Startups focus on the X, Y, Z and Q

It used to be that entrepreneurs favored company names beginning with the letter “A.” That way, when someone looked for their category of business in the Yellow Pages, the company would be listed first in the directory.

These days, with search engines supplanting printed phone books, alphabetical ranking matters less. Increasingly, companies looking to stand out are choosing names with letters at the end of the alphabet.

So says Atoll Foden, president of Mountain View, Calif.-based branding consultancy Brighter Naming, who observes obscure letters are indeed in vogue. That’s largely because with a million or more domains getting registered each month, all the obvious letter and word combinations are already taken.

“X, Y, Z and Q names are fabulous names right now,” Foden says. “It solves a lot of legal problems because there aren’t many words in the dictionary beginning with those letters.”

That said, Foden’s fussy about what works. He’s not fond of the name Zoosk, used by a social network dating service, because it has too many consonants at the end.

But he’s quite enamored of Xambala (pronounced like Zambala), the name of a Silicon Valley startup that provides high frequency financial event processing. Folden says that the name “has a nice, musical sound to it.”

But while many startups are choosing names beginning with least-used letters, data indicates that desire among entrepreneurs to be at the top of the alphabetical order stack remains strong.

So far this year, venture capitalists have backed rounds for 214 U.S. companies with names beginning wit the letter “A,” according to Thomson Reuters (publisher of PE Week). By comparison, there were funding rounds for 26 “Z”-named companies, 11 “Y” names, 18 “X” names, and 15 “Q”’ names.

Other trends in naming that Foden has noticed include deliberate bad spelling, obscure foreign language names, and shorter monikers.

Deliberate bad spelling is particularly popular, Foden says, for startups targeting the text-messaging generation, who could care less about proper spelling.

The trend may have started with photo sharing site Flickr, but imitators include Loopt, the provider of mobile location services, and ScanR, which develops an application for scanning, copying and faxing with a mobile phone or digital camera.

These names may be hard to get used to initially, Foden says “but when you get it, you don’t forget it… it’s called a sticky name.”

Obscure foreign language names are big, since most obvious English and Spanish words are taken. Ubuntu, a name apparently derived from the Bantu languages of southern Africa, is perhaps the best-known example of the unusual foreign word choice.

Foden expects to see more companies use Hawaiian and American Indian words in naming.

Another trend that started with the dot-com bubble and never went away is the continual aspiring for a short name, preferably one or two syllables. It’s getting harder to find these, since more and more words—even made-up ones—are taken.

One thing that makes the process easier, Foden says, is that good names don’t have to be obvious matches for the businesses they represent.

For example, looking at the two words that make up the name Starbucks, it sounds like the moniker of a bank in Hollywood. But it’s worked well for a coffee company.

Same for Safeway, which, were it not a well known grocery brand, Foden observes, “would make a great name for a condom company.”