For years, decades even, startup names have been getting weirder. This isn’t a scientific verdict, but it is how things have seemed to someone who spends a lot of hours perusing this stuff.
Startups have had a long run of branding themselves with creative misspellings, animal names. human first names, made-up words, adverbs and other odd collections of letters. It’s gone on so long it now seems normal. Names like Google, Airbnb and Hulu, which sounded strange at first, are now part of our everyday vocabulary.
Over the past few quarters, however, a peculiar thing has been happening: Startup founders are choosing more conventional-sounding names.
“As we reach the edge of strangeness… they’re saying: ‘It’s too weird. I’m uncomfortable,’” said Athol Foden, president of Brighter Naming, a naming consultancy. While quirky startup monikers haven’t gone away, founders are increasingly comfortable with less-unusual-sounding choices.
Foden’s observations are reflected in our annual Crunchbase News survey of startup naming trends. We’re seeing a proliferation of startups choosing simple words that describe their businesses, including companies like Hitch, an app for long-distance car rides; Duffel, a trip-booking startup named after the popular travel bag; and Coder, a software development platform.
But fortunately for fans of offbeat names, the trend is only toward less weirdness, not no weirdness. Those who wish to patronage seed-stage startups can still buy tampons from Aunt Flow, get parenting tips from an app called Mush or get insurance from a startup called Marshmallow.
Below, we look in more detail at some of the more popular startup naming practices and how they are trending.
For a long time, it seemed like a vast number of startups selected names largely by disabling the spell checker.
Most desirable dictionary words were already in use as domains or too pricey to acquire. So founders took to dropping vowels, subbing a “y” for an “i” or adding an extra consonant to make it work. The strategy worked well for a lot of well-known companies, including Lyft, Tumblr, Digg, Flickr, Grindr and Scribd.
These days, creative misspellings are still pretty common among early-stage founders. Our name survey unearthed a big number (see partial list) that recently raised funding, including Houwser, an upstart real estate brokerage; Swytch, developer of a kit for converting bikes to e-bikes; and Wurk, a provider of human resources and compliance software for the cannabis industry.
However, creative misspellings are getting less popular, Foden said. Early-stage founders are turned off by the prospect of having to spell out their names to people unfamiliar with the brand (which for seed-stage companies includes pretty much everyone).
One of the more fun naming styles is the pun. In our perusal of companies that raised seed funding in the past year, we came across a number of startups employing some sort of play-on words.
We put together a list of seven of the punniest names here. In addition to Aunt Flow, the list includes WeeCare, a network of daycare providers, and Serial Box, a digital content producer. Crunchbase News also created its own fictional startup — drone chicken delivery startup Internet of Wings — in an explainer series on startup funding.
Perhaps some day business naming will harken back to the industrial age, when corporate titans had exceedingly boring and obvious names.
Real companies with pun names that have matured to exit were harder to pinpoint. A couple that have gone public are Groupon and MedMen, a cannabis company that went public in Canada and is valued around CA$2 billion.
For some reason, it appears pun names are more popular in the brick-and-mortar world than the tech startup sphere. Restaurants specializing in the Vietnamese noodle soup Pho have dozens of play-on-word names memorialized in lists like this. Ditto for pet stores.
Personally, I’d like to see more internet startups rolling out pun-based names. Foden would, too, and he has even volunteered one suggestion for someone who wants to start a business applying artificial intelligence to artificial insemination: Ai.ai.
Made-up words that sound real
There are more than 170,000 non-obsolete words in the English language, per the Oxford English Dictionary. Startups, however, are convinced we need more.
Hence, one of the more enduringly popular business-naming practices is to come up with something that sounds like an actual word, even if it isn’t.
We put together a list of examples of this naming style among recently seed-funded startups.
It includes Trustology, which is building a platform to safeguard crypto assets; Invocable, a developer of voice design tools for Alexa apps; and Locomation, which focuses on autonomous trucking technology.
Naming advisors like to see the made-up word name trend on the rise, Foden said, because it’s the kind of thing companies pay a consultant to figure out. Another advantage is it’s easier to top search results for a made-up word.
Lastly, let’s look at those rebel startups choosing familiar dictionary words for their names.
We put together a list of some here. Besides the aforementioned Duffel, Hitch and Coder, there’s Decent, a healthcare startup; Chief, a women’s networking group; Journal, a note organizing tool; and many more.
Startups are less concerned than they used to be with snagging a dot-com domain that contains just their name. Commonly, they’ll add a prefix to their domain (joinchief.com, usejournal.com), choose an alternate domain (Hitch.net) or both.
Overall, Foden said, startups today are putting less emphasis on securing a dot-com suffix or an exact domain name match. Google parent Alphabet, in particular, made the alternate domain idea more palatable. It helped to see one of the world’s richest corporations forego Alphabet.com in favor of abc.xyz.
Where is it all going?
They say history repeats itself. If so, perhaps some day business naming will harken back to the industrial age, when corporate titans had exceedingly boring and obvious names like Standard Oil, U.S. Steel and General Electric.
For now, however, we live in era in which the most valuable companies have names like Google and Facebook. And to us, they sound perfectly normal.
Methodology: For the naming data set, we looked primarily at companies in English-speaking countries that raised seed funding after 2018. To broaden the potential list of names, we also included some companies funded in 2017. We also tried to limit the lists, where possible to companies founded in the past three years, although there were occasional exceptions.