We knew investor feedback had started in earnest when Wally sent Jeff and me this email regarding a meeting at a potential new law firm:
Denis and I met with Casey today for about an hour. He is perfect for us, as I am sure Denis will agree. I suggest that one of you call him as soon as possible to set up an appointment to meet him. You will be impressed. He is very excited about Neoforma, but hates the name.
Jeff and I set up a meeting with Andrew. He was a very impressive guy. I really don’t remember anything about his appearance or style, but I remember that he was able to see and express the relevance of things that escaped most of the investors we spoke with. He really seemed to get it! And he said so. He told us that he really liked what we had to say, but that, of course, we’d have to change the company name.
Many investors we met had expressed concerns about the name. It just didn’t sound like a BIG company name. (And the name you pick should have no more than two syllables—one is better.)
The name had to mean something, but nothing negative. We emphasized that the name did mean something — to us.
When we had come up with the name originally, we had used a very scientific process to name our company. Jeff made lists of words, prefixes and suffixes he liked. So did I.
First, we sat down to see if we could agree on a simple name from one of the lists. When it was obvious that neither of us was adequately enthralled with any single name from the other’s list as the name for our company, we started putting words and word segments together, combining a word on my list with a word on Jeff’s list.
Jeff’s list was made up primarily of sleek, zippy, modern prefixes and suffixes. Like post-, neo-, e-, i- and manta. He was enamored with Squid Inc., until he discovered that hundreds of other people had already discovered that oh-so-clever name.
My words were mostly descriptive, laced with obscure meanings or derived from the Japanese spelling of Western modifiers like plan, form, finestra, kyaro—well, a lot of artsy entendres.
Putting the two lists together produced mostly unbearable stuff. We cringed at them. And it worried us. If this was what happened when the two of us collaborated, we were in trouble. (From that time on, we decided to split tasks rather than work together on them whenever we could.)
In spite of extreme stylistic differences, a few combinations kept our food down. Then, as we searched via legal trademark searches and Internet searches they were knocked out, one by one. There were clearly many people out there as desperate for company names as us. And they got them first.
However, one combination yielded fun results—Neo-form. We didn’t quite like how it sounded, but the meaning was consistent with how we viewed what we were doing—creating an entirely new model for doing important things. And nobody seemed to have thought of this one before. Jeff called upon his four years of Latin and added an a to the end of form to make it flow better.
The only return on Web searches was neoformans, which is the name biologists assign to newly discovered, as yet identified organisms. Pretty cool. Well, at least two high tech, kinda ambitious, kinda nerdy guys thought so. We kept the ns off of the end to keep the name easy to pronounce.
However, it wasn’t really about a specific name at all. In expressing their dissatisfaction with the company’s name, these investors were actually expressing a desire to be associated with the birth of the company. They knew Jeff and I had started the company. We were its true parents. But to invest their hard-earned money, early investors wanted to believe that their support of the company would fundamentally affect the company, that they were feeding it the nutrients it needed to grow. The name had to mean something to them. What it meant to Jeff and me was no longer relevant.
So the chain of emails started. Dozens of messages containing lists of name ideas flooded my inbox—from current investors and their friends, from future investors and their friends. Everyone commented on everyone’s ideas and lobbied for their favorites. The message strings went on for weeks. It drove me nuts.
I tried to act supportive and open-minded, but most of the ideas were repugnant to me. They had nothing to do with the company. I had lived with our company name long enough that the name itself had developed meaning to me. It meant—well, it meant, our company! Neoforma meant Neoforma. I just didn’t get why this wasn’t obvious to everyone.
Microsoft means something, now. Back a few decades, those two word fragments put together were meaningless—kind of small and nerdy sounding. The meaning came much later. That’s how it is with most companies.
After weeks of tense and distracting wrangling over name choices, everyone verbally shrugged and agreed to keep the name the same, for now. Neoforma didn’t sound so bad, compared to some of the new favorites.
“But,” they added, “that logo . . . it’s gotta go.”
I had an associate tell me that he thought some people might, when glancing at it out of the corner of their eye, think that the diagonal maze looked kind of like a swastika. Somebody thought that someone, somewhere, tilting their head and looking at a certain angle, might one day make an association that would be unacceptable . . .
Now, maybe my architecture and graphic arts background keeps me from seeing the logo with an amateur’s eye, but, as a professional, I can say with authority that our asymmetrical, non-rectilinear maze did not look like a swastika.
It was a very cool logo and I was pissed that some obtuse association could restrict the use of an entire family of graphic symbols. A check mark looks pretty silly and mundane, until a few hundred million dollars worth of branding is put behind it.
I was annoyed by the sense that people were raising questions about the name and the logo, just for the sake of changing things and raising questions. The whole thing seemed like a pointless waste of valuable time. And, to make it worse, this was only the beginning.
Every time we brought in new investors, they complained about the name and the logo.
Every time, days were wasted on this issue of starting over.
And every time we brought in new management, the image had to be reborn.
Even the analysts and bankers complained about the name.
But the customers didn’t. They simply saw what we were and associated our name and logo with it.
I did finally give in on the logo. They wore me out. Some glitzy ad firm created a new one. I couldn’t bear to take part in the process. I tried to act supportive of the new logo. It was okay, but it was blandly conventional. With a quick search of the Web, I was able to find a number of nearly identical logos being used by dotcom companies. I guess that’s why so many people seemed to like it. It was familiar.
The name didn’t change. While the investors and marketing people continued to debate endlessly, the reality was that, by this time, the name Neoforma had been published in too many places to justify changing it.
Eventually people stopped complaining about the name. Eventually, when people would hear the name Neoforma, they would think of — well, Neoforma, just as Jeff and I did. In retrospect, I wish I had held out on our logo too.