What's in a name? For startups, not as much as you might think. For example, you might expect a company called whorepresents.com to quickly hit the skids. But the online database of talent agents has been around since 2001 (capitialized as WhoRepresents?com, natch). And the fashion site Fashism is thriving. (Maybe its followers were too obsessed with clothes to bother with history class in high school.)

Then again, if your new company is deep into a brainstorming session and somebody suggests Fartronics, you should probably keep thinking. (Besides, that name's already taken.)

"Can a bad name kill a startup? Absolutely," said Phil Davis, founder of Tungsten Branding. "If you do something off-key or too convoluted, then there's a knee-jerk reaction against it."

Of course, some degree of creativity is required, for several reasons. A catchy, descriptive and memorable name (like, say, Flickr) makes your company sound smart and hip. But most of the obvious names are already-owned domains (like Food.com). And if you go too generic (with something like Restaurants.com) you could end up on page 17 of any Google search result.

Davis says it's important to think about your audience. Names that combine two words, like Agilent, are OK for business-to-business companies but not so good for consumer-facing businesses. "When you're going out to the consumer, the name has to be intuitive and sticky and fun. The consumer is very unforgiving, so your name has to hit right away. In B-to-B, your audience is much more limited, and you have greater control over the conversation."

Davis' firm has named more than 250 companies, from Pods (which makes those storage containers that sit in your driveway) to Double Cross Vodka (talk about truth in advertising). He says his current favorite company names include Pinterest and DropBox. A name he doesn't like is Gotomeeting.com.

"If Gotomeeting ever tries to expand beyond meetings, they can't. Also, it's a long phrase and it still misses defining what they do. You can't say, 'Send me a Gotomeeting.' The ability to 'language' a brand is huge, and it's usually better if a name has verb potential. Can the name contort easily so someone can say, 'Hey, can you Xerox this?'"

Names don't exist in isolation. A name that looks great on a whiteboard may sound dumb in an elevator pitch, so try it out often in conversation. "People miss by creating a name that stops you in your tracks - but doesn't go anywhere from there," Davis says. "Like Blue Taco. That's a cool name but where do you go from there? It's not about creativity for creativity's sake."

Misspellings can be catchy, like Tumblr. But double misspellings not so much, like Netflix's late, unlamented Qwikster.

"There's fine line between bending rules and breaking them," Davis says. "Bend them to your advantage. A bad name stops the conversation. If people stop and say, 'Huh? What?' then you've lost them. The mind is open to new ideas for only a matter of seconds, then it stops and makes judgments."

So keep thinking. And if all else fails, pick your name out of a hat. That's what Twitter did.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.