In rush for new names, tech startups spew gobbledygook

[16 April 2010]

By Patrick May

San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

SAN JOSE, California — Born of too much brainstorming or not enough sleep, the names come flying out of nowhere — Crocodoc, Yext, Nowmov.

They turn nouns into adverbs (Answerly) or aspire to become brand-new verbs in true “I-just-googled-her” fashion.

And in the process, they drop vowels like a clumsy waiter (Flickr), spell perfectly good words backward (Xobni) and insert punctuation points where they have no business being (Center’d).

It’s the Great Internet Branding Gold Rush. And with tech startups in Silicon Valley and beyond falling over themselves to create cool names with an AdMob’s swagger and a Twitter’s zip, the word-play is getting wild. To make matters worse, as the supply of good available names dries up, the envelope is being pushed right over the cliff of clever into the canyon of overly cute.

“We were brainstorming for two weeks, but all the names we came up with were taken,” said Mo Al Adham, 25, who co-founded his video-sharing service while tethered to a tight budget. “We were still poor students, looking for a $10 domain name. My business partner used to love 7-Eleven lime slushies, so he said, ‘How about EatLime?’ If we’d had a hundred grand, we probably could have come up with a much better name.”

With the low-hanging fruit pretty much picked over, name-hungry entrepreneurs are in a branding frenzy. Whether they’re compiling kitchen-table lists or paying professional consultants, the startup crowd is resorting to all sorts of tricks — slapping words together, like Cardpool; lodging inside jokes into their names, like Lolapps; mixing up numbers and letters, like 500Friends. And each company founder thinks he or she has found the perfect one.

Take Shayan Zadeh, co-founder of an online dating site called Zoosk. Why Zoosk? Blame it on the drugs he was taking.

“My co-founder and I were both home with colds and a fever,” he said. “We were trying to come up with something and we wanted it to start with a ‘z’ or an ‘x’ because they’re sexy letters and we were a dating company. And after seeing the success of Google and Yahoo, we liked having two ‘o’s. Then the light bulb went off and Zoosk just sort of stuck. Plus, we were so sick and tired by that point that it must have been the NyQuil effect.”

Steven Addis, a Berkeley, Calif.-based consultant who’s been in the branding business for a quarter-century, sees the current crisis as part of a larger historical arc. Ten years ago, “everything was very dot-commish — punchy, short names like Yahoo. But when the bubble burst, a lot of the more frivolous names went out of vogue and suddenly sounded very dated.”

Addis said the pendulum swung the other way for a while, as everyone fled dot-comania like the plague. But lately, “the world has gone back to a more dot-com sort of feel, out of necessity because everything normal is taken,” said Addis, referring to the despised “domain squatters” — folks who grab the best names, then pay a small fee to sit on them until a desperate buyer comes along. “There’s such hatred for these guys, because they just hijack these great URLs.”

Which leads us to the misspelled, nonsensical, copycatting mess we’re now knee-deep in. Smule and Skimble, anyone?

And when the going gets tough, the tough spell words backward. One of the investors in Matt Brezina’s e-mail-organizing startup came up with Xobni. Get it?

“We hopped on the computer and saw the domain was available and bought it for eight bucks on the spot,” Brezina said. “Names with just five letters are hard to get, because the shorter it is the easier it is to type and the more traffic you get. Users say Xobni’s really memorable — especially once they know it’s ‘inbox’ spelled backward.”

And even though a consulting firm gave it a trophy for having the worst company name of 2008, Brezina says his San Francisco firm, now housed in Twitter’s old offices, has 34 employees and has seen one of its tools downloaded more than 5 million times.

Still, everyone’s got their own ideas about what makes a great name. Branding guru and author Naseem Javed says “we are at a crossroads right now because naming has become global. And your name must project the right strength, so if you think you can call yourself Boohoo or LalaLand, you’re dreaming in Technicolor.”

Apparently, the folks over at Fecalface (an art-scene site) and Booyah (an entertainment purveyor) didn’t get the memo.

“A lot of these companies will have a major marketing job to build awareness for their brand,” says Buford Barr, a marketing expert at Santa Clara University. “These names tell you nothing. At least Coca-Cola told you something — it was a cola! We don’t do that anymore. I don’t want to sound like an old guy, but how will people remember your name if they can’t even pronounce it?”

Pronounceability, if that’s even a word, is key, says Joe Fahrner, who co-founded a “question-and-answer search engine” called Answerly.

“We were inspired by Writely, which was acquired by Google. Answerly was available for $6.99. We also bought Questionly and Askerly just in case, all for under 100 bucks.”

In the end, nothing spells success like success. Caterina Fake — yes, her real name! — knows the thrill of watching one’s company name ascend into the rarefied air of common parlance. She co-founded and created the name Flickr, the photo-sharing Web site that was later sold to Yahoo for a rumored $40 million.

“We wanted Flicker, but the guy who had it wouldn’t sell,” says Fake, 40. “So I suggested to the team, ‘Let’s remove this “e” thing.’ They all said, ‘That’s too weird,’ but I finally ground everyone down. Then of course, it became THE thing and everyone started removing vowels right and left.”

And the rest — from Scribd to Jangl to Jaxtr to Qik — is, well, Hstry.

———

QUIZ:

Guess which one of these five company names is fake:

—Zencoder

—Etacts

—Rockyrowed

—JamBase

—Heyzap

(Answer: Rockyrowed).

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/124107-in-rush-for-new-names-tech-startups-spew-gobbledygook/