Saturday, May 9, 2009

What's in a name? A business by any other name...

Data or Presentation of the Data, that is the question. Whether it is nobler to be true to the data or to make it pretty and by beautification destroy the use of the data...

I understand the value of a clear and effective presentation of data. The work of Edward Tufte is a fabulous study in making effective presentation of data. The map of Napoleons march to Moscow is still an iconic diagram for me.

However, on a regular basis, I am confronted with the situation where people use spreadsheets as though they were pieces of paper. So they merge columns or they eliminate columns to make things print out nicely or worst of all, they alternate the meaning of data in a column from row to row. The spreadsheet is a simple form of a database. When you try to make it pretty, you break the database part of it. You remove the ability to sort and reorganize and plot the data. So this tension between the effective use of the data or the effective presentation of the data is a fundamental issue. For spreadsheets, it is worth the effort to have one set of sheets which represent the data and different sheets which represent the reports or views of the data.

When we are choosing the name of a project or a company, we look around for something that captures the business. This often boils down to the domain name. When we talk about the company we want to have the name of the company and the name of the website be the same. We want to be able to say the name or write the name of the company and the domain name is obvious to the casual observer. But even with this idea to guide us, there are other issues that arise.

The Google Test
After you select a name, the first thing that most folks do is to google the name to see how many hits you get. If you google for "google", you get 2,590,000,000 hits. I wonder how many hits they would have gotten before they started the company. Searching for googol, we 1,990,000 hits. The advantage of picking a name that has a low number of google hits becomes particularly appearant when you try to look up documentation about Ruby on Rails and you end up in the midst of train web pages.

Name Relevance
While selecting a name like Google does not initial imply search, it does imply large numbers of items and gets you into the right zone. To select a name like Johns Machining vs a name like ProtoMold leads your efforts in two different directions. In looking at business plans, and reviewing the business names, there are alot of names used which do not help the company. I have seen:
  •  Names which you can not write after hearing it
  •  Names you can't spell even if you heard it
  •  Names which have nothing to do with the business at hand
  •  Names that leave you with an impression of a different business
  •  Names that are too long to keep straight.

Each of these get you into trouble, but lets take the last one. There are many times when information is passing by and it has to be sliced and diced to fit into the screen space that is available. While Twitter has a 140 character limit, it is not the only place where space is at a premium or where titles are important. I have my gmail account set up to collect RSS feeds from different places that I care about. Some of these folks put up articles with titles like:

  •  Things to do this week
  •  Top posts of the week
  •  Good words
  •  Crime watch

And the sad thing is that these are the same from week to week, so they actually end up conveying no information and actually cause me not to follow the link.

As an alternative, some of the feeds that I watch put together pithy lists with punctuation:

Angel Conference + Beer and Blog + Cre8 Camp + OSU Expo

This lets you know what you are looking at.

In the same way, when I look at gmail, my screen has 30 characters for the user names and 70 characters for the subject and then a little bit of the message. If you are effective with you email, you try to make the subject be short, to the point, and clear. If you split the difference and have a subject of 35 charaters, then you should have the first 35 charaters of your message be meaningful. This pattern can help communicate what is in an email message.

In the same way, when companies are submitting business proposals to angel groups using the tool, they are put into folders where there is a directory showing the list of the companies. It shows the name of the company and then a limited number of characters. On my screen, 30 characters are shared between the name of the company and the beginning of the first description paragraph. Often when people are writing their first paragraph, they start out with the name of their company and it ends up looking something like:

    MyCompanyName - MyCompanyName is a .....

From this I conclude that it is best if you have :

  •  a name which is short
  •  a name which is pronouncable
  •  a name which is a clear reflection of what the company does

and that the paragraph that follows starts with the 3 words that are the core description of your business.

So instead of getting:

        MyLongCompanyName - MyLongComp

You end up getting

        ProtoMold - Fast Plastic proto
This idea of having short and effective names and clear focused carries on into the Angel pitches. When you get a Pitch Desk for an angel pitch, they suggest you start with the Problem, then tell the Solution and then go into the business structure.

We end up seeing business pitches, where the title of the page is "Problem", "Solution".... After dozens of pitches, these all run together. Don't spend that valuable large font title on "Problem", Tell me what the actual problem is... In Big Letters.

And when you pick a business name, make sure that it sticks with me in the same way.


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