grant Polachek is the Head of Branding at Inc 500 company, the worlds #1 naming platform, with nearly 20,000 customers from the smallest startups across the globe to the largest corporations including Nestle, Philips, Hilton, Pepsi, and AutoNation. Get inspired by exploring these winning company name ideas.