The naming of Gist

Originally published Apr 6, 2010

Aaaaah what a nice restful vacation The Name Inspector has had. Anything interesting happen while he was gone? How’s the…wait…is it actually 2010? April? Holy cripes.

Because it’s been such a long time since The Name Inspector did his last post, he’ll make this a special one. He’ll give you the inside story of the naming of Gist, a Seattle company that connects your inbox to the web to give you information about the people and companies that are important to you. And all this told from the perspective of the hard-working naming consultant who proposed the name! This post will show you how a startup naming project can evolve over time and how different constraints make different results possible.

First, about Gist. If you haven’t tried it yet, you should. It’s an application that mines your email contacts, ranks them according to importance, and gathers information about them from all over the web: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. It’s especially useful in business–a sort of dashboard that instantly gives you the gist on all your most important contacts.

It all started back in 2007, when The Name Inspector was no bigger than–well, when he was just about exactly as tall as he is now. THIS tall. Anyway, a guy named T.A. McCann hired him to rename his company, which was called Minebox. That was a pretty apt name for a company that created software to datamine your email inbox. The problem with the name Minebox was that the .com domain wasn’t available. T.A. could only get And that seemed to The Name Inspector to be (1) a little tacky, (2) a little too suggestive of porn, and (3) a little too x-centric in a space where two of the main competitors were called Xobni and Xoopit (which as since been acquired by Yahoo).

The first round of work focused on other names relating specifically to the email inbox. An early name contender from this round was Plumbox. Surprisingly, the domain was available. (It’s not any more). There was a nice visual to go with the name–picture an old-fashioned produce crate filled with plums. A plum represents something valued (like a “plum job”), so the name made a great metaphor for an application that finds the value in your inbox. And finally, there was a great double meaning: a good alternative metaphor for “mining” an inbox would be to “plumb” an inbox (like “plumbing the depths”). Alas, Plumbox was not to be, because a Minebox investor was already involved with a similarly-named company.

So, round two. This round focused less specifically on the inbox. T.A. was beginning to envision a broader horizon of possibilities.  But there was still a belief that the .com domain should be available.

So, what do you do when you want the associations of a real word but you also want a short, available domain name? In classic Web 2.0 fashion, you get creative with your spelling. At one point, Dystyl was under consideration. However you feel about creative spelling (and The Name Inspector has mixed feelings about it), you have to admit that the name is interesting from an orthographic point of view. (And here’s an aside: naming isn’t a purely aesthetic pursuit. It’s also a type of problem solving.)

In any event, no one felt completely happy with Dystyl. It was too gimmicky.

Then we received word from the main investor, Mr. Big, that there was real money available to buy a domain name. That opened things up tremendously. Real-word names became a possibility without the creative spelling. When you’re looking for real-word names, you have to do a lot of scouting of web real estate, because almost any real English word you can think of has already been registered as a .com. You have to figure out what you might be able to buy. A domain name that has a major corporate website sitting on it is not going to be available for any price. A domain name that’s parked is very likely available for the right price. And when a domain name has a blog or other personal site or a very small business site on it, you can sometimes convince the owner to part with it.

So this round focused on real-word names with registered domains that didn’t seem entirely out of reach. The name Gist caught the attention of many people involved in the naming project, and the domain had belonged to a long-defunct website. The domain owner was contacted. After some polite but persistent prodding and some hard negotiation, the owner agreed to sell the domain. The final seal of approval came from Mr. Big himself, who weighed in saying the name was “not bad”. So Minebox becamse Gist.

The pithy, scrappy little name Gist came into a market where the best-known company was probably Xobni. If you don’t happen to notice that Xobni is inbox backwards, it simply functions as an arbitarary name. The initial X and final i make it exotic, like a foreign word, and that’s pretty much the extent of it. If you do know about the word inbox in there, then you know something about the application (that it has to do with email). But there are no other ideas introduced. This is an illustration of the principle that saying things too directly makes for a name with little conceptual resonance

One nice thing about the name Gist is that it demonstrates its own meaning. The gist of something is an economical expression or understanding of what’s important about it. The four-letter word gist was a very succinct expression of this very concept.

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