This guest post is authored by Mark Bivens. Mark is a Silicon Valley native and former entrepreneur, having started three companies before “turning to the dark side of VC.” He is a venture capitalist that travels between Paris and Tokyo (aka the RudeVC). You can read more on his blog at http://rude.vc or follow him @markbivens. The Japanese translation of this article is available here.
A year ago I wrote about French startup naming blunders and promised a follow up piece with constructive advice. I applaud non-English speaking entrepreneurs for bravely choosing international names when branding their companies and products. After all, English (or more specifically: broken English) is the most common business language globally.
I do not mock language mistakes and have certainly committed my share of stumbles when operating outside of my native tongue. However, for entrepreneurs whose first language is not English, it’s foolish not to test your proposed startup brand first with a native English speaker.
You can read some entertaining names of real-life startups in France that failed to heed this basic advice in my earlier post. In this one, I will explore some effective methods for choosing a company brand name which I have witnessed in various portfolio companies over the years.
Before starting, nail down the marketing basics of your business: segmentation / targeting / positioning. Understand how you’ve defined your target market and positioning within it. Resist the temptation to premise your entire business on a cool name you thought of (Note: I did this myself in the mid-90s with the name Virtual Realty, a startup which would bring 360-degree virtual tours to real estate. The name was awesome, but my overlooking the marketing fundamentals ultimately resulted in a failed business).
Decide if your company name is going to represent your public-facing brand, or rather simply your flagship product. Both methods work, however, I’ve witnessed startups that fumble this in failing to clarify it early on.
Descriptive vs. symbolic
Do you want to choose a name that describes (or implies something about) your business activity? Or do you prefer a symbolic name? Examples of the former include AirBnb, Facebook, and Microsoft; whereas Amazon, Apple, and Google are examples of the latter. I tend to be partial to symbolic names, because technology churns so quickly. Trends blossom and wither, and accordingly tech company must often evolve their business activities. However, a symbolic name generally requires a higher initial investment in marketing to build brand recognition.
Don’t choose a name in your corner. Solicit the advice of your company stakeholders both upwards (board), downwards (employees), and laterally (customers, suppliers, partners). Then ask a diverse collection of people you trust outside your business network. Even consider asking a stranger or two. Incidentally, if you’re generally not in the habit of soliciting feedback from others, chances are your marketing instincts are off.
Resist overused word components to better stand out from the crowd. For example, last I counted 12 fintech startups in France alone use the word ‘pay’ in their name. In Japan, founders have an affinity for the word ‘market’, or for “adverbing” words by appending ‘ly’ to the end.
And last but not least, consult a native speaker for each market in which you may aspire to conduct business (obviously!). That way you’ll avoid naming your company after a venereal disease.