The Lean Startup Guide to Naming Your Business

A business name can be a huge factor in the ultimate success or failure of the entity. Unfortunately, many people fail to give a lot of thought to it prior to moving forward. There are many factors to consider including something memorable, a name related to your area of work and, potentially, the availability of the domain name.

Married?

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Picking a business name is like getting married. You are going to have to stick with it till the bitter end. It is estimated a prospect will need to see your advertisement and business name at least 22 times prior to doing business with you. Once they associate your business with a certain name, making a change will be disastrous. Once you pick something, stick with it.

So in the world of lean startups and MVPs, what’s an effective approach to nailing down a brand and name for initial product explorations?

Lean-Startup-Hypothesis

If you take the “promise of an experience” definition of a brand then apply the Lean Startup process in the right way, you have a method for discovering your brand.

You start with some assumptions about the experience that your customers need, test them, refine/pivot, and repeat. The experience that your customers get at the start of that process is almost certainly going to be different from the one they get one month in, six months in, etc.

That’s why Flickr doesn’t brand itself as an online game, and PayPal doesn’t brand itself as a mobile payments system.

So – where does that leave you when it comes to defining a name and visual identity.

First – don’t invest a lot of time, money or effort early. If you’re still doing customer discovery and mostly spending your time interviewing and searching for product/market fit then your company is changing fast. Any brand you come up with now is almost certainly going to be sub-optimal for the company you will be in six months time.

The visual identities you try out may end up being part of your discovery process. If you’re a “Wallmart” your visual identity is going to be very different from being a “Harrods”. You might want to use experiments with your logo, etc. as a way to look at different market segments.

Until you are sure what market segments and customers you’re trying to attract try and keep the visual identity as neutral as possible.

Your brand should embody the experience your company will provide. With a lean startup approach this experience can change radically. So defining your brand should come very late in the process.

Naming Your Startup

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Now onto the naming process, as said its like getting married, If you are going to be married to your business name, you need to make sure the bride isn’t already married to another suitor. There are four significant issues to consider.

If your in the US, initially, you must determine whether the name is already being used in your state. The Secretary of State controls the names of all corporations, LLCs and partnerships.

The same goes for most country’s where you will need to do some type of name search at Companies House in the UK for example to see if its already incorporated or registered by someone else. Most also have a web site where you can conduct name searches. Even if you are a sole proprietor, you should check the name against those already registered in the state database. If the name is being used, you will need to consider an alternative.

For the US assuming the name passed with the Secretary of State, you should check it against existing trademarks file with the Patent and Trademark Office. The “PTO” maintains an online database. As with the Secretary of State, you can conduct an online search to make sure no other business is using it.

In this day and age, many businesses incorporate a web site as part of their business model. If you are in this boat, you need to check to see if the business name is available as a domain. If it is, you should register it immediately. If not, you can either change your business name again or focus on a domain name incorporating your service or product instead of the business name. Don’t obsess about having a business name based on your website, but you should try to find a good match.

Avoiding problems when naming your business

Your business could be devastated if you do not take these precautionary steps. Imagine the negative impact on your business if the name has to be changed three years down the line. Take a breath before you select a business name. Like a spouse, it can be either a good or bad choice. If your not sure then don’t name it until your product has been tested and you have got feedback from your research and testing

10 tips for naming your company, product, or service

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There are no magic formulas to naming a business, which is good because it means anyone can do it. It doesn’t mean it’s easy to do a good job, though. These tips might help a little.

1. Quantity and diversity yield quality

Naming is a matter of satisfying many competing constraints. Ideally a name is relevant, positive, memorable, reasonably short, not too generic, not too similar to a competing name, associated with an available domain name, and distinctive enough to bring your web page to the top of search engine results. The odds are against having a name just pop into your head that satisfies all these constraints. That means the most effective way to come up with a name is to think of lots of different ideas, carefully screen and choose, and repeat. A good metaphor for the naming process is evolution through variation and natural selection.

2. Selection is as important as creation

In all evolutionary processes, selection is more important than the initial causes of variation. So it is with naming. It doesn’t matter how you come up with your ideas for names, as long as you have some great ones to choose from. Fortunately, the process that leads to variation in name ideas is not random and there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of having good ideas. It’s important to realize that evaluating your name ideas and choosing the one that really works is as important to the naming process–and takes as much work–as coming up with name ideas in the first place.

3. Try different types of name

One good way to increase your chances of having great name ideas is to try creating different types of name. You might start with root word. The root word, is one of the best ways to start off and help you with a brainstorm. Try to generate as many words and ideas as possible. Below are several ways to develop great roots. As you create new ones, keep them organized in thematic groups on a not epad or better still in a spreadsheet.

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Develop literal concepts. The first set of roots should be fairly literal and represent a core aspect of your business. This may include the product category (travel, music, fashion, finance etc) as well as the product function (discovery, sharing, tracking).

Example: An app for finding your relatives on-line might generate, ancestry (genealogy, lineage, roots), relatives (mother, parents), storytelling (narrative, news), home (nest, hut) and sharing (bond, tie).

Develop figurative concepts. To move beyond the obvious, extend your list of roots to names, objects, phrases, moments and feelings that are loosely related to your core business. Be as experimental and obscure as possible: focus on one detail, then write down everything that comes to mind. In general, I find figurative concepts to be more original and interesting than their literal counterparts, and their domains to be more readily available or cheaper to purchase when considering your web presence.

This process will help you consider possibilities you otherwise might overlook, and will help you learn what kind of name is right for your company, product, or service.

4. Use collective intelligence

Another good way to diversify your pool of name ideas is to have lots of people contribute. They can help both by suggesting names and by critically evaluating others’ name ideas. Other people will notice gems that you ignored, and duds that you’re attached to for your own idiosyncratic reasons.

5. Use linguistic resources

What goes for names also goes for the raw linguistic material that you use to create names. It’s unlikely that just the right word is going to pop into your head to serve as the basis for a blend, a compound, or some other type of put-together name. It helps to have lots of relevant words presented to you quickly so that you can select from among them. A thesaurus helps a lot. You might use a fancy online tool like the Visual Thesaurus, or www.thesaurus.com which does very nicely.

6. Do exercises to explore connections to relevant concepts

Creative professionals, especially namers, love making mind maps and doing other exercises to break their habits of thought and explore connections that would not otherwise occur to them. You should do this, too. Start with a clear understanding of what your company/product/service does and how it benefits people. Then think of things that are indirectly associated with these ideas. Include some things that are visually distinctive (logo material). Also try to think of things that can represent a function or benefit metaphorically. Good metaphors make abstract ideas tangible and obscure ideas clear–consider the way the flake metaphor in the name PageFlakes helps people understand what an Ajax homepage is like. Finally, some simple free association never hurts.

7. Pictures are important, even when you’re just thinking of words

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Often what makes a name good is the fact that it gives people a mental image that helps them understand how something works or what benefits it provides. Ideas are more interesting and easier to remember when they’re associated with sensory, especially visual, experience. That means when you’re coming up with name ideas, sometimes it’s best to start with a visual image and then think of the language that goes with it. With a visual dictionary you can look at pictures of complex objects and physical settings that have all their individual parts labeled.

To generate more names for your startups, do a keyword search on a visual search site and browse its images for inspiration. Pinterest is probably the best tool for this, given its robust database of high-quality images, but you can also use e-commerce sites like Etsy or google for a simple image search, or try on one of the other major search engines.

8. To avoid embarrassment in other languages, ask the experts

If you’re releasing something on a global scale and are concerned about what your name might mean in other languages, there’s simply no way to get around asking native speakers. Nothing else will work. One native speaker’s opinion is worth more than any amount of research you might do using dictionaries or online resources. If this is an issue and you can’t afford to hire a naming firm to screen the name for you, try to identify the main languages you’re concerned about (start with the ones with the most speakers in your market, obviously) and find speakers yourself. Try friends of friends. Try online social networks. Try a university with international students.

9. Forget etymology

Maybe it’s shocking to say this, but the etymologies of words or word parts that you use in your name don’t matter. What do matter are the associations people make. Sometimes there’s an overlap between the two, though. For example, many people recognize that -lumin- relates to light, and it in fact comes from the Latin word for light. However, most people don’t make the association to light because of their knowledge of Latin or etymology. They make it because they know words like luminous and illuminate and recognize the word part. In general, etymological meaning connections only come through when they’re also part of the living language.

10. Know when to let go

Because naming is about satisfying constraints, it’s important to know when to let go of a favorite idea that won’t work. Suppose you really want to use the word meme in your name, but you want to have a distinctive name and three competitors already have names built around that word. Forget meme and move on.

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If you want to know more about starting your business by minimizing the risks, and using less cash get my Top Resources Report

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  • Great article – we’ve seen a lot of those, and this is one is really useful and to the point.

    For anyone who to put this advice into practice and avoid making bad decisions about their name, check out http://nimi.io

    We’re an online service that tests your business names (or name ideas) with real people. We discover associations, pronunciation issues, check how foreign or local a name sounds, and help avoid embarrassment in other languages. Check your name in just your home market – or in several countries at once (more than 20 supported, and growing constantly).

    PS: We can also test your business logo in a similar fashion. It means you get a comprehensive evaluation of your new brand identity.