10 Steps to Name Your Startup
There’s No Magic Bullet
I wish I could write a blog post that tells you how to name your business.
However, there is a reason that people pay branding companies upwards of $50,000 to name their companies. It’s hard work. It requires time, expertise, and money.
However, those may be the exact three things you have in short supply as a startup.
As you probably know, my general philosophy for startups is:
- Take the path of least resistance.
- Don’t overthink it.
- Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.
- Just do the next right thing.
This philosophy applies to naming a business as well.
You can agonize over a business name for months and still end up with something you don’t love.
I’ve named a few businesses for myself, for employers, and for clients. So while I can’t show you the magic formula that will allow you to do a $50k naming job for yourself, I can show you a few resources that should set the stage for finding a “good enough” name.
After all, you have other shit to do! (Like your logo, website, and all those things I will write about in a future post!)
If you follow these 10 steps, you will find a name that works for your startup.
Step 0: Know what you’re selling.
This article is not intended to help you brainstorm what your business should be. I’m assuming you know what products or services you want to sell.
If you don’t know what you’re selling, read this. Come back when you know what you’re doing.
Step 1: Clarify what your new business will do (in writing).
After you’re up and running, we will do more work to clarify and explore your ideal audience, your features and benefits, and your product or service positioning.
But for now, just try to answer these questions as best as you can. It does not need to be perfect or final! This is just meant to get you thinking.
- Briefly describe your product or service to someone who knows absolutely nothing about it (simple, just a few bullet points).
- Now summarize it in three words or less.
- What category or market are you in?
- What makes it different and better than what’s already on the market?
- List some names of competitors or similar products. Circle the ones you like and cross out the ones you hate. (You can make yourself nuts with this if you try to be too thorough.)
- Who is your audience? (Keep it high-level! We will do more detailed audience identification work in the future.)
- What need are you meeting in the market?
- What are 5-10 adjectives that you’d like to communicate to your customers or clients? (Here is a list of 500 adjectives to spark your thinking about how to describe your brand.)
- Is there another brand or even a celebrity that has the kind of characteristics you want your brand to have? (I would say fully 50% of the entrepreneurs I’ve run through this exercise with say Apple, Tesla, and Oprah.)
- Are there any words you’d like the name to include?
Step 2: Brainstorm
The only rules are that you write down everything and withhold criticism, even if you think it sucks. An idea that sucks might be what sparks the idea that rocks! Brainstorming is an essential part of the process of naming your startup.
Do it by yourself. Get a big piece of poster board and just start listing names. Use the thesaurus. Look at what other companies have done.
Ask a friend or two or five to help. Get together with a creative friend or colleague who is willing to give you an hour of his or her time.
Better yet, get a few people together, buy them coffee or pizza, and just do an old-school brainstorming session (and here are great tips for brainstorming with introverts!)
Pro-Tip: Consider Using Your Actual Name
If you are doing any kind of consulting or personality-based business, consider using your actual name instead of something else. Add a descriptive tagline to clarify.
For example, I wish I had called my first consulting company Sarah Allen-Short, Strategic Marketing and Communications. But I spent a lot of time and effort (and a little money) on naming it Thrive Communications. I didn’t really need to do that.
The advantage of using your own name as your business name:
- People only have to remember one name/brand
- There’s a greater likelihood of getting the domain name and having a unique company name
- You can stop this company name brainstorming process right now!
- You can probably create your own logo much more easily
- It’s a little harder to expand. If you have a vision of hiring 20 people, you probably don’t want to center yourself quite so much. One way around this is to use initials. For example, Neil Patel calls his full-service digital consulting agency NPAcel, while he still maintains NeilPatel.com and a number of other URLs.
Tips for Brainstorming a Company Name
Here are a few tips that may help with brainstorming your “good enough” name.
- Start with writing words you like, instead of fully-formed ideas.
- Come up with a large goal, like 100 words that you might use in a name.I don’t normally advocate for setting ambitious goals. However, in this case, a large goal will incentivize you to write down everything, which is what you want to do.
- Write a list of words or adjectives and then use the thesaurus to find less common words.
- If there is a word or concept you really like, consider exploring similar words in other languages.
- Try glossaries related to your product or service. For instance, Google “your industry or product” + “terms,” “vocabulary,” “lingo,” “jargon,” “glossary,” “slang,” or “words.”
- Do a brain dump. Set a timer (2 minutes is good) and write down everything you can think of related to your business idea. How do you want people to feel about you? What nouns, verbs, adjectives, and names come to mind? (Here is that list of 500 adjectives, but don’t forget other kinds of words).
- Try this visual thesaurus to find other words related to words you know you like.
Step 3: Try Some Business Name Generators
If you have a few words or a basic idea, you can enter them into a variety of name generators and see if you get a name you like. Or you might just get a name that sparks another name that you like.
Here are 14 websites that can help you name your startup.
- Novanym Business Name Generator
- BNG: Business Name Generator
- NetSubstance Brand Name Generator
- NameMesh Startup Name Generator
- Go to GoDaddy and enter in a name or a few words you like. If the dotcom is not available, they will suggest other, similar names.
Step 4: Consider Paid Options.
I assume if you’re reading this website, you can’t afford to pay a branding firm $50k to name your startup. However, there are cheaper alternatives.
I’m stressing that these should be used at the brainstorming phase because the chances you will get a name you LOVE is small.
However, in my experience, getting some ideas from paid services sparked new ideas of my own, and also made me feel more confident with my eventual choice.
There are two categories of inexpensive help.
- Squad Help: Squad Help runs contests that crowdsource ideas from creative professionals all over the world. Cost ranges from $199 (for a name and a dotcom domain) to $2000 (for a managed agency experience).
- Fiverr is a marketplace that connects you to freelancers who can help you with a variety of services, including naming, at a huge range of prices. Most of these professionals are overseas, which means they can provide services for much lower costs.
- Eat My Words has a great track record and will do a consulting session for $2500, though their full-service packages can cost up to $50k.
I’ve used both Squad Help and Fiverr. Neither gave me a name I ended up using, but I wouldn’t say it was a total waste of time or money.
If you’re totally bootstrapped, I wouldn’t spend my money this way, but if you have a little to spare, it can be worth it to feel you’ve left no stone unturned.
Look at domains that are for sale.
Buying an existing startup name is not going to be your cheapest option. But if you have some funding and want to save some time, it’s worth looking at what’s for sale.
Even if you don’t have funding, it’s worth poking around on these sites, because you never know when you see something that will spark another idea.
Most decent names will be in the $2-5k range on websites like this, though there are exceptions both higher and lower. It’s possible to get a name for a few hundred dollars and you can also pay upwards of $50k.
Honestly, if you find a name you absolutely adore for $2,000 and it comes with a dotcom, that is an investment you should consider.
Here are a few worth checking out. There are others.
Step 5: Narrow down your list of startup names
If you’ve done all the steps in this process so far, you should have a lot of startup names to consider. I’m hoping it will be fairly easy for you to eliminate the vast majority of names that this process produced. That’s ok. It’s the point, even!
Narrow down your broad list to a handful of names.
You don’t have to love them all.
Circle anything that has any merit at all.
Make a shortlist, ideally between 5-20 names. But whatever, there are no rules!
To help you narrow the field . . .
It’s worth checking at this point whether your top names are taken. If you have a list of 20 names and half of them are taken, that helps you narrow things down.
Are there similar companies in a similar industry with a similar name? That might be a problem. But if you’re a startup tech company working on the east coast and there is a coffee shop on the west coast with a similar name, it’s probably ok.
Is the dotcom available?
Does one name lend itself to a logo more than another?
Step 6: Get some feedback as you name your startup.
If you can’t choose one name, narrow it down to two or three, and ask for opinions from people you trust.
However, be very careful who you ask.
If you put it out on Facebook and ask everybody, there will probably be at least a few people who love every name and who hate every name.
When I was a doula, I always recommended to birthing couples that they never share the name until the baby is born. People will tell you they hate a name until it’s attached to something.
If you’re ok with knowing who hates your name, go for it. But I’d just rather not know.
People will tell you they hate the name Hortense when you are 6 months pregnant, but once you’re holding a sweet, snuggly, a literal baby named Hortense, they will keep their mouths shut.
So it goes with business names.
However, on the flip side, it can be a good idea to run your names by some folks just to make sure you’re not missing anything.
For instance, there is a famous story of GM naming a car Nova without realizing that means “doesn’t go” in Spanish.
Another example is a restaurant named Sam and Ella’s, which looks way too much like Salmonella on the sign.
Choose Spain is another example: when you turn it into a URL, it becomes choosespain.com.
Don’t get too freaked out about the possibility of a misstep. It’s just an argument for showing a few people before you get too attached.
Step 7: Sleep on it.
You have to let these names marinate. There are going to be names that bubble up to the top, and then sink back down. There will be names that grow on you, and names that shrink on you.
You need to give this part of the process as much time as you can afford to give it.
I know it feels like you can’t do anything else until you have a name, and you can’t.
But the marination process is critical.
I can’t tell you how many times I have been just about to pick a name just to have SOMETHING when a name I like much better presents itself in my mind.
I can’t explain how or why that happens, but it does.
(Side note, two songs have been running through my head as I’ve been writing this post. “My Name Is” by Eminem and “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” by Meatloaf. “Let me sleep on it, baby, baby, let me sleep on it.”
Or am I just old?)
Step 8: Choose a name.
Here’s the thing. You really don’t have to have THE PERFECT NAME THAT YOU WILL LOVE FOREVER.
I know you want this.
And I want it for you.
I have run businesses with names I adore and businesses with names I settled for. In the end, it just doesn’t matter that much.
You have a lot to do, and you need a name to do it. So just pick something. It will be okay.
Step 9: Sit with it some more.
I tend to do a lot of second-guessing. Therefore, after I finally choose a name, I usually spend a few weeks thinking I made a horrible mistake. And then it grows on me again.
I have learned this is all just part of my process. By the way, I did this with my children’s names, too.
If you can take two weeks and just sit with it, do that.
Let it sink in.
See if anything else is going to come out of the left field.
Do you have deep regrets?
See if you think you can live with it.
I want to reiterate: it is okay if you are just MEH about your company name. It truly is. Free yourself from the tyranny of perfectionism.
Step 10: Congrats! You have a good enough name!
At some point, you just have to move forward.
This is going to be one of a billion decisions you have to make for your new business.
Take it from me, it will not serve you or your business well if you get hung up on any one thing for too long!
I am the queen of getting hung up on things for too long. Do as I do, not as I say!
Now that you know how to name your business, here are a few other things to consider.
- Buy a domain name. Check out GoDaddy or Network Solutions. Here’s a pretty good article from Neil Patel on what to do if the dotcom is taken. You might be able to use a different extension, for example, .pro. .net, .io, .ly, .me and more (here’s a pretty extensive list)
- Grab the social handles for your business on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, or any other relevant platforms for your niche. Do not despair if they are taken; you just have to get a variation.
- Do a trademark search on USPTO.gov. Most startups are not going to have the time or money to pursue this early on in the process, but it’s good to know what’s possible and what’s not.
- Check out your local Secretary of State’s records to see if there are other businesses with similar names. You will probably want to get an LLC or similar legal designation sooner rather than later. Again, it’s not a deal-breaker if there is a company with a similar name. A lot depends on whether people will be confused, so if you’re in a different industry or geography,
Originally published at TheMarketingDoula on February 15, 2020.