What's in a name?

Avoid fads when christening your company, says Faisal Butt.

by Faisal Butt
Last Updated: 29 Apr 2016

Names are inherently linked to fashion. In the UK today, for example, it’s the height of cool to name our children old-fashioned Downton Abbey-style names. There’s an odd parallel with Silicon Valley, where the latest trend is to name your company as though it is one of these hipster children, a Lulu, Clara or Alfred – which are all real US tech company names right now.

The name game is always one of the biggest challenges for anyone starting a company. Most small companies don’t have access to branding agencies, so have to rely on their naming instincts and probably inordinate amounts time doing back-of-a-napkin pub brainstorming. Every company wants to sound contemporary, relevant and even intriguing, without sounding so cool that you’ll be perceived as ‘ridiculously 2015’ and relegated to the corporate graveyard in five years’ time. And then there’s also the small matter of domain-name availability.

Haughty surnames to cool ‘n’ casual

The general trend over the last 100 years or so in company naming has been the move from formal to informal. Important-sounding family names for companies are now reminiscent of aristocratic surnames from another era. Think Wells Fargo in the US, or Ernst & Young in the UK - which recently rebranded to the far more simple and modern EY, with a dynamic and clean-looking logo to match.

We can thank Ben & Jerry’s, Innocent and Virgin that we now favour more relaxed and friendly-sounding names that seem to welcome people in, rather than excluding them like the naming equivalent of a haughty old private members’ club. Although some more hipster wannabe brands have actually been resurrecting this trend, as parodied here http://www.hipsterbusiness.name/, this modern move toward more natural-sounding names embodies authenticity, provenance and trust - and sounds up-to-the-minute.

Brand power

A good name isn’t actually about appearances or shallow semantics. A good name equals a good brand, which is not only valuable when you come to exiting the business, but also throughout its life. When the Post Office rebranded unsuccessfully to Consignia (widely regarded as a bit of a nonsense name, and very hard to say or spell) it signalled bad news for the company in the form of a billion pounds in losses.

A memorable, real-world name will get you more business than a name without a discernible character or raison d’etre. I discovered this recently when my company HBRE rebranded to Spire Ventures. I felt Spire was reminiscent of striving to achieve success, and reminded me of the spires of Oxford where I studied. It’s also more memorable and therefore more easily searchable.

It's all in the domain

You may have heard of a lot of companies recently with names like Etsy and Contently. These end in -sy and -ly respectively and Syria and Lebanon’s domain names are, rather sadly in the former case, readily available. In my work with start-ups in the property world, I see .co becoming more popular, and .uk also. 

Searchability though remains an important factor when naming a company – and a regular .co.uk domain name with an easy to spell, natural name is still the holy grail in UK business.

Lessons learnt

Now may be the time to admit I’ve had a few naming mishaps of my own. I started a social enterprise in the early 2000’s called Tribal Monsoon. It didn’t end up a huge success. The name was meant to convey the products from South Asia I was selling around the world online, but perhaps ‘Monsoon’ didn’t quite sum up achievement and aspiration. It was also maybe a little too of its time.

While it may not be a good idea to avoid all trends, it’s best to avoid being a time-capsule of coolness from 2015, possibly like the Alfred and Claras of Silicon Valley.

Faisal Butt is founder of property tech accelerator Pi Labs and venture capital firm Spire Ventures.

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