Wall Street Journal

July 17, 2013

Why Startups Are Sporting Increasingly Quirky Names

Lack of Short, Recognizable URLs Prompts Use of Misspellings, Word Mash-Ups

By Lindsay Gellman

The New York cousins who started a digital sing-along storybook business have settled on the name Mibblio.

The Australian founder of a startup connecting big companies to big-data scientists has dubbed his service Kaggle.

The former toy executive behind a two-year-old mobile screen-sharing platform is going with the name Shodogg.

And the Missourian who founded a website giving customers access to local merchants and service providers? He thinks it should be called Zaarly.

Quirky names for startups first surfaced about 20 years ago in Silicon Valley, with the birth of search engines such as Yahoo, which stands for “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle,” and Google, a misspelling of googol,” the almost unfathomably high number represented by a 1 followed by 100 zeroes.

By the early 2000s, the trend had spread to startups outside the Valley, including the Vancouver-based photo-sharing site Flickr and New York-based blogging platform Tumblr, to name just two.

The current crop of startups boasts even wackier spellings. The reason, they say, is that practically every new business–be it a popsicle maker or a furniture retailer–needs its own website. With about 252 million domain names currently registered across the Internet, the short, recognizable dot-com Web addresses, or URLs, have long been taken.

The only practical solution, some entrepreneurs say, is to invent words, like Mibblio, Kaggle, Shodogg and Zaarly, to avoid paying as much as $2 million for a concise, no-nonsense dot-com URL.

The rights to Investing.com, for example, sold for about $2.5 million last year.

Choosing a name that’s a made-up word also helps entrepreneurs steer clear of trademark entanglements.

The challenge is to come up with something that conveys meaning, is memorable, and isn’t just alphabet soup. Most founders don’t have the budget to hire naming advisers.

Founders tend to favor short names of five to seven letters, because they worry that potential customers might forget longer ones, according to Steve Manning, founder of Igor, a name-consulting company.

Linguistically speaking, there are only a few methods of forming new words. They include misspelling, compounding, blending and scrambling.

At Mibblio, the naming process was “the length of a human gestation period,” says the company’s 28-year-old co-founder David Leiberman, “but only more painful,” adds fellow co-founder Sammy Rubin, 35.

The two men made several trips back to the drawing board; early contenders included Babethoven, Yipsqueak and Canarytales, but none was a perfect fit. One they both loved, Squeakbox, was taken.

Finally, Mr. Leiberman thought to blend together “music” and “biblio,” the Latin root of “book,” to form “Miblio.”

“It looked like ‘MY-blee-oh’,” Mr. Rubin says. So he suggested they add a second “b” to aid pronunciation. Plus, the two b’s double as eighth notes in the company’s logo.

To come up with Kaggle, Anthony Goldbloom, 30, an Australian-born data scientist, wrote an algorithm to generate all the pronounceable combinations of letters, three syllables or fewer, whose dot-com addresses weren’t claimed.

“I was too frugal to want to pay for an [existing] domain name,” he says. Of the 700 names spit out by the algorithm, he found two finalists: Sumble and Kaggle. He dashed off an email to family and friends asking for their preferences.

The overwhelming response was Kaggle. So he went with that.

Kaggle is now backed by several Silicon Valley investors, and PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, who is also its chairman.

However, since moving his company to the U.S. from Australia, Mr. Goldbloom says he has discovered that Midwesterners tend to pronounce the name KAY-gel, as in “Kegel,” the pelvic-floor-strengthening exercises done by women to prevent or remedy urinary incontinence. In other words: It’s probably not the best name for an online data startup.

“The primary driver for startup naming right now is the misguided mission to find the shortest possible, pronounceable [unclaimed] dotcom address,” says Igor’s Mr. Manning.

Startups are likely underestimating their potential customers, and adding an unnecessary constraint, in clinging to short URLs, he adds.

In the mid-20th century, the heyday of the Yellow Pages, company names starting with an “A” became popular.

Then, closer to the turn of the century, 800 phone numbers drove a trend of seven-letter names compatible with touch-tone phones.

Those trends, like today’s, reflect entrepreneurs’ determination to stake out the best virtual real estate available.

In 2004, Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield set out to name their fledgling photo-sharing site. They wanted to call it Flicker, but Flicker.com was taken, and the domain owner was unwilling to sell. So Ms. Fake suggested they instead call the company Flickr. Nine years later, the site boasts more than eight billion photos.

What began as a practical adaptation to a lack of short URLs became a marker of a certain aesthetic. When it launched in 2006, Twitter called itself Twttr, because, as co-founder Biz Stone explains, Twitter.com “was taken, so we assumed it would be too expensive.” Once the company was up and running, the founders made arrangements to “buy the vowels,” he says.

The newest crop of names is fueling the trend it reflects. The result: many of the new, made-up names look and sound alike. The success of Spotify, which was founded in 2006 and now has 24 million active users and a valuation of around $3 billion, likely sparked the recent spate of “ify” names.

Christopher Johnson, a Seattle-based verbal branding consultant, counts 102 startups ending in “ify,” from just a handful five years ago. Relative newcomers include New York-based notifications system Xtify, as well as Stackify, an information-technology service provider in Kansas City, Mo.

In the case of Shodogg, which was founded in 2011 by Herb Mitschele, now 35, the goal was a catchier brand name for parent company TouchStream Technologies Inc.

The idea was to play on the term “show dog,” a name that for the founding team conjured up both the notion of the screen-sharing app as “video’s best friend” and as a vehicle for showing off media, Mr. Mitschele says.

The compound “Showdog” was too boring. Misspelling it as “Shodog” was better, he says, but it looked too short on the page, and lacked personality.

So Mr. Mitschele added a second “g,” which, he says, combined with the missing “w,” conveys an attitude of “not taking things so seriously that you have to spell everything right.”