How to Name a Startup
You know the old joke… there are only two hard problems in computer science: NAMING YOUR STARTUP.
It’s always been hard to come up with a name for a new company, but it feels like over the last five years it’s gotten even goddamn harder. You spend a little time, brainstorm a solid name, discover six other startups — and fourteen open source projects — with the exact same name and all their derivatives, and you get a quote from the domain squatter with a really terrible .com variant of the name for a cool $150k.
This is truly one of my least favorite parts of starting a company, but I’ve done it a number of times over the last decade or so, with pretty reasonable results: my calendar startup was during.com, my hobby project was signed.com, and I’m just starting a new company now. (More on that… soon. We’re working on it.)
Start in your feelings
So what makes a good startup name? Like all Hard Things, there’s no fucking consensus here. It’s really subjective, and it’s heavily dependent on which compromises you’re willing to make in terms of uniqueness, brandability, domain availability, and whether its hot shit or not.
First step is to pull out your notes app and just regurgitate feelings onto the screen. Talk about emotions and thoughts you have while using your future product. Pull out nouns and verbs that describe your future workflows. Don’t think too much about concrete names; this is the brainstorm part, and you want to use this list in the future to generate names (and to refer back to days later when you realize your first attempts were all horseshit and went nowhere).
Then you can start building your list of names.
What’s in a name?
The absolute best domain name is a short one-word dotcom that you can brand. And there’s one clear answer here: Stripe. It’s the goddamn best startup name and domain of all time. Six characters, easy to say, has a pleasant wordshape. It’s perfect. I’ve been trying to buy stripe.com from them over the last few years. They don’t seem receptive to switch their business to stripe.computers for my cool $6k offer, but I’m going to keep trying.
Barring getting stripe.com, there are a lot of other considerations to think about.
The first is: .com or otherwise? And this one I’ve torn my hair out for awhile. Previously I opted for .com, but it really feels like something’s turned the corner on domain valuations within the last three years in particular. We were getting quotes on dotcom, one-or-two word domains with a fairly consistent floor of $100k, with most reasonable domains around $200k-$750k (and up… it’s really not difficult to find domains in the millions).
I talked with a lot of others over the past few months, and it feels like there’s been a larger and more recent shift to non-dotcom acceptability.
.co feels fairly weighty even compared to a traditional
.com, and certain markets have a much easier time these days: AI and ML companies are slaying the
.ai TLD, crypto has been pushing
.xyz, and so on.
Lachy Groom had a good take: “I don’t think domains matter… not since the rise of search engines”.
So I’ve come around. We went with
.co for our new company. I think PG’s tried-and-true “you must have a .com” might be starting to crack.
I initially wrote the first draft of this post a few months ago, and I’ve been thinking about this particular point ever since (and have been actively studying new products as they launch). I think I feel more strongly about the “.coms aren’t the end-all be-all” now than I did previously. At some point, I think it might actually flip, where a highly desirable domain name might be seen as a red flag to have on day one unless you’ve raised millions pre-product. Even then… you’ve gotta have raised millions, because blowing an engineer’s entire salary (or three, or more) in the first few months on a domain is a pretty difficult ROI when you could be shipping.
Save time, steal other people’s work
If you’re interested in something that isn’t totally unique — i.e., a combination of letters that haven’t even been registered yet — at this point it’s likely you’re going to have to go through a domain auction or otherwise buy the domain directly from an existing domain holder. Everything’s just been bought up years ago otherwise.
Once you go to one of the domain auction sites, you’ll quickly realize that 90% of the available domains are insane. xix00d0ll2.com, for example, might not be your idea of a truly great memorable name for your startup, but it’s going to fill up the domain results list, making it harder to sift out the diamonds.
But auction sites can be really helpful. I looked at a bunch of them throughout The Search, but I tend to keep going back to Sedo. Their listings are dense, which means you can scan through them quickly, and they let you filter pretty effectively (“give me two word domains”, “put the keyword at the end”, etc.) Dan.com also wasn’t too bad.
The way I use these sites to “steal other people’s work” — read: be incredibly lazy — is to sort and filter by price (or traffic, or bids). There are literally too many domains for a single person to search through, so you can make use of what’s interesting to other people to slim down your own search. I found myself making a lot of searches around “show me domains more than $10k that are .com, max two words, no numbers or special characters, and related to [keyword I was looking at]”.
Another approach you can take to expand the possibilities here is to generate adjacent names. I found CunningBot to be my favorite: it’ll generate gobs of domain possibilities, from related words to different domains with suffixes and popular word stems, as well as filtering only to domains that are available for registration.
If you find some interesting domains, toss them in The List.
The List is simply a big ol’ list, one-per-line, of possible domains you think you could potentially be happy with. Include the price, if you know it. If you don’t think you’ll remember where you spotted it, add a URL (if it’s an auction or buy-it-now).
The idea is to generate a big list of these options. You’re still more or less in the brainstorming mode, so put them on there without too much consideration- a particular domain might not be exactly right, but it’s very possible it’ll trigger a better idea down the road.
For us, we ended up with around 50 options for domains to buy. Before that, we also had about 50 words or feelings around what we wanted to build.
If you, your cofounder, or someone you know is cursed and/or blessed with a level of synesthesia, this can help with narrowing down a list. I have a fairly mild form when it specifically comes to words, and I found it fairly helpful that I could look at a word and have a fairly good feel as to how pleasant the “shape” of the word felt. Whether or not that’s what others feel… well, who knows. But at least for me, the letters and the word itself can evoke a lot of different feelings and sensations that helped guide me a little.
Coming to agreement
If it’s just you, great! You’re done! Find whichever one calls to you and/or is the cheapest or best.
If there’s two or more of you as cofounders or in the early team… it’s probably going to be hard to agree, one way or another. Because, again, at the end of the day, Stripe is the only one with the best name, and the rest of us are fucked. So there’s going to be a bit of compromise.
Don’t be afraid to share The List with other trusted people, though. After my cofounder and I went through a couple finalists, we showed those winning options to our spouses and… they both hated them (shocker, it wasn’t until we were almost ready to go with a final option that they finally had opinions! Much like code, no one really has a firm opinion until you say you’re about to make a decision.) But through that process we showed them The List and there was one that stood out that we looked at with fresh eyes, and… well, turns out we liked it after all. And then we bought it (for $5k, which was a lot more reasonable than others we were close to pulling the trigger on).
A few other thoughts that I’ve come to over the years:
- Capitalization and spacing can be strangely important, or absolutely drive you crazy.
GitHubseems like a nice name, but I still go into a blinding rage every time I see someone type “Github” (and occasionally I’ll hear someone pronounce it “gith-ub”, but only once, because as soon as they mispronounce it that way they end up murdered, which is purely a coincidence, I swear).
- That said, our next company is also that format, in that it’s TwoWords together, no spaces. This one bothers me to my core, but this time we have two more common easily-identifiable words, as opposed to “Git” and “Hub”, which are a bit more awkward. So we’ll roll the dice here.
- If you’re having issues generating ideas and possible words, read a whole bunch. Don’t necessarily read, but look through blog posts and books and articles in your chosen product area and just look at all those words in a big block. See what jumps out at you. I found that to be super helpful in finding those “idea-adjacent” words that you won’t directly think up, but might work for a name.
Overall… naming things sucks. There’s no way around it. But something to keep in mind: your name feels really permanent, but it’s not really permanent. If you hit a home run and find yourself with a $100M run rate, well, who gives a shit, just plop five million on the perfect domain name- you’ll be able to afford it at that point.
And you can change your legal name, too (not that it has to match your DBA name, either). GitHub was legally Logical Awesome, LLC for years until we switched to GitHub, Inc.. Seems daunting when you’re just getting started… but everything’s a lot easier down the line when you’re making revenue and have many other employees to help you make that transition.
But yeah, naming things. Terrible stuff. On the other hand, “TerribleStuff” might be a great ironic name for a company, so give that a shot.