how to name your business or startup

According to Shakespeare, ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’. When it comes to naming your business or startup in a digital world, not any name will perform as sweet.

Pre-90s, it was relatively easy to name a new business, with one golden rule providing guidance for those with minimum marketing savvy. A name should answer 2 key Qs we thought; ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What do I do?’ Tony’s Plumbing and Amy’s Beads made for useful yellow pages entries. Of course, the game has changed and so have the rules. We’re seeing more and more companies rise and conquer with names like two words mashed together.

So what is the difference between a name that dooms a business to obscurity, and one that becomes the talk of the town?

First a disclaimer; talk to a brand marketing professional if you can. There is so much to this process that an agency can charge up to 80K to create a name and identity. Consider this a top-line guide.

Today a big key is this; it’s less about ‘who I am and what I do’, and more about; ‘what are my values and who cares the most?’. I’d even reverse this to prioritise who cares the most. Everything starts, and ends, with Audience. Who are they? What pushes their buttons? Whatever your name, it must be meaningful to the right people or the game is lost before it’s begun.

Here are 5 tips to name your business or startup:

1. Is it a Business or Person or both?

One way to answer this question is to think about how people try to find you. If your name is the key driver, then you’re probably looking at a case for personal branding as well as business naming.

In other words, it might be in your best interest to make your name the brand. A lot of business owners that come to me with this question are hesitant because they don’t want the ‘mission’ of personal branding. The importance of Personal Branding is a topic for another post; however, the bottom line brings us back to audience. What term/s are they using to find you? If it’s YOU, they will discover your online profile anyway, so may as well streamline what they find to support your business goals.

If you do use your name, then think about scaling and future plans. Do you plan to sell the business? If so, how will you transition your business so the service carries on with your name and without you?

2. Choose a name that makes for a positive sensory experience

If your business is not tied to your name, then the field is broader. We know that people make buying decisions based on trust, and the key takeaway from this insight when naming is – Emotion. When faced with a buying decision, we choose what makes us feel good.

When we find ourselves confronted with a choice between two similar products or services; we tend to pick the one that makes us feel better. Our response in those foetal stages of brand relationship comes from the effects of what we see, hear and feel.

How does the word or phrase SOUND? What does the word or phrase LOOK like? How does the word or phrase make you FEEL? A digital world is a sensory one – whether consciously aware of this or not.

Not everyone likes the same colours and sounds so this brings us back to the audience. The sound/look/feel and meaning valued by a yoga teacher, for example, will be different to that of a programmer. Take the time to find out what your user or customer values. You’ll do this for your brand anyway, I suggest starting this research at the point of naming.

3.Don’t pick a name that is long, confusing, a cute pun or weirdly spelled

The later drives me nuts, but that’s my pet peeve. Weird or phonetic spelling can work against you because you don’t want the spelling of your name to interfere with your chances of being found.

If a competitor has the not cute version of the same or similar thing; you’ll only be helping to build their business. Make it easy to be remembered and found – this is key. Long is not always a problem. For example if long means it captures your name and what you do – great. If it’s a long or fancy word you invented, not so great.

The best name will be broad enough to allow for future growth and meaningful enough to convey something about your business. ‘InteliRates’ is an example that we came up with for a product at Excite Holidays. A booking feature for agents, short for ‘Intelligent (exchange) Rates’. This one word managed to capture the essence of the product, roll off the tongue nicely, maintain the professional image, and be easy to remember.

One theory suggests that the best performing names are those with 4-6 letters; examples include Waze, Klout, iTunes, Shazam, Safari, Google, Chrome, and the list goes on. If we extend this to 8 letters, we capture just about every big-value tech company in the market today. Emphasis on TECH co. The type of business is a huge contributing factor to the type of word. Is the business creative and edgy? Is it new age? A finance brand? Even finance is catching up when it comes to image and naming, but winning trust is still a huge factor so they won’t be getting too cute too soon. A restaurant or new bar, on the other hand, can pretty much go nuts; limited only by imagination, memorability and easy spelling.

Choose one word if you can, make it relatively short, sweet, and easy to say. If it’s phonetic, make sure it’s easy to spell, like ‘Shazam’.

4.Isolate your main keyword and use it if you can

This may seem like a contradiction from the point above. While the point above is solid advice, these are typically the types of names created by teams of professionals after multiple rounds (the simplest looking names often take the most time and research).

If you’re going it alone, you may need a simpler approach. Paul, a local photographer asked me about naming his new business. His situation brought up a number of common challenges that inspired this article.

First, his name is shared by a Photographer in the US with a strong brand presence. When you punch Paul’s name into Google, whether accompanied by the words ‘photographer’ or ‘photography’ or not, his US counterpart dominates the first two pages. To make things even more challenging, the name Paul wants for his business is taken by a Photographer in the ACT (another state). If Paul didn’t come to me first he would have put a site up with one or both of those names and diminished his chances of being found online. So what’s the best approach when there is competition for your key term/s? Paul can’t change his name or the fact that he’s a photographer, but he can isolate what makes him different. In Paul’s case, his keyword is Photography or Photographer and that will do well to stay in the title.

5.De Different

Brand words to live by. One difference for Paul is location, another is his type of photography. Unless Paul has an unlimited advertising budget, a made-up business name may not support his primary business goal of being found.

These are niche times; people search with precise vernacular. There’s a handy search tip here to do with high intent terms:

If you’re just browsing or looking for inspiration with no intent to buy anything, you’ll likely enter an umbrella term like ‘cars’ or ‘style’. Once you know what kind of car or shoes you want, your search becomes more specific like ‘Mazda CX5 Sydney’ or ‘Bohemian Style Necklace’. Paul can use this to his advantage by defining his niche and naming the business accordingly.

So a good tip for Paul is his name, location, and type of photography. Example, Paul Harris, Sydney Wedding Photographer.

Of course he needs to consider future goals like, will the type of photography expand, and his exit strategy. The key take-away is being different enough to stand out, and in-tuned enough be found by people looking for what he does.

In some ways, the old rules of ‘Who am I’ and ‘What do I do’ are no longer enough to conjure adequate stimulation, emotion or differentiation. In other instances like Paul’s, the rule is pretty solid – with some key term research and precision. A great name like a great logo will be highly relevant to the type of business, and be easy to say, spell and remember.

If it helps you be remembered and found, you have a winner. I hope this helps you get a great name off the ground.


If you have any more key tips to add for naming a business in a digital world, please add them to the comments below. Insights are always appreciated.

Now go forth and be different.