How Not to Name a Startup: The Curse of the Camel Case

12/22/11Follow @gthuang

What’s in a tech startup name? More specifically, is there a correlation between the type of name a company has and its success?

That’s a question every startup founder and investor should be interested in. Because if there is a correlation, then using a name-based strategy for picking winners would be, well, about as good as any other strategy. And much faster.

Consider the following companies: Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Oracle. And more recently, Groupon, Twitter, Zynga. Or how about these biggies: Facebook, Salesforce, Qualcomm. These are all top companies, no doubt about it.

Notice anything about their names? None of them has a capital letter in the middle of its name—sometimes referred to as “camel case,” because an upper-case letter in the middle of a word looks like a hump. (Of course, there’s also plenty of startup name-ology around whether to use real words, made-up words, misspelled words, acronyms, and so forth, but we don’t have all day.)

Maybe I’m getting punchy as the holidays loom, but as an end-of-year exercise, I thought we’d play the name game and see where it leads. So let’s drill down into some specifics. What I’m really talking about are company names that are two words mashed into one, where each word or part could stand on its own. Because there are so damn many of them these days. Not just Facebook, Salesforce, Qualcomm, and Rackspace, mind you, but also Admeld, Airbnb, Dropbox, Foursquare, Zipcar, Wayfair, Redfin, Evernote, Flipboard, Shopkick…and the list goes on.

Note that the above companies—all of whom are doing reasonably well, I think—spell their names without the camel case. It’s Facebook, not FaceBook. Salesforce, not SalesForce. You can probably see where I’m going with this.

Historically, camel-case companies have had their share of difficulties. Consider the plight of AltaVista, the early search engine that lost out to Google. Or of struggling MySpace, which seems to have actually changed its moniker to Myspace—exactly my point, of course. More recently, GlassHouse, the cloud computing and virtualization company, withdrew its plans for an IPO earlier this month (for the second time). BlackBerry hasn’t done much to buck the trend lately, and PowerPoint is just annoying, if ubiquitous. Anecdotally, at least, it seems like camel case is a bad idea.

There are exceptions, of course. The big ones are PayPal, LinkedIn, and Boston’s own TripAdvisor (a public independent company as of yesterday). These are very strong category winners but not top-tier corporations, at least not yet. Some fuzzier examples: YouTube (debatable whether a true success), DynaTrace (acquired by Compuware—note the spelling), BzzAgent (acquired by Dunnhumby—ditto), and LogMeIn (three words, not two). Companies like eBay and iRobot don’t count because they’re not really two-word names. But, conversely, there’s Webvan, as an example of a high-profile failure without camel case. Just trying to be balanced here.

For whatever reason, the tech ecosystem is overrun by camel-case startups, most of whom are bound to fail eventually—if only because the vast majority of startups fail. You can’t argue with that logic. OK, let’s just say there isn’t a strong precedent for their becoming top-tier companies.

In Boston alone, this doesn’t bode well for HubSpot, FitnessKeeper, TeraDiode, CounterTack, NitroSecurity, TwinStrata, BetterLesson, PeerApp, peerTransfer, CustomMade, TalkTo, MobiFlex, OfficeDrop, WordStream, PowerInbox, CloudBees, CloudLock, SocMetrics, SiteSpect, TenMarks, DataXu, PlumChoice, RatePoint, StarStreet, NetScout, EntropySoft, WaySavvy, EveryScape, AisleBuyer, FashionPlaytes, NetScout, RapidBuyr, HeyWire, and EverTrue. (Which is a shame, because many of these are promising companies.)

Around the U.S.—especially Silicon Valley—we can also say a prayer for TaskRabbit, CarWoo, AdGrok, RockMelt, WePay, GazeHawk, HelloFax, LawPivot, LiveScribe, LookSmart, PowerReviews, RentJuice, SearchReviews, ShowYou, StumbleUpon, TrapIt, ViralHeat, WiseStamp, AudioPress, BrightEdge, and BroadVision. Plus EnVerv, MindTouch, SweetLabs, PayScale, BigOven, HasOffers, TeachStreet, AdReady, LiquidPlanner, and BigDoor. And sorry, TechStars.

Sick of this yet? How about SecondMarket, GoldRun, BarkBox, LocalResponse, GameChanger, HookLogic, and LiveIntent? (Hello, New York.)

On the other hand, the no-camel-case strategy bodes well for Gemvara, Zipcar, Jumptap, Wayfair, Springpad, Punchbowl, Eversave, Demandware, Brightcove, Shoebuy, Vistaprint, Mocospace, Promoboxx, Skyhook, Foursquare, Outbrain, Birchbox, Recyclebank, Spongecell, Tutorspree, Zendesk, and Onswipe (maybe—or is it OnSwipe?). As well as our West Coast friends: Evernote, Eventbrite, Hipmunk, Shopkick, Flipboard, Livefyre, Anybots, Airbnb, Wetpaint, Redfin, Livemocha, Smartsheet, and (gasp) Clearwire.

Alternatively, if your name is sufficiently weird, like VMware or 3Com, you’re probably OK. In Boston, this gives hope to companies like SiOnyx and CyPhy Works. Not to mention SCVNGR, MC10, GrabCAD, OwnerIQ, and iAMscientist.

(As an aside, companies that insist on not capitalizing the first letter of their name should all fail now, just for the sake of the poor journalists who have to write about them in a grammatical fashion. You know who you are.)

So, startups and investors, if you’re looking for an actionable item here, I guess it would be: Bet on capital letters at the beginning of a name, not in the middle. Probably. Maybe. Why risk otherwise?

Or you can always branch out to two separate words and take Dogbert’s advice for naming a company. But that’s a topic for another day. As for building an actual business, good luck out there.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • http://blog.thansys.com Kirill Sheynkman

    Naming a company can be a tough exercise. Meaningful to the founder and marketable often don’t connect. I wrote a post on the subject about a year ago:
    http://blog.thansys.com/2010/12/26/whats-in-a-companys-name/

  • Piskvor

    Correlation. Causation. Who gives a damn about the difference?

    Making a list of CamelCase companies and claiming meaningful correlation with success smells of cargo-cult thinking; even more so as data which don’t support your claim are dismissed as irrelevant (“YouTube? Meh. Not a real success.” – wtf? What I hear is “…because if it were, my blogpost would be largely pointless, so it’s not a success! It must not be!”).

    Entertaining, perhaps, but no more valuable than inferring meaning from chicken entrails.

  • http://www.sri.com Alice Resnick

    Thank you Greg — LOL at the Dilbert strip! (Let’s not take ourselves so seriously all the time, folks.)

  • http://www.turningthecrank.com Bob Proulx

    Amusing reading but probably not very useful for the entrepreneur who might actually be concerned that this a serious issue for them. Your list of startups is extensive but you failed to include the likes of established companies such as Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, and PepsiCo (hyphenated use not withstanding).

    There are companies that specialize in the art/science of name creation for companies and products. Your readership might be best to look into engaging someone whose business is the name game if they are seriously concerned about the value of brand name on longevity or success rather than rely on your holiday anecdotal musings.

  • http://www.city-portal.ro mike dolha

    hmm, good article, actually now i’m thinking about changing the name of my company because it has a big ‘P’ in the middle of the name :)

  • Michael

    Greg – Nice piece of Christmas time comedy. Best wishes for the New Year.

  • Richard Nixon

    Don’t forget:

    SOLFAN — Still Out Looking For A Name; not sure what they ever made.

    SOROC — the letters in Coors rearranged, maker of the IQ120 terminal device.

    QANTAS — Queensland and Northern Territories Air Service. Only major airline to never have killed a passenger (but has killed some crewmembers).