Once upon a time (1997) there was a friendly Internet programming company in Portland, Ore., named “emedia.” My company, Palo Alto Software in Eugene, Ore., was a client. Emedia hosted our sites for a while, helped us get started with Cold Fusion and gave us advice about getting our software available for immediate download online.

Emedia was a great name for a Web-based company, right? I mean e-mail and e-this and e-that, and it was emedia, at emedia.com. (And I checked; that’s not the company there now. Please don’t bother the real rightful owners of that site because of this post.)

Late that year emedia changed its name. They changed it to something way less memorable.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because we had to,” they answered. “A company in Texas had the same name. We couldn’t prove we had it first, so we had to give it up.”

That was 12 years ago. Today I can’t find any evidence that the Portland emedia ever existed. Maybe I just imagined it?

Changing your company name is really hard to do. Don’t get trapped into having to do it.

Understand how business names work:

  1. Technically, there could be an emedia corporation in Oregon and another in Texas, and one in fact in every state. There could be emedia companies in most counties in most states. The naming organizations don’t care.
  2. What happens, though, is that as soon as any two of them seem to be reaching the same customers, doing similar things, then the first one can legally make the second one stop it.

Another example, also a true story: It’s 17 years ago now since we moved Palo Alto Software, Inc. from Palo Alto, Calif., to Eugene, Ore. That many years later, we’re so completely integrated into Eugene that it hurts to have that other city’s name for the company. Eugene Software, Cascade Software, Willamette Software or McKenzie Software would have been nice; Cascade was my favorite because Eugene is due west of the Oregon Cascades.  But it’s still Palo Alto Software because it had lived with that name for seven years before we moved. And it would have been really hard, and bad for business, to change a name after seven years.

Think of this: If your grandfather was named McDonald and he started a burger shop 75 years ago, and you could prove it, you’d be able to keep the name McDonald’s Hamburgers. But even if your name is McDonald’s, you still wouldn’t be able to start a new business with that name today.

Conclusion: Check the name out well before you name your company. Unless you’re satisfied with living inside a fence, it has to be exclusive, not just legal.

Tim BerryTim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Bplans.com. Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.