Naming your company…self discovery as word play

It’s challenging to find a great company name.

Choices are difficult and often expensive. Coming to grips with what ‘great’ really means is never definitive. And for early stage companies, we have little more than gut belief and pure inspiration to guide us.

No product. No market. No early community. Nothing but a silhouette of a big idea.

Naming at an early stage is like building the transcontinental railroad with only one directive–head west. This is as close to zen as marketing can get.

The naming process is a wacky anomaly. There is no scale for right or wrong. No data to guide you. You labor to an end result that is completely subjective, arbitrary by nature, yet critical in ineffable ways.

It’s not quite free-form imagination but the rules are squishy, advice overly plentiful and the logic of one choice over another, often questionable.

Some marketers claim that the importance of the naming process is inflated. You ‘fix’ the name as you grow with it. This is the ‘money equalizes all problems’ babble. Some say that your future is determined by your birthright. Nonsense both.

Names are important. They are an outline and language for the future. There is brand sense in the sound of the name even at first blush. Discovering the right name is marketing at a symbolic level. Defining in halftones and creating a shape for an idea and giving that shape a name and the customer something to hold a memory in.

I’ve been creating company and product names throughout my career. I’m back in the name game recently with a number of personal and client projects.

Every naming project is unique. Each one is difficult and inspiring. I’ve never done this well where the vision of team and the company didn’t grow and become more self cognizant during the process.

This time, I decided to poll my networks for new ideas and guidance before I started. Very little came back.

The following thought categories are the ones I created as guidelines, very minor epiphanies that made the process more intelligent and focused, and seemingly less random.

All names are not created equal, but none are great at inception.

Some names are really clever right off. Some just sound right. But all of them are somewhat meaningless and devoid of impact until you give them legs and the market embraces them as an icon for your company’s value.

We forget that the names on our Bookmark Bar–Google, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Skype—are anything but overnight successes. We’ve been working with them for years. We know what they stand for, when to use them and for what.

They aren’t perfect now, any more than I bet they felt perfect back when. Just today, our history with them gives them meaning. They just work.

Compare these name brands with any group of cool start-up names. The best of the new are sassy and compelling, flexible shells awaiting gravitas from our experience with them.

The difference between, say Tumblr and a great name like Jig is just that–years of exposure, gazillions of link shares, billions of personal experiences from a global population. Tumblr has evolved into a brand; Jig is just a name.

Names do really matter even before they mean anything.

How valuable is your company name before it becomes an icon for what your product and your company stand for?

I think, very valuable.

We need symbols and words to wrap our ideas around. That name is the first piece of language that articulates what your company could be. Try pitching without it.

I’m a believer in words as maps for ideas and guidelines for creativity. Names to me are a visualized idea, a synthesized composite that you layer with meaning over time.

You need to be comfortable without reservation, putting your heart and soul behind what the name represents in a word. The initial word on the slide to gather your first early community around it, find funding and establish partnerships.

It’s a giant step towards articulating and in some ways defining the future.

You can’t outsource the process of self-discovery.

This is not a popular idea.

I believe that no one can tell you who you are or what the core of your company is about.

You can hire someone with naming chops to help tease the vision out of you and into a name that works. It’s a hard process and having a pro as your partner can help. But ultimately, their job is to find voice for what you believe. They can’t find the vision for you.

My advice is to listen to everyone, internalize, then decide yourself. This is not a democratic process.

You are the one who will sweat it into meaning through endless conversations, pitches, interviews and decisions. Your opinion is the one that matters.

This is important stuff to find the time to make right. Do it with a partner as needed but make this process your own.

What you call yourself, what you do and where you live are the same.

We are not choosing a name as much as drawing a map of connections to being found by our future customers and the place where community will be built. We are in a sense, also designing the first word of a new language of expression.

The compromise between the sense in the sound of the word that we love and the availability (and cost) of the URL is always uneasy.

The flexibility of having more than .com at your disposal is however, a creative gift from today’s social web.

If you are building a destination site, the .com designation still seems to have meaning to the mass market. A straw poll of my marketing networks came back unanimous on this.

If the activity is centered around ‘me’, and mobile, then each of us is their own center of the connecting social net. Then .com seems wrong and .me may be a strong contender.

If the service is a verb, an action, then .it as in ‘’ makes sense. Domains are a new global language with very few rules. We have immense freedom to craft new language structures as long as we are not cute for cute’s sake and forget about how this will play with the customer.

With mobile devices as the new desktop, you need to rethink how important correct spelling really is. We download an app once, use it forever. Think about whether you will live in a app-based world or one where typing in your URL will be commonplace. Being remembered as a sound may be the most important criteria.

Naming is an exercise in compromise. I find that the more puzzle pieces I have to play with, the better the result.

And of course, core company value will trump everything else. Having a great name to build that value around is a huge asset.

The domain name moat.

The web world is incessantly changing and domain strategies are in a constant state of flux. A number of entrepreneurs I spoke with are targeting a .com, .it, .me, and sometimes, .tv moat strategy.

The idea is to lock in a destination site .com, a mobile .me,  an action .it and video, .tv domain family. It is a broad idea, hard to accomplish, but worth considering.

Some names really do suck and win anyway. is the best example of a terrible name for a great service that was hugely successful.

I use the product incessantly and always misspell it.  It has no sound and sense logic to me. No real connection to anything.

But delicious rocked my world when I adopted it for my bookmarking platform. I’m still using it today.

The sound and sense puzzle

I needed some way to parse the infinite naming possibilities and tackle this process conceptually.

The sound and sense puzzle stack was my solution:

  • The literal layer. Names that describe what you do as a verb (foodspotting, blogger, drynks) or as a place or noun (think Cartoon Network). Great for known brands. Good for keyword based traffic strategies.
  • The metaphorical layer. Names that exemplify what your brand is about. Tumblr, Flickr, Stumbleupon, Re-Vinyl, maybe even Twitter, all jump to mind. These are all the rage and create some killer names.
  • The meta layer. The interface as a defining behavior. Think of games, like Doodle Jump. Concepts wrapped up as reflex actions.
  • The Sound before sense layer. Names that just sound right. Seemingly random and unconnected in any tangible way. Yelp and Jig are examples.

There are as many of these layers as there are different ways of thinking about your brand. Moving these puzzle pieces around can make the universe of choices more manageable.

I went through this naming process a bunch of years ago when I started my blogs. I came up with some cool names for my social web and wine blogs that are still cool today, but filed away (for now)


At the end, I chose what it is today:

No symbology. Hard to spell. No sound over sense. Nothing meta. Only myself as the brand and the container to build a community of discussion around.

I am what I sell and this container is the most flexible and fits like it’s mine.

It just feels right and for naming and building a brand, that’s the most important thing.

Mentoring…a lot more than just giving back

I spend my professional hours meeting with entrepreneurs, consulting on projects and advising at a board level to companies across a deep band of online commerce and community, market development and branding.

It’s taken me a career of experiences to be effective advising executives and stepping in as a leader with impromptu teams. It’s a delicate poise between listening and advice, directing and doing, jumping in and stepping back.

With my work, I have vested interest in the success of my clients. Pride. Friendship. Re-upping the work. Equity. I win when they do.

Mentoring is a completely different ballgame.

The process and the end result are unique unto themselves.

This summer, I worked as a mentor to newquill, a band of four, super-sharp thinkers out of the Annenberg Lab in Los Angeles: Michael Morgan, Ryan Harper, Robert Harkness and Chi Qi.

They were accepted into the Startl educational program in partnership with the Dreamit venture incubator in NYC. I worked with them there.

Dreamit as an organization is a well-honed incubator. It has its own cadre of professional advisors and mentors. Legal, accounting, equity pool advice, market segmentation are all available for the start-ups. The professional mentors and advisors provide the core knowledge base that the teams need. Smart, experienced, tough and empirical in their advice.

My role was different.

I came in through a friend whose son was one of the team. They got to know me and my ideas first through my blog.

I was blown away by their diverse backgrounds, raw energy and talent. And as an English major, their visceral connection to literature, language and understanding of ideas like ‘marginalia’ as common metaphors for learning made it a no-brainer for me to volunteer my time.

“Friday sessions with Arnold” happened over a few months at the Dreamit workspace and random coffee shops.

The sessions were focused (and often intellectually exhilarating) brainstorms to find direction over learning behaviors, market dynamics, product design, business models, clarity in communications, market discovery, and getting focused and prepped for the incubator-ending Dreamit funding pitch.

Newquill originally started with the idea of collaborative elementary and middle school education on the iPad. Shared marginalia in a controlled and creative process to bring dynamics to the learning process was the starting vision.

The team had a core belief in disrupting education through storytelling. Significant expertise in ePub3 and HTML5. And a flexible, dogged determinism. They dreamed a new vision of education.

That’s not where they ended.

Limited market sizing of the iPad in public education prompted a shift. A huge one.

Nine weeks later in an almost Incredible Hulk-like pivot they emerged as A merchandising and fan platform with serious potential to disrupt music merchandising and band/fan communities for the music industry.

Look at the final pitch video here. It’s clear and inspiring. This is also where to get to know the team members.

David Cohen recently posted the Mentor Manifesto. He lists what it means to be a pro mentor and what you need to pay attention to.

For me though, the learnings are more focused and personal.

Mentorship is commitment with no investment in the company’s success. Doing a great job challenging and encouraging them was my intent and payback.

The long view is my domain. The team was in their early 20s, less time than I’ve been working in my career. But my goal was not to get them to the goal post. Far from it. My role was to guide them on a path not yet determined. If we found a runway, to help them to make it their own

When I started, I thought of mentorship simply as giving back. Sharing my knowledge and passion for the social web with those who were equally inspired but with less real-world business, marketing and product experience.

Certainly, this is about sharing knowledge to a new generation of entrepreneurs, but this is a two-way path with value moving in both directions.

The exuberance of this team inspired me (and themselves daily). They were learning machines, gobbling up new technical languages and approaches daily, naturally. Change was par for the course to them, exhilarating yet rarely debilitating.

I never said to the team–“This is what I would do”. I often said–‘think of it this way’ or ‘that doesn’t work for me’ or ‘there is a huge difference between what you are thinking and saying and what people are seeing and hearing’.

And most surprisingly, I found myself pushing them back to their core passions and belief. They had so many inputs. So many talented people giving them good advice that it daunts…and I think it can dull.

I believe that passion is more important than preparation or professionalism. And that core entrepreneurial beliefs often trump established logic or business models. I took it as my role to channel that passion back to the center.

I also learned a lot about ePub and HTML5. They learned from my experiences and thinking about how to create something unique for a mobile, social, always connected population. And how to discover a market for it.

As a team and as the sum total of all of the mentors, Re-Vinyl was created.

Passions. Wisdom. Knowledge from experience all are important. The way they get mixed up together as a creative team discovery process is key. Especially in a mentorship relationship.

I relished this experience. I learned a lot. I challenged and was challenged. It was fun.

The team did as well.

And when I look at the pitch video ( Re-Vinyl Pitch ) and see ideas and direction, phrases and graphics that grew out of our Friday sessions. I’m super satisfied.

The Re-Vinyl team are out looking for funding now. If you are interested, please contact the CEO, Michael Morgan at

I hope (and I’m nudging them) that they keep at it and find the funds to take Re-Vinyl to market. They already have a few bands signed. The idea is a good one. The team is wondrously diverse.

These guys have the juice and I expect to see Re-Vinyl live and one of the change agents in the reinvention of the music industry.

For me, I’m certain that mentorship will be part of what I do from now on out.

Looking beyond context and connections to community

Community is both an aspirational goal and a pragmatic design element for building businesses and brands.

I came on this belief early.

I remember walking into the noisy and overheated BBS room at Atari Inc., my first marketing job some 25 years ago and seeing the frenetic flashing lights on the servers that housed the 2M+ members of the Atari User Group.

I was instantly struck…and inspired…that this is what marketing was all about.

Many user groups, developer organizations, open source communities, vertical market places and niche communities of interest later, I believe this more than ever.

The power of today’s social web lies not in counting likes or taking twisted paths to measure reputation, but in the evolution of social behaviors that these new platforms give expression to and the possibilities of creating infinite variations on the theme of community and commerce.

Everything certainly has changed.

Today, we don’t need web traffic as much as engagement. Nor contextual search as much as connections and community. Nor certainly new measurement systems or influence scales.

We simply need to connect with customers and build common value and brand trust. Not simple to do certainly but this is the new (and true) business mantra for today’s world.

Marketing, at its best is the architect of this and bridges company value with customer need. It is all about channeling people and communities, no longer simply clicks and traffic.

These are not just easy phrases but business realities.

I look to community as a broad avenue into the intersection of consumer behavior and business intent. It’s a directed goal to create early momentum or overcome later business inertia. It’s always served me well. It’s more powerful and utilitarian today than every before.

Community though is an idea of engagement that finds itself in many guises.

Whether you are figuring out how to attract the first group of early users for a marketplace. Or creating a platform for people to share ideas around fashion or wine or travel. Or building a fan base for your restaurant or non-profit organization. Or designing a flash communities built around a transaction or check in.

Starting with community as the social (and business) dynamic is a always a natural place to begin. It’s a chess game of people and value and product with group behavior as the game board.

Community as an ideal is rarely obtainable. It’s pure social magic at its best. As a sieve for finding customer connections, it rarely fails.

This is not new news of course.

The idea of the Interest Graph is a proxy for communities of interest. This grew out of the discontent about the friendship graph being too nebulous, too friend based and too noisy to be useful. Friendship is simply a bad filter. One-to-many is a poor design compared to the natural many-to-many that community can offer.

Social web thinkers have been evangelizing context and curation as the pathway to make all of this powerful social data actionable. Myself included. And certainly ‘Context not content is king” and “Context is a better filter than friendship to filter the social web’ are true to a point.

But neither are the end game.

You can keep connecting and reconnecting, sharing and pushing everything forward, but at the end, it’s like two lines streaming towards the horizon but never connecting.

Context is a step, community is where the lines intersect.

There are as many definitions as there are bloggers as what the next step for the social web and commerce and marketing will be.

Some call this smart commerce. Many speak to the connection between data and action. Most all see it as a algorhythmic parsing of the world of social inputs. A leap beyond explicit requests to implicit suggestions in an off/online continuum. A mash up of real-time, geo-aware, mobile and cloud-fed breadcrumbs for every part of our lives.

These are all correct but simply directional. To me, they are outlining a community-centered era with true social commerce and marketplaces to follow.

This is a both a pragmatic reaction to both the possibilities and the frustrations of the social graph and just a basic behavioral drive towards people aggregating naturally around shared passions and interests.

At the intersection of web and social evolution, we’ve moved from the commerce of clicks to social nets of friends to what will become a landscape of communities of interest as dynamic filters and aggregators. Commerce will be the spinoff, the exhaust of community not the reason for it.

The drive for specific connections and the dynamic power of the underlying connectors of the web is creating a network of vertical interests. A new slant on the power of the niche.

Not just a sports community but specifically kayaking or rock climbing. Not travel but adventure or wine or philanthropic travel. Not deserts but raw deserts. Not restaurant referral platforms but a useable local reality in all locales.

When you add global and mobile and real-time to this equation, there is almost no niche community that can’t have membership group that is too small to still be dynamic and viable. You can build a quorum base for a community across a global population for almost any area of interest.

This web of connected communities is centered around the individual. The customer. It’s a graph of ‘me’ connecting to a variety of ‘us’ communities. Rather than a big bland platform, we will be a member of many communities all connecting back to me and spreading out in a molecular social pattern. Like people and societies in our daily lives.

This ecosystem of communities is somewhat of an analog to what Fred Wilson refers to as ‘communities of engaged users’. An investment thesis that is the corollary to my market and brand building musings.

You can extrapolate this further and break down all the old channel constructs around business-to-business and business-to-consumer models. It’s all about Cs, about customers and now community. People migrating and connecting into groups around interests.

This also ameliorates one of the large disconnects for brands in a social world. They can stop struggling to be a person to their customers and find (sponsor and lead) communities of interest around connected topics. Yoga info exchanges and courses for yoga apparel makers. Developer communities for open source platform vendors. Sports medicine for athletic product manufactures.

This is an oversimplification of course.

But an opening direction. A first volley of how community, so powered and powerful on the social web is a metaphor and behavioral roadmap for business design. It’s a design thesis, not a prescription or a list of to dos.

From my first experience at Atari with the BBS community, through tectonic technological change, the core value and power of community holds…in fact, has increased.

Take people online or off, let them gravitate freely towards their interests, build a dynamic gathering place and provide leadership. Conversation and common ground and community and commerce may just happen.

Community, social discovery and the implicit graph

The give and take between explicit requests and implicitly inferred assumptions is the natural state of how we live.

Offline we don’t really think about this.

Face-to-face with family, friends and tight-knit interest groups we accept that serendipity just happens, more often than we expect. The sum of explicit and implicit requests and assumptions is what make human dynamics what it is.

This dynamic is also the core DNA of community, online and off.

Given the right environment, this interplay of explicit demands providing keys to implicit inferences just surfaces naturally. This is why community works and very much why it matters.

As marketers and business owners, this is key to what we do and why community dynamics are both marketing goals and a gauge of the health of a growing business.

This is a simple and basic truth, yet bears repeating.

Great companies learn from what our customers ask for explicitly and listen hard to what they infer implicitly. This listening is a core competency of marketing and business development, interpersonal and inter-customer communications.

This is true not only of companies built on the ‘network effect’ of spiraling interconnected customer growth, but all business that gather their customers around each other, and themselves, to continually recreate their market dynamics.

Yet, as marketers, we spend a lot of time reconceptualizing the value of community. It’s a never-ending process. A healthy discussion certainly but ultimately a conclusion you need to accept without pure data as proof.

The exploded focus on what is referred to as the ‘implicit graph’ and the power of implicit data over the last few months has by default shined a brightened light on the value of community. What the curation segment and social networks call the implicit graph has no greater proof point than the dynamics of a successful online community.

Community is the sandbox for the power of implicit connections and test bed for how to use that data.

This is what a community platform like Disqus, the socialization around video in Google+ Hangouts, the inference-based connecting power of Foursquare and personalization of Hunch are all getting at.

Community is hard to make happen. But the pieces that marketers move around in social design are the people themselves. We resift the sand in the sandbox till it works.

In social communities online and off, implicit connections are a function of human behaviors, encapsulated in conversations.

On social nets the behavior become data. The networks need to collect and sort through an ever-growing matrix of social data and algorithmically connect implicit input to explicit inferences.

There is a core connection between the gestalt of community and the data driven power of the implicit graph as a tool for social discovery. This started to come together for me last month when I participated in two workshops around “Social Discovery and the Implicit Graph.” Eric Friedman from Foursquare wrote a post on the workshops that is worth a read.

They were group brainstorms organized and led by Disqus, Hunch, Foursquare, StumbleUpon and Tumblr. Each of these companies has a business interest in figuring out how to drive implicit recommendations that are personalized for each individual over time.

Nothing was decided. Much was discussed. The standing room only crowd was inspiring.

The following from the conversation stuck with me:

-People expect the benefits of implicit suggestions on their social nets.

It’s not creepy that Foursquare should suggest things that we want to do when we are somewhere in NYC, it’s what check in-apps should be doing.

Having to explicitly ask for everything we want is both unnatural and boring. It belies the value of connecting and the power of the networks themselves.

People want to get suggestions on what they want without asking for them.

-People expect companies and brands to know them personally and implicitly.

Each of us invests time in sharing our thoughts forward and chronicling our lives as they happen online. This is public information and companies have access to this.

Translated…there is a market for Hunch in my opinion, big time.

-People want implicit discovery as a personal tool.

Search is not enough. Inferred info streams ala Facebook news feeds are not adequate. People want searchable context and companies like Disqus with the implicit data of 50M commenters in their database that can provide enormous value for discovery. The market appears to want it. I certainly do.

When I think about Foursquare in this context, what they are really doing is creating a social, inference-based platform that creates micro-flash communities on demand, one implicitly value-based connection after another, check in by check in.

You can build an analogous map for StumbleUpon, Tumblr and Hunch.

This is very cool stuff. Powerful, heady and just plain hard to do. A bold attempt to build social consciousness into artificial intelligence, code-driven algorithm that spits out time sensitive, personalized implicit suggestions.

I think this is still all about community.

Community works, my bet is that the implicit graph will also.



Closing the action gap on the social web

We intuitively understand the power of our social nets.

They are part of the fabric of our lives. Liking and sharing are natural behaviors; Facebook and Twitter are platforms for our personal expression.

For businesses and brands though, harnessing these nets with intent for business purposes is tough…often elusive. Most businesses wriggle around on the friendship graph, entreating others to follow and like them, stumbling forward through a fog of loose connections.

The gist of the challenge is ingrained in the naturalness of the social web itself. It’s a reflecting pool for our lives and public by design. Whispers become amplified; conversations become a form of attention grabbing media themselves.

The social web is host to an ongoing live channel with ‘us’ as the star, innately external and globally immediate. This is key to both its power and to channeling the subtleties to make it actionable.

Think of it this way.

Being a natural communicator and performer with genuineness, poise, excitement and humility is no small feat on or offline. That’s the realm of stars and performers.

Being natural in the spotlight and publicly poised is just not that ‘natural’ for most of us.

For businesses hidden behind a URL online rather than the archetypal counter at the local store, the separation creates uneasiness. Being face-to-face shines an easy light on our personal foibles. Being ourselves on the web is akin to performing on a global real-time stage. If only the professional performers can play here, this is zero sum game.

Self-help lists for the online marketer or tips for the tweeting CEO are just not enough nor that useful. People and companies need less dressing up and polish and more context for conversations. Being genuine is more powerful than being professional.

Hugh MacLeod of Gaping Void fame, sheds light on this in a great post defining what he calls ‘social objects’. For him, context is discoverable in a social object that encapsulates interests and passions. It’s a connecting node on the mesh of the interest graph.

He also alludes to the need to embrace the inner geekiness behind every social object.

Wine geeks. Gardening geeks. Foodies. Motorcycle fanatics. Rabid sports fans. The web lets us follow our interests globally, immediately and with uncanny depth. We are all like a ten-year old kid rattling off facts on dinosaurs. We live in a world of passionate geeks searching for communities of interest. I’m certainly one.

He’s onto something.

I posted about context as a filter over friendship and how the interest graph is the playing field for connections and dynamic communities of interest. Hugh’s social objects are islands of aggregated passion around an interest that cuts through the noise of friendly social chatter and surfaces like safe harbors on this graph.

This just works. Focus on your interests as the language for connection, and passion as the rhythm for communications and you are not performing, simply conversing.

What does this mean for businesses?

Everything…with a twist.

It’s too easy to state that we want a conversation between company and customer. While true, it doesn’t bring you any closer to action than would a list of general ‘to do’s’ for your Facebook fan page.

This is the action gap personified.

A market’s need for context and connected interest is not well served with lists that skirt the issue and spiral away from a solution. The gap is real. The solution requires a new and more focused lens on the situation.

Few companies have rock star CEO or CMO bloggers. Or big juicy viral topics that connect the masses in a sweeping horizontal flash. Or are brilliantly coy in their poise.

But all companies have passion points. If you are a start-up, that’s what drove you to create your business and solve a market problem. If you have market traction, that’s why your customers come back and engage with you.

Building a brand is hard. Finding a phrase that captures your core value is elusively magical. Marketing needs to lead this process, but as a discipline is behind in understanding its role.

These passion points are true for disruptive companies bent on transforming the world, like Etsy with an artisanal marketplace or Kickstarter with crowd-sourced funding. True also for the most vertical niche like custom snow boards. Or just stuff we love in our neighborhoods like a farm-to-table local restaurant or a natural wine bar with weekly tastings.

Companies like Shopbop accomplish this through a great shopping interface that make purchasing women’s clothes online easy and fun. Or Boxee, through an easy flowing, information rich enthusiast and product blog. Or communities like Ravelry for knitters or SEOmoz for search experts

For every possible slice of the universal marketplace pie there is a unique vernacular and a singular bridge to connection.

You need to start the process of discovering your marketplace with this bridge. Your customers won’t tell you what language to speak but they will let you know you have it right when they start talking back.