What’s in a name?
The first step to defining your startup is coming up with a business name. Or maybe you have a name, but need to validate it. I’ve worked with a lot of startups on custom branding projects where they’ve loved their business name but just want to do one more round of checks to be sure they’ve made the right decision. This can help to either confirm a choice, or replace it with something that might work better for their target market.
When it comes to naming it’s easy to get rapidly lost down a rabbit hole and tied up in a frustrating quandry over which way to go. Deciding on your business name is a very personal choice, so it’s always good for the final decision to be made by you, the business owner.
This is the same exact process that we follow when naming brands for clients. As most of our clients are startups, our method is an accelerated version of what you’d get at a big exy agency and we’ve found that it is actually giving us similar high-quality results that we were getting with the big guys, only with less decision-by-committee, and a faster path to action. It’s true that more time spent brainstorming and examining customer profiles does produce more ideas, so if you’re having trouble getting a list of names that you’re happy with then you may need more help, but this method is a terrific way to get launched fast.
These tips will help you frame the process and narrow down your choices to get you — hopefully — closer to that final decision.
How to name your startup
Step 1: Know your business and what you want your brand to represent
Before you start dumping ideas on a page, it’s worth doing some ground work. Taking a bit of time up front to lay good foundations will make an easier job of the process as you move forward.
You will likely have answered a lot of these questions as part of your strategic thinking around setting up your business. If so, great! Get those answers to hand so they’re front of mind as you embark on this naming exercise.
- What industry are you in?
- What problem do you solve?
- What’s your nifty solution?
- Who are your main competitors? What is effective in their branding?
- What’s your unique selling proposition (USP)? What makes you awesome?
- Who do you help? Try to identify your audience in as much demographic detail as you can to help narrow in on who you are naming the business for.
- What are the key personality traits you want to be known for? Here’s a list to draw from if you need some inspiration.
Step 2: Brainstorm your business name ideas
To get started with brainstorming, you don’t need any fancy tools. A good ole pen and paper will do the job, but feel free to use Trello, Evernote, or your go-to note-taking tool if that’s how you work best.
Start by writing down as many words related to your business as you can think of. Get friends and family to do the same. You can structure this by creating word lists based on your answers to the business questions. I tend to group lists by industry, USP, audience(s) and personality traits to get a bunch of lists or ‘buckets’ that you can start then dumping words into.
Once you have a bunch of different lists, you can start playing some word games to expand on the lists and to generate some interesting cross-list combos. Start by trying to make up new words, like Google or Xero. Play around with alliteration to see if you can come up with some clever combos that roll nicely off the tongue, like PayPal. Try focussing down on purpose combined with personality or audience to come up with names that clearly define what you do. Startups like TidyMe and Airtasker have done this to great effect. Our article How to use wordplay to brainstorm for your business name has in-depth instructions for effective wordplay ideas to help the brainstorming process.
Define your parameters
Now that you’ve got a bunch of ideas down, it’s time to reign them in a bit and start thinking about even harder about personality and purpose. The key things you want to be thinking about here are what you do and who you do it for. After all, your business name isn’t really for you. It’s for your clients. You want to like it, but at the end of the day, you’re not buying from you, someone else is. Depending on your audience and industry, your startup name might be more effective if it’s is a quirky made-up word, or it might resonate better for being traditional and trustworthy in a professional service setting. Think about what you need your parameters to be and set some rules of your own around what the name needs to represent.
Second brain dump
Now that you’ve created some extra rules to follow, start on a second brain dump with these new parameters in mind. You should by now be thinking in a different way from your first attempt and will likely be able to come up with a host of new and different ideas.
Synonyms are your friend! When you can’t think of any more words, go into your search engine and start looking for synonyms of each word you’ve got so far. You’ll come up with a host of new words to add to your list.
Still stuck? Try a brand name generator
You can do some further exploration by exploring brand name generators online.
If you’re looking for a quick way to come up with some business names without having to relying too heavily on your brain, there are now a bunch of business name generators out there. These tools use a variety of processes, including simple word blends and UI-powered tools. Here are some of our favourite free brand name generators:
- Namelix: what I love most about this brand name generator is how easy it is to use and how pleasantly refreshing the user interface is. It’s nicely designed, which helps to make it more user-friendly. Not only does this site generate business name ideas based on a range of different criteria — keywords, number of characters, word type (compound, rhyming, real, foreign etc), it also allows you to see what domains are available and gives loads of tips on what makes an effective business name. Namelix is part of Brandmark, so it automatically connects you through to a logo generator too.
- Another one is Novanym: UK-based, similar to Namelix in the way you can create names based on style. On providing the name, they also tell you the price to buy the .com and 3 logo concepts from them, so you can get a unique and professionally designed custom logo using this option, just remember to check for ASIC and .com.au availability (or other domain requirements) too.
Paid brand name generators and crowdsourced ideas could be an affordable solution to give you a broader range. Now these paid services can be helpful, but there’s a huge caveat here: what you get back is only as good as what you put in. You need to be solid on your unique selling proposition and your brand values to get names that suit you and aren’t too generic.
Step 3: Check it's easy to say, easy to spell and translates clean
As you go through the process of brainstorming business name ideas, check them off this list as you go. If these boxes don’t get a big tick then move on to the next name.
Your business name should be easy to say (and therefore hear)
Say it out loud — is it easy? Can it be understood when said fast? The last thing you want is to have to constantly spell out your business name for people to understand what you are saying. I used to sit near a growing startup in my co-working space in Sydney. They were on the phone a lot as they were calling customers for bookings all day long. For every call they were introducing themselves, then having to awkwardly spell the business name to get the customer to understand where they were calling from. I even often heard them confirming that, yes, they were calling from Australia and struggling to convince their local customers that they were in Sydney too. The business name was so hard to understand that customers were clearly struggling with trust and transparency. These were existing clients not cold leads, yet there was clearly zero customer recognition or recall for the brand name. That’s an uphill battle better avoided and was losing them customer loyalty! In short: keep it short.
Your business name should be easy to spell
Will a potential client need you to spell the name or will the spelling be obvious? Test the name with people who don’t know you to confirm that they can intuitively work out the spelling — this reinforces that the name is easily understood and will improve client recall.
No nasty acronyms or foreign translations
The name doesn’t translate into anything that could be misleading or — worse — offensive. Checking on other meanings for a brand name is so often overlooked, and I’ve fallen into this trap myself. A few years back now I launched a startup called Zift. The business connected startups with quality designers. What I didn’t realise until after we went live, was that if you type zift into Google, page one is full of results for Zygote Intrafallopian Transfer. NOTHING to do with graphic design, nothing to do with my brand personality traits, nothing to do with anything that could remotely be related to the business! Obviously this could be overcome by spending on search engine optimisation, but it was a huge barrier to word-of-mouth referrals and early search volume. The startup didn’t get off the ground for a number of reasons, but it was a great lesson on naming that has stayed with me! Always do an internet search for the business name and check for any acronyms or foreign translations that may make things hard for you. Starting a business is difficult enough without adding hurdles like these!
Step 4: Business name availability checks
By now you should have a decent shortlist of names. The next step is to check for their availability. This will narrow down that shortlist fast! Try not to get too attached to anything on your shortlist, because if they’re taken, they’re taken! You’re better off moving on. The 4 key availability checks to run are:
Is it available on ASIC?
Run your shortlist through the ASIC Business Name Availability search tool to see if what names are genuinely available for use.
Is the domain name available?
Now you know the business name is available on ASIC, double check you can get a decent domain. You don’t want to have a great name but be stuck with a .net. Having said that, you can get creative to make this work, just look at Flywheel’s getflywheel.com and Conversion AI’s app.conversion.ai. For more info on nabbing a good domain name, check out our 6-step guide to confirming business name availability and registering your Aussie startup.
Are social media profiles available?
If you want social to be part of your marketing strategy, then being found easily on those platforms (and by association on Google) for you main brand name is essential. If you need a name for your social account that is different from your brand name you risk losing brand awareness, diluting your brand and creating mistrust among potential customers — ‘is this different brand name really the company I’m looking for?’.
Is the name trademark safe?
You may also want do a quick search for any trademarks. You don’t want to go to all the effort of launching only to be sued for trademark infringement! Check out the IP Australia website for more info and do an Australian Trademark Search. Once you’re set up you might consider talking to an IP lawyer about registering your own trademark to protect your new brand.
For more details on the nitty gritty of name availability and business name registration, check out our 6-step guide to confirming business name availability and registering your Aussie startup for more info.
Defining your startup starts with coming up with a great company name. Your business will be more successful if people can easily pronounce the name and remember it. The first three steps to naming a startup are knowing your business well enough to know who you serve as well as how they perceive themselves; brainstorming potential names (try many different options to build a good list); and checking whether your shortlisted ideas are available for you to nab. After deciding on a perfect moniker, take time to build your brand and your website so customers can get to know you, like you, and buy from you.