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Startups Are Starting to Choose Normal Names Again

Brands have stopped ‘disemvoweling’ themselves

Conceptual image of colourful falling letters, casting shadows on a white wall.
Conceptual image of colourful falling letters, casting shadows on a white wall.
Photo: Catherine Falls Commercial/Moment/Getty Images

From creating new words like “Kodak,” forcing words together like “Facebook,” or intentionally misspelling phrases like “Krispy Kreme,” companies have a long history of picking phonetically fabricated — and occasionally nonsensical — brand names. For the past two decades, one particularly popular business trend was for companies to drop vowels from their names; if you glanced at a list of tech firms circa the early 2000s, you might be forgiven for assuming the humble vowel was going extinct. Flickr, Grindr, and Tumblr all launched within a few years of each other, each one seemingly forgetting to bring the letter “e” along with them. Since then, a whole host of companies have followed suit — Scribd, Pixlr, Blendr, and Mndfl, to name but a few.

Even when Twitter launched in 2006, it did so under the name Twttr. A bird enthusiast already owned Twitter.com, and the founders weren’t ready to shell out money for the domain without knowing if their venture would take off (although they eventually paid up six months later, likely making someone a much richer bird watcher). This was a common reason behind the rise of companies dropping their vowels: When Flickr launched in 2004, it immediately faced the same problem. Its founders wanted Flicker.com, but the domain was taken and the owner refused to sell.

In the early 2000s, domains were being scooped up by startups and private domain hoarders left and right, and most companies refused to be held for ransom in their hunt for the right web address.

In 2010, Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake told the San Jose Mercury News, “I suggested to the team, ‘Let’s remove this “E” thing.’ They all said, ‘That’s too weird,’ but I finally ground everyone down. Then of course, it became THE thing and everyone started removing vowels right and left.” After Flickr’s successful launch without its “e,” other brands began dropping vowels from their own names. For many companies, it made business sense: In the early 2000s, domains were being scooped up by startups and private domain hoarders left and right, and most companies refused to be held for ransom in their hunt for the right web address. With roughly 500,000 businesses opening each month in the United States, competition for domain names continues to be fierce. And losing an “E” from an existing word made it far easier for some companies not only to find a domain name but also to register a trademark. Each week, thousands of new applications are filed with the trademark office, and over half don’t pass, typically because they are too similar to another name. With so many commonly used words already claimed, it left companies with little choice but to go toward the obscure and fictional.

The drift toward disemvoweling

For some brands, the decision to go “E-less” was less about URLs and trademarks and more about aesthetics and style. Christopher Price, the former editorial director for Tumblr, admitted as much in 2013, telling Wired that, “At the end of the day… it all comes down to one simple, absolute truth: Tumbler.com looks fucking stupid.”

This wasn’t just a branding phenomenon, however. According to John Riebold, a computational linguist at VoiceBox Technologies, the writing was always on the wall for the last two letters of “-er” words. He notes that “the ‘er’ — known as a syllabic consonant — in words like ‘flicker’ sounds like plain old ‘R.’” So why not just write it as so? Riebold claims, “The occurrence of these brand names is due to the ‘-er’ suffix being so common that even without the ‘E,’ readers know exactly how to pronounce the word.”

As far back as the 1990s and the first internet forums, some computer users began reducing their vowel use wherever possible for faster typing speed. Known as disemvoweling — which TIME ranked #42 in the 50 Best Inventions of 2008 — its prevalence increased as people continue to streamline their communication over mobile text messages and, in some cases, avoid censorship from moderators searching for specific terms.

The rise in A.I. and voice recognition technology also means that brand names with weird spellings or strange pronunciations may be harder to find via Alexa or Siri compared to a standard dictionary word.

As the decade progressed, disemvoweling remained a commonplace method for businesses testing branding that could appeal to younger generations of consumers: As communication became more and more shorthand (thanks, in part, to the rise of the emoji), companies hoped they could relate to younger segments of their market by speaking the same language. This same practice also began to seep into pop culture most notably music, with bands like MSTRKRFT (pronounced “mastercraft”) choosing to go entirely vowelless. As Brannon Cashion, global president at Addison Whitney, notes, “I look at the younger generation that have been ‘electronic’ for the majority of their formative years, and this is how they speak — emoticons, leaving out vowels, shortened words — there’s this new language where when you’re thinking of a name it’s about being really distinctive.”

A return to the literal

Despite two decades of disemboweling making its way into the names of brands, it would appear the trend is beginning to reverse as we enter the 2020s. According to an annual survey from Crunchbase of more than 1,000 recently founded and funded startups, name fads are on their way out, being replaced by more literal names — with all vowels accounted for. Crunchbase’s Joanna Glasner calls 2020 the “year of the noun,” saying, “Funded startups are increasingly choosing brands made up of recognized words or names that describe what they actually do.”

Crunchbase’s survey lists new companies like internet browser The Browser Company, a clothing rental startup called Wardrobe, and a payment platform called Banked. Gone are the hip uses of the English language; the new trend is just to come out and say exactly what you represent. All these names tell a potential user what they do in a simple and direct manner. As the old saying goes, “It does what it says on the tin.”

There are plenty of reasons behind the shift. In a world where we are inundated with more brands than ever (including more direct-to-consumer digital retailers targeting niche online communities), companies are switching to simpler words that are easier to spell and remember. We see company names every time we go online, so it’s easier to remember a brand name that doubles as the main product the company sells or service it offers. And, as Breather CEO Julien Smith writes, this reversion to plainly spelled words also makes sure companies’ names pass the phone test, which simply means if you told someone the name of your company over a call, would they instinctively know how to spell it correctly? The rise in A.I. and voice recognition technology also means that brand names with weird spellings or strange pronunciations may be harder to find via Alexa or Siri compared to a standard dictionary word.

Companies have also accepted that almost every obvious domain name has already been registered. Many have become more comfortable accepting an alternative suffix or adding additional words (such as articles like “the”) to get the domain they desire. You will find Elate, an operations platform, at goelate.com, while the popular reading application Pocket is housed at getpocket.com. Businesses have also moved away from exclusively using .com domains and are settling for more unique, top-level domains like .shop, .me, .inc, and in the case of Twitch, .tv.

The future of naming

The name game tends to be cyclical: Back in the 2010s, every brand name seemed to contain an ampersand. The fashion industry was the biggest offender here; as Rebecca Jennings notes in Racked, the addition of an ampersand into a fashion brand name allowed it to throw any two words together — colors, places, surnames, etc. — and the brand name would suddenly seem to make sense. “All that matters is the tiny, adorable little ampersand that connects them,” she writes.

Around 2014, we saw an explosion of “ify” or “ly” suffixes, most notably with Spotify and Shopify. The Name Inspector counted 338 company names using ‘ify’ between 2007 and 2014 alone. Marina Glazman, founder of decorating startup Suitely, says, “When we came up with the name Suitely, we instantly loved it. But within a few months of launching, we saw that this was a trend that was now blowing up. You had business names using the ‘-ly’ suffix where it made no sense. We kept our name, as it was just too good of a fit for what we were doing — but you don’t want your business name to be part of a trend. Trends have short life cycles.”

Although more recently launched companies like Mirror are favoring more straightforward concepts, startups may yet return to sillier, imaginative, or vowelless variations if they fail to stand out in their markets. As Crunchbase’s Glasner writes, “It’s hard to dismiss the potential of weird names when a Silicon Valley garage-launched startup called Google is now worth more than $1 trillion.”

Editor-in-Chief of Post-Grad Survival Guide • Columnist in Marker https://bit.ly/3hOsHzu • Thoughts on business, ideas, writing & more

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