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How to name your startup

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What's in a name? For a startup, choosing a name is a significant decision. It can shape what people believe the company is for years to come. The debates triggered by Facebook’s change in corporate name to Meta underscores that.

In this article, we examine the art of corporate name-picking and the evolution in the handles of some startups.

Consider choosing the familiar and straightforward

When he was in a San Francisco coffee shop thinking of a name for his startup, former English teacher Jack Ma thought of Alibaba, inspired by the character in the Middle Eastern folk tales One Thousand and One Nights.

He checked with the waitress and asked if she knew about Alibaba, and she said, “Open Sesame”. Encouraged, he went to the street and asked 30 people whether they knew Alibaba and found that people from India, Germany, Tokyo and China knew about Alibaba, open sesame and the 40 thieves.

“Alibaba is not a thief. Alibaba is a kind, smart businessperson, and he helped the village,” Ma said in a 2006 interview with CNN, noting that the name was also easy to spell and universally known. “Alibaba opens sesame for small- to medium-sized companies.”

Arguably, his decision to name his startup Alibaba in 1999 has helped the tech and ecommerce giant become a household name.

Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs had just come off an apple farm and was on one of his fruitarian diets when he thought of the name. He discussed it with co-founder Steve Wozniak, and they tried alternate names such as Executex and Matrix Electronics, but as they didn’t like those as much as Apple Computers, the legendary brand was born.

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Consider something related to the industry

Before Singapore-based cross-border payments firm Thunes was spun-off from TransferTo, it was simply known as the MoneyTransfer business, from its product MoneyTransfer. With the split, they had to find a new name.

“So we came up with the name Thunes, which is actually a French word for money, slang for money. So we are very focused on having our own identity, own culture, own focus,” said Thunes CEO Peter De Caluwe.

In Indonesia, Gojek, which started in 2010 to connect customers with two-wheeled courier delivery, took its name from “ojek”, or motorbike taxis. The Indonesian founders of ecommerce business Tokopedia chose to name the firm from the combination of the local word toko, meaning “shop”, with “encyclopedia”. In 2021, Gojek and Tokopedia merged to form GoTo.

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Consider the domain name

In this digital age, choosing a web-friendly name is critical. However, the number of available domain names is growing scarcer, partly because squatters are taking the domains.

To get around it, some change the spelling of names. Photo image collection service Flickr co-founders Stewart Butterfield and wife Caterina Fake adopted the name after the domain owner of flicker.com wouldn’t sell.

Similar to Thunes, foreign words have also inspired corporate or brand names. Acer, founded in Taiwan as Multitech International, later changed its name to its current form based on the Latin word for “sharp, acute, able and facile”. Sony’s name has two inspirations; the Latin word sonus, meaning sound and the American slang expression “sonny boys” connoted smart, presentable young men, as the Japanese co-founders thought of themselves.

Meanwhile, there are several online tools such as name generators that can help founders find one that could work for them to get ideas.

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Consider a rebrand if the business is evolving

When Grab CEO Anthony Tan founded the startup in Malaysia with compatriot and Harvard Business School classmate Tan Hooi Ling in 2012, they named it MyTeksi, reflecting the nature of the app-based ride-hailing service. The business in Singapore was launched later on under the brand GrabTaxi. 

As the business evolved beyond ride-hailing service and delved into food delivery and payments, among others, in dozens of cities in Southeast Asia, it became clear that their reference to a taxi service had become outdated.

In explaining the decision to rebrand the business as Grab across all its markets in 2016, Tan said, “It was really making sure that one brand covers all the different services,” he said. “It’s not just a logo, not just a brand, but an identity to reinforce [Grab] as a leader in the region.”

In the case of Facebook, the recent change in the corporate name to Meta indicated its new focus. In a letter in October 2021, the tech giant’s co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg noted that the company was “at the beginning of the next chapter of the internet” as he outlined the future of virtual reality.

“The next platform will be even more immersive – an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it. We call this the metaverse, and it will touch every product we build,” he said.

Whether you’re still starting out and thinking of a name for your startup or looking to signal changes in your business, choosing the name is a crucial step that shouldn’t be taken lightly. 

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