Category Archives: Product

Picking a Name

Now you’ve got a niche, and you’re ready to start a business, launch a product, write a book or a blog, or whatever.

What do you call it?

If you’re really good with names, you can skip this one. If you’re really good with names and can explain to the rest of us how to be good with names, please leave your tips in the comments.

I’m actually stealing this exercise from a church trip that I chaperon. The trip happens every year, and each trip gets its own name.

Naming exercise

Materials needed

  • Writing materials (it’s easiest if you have one that everyone can see, such as a wiki/online document, a whiteboard, or an easel).

  • At least 3-4 friends (works with at least up to 56; might work with more)


  1. Brainstorm possible names This is a purely-brainstorming activity, so no filtering or criticism is allowed: everything goes on the list. Keep going until everyone’s tapped out.

  2. First voting round Count up the total number of possible names, and divide by three. Everyone gets that many votes. Count the votes for each name, and discard the losers. This will usually cut the list down by 30% -50%.
  3. More brainstorming What do the names with a lot of votes have in common? Can any of them be combined into one? Did new ideas come to you during the voting? Write them down now.
  4. Advocacy Everyone has a chance to come to the front of the room (or the bus, or the chat room) and give a 1-2 minute explanation of why they think this name or that name is the best choice.
  5. Second voting round This time everyone gets fewer votes; somewhere between 3-5, depending on the size of the list.
  6. Optional: more brainstorming and more advocacy This is mostly for cases where you’ve generated a lot of names — in the 75+ range. Or if you’ve got a lot of contention in the group, and need to come up with compromises. In most cases, this won’t be necessary.
  7. Final voting round Everyone gets one vote. Whichever name gets the most votes is the winner.

Sometimes you’ll generate a list of names, and everyone in the room will realize that the third-from-the-last one is The Right Name. In that case you can skip the rest of the process and walk away happily.

And this process may not generate as good a name as you could get by sitting down with someone who’s really good with names and just taking their advice. But it will always get you a Good Name. And it’s better to have a good name for an existent product than a perfect name for a non-existent product.

Resources for Further Reading
How to brainstorm – Tips

Flickr used to be an MMORPG

Sometimes (what you want to do) and (what you think you want to do) are two separate categories.

For example, the people who started Flickr thought they were making a Massively-Multiplayer-Online-Role-Playing-Game, a la World of Warcraft or Everquest. They started building it, and added (as a nifty side-feature) the ability to upload and share pictures while you were playing.

Before long, they realized that (a) the MMORPG market was saturated (b) the photo-sharing market was underserved, and (c) their product was a lot cooler in the photo-sharing market than in the MMORPG market.

So they changed. In start-up terms, it’s called a “pivot” — you stop right where you are, and go in an whole new direction. And it’s totally OK.

Sometimes you don’t know where you’re going

Actually, a lot of the times you don’t know where you’re going. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start.

Sometimes you realize that you’re going the wrong way

This isn’t quite as common. But it’s no shame. Feel free to change what you’re doing if you find something better.

It’s still better to be going

When you were little, your parents told you that you should stay put if you got lost. That way someone could find you.

But you don’t do that now. If you get lost, you might pull over and look at your directions. You might drive around the block a few times, trying to spot your landmarks. But what you most definitely would not do is to stop in the middle of the road and hope that someone would point you in the right direction.

Business is no different. If you don’t know what you want to do, then make a guess and try it out. At least you’ll learn something.

Who’s the Best?

There are lots of things in life where you can clearly state what is “best”: in class, whoever scored highest on the test is the best student. In soccer, whoever won the World Cup is the best team. There are enough of them, in fact, that we frequently forget how many things in life cannot be clearly defined to be “best”.

Most pertinently, “best” can almost never be determined in business. When I was in college, “best” to me meant cheapest. When I graduated and got a “real job”, I was able to afford more expense, and “best” included durability and quality and price per unit (Now that my graduate student loans are coming due, “best” may go back to meaning cheapest.) If you’re handling neurotoxins, “best” means “safest”. There are lots of ways to define best, which means there are lots of ways to be the best.

If you can’t be the cheapest, can you be the fastest? If you can’t be the most insightful writer, can you be the funniest? Use what you do best.

Play it Safe — and Experiment

In Learning From Your Competition, I discussed what things you can learn from your competitors, including what price, which promotions, and which combinations of products are most likely to be effective for your business. But if your business just copies what other businesses do, why should any customer go to you? This is especially true on the internet, where “Just like Facebook, only different” has repeatedly proven a recipe for failure.

What your competition does is safe

Nonetheless, copying the competition is a good place to start your entrepreneurial ventures, because you know there’s a market for what they’re selling. If you offer a product that’s basically the same as your competitors’ most popular product, at a price that’s the average of all their prices, using the same promotional methods as they do, you’re pretty much guaranteed to sell some of it.

It’s a low-risk choice, but it’s also a low-reward choice: since your offering is essentially identical to everyone else’s, you’re relying on the vagaries of fate to randomly steer some of the customers in your direction.

Once you’re safe, then experiment

With your solid base of safe, low-risk products, you have a relatively stable platform from which to explore. Now start experimenting.

Experiment with new products, or product combinations. Would your customers like these new items? Would they like the deluxe edition? Instead of buying products individually, would they like a subscription?

Experiment with prices (the people who select the MSRP are just guessing, too). If you put this on sale for 10%, does it increase the number of sales by more than 10%? If you increase prices on this one by 5%, how many people still buy it? What does it go for on eBay? Does it make sense to have different prices at different times of the day? Different times of the year? In different locations?

Experiment with delivery. Does it make sense to open another location? To offer home delivery? To create e-products that can be sold everywhere? Will customers pay extra for quicker delivery or more efficient locations?

Experiment with promotions. Is advertising the best method? What about networking meetings, or a booth at local events, or seminars at your local library? Are your customers on Facebook? Would they like to receive information via text message or email?

Keep what works, get rid of the rest

Eventually you’ll have a fantastic marketing mix — product, price, distribution, and promotion — that is great for your customers, and gives them a reason to bring their money to you.

Resources for Further Reading
Seth Godin on Competition
Risk Analysis

Learning From Your Competitors

In my last article, I talked about why judging your success by what your competitors have done is stupid. But does that mean that you shouldn’t pay attention to what your competitors are doing?

Not at all — that’s a good way to go out of business. It only means that you shouldn’t decide how well you did based on what your competitors did — your measurements of success should be internal, based on things you care about achieving. Competitor analysis is a terrible way to judge success… but a great way to help you decide what to do.

What you can learn from studying your competition

  • What your customers like
  • What your customers don’t like
  • How much (approximately) your customers are willing to pay
  • New products/services you can offer to your customers
  • What combination of products/services your customers are most likely interested in
  • What promotional methods are most likely to be effective
  • Industry trends
  • Industry standards

Look at what your competitors are doing, so that you can decide what you need to do in response– whether that’s copy it, offer an opposing product, or ignore it — just don’t use them as a standard of success.

Resources for Further Reading
The Problem With Competitive Metrics