Enigmatic names: 37signals

Originally published Feb 5, 2007

The striking thing about the name 37signals is that almost no one will have any idea where it comes from or what it means. It’s an enigma, and if you want to get to the bottom of it, you have to do some investigating. Curiosity is rewarded in the company manifesto:

Mankind constantly analyzes radio waves from outer space in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Since this analysis started, almost all of the signal sources have been identified. 37 signals, however, remain unexplained.

So the name is a reference to those radio signals that might, just possibly, be from intelligent extraterrestrial life forms.

The enigmatic name is an interesting way to engage potential customers in a conversation. It can drive them to a website to find out more and provide an excuse to tell them a good story. For 37signals this is an effective strategy, because their marketing materials are well written and full of ideas (they have a manifesto, after all), and their blog, Signal vs. Noise, is one of the most consistently interesting company blogs on the web.

Despite its mysterious nature, this name belongs to a recent trend of web names containing numbers. 43 Things43 Folders30 Boxes, and 9 Rules are some other examples. What accounts for this trend? First, the scarcity of good single-word domain names. Putting a number in front of a word is an easy way to create a short, available variant. Second, techies are a number-lovin’ crowd, and the use of a specific number in a name implies a kind of quasi-scientific precision.

Though the name 37signals is fun and intriguing, it’s a bit hard to square with the philosophy of this company, which is known for its down-to-earth realism and its lean, easy-to-use web applications (BasecampBackpack, etc.) and web development framework (Ruby on Rails), all of which the Name Inspector is a great fan of. While 37signals is reasonably short in its written form, it’s very long in its spoken form (six syllables–compare that to the average of 2.25 syllables for the other names that have been analyzed here so far), and there’s not really any way to shorten it. It’s hard to understand why a lean, agile company would opt for such a name. What’s more, the relevance of this completely opaque name to a clean-and-simple design philosophy is a bit puzzling. Finally, setting aside the we-have-a-clue implications of intelligent signals, why does a realistic, down-to-earth company want to be associated with extraterrestrial life?

These are mysteries that may remain unsolved.

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