"My Venereal Disease" (and other startup naming blunders)

"My Venereal Disease" (and other startup naming blunders)

silicon_valley_name_scene{Note: This post is meant to provoke but is not intended to offend. Most of the startups I mention, and I’ve met a lot of them, have pretty good products. Moreover, I credit their founders for their creativity and daring in a language that is not their native tongue: important traits of successful entrepreneurs.}

Over the summer, a competitor of one of our investments trumpeted their company re-branding. I won’t name them explicitly in the spirit of fair play, but I will say that there were chuckles around the boardroom when we heard the news because the competitor’s new name is laughable in English.

This incident spurred me to reflect on the numerous startup companies I’ve met, mostly French, who have impressed me with their product, vision, and global ambitions, yet have stumbled in the fundamental branding exercise of their endeavour. These otherwise astute teams have chosen a name for their companies which may be original and quirky in France but totally flop among native English speakers.

We write recurringly about French startup naming blunders at Rude Baguette because, frankly, the phenomenon keeps occurring.

My, my, my…

clapFirst there’s the inclination of naming startups with the prefix ‘My’, most likely hoping to emulate the success of MyLittleParis.

MyClap – which has the unfortunate slang meaning of “my gonorrhoea” in America

I even recall years ago receiving a business plan from a startup called MyCon. What an intriguing name for a startup. Can you imagine that, naming your company My Idiot ? Might as well have called it Mon Petit Con for all I care.

Here’s some inimitably Rude advice for the “My” group: it’s not all about you. It’s about your shareholders, your customers, and your employees.

A particular trust agency business in The Netherlands whom I’ve hired in the past aptly named his company: YourTrust. Now there’s a guy who clearly grasped the concept of putting the customer first!

Getting sexual

One startup which successfully distinguished Your from My is EatYourBox. Unfortunately, EatYourBox overlooked the sexual connotations of their chosen name. Much like Edjing did too. Perhaps EatYourBox and Edjing should jointly apply for NUMA’s acceleration program Rise (email slogan: Keep Calm, Rise Hard). Be careful not to pivot into the Clap though!

Naming your company ‘innovative’ does not make you innovative

A French trend I found even more annoying than the My group was the phenomenon of incorporating some variation of the word “innovation” into the company name. Thankfully this fad seems to have waned. As a VC that I respect once remarked, “If you need to prove your innovative credentials by naming your company with the word “innovation,” you’re probably not really that innovative.”

Rentrer par le window

Over recent years we’ve witnessed the combination of French and English words in startup names. Sometimes this franglais method works fabulously well (cue: PopUpImmo, ShowroomPrivé, even BlaBlaCar); other times, less so (e.g. EnjoyMyTribu).

For those French entrepreneurs aspiring to expand into international markets, there is a simple solution to avoiding such gaffes: solicit the advice of a native English speaker before deciding definitively on your company name. Heck, if you don’t have any native English friends, you could even send an email at random to practically any anglo-saxon tech blogger and probably receive a response. It costs you nothing, and you’re not obliged to heed the advice. But at least you’ll know whether your chosen brand generates instant derision or offense before you launch.

I’ll close by returning to my comments in the preamble. Let me be perfectly clear: I applaud non-native English speakers for conducting business in English. After all, broken English is the most common business language globally. I do not mock language mistakes. Heavens knows I’ve committed my share of stumbles when operating in French (my favorite was my disastrous pronunciation that made “Je suis en route” sound like “Je suis en rut.”).

However, when it comes to client-facing communication, such as your company name, brand, and all associated marketing materials, it’s foolish to not run it by a native English speaker first. In a follow-up piece, I’ll explore some effective methods for choosing a company name.