The Name Killer: how the wrong name took down a $2-million business in 2-weeks

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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 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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24 responses

24 responses to “The Name Killer: how the wrong name took down a $2-million business in 2-weeks”

  1. Harry and I really choose our names carefully and for specific reasons. We’ve been through a few business names to date, some bad, some good, some fantastic.

    Here’s an example of bad: JCM Enterprises. It’s our business name, but it’s meaningless. Sounds suave, but so what? What does JCM stand for? (James Chartrand McLeod) Who are these guys? And how do you pronounce that in French for the Quebecers and Canadians James schmoozes with? Sheesh.

    It gets worse. The name is HELL to type out, even for writers. I stumble on it all the time and I’m thankful our domain is JCME. But our blog isn’t. It’s a mouthful (or fingerful) at jcme.ca/jcmefreelancewriting.

    Thank god we’re moving. We made a collective decision to change domain names when we revamp our blog design (COMING SOON!) and the name we chose was one that came from weeks of walking around testing out names out loud, on the keyboard, in various languages, with women, with men, with competing sites with similar names…

    And man, we have a nice one picked out.

    People don’t *think* about their business name – and they should. Your article pointed out exactly why.

  2. I :cough: picked a name from Star Trek: TNG, or at least that’s how I was inspired.

    It’s a regular word (I swear!), not like T’Pal or something, so it doesn’t put anyone off.

  3. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ James – Love it! You sound a lot like me, it took me a lot of bad names to start to understand how important is was to create a good one!

    @ Hayden – Star Trek, eh? That’s funny!

    Hey, I’d love to know any other funny or offbeat inspirations for anyone else’s business names.

    Please share!

  4. Keith says:

    Yes, Jonathan, good article here. A name is really important because the name indirectly tells you about what you can expect as a customer…no wonder nobody calls their business Dorks, Inc. or some other self-destructive name…this is why I have called a book I wrote last year “365 Great Affirmations”…because what the reader gets is just that..365 “Great” affirmations. Cheers, Keith

  5. I opened a travel agency, and in an effort to be different, named it Edwards Travel Advisors.

    Ten years later, people were still telling me they didn’t know it was a travel agency. Just a place for advice.

    WRONG! Don’t even know how much that cost me in sales by trying to be unique!

    You are right. Name it what it is. People will not take the time to figure out what you do.

  6. Shama Hyder says:

    Great post! I came up with “After The Launch”-after lots of thinking. What happens after a business launches? Ideally, great marketing. Hence the name- After The Launch.

    What do you think Jonathan?

  7. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Keith – Dorks, Inc. eh? I have to admit, I kind of like that one! Hmmm, wonder what that says about me! hahaha! 😉

    @ Corinne – Its really about the right combination of getting attention and making it as easy as possible for people to know how you can help them.

    @ Shama – After the launch. I like it, though, while it says what time period you operate in, it doesn’t say much about what you do to make their lives easier…after the launch. But, it’s got legs.

  8. Shama Hyder says:

    Jonathan,

    We have expanded our base. We work with clients in all phases of their business (new and established). One interesting thing is that our clients in the UK seem to love the name After The Launch more than our clients in the US.

  9. I definitely stuck my flag on one crazy hill with “communicatrix,” but so far, it’s working. (Note that it’s really a brand, more than a particular business.)

    I would love to hear your thoughts, Jonathan, on names we grow into. When I first got mine, it felt like big-girl shoes: the half-size bigger your mom sometimes buys you b/c they’re great in every other regard.

  10. Stacey says:

    I was nervous about naming my business for all of the reasons listed above and I decided on Let it Flow. It’s health and wellness with a focus on managing stress. The “it” can be anything you want – money, energy, health, your body, your mind… I do a lot of networking in my area and the name is catching on.

    I realize the name alone doesn’t tell people what I do, but what I’ve found is that it interests people enough to ask what it is. My tag line is a constantly evolving.

    And I’ve been evaluating the name recently wondering if I should use my name since I’m selling a service provided by me and sell products (when they’re ready) under Let it Flow.

  11. abby says:

    jonathan, this is once again so incredibly helpful. i’ve been trying to work on both a site for teen girls to vent frustrations and also a title for my first adult book. sometimes i’ll get so hung up on a character i’m writing, knowing that her name CANNOT be sharon, it needs to start with an M. tonight at a cafe there was a bunch of postcards on the wall for decoration and there it was, “love, Marge and Marlin” I can’t wait to write a story about a man named Marlin!

    thanks so much for sharing your wisdom,
    a

  12. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Shama – that’s a really interesting observation about the difference between UK and US clients. I took a quick look at your blog and I think the tag really helps helps modify the title!

    @ Communicatrix – love it! wow, talk about creating imagery! you know, it’s such an interesting question about putting a name out there that really pushes your comfort zone, but best defines who you’d you’d like yourself or your biz/brand to become. Not sure I have an answer yet. Though, they say that a child’s name plays a role in how he or she develops. Keep me in the loop on your journey, this should be fun!

    @ Stacey – Let It Flow definitely creates imagery and it’s, as you said, intentionally vague, just be careful about being too vague. it’s a fine line. There’s also an interesting debate about whether you should focus on building your personal brand around your name or an entity. there are pros and cons to both. I went with a mixture with this blog, using my name as the url and then adding on the “Awake At The Wheel.” We’ll see how it all works out!

    @ Abby – Marlin it is! Hey, this story isn’t about a fish is it?! Heeheehee! 😉

  13. Good article. Honestly, I didn’t think too much about my blog’s name, Gratitude Magic. I like it, but sometimes I think it is too . . . nicey nice. A little long, too. I’ve got to be careful not to misspell when I type my email address.

    What do you think of my blog name?

  14. Wow. No Xit.

    Hulu?

    Kijiji?

    WTF, people?

  15. Hi Jonathan, I like the thoughtfulness of this article. I do hold some other opinions in associating business success with business names.

    I think you’ve made a great point in one of the later paragraphs where you mentioned about delivering astonishing content/product/service to keep a business going and growing past the disconnect between business and its name.

    Looking at some simple examples of success business with rather ‘un-intuitive’ names I think naming is really a secondary element in the success of a business, often a myth.

    Alexa – try to associate this with a web traffic stats service, it doesn’t help me to conjure up the sound, image, touch or feel about anything, it doesn’t give me the meaning of stats, but it’s great brand.

    Mozilla – ok maybe one could argue their product is FireFox, but as software developer perhaps a name like Mozilla-soft could lead to more understanding? Still they are a huge success.

    Google, Veoh, Xanga, imeem, wonkette, badongo… none of these highly successful business/brand have a name that meets half of the naming principles.

    Why am I looking at these counter examples, because i think a large portion of business success comes out of its content (product/service) delivery with a huge contributing factor from marketing.

    Like you have recognised in the article, if the product/service is stunning to the point it leaves a mind-blowing experience for its targeting market, I think people won’t have much trouble finding their way to return for more.

    Marketing plays another huge role in the success of a business, reaching out to more audience, generating enough interest from the targeting market and imprinting names in consumer’s memory is all part of branding. Whether the business name itself conveys that much information becomes less important if you have a good marketing strategy.

    It is rather easy for business owners to shift the blame onto a name when a business fails, rather than dissecting deeper to scrutinise what really went wrong.

    Without having the personal experience to dine at Xing, my guess is that the quality of their food was next to mediocre, perhaps their service wasn’t up to scratch, pricing structure wasn’t in their favor, their marketing strategy couldn’t be good for them to fail so miserably, do they have enough cash flow to keep the business sustainable…

    I think having too much emphasis on a name can easily shift the focus to overlook critical factors determining the success of business operation. So if people ask what’s in a name – I’d say, how long is a piece of string. Uou can say everything is in a name, or you can say not much!

    Cheers
    Wyatt

  16. Max Westhead says:

    Wow, I recently discovered your blog and love it! Thanks for sharing your experience and the effort.

    I’m a full time marine biologist with a passion for fitness, and I’m in the process of becoming certified as a Personal Trainer (Marine Biologist full time and an aerobics instructor/trainer part time). In order to start attracting clients I decided to get a personal website.

    My husband and I brainstormed now and then for a few days. Wrote down keywords and used various web tools to see what the popular searches were in the area of health and fitness. A very useful exercise!

    I narrowed it down to 2 names: fitgirlz.ca and strongbody.ca. I asked one of my aerobics classes of 35 potential clients to vote, and strongbody won unanimously! And that’s how it came to be…

    Cheers,
    Max

  17. loveandsalt says:

    I’m wondering how you like: The Artful Hedonist, a blog about the ecstasy of everyday life?

  18. bob says:

    Great article..

    I remember in 2000 trying to come up for a name and the months of thought it took to get it right. (I feel good with it, it fits my marketing and sales image etc)

    My downfall is naming our products and product lines…(and writing compelling effective copy) I have no skill with this and would love your input… I feel pretty confidant if we had great names to go along with our great products we would see a substantial increase in sales.

    as for the restaurant… how did you find the food and service?

  19. This article really hit the nail on the head. Entrepreneurs spend so much time and money making a business plan and implementing it that they some times overlook the “small” details, which in reality have the potential to be the most important details of all.

    This makes it important to have an outside agency to consult with, someone who has no vested interest in the venture, and can use their brain and experience to set things right.

    Flying by the seat of your pants and dealing solely on ego can and sometimes does leave you with an “expensive build-out”

  20. Hi,
    Fab stuff!
    I used my name for biz for 18 years, then switched to The Idea Sculptor for a very practical reason. Perhaps there would be more $ when I’m ready to retire and sell the company.

    My surprise has been the high receptivity to the new name… it creates a chuckle is uber memorable, plus it “fits” who I am and what I do: speaking and coaching people who are stuck, bogged or muddled.

    The name also inspired a whole new graphics work-up.

    What do you think?

    – Maggie

  21. Hm, I can put our new name up now that the site launched.

    We’re a pair of web content writers and the best name that we could think of that was easy to type, memorable, fast to say and just plain brands us damned well is…

    Men with Pens

    Always kind of reminds me of the Superheros of the writing world lol

  22. […] a lot for your business. Seth Godin has a blog post titled The new rules of naming (hat tip to Jonathan Fields). This article has some tips to improve Google search results by choosing the name well. He also […]

  23. Hillel says:

    I think that if the product and service are great – then people wont care about the name.