If you work in startups, there’s a good chance you know Oscar. And Alfred. Benny, too. And don’t forget Lulu and Clara. These aren’t the prominent Silicon Valley people that techies know by first name (although those exist—think Marissa, Satya, Larry and Sergey, Zuck). Rather, Oscar, Alfred, Benny, Lulu and Clara are companies. The latest trend in startup names is regular old human names.
Oscar is a New York health insurance company with a consumer Web sensibility. Alfred, the Boston firm named after Bruce Wayne’s butler, provides errand-running services like groceries and laundry for a monthly fee. Benny, also in New York, offers freelance workers insurance, accounting and tax services. Lulu—again, of New York—is an app that lets girls anonymously rate guys they know. Clara, based in the Bay Area, provides a virtual service to do things like scheduling meetings.
Startups are choosing human names for a simple reason: to humanize the software they’re selling. Many young tech companies make software that replaces a function once done by a person. We increasingly conduct the business of our lives through the screen of our mobile devices. Many startups believe that in order to win a customer's trust, they need a human touch.
Jacob Brody, founder of Benny, says he chose the name because he wants his company to be seen as a trustworthy helper, not a faceless corporation. “We wanted to create software with soul,” he says. “Benny has your back. He’s your buddy and dependable.”
Five examples does not make this a full-fledged trend, at least not yet. Still, startup naming is a faddish endeavor. You can often tell what era a startup comes from based on its name.
Is the name in question a kooky word with not enough vowels, like Flickr, Tumblr, or Twttr, the original name for Twitter? It’s from the Web 2.0 era of the mid-2000s.
Is it two words jammed together with a capitalized letter in the middle—so-called camel case—such as NetSuite (n), LinkedIn (lnkd), YouTube, or BuzzFeed? Who knows. That style trend, a blight to copy editors everywhere, will simply not die.
Does the company's name end in a cutesy suffix like Chirpify, Spotify, Ghostery, Findery, Bitly, Contently, Artsy, or Etsy? It was probably born in the last eight years, as evidenced by this chart. Many companies in this category took advantage of readily available domain names from Syria or Libya, ending in .sy and .ly, respectively.
In fact, choosing a startup name used to be all about scoring the domain name. That has become less important with the rise of mobile, where users find apps in by searching an app store. If a URL is too expensive, a startup can add a word like “app,” “get” or “use" to its name. Foursquare's Swarm uses SwarmApp.com; Confide uses GetConfide.com. Some apps have simple one-word names but use a foreign country's URL suffix, like Secret, which uses Secret.ly, Vine, which uses Vine.co, or Whisper, which uses Whisper.sh.