It’s got to be the biggest fear of every new entrepreneur.
You pour a ton of money into a new venture, devote relentless hours to get it going. It’s perfect in every way. But, within hours of launching, you realize something is wrong. Not leaky faucet wrong. Not temporary signage wrong…but head-on crash, fatally wrong.
How can something so apparent have been so hidden?
It happens to so many entrepreneurs, from bloggers to builders and restaurateurs to record-labels. Having launched businesses before can help avoid it. But, even experienced, passionate business visionaries are not immune. In fact, the more passionate you are about your concept, the more likely you are to get knocked down. Not by someone else. But, by your own inability to see sensibility beyond passion.
When it works out, a dogged refusal to stick to your guns and not listen to anyone around you makes you a visionary. But, when it doesn’t, guess who’s the stubborn ass who dug his own grave?
This dynamic plays out in any number of different elements in a new business. But the recent demise of a restaurant in my neighborhood really brought home the importance of balancing unyielding passion and sensibility in the choice of a name that ended up in disaster.
What’s in a name?
I am a writer. I’ve done a ton of research on book titles. And, every book marketer I know tells me 80% of a book’s success is the title. It’s the same for the headline on an ad. And, beyond offering a service or product with a core-level of remarkability, it applies equally to the name of a new business.
The Dot-com boom turned the name-game on its head.
During the height of the dot-com boom in the 90s, people pushed the name envelope like never before. Highly descriptive names were out, replaced by the “coolest,” most off-the wall hipster names you could find.
And, the ad-firms, themselves, even got caught up in the game. They were no longer named after founders, partners or what the firm did, like Ogilvy or Renegade Marketing Group. Instead, we saw names like Organic and Razorfish. And, the established giants created smaller interactive divisions with cool names like Ogilvy One or Fuel.
During that wondrous period, only two things mattered for new businesses…
You couldn’t show a profit, because then VC’s had a basis for forecasting your numbers and that was pretty much always a bad thing. And, your name had to avoid any mention of what you did, where you were and preferably, be really hard to spell or pronounce, because that was sexy…and sexy got funded.
Problem is, those days are over.
They ended with a massive thud and the loss of billions. But, while time changes, entrepreneurial stubbornness doesn’t.
Which brings us back to our restaurant tragedy and a deeper look at naming businesses, balancing passion with sensibility and how messing it up helped put down a new business in the blink of an eye.
The restaurant that could’ve been…
Now, this restaurant was gorgeous, the build-out was dazzling, multi-million dollar sweet, even award-winning. The concept was pretty good, too. And, had the food been remarkable, the name might have mattered less. But, oh, it wasn’t…and it did!
The name of this doomed place…Xing.
In fact, the name plate, which was built out of hundreds of layers of multicolored acrylic, was revealed months before the restaurant actually opened. It was very cool. You’d walk by and see a giant slab of glass covered with brown paper and a big Xing sticking out from the middle.
- Problem #1: Nobody knew how to pronounce the name. While the neighborhood was aflutter about the opening of a new restaurant, nobody really knew how to say the name. Was it just a hip way of saying “Crossing?” Was it some kind of foreign thing? It was a total mystery to pretty much everyone…but the guy who though it up and stuck to it through opening day.
- Problem #2: Xing was actually not a hip version of the word crossing. It was the Chinese word for something else. I can’t tell you what, because, even though I was told numerous times, the word was so outside my everyday use, I couldn’t remember what it meant. So, for all intents and purposes, it became meaningless. This is bad, very bad, because a name needs to be memorable. And, Xing literally fought my memory.
- Problem #3: Xing was actually pronounced…shing. Maybe that’s common knowledge to Mandarin-speakers, but your everyday NYC neighborhood restaurant-goer had no way of knowing, without having to ask the bar-keep or waiter, “um, how do you say the name of this restaurant?” And, nobody wants to sound like a dope, so half the people who tried it out never knew how to say the name.
- Problem #4: Of those people who knew he name was said Shing and not xing, how many do you think, once away from the restaurant, were able to remember how you spelled the word that sounded like Shing? Not many. Which is a big problem when you need to be able to look up the name online or in Zagats (NYC restaurant bible) or call for information.
- Problem #5: A name should conjure up some sexy combination of images, sounds and sensations. This multisensory element not only draws people in, it provides more anchors to make it memorable. This is especially true if the name is either made up or based in a foreign language. The meaning or the very sound of it needs to be impactful. But, the only thing Xing conjured up was frustration at not knowing what it meant, how to say it or being able to remember it. It was devoid of imagery, emotion or description.
Even with a terrible name, there was still hope…
Now, though it seems nearly every cardinal rule of naming was broken here, had the actual dining experience been mind-blowing, had the restaurateur been a media celebrity or the food mouthwatering and remarkable, it might have made up for it.
But, sadly none of these other fallbacks worked out.
Leaving a massively-expensive build-out to sink or swim largely on its curb-appeal and the draw of the name. And, though is took some time for it to meet its eventual demise, within the first few weeks, it was clear by the consistently vacant tables that this eatery was done.
So, what are the lessons here?
1. Balance Passion With Sensibility. This is a stunningly difficult thing to do as an entrepreneur. For us, everything is passion-driven. And, we are often far to quick to judge anyone who disagrees with us a dissenter, ego driven to prove us wrong.
To succeed, though, you need a system of checks and balances. And, if you are incapable of finding them within, you need to search for them in the opinions of a small group of trusted advisors who are confident enough in themselves that they’ll be honest and independent enough from you that they’ll argue it out, without fear of reprise.
2. If you’re looking for a long-term business, name it with your head and your heart…not your ego.
Follow these simple principles:
- Make it descriptive and relevant to what your best-consumer is looking for. If you can say what you do or what your customer will get in 5 words or less, that’s often a good beginning. In book parlance, this is the killer title, like The 4-Hour Workweek, Duct Tape Marketing or Ultra Metabolism Great spa names include Bliss, and Exhale. Health club names include Curves For Women and Crunch Fitness. Or how about Get Rich Slowly, Dumb Little Man, Freelance Switch, Zen Habits, Itty Biz, Small Business Trends or Pro Blogger for blog names?
- Make it easy to pronounce, spell and remember. When I opened my yoga studio in NYC back in 2001, the names of most of the other studios were Sanskrit terms, like Jivamukti, Sivananda, Om and Iyengar. All of which were mildly challenging, but “rememberable” to those already indoctrinated into the practice. But, to the massively-larger market of people who’d never done yoga or heard of Sanskrit, they were not only unintelligible, but “unrememberable” (yes, I’m full aware that’s not a real word)! Because they fell outside the ordinary language experience of those people. In fact, a good chunk of newly-minted yoga students still spell Om o-h-m, like the electrical-engineering word. So, when I opened my studio, I called it “Sonic Yoga,” which, while dopey to a handful of long-term practitioners, was like a breath of fresh air to those who actually wanted to be able to pronounce and remember the name of the place they practiced yoga. Plus, I knew I’d be handing the press an endless stream of opportunities to riff of the name, both good and bad, leading to headlines like “Sonic Boom” in Elle Magazine.
- Make it conjure up very specific images, sounds, scents and sensations. Big companies pay a ton of money to naming experts and firms to come up with great names, ones that conjure up heart-thumping adrenaline, mouthwatering memories or tear-filled drama. The idea is that a name should cultivate the sensory experiences most appealing to your product or service’s ultimate customer. Romance novels do this beautifully. A great way to get your multi-sensory naming juices flowing is to go check out movie-titles at IMDB.com. Look at the names of the top movies over the last few years. You can also check out the New York Times bestseller list for examples and ideas.
- Make it narrow enough to define who you are, but broad enough to allow for growth within your products and services. One of the classic small business blunders is naming a business you hope to grow beyond your personal service after you. For example, when I owned a personal training gym, many of the clients came to work with me. But, I knew I wanted to grow it to a point where I could step back, walk away or sell it. So, rather than naming it Jonathan’s Personal Training Salon, it became Sedona Private Fitness, a name that not only conjured up images of a serene Arizona retreat town, but also began to develop it’s own brand independent of my “personal” brand. This made it easier to direct people to other trainers on staff as we grew. Similarly, if you know you might eventually expand your products or services beyond your initial offerings, think about factoring that into your name up front. So, rather than calling your new cupcake stand Sam’s Red & Pink Cupcakes, you might call it Sam’s handcrafted Bakehouse, allowing room to add in new products and even cut out the cupcakes entirely, should that make sense.
- Make it authentic and evergreen. Coming up with something that sounds cool and really jives with exactly who you and your target market are, during a very short, discrete moment in time is a disaster waiting to happen. Unless you own a trendy bar or club (which all have short half-lives), you need to take a step back and think long-term. Will the name still resonate with you 3, 5, 10 or 20 years down the road? Will it still be relevant? Will it stand the test of time? Short-term, in and out businesses can whether trendier names, because they don’t have to last that long, but, if you are in it for the long-haul, do the work to make it true to who you are and as timeless as possible.
- If you choose to either make-up a new word… or go for a word or phrase that sounds cool…but has no real connection to the core-elements of your brand, be ready to deliver something astonishing or have connections up the whazoo in an effort to keep the business going and growing long enough to get past the disconnect between your business and its name,
Here are a few other great resources and articles on naming…
- How To Name Your Business – great discussion, plus gets into the issue of intellectual property protection
- What’s in your name? – Duct Tape Marketing guru, John Jantsch shares his approach and why he changed his firm from Jantsch Communications to Duct Tape Marketing
- SnarkHunting – a fun blog published by naming firm, Igor International, all about naming businesses and brands
- The New Rules of Naming – Seth Godin shares his naming philosophy, adding great insights about working a name into a url and their collective impact on online search.
- How to name a web-based business – SEOmoz’s Rand reveals a short list of critical considerations when choosing a name for an online business.
Naming a new business, book, brand, product or service is a giant challenge.
It takes a ton of work to do it right. And, it often involved hours of brainstorming with different people. But, it’s work amazingly well spent. In fact, there have been times that I’ve actually spontaneously come up with a name for a business that I thought was so marketable, I literally created and built a brand or business to support that name.
(And, I’m hoping, my improved naming skills will someday make up for the disastrous name I chose for my first book on lifestyle change way back before I really understood the process of naming…The Long Hard Fix…oy vey!)
So, I’m curious, what have your experiences been with naming?
Business, books, bands, products or services? Anyone out there working on a name now? Need any help? Offer your concept up to the community and we’ll see what we all come up with…
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