The Agonies of Picking a Product Name

September 15th, 2011 by Dan Ostlund

Picking a product name is all agony and no ecstasy. It’s also a giant time-slurping vortex. And in the end, it kind of doesn’t matter.

A product, or a company name, only really needs to achieve one thing: not remind us of some unpleasant bodily function, or the results of a wild and drunken night. But even this seemingly common-sense advice is often and successfully broken. Wii anyone?  No thanks, I went this morning.

Yes the name matters if it’s truly totally weirdly awful, but outside of that it just doesn’t.

Recall that “iPad” was the subject of all kinds of snark and scorn in the first couple of weeks after launch. Who makes those jokes now? No one.

Amazon? I remember lots of people making fun of that name and insisting there would be endless confusion, but it worked out fine, and at least it wasn’t Cadabra, one of the early names Bezos considered, and something sure to upset the Steve Miller Band.

At least a dozen people I know wondered why you would name an e-reader Kindle, something that reminded them of fire. Fire. Books. Fire + Books, bad. Anyone think that anymore? Nope. Everyone just buys them by the millions.

If Google wasn’t such a familiar and ubiquitous name, most people would reject it as a company name on the sensible grounds that it is sillier than a bald cat. But we’re all used to it, and we don’t care. And that’s the point.

And of course there is no shortage of bad-seeming names on really successful products. Dare I mention FogBugz in this context?

We just recently went through the naming agony since we just launched Trello, a tool for project and task and process management, and…well, go check it for yourself. 27,000 users have signed up in the last 24 hours, and they’ve been saying really nice things on the Twitters.

Trello was code named Trellis when it was in development. It got that name because one of Fog Creek’s co-founders, Michael, suggested it as a code name in an early meeting. It was fine. It stuck.

Eventually we decided that we needed An Actual Product Name. Which, of course, we did, but we spent way more time on this than we needed to. Two of the team members took some time to come up with some names. Actually, a couple of hundred names. For one reason or another, these were all rejected or shelved, mainly because all possible domains have been plucked up by an automatic domain-registering spaceship.

Feeling morose over this, they then hired a professional naming person. He came up with about 200 names, some of them very good, and one of them “lasagna”.

Not knowing about the previous naming efforts, I jumped in one day with about 125 name ideas. Then several of us sat down together and reviewed our name ideas, and came up with about 200 more. We tried everything: animal names, plays on various aspects of what Trello does (board, card, list, task), Japanese words, and every combination in between. We threw them all at the wall, from the practical to the nutty. Kardboard, Hippolist, 5 Camels, Listly, Idealist—all were suggestions at one point or another.

Late in the process we thought, maybe we could just use the code name, Trellis. Why did it have to change? But, we couldn’t buy trellis.com. They weren’t selling. We tried to buy trell.is, but it was more than we wanted to spend. We really thought it was important to get a .com domain anyway, so we weren’t thrilled with this option.

The wheels continued to spin and every couple of weeks the product name came up and we would lurch off on another round of fumbling around for a new name.

Work continued on the product code named Trellis and for a couple of months we didn’t have much time to think about the name until the mid-September launch forced the issue: nothing like a deadline to provide some clarity.

So Joel organized a company-wide brain storming session and we got out our markers and some giant pieces of paper, tacked those up on the wall, and came up with about another 150 names. Some really good names came out of that session. It was raucous, and it was fun.

We argued, we lobbied, we pointed out when a possible name rhymed with wee, and then we voted. Of our choices, about none had available .com domains. The whole thing was getting depressing. And we were out of time.

Trellis was still one of the contenders, so, after all of these sessions, and all of this brain-storming, and the many hundreds of suggestions, Michael just decided to start playing with variations on Trellis. He came up with a number of them, and then looked for domains he could buy. Trello.com happened to be one of the domains he could get for a reasonable amount of money and we decided it sounded good. We had made a grand wandering journey all the way from Trellis to Trello. That’s like leaving New Jersey and getting to New York by way of Kinshasa. But here we are.

After all of that it’s clear that the name just isn’t that important.

Gold Bond Medicated Powder. What’s a Gold Bond, actually? And Medicated Powder isn’t a name, it’s a thing. Might as well call your product Lined Paper With Three Holes. But Gold Bond Medicated Powder works, doesn’t it? No one ever thinks about it, they just get some if they have itchy feet.

We ended up with a name very similar to the one we started with, one that all of us like just fine, and one which is just going to be what people call our new, supremely free, project management app. I think everyone would have gotten used to Hippolist too, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s called Trello now.

In the end we should have just had Michael do the whole name picking in thirty minutes and been done with it.