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The Menu Is the Meal: 10 Startup Names that Don’t Suck

Something’s rotten in Startuplandia, and it starts with a dropped vowel and ends with an ly.

As others have noted, the startup landscape is teeming with terrible, how-is-this-real-is-it-even-real-yep names. Many of them bare only the faintest whiff of their etymological root. Some of them don’t have etymological roots. Some of them still think substituting “K” for “C” is cool. Er, kewl. A lot of them think space marks are for codgers, even if their app is aimed at codgers. (Hello PawPawMail!)

Butttt, this post isn’t about shaming the offenders—it’s about celebrating the defenders, the companies who may subscribe to descriptivism but still hold certain linguistic truths to be self evident, eg: thou shalt never append a noun with “zie.”

In, before I into that dark place where wordplay goes to die (take your pick: dead or, here are 10 startups who played the name game right.

1. Proletariat

  • What it is: A mobile gaming company, started by ex-Zynga Boston employees.
  • What’s in a name: While “proletariat” comes from Latin proletarius, or “citizen of the lowest class,” the word has more recently come into its of the people, for the people own. As such, it is well suited for a young company made up of people laid off from a much bigger company, who aim to make games for gamers like them.

2. Vayable

  • What it is: A vacation activity marketplace.
  • What’s in a name: As it’s spelled, Vayable connotates movement, particularly to speakers of Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese. Used here, the suffix “able” makes perfect sense. Then there’s the homophonic connotation: in English, viable means “feasible”—a comforting thought when entrusting your cash and life to a stranger.

3. Shopify

  • What it is: A platform for building ecommerce sites.
  • What’s in a name: The “ify” suffix  means to cause an increase in the stated quantity, which is exactly what ecommerce business owners hope Shopify’s platform will help them do. And even if users don’t know what “ify” means, they do know what “shop” means.

4. Etsy

  • What it is: An online marketplace for handicrafts.
  • What’s in a name: Co-founder Robert Kalin, who came up with the name, says it doesn’t mean anything, but was inspired by the phrase "etsi" in Fellini’s 8 1/2 (“and yes” in Italian; “although” in Latin). Another possibility, per Quora: In Unix, the miscellaneous folder /etc is pronounced “et-see.” Regardless of orgin or intended meaning, to me, the name implies a friendly hodgepodge, which is exactly what it is.

5. Kickstarter

  • What it is: A crowdfunding platform for creative projects.
  • What’s in a name: There are many synonyms for “to kindle,” but kickstart is the friendliest, and, for those who haven’t heard the word before, the most easily parsed.

6. 37 Signals

  • What it is: A collaboration-focused software company.
  • What’s in a name: Amidst the billions of signals out in the universe, there are 37 which remain unexplained. Or, that was the case in 1999, when 37 Signals co-founder Carlos Segura watched a Nova episode on the SETI project. Is 37 Signal’s suite of collaboration web apps unexplainable? Nope. Proof that a great name need not be rooted in logic.

7. Square

  • What it is: A mobile payments solution for merchants and customers.
  • What’s in a name: Square works on two levels. One: it connotates both fairness “square deal” and simplicity—both very valuable in the oft-murky payments world. Two: the payment technology itself is wrapped in a square card reader.

8. Prismatic

  • What it is: A news reader personalized to your interest graph.
  • What’s in a name: Prisms can have many facets, all of which refract or disperse beams of light. Prismatic is a personalized news reader whose contents depends on editable topic facets gathered from your social networks. The -atic suffix means “pertaining to,” so it isn’t additive to the meaning, but it does make the app more memorable.

9. Groupon

  • What it is: A daily deals site whose offerings are made available after a certain number have been purchased.
  • What’s in a name: Groupon’s spate of fiscal and personnel troubles may have permanently besmirched its name, but as far as portmanteaus go, Mason’s is hard to beat. Why: it blends the two words that best describe what it is (coupons) and who it’s for (groups), and these two words happen to be so phonically similar that the blending is seamless.  

10. Yelp

  •  What it is: a user-submitted review site for local businesses.
  • What’s in a name: Yelp’s meaning—call out in pain/alarm—may not be pleasant, but the word sounds playful. Few words start with “y,” and plosive ends are bouncy fun. It’s a common verb, but not a commonly used one, so the Google test isn’t a problem.

Disagree? Have more to add? Let me know in the comments!



Groupme, Etsy, and Stamped Talk Design and the Mobile Startup

groupme, etsy, stamped, bart j stein, leeland rechis[Image via Studio Akko]

Maybe the most useful session at Internet Week for me was a panel about incorporating design into your lean/agile/scantly populated startup. The panel was moderated by Ron Goldin, the Founding Principal & Creative Director of Studio Akko, and the panelists were Steve Martocci, the Co-Founder of GroupMe, Leland Rechis, the Director of Product at Etsy, and Bart Stein, the Co-founder of Stamped. In about thirty minutes, they covered everything from creating your founding team (no project managers!) to eating your dogfood (do it. Whenever you can).

As an employee at a nascent, communication-focused mobile startup, I could not have asked for a better group of speakers. A few tips that really resonated:

1) Use the product away from work. The Groupme guys used their app to meet up with each other outside work, and when they were coordinating meetings with VCs, they got some of the to use it too, which was huge, because then these VCs used it during a Vegas trip and found it so handy that they ended up investing in the company.

2) Make your product work for both sides of the equation. Etsy's app was designed to work for sellers and buyers, because their analytics revealed that some of the most-visited pages from mobile devices were seller pages. (This also speaks to the importance of looking at your analytics.)

3) Leverage your local communities. Stamped, which is a really quick approval app for physical services, decided to target the restaurant industry when they were getting started, because restaurants are one of NYC's main industries, and, since the ascendence of Yelp, they've been very aware of the power of user reviews. This is also why there are so many fashion-tech startups in New York, and so many life-sciences ones in Boston. (And why there should be more hospitality-tech startups in Miami--get on it, Miami!)

4) Spend--and keep spending--a long time making your onboarding process really efficient and idiot-proof. Groupme still spends a significant amount of dev work on onboarding, because in the mobile world, that's where a lot of potential users will leave if the experience isn't pleasing. I would say this applies in the desktop world as well, though my patience does seem to increase in proportion with my screen size.

5) Sometimes, figuring out your brand and identity before you nail down your product can be a strategic advantage. Mobile is crowded, and nailing who you are first can set you apart from companies doing similar things. Stamped had a name and a working self-portrait before they started prototyping.

6) Early investors usually care more about your team and team's network than your product. Bart said that during Stamped's first meetings with Bain Capital, (their eventual investors) no one even mentioned a product--instead, Bain cared (I know, how often do you get to see that SV pairing?!) about what the team had done before, and how they worked together, and who they knew.

Are you working at a mobile or web-tech startup? Do any of these tips resonate with you? If you have more, pile'em on in the comments!