Business Names Make or Break a Company

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BOSTON (TheStreet) -- For many entrepreneurs, their businesses are their babies.

And, like parents, entrepreneurs often pick names that draw criticism from the outside world or just plain sound ridiculous. That's been happening more in recent times (Yahoo and Google) than in the past, when imaginations didn't run at a fever pitch (General Electric and General Motors).

But names can make or break a firm, and finding the right one is a big business for those who consult on the matter. TheStreet asked five entrepreneurs to defend their company names and brought in a professional branding expert to evaluate them. Eli Altman is director of strategy at A Hundred Monkeys, a naming company in San Francisco. "All good names should be connected to a story," he says.

milk milk: Piney Kahn and Sunny Zobel spent months naming the public-relations and marketing firm that they founded in 2007. They tried anagrams, but those weren't memorable. They tried Greek mythological names that evoked female strength, but they felt forced and absurd. They tried a combination of their last names. "ZOBELKAHN!" recalls Kahn, president of the Portland, Ore., firm. "It sounded ridiculous."

In the end, Kahn and Zobel went with "milk milk," which is short for the company's full name, "milk milk lemonade corp."

"My little sister and I are always mocking each other," says Kahn. "We like to sing that little rant, milk, milk, lemonade, 'round the corner fudge is made."

According to Kahn, the moniker's puerile roots help the company vet its clients.

"You know that if you can't really explain it to them, you probably can't work with them," Kahn says. "If they don't have a good sense of humor, we may not be able to work with them long-term. We have to be able to take ourselves with a grain of salt."

To wit: "It didn't hurt that they don't take themselves too seriously," says Mike Corrales, vice president of marketing at BillMyParents.com, one of milk milk's clients."It didn't hurt their cause."

What Eli thinks: "I giggled, and you giggled, which means we're probably both smiling. Any name that causes an emotional reaction does a good job."

HipChat: HipChat makes an eponymous instant-messaging and chat application for corporations. The name evolves from "HipCal," the online calendar company that the co-founders started in college and then sold to Plaxo in 2006, shortly after their college graduation. P/>"We had one guy e-mail us to say we absolutely had to change our name," says Garret Heaton, co-founder of the company. "I think his exact words were that he 'felt like a teenybopper' when he was telling his co-workers about it."

That said, Heaton says the name helps to differentiate it from more daunting-sounding corporate software products.

"It's not an enterprise-y type of name, but we don't have an enterprise-y kind of interface," Heaton says.

What Eli thinks: "My first inclination is to think of 'hip' as in cool, and any time you need to say that you're hip or cool, it means that you're probably not hip or cool."

Intelligent Integration Systems (IISi): In the post-modern technology era, the name of this data analytics company, and names like it, might seem a little staid. But the executives at Intelligent Integration Systems all have backgrounds that pre-date the dot-com boom.

"We came from a semiconductor world that was full of Applied Materials and Advanced Micro Devices and National Semiconductors -- back when America used to actually build things," says Paul Davis, chief executive officer of the Boston company, which was founded in 2005. "Intel was about as abstract as it got. So we just went functional with IISi. Plus Studebaker and Akamai had been taken."

What Eli thinks:"If they're business-to-business and working on something that's not particularly creative, then that name might suit its purpose. In a startup sense, a name like that doesn't help you build up speed or momentum."

Mammoth Erection: "It's kind of a nickname with the guys in the business -- we call ourselves erection specialists," says Dave Hall, CEO of Mammoth Erection, an Aurora, Ontario, company that specializes in erecting and dismantling scaffolding.

The company previously was called "Dave Hall Construction." But a few years ago, Hall hung a "Mammoth Erection" banner from a scaffolding job on a Toronto highway. The banner was meant to be a funny morale booster for employees, as the company prepared to exit the then-struggling scaffolding business and focus on property-renovation jobs. But it turned out to be a brilliant business move.

"Once the sign went up, the phone started to ring like crazy," Hall says. "Business basically doubled for our scaffold division and we never did another renovation job again."

What Eli thinks: "That's awesome. You can't say it without laughing, and it actually has a solid relationship to what they're doing."

Agito Networks: Coming up with a name was the toughest part of the fundraising process, says Pej Roshan, co-founder of this Santa Clara, Calif., company, which makes equipment for corporate phone systems. After his team rejected his initial idea, "Mobile Pipeworks," Roshan turned to the Google translation tool, typed in keywords such as "mobility" and "convergence," and came up with Agito, which is Latin for "to put into motion."

Investors liked the name because "it's easy to say and it starts with an A," Roshan says, meaning it has a leg up on alphabetical lists, although Google searches for "Agito" can be frustrating because they also yield a Japanese cartoon character and a gay bar in Lisbon.

What Eli thinks: "It's the type of name that's hard to tear down. But it's unremarkable, and it's going to go in one ear and out the other."

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