Success breeds imposters, especially in the business world. There’s always going to be an entrepreneur looking to ride the wave of another’s ascent. Some jack the product, undercutting the incumbent’s price or adding additional features; others borrow liberally from the leader’s messaging or marketing. Often, the latter strategy means blatantly ripping off the company name.
Ten years ago, seemingly every new startup structured its name to end in -ly or -ify. At the time, it was little more than a nuisance for branding snobs who were super-plugged into the startup scene. But these little companies grew up, and now, all these similar-sounding names make up some of the biggest in their industries. There’s Calendly and Templafy, Optimizely and Expensify, Grammarly and Proposify. And that barely scratches the surface; there are literally hundreds more.
This is more than just a trend; the rise in copycat company names is plaguing tech. Ripping off another company’s naming structure is reductive and embarrassing—come on, where’s the originality? But the copycats are also everywhere, and there will be more in the future. So what might be coming next?
In the late-20th century, every digital company wanted to be “-soft,” thanks to the inspiring success of a little software company from Redmond, Washington. A few of those firms, like IT company System Soft or Ubisoft, the creator behind video games like Assassin’s Creed, are still around.
Then, in the early 2000s, dropping vowels was all the rage—most commonly seen in brand names ending in “-er” or “-ed” that drop the penultimate letter. Flickr (the earliest prominent example), Tumblr, Scribd, Grindr, and Blendr all misspell words in the same way. Even Twitter was founded as “Twttr” in 2006. This trend is still around—DAZN and MSCHF, two companies founded after 2015, disemvowel themselves in other ways.
And, yes, it was all about being namely and namified in the late 2000s and early 2010s. The “-ify” names can be pretty clearly attributed to Spotify. Daniel Ek, the founder and CEO of the music streamer, said that the name was actually an accident. He and cofounder Martin Lorentzon were shouting ideas at each other across rooms, and Ek misheard a Lorentzon suggestion as “Spotify.”
The “-ly” names have a more intentional origin story, though it doesn’t make any of the copycats look smarter. There’s the obvious connection to the adverb, the function of which is to tell us more about an action or idea. But the structure might have also been motivated by the desire for an attractive website address. The URL shortening service Bitly made creative use of Libya’s country code top-level domain to get the URL bit.ly (which now redirects to bitly.com). Another company that used Libya’s TLD was called Musical.ly, which would later merge with another platform. Maybe you’ve heard of its new name: TikTok.
To make matters worse, most companies aren’t using these suffixes in a way that even makes any sense at all. Christopher Johnson is a linguist who used to run a blog called The Name Inspector. The suffix “-ify,” he notes, is usually meant to turn a noun or adjective into a verb—getting “diversify” from “diverse,” for example. In an analysis of new company names from 2007 to 2014, Johnson found 338 “-ify” names. Nearly 50 of those names gratuitously tacked on the suffix to words that are already verbs, including Employify, Knowify, and Debuggify. “That shows this is no normal English morphological process,” Johnson writes. “Rather, it is a naming fad run amok.”
Perhaps it wasn’t an issue when all these companies were nothing more than seed-stage startups trying to make it big in a dog-eat-dog world. And perhaps the name of a tech company isn’t as critical to success as is the name of a beer or clothing brand. But now that many of these companies actually did make it big, they’re stuck with conservative, copycat names that only conjure images of other businesses. How many times have you actually said Spotify when you meant to say Shopify, or vice versa? “They’re bad names and there’s no excuse for it,” wrote Rebecca Greenfield for The Atlantic, in a piece that was published nine years ago. Just imagine how many more companies have adopted that naming structure since then.
So what’s next?
The consensus has been shifting the past few years. Joanna Glasner, a contributing columnist for digital publication Crunchbase News, has published an annual report on startup names since 2017. Glasner’s early reports seemed to indicate that weirdly named startups were in decline—she claimed in 2019 that “startup names may have passed peak weirdness.” She echoed that sentiment in 2020.
But all of a sudden, that weirdness came roaring back. Glasner’s 2022 report indicated that wacky names—like disemvoweling, intentional misspelling, and, yes, the “-ly” suffix—were as popular as ever. Athol Foden, president of corporate naming consultancy Brighter Naming, theorized that could be because, well, most “normal” company names have been taken at this point. “A lot of what’s driving things is people saying: ‘I really want to name it that but the domain is taken,’” he said to Crunchbase.
The number of tech companies that adopt more modern, unique TLDs, like dot-io or dot-xyz, has been steadily increasing since 2015. Anecdotally, Web3 companies seem to be fans—consider Mirror.xyz, a digital publisher, and Sound.xyz, a music streamer. Because the names of these companies are common nouns, the TLD is usually included when saying or writing the name of the company.
So before you become the founder of Businessly (don’t get any ideas…), take a second to stop and think. Coming up with a great company name might be harder now than it was 30 years ago, but that’s not an excuse to accept the first thing that pops in your head.