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.