Seattle startup names: Verbal bootstrapping

Originally published Jul 28, 2010

The Name Inspector’s getting local. He’s decided to take a look at all 409 names in Seattle 2.0′s Seattle Startup Index. In his grand vision, this is the first in a series of posts about company names in different local startup scenes. Do entrepreneurs in Seattle do it differently from the ones in Boston or Austin? It remains to be seen.

As a touch point for this post, The Name Inspector will look back on his old “10 company name types on TechCrunch” post, the most-visited page on this blog. That post broke down the names in the TechCrunch index at that time, which was much smaller than it is now, into a number of different categories. We can use those categories to help make sense of what’s going on here now, naming-wise.

Are there any surprises? Yes! Seattle is crazy about phrase names! Phrazy! Phrase names were only the third most numerous type in the TechCrunch post (making up about 25% of the names), but they’re numero uno here (about 34%). To be scientific, we have to acknowledge there are many possible explanations for this. Maybe the Seattle Startup Index includes a different range of types of companies than those found in TechCrunch in 2007. Maybe there’s been a nationwide change. Maybe it’s somehow related to all the coffee here. Maybe…

But that’s all speculation. Let’s get down to it.

First, what exactly counts as a phrase name? Put two words together and you’ve got a phrase, right? It’s actually a bit more complicated than that. Sometimes 1 + 1 = 1 where words are concerned. Certain word combinations are pronounced as a single word, and we call these compounds. Think of the different emphasis in the expressions The president lives in the White House and Pat lives in a white houseWhite House is a compound, and is emphasized on the first word, while white house in the second sentence is a phrase, and is emphasized on the word house, which is the “head” or main word of the phrase. Compounds are typically made by putting two nouns together, but other types of words can be used as well.

The Name Inspector counted names as phrases when they (1) followed the normal rules for putting together non-compound phrases (such as adjective + noun), or (2) broke those rules and had compound pronunciation. Things got tricky because some names that are syntactically phrases get pronounced as compounds. They’re kind of all run together. An example is “Post a crime” is actually a whole imperative sentence, and would normally be pronounced with emphasis on the word crime. But The Name Inspector assumes the name Postacrime is emphasized on the first syllable. Names like these went into the phrase category for syntactic reasons, but they might have been counted as compounds. (They were also counted as phrases in the TechCrunch post.)

Topping off the Seattle Startup index is Cheezburger Network, which is responsible for another website with a whole-sentence name, I Can Has Cheezburger. Then there’s Survey AnalyticsBuddyTVRobot Co-OpActiveRainBigOven, the syntactically unusual HasOffers, and many others.

Seattle doesn’t favor phrase names at the expense of compounds, though. The old TechCrunch index was about 23% compounds, while the Seattle Startup Index is about 25%.There’s WetpaintRedfinSmileboxFlowPlayPopshopsWalk Score, and many others. Seattle also makes a pretty good showing with blends, or names that seem like blends, which make up about 8% of the Seattle startup names versus 9% of the TechCrunch names: Zillow (zillions + pillow, though that analysis of the name might have been created after the name was), Feedjit (feed + widget, with a spelling twist), Sporcle (supposedly based on the word oracle–it’s got to be a blend with sparkle, right?), Mercent (merchant + percent?), and some others.

So what type of name does the Seattle Startup Index have fewer of? Real word names. Here’s what’s going on: TechCrunch covers mostly funded startups, which can afford to buy real-word domain names. About 25% of the names in the old TechCrunch index were real words, some with creative spelling. Real-word names make up only 12% of the names in the Seattle Startup Index. The Name Inspector doesn’t know how many companies in the Seattle index are bootstrapped, but he’s willing to guess it’s a lot. So our scrappy little bootstrapped startup scene has a different linguistic landscape than the one on TechCrunch. The need for economy forces us to be ingenious with all our resources, including our verbal ones. Go Seattle!

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