Sandi Lin is the CEO and co-founder of Skilljar, which provides online course software for businesses.
Every entrepreneur has faced the nearly impossible task of naming their startup. Branding sounds like a fun activity until you realize:
- There are virtually no decent .com domains available.
- Negotiations are very time-consuming and potentially fruitless, especially on a lean startup budget.
- Having a great name is important to your success, perhaps critically so.
- It’s a pain to change your name later, yet it’s very possible your company will pivot.
- Your team is wasting precious hours/days/weeks. In the meantime, you have no brand to introduce to potential customers.
Our first name: Everpath
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We chose our initial name, Everpath, when we were applying to TechStars Seattle 2013. It fit most of the criteria we were looking for: evocative of online learning, short, and easy to say and spell.
The .com was taken, but it was owned by a private individual who hadn’t been using it for years. In the rush to finish our TechStars application, we quickly bought the .org, .net, and .co for Everpath, with confidence we could obtain the .com later.
Fast forward six months. After several attempts, it was clear the owner had no interest in discussing a sale. Since we are a SaaS business, we felt it was important to have a .com in the long run.
It wasn’t an easy decision to rebrand. We knew it could take weeks to fully execute, we’d lose any brand value we’d developed to date from existing paying customers, and I personally did not believe a .com would be material to our success in the first year. But in the end, we decided having a .com was important enough to do a rebrand.
And so we turned to crowdsourcing
My mission in picking a new name was to minimize our time spent finding it. One of our investors, Dan Shapiro, told us about Squadhelp, a crowdsourcing site where participants search for available domain names according to a contest brief. The winner gets a cash prize, typically around $100. Dan successfully used this approach to name his last startup, Sparkbuy.
All of the entries in the Squadhelp contest have to be domain names that are freely available for purchase. Worst case, I figured we’d spend a small amount of money, and best case, we’d have a new name with relatively little effort.
Our full contest brief is still available here and excerpted below:
Name a tech startup in Online learning!
WHAT WE ARE:
We provide a simple, all-in-one software platform for experts to teach online courses through their own self-branded websites. Experts range from professional coaches to top-tier authors & speakers. We want the name to convey simplicity, elegance, and growth.
DO NOT include traditional education terms like ‘edu,’ ‘brain,’ ‘school,’ ‘open,’ ‘class’, ‘scholar’, ‘academic’
Within five days, we’d received 843 submissions from 50 different participants. While there were many names we’d never consider, in the end we rated 23 submissions with 4 stars. Internally, this meant we’d seriously consider it as our new brand.
Filtering on Sedo.com
Based on the crowd’s submissions, there were a few standout words and themes that we particularly liked – among them the words “skill” and “master.” These words were great for us because our brand is relevant to both business users and consumers; similarly, we’re relevant to subjects from yoga to legal training.
Although the best 23 submissions were definitely workable, we weren’t 100 percent satisfied and wanted to quickly investigate other options. (For those curious, the top contenders from the contest were masterfact.com, skillphase.com, and expertfuse.com.)
Using the ideas generated from our crowdsourcing exercise, we searched Sedo, a domain name auction site, to find “Buy now” listings, using “skill” and “master” as roots. We also set a price maximum of $5,000, which is the most we were willing to pay (and honestly, the name would have had to be far better than the top contenders for us to shell out that price).
We found several “skill” names that were available. In the last pass, we checked for social network availability and Google search results.
At last, we’ve arrived at Skilljar
After thorough research, we purchased our new name, Skilljar.com, for $2,195. The selection took one week of calendar time and approximately eight hours of clock time. In the end, we were very satisfied with the crowdsourcing approach because we were able to generate hundreds of available ideas much faster than we could do on our own.
Additionally, the cash cost of the contest was very affordable, especially considering the amount of time we saved. Using the crowdsource method allowed us to take advantage of the creative Web, and let others fully explore different name concepts on our behalf.
For entrepreneurs that are struggling with finding an available .com, leveraging the crowd to generate ideas is a great option when you’ve hit a creative brick wall. A few tips for Squadhelp specifically:
1. Set a cash prize that stands out from the other contests. Almost everybody uses standard numbers like $100 and $200; I used $117. Remember, you are marketing your contest and it helps to make your listing more unique and attractive.
2. Don’t use your real company or personal names… for confidentiality and safety’s sake.
3. Provide lots of feedback and ratings during the contest. I rated every submission within 12 hours and even asked for specific prompts around certain words I was liking.
4. When the contest is over, make sure to purchase any domain names that you like before picking a winner. You don’t want to risk scammers stealing your domain then attempt to sell it back at an absurd premium.
Finally, for those who want to try the traditional approach, here are the resources I most frequently used:
- Jason Calacanis’ How To Name Your Startup
- Vinicus Vacanti’s blog post on the naming of Yipit
- Fast domain availability tool: Domainr.com
- Fast social network availability tool: Knowem.co
Good luck and happy hunting!