What’s In a Name?

What’s In a Name?

As a marketing agency, we think a lot about names and naming. We’ve even got a codified process for coming up with names—for products, services, companies, you name it. (Pun intended.) 

But for at least half of the last decade, I’ve been managing an internal struggle. Because when it comes to Thrive, the name of the agency I founded in 2012, I’ve been ambivalent at best and critical at worst. What I mean is that, more often than not, I’ve found myself wondering if I should change our name.

Some historical context

Back in 2012, I was two years removed from a corporate job that was slowly draining every ounce of creativity from my body, and a year into working and raising money for a medtech startup that was quickly putting me into debt. 

I had a small equity stake in the company, which I’d hoped would pay off some day, and another small stake in a fintech company I was helping out with some strategy and positioning work (which I also hoped would pay off someday) but in terms of actual take-home pay, I was earning right around $500 a month from the startups.

To make matters worse, it was seeming less and less likely that either company would actually succeed.

While I’d helped raise enough money to pay for some technology and marketing at the medtech company, and for some budget-friendly travel, after expenses were accounted for, there simply wasn’t much left to pay both the founder and me.

I wasn’t quite broke, but I wasn’t quite not broke either, so I sold my wife’s car to make some quick cash (I asked her first; honestly, none of this would have been possible without her).

I was simultaneously freelance writing for a couple of construction trade mags to make ends meet, but if I was going to struggle as much as I was, I reasoned, I wanted to struggle on my own, while building a business of my own.

Founding Thrive, which began as a copywriting agency, was my response.

Creative entrepreneurship

Prior to breaking out on my own, I’d spent the majority of my corporate career in business development and marketing roles, running around the country trying to talk people into insurance deals.

I was simultaneously a writer obsessed with startup culture: the struggle of raising money and working with limited resources, the excitement of a new idea, the relentless puzzle of trying to put it all together. I loved every bit of it, and starting a business, starting an agency, was a way for me to stitch together these two important pieces of myself, the entrepreneur and the creative writer. 

But when it came time to choose a name for my business, though, I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into it. I didn’t know then what I know now about naming (more on that later), so I just sort of chose a word that felt relevant to me at the time, and Thrive was born. 

I wanted to grow, to flourish, to prosper, to succeed. I wanted to thrive, which was something I felt I hadn’t been doing until the day I walked into the Illinois Secretary of State’s office on LaSalle Street in downtown Chicago and filed the LLC paperwork. 

Perhaps even more than that, though, I wanted to help other people thrive.

I wanted to use what I’d learned as a marketer and writer to help companies distill and tell their stories in ways that got them just as excited as it got me. 

Years later, though, as Thrive grew and evolved, as we became more and more strategically focused and advanced our service offering in a way that put design thinking (and not writing) at the core of everything we did, I started to question our name. 

We’d positioned ourselves in the construction and heavy-equipment verticals even in the earliest days, and I began to wonder if the name fit the market we served. Did it send the right message? Did it evoke the right image?  

I began to think that no, it didn’t, and that thought settled and took root in my psyche, nearly driving me insane. 

A Thrive by any other name

There are a million Thrives out there—Thrive Market, Thrive Global, Thrive Dispensary, Thrive Networks, Thrive Causemetics (that’s literally how they spell it), even a few Thrive Creatives, one of which sent me a cease and desist threat at one point. (We responded, but never heard anything back.) 

Internally, we’ve had countless meetings and conversations about the name over the years. I’ve even asked associates and industry folks about it. “I like it,” said one colleague, a while back, after telling me that names don’t matter. “You should change it,” said another, after telling me it was totally wrong. 

As with so many things in life, liking a name is subjective. Names can be polarizing, like Playboy or Virgin. Or simple, like Apple or Caterpillar. Or made up, like Google. 

Names can be portmanteaus, which is a word that blends the sounds and combines the meanings of two other words, like “podcast,” which is a combination of the words iPod and broadcast. 

Company examples of portmanteaus are Pinterest, Zillow, Instagram, and Microsoft. There are names like Slack and 3M, which are acronyms that stand for, respectively, Searchable Log of All Communications and Knowledge and Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company. Of course, there are literal names, too, like Toys R Us and TripAdvisor, which tell you everything you need to know before you ever step in a store or visit a website.

The naming process

I bring all this up because when I named Thrive, I hadn’t read about or studied naming in any sort of formalized way. The more I learned about names and naming, the more I questioned, and the more I began to think that maybe I should change it. Part of me was convinced that renaming Thrive would be a panacea of sorts, the action I could take that would somehow, magically, bring in more business and instantly catapult us to Adweek’s Agency of the Year.

We even went as far as running a brainstorming workshop internally, where we used divergent thinking to come up with a litany of new names. We had lists upon lists that we grouped, pouring over them for weeks, voting on the ones we liked, discarding the ones we didn’t. 

We eventually settled on one, too, and began to build a brand around it, exploring logos and color palettes, thinking about voice and tone, leaning into what felt like it would be a new ethos for the company, a new way of showing up in the market. We were going to change our name and everything would be better.

Perfect, even.  

But then, after all that, after seeing new logos and new colors and new words, after hiring an attorney to do a trademark search for the name we had chosen and rendering a professional opinion, even after imagining this new perfect future, there was something inside me that kept pinging against my ribcage.

No matter how many reasons I came up with to change our name—and there were many—I kept wavering. 

Something felt off. 

I know now that what I felt was a feeling I can only describe as intuition. Something inside me—that same thing that tells you whether a deal is good, or whether an employee is going to work out, or whether you should take that big risk—told me to pump the brakes and rethink my decision.

Though it was a decade past when we should have done it, we’d put our name to the test and ran it through the process with the intention of coming up with something new, but what the process showed me was surprising: we are exactly who we are supposed to be. 

I am Thrive.

We are Thrive. 

And though it wasn’t a name born of a process, or a framework, or even conscious intentionality, it was a name born of something that feels even more important: it was a name born of instinct, in a moment of great transition. It was a name that signified a big, no-net leap into the unknown, at a time when the stakes for me simply couldn’t be any higher.

So what’s in a name?

Sometimes nothing. 

And then later, everything. 

In our case, Thrive is inclusive of all we’ve done and all we’ve yet to do, for both ourselves and the stakeholders we’re lucky enough to work with. 

Thrive is a name, a company, an ideal. It’s also incredibly meaningful to me. I think I had forgotten that. Or maybe I didn’t know it until right now.

What the naming process taught me was that thrive is what we’ve done for more than a decade now. Against all odds. In good markets and bad. In a vertical that’s tough to crack. 

We are Thrive.

Still, and always.

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