When did we stop naming companies? April 15th, 2011.

Ancient History

There was a time, a storied era, not so long ago, when men were men and companies had names that meant something. When you heard that someone worked at Mumford & Sons, you knew something about the man. Namely, his last name. And the fact that he, along with his familial business partners, was running a business that was successful enough to keep food on their table. Based on the fullness of his beard, you may have even been able to guess whether he was Mumford or just one of the sons. Nowadays, if someone tells you she used to work at Jooce, you know only two things about her: One, she's spent a decent amount of time spelling J-O-O-C-E for folks. Two, she's spent even more time explaining that Joost was another company entirely.

Somewhere along the way, we got caught up in the chase for the Pronounceable and, More Importantly, AvailableTM domain name. I mean, really, Pingg? And we're somehow misusing real words now, too. Color is definitely in the dictionary, and I know what a Path is. But what do those names tell you about those companies? They tell you that not even an easy-to-spell, easy-to-say, easy-to-spend-$250k-on-a-domain-name name can buy you traction.

Nomenclature 101

In Iceland, names are taken very seriously. If you want to make up a new first name, you have to ask a committee. If you want to make up a new last name, too bad—Your 'family' name is based on the first name of one of your parents (probably your father). The beauty of this system is manifold. First, you know instantly that Björk Guðmundsdóttir is the daughter of of Guðmund, and that you can just call her Björk. Second, no one ends up with a name that's silly or hard to pronounce. Third, the phone book is alphabetized by first name. The system works because, unlike most names, every Icelandic name stakes a strong claim to that person's own space in the world.

In fact, if a name is strong enough, it can carve out so much space that there's barely any remaining for anyone else. Take Standard Oil, for example. There's little left to the imagination there. If you wanted oil or oil-related services, why would you go anywhere else? The name was so successful that the company had to be broken up by the government, leaving 34 less-well-named companies to try to carry on its legacy.

A truly good name is built to last. International Business Machines is as well known today for building gameshow-winning A.I. as they were in the 1930s for providing punch card technology to the Germans. Both General Electric and General Motors are in their second century of existence, even though neither one of them makes much money from their respective original products. And when it comes to Music and Television, where else would one look but Music Television? You'd be hard pressed to find many companies named in the last few years that could stand the test of time as well as all of these have.

We can do better

Things aren't all bad. The two leading social networks, (The) Facebook and MySpace, have nice strong names that do a great job establishing a purpose for their websites before you even visit the first time. SoundCloud and SecondMarket are both incredibly straightforward and yet incredibly good-sounding names. And my two favorites from the YCombinator crowd are AirBed & Breakfast and Dropbox, though I'll admit some bias there.

If they can give their companies names that don't require a Wikipedia page to trace their origin, we can, too. Just ask a few questions before you commit to that crazy new name. Did you pick it because it has something to do with your company, or just because it sounds cool? Would a national naming committee give it the okay? Would you feel bad forcing the name on your children? Does the name carve out space in the world? So much space that it leaves competitors no breathing room? Is the name going to still sound good a decade from now? How about a century from now? Be honest!

If you can make it past all of those obstacles unscathed, there's really only one question left:
How much for the domain name?