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Sunday Buzz: Don't Cross the Desert with A Horse that Has No Name (by Denny K Miu)



If you enjoy the TV series Breaking Bad and you are a struggling entrepreneur, then you probably would also identify with the main character, Walter White.

After all, like many of us, Walter was a highly educated, brilliant scientist under-employed, under-utilized and under-appreciated in a suffocating institutional environment who decided to strike out on his own in order to better provide for his family.

He took risk and the initiative to cut out the middleman (i.e., dis-intermediate) in order to extract equitable monetary gains from his technical knowledge by delivering something of values directly to the marketplace. Along the way, he had to learn survival skills that he didn't have and collaborate with people whom he wouldn't normally admire. In the end, like his fellow entrepreneurs, he achieved his ultimate objective which was to be in total control of his own destiny.

In this opening scene of Season Three, Walter was driving across the New Mexico desert with his beat-up Pontiac and playing on the radio was his (and my) favorite road-trip song.


I've been through the desert on a horse with no name,
It felt good to be out of the rain.
In the desert you can remember your name,
'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain.


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The reason the lyric is such a perfect relief is because in realty it describes the complete opposite of the journey an entrepreneur must endure. In building our company, every day we must find the courage to cross a desolate landscape during a perpetual thunder storm while everyone is giving us extreme pain.

On the other hand, as the comedian Richard Jeni correctly pointed out, "If you’re in the desert and you’ve got nothing else to do, at least name the freaking horse!"

What I have learned is that as entrepreneurs, the one thing that we cannot afford is to ride a horse with no name. In fact, naming our horse is the prerequisite for winning the proverbial race (a necessary but not sufficient condition, unfortunately). At times, the name of our horse is our only guiding light.

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I have named every horse (business venture) that I have ever rided in the last twenty years. Every name has been controversial but in the end, they serve their purpose. I even take full responsibility for the name LoveMyTool.

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The following is a true story.

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I was fired from my first startup at the end of 2002 and I returned to the Bay Area. I walked into our house in San Francisco and I explained to my wife I didn't need to go to work anymore. She didn't take it seriously until I came back later with a new cell phone and a local area code. Then she knew that I was staying for real.

But I was completely broke and I was unemployable, especially difficult in 2002 which was in the midst of a deep recession. Over dinner, I told my wife that I would be starting another company soon. I said, "I knew I had a desease when I left academia to start my first company. Now I know it is terminal. I must do this."

For the next six months, I was working as a consultant while looking for the next opportunity. My son was ten at the time and like boys of similar age, he loved Pokemon.

So I was constantly thinking about Pokemon. I was driving on 280 one day and I was thinking about the name of my next company. I started thinking about GIGAbit MONitoring and it just hit me. I got home quickly, I rushed upstairs and I called for my son. I asked him, "Is Gigam** a Pokemon character?" I figured he was the expert and he could give me the correct answer faster than I could google.

Imagine you were ten and you just got called by your old man asking a question about your toys. My son looked at me with his big eyes and he was sure that this was not a good thing. Eventually he said no but he reluctantly cautioned me that Gigimon was a Digimon character.

I quickly registered the domain name and even a vanity license plate for my car. Surprisingly everything was available.

For the next three months, I drove around the Bay Area meeting potential partners, potential customers and potential investors. I had nothing, not even a horse. I had no business plan and no product. But I had a name. It was my only valuable asset. It was real and I was convinced that with the right name, I could make the rest real as well.

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Eventually I met someone whom I felt was right. I was looking for someone who could speak the language of my customers and he could. He was not perfect, but he was available.

So I made him my co-founder but he didn't like the name. So I said, "Well, you are the co-founder so you have as much rights in naming our horse as anyone else so why don't you give it a try. But we shouldn't drag this out so if after three days, you couldn't come up with a better name, we will go with the one we have. And here are the rules."

  • The name should represent the industry we serve and not just a feature. In other words, it has to be a powerful tool to pre-qualify our customers, reminding them of the problems that they want to solve (i.e., the industry we want to be in) and not necessary our specific solution (which could change over time).
  • The name cannot be a compound word. General Electric, Applied Materials and even Integrated Micromachines (my last company) were great names at their time but with google, they are now too generic.
  • We must be able to own the domain names, all three, .com., .net and .org. Adding a "the" in the beginning or an "inc" at the end wouldn't help in branding.
  • The name cannot have a "l" or a "r" because no Chinese customer (including me) can pronounce the difference.
  • The name cannot end with a "t" or a "k" because no Japanese customer can pronounce the name without adding an "o".
  • We must be able to get a vanity license plate as well (I just throw that in to make it more challenging).

So the next day he came back and he said, "I would like to name the company 'Fulcrum' because since childhood, I had always wanted to name my company such." It was clear to me that he had ignored all my rules. It was also clear that this was now personal. Thinking on my feet I said, "We can't name it that because it violates another rule which I forgot to mention which is that I cannot use the same name twice."

So he said, "What do you mean? That's not the name of your last company." To which I said, "Yes it was. When I was fired by my board, I was escorted out of the company. As I was driving away from the parking lot, I turned my head and said, 'fu*k 'em'. So you see, we can't use that name again because I have already use it once."

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I was glad he learned his lesson ... he could name any horse he wanted, just not my freaking horse.

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Have a wonderful Sunday, everyone.
  

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