What’s in a name? For Japanese startups, sometimes alphabet soup


alphabet soup

Over the past few years we are seeing more Japanese startups than ever before looking beyond domestic borders to markets abroad. This is undeniably awesome. But this development is not without growing pains and awkwardness. What works in Japan doesn’t always work elsewhere, and this is particularly true of company names.

From the point of view a non-Japanese person, there seems to me to be a very disproportionate number of companies in Japan that have crazy names. This problem has a number of symptoms, including:

I’m a little reluctant to point this out, but when I read how Takafumi Horie named his latest app, Teriyaki, it really made me think about the problem a little more.

With hopes of global expansion potential, we decided to name the app ‘Teriyaki’ — something familiar to non-Japanese people too.

Too few Japanese startups do this. In fact, our own team here fallen into this trap as well, although having rebranded as The Bridge recently, I’m glad we’re out of it! [2]

Evasive maneuvers

So if you are a Japanese company, how can you avoid this sort of problem? I’d like to share a few points that I think should be considered when choosing a name for your company or service. Keep in mind, I don’t claim to be any sort of naming expert. But I’ll try to offer a few points that I think can help.

  1. Ask the crowd you know – Make use of the poll features in Google Drive or Facebook to gather feedback from as many of your friends as possible, and from a diverse range of people if you can.
  2. Ask the crowd you don’t know – If you don’t know any English-speaking people who can offer suggestions, consider using a service like PickyDomains, where you can crowdsource some domain name ideas for a reasonable price [3]. If you can’t manage to get feedback from English-speaking people using modern day internet tools, you should probably reconsider doing business abroad.
  3. The telephone test – A really great name is one that you can tell someone over the phone without any big problem.
  4. The t-shirt test – Is your name and logo something that your employees would wear on a t-shirt? If not, maybe reconsider.
  5. Don’t be afraid to use a Japanese name, even if you are targeting global markets. Some names can be just fine for global use. Rakuten, Origami, Gengo, and Niconico are all easy to say and remember. Some Western companies even choose names that sound Japanese because they sound sort of cool (see tech blog Kotaku).

Let’s face it, choosing a good name for your company or service is really hard. And if you have to do it for two markets, then it’s twice as difficult. Given that limitation, the best strategy might be simply choose a name that doesn’t suck in either market.

Of course if you have no plans on expanding beyond Japan, feel free to disregard everything I’ve just said. But if you think there is even a chance you might expand your business abroad in the future, it doesn’t hurt to factor that possibility into your naming decision.

  1. CocoPPa is actually doing quite well overseas, which is good to see. As an editor though, I really despise those double Ps. For the record, I wrote about unusual capitalization a long time ago, so I’m not going to bother going into that mess again.  ↩

  2. This is sort of getting to be a thing for me. Join a company and try to rename it…  ↩

  3. I think that actual domain names are not quite as important as they used to be in this mobile age. Our choice of ‘The Bridge’ was a tough one, because it’s not so SEO friendly. But SEO isn’t what it used to be, thankfully!  ↩