All around San Francisco, the centre of the largest technology boom since the dot-com bubble, signs of the surging startup market are readily visible: House prices and commuting times are soaring, and many of the city’s billboards sport ads for mobile applications. By one estimate, two-thirds of all the office space rented in this city during 2012 went to technology companies.
But the startup surge of the past few years has also created another, less quantifiable conundrum: All the obvious tech company names, it seems, have been spoken for.
“All of the beachfront real estate is taken,” said Eli Altman, creative director at Berkeley-based branding agency A Hundred Monkeys, and author of an upcoming naming guide for startups titled Don’t Call It That.
For all its focus on innovation and disruption, the tech startup world can be downright risk-averse when it comes to naming conventions.
A handful of popular trends – for example, dropping a vowel or two from a regular word, or using an exotic country domain suffix such as “.it” or “.me” to create a name that sounds like a command – account for a disproportionate number of startup names.
Coupled with the dwindling availability of traditional website addresses, the problem is made worse as more and more “.com” domains are bought up, either by the companies themselves or by domain-name “squatters” – a term used to describe people who buy popular domain names with no intention of building websites, but rather to try to sell them at a profit later on. “URL scarcity really is what drives a lot of these trends,” said Mr. Altman, referring to the Uniform Resource Locator, the technical name for a website address. “I’m pretty confident people wouldn’t be dropping vowels if it weren’t for the URLs.”
Since the days of the dot-com boom, the tech world has been responsible for a barrage of bad company names. Some came about as a result of the industry’s tendency to create new words by mashing together old ones (leading to such inexplicable results as the digital music startup Fairtilizer). In other cases, the names boiled down to bad puns (the university social studying network ClusterFlunk, for example).
And sometimes, a startup’s name simply defies explanation, as in the case of the online marketplace startup Oooooc.com.
“Sometimes you get a company that chooses a bad name, but it’s completely unique, or it’s a set of alphanumeric characters that has never been used before, so it’s completely ownable,” said Jay Jurisich, founder and creative director of San Francisco naming agency Zinzin.
But that strategy, he argues, isn’t necessarily a good idea – especially if everyone else is doing the same thing.
“Yes, it’s unique, but it’s unique in the same way a snowflake is completely unique – as soon as you stand back and look at the whole snow bank, it disappears.”
Instead, Mr. Jurisich and other naming advisers to the tech industry favour abstraction in a different way. He points to the difference between Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp. as an example. More than three decades since the two companies changed the world of personal computing, Microsoft’s name – which once described with extreme specificity what the company did – is in many ways a dated misnomer, given that Microsoft no longer makes only software, and that the microcomputers for which it once designed that software no longer exist.
Apple, on the other hand, has had no such issues. “Apple could have launched with a name like Simplicity Computing – they would have told people what they’re all about, but any time you explain it, it’s not powerful,” Mr. Jurisich said. “It’s much more powerful to demonstrate.”
Among the tech companies that do this best today, he notes, are Twitter, whose chirping name fits perfectly its 140-character missives, and Amazon, whose name conjures a massive ecosystem of myriad species – a fitting metaphor for the company’s sprawling online storefront.
For other startups, a memorable name can often be come from fairly straightforward requirements.
“We wanted to astonish and we wanted to create a company that was less hierarchical and more ‘family’ … So the name was settled,” said Hampus Jakobsson, co-founder of The Astonishing Tribe, a Swedish user interface company that was acquired by Canada’s BlackBerry Ltd. in late 2010.
“The biggest problem was that non-native English speakers had a hard time spelling it and the URL was kind of long. So we took the abbreviation TAT,” he said.
Fortunately for the coming generation of startups, the chief constraint on creative company names – the availability of website addresses – will soon be largely lifted. The Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, which is responsible for domain name regulation, is currently in the process of approving hundreds of new domain name suffixes, such as “.Coke” and “.Google.” The expansion – one of the largest in the history of the Internet – means that almost anyone with the money to do so can apply for their own domain-name suffix. It also effectively lifts some of the pressure from traditional domain extensions such as “.com” or “.net.”
But even that change is unlikely to erase some of the tech industry’s now-ingrained naming conventions. And as Mr. Altman of A Hundred Monkeys notes, many of his tech industry clients have a habit of conflating the quality of a company’s name with that company’s level of success. “We always ask clients what they think are some great names,” he said. “When Yahoo was doing very well, everyone said Yahoo. When they started struggling, nobody said Yahoo.”