12 powerful techniques for generating business or product names

Here are 12 great techniques for naming your business or product:

1.  Invent a new word: You can try to invent a new word, either by trying to combining or scrambling letters from scratch (like Xerox), or by starting with a base stem and adapting it with prefixes, postfixes, or spelling changes. For example, Oldsmobile coined the word Futuramic in the 1950s, and the name Google was adapted from the mathematical word googol (meaning the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes). Expedia, Instagram, and Kleenex could also be seen as names invented in this fashion.

2. Apply intentional misspellings:  Applying intentional misspellings or abbreviations to an existing word has been a popular technique for web companies. Flickr is the most famous example. The misspelled name is more likely to be available for domain and trademark registration, and can often convey an edgy “coolness” factor.

3. Abbreviate to create an invented word:  For example, Telstra was derived by condensing the words Telecom Australia, and Japanese mobile phone operator NTT Docomo‘s name officially stands for “DO COmmunications over the MObile network” (but also sounds like “dokomo”, meaning “everywhere”, in Japanese).

4. Form compound names by mixing-and-matching words and word parts: The most reliable naming technique is to randomly mix-and-match combinations of stem words with adjectives, prefixes, and suffixes. Countless names like PowerPoint, WordPress, Thinkpad, and WestJet were formed this way.

When I was trying to find a name for the word processing software product I was developing, I generated list of words and word parts like the following:

  • Words related to writing and publishing:  book, draft, pen, pencil, ink, lit, liter-, libro-, author, write, opus, novel, scribe, chapter, word, page, think, edit
  • Things and places: studio, lab, office, workbench, toolbox, station, launchpad, shop, garage, jet, rocket, stream, thunder, lightning
  • Animals and mascots: tiger, shark, lion, cat, dog, eagle, dragon
  • People/job-oriented nouns:  master, man, captain, commander, hero
  • Adjectives: fast, rapid, easy, quick, quality, ultra, agile, swift, magic, super, pro
  • Postfixes: -ly, -ify, -ific, -ica, -matic, -matica, -tron, -tronic

Then, I simply tried to form combinations of pairs of words from these lists to make combinations, aiming for results that were descriptive, short, and easy to say. A rhyming pair was my ideal goal. I generated dozens of combinations, some of which were promising, and some which were less so:

  • TextJet
  • TigerWriter
  • Draftomatic
  • WriteLab
  • Textbench
  • LightningWriter
  • Novelstream
  • Brightwriter
  • ScribeStation
  • DraftDragon

Eventually I decided on ChapterLab, which has a nice ring to it.

5. Make your Internet domain name your business or product name:

  • You could just try to take a descriptive word and add a top-level domain like .com. Sites like cars.com and hotels.com have instant credibility and are essentially name brands in their own right. Such sites will also rank highly in search engine results for “cars” and “hotels”. Needless to say, however, all of the good names are already taken, and acquiring domain name rights from existing owners could be prohibitively expensive in many cases.
  • Or, you could aim for a less-common top-level domain, such as a country-code domain like .es, .it, .ly, or .me, and try to work it into the name itself, as in bit.ly, blo.gs, or del.icio.us. These are sometimes known as “domain hacks”. These names do have the disadvantage that they are difficult to explain audibly — you’d have to spell it out every time, with a high risk of misunderstanding.

6. Use an adjective:  Consider using a descriptive adjective to emphasize your product’s differentiating advantage. QuickBooks and Jiffy Lube, for example, emphasize speed and ease. Many of these kinds of names sound quite banal and forgettable — Quality Cleaners, for instance — but also may be quite sufficient for less-glamorous local businesses.

7. Use a place name:  For businesses with a local presence, a place name can work well: Island Interiors, Portland Coffee Co., Charleston Tax Services. Be aware that a place-based name can often limit your ability to expand to other geographical areas. Canadian Tire’s attempt to break into the US market was unsuccessful, for instance. On the other hand, famous place names that are glamorous or prestigious — Malibu, L.A., New York, Paris, Aspen, etc. — might work anywhere.

8. Use founders’ names:  For professional services firms like law firms, accountancies, and consultancies, it is common to name the business after the founders or partners of the firm. For names that are not easily pronounceable or spellable, however, you may want to think again. But there’s also no reason why you can’t use a fictional or altered name. One of the “big three” software companies in the 1980s was founded by Hal Lashlee and George Tate. They decided that “Lashlee-Tate” sounded weak, and so they invented the name Ashton-Tate instead. Likewise, Ralph Lifshitz changed his name to Ralph Lauren to project a more desirable image for his Polo clothing line.

Also, you don’t always have to use a last name, as Craigslist demonstrates.

9. Get inspiration from historical connections:  Consider researching the names of pioneering inventors, explorers, scientists, leaders, or scholars who have some relationship to your field. For example, Tesla Motors’ name pays tribute to visionary inventor and scientist Nikola Tesla.

10. Use a general word as your brand:  Sometimes you can aim to use a very general word, like Square or Box, as your brand. Because of their simplicity and abstractness, these names are often not very descriptive, but can be incredibly powerful if your company really does hit it big. For these very common words, you’ll want to make sure you can secure trademark rights and domain registrations.

11. Form an acronym:  Acronyms were popular in past decades and were virtually synonymous with giant corporations. While many companies still have these names, they are no longer considered fashionable in the Internet age. Famous examples are IBM (International Business Machines) and NCR (National Cash Register).

12. Borrow foreign words:  Consider browsing foreign language dictionaries and borrowing a word from another language. Some languages, like Spanish and Italian for instance, may have mellifluous words that are related to your business or product. Be aware that stereotypes could positively or negatively affect your branding: in some contexts, a German-sounding name could lend an air of quality engineering and craftsmanship, and in other contexts, such a name could arouse anti-German sentiments. This approach can be hazardous unless you are fluent in the foreign language and understand all of the connotations of the word you’ve chosen. You also want to make sure that your customers can pronounce and spell your name.

Startups versus small businesses

What is the difference between a startup and a small business?

Startups do start out as small businesses, but can every small business really be considered a “startup”?

Let’s examine what is usually meant by these terms and what the differences are.

Small businesses

A small business:

  • usually implements an existing basic business concept (e.g., a restaurant) with a tried-and-true business model
  • operates in a “mature” market (as opposed to a newly-created market) and competes against other existing businesses serving more or less the same general target customers
  • often serves a local geographic market, but could also be virtual (e.g., Internet-based, mail-order, etc.)
  • may have a physical presence like a storefront or an office, or could be home-based
  • could be a one-person operation or may employ any number of employees
  • is usually funded by bootstrapping, i.e., using the founders’ own capital; bank loans may also be used, and the company’s retained earnings will be used to grow the business
  • can have significant growth potential, for example, by expanding into multiple locations, by adding further product or service offerings, or by hiring more staff to perform service work; however, small businesses are generally not scalable structurally in the same way that a successful startup could be

Examples of small businesses that would not be considered startups include restaurants; accounting, medical, or law practices; corner stores; web design agencies; car repair shops; dog grooming services; personal assistant services; insurance brokerages; and hair salons.

Startups

A startup:

  • is, in contrast to a small business that is repeating an existing business concept and business model, usually doing something innovative or risky, by either solving a hard problem that has never been addressed before, creating an entirely new market, or by introducing a new business model, a new type of product, or a new technology to an existing market
  • has high growth potential and is scalable; the ability to service additional customers is not bound by constraints like labor capacity or capital equipment. For example, for an accounting practice to service more customer accounts, it must hire proportionally more accountants and assistants in order to handle the volume of work. A startup, on the other hand, should generally be able to sell its products or services to ten times as many customers without needing to increase the employee headcount or capital equipment by ten times. (An increase in staffing and equipment would likely be necessary but it would not be expected to be of the same magnitude.)
  • may offer products or services, but services that are offered are almost always “productized” and sold for a flat rate (rather than billing for hourly labor)
  • may attract a large amount of investment from venture capitalists or angel investors; in exchange, this means that founders must usually give up a significant share of ownership in the company
  • will typically not qualify for bank loans, as banks prefer to extend loans to lower-risk businesses with proven business models that they are familiar with
  • can be disruptive to existing competitors and industries if they are successful; they are more likely than traditional small businesses to change the world
  • is often (but need not necessarily be) a technology- or Internet-centric business

Steve Blank, author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany: Successful Strategies for Products that Win and co-author of The Startup Owner’s Manual: The Step-by-Step Guide for Building a Great Company, stresses that a startup isn’t just a small version of a big business. He argues that a startup is a “temporary organization” that is “in search of a repeatable and scalable business model”, and that this temporary organization will continue to change through pivoting, demand validation, and “customer development” until it finds a successful business model.

Small business owners are often interested in owning, managing, and growing their business over the long term. They may eventually decide to sell their business, but often the succession strategy is to pass down the business to the next generation of their family. Startup founders, on the other hand, are often interested in cashing out via some form of an “exit” — selling the company to a big corporate acquirer, or taking the company public in the hopes of an windfall through the IPO.

Know what to expect

When deciding on a business idea to pursue, it’s good to be honest about whether you see the business opportunity as a small business or as a startup. Small businesses can be less risky but also provide potentially less reward.

Understanding customers’ needs and desires

Businesses exist to offer products or services that solve customers’ problems, needs, and desires.

Some basic human needs are obvious: every person on the planet needs food, water, clothing, and shelter, for example.

Beyond these basic, urgent needs, humans have many other needs and desires that, while they may not be life-or-death matters, still very much exist. And people are often willing to pay for products and services that will satisfy these needs and desires.

For example, how do we explain the fact that some businesses provide products like movies or video games? What kind of a “need” or “problem” are these kinds of products addressing? Well, in these cases, we can say that people have the need to relax, the need to be entertained, or the need to have things to do to keep them from being bored. And movies and video games are things that some people choose to buy to help satisfy those needs.

Keep in mind that for any particular need or desire or problem, there may be a very wide range of solutions that could satisfy it. Take the problem of needing food, for instance. Some people may either only be able to afford very simple staple foods, or they may be quite content with them. But other people will be able to afford and will have tastes for more elaborate, exotic, and expensive cuisine. And food could be purchased in a store and prepared at home, or food could be consumed at a restaurant. Likewise, for clothing, housing, entertainment, transportation, getting the news, and so on, there are similarly very wide ranges of options.

Generally all of those needs and desires can or must be satisfied through products and services which businesses (such as yours) deliver. And in virtually any marketplace you look at, there is room for innovation or differentiation to appeal to the different segments of the market (such as for high-end or low-end food).

One popular framework for understanding the different types of human needs and motivations is Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, often taught in psychology and business management classes.

The framework includes several levels or classifications of needs, with the first level, physiological needs, being the most fundamental, and with each subsequent level building upon the previous levels. There is some debate as to whether this is an accurate or complete model. However, simply looking at this framework and pondering the levels might help give you some ideas for human needs, problems, and desires that your business could help serve.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

1.  Physiological

  • food, water, air
  • clothing
  • shelter

2.  Safety

  • personal physical safety
  • economic stability and financial security (e.g., getting and keeping a job or otherwise earning an income)
  • health and well-being

3.  “Belongingness and love”

  • Friendship
  • Love (to love and to be loved by others)
  • Intimacy
  • Family
  • Belonging and being accepted in social groups

4.  Esteem

  • Self-esteem
  • Self-respect
  • Self-confidence
  • Earning respect and recognition from others
  • Status, prestige
  • Fame, attention

5.  Self-actualization

  • Achieving and accomplishing one’s full potential
  • Self-improvement; becoming the best person one can be

6.  Self-transcendence

  • Spirituality, enlightenment
  • Altruism, helping others

Identifying business opportunities based on domain names for sale

Usually when you’re brainstorming business ideas and business name ideas, you’ll be constantly checking to see if a good domain name is available.

But you can also turn this around and see what domain names are up for sale. You might spot a name that could be turned into a good business opportunity. And even just browsing the names might help trigger other ideas.

There are numerous sites that are marketplaces for domain names.

Most domain name marketplaces work by auction. The most desirable, general, short, and memorable domain names — think sex.com — can sell for millions of dollars and rarely come on the market at all. But names suitable for more niche-market websites can be had for much less — either thousands or hundreds of dollars.

However, if there’s a name that you want and the domain appears to be dormant or “parked”, you also can try looking up the incumbent registrant using a whois service, and you can attempt to contact and negotiate a sale with the owner. (However, some domain owners choose to have their whois records hidden, and many owners disregard solicitation e-mails and calls.)  If you can’t get the domain name you want, you might just have to be more creative with your name brainstorming!

Even better than buying an existing domain: there are also sites that will list domain registrations that have recently expired and have not been renewed. These can usually be snapped up for regular registration prices.

Something else to keep in mind is that entire functioning websites and online businesses are for sale as well. This would offer you a turnkey opportunity to take over an existing operation with a revenue stream. Growing the business would then be up to you.

Generating ideas based on your personal inventory

One way to generate business ideas is to consider an inventory of yourself. Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What skills do I have?
  • What knowledge do I have?
  • What interests and passions and hobbies do I have?
  • What have I done and achieved in my past and current jobs?
  • What things could I learn and become competent at with a reasonable period of time?
  • What equipment and materials do I have or have access to?
  • What capital and credit do I have access to, and what could I do with this?

For example, if you have training and job experience as a nurse, you might be able to find a way to leverage your skills and knowledge into a healthcare-related business — perhaps home care services, nutritional counselling, or creating books and courses on health-related topics.

If you love cooking as a hobby, then why not consider starting a restaurant or a bakery or a catering business?  Or you could write cookbooks, or make cooking videos, or teach cooking classes, or open a shop selling kitchen gadgets!

If you own a woodworking shop and equipment such as a lathe, then perhaps you could start a business making furniture or crafts, or you could teach people woodworking.

If you have access to a computer and the Internet (and I’m guessing you do), could you teach yourself basic web design within a few months?  Of course you can!  Yes, it will take longer than a few months to become a really world-class web designer, but could you start making money with even an intermediate skill level, either getting paid to make websites for other people, or creating your own sites with money-making potential?  You bet!

Criteria for a good product or business name

When deciding upon a name for your product, service, or business, here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Upon seeing and reading the name, the name should be easy to pronounce. If people are constantly asking, “how do you say that?”, it’s a bad sign.
  • Upon hearing the name, the word or words should be understandable and comprehensible.  “Huh? what?” reactions are not good.
  • The name should be easy to spell. Ideally, there would only be one obviously right way to spell the name. “McDonald’s” is one of the world’s leading brands, but its name is constantly being misspelled as McDonalds (no apostrophe), MacDonalds, Macdonalds, Mcdonalds, etc.
  • The name should be available for registration as a trademark, domain name, etc.

There is a trend for startups to throw up their hands that “all the good domains are taken”. They then choose a blandly generic product name like “Circle” and, since the .com and other desirable domains are already taken, then register a lame domain like “getcircleapp.io”. The thinking here is that people are more likely to simply search for the product name rather than type in the actual domain. Whether this is a suitable approach for your business is up to you, but I personally shed a tear at the lack of creativity whenever I see a “get-” or “.io” domain.

  • The name should not have any negative connotations in foreign languages or cultures. For example, the iPhone feature “Siri” sounds like the Japanese word for “buttocks”, and “Mist” breath mints sold poorly in Germany as that word is German for “manure”.
  • A descriptive or suggestive name is desirable over a more abstract name that doesn’t tell anything about the product. A good name can suggest what the product is about, reducing the need for explanation, or it can suggest or imply positive attributes of the product or service. The name “QuickBooks”, for instance, lets you know immediately that the product deals with accounting (the “books” in bookkeeping), and the “quick” adjective suggests that the program will help you do your accounting tasks quickly.
  • Ideally, the name would lend itself to a good logo or mascot for branding (something more specific than a generic “swoosh”). Names like “SurveyMonkey”, “SoundCloud”, “Kindle”, “GrooveShark”, and the like lend themselves to various interesting logo ideas, for instance.
  • The name should not be an obvious copy-cat rip-off of a similar name. Clever, punny, “joke” names (such as WhatsApp) can be amusing in the short term, and might be suitable for some products and audiences, but are generally not a good idea for “professional” businesses.

Once you’ve selected your name, be consistent with the styling and presentation of the name. Is it always to be written in lower-case, such as “germanwings”? For multi-part names, is there supposed to be a space between the words, or are the words to be written together, and is each word supposed to be capitalized? (For example, consulting firm Cap Gemini rebranded itself to “Capgemini”.) The worst offender here is Walmart, which has at different times used the stylings Wal-Mart, WAL*MART, and Walmart.

How to differentiate your product or service offering

A great way of coming up with innovative business ideas is to take an existing product or service concept, and to change it or improve it in some way. You can then emphasize that special feature, aspect, or quality in your marketing campaigns.

The unique selling point differentiates your offering from the competition and makes your offering stand out and better appeal to your target customers.

The following list offers a number of ideas and suggestions that you might find useful when brainstorming ways to differentiate your product or service:

  • Pricing
    • Lowest cost
    • Affordable
    • Best value for the money
    • High-price, premium, luxury
    • Attractive long-term cost of ownership
  • Quality
    • High quality
    • Craftsmanship
    • Design
    • Purity, best ingredients, etc.
    • Pedigree
    • No-frills or good-enough quality (to save costs)
  • Features
    • Special features that bring benefits that other competitors don’t offer
  • Specialization to satisfy the needs a particular niche market
  • Customization
    • Made-to-order (sandwiches, tailored suits, etc.)
    • “Have it your way”
  • Speed
    • Delivered in 30 minutes or less, “glasses in about an hour”, etc.
    • Fast food
    • While-you-wait
    • Drive it off the lot (rather than waiting weeks for delivery from the factory)
  • Service
    • “Service with a smile”: happier or more attentive staff (better than the competition)
    • Guaranteed response times for customer support inquiries
  • Ease of use
    • Easy to learn; don’t need training
    • “Set it and forget it”
  • Reliability
    • Durability; reputation for a long product life
    • “Unbreakable”
    • Uptime guarantees
    • Assurance that your business is stable and solvent and will remain in business for a long time
  • Guarantee
    • Warranty
    • Lifetime warranty
    • Replacement guarantee
    • Satisfaction guarantee, money-back refund
  • Brand name
    • Trusted name for quality, reliability, etc.
    • As a means of looking cool or showing off socially (e.g., look, I’m wearing Prada)
    • Prestige
  • Technology
    • Cutting-edge technology is usually only useful if it brings some benefit that wasn’t possible before, but some tech geeks may want something just because it uses a new technology, for the “coolness factor”
  • Design
    • Attractive, aesthetic design
    • Ergonomics
    • Current style or fashion
  • Risk-free / risk-transfer
    • Money-back guarantee
    • Generous return policy
    • Provider assumes the risk (e.g., provider pays the fees if a compliance issue is violated for a regulatory filing)
  • Green / environmentally-friendly
  • Social responsibility, ethics
    • Cruelty-free, not tested on animals
    • Fair trade
    • Not manufactured in a sweatshop
  • Details of manufacture
    • Hand-crafted
    • Precision manufacturing
    • Made in the USA, made in Germany, union-made, etc.
  • Healthy
    • Organic
    • Low-fat, low-carb, etc.
    • Added vitamins
    • Pure ingredients
  • Safety, security
  • Convenience
    • Open late or 24 hours
    • Web-based so you don’t have to go somewhere in person or wait on hold on the phone
    • Cloud-hosted, access from anywhere
    • Convenient location
    • No need to make an appointment, just drop in
    • Toll-free hotline
    • “We do all the work so you don’t have to worry”
    • Low-maintenance or easy maintenance
  • Pricing model or purchasing options
    • Financing; monthly instalments plan
    • Subscription plan (versus paying once up-front)
    • One-time purchase for lifetime ownership/access (versus recurring payments)
    • Access to subsidies, grants, etc.
    • Renting
    • Leasing
    • Rent-to-own
  • Location
    • Close to the customer
    • Made with local ingredients
    • Location-independent (e.g., service by web, phone, mail-order)
  • Size, quantity, form factor
    • The biggest…
    • The smallest…
    • The most comfortable…
    • Travel-size
    • Available in multiple sizes or custom sizes (versus one-size-fits-all)
    • Generous portions
    • Healthy-sized portions
    • All you can eat
  • Relationship
    • Non-commission salespeople
    • “Advice you can trust”
    • Buying the product lets the customer become a member of a formal or informal community (e.g., buying a Harley-Davidson motorcycle)
    • Likeable celebrity founder/CEO or spokesperson/representative
  • Choice, variety
    • Offering a wide range of styles, models, colors, etc.
    • Optional add-ons, plug-ins, after-market enhancements
  • Future-proofing
    • Expandability, upgradability
    • Guarantee that a software package will run on future operating system versions

What is the definition of a successful business?

Naturally, if we are going to start a business, we want the business to be successful!

It’s a fact of life that most new businesses ultimately fail, and a failed business is obviously costly and embarrassing, whereas a successful business could easily make you very rich and happy.

While there are many reasons why businesses fail, the most fundamental factor is simply the choice of the business idea or business concept itself. Some ideas and concepts are just more likely to be successful than others. So when generating and evaluating business ideas, we want to eventually choose the idea that has the highest probablility of becoming a successful operation.

What is a successful business? It’s subjective, but:

  • At the minimum, a successful business is a “going concern”: it has sufficient resources and is earning sufficient revenues to be able to sustain its operations indefinitely without having to declare bankruptcy.
  • A business should earn an operating profit for its shareholders over the long term. The business should generally be collecting more in revenues than it is paying out in expenses. However, new businesses may take several years to achieve this state. Capital investments (such as acquiring manufacturing plants or machinery, expanding into new locations, R&D for a new product line, etc.) can impact profitability in the short term, although such investments are undertaken for the purpose of increasing long-term future profitability.
  • Successful businesses are also be expected to grow over time in one or more ways: increased revenues, profitability, market share, employee headcount, market capitalization, number of stores, etc.
  • And while a business must not necessarily be well-loved to be financially successful, in the eyes of the public, a successful consumer-focused business would be one with strong goodwill: a well-known brand name, enthusiastic customers who love the product or service, and a positive reputation.

What is a business?

A business is an organization that seeks to earn a profit by providing products or services to customers in exchange for money.

Businesses provide products or services that meet customers’ needs and solve their problems.

Businesses may focus on selling to individual consumers. These firms are often called B2C or Business-to-Consumer operations.

Business may alternatively focus on selling to other businesses, organizations, institutions, or the government. Such firms are called B2B or Business-to-Business operations.

Of course, some businesses sell to both individual consumers and business customers.

Products and services as pain relief for customers

Rather than try to brainstorm completely novel business ideas out of thin air, and then hope that customers would buy, it’s usually more productive to work the other way around, and try to find problems that customers (people or businesses) are struggling with, and which they would be willing to pay to have solved. Then you can design and market products or services to solve those problems.

Customers will buy a product or service in order to fulfill some specific need.

Think of it this way: Imagine a customer has some kind of pain. If the pain is urgent enough, the customer will gladly spend money on a product or service to make that pain go away, as long as the pain of parting with the money is more than counterbalanced by the relief of the pain that the product or service is able to achieve.

For example, if a customer is hungry, she will probably be willing to pay for food or a restaurant meal to relieve the hunger. If she is bored, a book, a movie, an amusement park ride, or some other entertainment option could solve the pain of boredom. If a customer is feeling pain from the perception that she does not appear successful or cool enough to others, then fancier clothing or an expensive car might relieve her perceived pain.

It is important to understand what the customers’ needs are — what exactly the pain is — so the product or service can be designed to specifically address those needs and relieve the pain.

Similarly, all marketing of a product or service should center around demonstrating how the product or service will fulfill the customer’s needs and relieve the customer’s pain.