Thinking up a name for your business can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of setting up your own venture, particularly if you do it with friends over a few beers. It can also be one of the most frustrating when you realise the following morning that all your brilliant ideas have already been used by someone else.
The advent of the internet has made the process even more difficult – not only do you have to come up with a good name that no-one has already taken, but you also have to ensure you can get the same domain name too, in both dot com and dot co.uk versions.
Once you have decided it’s time to start out on your own, one of the first things on your to-do list will be picking a name for your new business. When creating a new business, it’s important to choose something which will represent you, your business and what it does, as well as make it stand out from the crowd. But business names in the UK are strictly regulated by Company and Intellectual Property law (depending on if you’re a company or sole trader). This isn’t as scary as it sounds because as long as you know the rules, picking a good name for your business will take some time but fortunately isn’t rocket science.
Four kinds of business names
There are several different kinds of names to choose from:
- You can choose a name that literally describes what the business does – classically brilliant brand names include Mothercare, Toys R Us and Burger King.
- You can choose a name which means nothing initially but which you hope to embellish with meaning as your business develops – Starbucks, McDonald’s and Domino’s, for example.
- You can make up an entirely new name such as Consignia and Ocado.
- You can use a catchy memorable phrase as your name – I Can’t Believe it’s not Butter, Iwantoneofthose.com, Notonthehighstreet.com – and Startupstarthere.com, for example.
These kinds of names represent 99% of the names you’ll come up with.
Create a shortlist of business names
It’s important to build up a shortlist of possible names for your business, don’t get too attached to one name because there are several reasons why you may not be able to use it. Here are some critical guidelines to help you draw up that list and start to whittle down to your final shortlist of business names.
Don’t choose something too restricting. You need a name which is flexible enough to allow your business to grow without having to change it. The name Virgin works brilliantly because it can be applied to virtually any kind of business, but Gary Frank had to change the name of his business from The Delicious Doughnut Company to the Fabulous Bakin’ Boys when he stopped selling doughnuts.
Make it timeless
Try to avoid a name that will date – while the name Carphone Warehouse was originally ideal for its market since then mobile phones have evolved in a way that few could have imagined and the concept of a ‘carphone’ is now incomprehensible to a new generation of mobile phone users.
Making up words
If you are planning to use a made-up name like Arriva or Ocado be aware that it will take longer for customers to remember it, and that you will have to spend more money on advertising to make people aware of it. Descriptive names take less time and money to support. You also need to make sure it is spelt as it sounds so that whenever someone mentions it, it will be easy for someone else to know how to spell it and so find it on a search engine.
Initials are hard to remember
Avoid initials. It is really difficult to create a warm feeling about them, and unless it is ABC, it will be hard for people to remember them correctly.
Check the name does not mean anything undesirable in a foreign language, on many occasions large and small companies have made the mistake of naming their business or product or service something that ends up being offensive in a future country/ foreign market they enter.
Avoid non-alpahbetic characters
Never use an ‘&’ as part of your business name – you can’t put it in your website address so will have to use ‘and’ instead, causing confusion for your customers and making it impossible for search engines to find you. Avoid names with hyphens too – they are hard to remember, confusing and increase the chances of customers not being able to find your website.
Know the companies house rules on naming
If yoiu plan to incorporate a company in the UK, bear in mind udner companies house rules you cannot use:
- Any sensitive words unless you have permission (there are over 200 of these);
- A name which suggests connection with the government or local authorities;
- A name that includes words that would be considered an offence (breaking the law);
- Any words or phrases which are offensive (may upset someone).
So for example, you couldn’t call your business ‘Kings International Group’ without receiving permission from Constitutional Policy Team to use king. You’d also have to be able to prove that a significant part of the company’s business takes place overseas to use international and that it is in a parent/subsidiary relationship with two or more companies to use group.
There have been proposals recently that the rules around company names might be relaxed or even scrapped in the future, but for the moment, you still have to comply with them.
Final checks before choosing a name for your business
Once you have a final shortlist of names before you choose one it’s important to make sure that it fundamentally works, this means checking that no other existing businesses are using the names, domains are available and several other important points.
Check for existing companies or businesses
You can check which business names have already been taken – and which are very similar to yours – for no charge at Companies House.
Check the domain names are avaliable
You need to get the domain name which matches the name of your business, so once you have drawn up a list of possible names go through each one to see which you could buy domain names for too. This can be a painful process because many of the obvious domain names have already been snapped up, but it is important so stick at it. You can buy domain names online at a domain seller such as www.lowcostnames.co.uk or www.godaddy.com.
If a domain name has already been bought, you still may be able to acquire it from the owner if they have not yet developed the website. Check on sedo.co.uk or another domain reseller to see if the name is up for sale.
Check for existing trademarks
You should also trademark your name if possible – details on how to do this at the Intellectual Property Office. Successfully selecting a name which complies with Companies House rules is easy enough to do if you know how, but simply registering your business name does not completely protect it. If someone already owns the trademark they can force you to change the name of your company as trademarks supersede any other registration. If this happens, you’ll have to completely rebrand your business. This may include purchasing new domain names and rebuilding your website or app. In short, if you register a name which infringes a trademark, everything from business cards to your company t-shirts will need to be replaced which will be expensive and a significant disruption.
For example, I could register ‘Google Search Limited’ and Companies House wouldn’t stop me, but Google would be very upset, and I’d likely get a strongly worded letter from their lawyers. This might sound like a silly example, but our company deals with 20,000 start-ups a year, and we regularly get people trying to register companies that include words like Twitter, Cisco and Virgin. All of these may be available at Companies House but would breach trademarks.
Registering and protecting your business name
Once you’ve chosen a name for your business, its important to move quickly and secure the rights and protections you’ll need to make sure that name is legally yours and is protected from any other parties coming in and trying to take it (this sounds malicious but can end being a problem later on).
Register the business name
The most common way for small businesses and start-ups to protect their business name is to form a limited company. Limited companies are ideal if you want to start a business with a friend or a group of friends as the company structure will clearly set out who owns what and who does what, up front. That way, when your idea turns out to be worth millions of pounds, you know who’s going to benefit. It also limits your personal liability if things go wrong.
A major benefit of a limited company is that once the name is lodged at Companies House, nobody else can register it. Similarly, if someone else has already registered a name, you can’t have it. You will, therefore, need to check the name you hasn’t already been taken and isn’t too similar to any other company name. Just because a name isn’t being used, doesn’t mean you can register it.
Setup the business structure
The type of business you create will affect what you can call it and what rights you have to use that name. Different formations have different rules for what their names can be. The majority of businesses in the UK (over 60%) are sole traders. Being a sole trader is perfect if you’re going to be working on your own and you’re just getting started. It is the easiest way to start doing business, and it’s free to set-up.
However, it is yourself you are registering, not your business, and therefore you cannot use this method to register a business name or brand name. As sole traders do not register their name on any formal list, the only way to enforce their right to use a sole trader business name is to try to take competitors to court. It is therefore not a particularly effective way of building and protecting your new brand.
Buy the domain name/s
Always buy both dot com and dot co.uk endings for your domains names even if you don’t think you need them. One day you might, particularly if you expand your business overseas and want your business to look global rather than UK-based. At the very least it stops anyone else buying them and either trading off or wrecking the reputation you have established. If the dot com ending has gone, don’t be tempted to just buy the dot co.uk and use that – keeping going until you find a name which still has both free.When you find a name that you like which fits all the above criteria, you need to register your business name by incorporating your business. You can either do this yourself online at Companies House (companieshouse.gov.uk) for a fee of £18, or you can do it with the help of an accountant or a formation agent – there is a list of agents on the Companies House website.
Register your trademarks
Clearly, you aren’t going to register a company with any of these potential pitfalls, but you do need to check that there isn’t a business you’ve never heard of that has already registered trademarks with the name you want to use. To check if a name might be trademarked, you can start with some internet searching, do a search on the IPO website, and if in doubt pay an intellectual property specialist to do comprehensive a search for you.
Setup an official company name email
Once you have acquired a website address for your business, set up an email account for it, so your company name appears as the bit at the end. It will instantly make your business look professional and well established. If your venture is called Green Gardens, for example, then having the email address email@example.com will look a lot more professional than simply having it as firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be expedient but don’t make business naming mistakes
You need to move quickly as soon as you’ve found a name which is available at Companies House and does not infringe on any existing trademarks, you should find out if you can register it with the Intellectual Property Office before someone else does. Likewise, you may want to think of unique names for the products or services you sell and then register those.
As you can see, there is quite a lot to think about before you register your business. We often encounter enthusiastic entrepreneurs who jump in before they’ve done any research and end up getting into trouble and wasting money before they feel like they’ve even started. This need not be the case. There is lots of help available, and even a little research online can go a long way.
As well as the guidance you can find online there are lots of professionals who can assistant you in choosing a good business name that you will be able to establish as a great brand. You could turn to your accountant or solicitor for help, or seek the expert skills of Intellectual Property specialists or a company formation agent. Formation agents are often a good first port of call as they spend all day every day setting up companies and will know all the rules inside out.