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Startups fighting over the word ‘zen’

Zen is having a moment, in the tech world at least. For starters, there is Zenefits, the benefits startup; Zenfolio for photo hosting; and ZenPayroll for, well, payroll.

So many startups now include the word “zen” in their name that Zendesk, the cloud customer support company, felt forced to do something decidedly un-zen about it. The 7-year-old San Francisco company has filed nearly three dozen proceedings with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to block other tech companies from using the word “zen.”

There may not be enough zen to go around.

The tech world is known for its bizarre naming trends — as affordable URLs and untrademarked names have dwindled in supply, dropped vowels (Tumblr), odd suffixes (Storify) and bizarre compound words (Pinterest) have proliferated.

Zen, meanwhile, manages to communicate a lot with just three letters.

“It’s just a beautiful, small word,” said David Placek, founder of the naming company Lexicon Branding. “It has great structure, it’s easy to pronounce and it easily communicates a great metaphor, especially when you’re talking about companies that do things like payroll or accounting.”

Joshua Reeves, the CEO of ZenPayroll, said that the company was looking for a name that communicated the company’s goals of making payroll a simple, “peaceful” process for small businesses, rather than the headache it more often is.

In his new book “Startupland,” Zendesk CEO Mikkel Svane describes how the company’s founders settled on its name.
“Our philosophy was to be elegant and bring peace of mind to customer support in an enlightened way,” he wrote.

“Zen was enlightenment — Zendesk.”

That, and the domain name would cost them only $1,000.

Zen, of course, refers to a school of Buddhism formalized in China during the sixth century.

But ever since ’60s hippie culture popularized the term in the U.S., it has widely been used to refer to more than just a religious practice. Longtime NBA coach and executive Phil Jackson is often referred to by his nickname, the “Zen Master.”

Hard to pin down

“There are so many associations now. It’s hard to really pin down exactly what zen means today,” said James Robson, a Buddhism scholar at Harvard University. “Each generation kind of fills the word with its own meaning.”

“The tech company appropriation of zen is just the most recent iteration of a phenomena that has been going on for a very long time.”

Nancy Friedman, a branding consultant who chronicles zen company names on Pinterest, pointed out that business jargon is filled with religious language, like the word “brand evangelist.”

Tech lingo is particularly laden with “zen” references. Take the term “zenmail,” a once-buzzy word for e-mails that include only a subject line. Or Zen Coding, a widely used Web programming plug-in.

“Zen has been used in tech for a long time,” said Friedman. “It seems like people in the West feel OK appropriating Eastern religion without the fear of seeming sacrilegious.”

There are presently 724 live trademarks containing the word “zen” registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

For Zendesk, ideas associated with zen are now deeply ingrained in the company’s culture and branding. The company mascot is a laughing Buddha, dubbed “The Mentor,” who wears a telephone headset. In its old Market Street headquarters, Asian-inspired green lotus leaves hung over employees’ desks.

The company says it has reason to be protective of its name.

“We first established the Zendesk brand in 2007, and it’s been tremendously valuable for us,” the company said in a statement to The Chronicle. “We have obviously noticed the proliferation of Zen names in business technology and services and it does concern us because of the likelihood that it will create confusion among customers and prospective customers.”

Trademark protections

It is not unusual for brands to aggressively protect trademarks — recently the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A tried to stop a Vermont kale enthusiast from registering the phrase “Eat More Kale,” claiming it was too similar to its trademarked “Eat Mor Chikin” slogan.

Zendesk claims that it only seeks to obstruct other companies from adding zen to their name when it could “create a genuine likelihood of confusion with our well-known brand.”

During the past few years, it has filed proceedings against ZenPayroll, ZenCash, Zenware, Zenbillings, Zendo and Zendeals, among others.

Mark Lemley, a trademark expert at Stanford Law School, said that as a business-to-business company, Zendesk could have a hard time proving its customers might genuinely accidentally purchase ZenPayroll’s software for payroll instead of its own customer service software.

“It will have a hard time opposing marks that share only the word zen in common (like, say, Zenefits),” he said.
In some cases, the companies Zendesk has sought to block have just given up, like the startup Zenbillings, which renamed itself Simplero because it lacked funding to pay trademark attorneys to plead its case.

Zendesk recently sought to obstruct one trademark and cancel another owned by ZenCash, an invoice management startup. ZenCash is even one of Zendesk’s customers.

“We don’t do anything competitive with them,” said CEO Brandon Cotter. “Zendesk is bullying all of the zen companies. Which is a little ironic.”

Then again, zen may not be so great of a company name, after all.

“I’m not so sure it’s really good to use in a name anymore,” said Placek, the naming expert. “There is so much zen clutter.”

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