Monday, November 19, 2007

When a rose by any other name is a clunker: when and how to rename your startup

Making the decision to name a company is always difficult. Making the decision to re-name a company adds even greater complexity.

After nine months as ActiveGrid, we decided to rename the company WaveMaker. Our board asked tough questions about our motivations, making us think long and hard about what was wrong with the current name and what we could accomplish with a new name.

How to tell if your name needs changing:
  1. Customer misdirection. A bad name makes people believe things about your company that are not true. For example, our name, ActiveGrid, implied we had something to do with grid computing, which we did not. That meant that every conversation would start out but explaining that our name was ActiveGrid but we had nothing to do with grids.

  2. Employee alignment. Another negative effect of a bad name is to distract employees. A name that implies they should be doing something else makes it hard to keep everyone's eyes on the same ball.

  3. Analyst fatigue. In sort of a tech version of "three strikes, yer out" a name that has been associated with a number of grandiose but never achieved visions starts to become a PR team's nightmare. No matter how compelling the next vision, press and analysts may just not be willing to get suckered yet again.
Having decided to rename, you now face the renaming process. We decided to go with a naming firm that did both the naming and graphic work (we worked with SB Master of Master McNeil and she did an outstanding job)
  1. Identify your market: who do you want to know about your name? If you don't know who you are selling to, any name should be fine. Once you know your target audience, make sure the name is one that will resonate with them.

  2. Crystallize your story: what attributes define you and make you unique? What do you enable? Think not just about nouns but also verbs

  3. Brainstorm like crazy: the most naming fun I ever was with Persistence Software, where we had a nice dinner party with lots of wine, then each picked books, opened them to random pages and picked 4 company names from each page. The name Persistence came from a book of Yeats poems.

  4. Make sure you have multiple viable names: just having a name doesn't mean you can own it. You still have trademarking and url-ing to go. Of the two, checking the trademark is easier (you can do it here

  5. Beg, borrow or buy the URL. Every imaginable url is taken at this point. At the end of the day, we had two names that would work. Of course there were squatters on both urls: one wanted $35K, one settled for $10K, but only after we got to the point where if we didn't get a deal that day, we would have just kept ActiveGrid

  6. Spend for a good logo and color scheme. After all this work, you would be crazy not to get a good logo, color scheme and powerpoint template.

  7. Change everything. Now the fun begins. Change your collateral, business cards, the lobby sign, the web site. Then take a long vacation.
As you might expect, there is some good stuff about naming on the web, by Guy Kawasaki, Dharmesh Shah and a post on where famous company names came from.

We won't know for some time whether all this work has paid off. But the day we re-launched WaveMaker with our new name we hit a whole new energy level in the business. Now we've just got to turn that energy into results!


Ironick said...

I like the new name Chris and your description of the (re)naming process. But you left one step off the process: update blog header (yours still says CEO of ActiveGrid)!

Christopher Keene said...

Donald Knuth used to offer I think it was $5 to anyone who reported a new typo to him in one of his "Art of Programming" books. My secret desire in making this posting was to have my many readers scour my blog for me to find places where I had accidentally left ActiveGrid in place. I owe you $5 ;-)

Anonymous said...

Great article.

Deciding to make a name change is always a hard thing (even harder than coming up with a name in the first place).

As for the trademark and URL (domain name) issue, I'd argue that for most businesses, it's critical to ensure that the ".com" domain name is available.

Also, one more tip. Too many people make the mistake of assuming that just because the domain name is not being used (no website hosted on the domain name) that it is available. This is not necessarily the case.

Anonymous said...

very few startups change their name because it costs money that is better spent. looking through your blog i see that you are the new ceo there. the same thing happened at a company i worked at called addamark where a new ceo came in, fired all the VPs and then changed the name of the company to sensage. i'm sure both he and you have a bunch of rational reasons on why they did what they did, but i think the number one question to ask when changing the name of a company is whether there is an ego factor involved.