Choosing a name for your business might be one of the most important decisions you make early on. Your business name should be both memorable and indicative of the services you will offer customers. After you've decided on the perfect name for your business, you need to make sure you register it so the name can be exclusively yours.
To find out if your business name is available, you will first need to conduct a name and trademark search. If someone else is already using your name to market a similar service or product, you’ll have to explore other options; once a business name is registered, no one else can use it.
You also don't want your business getting poached by a competitor with a similar name. For example, if you want to name your bakery Chubby Wife Cookies, but there is already a Chunky Wife Cookies, you run the risk of being confused with another business. This can become particularly problematic if the business with a similar name has a tarnished reputation.
An experienced attorney can help you perform a name and trademark search of fictitious and assumed business names.
What Kind of Business Are You Naming?
Once you've successfully picked your business name, you have to register it. There are different rules and requirements depending on the state you are in and the structure of the business you plan on establishing, so it's worth it to double-check your local regulations. For example, if your business is a sole proprietorship or partnership, you can either choose a business name or use a fictitious one, also known as a DBA or "doing business as." Depending on your municipality, you may be required to register your DBA.
The options for registering your business name are as follows:
Establish and Register a Business Structure
Registering your business at the state level can ensure the protection of your business name. You can do this by registering your business structure as a corporation (the difference between an S Corp. and a C Corp. lies primarily with taxation, by the way), nonprofit (you may have to wait a whole year to achieve tax-exempt status with the IRS), or limited liability company (LLC). State rules vary about what your business name must include. For example, if you're registering an LLC, you likely have to include "limited company," "L.L.C.," or something of that nature in your business name, and if you're registering in a state like New Jersey, you must appoint a registered agent to handle legal documents in the event of a lawsuit.
The state only approves your application if the name is available in the state and is not too similar to any other business name. Once approved, the name is exclusively yours to use in the state. Some states also require that you post a notice of intent to form an LLC in your local newspaper.
Make sure to consult with an attorney if you need clarification about the requirements for incorporating a business in your state, as well as for counsel on any other issues you may encounter when starting your business.
Trademark Your Business Name
When choosing your business name, it is a good idea to choose a name that is likely to receive trademark protection. Obtaining trademark protection means that other businesses cannot use the same or similar trademarks in their marketing.
While registering your business name as a trademark is not required, it is a necessary step if your business plans on operating at the national level. It's important to note that registering for a trademark can run you up a couple hundred dollars, at least. But, trademarks protect your business name in all 50 states. To register for one, you'll have to begin an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). You can also apply for a trademark at the state level, but it's up to you and your business partners to decide if getting one is a prudent decision. If you're going to trademark your business name, make sure the name you want is available and there aren't any businesses operating under a similar name, otherwise, your application will be rejected, you'll have wasted time, and you'll be out $200.
Trademarks are expensive, but they offer protection for your business' logos, symbols, color schemes, and slogans. Unlike a DBA, which just protects your business name, a trademark is a protection for your business' entire brand. If you're opening a coffee shop in a small town, registering your business name with the state is probably the right amount of protection for you.
File for a DBA
This is not too difficult a process. If you plan on running your business under your full legal name (i.e. "Johnny Appleseed") you do not need to file a DBA (Doing Business As) with your state or county clerk office. If you plan on using a name for your business that is different from the legal names of you and your partners, you must pay the small registration fee as required by your county, city, or state to register what is sometimes called a fictitious business name. For example, if your business name doesn't incorporate your last name (i.e. "Johnny's Apple Store"), you'll need to file a DBA. It's important to note that DBA's may not include the words "Inc.," "incorporation," "corporation," or "Corp."
The procedure for filing a DBA varies by state. Some only require the payment of the registration fee along with the accordant paperwork. Others require placing a notice in a local newspaper for a designated period of time, like if you're forming an LLC.
Essentially, you must file a DBA if you are part of a general partnership or a sole proprietor using a business name different from your full name. You must also file for a DBA if you have incorporated your business or formed a limited liability company (LLC) and want to operate under a business name that differs from the name of the LLC or your company. It doesn't matter what type of business you're starting, make sure you follow the instructions required in your area if you're registering for a DBA.
Consider Domain Name Availability
Maintaining an online presence that's consistent with the rest of your business is crucial to your success. It's an ideal opportunity to get your brand out there. Is there an available domain name that works with your chosen business name? Let’s say you want to name your business Vermont Auto Body Pros. During a domain search, you discover that Green Mountain Auto Body Pros (another shop in your state) has a website domain of vermontautobodypros.com. As frustrating as this might be, it would be wise to choose another domain name for your business' website to avoid confusion.
Much like registering a business name, once your domain name is registered, it is exclusively yours. But don't fret if your desired domain name is taken and you can't make one exactly the same as your trademark, DBA, or legal business name. As long as it is similar enough that people will be able to find your business, you have nothing to worry about. You're not legally required to have identical business and domain names. Use a recognized domain registrar directory to pick the one that is best for your business.
A good business name can help tremendously towards future success, and having to change your name a year or two into building your business can have serious consequences. Once you've decided on the right name (and ensured its availability) ask yourself these three preliminary questions before registering the name of your business:
- Will your business be a corporation, LLC, or limited partnership?
- Will the name require trademark protection?
- Is a similar name available for your website domain?
Consider hiring an experienced business attorney to help you through the process.