brand hacking

There’s some hoopla lately about “weird” startup names in the Wall Street Journal, with specific coverage of “.ly” domains in The Atlantic Wire:

The latest start-up boom has led to the creation of at least 161 companies that end in “ly,” “lee,” and “li,” which is, naming consultants tell us, 160 too many. There’s feedly, bitly, contactually, cloudly, along with a bunch of other company-LYS […] and all but the first ever “ly” name are “just lazy,” Nancy Friedman, a naming consultant, told The Atlantic Wire.

According to a quick Python script [1] I just wrote, ~2,438 valid English words exist that end with the suffix “ly”. Don’t see how using valid English words for domains is lazy.

It turns out, my company’s name — — isn’t a valid “-ly” English word. But we had a good reason for picking it.

Joe Kukura at AllVoices reacted:

Okay, I will admit that is a pretty cute play on words. But, with respect, there was already a Parse.

Actually, was founded in 2009, two years before Parse. We registered the “.ly” domain name in July 2009, and registered the domain in 2010. I even reacted on HackerNews to Parse’s launch this way:

as the founder of and owner of and domains, I just have to say — that’s friggen cold, dudes 😉

At the time, we didn’t pick the name to follow a trend. There was no trend to follow. The only other “.ly” domain we knew of was In fact, we labored for quite a bit about whether to actually go with the name since “.ly” domains weren’t very common and we were worried people wouldn’t know they could even type in a “.ly” TLD into the browser.

We picked it because the name resonated with people we tested it on, the domain was unregistered, and we were cheap and scrappy. After all, this was during the era of the startup diet 🙂

Really good, short, brandable “.com” domain names are expensive, and in summer of 2009, we had just started up and had no money to invest in a fancy brand. We had to cobble one together, like everything else in those early days. We made the decision quickly, but with full knowledge that this would be an important part of our brand moving forward.

My co-founder actually explained the reasoning behind our company name selection on BrainTree’s customer blog:

It’s a play on the spelling of the herb parsley, which allows us to use the verb parse and the herb parsley together to form a brand that’s recognizable and still speaks to the core of our business: parsing and analysis.

Here are some other fun facts about our original branding.

Our first logo was designed as a trade for another domain I happened to own. It was the dormant domain for a film project for one of my friends, Josh Bernhard. I had registered it for him while we were both in college.

It so happened that my friend had picked the name “Max Spector” for his film, and thus registered The film never came to fruition, so the domain just gathered dust for awhile. But, Max Spector happened to be the name of a prominent San Francisco designer. And Max got in touch with me about buying the domain for his personal website. Acting opportunistically, I offered it in trade for a logo for To my surprise, he agreed.


Thus, the total cost for our original brand (domain & logo) was $75 ( domain registration) + $25 (cost of one-year renewal of as part of trade with designer) = $100. Pretty good deal for 2-month old company with no revenue, minimal capital, and a stealth product.

When we started to get some traction (big customers, seed stage investors), we acquired the domain (2010), which actually cost ~$2,000. We also tweaked the logo further with another designer, which, together with some other branding/design work, probably cost another ~$1,500.


Over time, we came to really enjoy the name “”. So did our customers. Our company went through a few iterations, but the original vision behind the name continued to stick.

Despite owning the “.com”, we decided to keep the “.” in our branding because we think it emphasizes the play-on-words (“parse”) and reminds people about the mis-spelling [2]. The mis-spelling is important: this way people don’t accidentally type “”, which we don’t own.

Our “.com brand tweak” project cost 35X the original “.ly brand registration” project. Which is perfect. That’s the way startups work — we stay ridiculously lean for as long as possible, and scale our processes in response to demand. We do just-in-time scaling. And this applies to non-software systems, like marketing and branding. It’s actually the opposite of lazy.

What’s lazy is hiring a naming consultant to pick your brand when you don’t even have money to pay employees yet. It’s also just as lazy to dump $350,000 of your startup capital on a good-looking domain name, when you don’t know even know if you’ve managed to build a company that can last [3].

Registering domains on uncommon TLDs to get a memorable, but cheap, web brand during your company’s startup period? Not lazy. That’s just hacking a system to your advantage.


[1] My Python script for calculating the number of “-ly” English words:

word = lambda line: line.strip().lower()
ly_names = [word(line) 
                for line in open("/usr/share/dict/words") 
                if word(line).endswith("ly")]
print len(ly_names)

[2] The inclusion of a “.” in our logo may bug some old-school branding consultants, but I think it creates a nice distinctive look.

[3] Indeed, Color ended in a ball of flames. So much for the $350,000 brand investment.

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