Entrepreneurs starting a business have many tasks, but one of the most important is naming the new business. But that begs the question: How do you come up with a great, clever, catchy name for your small business? What makes for a good name for a business versus a mediocre or dumb, or too-cute business name?
The answer is: naming a business is a little bit art and a little bit science.
Creating your own noteworthy business name is actually fairly simple. Here’s a process for generating some great business names that can convey a very powerful brand identity:
1. Understand the Three Different Types of Names for a Business
When Richard Branson was still in college, he named his new business “Virgin.” As he writes in his autobiography:
"One night, I was chatting with a group of teenagers over a few drinks about a name for our record store. Someone suggested Virgin. It smacked of new and fresh and at the time the word was still slightly risqué, so, thinking it would be an attention-grabber, we went with it."
While, needless to say, business names come in every shape and size, there is a huge difference between the good business name and the great business name, between the kitschy and the lame.
Essentially, business names fall into three broad categories. Of the three options listed below, two almost always miss the mark but, as you will see, the last option almost always results in a bullseye.
Far too many small businesses end up picking a name for their endeavor that falls into this bucket. Think “Smith & Sons'' or “The Green Lotus.” Tell me, what does Smith & Sons sell or do? What about the Green Lotus? Who knows?
Having a name like this is bad because it is unmemorable, and as a small business, that is almost unforgivable. There are more than 25 million official small businesses in the U.S. (and that is not even counting the millions more side hustles, part-time, and wanna-be small businesses). Having a blah name means you are missing a golden, and always needed, opportunity to STAND OUT. As Branson notes, ideally you want an “attention-grabber.”
Another semi-popular option is to choose a name that is off the beaten path. Some small business owners like names like these because they think the uniqueness of the name will make the business memorable. For instance, when Nolan Bushnell first started his gaming business, he initially named it Syzygy (the line between celestial bodies). But he discovered that the name was taken and went with “Atari” instead.
The problem with a weird name like Syzygy is that it has the exact opposite effect of its intended purpose. Rather than being memorable, because it is so odd and different, it is easily forgettable. Since people can’t immediately attach meaning to it, they have no way of remembering it. Their brain puts the strange name on the backburner, along with all the other information in their daily lives that doesn’t seem to apply to them.
Do some businesses with weird names make it? You bet. “Xerox” is a made-up word that the inventors of the first photocopying machine chose because it was unique sounding. The key, however, is that they had already invested millions into the technology and were willing to invest millions more into getting people to remember the name.
The moral of the story is that if you don’t have millions to get people to remember the weird name of your business, rather than having a cool, unique name that everyone knows, you end up with an odd-sounding weird name that no one can remember.
This option is almost always the way to go, especially for the small business. Here, you choose a name that is active, in that it describes how your business will benefit customers. That way, when people first hear your name, they immediately get what your business is about and how it will help them. That is, well, insta-branding!
- Jiffy Lube: You know instantly what the business is and what you should expect if you go there–a quick way to get your car serviced.
- Baja Fresh: Same thing. You know what to expect from the name alone–fresh Mexican food.
- Gentle Dental: You get the idea.
Small businesses have very few chances to create a brand, especially in an instant. But a great business name, one that incorporates benefits, does just that. It is a rare and unique opportunity that should not be squandered.
I was out of town recently and watching TV in my hotel room. One commercial caught my eye, and it is the only one I remember. Why? Because the owners followed this rule. The name of their business?
Wigs, Wigs, Wigs!
What is the benefit this name conjures up? Specialization. This clearly is a small business that does one thing and one thing only—it sells wigs. If you want or need a wig, then a company that specializes in that and nothing else would definitely be a good choice.
So, that’s the idea. Come up with a few different specific benefits that potential customers would get from patronizing your business and incorporate the most salient one into the business name.
2. Brainstorm with Others and Use Online Resources
Once you understand what does, and does not, make for a great, catchy small business name, the next step is to come up with a list of names to choose from.
Of course, brainstorming with your team, and your family and friends, is the best place to start if you want ideas and to get feedback. Make a list of potential names and benefits. Play with the words and see what you come up with.
Beyond that, you should consider using a business name generator to come up with some ideas. Here are a few company name generators to check out:
When coming up with business name ideas, one other option is to hire an expert. You are good at what you do of course, otherwise you would not be looking to start and name a business. But, that said, it might also be true that words and names are not your thing. In that case, as with many things in life, hiring an expert might be a very good use of your money.
For instance, Alexandra Watkins is the author of the book Hello, My Name is Awesome, and runs the site, Eat My Words. One of the things I really like about her site and approach is that she looks to create names that are “likable,” not just clever or trendy. As she says:
"Your brand name will last longer and get used more often than any other business investment. It’s not enough just for you to like your name, your customers need to like it, too. Yet many names aren’t very likable. At best, most names are mediocre. Yet most professional naming firms use linguistic voodoo and mangle the alphabet to construct 'naymz.'"
So, remember the basics: include the benefits of your business in your name, and make it easy to understand.
3. Consider the Domain Name Early On
Needless to say, your domain name—your URL—is key to your business, your marketing and branding, your social media, your online success, your offline success, everything. If the domain name associated with your proposed business name is available, bingo! But if there is no domain availability for your intended name, you pretty much need to start over, the domain being that important.
When I launched my tech venture TheSelfEmployed several years ago, my partners and I loved the name as it was great for SEO and specifically matched our target market. So I did what I am telling you to do—I hopped onto GoDaddy and looked for that .com name. Sadly, it was taken.
But that didn’t stop us. A little extra research allowed us to discover that the URL and related social handles were owned by a Scandinavian band named TheSelfEmployed. Fortunately, they were open to selling us the domain name, and Facebook and Twitter handles.
I’m not suggesting that that is what you will have to do too, but merely reinforcing the idea that you need a domain name that is exactly, or almost exactly, the same as your business’s name. That way, you will get all of the hits that are intended for you and won’t confuse the public. Moreover, and needless to say, if you are creating an online business or are going to be engaging in ecommerce, the domain name is critical for your online presence.
Do you need the .com? While .com is still the standard when it comes to business domains, in the past few years so many suffixes have come on the market that .com is not the only choice and, happily, customers are far more used to seeing suffixes like .biz, .info, .tv, and the like. So, while preferable, .com is not critical.
4. Secure Social Media Handles
Beyond domain name research, you additionally need to be able to secure the social handles related to your website and business name.
Fortunately, getting the perfectly-matching social handle is usually less important than obtaining the perfectly-matching URL. Of course, ideally, you want the social handles to match the business and site, but if they don’t or are somehow unavailable, a close approximation usually will work.
Social Fresh suggests these hacks if you are unable to get the exact handle you want:
- Add in “The” – @TheObserver for the Charlotte Observer
- Make it “real” – Famously, @realDonaldTrump
- Add in what you do — @BBCBreaking for breaking BBC news
- Use “This is” - @ThisIsSethsBlog – Seth Godin
5. Consider Copyright, Trademark, and Other Legalities
The next key step is to make sure that you will be legally permitted to use your proposed name.
If you want to name your fish restaurant Red Lobster, you can bet that the original Red Lobster won’t like that very much and will have legal copyright and trademark protections in place preventing you from doing so. You can find out if the name you want to use is available by going to the United States Patent and Trademark Office website and doing a copyright and/or trademark search at USPTO.gov.
Similarly, if you plan to incorporate or create an LLC, then you will want to do a search with your state’s Secretary of State. This will enable you to discover if there are other local businesses with the same, or a very similar, name. If so, you will not want that name (and the Secretary of State may not allow it anyway).
6. Rethink That Hard to Spell Name
Dropping vowels is all the rage these days with startups and tech businesses: Twitter was originally Twttr before opting against it, but Flickr stayed Flickr. There is a band pronounced Master Craft that spells its name MSTRKRFT.
The question is: Do you really want to spend your time explaining your weird, unique business name, or teaching people how to spell or pronounce your new business name? Don’t you have better things to do?
7. Consider Ryhmes, Puns and More
You want a name that people will like and remember. That says who you are and what you will offer. Some strategies that have been proven powerful include:
- Rhyming: Reese’s Pieces and StubHub for instance.
- Puns: Don’t get too cute, but consider a play on words such as Wok This Way or Hairs to You.
- K and Z: Studies show that names with hard consonants tend to be memorable. Kodak. Krispy Kreme. Zoho.
Come up with a Catchy Name
So, how do you come up with that perfect business name? As a business owner, you want something that speaks to your brand identity and is catchy, memorable as well as high-quality. The right name needs to reach your target audience, be search-engine friendly, and legally available.
Yes, maybe it sounds daunting, but actually, it is very doable. After all, Apple, Nike, and Amazon all went through the naming process when they were just starting out and no one had ever heard of them at the time.