What's in a name?

One month ago, I wrote something here that a lot of people read. It was a story about three companies: Facebook, FiftyThree, and my own company, Figure 53.

It was a story about trademarks, and the great mess that is trying to stake out a name in a global namespace.

It was also a story about the fear of losing something you've spent years of your life to build. This part of the story applied to more than one person, at more than one company.

At the end of that story I wrote:

Here's what I believe — I believe we can run businesses in a way that focuses on making cool stuff, which is what we all want to do anyway.

Today, I write to tell you not just what I believe, but what I know.

It's true.

I know we can remain constructive in the face of conflict.

I know we can remain positive after missteps.

I know this because, over the last few weeks, two of the companies in this story have proven it true. Through phone calls and emails and text messages, two of these companies talked themselves through a low spot and came out on high ground.

Interlude: What's in a name?

The company I've been talking to, of course, is FiftyThree.

The 53 in their 53 comes from 53 centimeters, the average length of an arm's reach.

origin of 53 logo (sketch and logo used with permission)

How about ours? I've never publicly described the origin of the name "Figure 53".

Back when I needed a name, my only product at the time was used by designers in the theater industry.

I stumbled across a drawing from an Italian architect of the 1600s named Nicola Sabbatini. Sabbatini, a pioneer in theatrical stage techniques, wrote books describing the methods he and others used to create stage effects. Somewhere back in the Internet of 2006 was a site (now lost) with an illustration from one of these books. It showed a fantastic device for lifting performers off the stage and into the sky — and it showed the device from the business end; from backstage. The audience, in front, would see only the spectacle of performers taking flight. But from the artist's perspective, we are able to see the mechanics behind the magic. The gears, the ropes, the levers, and the person backstage whose job was to make it all go.

Magic from the front, mechanics from the back. A fantastic clockwork you could trace, and understand, and build yourself.

The illustration itself was, of course, Figure 53 in the book:

Genesis of Figure 53 logo

Back to last month

Last month FiftyThree wrote an open letter to Facebook, politely asking them to change the name of their new Paper product so that it does not conflict with FiftyThree's own Paper product.

The following day, I wrote a post describing our own relationship to this story, from Figure 53's perspective of trying to resolve a similar conflict, between the two similar names "FiftyThree" and "Figure 53".

In retrospect, it's all about communication

I can't say I enjoyed the days immediately following that post. When a story catches the fancy of the Internet, every move happens under tremendous pressure of time and attention.

But the fire of the Internet's Eye-of-Sauron gaze lit up the communication between both companies. And in the crucible of that moment, I can report that, you know what? I think both companies proved who we really are, and the result is something I think we can both be proud of.

In the end, I can look back and see a few key moments in our communication where the conversation tumbled away from a productive path. If we'd been able to stay engaged at those moments, it may not have done so. But the actions of the last few weeks show (to me, at least) that both FiftyThree and Figure 53 care most about...

Making, not taking.

As of today, Figure 53 and FiftyThree have finalized the legal details that will allow us to co-exist, focusing on the products and services we each do best. We've re-established open communication, and a level of cooperation that will continue to help us as each company grows. The result is that we can both get back to focusing on what we care about: our customers, and our ambition to leave the world a little more beautiful, through products that give people tools to create.

Your move, Facebook.

It's a big world, and names are really, really hard. But I think Facebook owes FiftyThree an honest conversation about the two "Paper" products. Sometimes I worry that I'm being naive in hoping for converations like that. But this month I've seen that conversation happen from the inside. It's not impossible. Hard, to be sure. But not impossible.

But maybe when you get as large as Facebook you lose a fundamental... decency? Maybe. I don't know. Thinking about it too hard makes me tired. It makes me want to get back to my work, and running our company our way.

So I think I'll sign off on this story with one last, simple message to FiftyThree:

Good luck with Facebook, and KEEP MAKING COOL STUFF

Chris Ashworth is the founder of Figure 53
@Chris_Ashworth