Workplace

From BackRub to Google and Facebook to Meta: Here’s what happens when your company decides to change its name

Change your name, they said. It will be easy, they said.

Appify CEO Jen Grant

Jen Grant has led company name changes at Box, Elastic and Appify. "Every time I get to a company, I end up changing the name," she told Protocol.

Photo: Caroline Shearer

A decade ago, Anand Sanwal nearly lost an investment bank's business over his company name. He and his founding team had thought the name they'd come up with was "edgier" and that it "would make you look up if you saw it," but Sanwal now admits that it was "somewhat, potentially, not safe for work."

And that's how Chubby Brain became CB Insights.

Silicon Valley is built on a heap of discarded company names. Before Facebook became Meta, Burbn became Instagram, BackRub became Google, Snew became Reddit and Saasbee became Zoom. So, how do these name changes happen?

Jen Grant has been through three company name changes, at Box (formerly box.net), Elastic (formerly Elasticsearch) and her current company, Appify (formerly Turbo Systems), where she's CEO.

"Every time I get to a company, I end up changing the name," Grant said.

The process takes at least five to six months, and likely a year or more at a huge company like Meta, Grant said. She and Sanwal walked us through what it takes to rename a tech company.

Brainstorm several names. Duke it out with your leadership team.

If you have the cash for it, you'll probably start by hiring a brand agency. Otherwise, the first step is for your leadership team to come up with several possible names right away.

For tiny startups, this may only take an evening. Sanwal and his team — at that point, there were only four or five of them — decided on CB Insights over drinks the same day the investment bank said it couldn't use a product called Chubby Brain.

Initially, Sanwal, the company's CEO, thought the investment bank was being overly conservative, but he ultimately understood why the bank didn't want to have to cite a company called Chubby Brain in client presentations. (The change was worth it: That bank is now a $750,000 client of CB Insights.)

"We didn't want to lose this deal over a name," Sanwal said. "It felt like one of those moments where, 'Hey, if we get these folks, we will have arrived,' so we didn't do a lot of analysis on what name to pick."

But for more mature companies, agreeing on a name will take some negotiation.

The hard part here — especially for chief marketers — is managing team politics, Grant said. Legal may put the kibosh on a name that your founder-CEO loves, for example. Even worse, your founder may fall in love with an awful name, Grant said.

Solving a disagreement like this may require some outside feedback.

"You kind of have to rely on data, at some point, to say 'Hey, this name you love is terrible,'" Grant said. "But I can't just say that to you, so let me see if I can prove it through some sort of survey or focus group or something."

This can be a long process. At Elasticsearch, for example, it took work for Grant to convince her team that as an open-source product with more than 10 million users, it made sense to choose a new name that didn't stray far from the original.

She eventually won out when the company officially changed its name to Elastic in 2015.

"It does take time to get people to get there with you," Grant said.

Check social media handles and domain names. Pray for a .com address.

This likely happens in parallel with the brainstorming process.

"Everyone starts jumping on GoDaddy: Is there a domain?" Grant said. "Is there a .com in particular, or do we have to go .co?"

Elasticsearch, for example, had to take the elastic.co domain, which Grant remembers as "kind of a bummer." She had more luck with Appify, where she was able to snag appify.com.

Hopefully, your team's dream .com domain name doesn't cost tens of thousands of dollars, Grant said.

Box — which decided to change its domain to box.com because, as Grant put it, "no one has ever IPO'd on a .net" — had to lease the box.com domain for a while before buying it.

Then, particularly for software-as-a-service companies, there's the question of whether to redirect users to the original domain name.

At Box, for example, Grant and her team had to decide whether to redirect from the new domain, box.com, to the original box.net, or to send them to app.box.com.

"That's a huge thing. That means the whole entire product needs to move to a new domain, which is a whole engineering cycle," Grant said.

Sometimes, the company name can be in the code itself, which can be yet another engineering headache.

"It usually shouldn't be, but it happens," Grant laughed. "You may have missed that somewhere, someone hard-coded the name of the company by accident."

Don't wait to consult with legal.

Preventing potential legal issues are the "long pole" when it comes to a company name change, which means it's imperative that the process gets going right away.

As soon as possible, share your list of potential names with your attorneys so they can run a trademark search and assess whether any other trademark holders may put up a fight over the name.

Brainstorming and running a trademark search will likely take at least a month and a half to two months, Grant said. This is more complicated for companies with an international presence.

Even Google couldn't offer its German users @gmail.com email addresses until securing the Gmail trademark in Germany in 2012.

Before that, the web giant could only give Germans @googlemail.com addresses because the venture capitalist Daniel Giersch owned the Gmail name.

Tiny startups might be too distracted to take trademark issues seriously. CB Insights didn't run a trademark search until long after adopting its new name — once the company was established enough to have an in-house attorney, Sanwal said.

"We were bootstrapped. We were so revenue-focused and revenue-funded that that was not a thing we worried about until much later, until once we were what I would call a real company," Sanwal said.

So you've picked a name. Now what?

Once you've settled on a name and gotten approval from legal, you'll have some administrative work ahead of you: for example, changing your name with your bank and with the state where your company is incorporated by filing an "Articles of Amendment'' document.

It took several months to confirm Appify's name change with the IRS, Grant said — after the company had already announced its new name.

But these tasks may be less of a headache than the external communication involved. All of these pieces together will take at least three months and likely longer.

Of course, notify your team as well as any clients, prospective clients and job candidates you're thinking of hiring. Brief any partners, the press and industry analysts in advance, Grant said.

Make sure you've updated sales and marketing materials, proposals, contracts and business cards.

"When you're a startup, there's not some central system that you could say 'Show me everything that has our logo on it, and our old name,'" Sanwal said. "For a year, we were probably still finding Chubby Brain randomly in presentations and documents."

Then there's the online piece: Update your social media profiles and any newsletters and use search engine optimization to your advantage, from Google site mapping to Google tagging.

Sanwal's team was able to redirect Chubby Brain links that appeared in external media to "pass the SEO juice" to the new CB Insights website.

And to solicit press attention, don't just write a press release about the name change. Grant's advice: Pitch it to reporters alongside some more newsworthy announcements.

"(Reporters) don't want to write an article about 'some silly company changed their name,'" Grant said. "You want to write it about 'They did this, this, this — and they're changing their name."

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