Written by Mark Williams
Picking a business name is fun – but it’s also one of the most important decisions when starting up. According to Adam Fridman of digital branding agency, Mabbly, writing for Inc.com: “Your company name plays a monumental role in your brand’s growth and perception, it can completely make or break you.”
He adds: “For every company whose name becomes an entrepreneurial landmark – Apple, Uber, Google – there are countless [others] whose names don’t reflect the brand, and the company suffers because of it,” he stresses. Your brand name is frequently the first thing that new people experience of your business. It’s their first impression, which begins to shape their perceptions and influences their buying decisions.
Business name sources of inspiration
Reportedly, Apple’s name was inspired by co-founder Steve Jobs’ stay at an Oregon commune in the 1970s, which was surrounded by apple trees (he thought the name was “fun, spirited and not intimidating”). In 1978, Blue Ribbon Sports changed its name to Nike (pronounced Ni-key), the Winged Goddess of Victory, according to Ancient Greek mythology.
When preparing to launch his new mail order record business in the 1970s, an employee suggested to Richard Branson that he call the business Virgin (“Because we’re complete virgins when it comes to business”). Google is a deliberate misspelling of mathematical term googol (ie 10 to the 100th power), which wasn’t available as a web address. The business could have been called BackRub, the original name for the proto search engine.
Business name legal restrictions
As explained by government website, gov.uk, if you set up as a sole trader (ie self-employed): “You can trade under your own [personal] name or choose another name.” You don’t need to register your business name, but you must include it on your invoices, business stationery and website.
“Sole trader names must not: include ‘limited’, ‘Ltd’, ‘limited liability partnership’, ‘LLP’, ‘public limited company’ or ‘plc’; be offensive; [or] be the same as an existing trade mark”. Moreover: “Your [business] name can’t contain a ‘sensitive’ word, or suggest a connection with government or local authorities, unless you have permission.” You must register your business name as a trade mark if you want to stop others from trading with it.
If you set up a private limited company, its name cannot be the same as another registered company name (visit the Companies House website to check). The company name must usually end in either ‘Limited’ or ‘Ltd’ (or ‘Cyfyngedig’ and ‘Cyf’ for Welsh companies, if preferable). “If your name is too similar to another company’s name, you may have to change it if someone complains,” warns gov.uk.
Business name top tips
Many people take a “does-what-it-says-on-the-tin” approach (eg Acme Loft Extensions), using key words linked to what they sell. Many other businesses are named after the founder, which can give an appealing personal touch (eg Ben & Jerry’s), which doesn’t have to limit your growth ambitions. Including a place name (eg Middle Wallop Tiles) can better enable customers to find you, while showing a sense of pride in a location.
Writing for thebalancesmb.com website, Darrell Zahorsky advises against abbreviations (eg IBM). “As a small business owner you don’t have the resources to educate your market on what your acronym means,” he cautions. Zahorsky says “being cute can backfire,” while you should avoid words like “global”, however ambitious you are. And do not simply modify another business name, because it can create legal problems.
Writing for Forbes.com, business consultant Marianne Bickle recommends a short business name (“Long names are difficult to remember”). She says a business name should create a positive image in people’s minds and last and grow with your business. Humour is probably best avoided, while being guided by search engine keywords is widely recommended (make sure you can get your desired URL).
Business names – common mistakes
Picking a name that’s easy to say and understand is wise (otherwise you might have to spend the next 20 years repeating your business name over and over and over again). You’re best avoiding names that sound like rude words or that could be amusing/offensive in other languages if you plan to sell overseas.
Entrepreneur.com’s 8 Mistakes To Avoid When Naming Your Business advises against involving too many people in the decision (it can lead to a “very safe, very vanilla name”). Taking part of an adjective and welding it onto a noun is another no-no (eg QualiServe – “it’s forced – and sounds that way”). Avoid boring names and clichés (eg Summit, Apex, etc) and obscure names, although including a short strapline (eg Ganache – Makers of delicious cakes) can get you around this problem.
As with most other things in business, you won’t please everyone. As summed up stoically by Mike Trigg, COO of Hightail, writing for Entrepreneur.com: “People will hate the name you choose. There will always be a loud minority of haters. You just have to accept their right to criticise.”