Right after I left Goldman Sachs to join our startup NerdWallet, when I would tell people where I worked, a common response was, “Nerd-what?”
It didn’t roll off the tongue. Was that because it’s a bad name, or just because it’s a strange one? Is that strangeness a liability or a strength? We bet on the latter, and after six years, that bet has paid off.
Naming your business is both fun and perilous. The name has to encapsulate the practical usefulness of your products or services for your customers, signal your differentiation from competitors and embody the philosophy of your business. That’s a heavy weight for a short word or two to carry.
Here are some tips to help you tackle that challenge.
Evolving name game
The name game has changed over the years. It used to be that all it took was a moniker backed by the name of the founders, like at my former employer (Marcus Goldman and Samuel Sachs). Or it was a plain, unambiguous description of the business, like American Telegraph and Telephone (now AT&T). By the mid-20th century, entrepreneur Sam Walton merged his last name with a truncated form of “market” to create the made-up word Wal-Mart. NerdWallet is a species of that evolution.
The game’s still changing. When you hear the word “apple,” it’s a fair bet that the image of a computer floats to mind ahead of a piece of fruit. It’s hard to imagine how bold and weird it was in the 70s for Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to brand a company that invented the personal computing industry after a common fruit.
Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson that the name came to him after he visited an apple farm. He thought the name sounded “fun, spirited and not intimidating.”
The genius of the name was to confront the very real problem of enticing the average American to buy a device then associated with the whiz-bang rocketry of NASA.
Naming their business after a fruit that had a starring role in the Book of Genesis suggested much more than it said.
Aspirational symbol -- and practical reality
When founder Tim Chen created NerdWallet in his New York apartment, the name symbolized his goal of disrupting the way consumers evaluate and choose credit cards. (Also, the URL for NerdWallet wasn’t taken.)
That’s a practical reality that new businesses face as the importance of online marketing increases. Trademark concerns require picking and choosing a name with care in an increasingly crowded corporate universe.
These twin forces have led to a profusion of unusually named businesses, often associated with technology. Think SurveyMonkey, Legal Zoom, Zen Payroll and MailChimp -- all, like NerdWallet, are the amalgamation of two disparate words to create a new meaning.
The Name Inspector, a blog run by Seattle linguistics and branding expert Christopher Johnson, put together a list of unusual startup names for 2014. Some are names with unusual associations, like Rotten Wifi, Forking About and AssessUp.
“No survey of name weirdness would be complete without names that seem to be spoken by extraterrestrials with inscrutable vocal tracts. ‘ Zurff flynx zairge sqwiz xwerks synthorx phizzbo, humans!’” writes Johnson, author of the book “Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little.”
Who is your customer?
When naming a business, you need to think about your potential customers. What’s their appetite for embracing the new? Or should you place emphasis on tradition and history?
At NerdWallet, we serve small businesses through technology, access to expert advice and online tools built on algorithms that match customers with the right financial products. It's a different approach than the traditional one taken by financial advisors and bank branches. We wanted a name that reflects our maverick mission.
Contrast that with the naming challenge faced by biotech companies I worked with at Goldman Sachs. Our clients built medical devices and invented drugs that saved people's lives. Their names needed to reflect the gravity of the situation they were in as well as the innovation they brought — but nothing too silly.
At NerdWallet we’ve periodically reviewed whether we should rebrand. Is our name too frivolous for the seriousness of our mission? After all, people don’t joke when it comes to their money, and banking, insurance, mortgages, small business funding and medical billing is very serious stuff. But we always come back to the idea that we’re upending the apple cart of traditional ways of handling personal finance.
Our name has grown in a way we couldn’t foresee in the early days — it has served as a powerful recruitment tool and creator of our company culture. Our workforce has quadrupled in less than 18 months; people want to be the “nerds” who do the personal finance homework for you.
The name has become the tip of an iceberg. It perfectly symbolizes our mission of “putting knowledge in your wallet,” but underneath the name is a growing force that supports our brand, our culture and how we talk to our customers and ourselves.
The name works for us. And the name you pick should do the same for your company.
‘A rose by any other name …’
In 1960 a band took its name as a triple pun on infectious rhythms, the beatnick poetry then in vogue and one of their favorite groups, Buddy Holly and the Crickets. But nobody gets the pun today when they hear the name “The Beatles.”
The band’s body of work eclipsed the novelty of a name born from the pop culture trends of its time. It’s now timeless and iconic.
Before famous companies became household names, they were just companies with catchy names. How well they serve their consumers is what makes or breaks their business, no matter what they call themselves.