In the fall of 1993, I was sitting in my apartment in Southern California trying to come up with a name for the Internet company I was about to start. I was 22 years old.
I recently came across my original notes from back then, and here's how it happened. I had first scribbled a few suffixes ("link", "soft", "works") and prefixes ("net", "super", etc.), then narrowed it down to some favorites, put them into a grid and called six friends, including my future wife, Arwen. The winner by a slim majority: "EarthLink". That was it.
I'm not sure if I conducted a trademark search, but I went with it.
Then, in late 1994 after we had launched and we were growing like a rocket, I was notified that the word "EarthLink" was already trademarked and owned by a major US cable TV company. We were facing a disaster. Our lawyers wanted to start writing letters. Instead, I just cold called the cable company's headquarters back East, talked my way to their general counsel and explained our predicament. He thought about it for a few minutes, and in a stroke of enormous generosity, released the name to us, completely and at no charge.
Looking at this nearly two decades later, my conclusions:
- The name EarthLink worked well because it was descriptive, but also whimsical and memorable. It made a technological mystery sound approachable. It sounded disarming and helpful, and that perfectly summed up what later made the company successful.
- A name doesn't make or break a company. It's an empty vessel you fill with the right strategy and execution. But the vessel can be too small or it could have leaks. EarthLink was a perfect name for a very big, embracing idea: make it easy to connect to the Internet and bring it to the masses.
- Years later, I would be involved with start-ups that paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire specialized agencies to come up with names. Back then, my net worth was less than a hundred thousand dollars. I just had a pure idea of what I was trying to build, sat down and came up with a name. My biggest successes to date have all gone that route, and I still think it's the best way.
- Sometimes big companies seem unfriendly and impenetrable, but they are staffed by people just like you and me. When I called the general counsel of a big cable company, he listened to my honest plea, and he decided to help me. I'm sure saving my life made him feel really good. Sometimes it's better to just take a chance and reach out to the person who can make a difference.
- I'm glad I didn't choose "WanSoft"!
EarthLink went on to help millions of people onto the Internet for the first time, and in the process became a Fortune 1000 company.