How do you name your startup?

There are plenty of theories on how to name your startup. Back in 2005 Seth Godin wrote an article called "The new rules of naming" in which he said:

A long time ago, the goal of a name was to capture the essence of your positioning. To deliver a USP, so you could establish supremacy in your space just with your name. International Business Machines and Shredded Wheat were good efforts at this approach.

It quickly became clear, though, that descriptive names were too generic, so the goal was to coin a defensible word that could acquire secondary meaning and that you could own for the ages. That's why "Jet Blue" is a much better name than "Southwest" and why "Starbucks" is so much better than "Dunkin Donuts".

That was 2005, and Seth's examples were all for big successful companies, not small niche products. Do Seth's principles apply to niche products that are distributed on the web? I think not...

Patrick McKenzie of Kalzumeus Software recently wrote about how he has benefitted from buying "exact match" domain names.

What worked right: Exact match domain names. ”Hey Patrick, how is it that with no marketing budget and nearly no marketing work you rank #1 for [appointment reminder]?” I told everybody that I was buying the .org specifically because that would happen but apparently folks didn’t believe me.

He makes web apps for small niche markets and does very well out of purchasing domain names that match the keywords his potential customers enter into Google. It's a shortcut to getting good traffic from search engines if you're operating in a small niche.

A friend of mine has another technique for naming his apps, called FAB. It goes like this.

  1. Write down the main features of your app.
  2. For each feature, write down an advantage that it provides.
  3. Then write down some benefits (to your potential users) of those advantages.

For example:

Agile Planner allows you to put your index cards online (feature) that work just like real cards would on your desk (advantage) which means you can access your plan while you're out of the office (benefit).

When I started thinking about building the Planner I put together a quick web site in order to test whether there was any demand. My mate with the FAB technique loved the app, but not the name. We put FAB into action (it all sounds a bit Thunderbirds doesn't it?) and came up with "Plan Anywhere" and "Plan Simply".

This left me in a bit of a quandary. I had a shortlist of possible names but wasn't sure if I should I go niche specific, or FAB it up. It needed testing.

Testing product names with PPC

If you send some potential customers to your web site you can gauge their interest in your product by seeing how many sign up or join your mailing list.

My hypothesis was that if I sent an equal amount of traffic to several copies of the same web site (each with a different name at the top) one name would perform better than the others. I made four copies of the site and then started a PPC campaign.

I think this was a mistake. While I think testing with PPC is a great technique, I spent hours finding suitable keywords to advertise on. I then realised that my PPC skills weren't good enough to get me a substantial amount of traffic. I'd happily have spent a few hundred dollars on the advertising, but the clicks just weren't coming and I'd spent too long messing about with Adwords.

Running a survey

So I took a different tack. Why not ask people in my target market which name they think works best?

I setup a quick survey on wufoo.com and then contacted a bunch of agile developers that I've worked with over the years.

Here's the survey:

I asked two questions:

  1. Imagine that you've just searched Google to find an agile project management app. Which of these product names is the most appealing? Which would you click first?
  2. Can you put your finger on why you chose the name you did?

It took me ten minutes to setup, and an hour or so to send out to my network of agile developers. Here's a summary of the results for question 1:

The responses to question 2 were thoughtful, and very helpful. Here are a few extracts:


"Plan Anywhere" gives a me a reason why it's better than index cards, I can access it anywhere without having to lug the box of cards and planning board with me. That's my theory and I'm sticking to it, I assume my cheque is in the post.

Wow. Maybe this FAB stuff really works?


None really leapt out at me. Maybe you should test with adwords?

Touché!


[The Agile Planner]: While I find "Plan with Cards" the most fun, my gut drove me toward "The Agile Planner". It’s hard to say definitely, but here’s some thoughts that apply just to my personal associations: “Card(s)” connotes something light and throw-away, in spite of its relationship to the agile method. “Simply” — goes without saying :) “Anywhere” — seems like the focus is on mobility. Overall, I reckon “The Agile Planner” is both non-specific and solid sounding, enough to make me feel it would impose the right structure, whilst also flexing to my demands.


[The Agile Planner]: I think it nicely encapsulates what you are offering. cons: it's going to be difficult to google as there are many agile planning websites already... if you have a more unusual name it will be easier for people to find.

I'm hoping that once the site gets a few inbound links that it'll end up near the top of the search results for its own name.


"Plan with cards" sounds like Tarot.

:-)


[The Agile Planner]: Plan with Cards sounds like a solitaire game, Plan Simply sounds like a food menu app. Agile story cards sounds a bit like a kid's gymnastic game. Plan Anywhere sounds like a travel planner, and Agile Index Cards just is a bit of a gobful.

:-)


[The Agile Planner]: Good use of definitive article! And it's a perfectly descriptive name. Also lends itself to acronym.

Acronyms are an interesting point; who is it who suggests that your product name should be a verb, so that it can become part of a team's language? If this app became abbreviated to TAP, might be people start saying (as they discuss new features of their product) "let's TAP it..."?


If you took part in the survey, thanks very much for responding. I really appreciate it, and can now stop worrying about the name and crack on with getting it ready for beta...

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I love feedback and questions; please get in touch on Twitter or ask a question in the comments.

About the author

Graham Ashton

Graham Ashton is an experienced agile team leader and project manager, and the founder of Agile Planner. You can follow him at @grahamashton on Twitter.

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