Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How Today’s Hottest Startups Got Their Names

By Sarah Kessler

There are no rules to naming a startup. And most entrepreneurs do assume that the name they choose will change before their businesses really start to gain momentum.

Consequently, it doesn’t shock us that some of our favorite startups were sired by picking names out of hats, by throwing out odd proper nouns that might be cheap domain names and by haphazardly removing vowels.

Ever wonder what a “Twitter” is, or who the “Hipmunk” is? We’ve asked nine startups to share the story behind their names.

1. Twitter

The name Twitter was picked out of a hat. A small group of employees from Odeo, the San Francisco podcasting startup where Twitter initially began, had a brainstorming session. They were trying to come up with names that fit with the theme of a mobile phone buzzing an update in your pocket.

After narrowing down the options (which included Jitter and Twitter), they wrote them down, put them in a hat, and let fate decide. Fate decided on Twitter (because clearly asking someone if they saw your latest "jeep" is just weird).

2. Foursquare

Dodgeball, Dennis Crowley’s first attempt at social networking for mobile phones, was acquired by Google in 2005. When Google killed the project, Crowley founded an improved location-based social game he named Foursquare. Does Dennis Crowley have some sort of unresolved childhood issues relating to playground games?

As it turns out, no he doesn’t. “Dennis chose to name both companies after playground games because they were both designed to be fun and playful,” said Foursquare’s PR manager in an email. Apparently, Foursquare was always Crowley’s first choice, but the domain name wasn’t available at the time he founded Dodgeball.

3. Aardvark

Aardvark has been a sleek website where users can type or email their questions, to then be answered by the appropriate people in their own social networks. But co-founder Max Ventilla’s idea began as a chat buddy that could intermediate conversations with people you know online.

There were advantages to having this name at the top of the buddy list, a spot which was occupied on Ventilla’s buddy roster by his friend Aaron. Alphabetically speaking, there aren’t many options that trump Aaron. “Aardvark” is one of the few names that could shoulder him out.

Other factors the name had going for it were its ability to conjugate the invented active verb “vark,” and being an animal that people recognized but typically didn’t have strong associations with.

“We also felt that an animal had the right positioning as helpful but not perfect,” said Ventilla in an email. “If we chose a human or a robot mascot people would spend their time trying to make it look stupid, but they’d cut an animal more slack.”

Google recently announced it would soon shutter Aardvark. Users have until Sept. 30 to retrieve their data.

4. Spotify

Spotify founders Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon crossed “spot” and “identify” when they named their digital music service.

5. Twilio

“In the early days of the company, the name doesn’t really matter for anything. You always assume you’ll change it later...You should be able to own a word for your company. You should not have any baggage associated with the name.

“What we started doing is saying, we want to invent a word, we know that, so let’s just start making syllables without faces and when we have something that sounds good, check and see if the domain name is available ... We’d just make these weird sounds and then run to the computer and see if it was available. We bought the domain name for $7.”

6. Zynga

Zynga is named after CEO Mark Pincus’s late American Bulldog, Zinga. The name means African warrior princess.

7. Etsy

From a spokesperson:
The origin of the word "Etsy" is shrouded in mystery. Only our founder Rob Kalin knows for sure, and he often throws out red herrings. Some widely-publicized (and certainly fabricated) versions of the story include: a reference to a magic word in a Fellini film, the name of his grandmother's favorite childhood pet, and something about a Unix directory, I think it's "/etc," pronounced “et-C.”

Other fun facts (some of which may actually be factual): Phonetically, Etsy has many homonyms too. It can mean:

"and if" in Latin

"horny" in Japanese

A slur for "loose woman" in Russian-speaking parts of Bay Ridge / Brighton Beach. Oh, and it rhymes with "Betsy."

8. Scribd

Scribd CEO Trip Adler says the company picked Scribd (pronounced "skribbed") beause of its ties to writing and publishing.

More interesting is how the coppany decided on the name of its mobile reader app, Float. “We wanted something to highlight the floating reading experience,” Adler says. “Namely, the idea of reading without boundaries.”

9. Hipmunk

After discarding names like “BouncePounce” (if there were a good travel deal, you’d pounce, right?) and Truvel (travel, but true), Hipmunk co-founder Adam Goldstein was discussing the naming roadblock with his girlfriend.

She suggested they go with a cute animal so that they could have a cool logo. Hipmunk.com was auctioning for about $70 at a time, and so the name -- and admittedly adorable logo -- were born.

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