Amazon.com wasn’t the company’s originally conceived name.
The first name that Jeff Bezos chose for his new online bookseller was Cadabra, short for Abracadabra. But he found out quickly that Cadabra wouldn’t work. When he told the name to his lawyer over the phone, the lawyer replied incredulously, “Cadaver?”
He toyed with a few other names — MakeItSo, Relentless, Awake, Browse, and Bookmall — before finally settling on Amazon.com.
Bezos chose the name Amazon for two reasons. First, the Amazon River is Earth’s largest river and he intended to create Earth’s largest bookstore. “This is not only the largest river in the world, it’s many times larger than the next biggest river,” Bezos said. “It blows all other rivers away.”
The second reason Bezos chose “Amazon” seemed like an incidental thought at the time, but it turned out to be a surprisingly important driver of early growth — one that launched Amazon.com out of obscurity into becoming a billion dollar company.
The Insight that Defined the Process of Finding a Startup Name
Bezos’s starting point for finding his startup name wasn’t the encyclopedia or the thesaurus. He didn’t actually start with the idea to look up the greatest natural features in the world or find synonyms for the word “largest.”
He found the name “Amazon” by focusing on a single section of the dictionary: the letter A.
Bezos thought the letter A was so important that he nearly took his rationale to an extreme and named his company Aard.com. It was the mid-nineties, and Bezos had made an interesting observation: most website listings were ordered alphabetically. By picking a name starting with the letter A, he would guarantee Amazon a spot near the top.
It worked. As Shel Kaphan, Amazon’s first employee and early CTO said, “That actually turned out to be significant because one of the first things that opened the doors is we got on the Netscape ‘what’s cool’, and ‘what’s new’ pages. Because those pages were alphabetized, we were above the fold, which is important. We are on the screen when people call up the screen.”
One of the hardest things about starting a company from scratch is that no one knows about you. By choosing a startup name starting with the letter A, Bezos ensured that Amazon would optimize any press coverage that it received. Whenever Amazon was listed, alphabetically listing was the default and it would be near the top.
The Power of the Letter A
This isn’t just an artifact of the mid-1990s. This simple trick made a huge difference to Astrid in becoming a top to-do list app on Android with over 4 million users (before Yahoo! acquired them in mid-2013).
But for Astrid, the letter A didn’t only help with user acquisition as it did for Amazon, it also helped with the massive problem of user retention.
The Android App Tray, a list of all the apps you’ve installed on your phone, often listed the apps alphabetically by default on many phones. Any time a user opened their App Tray, they would see Astrid. Naming their app with the letter A created a persistent reminder that they should be using it.
Think about it: that’s an amazing advantage in user retention for such a simple hack. It’s one of the big reasons why users in search of a to-do list kept coming back to Astrid.
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The best entrepreneurs get their companies featured and above the fold, using meager resources and often in ways that other people overlook. Starting your company with the letter A is a single example of the more important principle of calling on your own unique observations to create advantages for your company.