Naming Your Small Biz: Interview in NCR’s Small Business Smarts

The wonderful Libby Sile interviewed me for this piece on naming your business. It originally appeared at NCR’s Small Business Smarts in February 2017.


While choosing a creative name for your business is encouraged, make sure customers can tell what it is that your business actually does. (Photo: ESB Professional)

When it comes to naming their small business, many owners think all they need to do is jot down a few ideas on a napkin.

“People leave the naming to the end or don’t put enough effort into it,” said Laurel Sutton, principal at Catchword Brand Name Development, a business naming agency with branches in Oakland, California, and Tenafly, New Jersey.

Don’t go with the first creative and witty name that pops to mind. Review Sutton’s tips before you even start brainstorming.
It is a mistake for businesses to leave naming to the end when starting a business, says Laurel Sutton, principal at Catchword Brand Name Development.

Keep it simple

Zappos, Skype, Google — these are some businesses that come to mind when we think of brands with made-up words as names. Some names are derived from real words (Zappos is a play on zapatos, the Spanish word for shoes), while others are totally random.

Should a small business follow the lead of these successful brands? Sutton says no, and here’s why: Small businesses lack the marketing dollars to turn these words into household names.

Instead, she recommends choosing a name people can easily pronounce and spell. “If your customers type things in on Google and can’t get the spelling right, they won’t always find you,” she said.

Make the name connect to what you do

Sutton said a common mistake small businesses make is choosing a name that’s a little too creative. The goal, she said, is to pick a name that suggests what the business is or does. If you’re going to open a restaurant, for instance, pick a name with some connection to the kind of food you’ll be serving or the ambiance you’re striving for.

“It may be less creative, but it’ll help people understand what your business is and does so you don’t have to keep explaining it,” Sutton said. “It’s all about using your marketing dollars most efficiently, and the way you do that is to get people to understand what you do as quickly as possible.”

Brainstorm, then brainstorm some more

To come up with a good name, Sutton said, you need to spend a lot of time making lists of words. “People should treat brainstorming as a job.” She recommends setting aside one to two hours a week to do nothing but research.

According to Sutton, the best brainstorming involves figuring out what you want the name to say to customers before you hit the dictionary.

“You need to first figure out what you want to push to people,” she said. “Is it the atmosphere, food, drinks or you as the owner? Figure out what makes you better than the competition and that will help you find the message you should focus on.”

With that in mind, you want to make lists upon lists. Ask friends and family for ideas. Check the dictionary and thesaurus. Research what names your competition uses. Think of places, things, colors, foods and other ideas that are related to your business.

“The longer you keep listing, the more interesting the names become.” -Laurel Sutton

“The first 20 names you come up with will be boring names everyone has heard of. Get them out of your system, then keep listing.”

Try crowdsourcing

Not a whiz with words, or hitting a mental roadblock? Sutton recommends trying a few crowdsourcing resources, some of which are free or low cost.

Wordlab, for example, allows people around the world to chime in with suggestions. Squadhelp lets business owners solicit ideas via a contest. You pay the inventor of the winning name for his or her idea (usually between $100 and $300).

You can also crowdsource with your friends, family and community. Ask others for feedback on potential names. If they can’t spell or pronounce a candidate, or if they point out negative connotations with the name, scrap it.

Evaluate trademarks

A search on the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office’s website or through a lawyer will reveal whether a name has been trademarked. Avoid trademarked names entirely or you may face cease and desist letters or worse.

Also search your state’s corporation and business entity databases to see if there is company registered with the name you want.

Small businesses typically don’t trademark their names, but Sutton said if you have plans to expand or franchise, it’s worth the time and money to file early on.

Check the web

When you’ve settled on five to ten top options, Sutton advised checking social media and search results pages.

“If you’re in California and there’s a restaurant with the same name in Georgia, that’s probably fine,” she said. “But if it’s in the next town over, that will be confusing.”

According to Sutton, a lot of small business owners get caught up trying to find a domain name and social media handles that are not already taken. These days, it is fine for URLs and handles to include a descriptor or location. That is, if you want to name your restaurant Ravioli and you’re in New York City, or is a great domain.

“It will help your SEO for those trying to find you, and it’s a cheap way to maximize your marketing,” Sutton said.

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