Starting a Business

How to Choose the Best Business Name

Steve Strauss Best-selling author of the Small Business Bible 
Pizza sign How to Choose the Best Business Name _ Business Naming Guide 2018

Even if Tim Ferriss’s name doesn’t ring a bell, you’ve probably heard of his best-selling book, The 4-Hour Workweek.

With over 1.3 million copies sold, it’s one of the most recognizable titles in the self-help space. It might surprise you to learn that when Ferriss was looking to name his book in 2007, he had no clue where to start. So he decided to hit up Google—and his local Borders bookstore.

Ferriss set up a $200 Google Adwords campaign to see which title people clicked on the most. He also strolled into his local Palo Alto Borders, slapped a few fake covers on existing books, and watched to see which ones people would pick up.

Borders Bookstore _ Business name ideas 2018 _ Tim Ferriss story
(Photo courtesy of Flickr user brewbooks)

The most popular name (by far) was… The 4-Hour Workweek.

He went with it. And just like that, Tim Ferriss’ life would never be the same.

A good name is so hard to find—yet so important for small businesses

To say that naming your business or product (or book!) is one of the most important tasks you’ll have as a small business owner is, well, an understatement. 

After all, the name of your business is the face of your company. If a person can’t remember the name of your restaurant or laundromat or corner store, they may simply go to a different one–likely one with a clearer and more memorable name.

That same scenario happened to me recently. To commemorate the end of summer, my family and I packed up the car and headed out for a weekend camping trip. On our way back, we stopped to grab a bite to eat and, per my request, get the car washed. (After a weekend in the woods, it was, unsurprisingly, filthy.)

I hadn’t been in that area since the last time we went camping the previous summer. But I had no problem remembering the name of the car wash we visited last time: Crazy Clean Car Wash.

Crazy Clean Car Wash _ Business name ideas 2018 _ Tim Ferriss story

Pretty great name, or at least quite memorable, right? Between the accurate alliteration and the obvious benefit of the brand contained therein, it was a name good enough to bring an out-of-towner back to the business—an entire year later. 

So, how do you go about giving your business or product or service that great name? Something that sticks with you like Crazy Clean Car Wash or The 4-Hour Workweek? By understanding the naming method each of these businesses used.

Understanding the three naming routes

There are essentially three different routes you can choose when deciding what to name your business, product, or service.

  1. Informative: An informative name captures the benefits of what the business or product has to offer. Crazy Clean Car Wash is an excellent example of that. It gets your car mighty clean.
  2. Unique: A unique or odd name is when you invent a totally new word or use a word that is associated with something else. Think Xerox or Nike.
  3. Basic: A basic (and boring) name is expected, like John & Sons. It’s usually more meaningful to the owners than to new customers.

Of the three, the first route is my favorite, and it’s the one that worked for Tim Ferriss.

The informative route

The secret here is that the benefit of choosing the business is inside its very name, in the first thing you encounter. And that is huge because you only have about three seconds to grab someone’s attention when they meet your business, product, or service for the first time. 

There are plenty of examples of informative business names:
  • Netflix
  • 30-Second Outdoor Cleaner
  • Dunkin’ Donuts
  • In ‘N’ Out Burger
  • Quickee Mart
  • Dollar Tree
  • Baja Fresh
  • Mike’s Hard Lemonade
  • DieHard Batteries

All of those business names immediately tell you why you should choose them. Some take it a step further by incorporating a bit of the “unique route” in how the name is spelled. However, it’s usually best to not get too creative with spelling—because you want people to be able to search for you and get results. 

A study found that stocks with easily pronounceable names performed 33 percent better over the course of a week than stocks with more complex names. Customers crave accessible, informative names.

But it’s tricky. If a business name is memorable, it’s memorable, and therefore far more likely to be commonly used—which means you need to do your research.

The unique route

Alternately, you can choose a unique, odd, or catchy business name. It can be a foreign word, acronym, abbreviation, or location that means something to you.

There are also plenty of examples of unique business names:
  • Häagen-Dazs
  • Google
  • 3M
  • IKEA
  • Amazon
  • Lego
  • FedEx
  • Spotify
  • OshKosh B’Gosh

A unique name can immediately capture a potential customer’s attention, and I love that.

But the downside here is not insignificant. Without having a huge budget to get people to remember your quirky name, you may end up with a quirky name that no one remembers. Or worse, a name that someone types into their browser but gets the wrong results.

The basic route

Finally, you could always choose a standard, run-of-the-mill name that doesn’t say anything about what you do. This route is fine if your business has already been around for a long time and has loyal patrons, or if it’s a family name that’s trusted in your community.

However, most of the time—especially nowadays with so much brick-and-mortar and online competition—it is probably not the wisest decision to give a new business or product a generic name. People won’t remember you.

How to come up with a business name

Okay, so now that you know the three main naming options, what’s next? Here are the main steps I recommend you take when picking a name for your company:

1. Build your name list

You can do this alone or with a team. Either way, the important thing here is that you think about all the possible names that are a potential match. This is similar to the baby naming exercise new parents go through.

Crack open a thesaurus or dictionary to kickstart the brainstorm. Then, write down all the things your business does along with how you want customers to feel when they interact with you.

2. Make it shareable

Use a Google Doc or other collaborative program that lets you easily share your name list with others. Don’t censor any idea.

3. Do a word association exercise

That is, writing down a word and immediately writing down the words that come to your mind after that. Don’t second guess yourself—write whatever you feel. The starting word should be one that you think captures the essence of your business.

It might sound silly, but this exercise is an effective way to discover words and phrases that might’ve otherwise stayed buried in your mind.

4. Cross off any names that feel too limiting

For example, if you’re opening a coffee shop but plan to eventually turn it into a restaurant, you might not want the name to be strictly about coffee, tea, and pastries.

5. Get initial feedback

Once you have some ideas, get a third party to review what you came up with and provide feedback about how a potential customer might perceive the names you like so far. 

Ask questions like:
  • How would you spell it? [If in person]
  • Would you have trouble spelling it? [If via email]
  • What do you think this company/product/service does?
  • What does the name tell you about the kind of company/product/service it is?
  • Would you be interested in learning more about the company/product/service?

6. Narrow it down

After you go over all potential names with a few trusted people, narrow the list down to the best ones—no more than six. 

7. Check to see if the domain name and trademark are available

This is a big factor in whether you should go with one name or another. Use a domain name search site like GoDaddy to see if your business name contenders are all available. Oh, and make sure you can get the domain that ends in “.com.”

You also want to see if the name is already trademarked so you don’t get into legal trouble for trademark infringement.

Head over to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) search tool to see if your name (or variations of it) are available and being used with products and services similar to yours. If it is, ditch the name and go back to your list.

8. Create an online poll

This might seem like overkill, but I promise it’s not.

If naming your business really is as important as we’re insisting (and it is!) then you want to make triple sure you know how uninvolved parties perceive it.

Hey, if it worked for Tim Ferris, who are we to argue?

Creating an online poll is quite easy, which makes it especially worth the effort. I recommend using a tool like SurveyMonkey, TypeForm, or Doodle. Once you’ve filled out the fields with your potential names, each website will provide a link you can email to a small group of people or post on social media.

Then, take your pollsters’ opinions to heart. But remember that at the end of the day, you should also weigh their thoughts against your instinct. Nobody knows your business better than you.

Study my three-route naming method, pick the type that works for you, and then follow the exercises above. You’ll end up with a sturdy name that customers will remember long enough to type into their browsers—and that you’ll be happy to say, write, and obsess over for years to come.

Steve Strauss
Steve Strauss Steve Strauss is a lawyer, speaker, and USA Today small business columnist. He's the best-selling author of 17 books, including The Small Business Bible.


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