Naming companies is a daunting task, as anyone who does it for a living can attest. “It’s difficult to criticize a name,” says S.B. Master, a Berkeley, Ca.-based founder who has launched two naming companies in her career, one of which is nearly 30 years old. “From choosing a name, to getting a team to agree to it, to clearing that name from a trademark and URL and social media standpoint, is a pain.” Master adds, sympathetically, “Triangulating around these difficulties, people end up someplace, which is better than no place.”
Interestingly, a growing number of startups seems to be landing on the common name of a human being who may have absolutely nothing to do with their business.
This week, for example, a year-old, L.A.-based company called Dave raised $3 million for an app that predicts upcoming expenses and alerts users if their bank balance is low. Its founders say that people often ask friends or family for short-term loans to cover shortfalls; they want their customers to think of their startup as a pal who’s also looking out for their best interests.
Another company, Hibob (for “Hi, Bob”) raised $17.5 million in Series A funding this week for its U.K.-based cloud-based HR and benefits platform.
Other companies have taken the same tack, including an app that lets users save full-length webpages called Barry, the tech-focused health insurance company Oscar, and Clara, the virtual assistant company (whose name probably makes the most sense of the bunch, given that assistants have historically been actual people).
Assigning startups human names is hardly a new trend. Alex Friedman, president of Ruckus Marketing in New York, points to Casper, the mattress and bedding company whose brand evokes the fictional friendly ghost of the same name who helps keep his friends safe while they sleep. There’s also Harry’s, the shaving gear company whose name evokes, of course, hair.
Companies have forever been named after their founders, tech or otherwise, too. Lynda.com is named after cofounder Lynda Weinman (who agreed to sell the business to LinkedIn for $1.5 billion in 2015). Venture-backed Philz Coffee is named after founder Phil Jaber. Wendy’s, the fast-food brand, was named after the daughter of founder Dave Thomas.
Assigning companies human names simply to make tech products more approachable is a somewhat newer trend, though, and experts are conflicted about whether or not this is something other startups should keep emulating.
For his part, Friedman doesn’t think a company’s name is nearly as big a deal as everything that goes into supporting that brand. “The name itself is not the brand,” he says. “It’s an icon or component of what a company wants to build for itself, a focal point for how it’s building its business. I say this a lot, but the name is a lot less important than the weight that many people give it.”
Whether it’s Bob or Bill or Casper, he says, what’s more important is “what you’re selling, who the customer is, and how much money you have behind you. Without money, making a name mean something is difficult. If you don’t have the capital, you won’t get very far.”
It’s a bit afield from the view of David Placek, a Sausalito, Ca.-based naming expert whose iconic work was profiled years ago in the New Yorker, who think names work best when there’s a great story around them.
He points to Tesla, named after inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist, and futurist Nikola Tesla. “It’s an authentic association and it’s elegant.”
“Compare ‘Tesla’ to ‘Dave’ or ‘Bob,’” he says, pausing. “Dave is a little longer; that ‘v’ has some energy to it. Bob seems seems a little informal for an HR function.”
The “consistent trend is that people try to replicate success,” Placek adds, noting that Harry’s and Casper have been successful, so other companies apparently think it’s worth a shot. “What they are trying to do is communicate that they are friendly and approachable companies. But I think you can do that in many ways beyond having a first name like Dave.”
Put another way, first names are fine but probably not great unless the product is great — which could be said of nearly every other kind of brand on the planet.
“I think we do know that in general, a bad name is not going to kill an intrinsically good product or company,” says Master, the Berkeley-based pro. “The excellence of the offer can overcome many naming weaknesses, unless it’s unpronounceable. Or forgettable. Or you get sued. A lot of founders have overcome suboptimal names.”
Featured Image: Bryce Durbin