“Why did my friend send me to this startup’s site? I can’t even tell what this company does.”
I scroll down.
There is a corporate motto, some inspiring photos, a lot of copy that doesn’t quite describe the company. It all looks plausible, but … Wait, am I stoned? No. Then why don’t I understand what’s going on?
I’m looking at a website for Toothme, “the beautiful tooth” — a company that doesn’t exist. Like an article from The Onion or certain HBO shows, it’s a satire that’s barely discernible from real life. It nails the odd, intentionally vague marketing of all too many tech companies, cloaked in mystery for better or for worse. And when I click “Get Started,” it changes to an entirely new company.
There are at least a dozen startup-name generators out there, but this creation takes it to a new level, not just creating a stupid name or idea but parroting marketing-speak and starry-eyed optimism. Chasing down the creators was easy — and surprising. Because they aren’t jaded, hardened veterans of the startup world. They’re a couple of Georgia Tech undergrads in computer science, sweethearts wrapping up their junior years: Tiffany Zhang and Mike Bradley.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Re/code: You guys are so young and fresh-faced! How did you nail Silicon Valley culture so accurately?
Tiffany Zhang: The startup culture may not be as strong here in Atlanta as it is out there, but there is quite a strong culture. There are several startup clubs on campus.
Mike Bradley: They are quite serious.
Zhang: There are people who’ve been acquired from here. I don’t know them, though. I feel like there was a guy who made a thing that got acquired by Pinterest …?
Yup, that’s about the most Silicon Valley thing you could have said. Did a specific company inspire your sly commentary?
Bradley: We won’t name any names, but you could say we were inspired by a company that was started by someone at our school.
What fine Southern manners you both have! So who did what?
Bradley: I did the most of the content generation. Tiffany did the layout. I posted it to various places.
Tiffany, what did you use?
Zhang: I noticed that most sites use Bootstrap, so I just picked some defaults and edited them to look like a startup site. I looked for public-domain images that seemed to say, “Things moving! Dynamic shots!” Things like that.
Bradley: It’s all open-source on Github, so people can see the huge mess of code we wrote.
How long did it take?
Bradley: About a month. We did it mostly over spring break.
Zhang: We just stayed in the dorms and ground it out.
Bradley: Yeah, it only went live last Thursday.
And what has been the reaction on campus and online?
Zhang: My friends have told me they’ve seen it randomly tweeted by people we don’t know.
Bradley: Someone in one of my group projects told me, “Someone stole your idea!” Because he knew I’d been working on it and didn’t realize this was the same thing. Oh, and when I posted it on Reddit, it initially got banned because people thought I was promoting my startup.
They didn’t realize it was satirical?
Bradley: Not right away, no.
What has been the most surprising result of the generator?
Bradley: We had an example that was “your trusted son.” That was pretty interesting. The way generators often work, if you leave things open enough to interpretation, people will put together a coherent idea from things that don’t make sense together, necessarily.
Right. They fill in the blanks and create a sort of sense where there is none. Tiffany, how is it, being a woman computer science major?
Zhang: Most people here respect the girls in computer science. It helps that I was raised by a single dad and have a brother — I’m used to being around guys and am pretty tomboyish anyway.
Has anyone thought one of your sites was a real company?
Bradley: We’ve mostly just gotten emails saying it was really funny, and one company said they wanted us to make a generator for their company, but no emails from people who think it’s a real company. We’ve had people ask us if they can use the ideas, and we’ve told them it’s open source so they can do whatever they want, but I think we’d feel pretty funny about it.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.