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Zen and the Art of Startup Naming

Zen and the Art of Startup Naming

Photograph by Hugh Arnold

(Corrects to show Zenfolio does photo and video hosting in the second paragraph.)

ZenPayroll, which aims to give small businesses a simple system for processing payrolls, is now processing more than $100 million a year, the company said yesterday. Also yesterday: Startup Zendrive, which plans to use smartphone sensors to “take back the joy of driving,” raised $1.5 million from high-profile investors, including Yahoo (YHOO) co-founder Jerry Yang and PayPal (EBAY) co-founder Max Levchin.

Elsewhere in startup-land, there’s Zendesk (customer support), Zenefits (payroll, benefits, and human resources), and Zenfolio (photo and video hosting). Also Zendorse, Zendeals, Zencoder, ZenCash, and, perhaps the crassest appropriation of a religion that eschews written texts, Zen SEO. Those are just tech companies. There are 657 live trademarks containing the word “Zen,” according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

What in the art of Buddhist startup naming is going on?

It’s not so hard to figure. Startups have dealt with the dwindling supply of short Web addresses by removing vowels and creating compound words for years. Zen, meanwhile, provides a short building block and communicates the idea of simplicity and focus, a good thing if you’re selling the promise to make life easier for your customers.

“In business, zen is often a synonym for ordinary nothingness,” blogged Nancy Friedman, a corporate copywriter who consults with businesses on naming and verbal branding:

Zen can be combined with mail to describe “an incoming e-mail message with no message or attachments.” Zen spin is a verb meaning “to tell a story without saying anything at all.” And to zen a computing problem means to figure it out in an intuitive flash—perhaps while you’re plugged into the earphones of your ZEN MP3 player, now available from Creative with a 16Gb capacity.

There are 488 million Buddhists worldwide, according to the Pew Research Center. Is there something wrong with taking your company name from a major religion? After all, it’s hard to imagine an entrepreneur bold (or ironic) enough to name his startup JesusShoes, or Koranify. Using any religious lingo in branding was a no-no until recently, Friedman says in an interview. But putting “Zen” in a startup name “has nothing to do with the actual practice of Zen Buddhism,” says Friedman. “It’s just sort of a cultural marker, like Jon Stewart’s ‘Moment of Zen.’”

Clark is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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