The Year of X, Y, Z and Q

It seemed to me that more of companies getting venture funding lately have names that begin with the least-used letters of the alphabet. But after wasting time trying to confirm this on ill-conceived database searches, I figured it’d be better to talk to someone who actually follows this stuff.

So, I talked to Atoll Foden, president of Silicon Valley branding consultancy Brighter Naming, who says obscure letters are indeed in vogue. That’s largely because, with a million-plus domains getting registered each month, all the obvious ones are already taken.

“X, Y, Z and Q names are fabulous names right now,” Foden says. “It solves a lot of legal problems because there aren’t many words in the dictionary beginning with those letters.”

It used to be that everyone wanted a company name to start with A, to get ranked first in Yellow Pages. But today Google doesn’t care what letter your name begins with when doing its ranking, so Z-names fare as well as A-names.

That said, Foden’s fussy about what works.  He’s not fond of the name Zoosk, used by a social network dating service, because it has too many consonants at the end. But he’s quite enamored of Xambala (pronounced Zambala), the name of a Silicon Valley startup that does something called high frequency financial event processing, because it “has a nice, musical sound to it.”

Other trends in naming that Foden has noticed include:

–  Deliberate bad spelling is popular for startups, particularly those targeting the text-messaging generation, who could care less about proper spelling. The trend may have started with Flickr, but imitators include Loopt, the mobile location application, and ScanR, an application for scanning, copying and faxing with a mobile phone or digital camera. These names may be hard to get used to inititally, Foden says “but when you get it, you don’t forget it… it’s called a sticky name.”

—  Obscure foreign language names are big, since most obvious English and Spanish words are taken. Ubuntu, a name apparently derived from the Bantu languages of southern Africa, is perhaps the best-known example of the unusual foreign word choice.  Foden also expects to see more use of Hawaiian and American Indian words in naming.

– Good names don’t have to be obvious matches for the businesses they represent. For example, looking at the two words that make up the name Starbucks, it sounds like the moniker of a bank in Hollywood. But it’s worked well for a coffee company. Same for Safeway, which, were it not a well known grocery brand, Foden observes, “would make a great name for a condom company.”