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Dot-com names get dottier

From Abazab to Xoopit, start-ups try to be clever and unique to stand out from the hundreds of new firms online. Still, many are just gibberish.

August 29, 2007|Michelle Quinn | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Even if you could say Abazab or Eefoof without snickering, would you want to do business with them?

Would you feel OK owning Wakoopa shares in your 401(k)? Telling potential in-laws you met on Frengo? Relying on Ooma to call Grandma?

Silicon Valley is in the midst of a great corporate baby boom. Venture capitalists have pumped $2.5 billion into 400 young Internet companies since the beginning of 2006, compared with $1.3 billion into 236 companies during the previous two years, according to research firm Dow Jones VentureOne.

These entrepreneurial brain children have short life expectancies, destined to fight for revenue with the likes of Google, Yahoo and EBay. But still they are being born -- and they need names.

Naming a company is far more difficult than naming a child. The name needs to sound snappy, separate its young company from the pack and provide a unique Web address.

Having two Ethans and three Madisons in a kindergarten class can create confusion, even embarrassment, but giving your start-up a name that's already taken guarantees a legal fight you can't win.

The result? New Internet companies are being baptized daily with handles that sound like a cross between toddler-speak, scat singing and what the aliens will greet us with when they land.

You won't find a name among the horde that conjures up traditional companies such as Dress Barn, Best Buy and Burger King. Most Internet company names make little sense, and they roll around the mouth like a marble.

"Old-school ideas about sounding trustworthy or sounding big are not as important as they used to be," said Burt Alper, co-founder of Catchword Branding in Oakland, which has helped companies pick such names as Vudu (makes a device for watching videos) and Promptu (creates voice-recognition products). "Now, it's about sounding different and standing out from the crowd."

Like naming a new baby, the process involves late-night brainstorming, some expert help and a dose of frank feedback from friends.

And like the grandparents-to-be, a company's financial backers can kill a loved name with a raised eyebrow. Picking the wrong name can kill a multimillion-dollar investment.

Entrepreneurs today pick names they think will help their companies stand out, as do parents of little Zander and Arlo, Eliza and Matilda.

"Naming a company is like naming a celebrity," said serial entrepreneur Jared Kopf, who has helped christen companies including Adroll.com, his online advertising firm, and Slide, a Web photo service. "Made-up words don't come with psychological baggage."

One approach is whimsy: picking a name that seems inspired by Dr. Seuss. If the late author were to tell a story about Internet start-ups, he could pit Qumana and Qoosa (blog editing and Web browsing) against Tagtooga and Tendango (both social networking). Peace would be brokered by Ooma (Internet phone calling). BooRah (restaurant reviews) would hiss, then cheer. Lala (music sharing) would sing.

Call it the Google effect. Thanks to the successful Internet search company with the goofy name, entrepreneurs feel no shame telling people they work for ItzBig (career networking) or asking venture capitalists to invest millions of dollars in Picaboo (a website for ordering custom photo books). Who needs the gravitas of an International Business Machines or a General Electric?

Many names come with little context. Firms such as Xobni, Meebo and Squidoo give no hint of what they might do (e-mail management, instant messaging and online recommendations, respectively). Entrepreneurs say having to explain their mission provides a marketing opportunity.

But naming experts say the current crop of Internet companies is in danger of overwhelming customers. Not many will bother to commit it to memory that Imeem is a social network for sharing music and videos or that Imbee is a social network for kids.

"Now, it's almost like fashion styles, all these vowels and unpronounceable made-up names," said Steve Manning, managing director of Igor, a naming company in San Francisco. "You cannot possibly remember one from another."

Some corporate namers seek a feeling of familiarity by evoking the Internet's biggest success stories.

Elad Hemar, co-founder and chief executive of Yoomba, an e-mail service, said the name was chosen because it echoes the double O in Google and suggests that the service is about "you." It joins other double-O entries such as Oodle, Renkoo, Kaboodle and Wakoopa, to name only a few.

Naming your company after a mainstay such as Google provides "linguistic comfort," said Anthony Shore, global director of naming and writing at Landor Associates. But "when everyone apes a name, everyone loses."

Twitter, which lets users broadcast short bloglike pronouncements via text message, instant message or e-mail, sought inspiration in nature.

"Every time I listen to birds, I get a sense of that short burst of information," Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said.

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