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10 Rules for Picking a Company Name That Sticks

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First things first -- your startup needs a name! This may seem a silly and frivolous task, but it may be the most important decision you make. The name of your business has a tremendous impact on how customers and investors view you, and in today's small world, it's a world-wide decision.

Please don't send me any more business plans with TBD or NewCo in the title position. Right or wrong, the name you choose, or don't choose, speaks volumes about your business savvy and understanding of the world you are about to enter. Here are some key things I look for in the name, with some help from Alex Frankel and others:

  1. Unique and unforgettable. In the trade, this is called "stickiness." But the issue of stickiness turns out to be kind of, well, sticky. Every company wants a name that stands out from the crowd, a catchy handle that will remain fresh and memorable over time. That's a challenge because naming trends change, often year by year, making timeless names hard to find (remember the dot.coms).

  2. Avoid unusual spellings. When creating a name, stay with words that can easily be spelled by customers. Some startup founders try unusual word spellings to make their business stand out, but this can be trouble when customers 'Google' your business to find you, or try to refer you to others. Stay with traditional word spelling, and avoid those catchy words that you love to explain at cocktail parties.

  3. Easy to pronounce and remember. Forget made-up words and nonsense phrases. Make your business name one that customers can pronounce and remember easily. Skip the acronyms, which mean nothing to most people. When choosing an identity for a company or a product, simple and straightforward are back in style, and cost less to brand.

  4. Keep it simple. The shorter in length, the better. Limit it to two syllables. Avoid using hyphens and other special characters. Since certain algorithms and directory listings work alphabetically, pick a name closer to A than Z. These days, it even helps if the name can easily be turned into a verb, like Google me.


  5. Make some sense. Occasionally, business owners will choose names that are nonsense words. Quirky words (Yahoo, Google, Fogdog) or trademark-proof names concocted from scratch (Novartis, Aventis, Lycos) are a big risk. Always check the international implications. More than one company has been embarrassed by a new name that had negative and even obscene connotations in another language.

  6. Give a clue. Try to adopt a business name that provides some information about what your business does. Calling your landscaping business "Lawn and Order" is appropriate, but the same name would not do well for a handyman business. Your business name should match your business in order to remind customers what services you provide.

  7. Make sure the name is available. This may sound obvious, but a miss here will cost you dearly. Your company name and Internet domain name should probably be the same, so check out your preferred names with your State Incorporation site, Network Solutions for the domain name, and the U.S. Patent Office for Trademarks.

  8. Favor common suffixes. Everyone will assume that your company name is your domain name minus the suffix ".com" or the standard suffix for your country. If these suffixes are not available for the name you prefer, pick a new name rather than settling for an alternate suffix like ".net" or ".info." Get all three suffixes if you can.

  9. Don't box yourself in. Avoid picking names that don't allow your business to move around or add to its product line. This means avoiding geographic locations or product categories to your business name. With these specifics, customers will be confused if you expand your business to different locations or add on to your product line.

  10. Sample potential customers. Come up with a few different name choices and try them out on potential customers, investors, and co-workers. Skip your family and friends who know too much. Ask questions about the names to see if they give off the impression you desire.

If you are still unsure of yourself, you should know that there are many dedicated firms, like Igor and A Hundred Monkeys, that can relieve you of $1 million of your hard-earned funds to come up with just the right appellation. Hmmm. I wonder how much they spent on their own names?