Everything you’ve been told about naming a business is wrong.
And if no one has told you anything about naming a business, what you’ve been thinking is all wrong.
How do I know? I’ll explain.
Let’s go back in time…
The year is 1994.
I had just graduated high school and was starting my first semester at UNC Chapel Hill. I was in the first class to get assigned email addresses.
I remember it clearly. We went with our Freshman English class down to the ginormous library. Then we took turns sitting in front of the mammoth computer screens to set up our email account.
That’s right, email was new. The internet was just catching on.
2,800 miles away a guy named Jeff had just started an online business. It was an e-commerce store designed to sell books.
In fact, Jeff’s goal was to be the largest seller of books in the world.
His website? Cadabra.com
Ever heard of it?
Of course not, and here’s why…
Cadabra was a shorter version of the word Adbracadabra, but no one understood the connection. The name was bad.
So bad, it had potential to doom the company.
But Jeff really like the name.
Then one day, one of Jeff’s lawyers mistook Cadabra for Cadaver – a.k.a. corpse a.k.a. deceased person.
Jeff changed the name.
So, one year after launching, Cadabra became…
Heard of it?
Jeff Bezos picked Amazon because it was exotic and different, and it was home of the largest river in the world. He wanted Amazon.com to be exotic, different, and the largest retailer in the world.
He also wanted his company name to be listed at the top of any directories or alphabetical listings. Search engine optimization hardly existed at that time.
Amazon is the perfect business name.
To further seal the brand, in 2000 the arrow was added to the bottom of the logo. It points from the letter A to the letter Z, and it creates a smiley face in the logo.
It reminds us that you can find everything from A to Z at amazon.com. And that shopping makes us happy. Unless it’s your spouse. And you find packages on your doorstep every. single. day.
But I digress.
Today, Amazon is in fact the largest retailer in the world and has become a household name.
Would it be if it were stilled named Cadabra?
It’s hard to know for certain, but I seriously doubt it. It’s not as easy to say. It’s not simple to spell. And if someone told you to go to cadabra.com, there’s a good chance you’ll hear what Jeff’s lawyer heard. Not good.
I’m fascinated by names. I’ve come up with dozens of names for businesses, blogs, apps, and products. I even developed a framework for helping others come up with the perfect business name.
Here’s the gist of what you need to know about how to name a business, blog, podcast, or app.
How to Name a Business: Start With How
Do you remember that time you and your friends partied a little too hard and someone came up with that hilarious name for a new restaurant?
To this day, every time you get together you recall that story and you laugh. In fact, you’ve already decided that one day you’re going to open up a restaurant with that very name.
You see, the way most people go about naming a new entity is that they think about what they like. What makes them happy. Or even what their friends and family think.
The problem with this approach is that you, your friends, and your family are not your customers. You’re looking at your business from one point of view. Your point. Which is influenced by years of inside jokes and shared experiences.
Jokes and experiences that your customers don’t share.
You need to think of your name from the perspective of your customers. And that starts with asking the right questions. The How Questions.
How will people find my business, podcast, or app?
Google. Yelp. Twitter. Colleagues. Spouse. Friend. Vendor. Client. Coupon book.
What are the steps your customers will take to get to you?
If they search online, what terms will they search for? Will they search for your specific name because they’ve heard of you? Or, will they search for the type of product you sell or the service you offer?
If they look for referrals, who will they ask? What will they ask?
Take a minute to jot down 2-3 ways you think new customers will find you.
Having a hard time thinking through this? Ask previous customers or someone else you know. Someone that uses competitors or alternatives to what you offer. See what they say.
How will my fans spread the word?
I once discovered an online site for building communities called Ning.
Have you ever tried to tell someone about Ning, in a very loud setting?
I have. Not fun.
Say “ning” out loud to yourself. Go ahead.
Now imagine leaning in to someone’s ear. Music pumping. People laughing. Tell them to check out Ning.com, without spelling it.
You get the idea.
Turn your attention to your biggest fans. Those loyal customers who tell everyone they know about you and send people to you.
How will they spread the word? How will they share? If they’re young, perhaps they’ll use texts, Facebook Messenger, or Snapchat.
An older audience might talk in-person, via the phone, or use email.
Will your customers post reviews on Yelp? Use Facebook check-in? Post photos on Instagram?
What if your business targets 21-30 year olds who spend lots of time in large groups, at bars, or in loud restaurants. Is your name easy to pronounce and easy to hear? Is it memorable?
How will my business name differentiate me from the competition?
Will my name spark thoughts or ideas? Help people visualize who we are and what we do? Will it create curiosity and excitement?
If someone is reviewing several alternatives, does your name help you stand out, in a good way? Or is just like every other business in your niche?
How will I use technology, domain names, email, and social media?
Can you get a short, concise, easy-to-spell, domain name? No abbreviations. No hyphens.
That’s getting harder to do, but it’s still important. If you’re a consulting firm, law firm, or CPA firm, no one is going to remember your partner initials dot com. Smith Smith Adams Johnson and Goldstein becomes ssajg.com. Forget about it.
You might be able to spell it out, but what will you do for your email address? “Just email me the signature doc to firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Can you keep from ending in LLC, INC, or similar? Amazon wouldn’t be the same if the domain name was amazoninc.com or amazonllc.com
Entities like cafes, bistros, podcasts, and some blogs can get away with a little more. There’s nothing wrong with including these in your domain name.
Now what about social media profiles? For example, sites like Twitter have character limits for names. Long names either won’t work, or use up too many of the 140 character limit.
Will social media will be important for your business? If it is, it might be worth checking to see if your potential names will work.
How long will people need to remember my name?
I like Chinese food from this place down the road about 15 minutes away. They have a generic name. Something like Best Chinese Food or Grand China.
I get takeout from there once every couple of months. Every time I want to call in an order I have to Google “Chinese food”.
What will happen if a new Chinese restaurant pops up 5 minutes closer with as-good, if not better, food?
How long is your sales cycle? How long does someone need to remember your name?
Imagine you sell IT management services. You’re in an industry that relies on two-year contracts. Your prospect learns about you six months in. Will they remember you 18 months later?
On the other hand, what if you sell art in a gallery within a mall? Will the name be attractive and draw people while passing by or during their visit?
How will people say it when they’ve never heard it spoken?
Write the name you’ve selected as the name of your new business or venture. Go to a busy mall or grocery store. Stop random people and ask them if they’ll pronounce the word on the paper.
If your name is unusual or not easy to read, you’ll find yourself correcting every new prospective client that calls?
What if people are afraid to pronounce your name for fear of getting it wrong or being embarrassed?
I, for one, refuse to pronounce Lululemon or Stella Artois in public.
Probably not a big deal when it comes to yoga pants. But I’m a fan of tasty, adult beverages, and I’ve yet to ever try Stella Artois. I probably won’t. I don’t know how to order it.
How will people spell it when they’ve never seen it written?
Now let’s reverse the above. If someone hears the name and then tries to spell it, how will that go?
You can use the same exercise as before. Head out to a busy mall or store and stop passersby. Tell them you’re starting a new business, share your name, and ask them to spell it.
If it’s hard to spell, it will be hard to Google it, or to post on Facebook, Twitter, or Yelp.
If it’s hard so spell, it’s hard to share. And to succeed, you need people to share.
Answering the above questions gets you headed in the right direction. Now you’re thinking more critically about your customers and how your name can help or hurt your business.
Time to move forward.
How to Name a Business: 5 Steps to Success
Once you’ve gone through the list of “how” questions, it’s time to get down to the good stuff.
These five steps can be used to name a business, blog, podcast, app, or just about anything else.
Setp 1: Brain Storm
Time to get some paper out and do some work. And I do mean paper.
Something happens in your mind when you write ideas down. You access different parts of your brain than you do when typing.
Have your paper and pen or pencil? Great!
There’s a good chance that if you’ve gone through the above questions, that you’re stumped. You may be frustrated that the names you were thinking about may no longer work.
When helping entrepreneurs think about how to name a business, I refer to a blog post by one of my favorite marketers, Seth Godin.
Seth wrote a post about this naming technique back in 2003. In that post, he suggested naming a scuba diving business Lemonpie.
To this day I have not forgotten that name. In fact, every time I think of Lemonpie I think of a non-existent scuba company.
You want a name that’s easy to spell, easy to say, and easy to own online. And like Lemonpie, you want to be remembered.
The way to do that. To achieve all of those goals, is to make up a word. Or more specifically, combine two common words to make up a new word.
When you create something new, you have the opportunity to brand your business and position it however you want. There is no historical reference in the mind of your customer the way there would be with traditional names.
Think Starbucks. The name came from the book Moby Dick. It has nothing to do with coffee. The company made it synonymous with the coffee experience.
Other examples of this include Microsoft, Facebook, Bad Robot, and Firefox.
The easiest way to go through this process is to pair two easy-to-spell words together. Two words that, when they come together, stand out. Create an image. Leave an impression.
I know you’re not going to want to do this. It’s going to seem odd. But trust me. It works. And you will thank me for it later.
So, make two columns on your sheet of paper.
In the first column make a long list of adjectives, descriptive words, colors, materials, etc. Anything that comes to mind.
You might come up with: blue, red, orange, rough, soft, steel, wood, liquid, cherry, orange, clean…
Still here? Ok, let’s go to the next step.
In the second column, write down a list of nouns. Objects. Things.
You might write down: tree, rock, boulder, pie, pen, fork, ball, block, vine, fire, door, ink…
Next, you’ll want to start combining words from list one with list two.
I used this method to come up with the name of my parent company, BurlapSky. It’s a digital marketing consultancy.
The result creates a picture in the mind of your prospect.
Use an image to represent the name in the logo. Add it to your business card. Put it on the website. These help the image get stuck in their mind. It makes it nearly impossible to forget.
I’ve run into people I met 5 years ago at a networking event who immediately recall the name, BurlapSky.
For me, the words have additional meaning. They don’t have to have meaning, but it helps if they tell a story. We remember stories.
Growing up in a rural farming area, burlap was used in all kinds of farming materials such as sacks for carrying potatoes or tobacco. Burlap is a super simple, effective material. It’s light. It’s strong. It breathes. It does what it’s supposed to do. I like super simple.
And on the east coast, we love our Carolina blue skies. Thus BurlapSky.
It took me a couple of days and several hours to land on a name. Spend as much or as little time as you need, but I suggest coming up with 5-7 good names from this activity.
We’ll narrow them down in the next couple of steps.
Step 2: Research
Once you land on a handful of options, you need to start researching to find out if they are available.
The good news is that using the above brainstorming technique means you will often come up with a totally new word that no one has ever used. This makes securing the business name and future website so much easier.
It also makes ranking well in Google easy. A search for BurlapSky returns my company in all 10 results on the first page.
So start with a simple search on Google for your new names. You’re looking to see if someone already has a business with this name. More specifically, you’re looking to see if someone in your industry is using the name.
I’m not an attorney or legal expert, and I don’t play one on TV. I don’t give legal advice. But here’s how I understand things.
Perhaps a pool cleaning company in Ohio is using the name you want. Only, you’re opening a consulting company in Virginia. You should be fine, as long as it’s not trademarked. You can check for trademarks via the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Are you plan on incorporating your business? Check the database of registered businesses in your state. These can usually be found via your Secretary of State’s office website.
Finally, you’ll want to make sure you can secure the domain name and social media profiles.
I highly recommend picking a name that you can have the simple .com domain name for. You don’t want to be forced to add something to the end if you don’t want to.
For me, it was easy to grab burlapsky.com since I made up the word. If you landed on Red Door (or RedDoor) for your business, you’ll want to make sure you can get reddoor.com. Don’t use reddoorinc.com or reddooragency.com.
Adding letters to your domain name makes it impossible for people to visit your site easily. People who have heard about you can’t type your domain name into their web browser to get to your website.
To check social media profiles, I recommend using KnowEm.com (affiliate). This site allows you to quickly check all the major social media sites to see if your name is available.
They also have a paid service where they’ll set up social media profiles for you. Photo. Bio. URL. Description.
You spend your time building your business and making sales, let them upload logos and paste text.
Step 3: Get Feedback
This step doesn’t require a lot of explanation, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It also doesn’t mean it should be overlooked.
Narrow your choices down to one or two names that you like. They must fit with the answers to the above questions and be available. Now, find out what others think.
At this point, you’re not looking for opinions on whether people like the name or not. Especially friends and family. They’re not your customers.
Think about colleagues or people you know but who aren’t all that close to you. Ideally you’re looking for people who might be a client or customer.
Tell them the name and ask them what it makes them think of. Again, you’re not looking for opinions. What you’re looking for is something weird, odd, or very negative.
You’re trying to find out if this makes people think of crime, death, offensive movies. Do they think of other things you wouldn’t want to talk about around the dinner table.
By this point, you’re so close to the name that you’re not able to think of other related meanings, terms, and innuendoes that other may think of.
In fact, do a search on Twitter or Instagram with your word as a hashtag and see what comes up.
Don’t worry about what people think, because people don’t know what they think. They also don’t understand business.
They would have told you Target, Starbucks, Google, Flickr, Tumblr, and Uber were all horrible names for businesses. And they would be wrong.
Step 4: Decide
Well, assuming you’ve followed the above steps, you should have a name for your business.
I say “you should” because right now you’re either completely sold on the name and you’ve already purchased the domain name, or you’re scared out of your mind. You’re having cold feet. You’re not sure if you should move on this or not.
That’s normal. But don’t let it stop you.
Remember, what the business becomes is ultimately up to you. Don’t let picking a name keep you from launching your business, blog, podcast, or app. Don’t let it stop you from doing the Thing that you need to be doing.
Make the decision. Move forward. Like Jeff Bezos, you can always change the name later.
Step 5: Register Your New Business Name
Now you have a name for your business. Woohoo! Congrats!
That’s a big step.
Next, you want to secure the name legally. You’ll want to register it as a DBA (doing business as). In fact, every state requires that you register a DBA if you’re going to operate under any name other than your personal, legal name.
You can find more info about DBA names at sba.gov.
If it’s just you doing business as a sole proprietor, you probably don’t need to do anything else (again, I’m not giving legal advice).
Are you creating a Limited Liability Company (LLC), a corporation, or a non-profit organization? You’ll need to do extra work to set that up. Then file your new business name with the appropriate state agency where you’re located.
Again, the sba.gov website has info on whether or not you’ll need to file with your state and where to go to do so.
What if I have an existing business?
What if you have an existing business and you’re beginning to wonder if you’re set up for success?
Perhaps you’re asking “does my business need a name change?”. If that’s you, I wrote a follow up post to answer that specific question.
Here are 10 good reasons to change your business name.
Message me on Twitter and let me know where you’re stuck. I’m more than happy to provide you with quick feedback or thoughts.