With the proliferation of dot-coms comes the harder-than-ever job of thinking up a name for your company that someone else hasn't already latched onto
What ever happened to proud company monikers like Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea, Radio Corporation of America, and International Business Machines? No-nonsense declarations that came right out and told you not only what companies did but also where they did it?
Now there's Yahoo!, ZapMe!, @plan, 4Front Technologies, N2H2 -- -mutant nomenclatures that have sprouted symbols and numerals, as if the 26 letters of the Queen's English weren't enough for them. Do Ants, Fatbrain, and Fogdog take commerce seriously? And shouldn't Digex be a heartburn nostrum, not a Web-hosting company?
Creating an effective company name isn't what it used to be. The major reason, of course, is the voracious appetite for commercial domain names. And the pace is hardly slackening. Network Solutions Inc., the leading registrar of domain names, reports that in 1999 it registered more names than it had in the prior six years combined, reaching a cumulative total of 8.1 million. As for today's chance of finding a straightforward unclaimed name-cum-Web-site, you do the math.
The exponential increase in demand for names and the rights to them has been matched by the increase in the number of naming consultants, creative types who will help you name your domain, company, or product to the tune of about $50,000 an appellation. They're highly visible on the Web, where they've opted for such uninspiring labels as nametrade, namebase, namedesign, namestormers, namix, and nameit -- to name a few. Danny Altman, cofounder of the naming service A Hundred Monkeys, takes his colleagues to task: "If there were a list of sins perpetrated in naming, most of the entries would be the names of the naming companies themselves. They lack emotion. They lack power. And they lack humanity."
One person who knows something about the power -- not to mention the price tag -- of a name is Marc Ostrofsky. Ostrofsky, former CEO of Information Publishing, a 1990 Inc. 500 company, says he "learned how people pay for things" as a college student selling real estate. Since, in the language of cyberspace, Web addresses are referred to as "real estate," it was not so surprising to see Ostrofsky's name ablaze in worldwide headlines that announced a record-busting deal last fall. But the real estate involved wasn't an office park. What Ostrofsky had sold, for a staggering $7.5 million, were the 11 letters of the virtual address "business.com."
Ostrofsky had purchased the domain name "business.com" in 1997 from a British Internet service provider for $150,000. He bought it speculating that some impatient entity seeking safe haven on the Web would covet the "property" enough for him to turn a profit on it. One did: well-heeled start-up incubator eCompanies, of Santa Clara, Calif., insisted the purchase was "prudent" in light of the promotional dollars the easy-to-remember address would save the company in the long run.
Owner of more than 100 domain names, Ostrofsky, 38, is the world's most successful cybersquatter, as wildcatters who hoard Web addresses for speculation are referred to. Buying up domain names is perfectly legal, however, and is enabled by a federally mandated registration system through which an unclaimed domain name can be secured for a mere $70, renewable every two years.
Indeed, entire countries seemingly out of Marx Brothers movies have gotten into the easy-money act by licensing their top-level domains, or TLDs -- the suffixes that follow the dot in a domain name. Moldova, a former Soviet satellite, licenses its two-letter TLD, "md," to resellers, who target members of the medical community or anyone else who might prefer it to "com" or "org" or other suffixes. The price? Just $299 a year, with Moldova netting royalties from the proceeds. Tuvalu's "tv" is up for grabs, as is Tonga's "to." Our own national TLD has yet to be offered up. If and when it is, lordsave.us.
The story of what occurred at ChemConnect, a five-year-old private enterprise that operates a virtual trading floor on the Internet through which chemical companies buy and sell supplies, illustrates another potential complication with naming. To protect itself the company registered as many combinations and derivations of "chem" and "connect" as it could think of. But it didn't think of throwing "dex" into the mix. Sure enough, two years later a newly launched business-to-business entity named itself Chemdex. "One of the risks of starting an Internet company," says ChemConnect senior vice-president of marketing Linda Stegeman, "is anyone can follow on your coattails simply by adopting a similar name."
S.B. Master, founder of the 12-year-old naming consultancy Master-McNeil, sympathizes with the naming challenge. "It's no longer easy to create an appealing, on-target, easy-to-say, memorable name that happens to have trademark, dot-com, and corporate name availability all synced up," she says.
Or is it? "It's no harder to make up names for dot-coms than for colas," says veteran namesmith Ira Bachrach, founder of San Francisco's NameLab. For already established companies seeking a Web presence, it doesn't matter that a domain name doesn't match the company name, he says. In Bachrach's view, a first-time visitor browses a category with a search engine, finds a desired site, bookmarks its URL, and never has to type in that particular domain name. "Short names are for things like soft drinks or lipstick," he believes. "On the Internet, length is less significant." But as far as naming the company itself goes, counsels Bachrach, deviser of such Web-era neologisms as AutoZone and Webvan, a business that's considering an initial public offering should be especially diligent: the right name alone can sometimes increase your IPO price significantly.
Is changing an established company's name -- not an uncommon occurrence in the Internet era -- likely to strike outsiders as a sign of weakness? "A certain amount of education about the new name has to occur," Master admits. "But if the name has ceased to work for you, change it. It's an opportunity to reach out to your customers and tell them, 'Here's what we're becoming, and these are the great new things we're going to offer.' In fact," she advises, "it can be a strategic marketing device."
Robert A. Mamis is a contributing writer at Inc.
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