No doubt you'll spend hours brainstorming for a business name that represents your products or services -- a name that's both marketable and infused with personality. To help the creative process along, you might surf the Web, browse the dictionary, read trade magazines, and bounce ideas off of friends and colleagues. But as you hunt for the perfect name, keep three main questions in mind:
You'll have to conduct a name and trademark search to make sure no one else is using the name you want to use (or a very similar name) to market similar products or services. You should also check with your county clerk's office to see whether your proposed name is already on the list of fictitious or assumed business names in your county. If you find that your chosen name (or a very similar one) is registered as a trademark, or is listed on a fictitious or assumed name register, you shouldn't use it.
If you're organizing your business as a corporation, LLC, or limited partnership, you must also make sure your business name isn't the same as that of an existing corporation, LLC, or limited partnership in your state. If a name that is identical or very similar to your proposed business name turns up in your state's database, you'll have to choose another.
Read Make Sure Your Proposed Business Name Is Available for instructions on how to do a thorough name and trademark search.
A trademark (sometimes called simply a "mark") is any word, phrase, design, or symbol used to market a product or service. Technically, a mark used to market a service, rather than a product, is called a service mark, though the term "trademark" is commonly used for both types of marks because they refer to the same group of legal protections. Owners of trademarks have rights under both federal and state law that give them the power in many cases to prevent others from using the same or confusingly similar trademarks.
To make sure your proposed business name won't step on someone else's rights to an existing trademark, you'll have to do a trademark search. (Read Make Sure Your Proposed Business Name Is Available to learn how to do a trademark search.) Also, when picking a business name, you should take care to choose a name that will be likely to receive trademark protection and then take steps to protect your business name as a trademark. For more information on names that are likely to receive trademark protection, see Pick a Winning Name for Your Business, and for more information on protecting your business name as a trademark, see Filing a Federal Trademark Application FAQ.
The legal name of a business is the official name of the person or entity that owns a business. If you are the only owner of your business, then its legal name is simply your full name.
If your business is a general partnership, and you have a written partnership agreement that gives a name to the partnership, then that name is the legal name of the business. Otherwise, the legal name of a general partnership consists of the last names of the owners.
Your business's legal name will be required on all government forms and applications, and is particularly important to use on your application for a federal employer identification number.
If you plan to use a name that's different from your business's legal name, you'll need to register the name you want to use with a government agency. For more information, see the following question, What is a fictitious business name?
The term "fictitious business name" (or "assumed business name," "trade name," or "DBA" for "doing business as") is used when a business uses a name that's different from its legal name. For instance, if John O'Toole names his sole proprietorship Turtle's Classic Cars, the name "Turtle's Classic Cars" is a fictitious business name because it does not contain John's last name, "O'Toole."
If your business uses a fictitious business name, you'll need to register it with a government agency -- in most states, your local county clerk's office.
For more information, read Registering Your Business Name.
If you're starting a corporation, LLC, or limited partnership, your official business name will be automatically registered when you file your articles of incorporation, articles of organization, or statement of limited partnership with your state filing office. However, if you will sell products or services under a different name, you must also file a fictitious name statement (sometimes called an "assumed" name statement) with the state or county where your business is headquartered. For more information on how to register a fictitious name, see Registering Your Business Name.
Other types of businesses may also have to comply with fictitious or assumed business name requirements. Generally, any business that doesn't use its legal name as part of its business name must file a fictitious name statement with a government agency, usually the county clerk's office. For more information on how to register a fictitious name, see Registering Your Business Name.
You may also want to take advantage of the extra protection that registering your name as a trademark can give you. While it's not required, registering your name as a trademark at the state and/or federal level can prevent other businesses from using a name that's likely to be confused with your business name. For more information, see Filing a Federal Trademark Application FAQ.
Some people confuse choosing a business name with choosing a type of ownership structure, such as a corporation or limited liability company (LLC). But you can't just tack "Inc." or "LLC" onto the end of your business name and start calling yourself a corporation or LLC.
First you must form a corporation or LLC, and to do so you've got to follow certain filing procedures to register the new type of company with your state. For more information on the various types of businesses, see Learn About Business Ownership Structures.
For step-by-step help in choosing and registering your business name, see The Small Business Start-Up Kit: A Step-by-Step Legal Guide, by Peri H. Pakroo (Nolo).
There's no one-size-fits-all formula for picking a great business name. The best name depends on a host of considerations -- some as obvious as the kind of business you do, others as unique as your own tastes and style. There are, however, a few guidelines that will steer you in the right direction. A good business name should:
For more information, read about how Distinctive Names Receive More Trademark Protection.