10 Fundamentals of Naming a Small Business

What's in a name? When it comes to a small business, quite a lot, actually. While it may seem like a fun side project, the name you choose for your business could have a long-lasting impact on the success (or failure) of your startup. However, if you follow these guidelines, you should come up with something that makes a great first impression for your new business venture.

1. Do not name it after yourself

The biggest mistake people make when choosing a business name is to go straight for the ego option: "Well, it's my business, I should use my name." You see it with law firms, handymen, auto garages, and so on. While it may be nice to see your name on a big sign and a business card, it doesn't tell anyone anything about what you do or provide. Therefore, you have to add a second line to spell it out: "The Smith Brothers: Plumbing and Heating Experts." That's not catchy.

2. Be smart, but not too clever

It's tempting to have fun with your business name. However, keep in mind that when people see the name of your company for the first time, they do not have the background that you do. They know nothing about your business, how long you've been dreaming of it, and what kind of thought process you went through.

For example, imagine someone passionate about great hot dogs opens an eatery called The Top Dog. To that person it's a great name, but they know it's a reference to hot dogs. To someone else, it's more likely something to do with actual dogs; perhaps a dog grooming service, products for pooches, or a place to buy a dog. The business is going to have to work harder to identify itself as a restaurant. If instead they'd chose a name like Hot Dog Heaven, or The Tasty Wiener, there wouldn't be any confusion.

3. Keep your sights set on expansion

Small businesses sometimes become big businesses. When that happens, and the company grows to include new locations, your company name might suddenly become very confusing. For instance, if you base the name on your current location (maybe something like Delaware Dinners), you may have people scratching their heads when you move to a different state, or even a different country.

Similarly, think about not just physical expansion, but product line growth. You may start out as a T-shirt company, and call yourself something like Top Shelf Tees. But what happens when you decide to make branded caps, bags, and sneakers? Your original product name limits the expectations of customers, and you may have to rebrand to Top Shelf Apparel. So, think about the future.

4. Cutesy spellings aren't for everyone

The rise of the internet, and the need for a unique dot-com address, has brought about a glut of misspelled words. Carz instead of cars. Kabbage instead of cabbage. Wzrd instead of wizard. All in the name of getting a name that sounds memorable.

But consider the additional steps you will have to take to inform your customers of the odd spelling. For example, if you choose to do radio promotions, you'll have to say something like, "Remember, that's carz with a Z." And when potential customers hear a little buzz, and search for you on the web, will they be searching for the right company? Chances are, they'll use the typical spelling, and it could end up taking them to a major competitor.

5. Completely made-up words make life difficult

There are hundreds of companies out there that have names that either mean nothing, or were based on a real word from any number of languages. You already know some very well, including Verizon, Google (although it was based on Googol), Etsy, Skype, Hulu, Zillow, and eBay.

Now, the reason you know these words so well is because the companies are huge, and spent major branding and advertising dollars to get their name to be recognized. Plus, as word of mouth has spread, the familiarity of these names has grown. Let's be honest, have you ever considered what Google means over the many years you have used the service? Because the brand is so dominant, it hasn't really mattered to most people.

However, you're the owner of a small business right now, not a major corporation. You have limited funds. Unless you think your company will scale to the size of these giants, you are better off avoiding completely nonsensical words.

6. Make sure your name conjures positive imagery

To this day, it baffles many marketing and branding experts that the company The Athlete's Foot was named something so horrendous. Athlete's foot is described as "a contagious fungal infection that causes itching, blisters, cracking, and scaling, especially between the toes." And yet for some reason, a boardroom full of people said "Yeah … we want our footwear store to be associated with that."

Bizarrely, it worked; the store is still going. But you really do not want to take that chance with your own company. If the first thing people conjure up in their heads is negative, you have a tough image mountain to climb. If you are a mobile hairdresser, Curl Up & Dye might sound funny for a second — but what kind of image are you putting in your customers' heads? Keep it positive, unless it really does fit the bill (like Vinyl Resting Place, a store that sells old vinyl records and has a sense of humor about it).

7. Don't pick a name out of a hat

The hat comes in many forms. It can be a dictionary or thesaurus. It can be a random word generator online. Or, it could in fact be a bunch of words you put into an actual hat. These methods are just not going to work out for you. There has to be a logical reason as to why you went with the name you did.

What's the background? How does it tie to your business? Does it accurately describe what you do, or at least invoke some part of it? For example, Pinkberry is not an accidental or random name. While it sounds fun and trendy, it also relates directly to the fresh fruit cut daily for its frozen yogurts and ice creams. If the company had simply pulled a word out of thin air, it would not have been as successful.

8. Think alphabetically

There's a reason there are so many AAA Plumbers, and AAAA Lawyers; they were looking to be first in the phone directory. While that is not always the case anymore when it comes to search engines, alphabetical listings are still a way to organize companies. If your company is called something like Zoomfood or Yogalicious, you're going to be stuck at the back of the line.

Consider a name that will bump you up without compromising the fun and originality of your name. For example, Foodzoom is just as fun, but vaults you way higher up the list. While it may not be the most important consideration, it's worth thinking about.

9. Combining words can produce great results

One of the easiest ways to come up with a good business name is to combine two (or more) words to create a new word that's both eye-catching and memorable. Start by writing down a list of all the traits of your company. Don't worry about coming up with actual names just yet, this is a brain dump. Your company mission statement will include a lot of these words. When you have that list, start making connections.

Which words fit well together? For example, if you're a meal prep company, you may have a list that includes food, easy, preparation, timesaving, meals, dinners, fresh, delicious, organic, diet, delivery, and simple. Now, which of those words can you combine to make something new? It could be as simple as FreshPrep, or EasyMeals. You could also do it another way, like Dinner 'N Delivery, or Meals On Time. These are just quick examples, but it's a great way to brainstorm a name that includes essential aspects of your company.

10. Test out a few names before you commit

When you have a list of business names that you're happy with, it's time to put them to the test. Narrow the list to the top three, and set up a simple survey through a site like Survey Monkey. Ask questions like, "What did the name instantly make you think of?" or, "Does this business sound professional?" You want a good variety of questions and possible answers. Send the survey to people you may already be working with, online forums, a subreddit devoted to your industry, and anyone else that could be of help. However, don't send it to immediate family and friends; they know too much and won't give you an unbiased opinion.

One last note: When you have picked the winning name, think about how you will turn that into a memorable and noticeable logo or brand mark. Work with a freelance designer to get some options, and use the same survey system to help you select the best one. This will be your logo for the foreseeable future, although brands change identities often, so it's not as important as the actual business name. Good luck.

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10 Fundamentals of Naming a Small Business

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