Early in the history of any new business comes the naming decision. You’ll need a name as soon as you create a website or blog. Naming a new business is something many entrepreneurs obsess over.
They’re right–the business name is important. You want to choose a name that will be good forever. Changing names is a messy business that’s expensive and fraught with peril.
I remember the first time I named my business. I was fresh out of college and needed to raise venture capital. We needed a name before we could call on the investors. I let my attorney suggest a name, and I didn’t know it at the time, but the name was terrible!
That company started out as “Interface Technologies Corporation”, which we quickly abbreviated to ITC. I think we preferred the abbreviation to avoid explaining over and over again what it meant.
My next naming opportunity came when it was time to pick a name for the product. Things went a lot better as we got everyone in the company together and went to a bar at about 4pm in the afternoon. The deal was we weren’t leaving until we had a name everyone agreed was good. And we did come up with a name that was WAY better–that product was “Farsight.”
Infoworld Farsight review from 1986. Yes, I’ve been an entrepreneur for quite a while, LOL!
It sounded very cutting edge at the time. That was good enough, and we didn’t worry about people figuring out what it meant. This was long before Google or even its predecessors existed. This was a time when we marketed via advertising in the magazines of the day. That ensured we had time to explain what it meant.
Over the years, things have only gotten better. Names are important, and while choosing a name is not exactly a Science, it’s also not a total Black Art. By the way, everything in the article about naming a business applies to naming a product. That’s because in both cases, you’ll be investing in building up a brand.
You can pay a small fortune to have a professional firm come up with a name for your company or product. Costs for good firms start at about $80,000. From some perspectives, it’s darned well worth it, but you’d better be pretty flush with cash to go that route. Think Silicon Valley Venture Capital kind of flush with cash. When you’re spending millions, it probably is worth it.
But, your business name doesn’t have to do everything. It doesn’t need superpowers. If it is whispered in a crowd, don’t expect thousands to flock to your website. Don’t expect folks to buy whatever it is you are selling just on the name.
There are very few (if any) business names that evoke that kind of result. At best, a great brand can do it, but there’s much more to a brand than a name.
The role of your business name can be much more modest and you’ll still be successful.
What is the Role of Your Business Name?
What must your business name accomplish?
Let’s stay high level for a moment. I’m going to give you 4 different generic types of names you should consider. I will also provide some important rules for separating the Awesome names from the Also-Rans.
Those things don’t tell us the role of your business name. Here’s is a simple and very pragmatic description of what your business name is supposed to do for you:
With enough marketing, any name will work. The goal of a Good Name is to require less marketing.
That’s it, that’s all, full stop. The difference between a great business name and a poor business name is how hard you need to market it.
A great business name will save you money in the long run.
It will save you money by making it easier for your audience to get interested based on the name and to successfully remember the name so they can refer to it later and tell friends about it.
What Kinds of Business Names Should You Consider?
There are four kinds of business names:
Type 1: Functional and Descriptive
These names explain what the company does. They can be bland and boring, like “Cedar Rapids Paperclip Manufacturing”, but they don’t have to be. We’ll talk shortly about some rules and guidelines to help you avoid boredom.
My CNCCookbook business is a good example of this type. We help CNC’ers to improve their skills by offering information and software. We are a “Cookbook” of great recipes for CNC’ers to borrow and use.
These names can be some of the cheapest to market, because they explain what you’re getting. But the downside, is they don’t ignite much passion. This is intellectual marketing not emotional marketing.
Type 2: Invented Names
These are made-up names. They’re often created because it is so hard to find names that aren’t already taken.
Great examples include Oreo, Kleenex, and Google. These succeed because they’re memorable and fun to say.
Another approach to invented names is to work with Gree and Latin roots. This results in names like Acquient or Agilent. These can sound very official, which can be helpful for big business. But they often require a big budget to promote because they say nothing about what the brand does. Too often they just come off as stodgy. They don’t tickle the memorable + fun centers the way “Oreo” does.
Type 3: Experiential Names
These are names that play off the experience of using a product or service in a way that makes sense to the customer.
My original “Farsight” name was in this category. It’s a bit of a reach as you had to be not just a customer but a fairly intellectual and imaginative one to get it. Better examples would be Infoseek and Magellan.
The trouble here is that a lot of “experiences” using a product cross over to many categories. For example, “Explorer” and “Safari” are both web browsers, but they’re also the names of SUV’s.
Type 4: Evocative Names
Great examples include Yahoo and Apple. They’re evocative of values and aspirations that resonate within the target audience. The great thing about these names is many successful companies are associated with them. After all, evoking passion is a wonderful thing to do with an audience if you can pull it off.
But here’s the rub–you have to pull it off. There’s not much middle ground here. If your name doesn’t immediately inspire that passion, there’s not much middle ground, it usually results in a dud that goes nowhere and may make no sense.
it’s a fine line with this kind of emotional marketing!
Which One For You?
Try them all. Seriously–make sure that when you get to brainstorming, you make a sincere effort to come up with a few in each category. Just be aware of the pitfalls.
Personally, I’m a Product Guy. I like the Type 1 Functional Names the best. I try to put my little cutesy spin on, for example using the word “Cookbook” instead of something totally generic for my business name. But I am not confident in my ability to do emotional marketing, so I’m not pushing for evocative names too much.
Brainstorming (aka “Namestorming”)
Still with me? Great! It’s time for the fun part of choosing a name for your business–BRAINSTORMING!
Here’s the deal. You’re going to gather a group of friends for a fun evening or afternoon. You will create a positive environment for the exchange of ideas. Then you and your friends are going to come up with a whole bunch of ideas in one sitting.
Here’s the best part–I’ve gotten a great name out of it every single time I held one of these “Namestorming” sessions.
It’s all about who you invite, what sort of environment you put them into, and how you go about moderating and nurturing the discussion. But don’t fret–it’s not hard, you just need to understand how it works.
I like to do this kind of thing over a meal. Invite your group over for a BBQ, perhaps. Get them to have some fun and loosen up. Then sit them around a table (your biggest table will determine the maximum size of your group) and start the Namestorming session.
Your first task is to lay down the ground rules for what you expect and how the participants are to conduct themselves. Here are my guidelines:
- The Brainstormers Aren’t There to Pick the Name or Narrow Your Choices Too Much.
This event is about maximizing choices. Tell them there will be an opportunity to narrow later, but for now, no one is allowed to say anything negative about any suggestion. No criticism at all is allowed, not even through body language. If your friends are like mine, this will be very hard for them, LOL. So, be sure to scold and threaten just a bit with time outs for those who won’t behave. If you know in advance someone will be too negative, don’t invite them.
Don’t allow passionate selling either. Get the name on the list. Allow someone to ask, “Why?”, and make a note if they do (that’s a negative), but don’t allow the originator to give a sales pitch. They are just there to answer other’s questions.
- Make the Committee park their egos at the door. Your Business Name is not their opportunity to shine, it’s yours.
Every now and again you’ll get a Rooster intent on strutting their stuff. They out to convince the audience, your audience, that they are more clever, funny, or otherwise more deserving of attention than anyone or anything else in the room. A little bit of competitiveness is okay, but don’t let it too far. Be on the lookout for those who always have to be the biggest clown in the room or the center of attention. If you’re too worried about someone, probably don’t invite them.
- Get a mix of talents–right-brained and left-brained, male and female, plus any other cross-section you think might be beneficial or representative of your audience.
This can be hard sometimes, but it’s worth it. Don’t go overboard getting literally just your audience in the room. The goal is more creative diversity.
- Don’t be afraid to stimulate your audience.
For example, remember the four types of names. You might introduce them at the beginning, and classify each name on a different page of your yellow pad as they’re given. If one list seems too short, ask the group to focus on that type for a bit.
Tell them a little about your intended audience. Don’t let them focus too much on you (who they probably know a lot better than your audience or business). Bring a laptop and open it to a thesaurus and some random name generators.
Use the thesaurus to help the group pick similar but less common or generic words for names that seem good otherwise. Try a lot of variations.
Here’s a bunch of name generation tools you may find helpful to keep the discussion going:
Or, how about business name numerology? The point isn’t whether you or I believe in numerology (I don’t), it’s all about making the experience fun and interesting for your participants. It’s about opening those random creative pathways that you can just use deductive logic to travel.
Here’s another trick I use–I don’t allow negatives, but I do allow positives. You’ll get several names that click immediately with your crowd. “Hey, that one’s pretty good,” will be overheard along with several in the audience shaking their heads, “Yes” in response.
Use that energy by doing an immediate name check. Use your laptop to see if the domain is available. I like a site called Namecheck.com because it checks whether the domain is available, social media availability, and even mobile app name availability.
Finding a name is taken is okay. Get your synonym finder going and look for something similar that isn’t taken to add to your list.
I let my naming parties go on for a good two hours or more–enough so I have several legal pad pages of names and I know I’ve heard more than a few I kind of like.
Your next step is to narrow down that list. Below are my Do’s, Don’ts, and Rules for Choosing your Names.
16 Do’s, Don’ts, and Rules for Choosing Awesome Business Names
Now you know the types of names you could choose for your business, let’s delve into some important rules and criteria for narrowing your list of potential names.
Here are my rules for choosing awesome business and product names:
#1 – Find the Words Your Audience Relates to and Understands
Wherever possible, when I survey or ask questions, I want to hear my audience answer in their own words. I save that information and I pull it out when I’m writing ad copy or thinking about names. Being able to speak to your audience in their own language elevates your chances of success getting them to listen.
Your name needs to appeal to the type of customer you’re trying to attract. If you can conjure comforting, familiar, and pleasant memories from them, you’re on your way. If you can tap into words that evoke actual passion in your audience, you’re really cooking with fire.
You need to Minimize the Effort needed to Explain a Name to your Audience. Make it one or two sentences at most, and preferably no sentences.
#2 – Choose Names that are Easy to Spell, Pronounce, and Remember
You want two or three syllables. Try to be sure the name is easy to repeat and remember.
Make sure not too many people ask how to spell your name. Every now and again is fine, but if it happens at all often, it’s probably not a good choice.
You can use Sticky Consonants to improve name Memorability
The human mind is a fascinating thing. I always love learning some new psychological insight. It turns out that if your name uses k, q, x, z, or sharp c, these are “sticky” consonants that are easier to remember.
Alliteration can also helps a lot
Coca Cola, perhaps the biggest brand of all time. It’s name has alliteration. Alliteration makes names smoother–they roll off the tongue. It also makes them more memorable. Google your way around and learn what alliteration is and try to think about how it applies to your naming.
#3 – Choose a Name Unique Within Your Industry
Compare HotJobs, BAJobs, Careers, CareerJunction and names like that to Monster.com. Is it any wonder that Monster got to be the, um, MONSTER in that business?
#4 – Choose a Name that’s Flexible and Expandable
You have no idea what your business will be doing down the road. Nobody does. Make sure your name is flexible and expandable, but not too flexible and expandable.
Suppose I’d name my business SpeedsAndFeedsCalculators.com. It’s great for SEO, but other than that, a pretty lousy name based on these guidelines. Worse, it has nothing to do with the second product I launched. CNCCookbook is flexible and expandable to most anything that helps CNC’ers solve their problems.
#5 – Choose a Name That’s Linguistically Clean
Can Spanish speakers pronounce it? What does it mean in Spanish? What other languages may matter to you?
Remember how the Chevy Nova did poorly in Mexico where the name literally meant “no-go”? Who wants a car that can’t go?
#6 – Try Crossover Words
These are words that have another usage that you repurpose in a way that makes sense for your brand, but also for the original usage if you think about it.
“Apple” might seem to be completely unrelated to computers, but it is a Crossover Word for the emotions the brand seeks to evoke and the original definition.
#7 – Choose a Name That’s Timeless
Anything that relies on industry jargon, slang, or is too hip will go out of fashion. Sometimes it happens sooner than you think. You want a business name that’s forever.
#8 – Don’t Get Bogged Down Justifying Names
This is all about the crazy discussions about whether names make sense. Guess what? They don’t have to. All they need to do is be memorable, spellable (I made that word up?), and perhaps will spark some desire of the reader to dig deeper and go beyond the name. That’s all we’re asking for here.
#9 – Avoid Names Chosen Purely to Be Different Or Funny
These are too often based on inside jokes or they wind up having a short shelf life after which they get old. Writing comedy is not for the faint of heart no matter how funny you or your friends think you are. Writing comedy that stands the test of time in an endearing way is much harder.
Avoid cute puns at all cost. Did I really need to remind you of that one? Some people just get tremendous enjoyment out of PUNishing the rest of us.
DOH! Sorry, it slipped out!
#10 – Don’t Use Generic Words that Won’t Stand Out In A Crowd
What if Yahoo had been called GeneralInternetDirectory.com? Do you think they’d have made it as far?
Even with CNCCookbook, I tried to explain the function in a slightly interesting and offbeat way.
Your goal is not to be too literal and meaningful. If you’re trying to convey some meaning, do so in a less common way.
#11 – Don’t Let a Map Decide Your Name
South Fork Machining Services. Yes, it’s a machine shop in South Fork. So what? What if that business ever wants to reach outside those boundaries? What if there are a lot of machine shops in South Fork–what makes this one special?
Most place names aren’t interesting to anyone but the residents, so they don’t add value. This is why Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC and Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing became 3M.
Exception–sometimes geography can make your product more interesting. Example: Tillamook Cheese or Seattle’s Best Coffee.
#12 – Don’t Make Your Name a Cheap Cliche By Slapping Some Superlative Alongside What You Do
Apex, ACME, Summit, Pinnacle, Peak, Top, America’s Best…
The list goes on. Don’t take this easy way out. It’s tired and brings little to the table.
#13 – Don’t Make Your Name So Obscure Nobody Knows What It Is
I was in a company called “Callidus Software” one time. NOBODY knew what it meant. I can’t even remember without looking it up. It was some kind of Greek or Latin derivation that I’m sure seemed brainey at the time. The company managed to go public, but that name sure didn’t do it any favors.
#14 – Don’t Use a Cute Mispelling To Make Your Name Unique
Yes, we’ve all seen those businesses that use a “K” in place of a “Q” or “C”. Also a “Ph” in place of an “F”. There’s no good reason to do this except the name is less likely to be taken. But it’s also less likely to be found by search engines.
One of my all-time winning strategies for finding great deals on eBay is to search for people misspelled the name of what they’re selling. Nobody bids against me much when I find those deals.
Why make your business overcome that challenge? People will forget how to properly misspell your name and especially if you misspell common words, they’ll never find you in the search engines.
#16 – Prefer Real Words to Made-Up Words
We already talked misspellings, but completely made up words can be even harder to remember or find in a search engine.
Testing Your Names
We are getting so close now!
You’ve narrowed your list using the rules above plus your own personal taste. I sincerely hope you still have multiple choices. 10 or 12 would be really helpful.
First step is checking domain availability. Again, I like Namecheck.com for this. For a business you want to find your name as a “.com”. Don’t settle for one of the other suffixes. Be sure to look at the Social Media availability too.
Next step is a survey or other test of your actual audience. Sometimes this is easy other times hard. Let me describe two examples.
I have a rock and roll band I needed to name. We play the local clubs and have a lot of fun. I put together an online survey of our open names and I sent it to all my friends on Facebook. These would be the most likely people to come to my gigs. I gave them as little information as possible, and just told them:
“If you saw this list of bands playing in your area, wanted to go for some music, but didn’t know what kind of music any of the bands was playing, which one would you choose?”
Putting it that way put the focus on the name, not the type of music, though some of the names gave it away.
The winner was “Blue Ocean Rockers”, and that name along with our evocative mascot/logo has served us very well:
Here’s another approach where you’ll test against your audience with live ads and landing pages.
Here’s your step-by-step plan:
- Sign up for a free landing page creator trial. Leadpages and Unbounce are two good oncs.
- Make up landing pages that make some sort of simple offer, such as a pdf about how to do something (free eBook) you audience is interested in. Make one page for each name and make the name prominent. Do not change anything else on the page.
- Create a Facebook Ad for whatever you’re offering. You need one Ad for each landing page, again with your name prominent in the ad.
- Run the ads making sure the ad targeting demographics match your audience. There are lots of ways to do this, and I won’t go into detail here. You just need to make sure the right people (your future audience) are seeing the ads.
In most cases, you’ll end up spending perhaps as much as $100, but you’ll be able to see the relative clickthrough from the ads and willingness to sign up for the free offer on the landing page. Choose whichever name scored highest as your winner.
Don’t Forget to See What the Algorithms Think!
The Digital World is gated by algorithms. Search engine algorithms decide which articles to emphasize when you search for various topics. Email algorithms decide whether messages are urgent, merely promotions, or absolute spam. Social Media algorithms decide which things show up in your news feed and which don’t.
Over time, the algorithms are only going to get even more control over what we see. They’re the invisible editors and even censors of all things on the Internet.
You need to check what the algorithms think of your name. Plug it into Google, Facebook, and other things you’re interested in and go over the results. Ask yourself these questions:
- Are the results that come up for your name a happy neighborhood for you to live in? If they’re completely unrelated, be sure you’re comfortable with that.
- Do the results give you any ideas for your name? For example, I wanted to help someone naming an Endermologie-related name. I know nothing about the subject, but noticed words and phrases like Lipomassage, Spa, Carve Your Body, Cellulite Reduction, and Body Sculpting were coming up. I encouraged her to take a look and see if those stimulated any name changes or sub-heading / summary changes.
- Google and other search engines may suggest alternate keywords because they’re more commonly searched. When I search “Ultimate Endermologist” Google wanted to add “Ultimate Endermologie.” That suggests “Endermologie” may be a more common search or that at least I should consider using that word instead.
- Is anything so close that you worry about confusion or even conflict (i.e. trademark conflict) down the road between your proposed name and an existing name?
This step is easy to do and should not be overlooked!
Securing the Winner
We’ve had a busy horse race up to now, but we also have what should be a pretty darned good name for our business or product. It’s now time to secure it so you can start using it.
I always start by registering the domain, and I follow up by creating all the Facebook, Twitter, and other Social Media accounts I will need. My list of the latter includes:
You may also want to consider others like Instagram or Snapchat based on where you think your audience hangs out. It doesn’t matter so much if you expect to use them right away–your goal is to make sure they’re still there when you are ready to use them.
For me, that’s all I need to be off and running. Some of you will be wondering about trademarks, corporate filings, and the like. Remember, I strongly advise finding an audience before you worry about product. That implies it’ll be a while before you’re generating much revenue.
It’s up to you how soon you want to incorporate, but that process will get you a little further down the road to securing a name.
Getting a trademark is an even bigger lock up for your name. I tend to wait until the name is generating significant value that can offset the cost of the legal work. Those legals aren’t terribly expensive if you use a service like LegalZoom, so you can choose whether to go ahead sooner or later. Just be aware the process can take some time.
Now it’s your turn. Get out there and find yourself a completely awesome name for your business or product!
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