Starting a business is an exciting adventure. One of the first steps in your journey will be choosing a business name. Although this seems like a daunting task, if you do good research you can avoid potential pitfalls.
As I pointed out in my previous post, choosing the wrong name can be costly. In this post I will give practical advice on how to choose a good business name in the United States and Canada. By following these steps you can make sure that the name you choose is available and complies with government regulations.
1. Check for Domain Name Availability
The very first thing you should do when considering a proposed business name is to see if the dot com domain is available for your proposed business name. If you can not get the domain name you will probably want to try another name.
To check the dot com availability for your proposed name you can use GoDaddy. Just type your proposed name into the search box and it will tell you what domain names are available. If the dot com is not available you will probably want to move on to a different name.
Finding available dot com names is a difficult task since most short names and many names with common prefixes or suffixes have been taken. Sometimes if your desired name has been taken you could add a unique prefix or suffix to it.
In our case we chose to use the prefix “Mondo” in our company and product names. This allowed us to get domain names for many different words with the prefix “Mondo”. This can be useful if you have a product line or multiple services you want to tie together.
A famous example of using a prefix to tie together a product line is the use of “Mac” or “Mc” by McDonalds – the Big Mac, the McWrap, the McChicken and the McDouble.
If the dot com is available for your proposed business name you may also want to get the .net and .org versions to protect your brand from being co-opted by a competitor. If you use the prefix strategy you may want to get domain names for other products or services you will be offering now or in the future using your chosen prefix, for example MondoPlayer. com.
If you are having a hard time finding available domain names you can always try a domain name generator such as leandomainsearch.com. This app generates available domain names containing a word you would like in your name and tells you if the dot com and twitter handle are available for that name.
If you want a completely made up name you can use an app like wordoid.com which will help you make up a name based on different criteria you specify. It will tell you whether the dot com and dot net versions of the name are available.
2. Check State or Provincial Business Registries
United States – State Registries
It is important to make sure that the name you choose is not already taken or could be confused with an existing business.
In many States in the United States, if you want to name your business with a name other than your own personal name you will be deemed to be using a “Doing Business As” (DBA) name. For example, a business owner named Kate Smith can choose to operate her cupcake business as the DBA name “The Cupcake Girl”.
In States that require the registration of a DBA name, if you fail to register your DBA name the legal name of the business will default to the name of the person or entity who owns the business. In Kate’s case her business name would revert to Kate Smith – not nearly as catchy as “The Cupcake Girl”.
In States that require registration, it is important to register your DBA name to secure it as the legal name of your business. All government forms and applications such as permits, licenses and tax ID’s will require your legal business name.
You should check the State Registry for the State you want to register in to see if registration of yor DBA is required and to check whether your proposed business name is available. Links to State Registstries can be found here.
Canada – Provincial Registries
Most provinces require that you submit a Name Search Report to show that your proposed business name is available. A name search report will cost you anywhere from $30 – $60 per name searched. This can add up if you are trying to decide between several names.
Some provinces allow you to do a preliminary search of their business name database for free before you order your Name Search Report so you should do this if this option is available to you.
In addition to searching the Provincial Registries many provinces also require that you submit a NUANS name search report. NUANS is a computerized search system operated by the Government of Canada that compares a proposed business name with databases of existing businesses and Trade-marks. Search fees range from $15 – $22 per name searched. Information on NUANS searches can be found here.
You will need to search for your proposed business name in the Provincial Registry of the Province you want to register in. If you are registering your business in a province that offers free preliminary name searches you should do your free search before you order your NUANS search. That way, if there are issues with your proposed name you can avoid spending money on additional searches and move on to another name. Below is a list of Provincial Registries with an indication of whether fees apply for preliminary searches.
- British Columbia -Free Search
Alberta – Search Fees Apply
Saskatchewan Search Fees Apply
Manitoba – Search Fees Apply
Ontario – Search Fees Apply
Quebec – Free Search
New Brunswick – Search Fees Apply
Prince Edward Island -Free Search
Nova Scotia – Free search
Newfoundland and Labrador – Search Fees Apply
Nunavut – Free Search by email
Yukon– Search Fees Apply
Northwest Territories – Search Fees Apply
If you will be doing business across Canada you may choose to incorporate a federal company. A NUANS search will be required when you submit your proposed name for registration.
3. Check Federal Registries
Corporations Canada, a division of Industry Canada, maintains a database of all federally incorporated companies. You can check this database for free. You should check for your proposed name to see if there are any other businesses operating under the name you are considering. This may influence whether you decide to go forward with your proposed name or choose a different one. To search the database you can go here.
4. Check for Existing Trademarks
You should check to see whether an application has been submitted for a trademark or if a trademark already exists for your proposed business name. You can do this for free in the United States and Canada. If you check the trademark database and find that somebody else has prior rights to your proposed name you may wish to consider a different name to save yourself from trouble down the road.
I was once forced to change the name of a web product when I received a request to do so from the legal counsel for Bank of America. Although I could have argued that my product was significantly different from Bank of America’s and did not infringe on their trademark it was clear that they had unlimited resources to devote to their mission to protect their trademark and I had bigger fish to fry. So I did the wise thing and changed the name of my product. To save yourself this kind of grief, it is better to be cautious and check for trademarks.
You can do a Free Search of the Trademark Database to check whether there are pending applications for a trademark or if a trademark already exists. You can can check the United States Trademark Database or the Canadian Trademark Database.
5. Check Google
Google can be useful in a number of ways in determining the viability of your proposed name.
You can Google your proposed name to make sure there is no confusion with unrelated things. For example, a number of years ago we were working on a project for an automotive listing service that would help people find used cars. We had planned to call the service ALS until we discovered that ALS was the abbreviation for Lou Gerhig’s disease, a devastating neuromuscular disease. Google is a powerful tool for discovering co-incidences that may initially escape your attention.
Google is also useful for determining common mis-spellings of words. If you type in your proposed name it will suggest common mis-spellings. You can use this information for SEO purposes to make sure that you use the mis-spellings in your keywords and descriptions. For instance, our product MondoPlayer, can be spelled as all one word “MondoPlayer” or as two words “Mondo Player”. We have optimized our SEO to make sure both spellings are included.
If your proposed name has common mis-spellings evidenced by your Google search, you may want to consider purchasing the domain names for those mis-spellings if they are available. You can point the misspelled domain to your properly spelled domain so you will not lose potential customers.
Choosing a business name is a challenge but if you follow the steps above you can quickly explore different options and narrow down your choices. It is a good idea to actively consider at least 3 alternative business names.
In my previous post, I outlined the qualities your business name should have. Combine that advice with the searches I recommend here and you will be on your way to choosing a business name that will serve you well for many years.
Photo Credit: Matt McGee
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