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How to Choose a Business Name

April 5, 2017
Updated: December 18, 2018

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t the time of this writing, my blog/business/online brand name is JTronLabs. My name is James, back in school some friends called me JamesTron, and the Labs is thrown in there to make it official. There are reasons I do and don't like that name, and I've decided to come up with a new one.

The motivation for this came in part from listening to the StartUp podcast episode about naming, in which they hire Lexicon Branding to come up with Gimlet Media.

What's in a Name?

Before anything else, a user's first experience with a company is usually hearing its name. You want to convince them to use or remember your product. Like all persuation you can utilize pathos (emotion), logos (logic), or ethos (credibility). Since ethos doesn't apply to newcomers, you need to communicate an emotion or explanation in these first impressions.

How can that be done systematically? First, we'll examine the types of business names and then move on to the creative process.

Trademarks and Types of Names

While thinking, ensure names aren't trademarked else you risk costly legal battles. Start your search on Google and move to the USPTO Search. Be aware that the US considers

Similarity in sound, appearance, and/or meaning may be sufficient to support a finding of likelihood of confusion, depending on the relatedness of the goods and/or services - USPTO Handbook

Create a "Strong Mark" - one that is easy to defend from 3rd party infringement. In order of decreasing strength trademarks are placed into categories: fanciful/arbitrary, suggestive, descriptive, and generic.

The category your mark falls into will significantly impact both its registrability and your ability to enforce your rights in the mark. - USPTO Handbook

Fanciful/Arbitrary

The strongest names.

Fanciful marks are invented words with no dictionary or other known meaning. Arbitrary marks are actual words with a known meaning that have no association/relationship with the goods protected. - USPTO Handbook

Below are some examples with their origin stories.

These names are extremely common in the tech industry, perhaps because the new products work well with "blank slate" names - new words/associations lacking any product connotations. The "arbitrary" names also excel at capturing emotions by referencing unrelated ideas.

Suggestive

Suggest, but do not describe, qualities or a connection to the goods or services. - USPTO Handbook

These often blend together with the fanciful, but instead of being completely made up or entirely emotion invoking, they aim to explain as well. Often, words will be compounded together and/or chopped up to capture multiple ideas while improving trademark likelihood. With these examples, there isn't always a fun explanation as it is meant to be self-explanatory.

  • Pinterest
  • GlassDoor
  • InstaGram
  • SnapChat
  • SnapDeal
  • WeWork
  • Lyft
  • InstaCart
  • AppNexus
  • Microsoft (microprocessor software)

Descriptive

words or designs … that describe the goods and/or services - USPTO Handbook

Watch out, you're starting to enter the territory of "can't be trademarked":

[If] a mark is “merely descriptive,” then it is not registrable or protectable … unless it acquires distinctiveness– generally through extensive use in commerce over a five-year period or longer. - USPTO Handbook

These marks can seem appealing because they excel at explanation - it reduces the need to educate and advertise to consumers about your product. While that can be helpful, if you lose the ability to trademark you lose some control, leaving youself open to other people taking up the name and harming your reputation. Eventually you will want to change the name, which will end up extremely costly - losing you money, time, and brand recognition.

  • Number One Chinese
  • International Business Machines
  • All Bran

Generic

The name of the good/product being offered. "Bicycle" or "Milk" for example. It's interesting to note that Escalator and Aspirin eventually lost their trademarks due to widespread, long-term usage unrelated to the company/product.

Dos and Don'ts

Beyond the USPTO's definitions, there are many other direction's your company's name can go in, some good and other's not so good.

Do Create Emotion

Emotions arise through word choice. Allusions (references), connotations (implied meanings) and phonaesthetics (how pleasant it sounds) can all be used to help create emotion. Arbitrary names like Amazon, Epic, or Google can inspire a grand vision for your products, and imediately create interest.

Do be Short

It helps to be short (around two-three syllables) and easy to spell to improve discoverability via SEO and simple domain names.

Don't be Overly Specific

"American Podcasting Corporation" limits itself to podcasts and America, and may have trouble gaining recognition as it attempts to expand, innovate, or pivot. It is also too descriptive, and may be difficult to trademark.

Don't Just use Your Name

This has worked for a lot of companies: Hewlett Packard, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, to name a few. This is common in law, finance, and fashion: businesses that seem to aim for trust or exclusivity. There are definite downsides though: it may become difficult to find partners or buyers, if sold the new owners would own your name (tying it to specific products and varying quality), your children (if you have any) may not want to continue the business and they may be unwilling to sell if needed. I believe it would lead to complicated business decisions, potentially gives others control of your name, and can complicate home life.

If you are an individual developer or business owner, you could do brand building (social media, blogging, etc) under your own name, while also sqautting domains and accounts for your business. You'll still want to create websites for your business and big product launches though.

Don't be too Cutesy

Silly, fun names can work in the video game or toy industry, but not many others. Even in those industries it can be useful to pick a more generic name in case of a pivot/product change (like Slack). Puns and other jokes can typically make a company more memorable, but can hurt credibility and reputation. Often times, a funny name is also longer and harder to spell, which can hurt discoverability.

However, some companies exist mostly to sell branded products, such as Life Is Good and others. Their names create interest in merchandise sales, which forms a large part of the revenue. These companies work, and if that's you then go for it, but anticipate changing names/starting anew when branching out into new products.

Don't Use Bad Words

Obviously. Unless you're angling to sell branded products.

Don't be Uninspired

Adjectve+animal/noun (or noun+noun) is great at creating a scene, go for it if you hit upon a combination that really speaks to you. In general though, it's a bit too easy to smash two words together, and may leave people confused, or worse, thinking you're generic. Names should explain or make you stand out, so be careful when trying to pick word combos out of a hat.

Don't Worry

Pick what sounds good to you and seems to test well with users, if you can't conduct research try talking to some friends/family. Not everyone is going to like your name, so don't aim to make everyone happy. At the end of the day, the name matters less than what you can accomplish. If it's holding you back, it may be better to just choose something and get started.

BrainStorming

There are some formulaic guides out there: entrepreneur.com, fuzebranding, thenextweb and others. I like Fuze's free worksheet, but it's a bit too formulaic for my taste.

Instead I decided to

  1. Write down my potential products and emotions
  2. Research companies with similar products to get some ideas
  3. Choose words describing or connotating these conceptsand
  4. Mismash, randomly generate (1, 2, 3), discuss with friends, and think of more ideas
  5. Finally I compiled the results and picked my favorite

Products

I'm not really sure, but will focus on games for now: Videogames, games, mobile games, PC games, software, websites, consumer apps, business2business apps, SaaS…

In addition to products, there are related ideas that could emerge: computers, science, math, engineering, technology, art, design, electricity, algorithms, mechanics, fiction, narrative, flow, respawn, die, loot, award, decision, experience

Emotions

Passion, Independence, Supportive, Empathy, Immersion, Community, Fun, Grand, Credible

Similar Companies

  1. Big Game Companies: Valve, Electronic Arts, BioWare, Blizzard, Nintendo, etc
  2. Smaller Game Companies: Mojang, Ludeon, Concerned Ape, Number None, Playdead, Yacht Club Games, Giant Squid, Campo Santo, Red Hook Studios, Subset Games, Butterscotch Shenanigans, etc
  3. Software Companies: Most of the ones listed in the previous sections were tech companies, so imagine them here.
  4. Web Development: Big Drop, Matellio, Toptal, Steelkiwi, Konstant Infosolutions, Anadea, etc

Ideas

BitWise, BitGlitch, Bligind, Bitumbus, BitIO, Bito, Gamio, Iopia, Shio, LoopIO, Resio, Iteron, Itreus, Rebit, Revindus, Remergence, Protohype, LoopNova, Lioindus, Lionova, Novazoid, Tronova, Novalode, Nodelode, Galaloadus, Quasaron, Dinoquasatron, Optitron, Razortron Tronatomics, Trontomic, Trononomic, Tronosis, Faron, Autotronomous, Electron, Fusitron, Stellanovus, Trosolum, Novasolus, Singtro, Conafi, Vivindo, Revindo, Orti, Oritus, Loky, Looky, Xochi, Lookypilli, Refortuna, Viirom (my dog's name is Viira), Megadog, Reflo, Flomersion, FlowGap, Proflo, Mechaflow, Conflow, Paceflow, Flode, Fload, Flom, Flome, Totalflow, Fullflow, Hyperflow, Massflow, Piflo, Zenflow, Zeflo, FlowIO, Flio, FeedFlow, Intensiflo, Leiflo, Leiunda, Leifundo, Euflo, Eurflo, Eulapsu, Motunda, Iraunda, Cupunda, Amunda, Cupunda, Endoflo, Boniflo, Credoflo, Flodeon, Floello, Flowstant, Flowang, Moflow, Floogel, Floap, Floleist, FeatureFlo, GestFlo, Gestplo, Gespour, Gesplor, Gestlow, Emprisaflo, Flogest, Floges, Gespour, Emplo, Gesplo, Pourmersive, Pourmersion, Pourmesion, Paloure, Posiflo, FakeGrenade, Nucleus, ReluctantTurtle, Overlearnt, FlipFlopGames, 2WayFlow, DoubleDungeon, Flowbot, Cheesebuff, HeavyExploit, Mode8, Permaquest, ClickClocked, PlayOPs, TheoryCraft, Minimax, Datamax, Ludal, Ludar, Ludor, Ludify, Ludan, Ludoid, Ludous, Ludeous, Fludom, Fludello … Murbel, Murbble, Babur, Murmish, Babbish, Surgle, Surble, Dripble, Deluble, ribble, slatle, squrble, splurble, moble, Deblube, Demurbel, Delurble, Delubish, Blabbish, Lurble, Swarble, Exurble, Exergle, Exible, Arible, Gubble, Blurgle, Trible, Smoble, Sebble, Floble, Froble, Furble, Blugal, Sibble, Tilod

These are vaguely in the order I thought of them. It starts with computer words, then space words (it came from a random generator and paired well with some desired emotions), moved onto "Tron", got desperate around Latin and ancient gods, and then had a revalation. I felt uncomfortable with a lot of these names because they felt meaningless, I had to narrow my products/vision before continuing. I focused on games and the emotions I wanted users to feel: flow, immersion, empathy, passion. The Latin from earlier sounded good (passionate, pretty, universal language) so I kept iterating around that. Then I moved onto scenes (adjective + noun or arbitrary words) and incorporated more gaming words. Finally I learned lud- is the english prefix for play/games (ludology), and added some English suffixes to make some new words.

A lot of the words I brainstormed are bad. Long, hard to spell, silly, meaningless. I wrote them down anyways because they were fun and broke up tediousness. Many were already taken, even the nonsense words.

I found quite a few words that I liked, but was unable to use. I thought I had found a match with Leiundo (Lei + unda = smooth wave/water/flow), but my family told me it was too hard to spell.

Changing a Name

At this point in my business venture I have not filed much official paperwork (just registered a PO box). However, I use KeePass to track my passwords, and it shows 24 different online accounts registered to JTronLabs. Some of those sites (like Reddit) do not allow username changes, so in those communities I need to start over with zero reputation. I also have thousands of hits on this blog/personal website, and that SEO will be lost.

Despite the monetary cost being very low to switch now, it is still a huge pain. I wish I would have gone through a process like this at the beginning.