Choosing your Business Name is a Fundamental 4

This business name stuff matters. You don’t get to do it twice, or at least not without a whole lot of pain and suffering. Most companies live forever with the first name they come up with. Factors that make your company name work include practical legal ownership, ease of use, ease of marketing and branding, and simplicity, to name a few. The domain name can follow later.

Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

I hope you recognize the quote reference here. My view is that people spend too much anxiety on the name, and too often without much business impact.

Palo Alto Software started as Infoplan, Inc., then changed to Palo Alto Software, Inc. a year later, and that hurt a little. But the new name was so much better than the old one that we didn’t mind much. But when we moved from Palo Alto, California, to Eugene, Oregon, we didn’t consider–not even for a second–changing our name again.

So I’d like to take another look at the business of naming a new business:

  1. Make sure you don’t bump into anybody else’s name. Who wants lawsuits? If you’re brand new, you don’t want to have a specific name that conflicts with an existing business. Do a really thorough Web search first and, if you can afford it, talk to an attorney. Don’t let the attorney have a blank check; get an expense estimate first.
  2. Don’t get hung up on the Internet domain name. You don’t have to have your exact favorite website domain name to build a business. If it makes you feel better, compare the traffic of amazon.com (huge) to books.com (tiny). Or flickr.com (huge) and photos.com (tiny). The smaller the better, but try to avoid frequent misspellings (silent letters, fone instead of phone, phreak instead of freak, for example). We can’t get around paloalto.com for Palo Alto Software, but that one gets misspelled a lot, and we lose people searching for the misspelled “buisness plan” instead of business plan. We eventually bought “bplan.com” because we were losing traffic to it from our existing bplans.com.
  3. Get a name you can use. Real-world example: In 1988 I changed the company name of Infoplan to Palo Alto Software. A friend in PR said he’d done a search and there were 26,000 corporations in the U.S. whose name started with “info.” So here are some questions to consider:
    • Is it easy to remember? To say? To spell? Think of the names that work for you, in your life–your favorite restaurants, stores, services. What works for you? Why? I’ve never been able to say Iraila, a local restaurant (named after the owner’s mother), and–coincidence or not–I don’t go there.
    • Is it confusing? Does it sound like something else?
    • Is it cute, or possibly too cute? Cute names can work well or poorly, depending on the business and the target. Rhymes, puns and so on can be great or grating. I like Rhythm and Blooms, a local flower store. I don’t like FCUK, a clothing chain in the UK.

If you follow these first three tips, don’t sweat the rest too much. A bad name can really hurt, but the difference between an acceptable name and a really good name is a lot less than you think. What really matters is the meaning you attach to the name through years of doing business well. I think this is the right focus, on the company name first, when you’re starting up.

Start-up names and domain names

It’s hard enough to set a name for your start-up. But it’s much harder when you sweat the domain name too much and let it clog the creative process.

Thank goodness, when we renamed Infoplan Inc. to Palo Alto Software, Inc. back in 1988, we didn’t think about the domain name issue. Instead, as we decided that Infoplan was too hard to market and we discovered that Palo Alto Software was not in use as a corporate name in California, so that’s what we named it. It said Silicon Valley, it said Stanford University, and we lived in Palo Alto and had offices in Palo Alto.

It took us until late in 1994 to catch on with the Internet. When we did, paloalto.com wasn’t available (we bought it years later, so it’s ours now) but we made do with pasware.com, bplans.com, bizplans.com, and a few others. I’m very glad I also registered timberry.com at that time too; and some of my kids were glad I registered their names, too.

This comes up because I watch more start-ups these days, and I see them sweating over making the company name and the domain name both work, both be exclusive and also be coordinated. That’s really tough. And then there are product names and service names, too, which makes it even harder.

Factors that make a domain name work are ownership, of course, and a different kind of ease of use (is it easy to type and hard to misspell, for example), and a different kind of marketability (easy to remember, easy to defend).

I’ve been in some naming sessions in which we forgot some of the basics. Amazon.com isn’t books.com, and Yahoo! and Google meant next to nothing when they started. But they were short, easy to remember (well, sort of–I had trouble with Google for about half a minute) and, essentially, easy to market.

Try these three sites for more insight on company naming.

About the Author Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Bplans.com. Follow him on Twitter @Timberry. Follow Tim on Google+ Read more »

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