What’s in a name? Well, if you ask some of the world’s biggest new-age companies, the answer would probably surprise you. Success stories such as Google, Amazon, Yahoo! and IKEA all have instantly recognisable names, but fairly strange reasons for choosing them in the first place.
Google, for example, was initially going to be called BackRub, before being named after the mathematical term for 10¹⁰⁰, googol.
Yahoo! was initially an acronym for ‘Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle’, and gained the iconic exclamation point simply because another company was already registered with just plain ‘Yahoo’.
Many companies founded in the last 50 years also have some odd reasoning behind their names. Australian companies fare no different: Canva was once called ‘Canvas Chef’, Optus is derived from a couple of Latin words, and Envato is a word that’s entirely made up. You get the idea.
But just as there are hundreds of companies with weird and wacky names, there’s just as many with fairly standard names (General Motors, Commonwealth Bank, the list goes on) which have been just as successful as those without.
So when it comes to naming your business, how do you decide what to call it? And does it really matter what you pick in the long run?
The origins of the “most creative” business name in the last 10 years
Elizabeth Kaelin was the founder of online corporate catering marketplace Caitre’d, a business name once praised by startup guru Guy Kawasaki as the “most creative” business name he’d seen in the past 10 years.
Kaelin’s business was acquired by office catering company Yordar late last year, and the entrepreneur now works as the head of product at software development firm Terem. But during her tenure at the head of Caitre’d, the founder went through the tumultuous experience of having to rebrand her business entirely.
This is because Caitre’d was initially known as ‘You Chews’, a name Kaelin tells SmartCompany she came up with after visiting a friend who worked in a branding agency.
“We came up with You Chews, which I thought was really cute and playful, along with being a nice play on words too. It was my first business, and at the time I was really only thinking about myself rather than my actual customers,” she says.
Despite being happy with it at the time, on reflection, Kaelin says You Chews was a poor choice for her corporate catering company.
“If I did it again, I wouldn’t choose that name. We were trying to go after a corporate customer, and they didn’t want cutesy names. They wanted something that would inspire trust, a name they could look at and know it was a company they could rely on.”
But You Chews as a business name ended up being short-lived anyway, as a trademark dispute from another company led to Kaelin changing her business’ name to Caitre’d. The founder says though she had done a thorough trademark check, another Australian company with a claim to the term ‘U Chews’ ended up sending the business a cease and desist.
“They pretty much said if you want to use the name, you’re going to have to pay us licensing fees,” she said.
Galvanised into action, Kaelin rushed to change all the relevant parts of the business, including things such as domain names and social media pages. There were a few little things she missed though, only changing her business name on Xero months later after a new client contacted her in confusion.
Name changes for young businesses are far from uncommon, and even occur in larger, more established businesses from time to time also. Just this week, iconic health brand Weight Watchers announced a change to ‘WW’, and earlier this year US pancake brand IHOP briefly changed its name to IHOb, much to its customers’ disgust.
Though it was massively stressful at the time, looking back Kaelin says changing the name from the cutesy You Chews to the “classier” Caitre’d was the best thing she could have done for the business. The business itself was able to refocus, with Kaelin and her team starting to put more onus on customer experience, and the founder says the experience of entirely changing their branding brought the team together.
The secret to a good name
Kaelin says when she was trying to think of another business name to replace You Chews, she received one piece of advice from a friend and branding guru which stuck with her.
“If you can actually put into your name what your business does, or as close as you can get, that’s the best thing you can do. It means customers can easily see what you’re doing,” Kaelin says.
“When I used to say You Chews, people thought we sold dog treats. Caitre’d is a made up name, but that’s exactly what the business did.”
This was the same philosophy for Mike Biercuk, the founder of quantum computing startup Q-CTRL, who tells SmartCompany finding a name for his business was a difficult task on many fronts.
Quantum computing by its very nature is both exciting and emerging, and also quite esoteric, meaning Biercuk had the challenge of finding a name that was meaningful and practical while also being different to many of the existing quantum-related businesses out there.
“We wanted something that didn’t correspond to known websites or owned domains, and something that would be search engine optimised. That was a bigger challenge in our field because there’s been a longstanding fascination with quantum physics which leads to companies parking on all sorts of web domains and business names,” he says.
“That made it really challenging, especially when there are non-quantum related tech companies hogging all the business names.”
Biercuk ended up with Q-CTRL, which he says explains the area of tech his business focuses on (quantum control) while being a bit “nerdy” by using the shortened version of ‘control’ which appears on computer keyboards.
Business domains getting harder and harder to find
While the founder is happy with the name, the hyphen came about because the domain ‘qctrl’ was already registered. Biercuk says this was “unfortunate” as the domain ‘q-ctrl’ has lead to challenges when trying to optimise his business for search results.
Brad Parsons, founder of industrial IoT startup MOVUS, loosely followed the same guidelines when creating his business name: a semi-portmanteau of ‘moving’ and ‘industry’.
However, the founder tells SmartCompany he ran into similar problems as Biercuk’s when trying to register his domain name, recalling when he first went looking for ‘movus.com’ it was available, but he wasn’t 100% sold on the name at the time.
“I got a bit busy, and then I went back a few days later to register the name and someone had pinched it,” he says.
“Now this company has it, and for the last 18 months I’ve been trying to get it off them, but they want $100,000 for it, it’s ludicrous.”
This has posed some significant challenges for the Brisbane-based startup, which despite having the ‘movus.com.au’ domain, had to launch in the US under a totally different business name altogether.
“Because we can’t get that domain name in the US, we now have to identify over there as ‘FitMachine’ [the name of MOVUS’ product]. We’re going to have to switch totally from an organisational branding to a product-focused branding,” he says.
“Startups need to get onto domain names quicksmart and get them as fast as they can, even before you start advertising or telling anyone about your business.”
Does it really matter if you pick a bad name?
If after reading this you’re feeling destitute about the name you just picked for your new business, don’t fret. Both Biercuk and Parsons say it’s unlikely your business name will be the thing that makes or breaks your company in its early days, but both recommend erring on the side of ‘practical’ rather than ‘creative’.
“I don’t think it matters too much, as long as people are able to recognise you. I think a lot of companies out there want to come up with a creative name so badly they make up one that’s really hard to remember or hard to spell,” Parsons says.
“If people can’t recognise your brand instantly, you’ll be in a world of hurt. People can’t buy if they can’t remember who you are.”
Biercuk says the very existence of branding and marketing as an area of business highlights the significance of business names and their importance, but thinks they’re more important for startups who sell to customers rather than those who sell to other businesses.
“I think more than anything it’s important to have a brand that’s both different and recognisable and something your customers can understand,” he says.
“After all, they’re the ones you want to buy your products or services.”