It’s one of the biggest choices you make about your company. It impacts your branding and marketing for years, if not decades, after you make a decision. It’s your company’s name, or, more importantly, your “doing business as” name, or DBA. Your DBA is the way your customers know your company, a public-facing name, rather than your own name or your company’s legal entity name. It’s also a way to protect your business name.
This is an important choice that can hurt or help your business for years to come. It deserves some real consideration beyond asking your uncle and your buddy what they think.
What’s In a Name?
The name of your business is more than a word or two to put on a sign and a tax form; it’s an identity. It’s a brand. In just a couple of words, it’s telling customers the types of products or services you provide, and setting expectations for how you provide them.
How Should I Pick One?
Picking a name is simple enough. Brainstorm several ideas. Research what other companies are doing, particularly in your industry or those also targeting your ideal customers, then brainstorm some more. Narrow it down to a few you like, and then solicit feedback from your ideal customers. Do some A-B testing, asking ideal customers “would you rather buy your X from A or B?” and see what they say.
And while that’s a simple enough process, there are a lot of considerations to make about potential names as you go through it.
The Problem With Opinions…
So, there’s a lot of advice in this blog about naming your business. Ultimately, naming your business is a personal creative endeavor. The advice here comes from a “what’s best for business” perspective. That might not be your only consideration. Also, as a creative enterprise, there are really no wrong answers, and there’s an exception to prove every rule.
So, please, take the advice here in the spirit it’s intended—helpful pointers that make you think about the choice you’re leaning toward and vet it again. You might land exactly where you started, and that’s okay.
When you get to a small handful of names you like, it’s important to ensure they aren’t already taken. A few internet searches for your proposed name can usually discover if someone else is using it, but you can also check with the US Patent and Trademark Office.
It’s a good idea to conduct a free TESS search to ensure no one else has filed that business (or product) name already, to ensure you can avoid potential legal problems down the road.
Applying for a Trademark
Rather than just avoid legal battles, you can ensure you argue from a position of strength by filing a trademark once you’ve settled on a name. This typically costs 250-350 dollars, and can have some additional fees, but it protects the business or product name from being used by others. Some people think having an LLC for their business provides this kind of protection. It does not.
Clarity of Purpose
The name of your business should make it absolutely clear what product or service your business sells. This is particularly important when you’re starting out, and maybe don’t have a few million dollars laying around to do a brand awareness marketing campaign so people can associate your business name with what you do. The core idea here is saying the name also clearly states what the business does.
Everyone wants to find a business name like Apple, something iconic. But remember, Apple wasn’t always doing business as “Apple” alone. They were Apple Computer Company first, and then Apple Computer until 2007. Apple didn’t stand alone as their DBA until 2008, when their product already had a degree of household name recognition. Kentucky Fried Chicken has a similar story, rebranding as KFC in 1991, when most already knew it was a chicken place. Uber started out as UberCab, and changed its name in 2011, thanks in large part to invested money that allowed for massive marketing campaigns. The earlier names weren’t a mistake, they were first steps. Skipping it isn’t a virtue.
Including absolute clarity of purpose in your business name is going to help with early customer acquisition. It’s going to help with Google SEO. It’s going to help with attracting better quality hires early on. Any time your business is referenced anywhere, the name is effectively marketing your business to any ideal customers that catch it.
That’s a lot of value to add to your business with a simple word or two in your business name. And when your business explodes into public consciousness and you have millions of dollars in revenue you can spend on a rebranding campaign, you can drop those extra words just like Apple, KFC, and Uber did.
Set Customer Expectations
Words have connotations, associations beyond the strict dictionary definition people make with a word. Let’s look at how this might work in practice:
If you’re a boutique selling bespoke suits, and you call it “Sloppy Jim’s Clothing Emporium”, you’re probably going to turn away your ideal customers before they really look into the business, and attract customers who can’t afford your products. The word choices in that business name, even though they clearly communicate this is a place to buy clothes, are setting the wrong expectations for customers. “James Custom Suits” “Custom Fits by James”, “What’s Your Inseam? Bespoke Suits” would all be better names to attract ideal customers.
And maybe down the road, if he scales and becomes a nationwide brand with household name recognition, he rebrands as “Fits” or “Jimmy Fits” or even just “James”, or something else simple and iconic.
But when you’re still small, it’s important to set your customer’s expectations of what they’ll get from your business before they walk in the door or click on your website. You want to attract your ideal customers, and filter out the folks who aren’t going to end up buying (but might tie up staff hours figuring that out) as early and as cheaply as possible. Setting expectations with your business name correctly is the best way to accomplish this.
While you want the meat and potatoes of what your business does in your business name, you probably also need something iconic and memorable that goes with it, particularly if your aim is to one day scale the business. Maybe it’s just your last name. So long as your last name isn’t too common, like Smith or Jones, last names can build great iconic brands, like Boeing, Cadillac, and Disney. But a last name becoming iconic can sometimes take decades or even generations of excellence and success.
Another approach is to name the company after something that already holds an iconic status. The apple has status as a biblical icon, and its representation there with seeking knowledge. It also has an association with classical ideas of America and apple pie. It even has an association with scientist Sir Issac Newton and gravity, and his discovery laws governing that fundamental force of nature. So when Steve Jobs and his partners decided on a name, even if it was just to get ahead of Atari in the phone book or because Steve liked apples, it carried with it all of this iconic significance.
Drawing on iconic elements from history, culture, and mythology are great starting places to have a core element of your business name that draws on something seeded in your customer’s psyche long before your company was incorporated. This can grant customers a positive association with your business on day one, and make your business name more memorable.
In the event you scale your company, this also positions you well for a rebrand centering on that iconic element.
Consider Internet Searches
People find businesses via internet search. If someone searches for businesses in your industry, are they going to find yours? Are you using words in your business name that actually drive search traffic away, or attract search traffic from people who aren’t your ideal customers?
For instance, let’s say you have a last name that is an actual word people might search for, like Boxer. If your business has nothing to do with the sport of boxing, you might find your last name is a problem when it comes to search engine results, because you’re now fighting against the entire sport of boxing (and perhaps even the packaging and shipping industries) whenever someone googles your company, which might have nothing to do with either industry. Web searching “Boxer Real Estate”, for example, brings up a mix of a property management company and boxing related results.
Before you settle on a business name, google the name, and see what sorts of results are popping up already. If there are very few results, or the results are very random without a lot of common threads, it’s probably going to be a great name for web searches. If there is a single thing dominating the first page or two, of thousands of pages, know that it might be a bit of an uphill battle with SEO.
And that might be okay. If your industry is different enough from those other results, the other words in your company name that clarify what you do should help you cut through the noise. You might also have a business that isn’t as concerned with random nationwide web traffic so much as geographically specific web traffic from a mapping app (common if you’re a brick-and-mortar store or service location first and foremost).
Consider Word of Mouth
Early on, you’re unlikely to have a huge marketing budget. Word of mouth and referrals are likely the biggest sources of customer acquisition. So, talk to some of these ideal customers before settling on a business name. Ask some questions.
Can they pronounce the name you want to settle on? You don’t want to accidentally create a tongue twister title customers struggle to spit out. You want something easy or fun to say. Even after you open, take note of how customers might abbreviate the name. People were calling Dairy Queen DQ for years (thanks in small part of the “Did you DQ Today?” ad campaign from the 70s) before the company used it again in some 1992 marketing efforts, and then formally rebranded as DQ in 2001.
Avoid Short-Term Trends
Trends, by their nature, are generally short term. In the 90s, every product or business tried to capture the “X-treme” trend of using an X in its title, or literally using the word extreme, to capitalize on the rise of “extreme sports” and the X-Games. Currently, we’re in the midst of a trend where businesses and products just drop a vowel or two from a word, often apps.
There are some advantages to hopping on a trend, if you can get there before it crests and crashes. But the most likely scenario is the name of your business or product feels immediately dated and out of touch once consumers have moved on. Unless you can capitalize to the extent you can afford a major rebranding afterward, it’s generally best to just avoid this sort of thing, especially if it doesn’t really align with your business model.
Other Things to Avoid
If you’re a veteran, odds are you have a very dark and juvenile sense of humor, maybe even offensive. If your last name is Schatt and you sell pants, you might be very, very tempted to call your business “Schatt Your Pants”. While hilarious, this is going to cause some headaches. Now, your ideal customer might be exclusively 16–25-year-olds and single men, in which case, that name might work great. But be aware you’ll be excluding most other demographics.
Similarly, vulgar puns are a bad idea (really, most puns). Is your ideal customer a kid? Does your ideal customer have kids that might get lugged around during the purchase? Stay away from sexual innuendo or cursing in your business name.
This is common-sense stuff, but anything vulgar, profane, sexual, racist, sexist, political, or otherwise potentially offensive, should probably stay out of the name of your business if you want to maximize the potential for growth. Obviously, this can’t apply universally, as some businesses and organizations are inherently political or offensive to some groups no matter what they’re named. But you want to do your best to avoid upsetting people unless it’s a key part of your strategy or business model, like Hooters, or your product can’t avoid upsetting some people, like sex- or marijuana-related businesses.
Be Simple & Be Yourself
All of the above notwithstanding, don’t overthink this. Keep things simple. Don’t try to force multiple or competing ideas into your business name. State what your business does for your customers (not necessarily the way it generates revenue), and distill that down into a word or two, and tack that onto a name or iconic word, and that’s going to be just fine for most businesses. So, you get “Pallas Real Estate” or “Silver Spoon Home and Kitchen” or “Wellington Tax Services”.
In addition to simplicity, you want to be yourself.
You might have a story to your business name that’s part of the company history and identity, a story you want to tell. So, “Kiss the Donkey Electronics” is something you want to keep, despite otherwise not being an ideal name. The energy that comes with something organic like that is palpable, and sometimes keeping that is more important than optimizing a name for maximum customers.
Settled on a Name?
Now you’re in business! And now that you’re in business, you should consider joining one of Bunker Labs’ programs. Fill out an interest form for our Veterans in Residence Program to grow your regional network and face the challenges of entrepreneurship alongside fellow veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs. Bunker Labs’ Breaking Barriers in Entrepreneurship workshop is also accepting interest forms for its Asian, Black, Latinx, and women cohorts, which explore the unique challenges of running a business for those from traditionally underserved demographics.