Your business begins with a name. It’s the cornerstone of your company identity and impacts your branding, company tone, and first impressions. Think about it. The branding of Target would be very different if the retailer still went by its original name, Dayton Dry Goods Company.
Selecting the right business name for your company is important and it should be followed by taking the right legal steps. A prudent approach to naming entails three important steps: brainstorming, investigation and registration. Follow these three steps to make sure the name is yours to use for years and even decades to come.
Step 1: The Brainstorm
How you develop the perfect name is fairly subjective. Consider what’s important to you and your business; what’s the first thing you want a customer to think about with regard to your business? It’s best to brainstorm a dozen or so potential names. Poll your family and friends, and be sure to include your target demographic in this informal focus group. It’s also not uncommon for a business owner to sometimes miss an awkward pun or double meaning (case in point: a nail salon called Get Nailed).
A descriptive name helps frame your company better than a generic one. For example, Speedy Electronics vs. Speedy. Adding this qualifier lets potential customers instantly know what you’re about. But don’t box yourself in with too-detailed a description; you might end up expanding your offerings down the road.
Most importantly, don’t get too attached to any one name during the brainstorming process. It’s all too tempting to begin envisioning your company logo, web design, signage, business cards, and more. But you’ve got to make sure that perfect name is actually available to use.
Step 2: The Investigation
Before you invest too much energy and excitement in a name, you’ll need to confirm that it’s available in the state where you are planning to conduct business, as well as nationwide. You definitely don’t want to be on the wrong end of a trademark dispute. Beyond punitive damages and legal fees, you might be ordered to rename your company/product immediately. All the money, time and effort you invested building that brand will be wiped out, in an instant. And, if you try registering a trademark that is similar to an existing mark, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) will reject your application straight away and you won’t be able to get a refund on your application fee.
So how do you make sure you’re legally permitted to use a name?
- Search corporate names in the secretary of state’s database in the state where you’re planning on setting up your business by using a trademark search engine. The USPTO offers one here.
- Conduct a free trademark search to see if your name is available to use at the federal level. CorpNet.com offers a FREE Trademark Search that’s a great place to start to see if your name is available to use nationwide.
- It’s important to know that you can infringe on someone else’s mark even if they’ve never formally registered it with the USPTO. For this reason, you’ll also need to do a comprehensive nationwide trademark search into state and local databases. This should include common law and county registrars. You can order a Comprehensive Nationwide Trademark Search online starting from just $199.
- You should also make sure that domain names are available with .com, .net, .biz and other relevant domain extensions.
Step 3: Registration
After you’ve settled on a name, you need to register it with the proper authorities. This should be done as soon as possible to prevent someone else from registering it. An assumed name –- also referred to as a “Fictitious Business Name” or “Doing Business As (DBA)” — is the easiest type of registration. This involves applying for a name at the county government offices and paying a fee.
You’re not actually required by law to register a trademark. Using a name instantly gives you common law rights as an owner, even without formal registration. However, you should consider registering your trademark for proper legal protection — after all, you’ve spent untold hours brainstorming the ideal name, and you’ll be putting even more effort into cultivating brand recognition.
Registering with the USPTO is a relatively easy process. Expect to pay approximately $325 per class that your mark would fall under (that’s for filing directly online; it’s approximately $375 per class for paper filings). The process can take anywhere from 9 to 12 months once your application is submitted. So why register? Trademarks and brand names have value; they can be sold as corporate assets. But most importantly, trademarks registered with the USPTO enjoy significantly stronger protection than “common law” (unregistered) marks. Since registering the mark CorpNet, it has been exponentially easier to recover “CorpNet” on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. It can save a ton on the legal fees associated with getting injunctions and all because CorpNet registered the trademark.
One last tip: If you are considering incorporating or forming an LLC for your business, you should do so before you register any trademarks. This places your trademark under the umbrella of the corporation or LLC.
As you journey through the process, be sure to take each stage seriously. Your name represents your brand and business. You should consider the name thoughtfully, and then take the right steps up front to protect your name and identity.
*Original content written by Nellie Akalp for Mashable.com