Former digital editor at The Takeaway, former producer at The Brian Lehrer Show.
One of the first things any new company has to do when it's starting is to come up with a name. WNYC's Lisa Chow and Jim Colgan interviewed company founders about how they chose their names, including Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. Here's an extended transcript of their interview.
CHOW: Remind us of the story of how you came up with the name Twitter.
DORSEY: We wanted a name that evoked what we did. We wanted something that was tangible. And we looked at what we were doing and when you received a tweet over SMS, your phone would buzz. It would jitter. It would twitch. And those were the early names, Jitter and Twitch. And neither one of them really inspired the best sort of imagery.
COLGAN: They were the names of the company?
DORSEY: They were the names we were considering for Twitter at the time.
COLGAN: So we could all be talking about Jitter.
DORSEY: Exactly. One of the guys who was helping us build and create the system, Noah Glass, took the word Twitch, and he went down the dictionary. And we all looked at the Oxford English dictionary at the T-W’s, and we found the word Twitter. And Twitter means a short inconsequential burst of information, chirps from birds. And we were like, that describes exactly what we’re doing here. So it was an easy choice, and we got twitter.com for some very low price, and we named the company Twitter.
COLGAN: Did someone else have twitter.com?
DORSEY: Someone else had it so we had to purchase it. I forget exactly what we paid for it, but it was miniscule. There was nothing going on at the page. So they weren’t doing anything with the domain, so we were the first ones to actually use it.
When we came up with the name Twitter, we were like, maybe this isn’t the best name for us because in certain cultures it could be demeaning. For example, Twit is not necessarily associated with the best things. But it has been amazing in terms of building the brand because the users have taken it and invented their own vernacular around it, like tweet and twitterpated.
CHOW: I haven’t heard of twitterpated. What does that mean?
DORSEY: Twitterpated is when you’re overwhelmed with information or you’re just so excited that you forget to tweet or forget to share.
COLGAN: Twitterpation like constipation.
DORSEY: It’s in the dictionary. These are all in the dictionary by the way.
COLGAN: So you didn’t come up with 'tweet.' That just emerged.
DORSEY: That emerged from our users. They saw the definition of Twitter. And they saw these little short formats. And we were using a lot of bird imagery on the site as well so they were like, "This is a tweet." We’re like, "No it’s a status update." They’re like, "No it’s a tweet." So eventually the company gave in, and now they’re tweets.
CHOW: So initially you rejected the 'tweet' concept?
DORSEY: I thought it was a little bit too cute for such a serious utility. But it’s very approachable. It’s very usable, and it inspires great feelings around the service.
COLGAN: Were there any dissenters around the name Twitter?
DORSEY: There always is. Any name you come up, someone’s going to say, "Oh that’s terrible." And we had a bunch of them. But at the end of the day, you have to weigh out the positives and negatives and go with it and then make it your own. And Twitter had a benefit because it was a real word. It was in fairly common parlance, and there was something that we could really define and own even more. So it was a great name for us.
But naming things is so difficult yet so important because it really carries a lot of the brand, and I would say a lot of our success is because of that choice and that name.
CHOW: How long did it actually take you to get to that final name, Twitter?
DORSEY: I think it took about two months or so. And we went through a lot of different names, trying to figure out what the service is and what we should be calling it. And naming things is very difficult because once you name them, you’re stuck with them for the rest of that product’s life. So we took a lot of time, and we were very patient with it but once we saw the word Twitter, the definition, the concept, and we put it on the site and saw how it looked, we said immediately that’s it. Let’s go with this one.
COLGAN: Do you think defining the name and settling on the name helped define your actual identity and what you do, rather than the other way around?
DORSEY: I think it’s a big part. I think it helped clarify what the service is. It also helped justify some of the things we wanted to do. We wanted to keep things simple, social, short, and tangible. And Twitter is a very tangible action. So it definitely inspired and made more concrete our convictions of what we wanted the service to be.
CHOW: At the point that you decided on the name, how much of the idea of the company had been already discussed and decided?
DORSEY: I really wanted a name before we started work on the code because if you don’t name the code the same thing, then it becomes extremely confusing and then you have go in and rename all these variables and all these functions, and it’s just a mess. So I wanted the name before we even started work.
CHOW: And what exactly was the idea that you were starting from?
DORSEY: The idea was just a very simple way to use SMS to send out a message of what was happening around you or what you were doing, and other people could follow that message in real time, and it would all be archived on the web. That was it.
COLGAN: Do you think it’s possible to change the name as you go along?
DORSEY: Yes and that’s what we found with Square. So naming Square was a different experiment. It had some similar themes. Square is a little tiny cube that plugs into your phone or ipad or ipod, and it allows anyone to accept a credit card immediately from wherever they are. So again, we wanted something that evoked a physical tangible thing.
We were actually discussing the idea without a name in the middle of the woods up in Marin County around San Francisco. It was nighttime, and there were all these squirrels moving back and forth, and I saw a squirrel and I was like, "Squirrel! They go around and collect acorns. They squirrel things away. And that’s perfect because people are going around, and they’re accepting payments, and they’re squirreling away money. Let’s name it Squirrel, and the device can be an acorn, and you can swipe a credit card through the acorn and plug it into your mobile phone. It’s perfect." And we were calling the company Squirrel and all the code was named Squirrel.
Two months later, we were demoing it at a company, and I was in their cafeteria and I was checking out for my lunch, and I saw this little squirrel logo, and it was at their point of sale system. And I said to my colleague, “What’s that?” And he worked at this company and said, “Oh that’s our point of sale. It’s called Squirrel Systems.” And I was like, well we’ve got to change that name.
So we went to the whiteboard. We went through every single name we could imagine for a payments company, and we came up with a bunch of them. We went to Seashell, which was the first currency ever used, but our lawyer was worried that Shell oil company would sue us so that was a no. Then we went to Flow and a bunch of other things that evoked that sensation.
And then I just remembered what we did at Twitter with the dictionary. So I looked up the word Squirrel and I went down the S-Q’s and I came across Square. And I looked at the definition, and of course it’s geometry but also there’s a phrase “square up,” which means to settle. There’s “fair and square,” which means that we’ve settled up. And then there’s “we’re square,” which means we’re good. We’ve paid our dues.
CHOW: Or you’re so square.
DORSEY: Well we ignored that part.
CHOW: Just like you ignored the twit part.
DORSEY: Exactly. The other thing about Square is that typically when you sell something, especially historically you sell in a town square. Markets are in town squares, and they’re in the center of cities. So conceptually it made a lot of sense. And a square is a common object that you don’t really think about. It’s approachable. It’s simple. It’s something well understood. So again, the word just instantly made sense. And we’re like, "We’re doing it. We’re changing all the code and it’s going to be called Square now."
We had people who said, “No, let’s not. It’s too boring. We can’t do anything with the logo. What’s our logo going to be? Just a square?” And I said, “Yes. It’s just going to be a square. That’s great.” So eventually we all got together, and now I’m so happy that we didn’t call the company Squirrel, and that it’s called Square. It feels solid. It feels inspiring. It feels trustworthy and conceptually it’s just gorgeous. It’s one of my favorite names, even more so than Twitter. It wraps up all the concepts that I want to see in the world.
COLGAN: Did you consider any names that didn’t actually mean anything?
DORSEY: We had one name come up for Square. We were just going to call it Jane. I don’t know what that means in terms of payments, but it sounded good and the domain was available. It was expensive but available.
CHOW: Was square.com available?
DORSEY: Square.com was not, unfortunately. Right now it’s owned by a company called Square Enix, which makes Final Fantasy. They’re not using it at all so it’s just a white page. But for us, we just made squareup.com, which infers the action of what you’re doing. You’re squaring up with someone. You’re paying someone. So it works to reference the action of the brand, instead of just a square.
COLGAN: I’ve heard investors say that’s just a no no to not have the exact domain name. I heard that with foursquare, like when they had playfoursquare, investors insisted they get the domain name. But you don’t see that as an issue?
DORSEY: It depends. To be honest, a lot of the people that will find Square will find it in the App Store. So when you search for Square in the App Store on your ipad or android or iphone, Square is going to be the number 1 hit. If you search for Square in Google, and this is something I’m really excited about, Square, our company, is the first result.
COLGAN: So you’ve surpassed the geometric meaning of square.
DORSEY: We’ve surpassed geometry.
CHOW: How much work did it take to reposition and rename the company?
DORSEY: A lot. Because we got the trademarks. We got all the corporate documents done with Squirrel. And then we thought we were going with Seashell. So we got them with Seashell and so it costs a lot of money to change names unfortunately. But it’s worth it. If we went with Seashell, it would have been okay, but it’s hard to say and it’s not really indicative of payments. So it’s worth spending the money. It’s worth taking the time and going through all the work to change all of the code that references little cute animals or seashells to blocks.
COLGAN: But you have that luxury of being better funded than the average tech start up that’s deciding on a name. They can’t really turn the ship around and change everything so easily.
DORSEY: Well, for instance, Instagram is very popular right now. And they started as a company called Burbn. And Burbn is the company name, and their product is Instagram. And that’s another way to pivot into having a substantial brand presence but diminishing the old name. So maybe eventually they change the company name to Instagram. And you see that time and time again. Now that they have money and massive adoption, they can actually afford that.
Apple did this. Apple was called Apple Computer Incorporated. And when they started to massively diverge from just making computers, they renamed the company to Apple Incorporated. I can’t imagine the legal fees that went into doing that, but it was immense. It’s a timing thing. But you can always do it, no matter what stage you’re at. Even if you pick a bad name now, you can still change it down the line when you’re successful. Hopefully the bad name doesn’t diminish the value of the product though.
CHOW: Why is the name so important?
DORSEY: It’s kind of that book cover mentality. It allows people to instantly get a sense of what you’re trying to do. And in many cases, you only have 2 or 3 seconds of someone’s attention to at least get them to open the door for an introduction. And then you maybe have 45 seconds to actually get them hooked, and then hopefully they just stay with you forever more. But the name is extremely important because it sets the tone for everything. Not only does it set the tone for the external product, but even internally to the company.
At Twitter, we have a lot of things that start with T-W and we really use the verb a lot. At Square, we have a company all-hands meeting, and we call them town squares. And all of our conference rooms are named after famous town squares in the world. So it gives us an opportunity to learn about other cultures and other cities. We really align a lot of our company’s beliefs with the concept of a town square, something that’s approachable, transparent. If you think about the town square, you go there, you sit down, you can watch the world around you, you can see all the conversations, you can introduce yourself, and you can meet people there. So it’s very important to us to keep those principles strong. And I think it really speaks to how we build the product. It also speaks to how Twitter builds the product. Very approachable, very simple and focused on the right things. Communication.
CHOW: It seems like what you’re saying is a name can dramatically shape the culture of a company.
DORSEY: Absolutely. You’re not just building a product. You’re also building a business. And building a business means you’re building a culture. And that culture is a bunch of humans together. Any structure that you can build to remove friction or to inspire them to work together better, I think a name and a way to reference oneself makes that easier. I can feel proud of saying, “I work at Square” to my mom or my dad, but if I said, “I work at Jane Payments,” or Go Pay, or any other just random name, I don’t feel as strong or as potentially as proud.
COLGAN: So do you think the name is far more important than the actual service or the product?
DORSEY: None is more important than the other. They’re both equally important, and hopefully they speak to each other. They coexist and they build off each other. You need to have perfect balances in many areas of the company, especially with your name and the product. But the name is the first step in marketing. So you do have to consider that when you consider how you’re going to tell the story of your company, and how you’re going to tell the story of your product or your organization. What are we trying to say? And is this the word or phase to say it with? And you just go through those experiments.
For Square, we had whiteboards of things and we would go through the list, and we’d say, “How does it sound to say, ‘I work at x,’” or “Here’s x. It allows you to take credit cards with your phone.” What does that feel like? And Square felt the best.
COLGAN: How do you test a name out? And who do you test it out on? Do you test it with the consumers, or do you have to care a lot about what the investor thinks?
DORSEY: You don’t have to care about what the investor thinks. I’ll go on record saying that. If you care about what the investor thinks, then you’re probably talking to the wrong investor. I’ll probably just make a lot of enemies with that statement. You have to test it out on yourself first, and then the company, and then just in your internal documents. Feel what it feels like in your code, employment contracts, and on business cards if you believe in those things. And come up with an image. If you’re building an app, what does it look like on the ipad or iphone? What does the word look like? What does it feel like?
So you get a sense internally first, and then you start bringing it to people. But the problem with bringing it to outsiders is they don’t have the context that you have. And they’re going to have completely different interpretations of what that thing is and what it should be. So you have to weigh it in that sense. You have to say, this is a person who I’m bringing this to and they know nothing about what we said no to to get to this name, and what we said yes to, and what we believe in, because it would take way too long to explain, and then I’m encouraging them and giving them my bias. So we can’t do that. So they just have to come with a blank slate, and that’s very hard to do to also provide constructive feedback.
So I actually shy away from going externally. I would rather just get everyone internally comfortable with it, and then just really rationalize why we’re choosing that name and then build the product around it.
COLGAN: I think that’s so interesting that you don’t want to take into account people from the outside, because they won’t have context, but isn’t that exactly what it’s like when they’re presented with your name as consumers. Doesn’t their reaction have some value?
DORSEY: Yes but consider Apple. When Apple came to the market, they were going against International Business Machines. And International Business Machines was certainly a more aspirational logo and brand than an apple. A machine. This was rock solid, and this was something that I wanted to use, and I felt powerful with it. And Apple was simple, a toy.
Those are the sorts of images you get, but then it’s up to the product to reinforce that original context and the reasons that you are focused on that name and that brand and what you found valuable, and what you want to do with the world and why that brand and that name and that logo represent what you want to do with the world. So you can build that value into any brand or name you choose, but you just have to be able to get behind it completely yourself. And if you have any doubt in your mind, then it’s not going to be successful when you bring it to anyone else.
CHOW: Do you think that Twitter would have had the mass adoption that it had under a different name?
DORSEY: It depends on the name. Twitch certainly probably not. We would have to change the name, but it really depends on the time and the name and how much effort we put into it. I like the word Twitch but I felt really bad about it. I didn’t feel bad about Twitter at all. It felt good. I wrote it down a bunch of times. I drew it out. It just felt great so I knew that if I felt great about it, then I could convince others to feel great about it too.