Have you ever wondered how company’s settle on a name? We’ve put together a list of over 30 tech companies and how their founders made that important decision. From home towns, to birthdays, to personal nicknames, a lot of the names have a very personal meaning for the founders. You’d also be surprised to know how many of them made minor, or even major, changes to their name because of the domain was already taken.
So without further ado, here they are, in alphabetical order:
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37Signals was founded in Chicago in 1999 by Jason Fried, Carlos Segura, and Ernest Kim. Paul Horowitz, an American physicist and electrical engineer identified 37 radiotelescope signals which believed might have been messages from extraterrestrial beings. A brief post on the 37Signals website says only this about the name:
Mankind constantly analyzes radio waves from outer space in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Since this analysis started, almost all of the signal sources have been identified. 37 signals, however, remain unexplained.
Founded in 1976 in Taiwan, Acer originally went by the name Multitech International. Less than 10 years later, the name of the company was changed to Acer, which is the Latin word for “sharp, acute, able and facile.” Acer has also been translated as keen, eager, severe and fierce, and it also has some other odd connotations attached to the word, associated primarily with the Maple tree.
Founded by Jeff Bezos, Amazon originally launched as Cadabra.com, a site which now redirects to a New Zealand travel site.
Ann Byer’s biography on Bezos tells the whole story:
“Bezos liked the thought that ordering books on the Internet would be so quick and easy that it would seem like magic; you order and – abracadbra! – your book is on your doorstep. Abracadabra – that was the sense he wanted people to have about doing business with him. But it was a little too long, so he shortened it to Cadabra.”
Fast forward a little, and Bezos is ready to fill out the official paperwork for his new company, and was speaking to a lawyer about the forms that he would need to fill out:
“When Bezos said over the cell phone that he was going to call his online site Cadabra, the lawyer hesitated. What the lawyer thought he heard was Cadaver. Bezos was mortified. Would people really mistake his enchanting name for a dead body?”
When thinking of a new name, Bezos’ principle criteria was to think of a name that began with an A so that it would be at the top of any alphabetical list. He quickly settled on Amazon because it was “exotic and different,” and reflected his aspirations for and the river he considered the biggest in the world, like he hoped his company would be.
Amazon’s Bezos wasn’t the first founder to think about alphabetical order. Amiga, which name means ‘female friend’ in Spanish and Portuguese, was also chosen because it would appear before rivals Apple and Atari on an alphabetized list. They also looked at other rivals names, and decided to go in the complete opposite direction. The site, Amiga History Guide goes into a little bit more detail about the choice:
The Amiga name was chosen through the teams desire to move away from the typical company names of the past (such as International Business Machines) to one that would be more attractive to technophobes and non-computer users. This was smart thinking on their part, during the 1980’s IBM still had the monolithic image conjuring images of room-sized computers and people in white coats. The Amiga brand became extremely important during the late 1980s when Commodore marketed the machine towards the home market.
The Apache group was formed around a number of people who provided patch files that had been written for NCSA httpd 1.3. The result after combining them was A PAtCHy server.
This is probably one that everyone knows but we would be remiss to leave it out, Apple’s company name is said to have been chosen for co-founder Steve Jobs’ favourite fruit, and the logo is a play on the world byte. In the book, Apple 2.0 Steve Wozniak is quoted as saying:
“He [Jobs] said ‘I’ve got a great name: Apple Computer.’ Maybe he worked in apple trees. I didn’t even ask. Maybe it had some other meaning to him. Maybe the idea just occurred based upon Apple Records. He had been a musical person, like many technical people are. It might have sounded good partly because of that connotation. I thought instantly, ‘We’re going to have a lot of copyright problems.’
Both Wozniak and Jobs tried other alternate names such as Executex and Matrix Electronics, but they didn’t like it as much as Apple Computers. And the name was born.
They also wanted an approachable name. Like Amiga, Apple wanted to shy away from the cold, corporate names of other computer companies at the time. Apple also went on to influence other company name decisions, including the UK based company, Apricot Computers.
When the American company was founded, they wanted a name that had a Japanese feel to it, and opted for Atari. Atari is a move in the Japanese board game, Go, which is similar to the ‘check move’ in chess. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell was quoted as saying:
“In Go, when you are about to capture an opponent’s piece, you politely warn them ‘Atari’ [check]. I felt that was a good aggressive name for a company.”
In 1933 it was Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory, in 1934 the company switched the the name of its first camera, Kwanon, the Japanese name of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. It wasn’t until 1947 that Kwanon became Canon. On the Canon website, an explanation behind the choice reads:
This title reflected the benevolence of Kwanon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and embodied the Company’s vision of creating the best cameras in the world. The logo included the word with an image of “Kwanon with 1,000 Arms” and flames.
When the Company sought to begin full-scale marketing, it needed a brand name that would be accepted by people worldwide. From this standpoint, in 1935 the name Canon was registered as the official trademark. The word Canon has a number of meanings, including scriptures, criterion and standard. The trademark was therefore worthy of a company involved with precision equipment, where accuracy is fundamentally important. It also embodied the Company’s desire to meet world-class criteria and industry standards. And since Canon and Kwanon had similar pronunciations, the transition went smoothly.
Digg’s name was born mainly out of the fact that the domain name for the original name was already taken. Founder Kevin Rose’s friend David Prager suggested Diggnation, a name which was later used for Kevin Rose and Alex Albrecht’s show Diggnation, which Prager was involved in. In an attempt to simplify things, Rose suggested Dig. With Dig.com registered by Walt Disney Internet Group, they just tacked on an extra g, and Digg was born.
eBay founder Pierre Omidyar had founded a web consulting firm Echo Bay Technology Group, shortened just to Echo Bay. Omidyar is reported to have said he chose the name because, “It just sounded cool.” Like Rose, Omidyar’s domain of choice, EchoBay.com was already taken. Instead of adding on a letter or two, Omidyar went in the opposite direction and simply shortened it to eBay.com.
Facebook’s name and origins both stem back to university campuses. You’d think the story would be a bit more exciting, especially considering all the controversy surrounding the company’s origins, but instead, this is where the idea for the name came from:
A facebook is a printed or online directory found at American universities consisting of individuals’ photographs and names. In particular, it denotes publications of this type distributed by university administrations at the start of the academic year with the intention of helping students get to know each other.
In an age of curious-sounding Web-site names, “Flickr” came largely by accident. The domain owner of “flicker.com” wouldn’t sell, so Caterina suggested “Flickr,” which Butterfield says made the service stand out. “We always had to spell it out for people, which helped make it stick,” he notes.
Yet again, a domain name had a direct influence on the company name, and like eBay founder, Butterfield and Fake opted to drop a letter from the equation.
Google’s name was an accident. Originally going with googol, a misspelling led to the name that has since become a noun, verb, and an ever-present part of our online lives. The original choice of name googol was a reflection of the company’s mission to take over the world. Just kidding. Google’s mission was to organize the boundless amounts of information available online.
Barry (our Spokesberry) will tell you that it’s named after Tibetan Gojiberries… but don’t believe him.
The name HP has led to unfortunate confusion between a computer company and a sauce. While the name itself is nothing ground breaking, how it was chosen is definitely interesting. Founders, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard tossed a coin to decide who’s name would get first billing. Obviously Bill won, and the rest is history.
Hotmail is a name which has led to many a joke, most of which weren’t all that funny to begin with, especially when you realize just how geeky the origins of the name are. They knew the name should end in mail, but while trying to figure out what comes before, they settled on Hot, not for any connotations, but actually because it contained the letters HTML. The product actually started out looking like a 13 year old leet speaking teenager had come up with the name, with selective upper casing to emphasize certain letters: HoTMaiL. Luckily that is no longer the case, and in fact, the name Hotmail has since been abandoned in favour of Windows Live Mail.
Ok so Lego is not a tech company, but it’s a company of utmost importance to any self-respecting geek. Lego is a play on the the Danish expression, Leg godt, which means, well, Play well. Lego is also a Latin word meaning I put together but the company claims that is entirely coincidental.
We’ve already given you a bit of insight into Motorola’s history, and where the name came from, but in case you missed it, the name is the marriage of two words – motor, representing a car, and ola, taken from the word, Victrola, representing sound. The name was chosen at a time when Motorola was in the business of manufacturing car radios.
Napster may possibly be the only company whose name stems from a hairstyle, or we hope. Founder Shawn Fanning earned himself the nickname Napster, because of his hairstyle, and from there one of the most controversial music sharing sites was born.
Nero, a German software company best known for their CD/DVD burning product, Nero Burning ROM, took a page out of history when settling on a name. The company, and product, is named after the Roman emperor Nero who is best known as the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned. To make it as pun-worthy as possible, Rom also happens to the German spelling of Rome.
You might not realize it but the actual Japanese company, Nintendo, was formed in Kyoto in 1889. From producing handmade playing cards, to a cab company, to a love hotel, the business went through a variety of incarnations, but held on to its original name. In 1974 the company ventured into the electronics world, and a year later it entered the video game arcade industry. The name can be roughly translated as ‘leave luck to heaven.’
Like Nintendo, Nokia’s origins lie far away from electronics. The company started out in 1865 as a Finnish wood-pulp mill in the city of Tampere. A second mill was built near the town of Nokia, and in 1871 the town name was used as the company name, which today manufactures cell phones.
Database software company Oracle actually started out as a project for the CIA, complete with a code name. At the time, the company working on the project was called Relational Software Inc. When the CIA abandoned the project, the founders decided to keep on trucking, and adopted the CIA’s code name as the company name.
Co-founder Marc Ewing’s computer knowledge often led to people asking for his help with computer-related problems in college, and he was often referred to as the “guy in the red hat.” Often seen on campus in his grandfather’s red and white striped Cornell lacrosse team cap, the name stuck, and lent its name to the Linux distro, Red Hat. By the time the beta version was ready for public consumption, Ewing had lost the hat, and the manual included a note asking readers to return his red hat, if found.
Research in Motion
Research in Motion borrows the concept (and two of the words) from the expression Poetry in Motion, but the company is, more often than not, simply referred to as RIM. Crackberry gives a bit of insight into the history behind the choice:
Paradigm Research was the first choice to be registered, but that name was taken. Lazaridis tried submitting different variations of words combined with “Research,” but each was rejected. As the registration application had to be accompanied by a $160 fee, the company was fast losing money before it even had a name. One evening, as Lazaridis was channel-surfing, he happened upon a bit of serendipity. A news story about football players taking ballet lessons. Footage of players dancing nimbly around the opposition accompanied the words on screen: “Poetry in Motion.” Lazaridis submitted the name, and Research In Motion was officially incorporated on March 7, 1984.
According to the founder of Samsung Group, the meaning of the Korean word Samsung (三星) is “tristar” or “three stars”. The word “three” represents something “big, numerous and powerful”; the “stars” mean eternity.
Sanyo is a Japanese word which means three oceans. Starting out in 1947 making bicycle generator lamps, Sanyo moved on to plastic radios, and washing machines. The three oceans in its name referred to the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and was reflective of the founder’s mission – to sell Sanyo’s products worldwide.
Software company Six Apart derives its name from co-founders Ben and Mena Trott’s birthdays, which are, you guessed it, 6 days apart.
The company name started out as Sky-Peer-to-Peer, was shortened to Skyper, and was then shortened some more, to Skype. The reason for dropping the R was due to what has become a major issue today when deciding on a business name – the domain skyper.com was already taken.
Sony’s name is a double entendre. It refers both to the Latin word sonus meaning sound, and it also refers to the American slang expression, sonny boys, which is what co-founders Akio Moritom and Masaru Ibuka described themselves as, back in the day. In the 1950s in Japan, sonny boys had connotations of a young, smart and presentable men. Sony was also chosen because it was easily pronounced in many languages.
Quite a few names were mulled over when deciding what to call Twitter, including Twitch and Jitter. In a interview earlier this year, co-founder Jack Dorsey explained how they arrived at the name Twitter:
We wanted a name that evoked what we did. We wanted something that was tangible. And we looked at what we were doing and when you received a tweet over SMS, your phone would buzz. It would jitter. It would twitch. And those were the early names, Jitter and Twitch. And neither one of them really inspired the best sort of imagery.
He goes on to say:
One of the guys who was helping us build and create the system, Noah Glass, took the word Twitch, and he went down the dictionary. And we all looked at the Oxford English dictionary at the T-W’s, and we found the word Twitter. And Twitter means a short inconsequential burst of information, chirps from birds. And we were like, that describes exactly what we’re doing here. So it was an easy choice, and we got twitter.com for some very low price, and we named the company Twitter.
The name Ubuntu comes from a Zulu word which translates as “humanity to others”. The Linux operating system is distributed as free and open source software. The company’s mission is based in the Southern African philosophy, Ubuntu, which Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes as”
A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.
Nero opted for history, while Yahoo opted for literature. The word Yahoo was coined by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, and was adopted by the company in 1994:
The Web site started out as “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web” but eventually received a new moniker with the help of a dictionary. The name Yahoo! is an acronym for “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle,” but Filo and Yang insist they selected the name because they liked the general definition of a yahoo: “rude, unsophisticated, uncouth.” Yahoo! itself first resided on Yang’s student workstation, “Akebono,” while the software was lodged on Filo’s computer, “Konishiki” – both named after legendary sumo wrestlers.
Can you think of any interesting stories on how a tech company got its name? Let us know in the comments.