Picking a good name for your startup is important. As I explained in a previous article,
picking a name that is memorable, but not too clever, is easier said than done.
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As an early stage investor, I was witness to the birthing of startup names many times. I helped name and/or spell Leaba Semiconductor (acquired by Cisco), Sedona Systems, Oryx Vision, Vayyar Imaging and BillGuard (acquired by Prosper). I also had a part with a few failures like Siano, Kerenix, and Kodeos. I’ve made many entrepreneurs squirm in their chair talking about company names, and I think I’m in a pretty good position to put together a helpful guide.
The following list of potential pitfalls addresses some of the more common mistakes made by native and non-native English entrepreneurs. The lively Israeli startup eco-systems handily supplied me with ample examples, but many non-Israeli make similar mistakes.
1. Your Company is Not a Product . Think big and think long term, because your first product is unlikely to be what defines you when you are big and successful. An oblique nod to the product concept in your company name can be great, but don’t let your company name be confused with your product name as in PowerMat, OneHourTranslation, Double Verify, SpotInst, BeInSynch or OwnBackup. Occasionally, it works out in the case of MobileEye, Fraud Sciences and CyberArk, but ideally your company name should be distinct from your product name and capabilities (e.g. AutoTalks, WalkMe, SalesPredict, SeeTree). Product names prove most problematic when trying to execute a pivot, as MyThings learned the hard way. The one exception for this pitfall is with consumer products, where product and company meld together as in MyHeritage.
2. Two-Word Names Lack Originality . The other problem with product sounding names is that they typically require two words, which becomes a mouthful for branding (e.g. SuperDerivatives, EyeBlaster and BVP’s Dynamic Yield). Don’t even get me started on three-word names, such as The Gifts Project, Secret Double Octopus, Start A Fire. Either way, if you need two words to describe your company you are going in the wrong direction (excluding words such as networks, systems, semiconductor, etc.). It’s certainly easier to be unique with two words, but it’s generally not memorable or catchy (cautious exceptions for known word combination such as Charlotte’s Web or SundaySky). If you do go this route, at least stick to word combinations with no more than two to three syllables. Once successful, names like SolarEdge and PrimeSense seem great, but they are still a mouthful to say and write even post-exit.
3. Don’t Memorialize a Tech Trend. The same can be said for naming your company after a technology trend or sector. This is tempting, because it can yield a quick return when it’s hot, but when overused or out of favor, it becomes a burden and source of confusion. Few of you may remember the .com era, when literally every startup added “.com” to their name regardless of their core activity. That shortsighted label appendage won’t likely be repeated en masse, but there are hints of a similar trend with companies adding blockchain to their name. Today we suffer from the mild overuse of “app,” “cloud,” “cyber,” “deep” and “AI”. Hopefully your company will last a lot longer than a trendy term or market segment. The same goes for using variations of the word “intelligence” or “innovation.” Despite hundreds of attempts, that worked exactly once with Intel. I would add to this list variations on the word “optimal” as in Optibase, Optimove, Optibus, and Optimal+; and variations of the word “maximum.”
4. Easy to Spell. When someone hears it, they should have a fairly good idea of how it might be spelled so they can find it online or refer to your company without mangling the name. It does not have to be a real word found in any dictionary and certainly not a correctly spelled word, but if it is a real word, it should not contain more than one spelling mistake. It didn’t stop them from succeeding, but Xtremio had two surprises in its spelling, and to this day I cannot be sure I have typed it correctly. Luckily it was acquired before anyone really searched for it online. Same with Xacct, Pursway, Cvidya, Pipl, Wochit, Moovit and dozens of others that never made it past their A round. In any case, a name should never be a concentrated collection of spelling errors. One misspelling, such as BVP’s Qwilt is perfect, because the misspelling itself becomes memorable. Also be careful with symbols as in CTI2, Optimal+ and Hola!
5. Easily Pronounceable. There are names that when spelled leave the reader struggling to know how to pronounce it. In particular, it must be pronounceable when read by a native English speaker. Arbe Robotics will be pronounced like the fast food restaurant, Arby’s. More importantly, you can’t expect the average person to know how to pronounce horribly misspelled words or even some acronyms. XIV got away with this and it was pretty cool, but I think Shieldiot (shee-idiot), SEOxperts, IPlight (i-plight) and Analoc had to correct people more than once.
6. Avoid Medicinal Names . Although it’s tempting, the name shouldn’t sound like something you could find in the pharmacy or biological weapon unless that’s what you are developing. The letter ‘X’ is quite tricky in this respect. Consider Mellanox (too close to Maalox), Appoxee (for eradicating smallpox?), Vexigo (to relieve stress?), Xoreax (use gloves), Oxitone (for clearer skin), Thorium (sounds lethal), and SysAid (anti-bacterial cream?).
7. Non-English Words Can Be Awesome. Some Israeli startups use a Hebrew word for a name, which can be challenging when addressing an English-speaking audience. When a company pulls it off it is awesome. The best names are both easily pronounced in both languages and carry the secret meaning Israeli entrepreneurs crave. Take for example our former portfolio company, Altair Semiconductor. They developed a software-defined radio modem for mobile wireless. To some people, Altair sounds like a gesture to the world’s first minicomputer, the Altair 8800, but it also has the word “air” in it suggesting it’s a wireless play. But the Hebrew meaning is probably the most interesting, because “altair,” means to improvise, which is exactly what their technology enabled with regards to different wireless standards. Passave was also clever. It combined the word passive, as in passive optical networks, with the double Hebrew meaning of broadband.
Other good examples include Alooma, Adallom, Capriza, Feex, Finjan, Fixya, Kaltura, Leaba, Qlika, Saifun, Taboola, Tipalti, Zirra and Zooz. This might look easy, but remember that Americans put an emphasis on the first syllable, while Israelis emphasize the second. The flip side is a secret Hebrew word, like RoboTeam (Hebrew for robots in plural). Then again, some Hebrew words have a dual meaning in English which ruin the original intent (e.g. OrCam).
I have come across many startup names that made no sense to me until I heard it with an Israeli accent. Even ‘WhatsApp’ only sounds like ‘What’s Up’ to a non-American. That’s why StartApp, no matter how successful, is actually a bad name because I’m pretty certain it’s supposed to sound like “startup,” but it doesn’t! Other examples are Yadata, Cooladata, Sweetch (switch with a heavy accent) eGlue (this is not how Americans pronounce igloo), Neebula (Nebula), Hooqs (hooks), Back& (Backend), DaPulse (always reminded me of this scene), OverSi, Pipl (this is pipe-el, not People) and Bandwd (Bandwidth). Only after their acquisition did I realize that LightCyber was supposed to sound like a Jedi’s favorite weapon. I thought they were a light cyber security solution.
It may also be important to note, that you should choose a name that works well with the accent of most of your employees. For Israelis, that makes anything that starts or ends with a “th” is off-limits, like ThetaRay, Worthy (“wordy?”), or EatWith (Eatwid) and Ethernity (Ether-nity?). Same with Libox (a box of lies?). But it can be worse, because some names such as Factmeme and iPawn, sound X-rated in a typical Israeli accent. Best to avoid any names with a sexual connotation like SEOxperts, Xsodot and AllOfMe.
8. Check the Urban Dictionary. This is something you must check before signing off on your name choice. Some of the words and meanings are obscure, but you don’t want to be surprised that your company name is a slur or lewd word, like SnatchBot. I’m not sure they would have avoided it, but perhaps Sec.do and Any.do would have chosen differently if they knew that “do” is slang for hairdo. So the next time you are in a hair salon, you can ask for an any.do. Although for me SecDo still sounds like something you mistakenly stepped in while mowing the lawn.
9. Check Translations. One final check before you press send. This is hard to avoid, but your company likely means something in a foreign language. This may just mean a little extra SEO work as we experienced with Soluto (in Italian) or total rebranding as what happened with Luz2 (Brightsource). English should be the first language to check but there is no excuse for very foreign sounding names like eToro, Hola! which clearly sound aimed for a South American audience. Check the meaning in a few UN languages, such as Wix in German. Click to view this self-induced parody
10. Eponymous Names Are Still Out of Favor . Who doesn’t want their own name in a company, on a building and eventually a ticker symbol (e.g. EMC, Ford, Dell, Disney, Heinz, Hershey)? But these single founder companies belong to a very different era. Today most startups have multiple founders (and immigrant names don’t always work). Even Hewlett-Packard was such a mouthful in the day, everyone called it HP which compelled the company to belatedly change its name to HP Inc. Israelis have Benny Landa’s Landa Digital Printing, but the closest successful eponymous Israeli startup name I could find was Dov Moran’s M-Systems, which he astutely changed from Moran Systems due to how American are likely to pronounce Moran. Acronyms with the founders’ names have had some success decades ago. NSO Group works because its sounds like NSA, where the O is for “offensive” (my uninformed interpretation).
11. No License Plate Names. This branding technique is horrible. It’s where individual letters and numbers are pronounced as words, similar to a license plate that can be read like “IMGR8.” There was exactly one Israeli company that hit it big with a license plate name and that was EZchip, luckily in a sector where brands don’t matter as much. Not surprisingly, they were founded a year after the company behind ICQ (I seek you) was acquired by AOL for $400M. From there it was downhill with companies such as uTest(now Applause), E4X, CB4, 2CUagain, LiveU and InirU. Bessemer has one entry here with Team8, but it’s a single number and not really a startup.
Adam Fisher is a partner at venture capital firm Bessemer Venture Partners. In 2007, Mr. Fisher established the firm’s Israeli office. Before joining Bessemer Venture Partners, Mr. Fisher was a partner at Jerusalem-based venture firm Jerusalem Venture Partners, working from New York, Jerusalem and Beijing.