Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Startup Naming Stories from the Guy you Saw on Bravo TV

You may have spotted me today on Bravo TV's "Startups: Silicon Valley". Cast member Kim Taylor has just left Ampush and invited Lauren Jacobson, Mike Ihbe, and me over to have a brainstorming session to come up with a name for her new fashion startup.

Prime time TV doesn't really allow for an in-depth look at startup naming strategies. For example, one thing that the show left out today is that I came prepared with this Google spreadsheet of possible names for Kim's startup - but I’ll tell you more about that in a minute.

Instead of giving you a bland “10 Tips for Startup Naming” blog post, I decided to tell you 3 stories from my personal experience: A bad name, a great name, and one that’s somewhere in the middle.

A Bad Name

When I was in grad school in 2005, Google released its Google Maps APIs, which would allow people to show Google Maps on their own sites. But it wasn’t easy to just make a map with your own locations, so learned Ruby on Rails and built a site that let you do that in 2 weeks of caffeine-fueled late night sessions (I managed to attend all my classes at the same time as well). All I was lacking was a name, and I was thinking that this site let you make your Google Map, thus I named it yourgmap.com. That name is really bad for a bunch of reasons:
  • it’s hard to read (3 consonants packed up right next to each other)
  • it’s hard to parse (where do the words begin and end)
  • it’s confusing (is it “my” map or “your” map?)
The site is still alive, and gets a bunch of usage and traffic, but I’m not very proud of the name, which had clearly emerged from the clouded judgement of late-night coding.

A Great Name

The company I sold to Google was called reMail, and we got remail.com. I think it was pretty much the perfect name for a startup with the goal of reinventing email:
  • it fits the business (the word "email" is in the name)
  • it's short (6 letters, two syllables)
  • it’s the .com (very important because that's what people are trained to type in)
  • it's pronounceable
We were working out of a Foster City apartment at the time - we had holed up in suburbia to avoid the distractions of the city. We had raised money from YCombinator and some angels, but we didn't really have a name yet. We came up with a list of 10 email-related .com domain names that were available, and sent them to one of our angels, Paul Buchheit. Paul, of course, is famous not only for inventing Gmail, but also for not holding back on his opinions. He told us he didn't like any of them and that we should go back to the drawing board.

If there is one universally acknowledged truth about domain names, it's that all the good domains are taken. I made a list of ideal domain names for an email startup, and started reaching out to the owners of each domain. (You can find out who owns a domain using a service called WHOIS.) One day I need to write a post about negotiating for domain names, but it comes down to this: If you reach out to 32 domain name owners, 16 of them will respond, 8 of them will be willing to talk about selling, 4 of them will be actually serious, 2 will agree to a price, and 1 of them will actually sell. That’s exactly what happened with remail.com, and we bought it from the previous owner, a gentleman in Tennessee  for $4000.

A Compromise

After I left Google a few months ago, I decided to team up with a former co-worker and a UI designer and work on a fun mobile app together. The most fun idea we could come up with was an app where you could chat with drawings. That sounds fun because it is. We named it DrawChat, but couldn’t get drawchat.com, because it was already taken. Instead, as a domain name, we got drawchat.me - a compomise because:
  • it’s short (two syllables, 8 characters)
  • it’s related to what the app does (you would “draw-chat me”)
  • but it's not the dot-com
For mobile apps, you don’t necessarily have to get the dot-com, because most people will find your app on the App Store, not the web.

As an aside, we didn’t initially know what we were going to build. But one thing about building apps for iOS is that in order to get a company account for the Apple App Store, you have to go through a complex process of incorporating the company, getting a tax ID number, and getting a Dun & Bradstreet number to prove that your company is legit - a process that can easily take a month. Because we didn’t know what we’re going to do, we decided come up with a name for the company that was so bland that your eyes would barely register it when you saw it in the App Store. We called it Watermark Studios. See, it barely even registered in your mind.

We recently sold DrawChat to mobile development company Handmark - futher proof the name wasn't half bad.

The Scientific Approach

Let’s get back to Kim’s startup and our powwow on Bravo TV. I did a little bit of homework before we met up with her and followed the scientific approach of startup naming:
  1. I came up with a list of words related to fashion. I walked into a Walgreens, bought a stack of fashion magazines, and leafed through them, writing up words that caught my attention.
  2. I cut the list down to shorter words that could work as prefixes and suffixes.
  3. I put the list into a domain name generator (my favorite one is the DomBuddy generator), and got a list of available combinations.
You can follow this approach in this Google spreadsheet I put together for Kim. If you’re starting a fashion startup, and are looking for a name, feel free to use any of them.


The domain that Kim ended up with - shonova.com - is one that she, as a former gymnast, had a personal connection with. Yelena Shushunova is the gymnast’s gymnast, and inspired a move that is shortened to Shonova. Here’s how it scores:
  • it has a personal connection (and Kim does a great job of telling her personal story on Bravo TV)
  • it’s short (three syllables, unambiguous pronounciation)
  • it’s related to gymnastics, which her audience fashionistas would care about
  • it's unique, which allowed Shonova to already take the top spot on Google for that word
It’ll be an exciting journey for Kim. I have signed up for a beta invite and you should too!

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