The Internet-startup boom has spawned lots of fast-growing companies, lots of high-profile meltdowns, and lots of really bad names. Some names don't really mean anything: Agilent, Aquent, Avilent — ad nauseum. Some names merely attach the Internet's favorite letter to some obvious words: eSpeed, e-Steel, eToys. Perilous stuff, this question of corporate identity. All the more reason to make the process of choosing a name as surefire and scientific as possible: Bring on the marketing research and the linguistic analysis! Fire up the selection software and the naming databases! Right?
Not according to A Hundred Monkeys, a two-man outfit that's based in Sausalito, California. The best way to succeed in the name game, the Monkeys argue, is to scrap the pseudoscience and go with the gut. "Naming is completely subjective and creative," says creative director Danny Altman, 55, who started the business as a part-time venture in 1992. "Ideally, you want to find a name that taps into associations people have, either consciously or unconsciously, with words in popular culture that already have certain meanings or connotations."
Naming should be risky business, Altman says. "Can you imagine a new airline today that would dare name itself Virgin? Or a car that would be called a Stingray? The whole point of marketing is to stand out from the crowd. But these days, we're so afraid of making a mistake that we market-test creative, cool, and fun names to death. They all end up sounding the same."
"We don't recommend market research for naming," adds Steve Manning, 40, managing director. "You've really got to figure that if you're trusting the future of your brand to a bunch of people [in a focus group] who are willing to give up their time for $45 and a stale sandwich, you're in trouble."
Such irreverence is likely to give process-minded types a bit of a chill. But then again, it's coming from a company whose very name (a cheeky reference to the old adage that if you left a hundred monkeys in a room with a hundred typewriters, sooner or later you'd get a Shakespearean sonnet) is, in itself, a provocation.
"We hate naming by committee," says Manning. "We refuse jobs where too many people get to be involved in the decision." Instead, he and Altman spend a month on each naming project, researching the company and its competition and coming up with scores of domain-available choices. Once the choices are narrowed, the names are checked for trademark conflicts, and a final selection is thrashed out, ideally among four or fewer people.
Given the competition, the duo's "antimethodology" seems almost retro: The best ideas win, not the best computer-generated, market-tested, multisyllabic nonwords. The strategy has made A Hundred Monkeys the namers of choice for companies such as Herman Miller, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and Nickelodeon, which typically pay $65,000 per name. Altman and Manning recently helped Career Central change its name to Cruel World, in a process that Heather Martin Maier, Cruel World's coo, describes as "A Hundred Monkeys working their voodoo magic.
"From the moment they walked through the door, the whole project became more exciting," continues Martin Maier. "Even the words they used to describe what we were looking for were more captivating than what we'd been able to express. They talked about a name that would be 'self-propelled' and have 'kinetic energy.' We just felt that their approach was dynamic and fun." For Martin Maier, the name Cruel World captured her company's sense of humor and showed that the company understood that searching for a job can be an unpleasant, arduous task.
Altman, who has worked in advertising and marketing and who was a cofounder of Altman & Manley, in Boston, and Manning, a former cameraman and video editor for the Travel Channel, met in San Francisco six years ago and hit it off. So when Altman decided to make his part-time consultancy a full-time business, he asked Manning to join him. Since then, they've attracted a growing roster of clients who are willing to sign on to their brand of creative high jinks. A Hundred Monkeys specializes in names that dare, such as Apples+Oranges (a Macintosh database), Farm-in-a-Box (mail-order windowsill gardens), 98point6.com (a personalized medical database), and Zatso.com (a personalized video news service).
Venture capitalist Ruthann Quindlen first got to know the Monkeys while she was on the board of Zatso, and she decided to use them when it came time to name her new VC firm. Tired of the conservative, let's-sound-like-a-law-firm names of most VC funds (she herself is a partner at a company called Institutional Venture Partners), she unleashed the Monkeys. Their winning suggestion? Ironweed Capital. "It's perfect," Quindlen says. "It connotes strength and rapid growth, which is what we're all about."
Not every client may be ready to give up the comfort and safety of a more traditional or more obvious name, but none can say that, in choosing to work with a company called A Hundred Monkeys, they didn't expect something a bit radical. "We didn't really ask for bids from other companies," Martin Maier says. "A Hundred Monkeys has managed to stand out in a crowded field and say something unique with their own name. We figured that if they could do that for themselves, they could certainly do it for us."
Visit a hundred monkeys on the Web
Sidebar: What's in a Name?
Software, services, new companies — A Hundred Monkeys has named it all. Here are a few of the company's tips for coming up with a great handle.
Dare to be different. "If you're the first in a field, it works to have a name that is somewhat descriptive. But once you're facing lots of competition, a descriptive name is no longer very useful," says Danny Altman, creative director. "You end up with Career Central, Career Link, Careers-R-Us. The whole point of a name is to stand out. Look at what others in your field are doing, then do the opposite."
Don't name by committee. "Coming up with a good name is only half of the problem. The other half is persuading a company to execute an idea," says Steve Manning, managing director. "You have to fight the organizational tendency to involve absolutely everyone in the process. That's a sure path to 'vanillacide' — when nobody can agree on anything truly radical and cool, so it gets diluted and diluted until it's acceptable and utterly boring."
Scare yourself. "We're all about trying to get our clients to take risks, so we typically include a couple of names in the mix designed to freak them out," Manning says. "If there are a couple of ridiculously scary names on the list, they'll be more likely to 'compromise' on a name that is daring enough."
A version of this article appeared in the September 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.