Naming your business is a huge decision. Because it’s so important, this is not a time to rush the process. Take your time to go through this multi-step process and get it right the first time. Once you settle on a business name and get all your legal paperwork and visual brand identity in place, it’s very difficult (and expensive) to change it later. So take the time you need to do this right.

I’ve had the privilege of helping many of my client name their businesses. I say privilege because this is a very personal process. Your business is your baby and you want to pick just the right name for it. It’s an emotional, exciting, anxiety-filled and adventurous time for your business. But I have faith you can choose just the right name that fits your brand’s personality and will carry it to success.

Get a notebook and a pen — don’t get hung up on the type of notebook or buy anything special. Just find something that you already have. If you don’t have anything handy, go raid the kid’s school backpack. It should be something that will work for your daily life since it’s going to become an extension of your right hand for the next several weeks. This should definitely be a notebook with actual paper pages in it. Don’t do this part digitally. I prefer you pick a notebook that’s blank, or has a large chunk of pages (20-30-ish) all in a row that you can fill for this exercise.

For the first business I ever named (my own partnership design agency) I used a regular old Comp Book that I already had on my bookshelf. Lots of pages, cheap and available at any local store, wide lined paper, hard cover, small enough to tuck into the pocket of my bag.

Step 1 – The big list of words

TIME: Two weeks

Over the next couple weeks you’ll carry this notebook with you EVERYwhere. Don’t let it out of your sight! Now start making a list of words. Use bullet points and one word per line. Do not edit yourself or cross anything off. Write down as many words as you can come up with in.

On the first day you’ll want to sit down with your notebook and write for about 20 minutes or so. Just list as many words as you can think of related to your business. You’ll eventually get to the point that you can’t think of any more words to write down. That’s exactly what should happen.

Now close the notebook and go live your life. But keep that notebook close because as you go through your day, more words will come to mind. Write those down too. What kind of words do I want you to gather? Here are some ideas:

  • Words that describe the service or product you’ll offer
  • Words that describe or identify your target audience
  • Words that involve the problem you’re solving for your audience
  • Words that describe the emotion your service or product will evoke
  • Words to identify the type of business you are (corporate, quirky, casual, traditional, fun, etc.)
  • Words you see or hear during your day that catch your attention
  • Words that describe your personality and your favorite things in life
  • Words that have a fun sound or an interesting meaning
  • Words that might relate to your geographic area of service or business location
  • Acronyms or abbreviations of words known to your target audience or industry
  • Words that are synonyms or antonyms of things you’ve added to the list already
  • Words in different languages that mean the same thing as other words on your list

Now that you’ve got several pages of words, it’s time to start picking your favorites. When I finish with this first phase, I typically have a list of words that is 10 to 15 pages long. Yours might be longer or shorter. There’s no right length. Just know that you need to take your time and take the whole two weeks for building your word list. Your brain needs that space to work!

Step 2 – Choosing your favorite words

TIME: 3 days

Your favorites have already been calling to you. So let’s give them some attention. Keep your full list intact – don’t cross anything off because this process will evolve and you might come back to some of your “rejected” words later and find that they work in future steps. So for now, just highlight the words you like the best or that intrigue you enough to play with. Use a yellow highlighter or a red pen to mark the words you like (whatever method works for you is fine).

Take your time with this step. I find that I can’t do this phase in one sitting. It takes three or four times through the list on different days to really determine my new favorites list. Pick ANY word off the big list that has the slightest bit of interest to you. Don’t think about your business name yet, just focus on the individual words and highlight which ones you like.

Once your favorite words are highlighted… skip a page or two at the end of your list (just in case you think of more words to add later) and start to copy those favorite words into a new list. Title your page and just write as many as you highlighted. It’s OK if you think there are too many. It’s better to have too many than not enough.

Phase 3 – Time to play!

TIME: 1 week

It’s time to start playing with the words on your favorites list. Again, skip a couple pages after your favorites list and start combining words from the favorites list into 2 to 4 word combinations. Try to throw logic out the window and just let your creativity play. Don’t focus on what’s expected or normal, but instead think outside the ordinary and see how much fun you can have. It’s OK to write down “blue banana agency” or “calico dreams” or “corn fed wellness” — the zanier you are with this part, the more possibilities will emerge. We’ll worry about editing later.

Also look at parts of words that could be combined with parts of other words. Or half of one work that can be combined with another full word. For instance, I worked with the team who helped to name a wellness company by combining part of the word “synergy” and the Italian word for beautiful to come up with Synbella. But be careful about this practice. Sometimes it can go very wrong and you’ll end up creating a word that could sound forced or unnatural. In some instances it can work beautifully, in others it could be a disaster. Proceed with caution.

Why be silly?  Because it tells your brain that it has permission to play. Get out of the office, go outside and do your brainstorming while sitting under the tree in the back yard. Or go to the playground and swing with the kids to give your brain a break to refuel for more brilliant ideas.

I’ve given you a one week time limit on this step. Take all that time. Again, you’re still carrying your notebook with you everywhere you go, so if something pops into your mind, go ahead and write it down.

Step 4 – Time to get serious

TIME: 1 week

You’ve got a jumbled list of names and ideas in ever-expanding notebook. It’s time to get down to the business of picking a name already!

Just like you did with the list of words, go through your new list of possible business names and highlight the ones you love the most. Be more selected this time around and only choose the dozen or so that you want to play with further. Highlight them, then transfer them to a new list after skipping a few pages after your Phase 3 list.  For this new list you might want to skip a few lines between each item on the bulleted list. Give yourself some room to play around with each one.

This is now your working list of business names. It’s not quite ready to be real business names yet. So go through the list one at a time and play with the word combinations until it becomes something that you could live with as your business name. If you can’t make a word combination to work, then just skip it and move on to the next one. Give each word combo your undivided attention, one at a time. Pull out your reference materials to help you if you need them — a dictionary, thesaurus, translator or whatever you need to help you refine that combination of words into a workable business name.

Here are some general guidelines to follow and mistakes to avoid when refining your list:

  • Make the name easy to spell and easy to pronounce
  • Don’t use words so plain they don’t stand out in the crowd or are easily forgotten
  • Spell the words with the letters they are supposed to be spelled with. Don’t change a “K” to a “Q” or a “Ph” with an “F” or a letter to a number. You want people to find you and you don’t want to spell our your name every time you’re on the phone with a new client who needs to send you an email.
  • Speak the name out loud. Write it down and ask others to speak it. Do they pronounce it correctly? Or speak the name and ask them how to spell it.

By the time you’re done with this exercise you should have no less than eight possible business names on your list. Don’t fall in love with any of them yet. Something that might be perfect, might not be available to you, so try to stay objective and open minded.

Step 5 – Research your options

TIME: 2 days

Each of the eight or so names on your final list need to be researched to find out if you can use one of them. At this stage it’s not unusual for all eight to be unavailable to you, so be prepared to go back to Phase 3 and begin again.

Fire up your computer and open tabs for each of these websites:

  • Google – yes, we’ll be doing general searches for your business name. It might also be helpful if you use Bing or Yahoo too.
  • Name Cheap –  this is the domain registry that I recommend. This is where you will eventually buy your domain name, but for now we’ll use it as a research portal.
  • Name Checkr – the great thing about this website is that you can check if the domain name is available and also if the social media usernames are available for your potential business name.
  • United States Patent and Trademark Office – If someone else has already filed for trademark protection for your business name idea, it will be found here. This only works for the United States, but it’s a good resource to use if you’re outside the U.S. too. Even if you find your name on this list, if your business type is different enough from the industry of the one listed, you might still be able to use it. This is something you’ll need to consult an attorney about. Personally, I just avoid a name that’s already registered to someone else. Who needs that headache, right?
  • State Trademark Registry – your state will also have a trademark or business name registry. Be sure to access that database too. Each state in the U.S. has their own database so do a Google search for “business name search ______” and insert your state’s name.

Now just start plugging your potential business names into each one of those resources. Yes, check all of them for each name on your list. When searching the Internet, be aware of what actually comes up when you search for your business name. What types of things appear? What industry is represented in the top 5 or 10 results? Are people using that phrase for something other than your business type? Will that be a problem for your business or for your customers when trying to find you online?

There are several guidelines to consider when buying a domain name. So before you settle on a name for your business, make sure that the domain name that’s available for you fits in the rules I outline in the article about buying domain names.

Once you’re all the way through your potential business name list, you’ll probably end up with one or two names that emerge as the top contenders. How do you feel about what’s left? Do you love one more than the other? Do you think that name is the best representation of your business? Are you ready to make a decision?  People tell me that they know it’s the right name when their heart does a little somersault. So if you’re getting butterflies in your tummy and your heart is going pitter patter… you know you’ve got the right name!

Congratulations!  You have a name for your business. How exciting!