Every new baby gets a name before it is introduced to the world, and yet some entrepreneurs continue to send me business plans with TBD (to be determined) in place of a business name on the front page. They don’t realize that the name they choose, or lack of it, sets an initial perception of the business that may override all of its value. Your business name will have the same impact on potential customers.
Just as with names of people, there isn’t any ultimate right or wrong, and every name has unique implications in different cultures, economies and markets. Names can imply strength, value, connection or friendliness, or they can set opposite tones. As you search for that perfect name, it pays to avoid the key mistakes that we investors and business naming experts hate to see:
Trivial names and acronyms are not sticky. Your spouse’s initials may be meaningful and memorable to you as a company name, but won’t get you very far in business. In this world of information overload, you need a name that will remain memorable and meaningful for years to come, even after trends change and your startup has pivoted.
Tricky spellings send customers to competitors. Today, everyone expects to find you online, and competitors quickly learn to route all misspellings of your business name to their sites. Use conventional spelling, or phonetically consistent spellings, rather than the cute variation that implies a double ententre and amuses all your friends.
Nonsense phrases and non-words are tough to brand. These may be easy to trademark, but there are few plans strong enough, or companies with enough money, to make Google and Xerox recognized brands. Most startups don’t have the resources, and should be more humble in starting with a name that customers will recognize.
Every extra syllable or special character makes it harder. Two syllables seems to be the optimum for a business name, especially if it can be easily turned into a verb, such as Facebook or Twitter. Hyphens, special characters or mixed case in the name only invites the misspellings and memory problems mentioned earlier.
Beware of international and cultural implications. Even if you have not thought of going international, remember that every website on the Internet is visible around the world. Do your research to be sure you will not be embarrassed by a name that has negative or obscene implications in another culture or language.
Don’t limit future expansion possibilities. Business names that have specific geography references or product implications will come back to haunt you as the market changes or new growth opportunities emerge. Changing the name later and rebranding is a very expensive proposition, and takes a long time.
Your desired name is not available on the Internet and/or social media. These days, before you adopt a company name, you need to make sure you can secure the domain name for your website, the trademark is not taken and the name is available on all the social media sites that your customers might frequent. Confusion will cost you customers.
Skip the new wave of domain name suffixes. Even though the standard .com or country suffix can now be replaced by virtually any word, including .bank, .sport, or .coke, I don’t recommend it yet for startups. While these may sound attractive in defining your company name, they still don’t have full recognition by most customer segments. At best, they should be reserved as alternates, with website redirects to forestall competitors.
In all cases, I recommend that you spend some time building a short list of three to five names that satisfy your objectives, but avoid the shortcomings above, and try them out on potential customers, peers and advisors. Feedback from friends and family is the least valuable, since they have the same biases that you do.
If you choose a name, and realize based on early results that it was not the right one, it’s smart to change the name immediately, rather than hope to overcome the limitations with more marketing. Changing your branding is always hard, but it’s one of the most common pivots that startups make. It will cost you some money and time now, but not changing your name will likely cost you your business later.
Image credit: CC by Peter Lindberg