Choosing a Business Name for Your Startup

One of the most important choices you'll make is your business name. Here's how to choose it, from people who have been there.

May 17th, 2019   |    By: The Startups Team

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of a startup name — which is why naming a business can feel so harrowing. A great name can help push your company to the next level, but a terrible one can sink you before you even started. So how do you find a great business name?

While there probably are as many approaches to coming up with a company name as there are failed startups, one great place to start is with idea generators. These quick, handy online tools spit out word combinations that can be a great jumping off point for you and your team.

Once you’ve found a company name you like, you can use the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) to find out whether or not a business name has been trademarked. You should also use ICANN WHOIS to make sure there’s a domain name that works and that you can afford, before firmly deciding on a name.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves! After all, you can’t check if a name is available before you even come up with it. So here are the top tips from the Startups.com community on how to make sure you’re choosing the best business name for your startup.

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Top tips for finding a great business name

1. Don’t be too generic

“You want to make sure the name is easy enough to identify and understand, but not generic enough that consumers cannot discern the name from the product offered. There's a fine line that should not be crossed. -startup advisor Ryan Chaffin

2. Keep logistical factors in mind.

“You'll also want to take into account practical factors such as existing trademarks and the availability and price of corresponding domain names.” -domain name expert Joseph Peterson

3. Be either descriptive OR evocative.

“You can go the descriptive route (e.g., Williams Automotive Repair Center), the evocative route (e.g., Lemonpie Automotive), or somewhere in between. Both routes have benefits and drawbacks.” -startup founder Austin Church

4. Don’t rush it.

“When it comes to naming new products, companies will spend sometimes months and go through thousands of options before arriving on the one that they'll ultimately go with. Don't rush this process because its ultimately much more costly to have to go back or change, or ultimately fail because the name did not resonate enough with your target demographic.” -brand strategist Veronica Gledhill

5. Pick a business name with a good story.

“Pick a name that gives you a good story to tell when prospective customers ask, "Where did the name come from?" For example, say you were naming your new photography studio. You could call it "David White Photography" or "Brown Bird." One gives you a story to tell: "I take photos of common things like brown birds and help people see them in new ways." The other is predictable.” -startup founder Austin Church

6. Figure out what quality you want your brand to embody.

“Choose the quality you want your brand to embody and then think of things that embody that characteristic. For example, Iron Mountain is pretty much just a document shredding company. They chose that name because they emphasize how secure their processes are as opposed to how fast, cheap, or simple they are to work with. If you want to emphasize how ‘sexy" your product is then emphasize that. If you want them to be ‘fun’ then go for something that embodies that. The same goes for quality, inexpensive, comfortable, etc.” -Amazon and Ebay expert Andrew Tjernlund

7. Pick a business name that focuses on the positive benefits your company brings.

“You could name your company around the desirable outcome you produce for your customers. What's the opposite of stressing out about debt... celebrating financial freedom? Always having a budget surplus? Do some lateral thinking/brainstorming about things that represent freedom or a surplus.” -startup founder Austin Church

8. Focus on what makes your company different.

“Think about what makes your product different from your competitors’. What value are you bringing to the market? Play with these ideas make a list of at least 50 words (thesaurus.com is very helpful) find a word or words that at least create that same impression.”

9. Get creative with brainstorming.

“I'd get a case of beer and invite some buddies over and tell them your product idea and that you want as many names for it before the night is over. Then start playing poker or video games and then remind them about the product every 30 minutes and see what comes of it.” -marketing and growth consultant Joshua Long

10. Hire a copywriter.

“If this is too daunting for you, enlist the help of a good copywriter with experience in product naming, they should be able to give you a list of ad campaigns that they worked on. Paying them $100 for a good name is worth it in the long run.” -brand strategist Veronica Gledhill

Common business naming mistakes to avoid

1. Adding “LY” to the end of a word.

“My personal pet peeve is the stilted and formulaic neologism of adding "ly" at the end of any noun or verb — perfectly hilariously noted throughout HBO's Silicon Valley. At this point, we are all more clever than this.” -brand strategist Veronica Gledhill

2. Using in-jokes.

“The most important piece of advice I can give you is to have something in your brand name that means something to your audience. Inside jokes between you and your business partner are not the best choices for names. Steer clear of names that mean something different based on spelling and only are used within your own firm.

“An example is I once had a client that wanted to use a name for a subsidiary similar to ‘Acme’ 4 Recovery. ‘Acme’ was the parent company (the name has been changed to protect the guilty in this case), but they wanted to distinguish themselves in the recycling space with the number 4.

“Why that number? Well this company internally had the saying of the 4 R's: reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover. Unfortunately, the rest of the world (including school-age kids) are only familiar with the first 3 of those R's. So not only had they come up with a name that sounded like a drug rehab center (when verbalized it sounded like ‘Acme’ For Recovery) but they were referring to something that only the bozos at their company knew about.

“When playing on words — or numbers in this case — make sure it makes sense whether it is read or said. And always use messaging anyone can understand without reading your company's mission statement.” -marketing expert Shakira Brown

3. Following a business name trend.

“I'd avoid trendy naming conventions—for example, taking two words, sandwiching them together, and keeping the second capital (SureGo Automotive). Or intentional misspellings (Awesum Automotive). Or made-up words, which always end up sound like pharmaceuticals.” -startup founder Austin Church

4. Causing cognitive dissonance.

“When you have only seconds to make an impression on a consumer, the last thing you want is cognitive dissonance caused by the name. Cognitive dissonance occurs when the signifier is not what is signified and vice versa; you're looking at a bicycle but someone insists it's a fish. And you're like, WTF.

“This happens when you're looking at a great product but then it unexpectedly has a weird or dumb name. A range of slight neurological impressions then occur, affecting the emotional relationship between consumer and product: confusion, annoyance, distrust, etc. All of these slight negative responses are not what you want associated with your product when you only have seconds to make an impression. That's why a good name matters.” -brand strategist Veronica Gledhill

Should the product name and business name be the same?

“The main advantage of having the company and the product/service sharing the same name is that it is much more cost effective to build the brand in the early stages. You also need to consider what relationship any future products are going to have with your first (if any) - do they complement, compete, same markets/customers, etc.

Generally, you will be better off by keeping the names the same. Think about how you pitch your company vs the product — is it a different story? Which name do you want people to remember? Think about where the names would live - business cards, urls, websites, app (icon), signage, etc.” -brand strategist Dann Ilicic

“When they are really the same thing, sure. But look at Apple: Mac, iMac, iPod, iPad, iPhone, Apple Watch (don't really like that one). Do you stand for one thing and one thing only and is that your app or your product — and are you quite sure that's all you'll ever be? Works for Facebook. But if you're a product company and you've got a ton of different SKUs and require subbrands because they're in different categories, then no. That's why Procter & Gamble and other huge CPG firms have corporate names, but each of their products or product families get names like Tide.” -naming expert Steven Mason

How do you choose the best business name?

Once you’ve come up with a few business names, how to do you choose the best one? Expert name consultant Mark Gunnion has a few methods for testing them out.

1. Try the telephone test.

Every time someone in your family or someone else at the company calls you, answer the phone with the name. How does that feel to you? Does the person at the other end understand exactly what you just said?

2. Try the cocktail party test.

Imagine you're at a football game or a cocktail party or a concert, and the person next to you asks where you work. You cup your hand over your mouth and yell it to them over the noise. Did they understand what you said? Does your name sound like something you don't want to be associated with (Terrace / Terrorist)?

3. Try a Google screening

And don't just Google the name itself — write down 15 ways the name could be misspelled. Google them all. Is one of them a competitor? An escort service? A reunited '60s rock band? Look into The Elbow Room. Technologies change all the time, business plans evolve. Does the name give you elbow room to grow, adjust, or even completely start over, either with technology or process?


About the Author

The Startups Team

Startups is the world's largest startup platform, helping over 1 million startup companies find customers, funding, mentors, and world-class education.

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