Starting your own business is an exciting time full of lots of decision-making. You've established goals, organized a to-do list, consulted experts, and are ready to start your new endeavor.
You want a name for your new business that is memorable, unique, attracts customers, and encapsulates the purpose of your business. And while you probably have a name in mind, you'll need to check business name availability.
Why check if a business name is available
Whether you are starting a business entity as a corporation, limited liability company (LLC), or nonprofit corporation, the first step will be filing formation documents with your state. In order to do that successfully, you will first want to check at your state agency that there is no registered business entity type or name already in existence with your chosen name. Otherwise, you may be required to start the entire process over again with a new name.
Additionally, if you make it through the paperwork process and begin doing business under your chosen business entity name, it's still possible you may find yourself accused of trademark infringement laws by another business that started before your own. In that case, you'll have to start all over again, having wasted a lot of time and money on your products and advertising in order to avoid legal fees and/or accusations of trademark infringement.
What you need to know about trademark law
Although you don't need to be an expert in federal trademark database or law in order to successfully register your business name, it is important that you know a few basic pieces of information in order to protect yourself from what could become a lawsuit.
If you were to choose a name for your business that is too similar to another business in your industry, that is called trademark infringement. The first business to have the name would have a right to make you change your name, which could be costly as you would need to redo paperwork, marketing materials, and even web presence. The other business could potentially also sue for damages.
In order to help you avoid these costly mistakes, in addition to researching your proposed business name and making sure no one else has previously trademarked it, it can be prudent to engage the help of legal experts to help determine whether or not your name is too similar to existing business and therefore vulnerable to a trademark infringement lawsuit.
How to check if a business name is taken
You will need to search several places to determine if a business already exists with the same name you wish to use. While this process may seem daunting, doing a trademark business name search will make it less likely that you will inadvertently choose a business name that is already taken.
General internet search
The first step is conducting a general internet search via a search engine. This is the first step because it is the quickest, and while you may not find a match and need to keep looking, an internet search is the quickest way to eliminate your chosen company name due to an existing business.
Bryan Clayton, CEO and founder of GreenPal, an online platform that matches homeowners with local lawn care professionals based in Nashville, Tennessee, recommends also checking with popular social media sites. "I also check Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn to see if there are any accounts or pages with the same or similar name as mine," Clayton says.
Another internet search that Clayton recommends involves checking already registered domain names for business web pages. "I do a domain name search to see if the .com version of my business name is available," he says. "I use (name search) tools like GoDaddy or Namecheap to do this. If the .com domain is taken, I look for other alternatives like .net, .co, .io, or .biz."
Another unconventional yet helpful search tool when selecting a name for your desired business is to check e-commerce sites such as Amazon. Sellers often use this site to sell their products, and it's a quick search to help eliminate the possibility that you are duplicating a competing business' name.
Your state business filing agency
Each individual state has an office that is responsible for business entity filings. Typically, the Secretary of State maintains an online name-check tool under the state business filing agency. Using this tool, you can search the names of existing registered businesses to check whether someone is currently operating a business under the name you have selected.
Your specific state's website will also provide any regulations surrounding choosing similar names to existing businesses. Making sure you know your state's own rules is essential as you move forward in the business naming process. If you prefer, you may also contact your state's business filing agency directly, and they will help you make sure that your company's legal and desired name hasn't already been registered in their office.
While the previously mentioned searches are essential, they may not cover all similarly named local businesses. "Doing business as" (DBA) businesses such as corporations, LLCs, sole proprietors, and partnerships are all business entities allowed to operate under fictitious business names known as DBAs. These DBAs are not always required to register with the state, depending on the rules of your specific state, so they may be more difficult to discover.
Your county clerk's office is also a worthwhile stop in your search for existing DBAs, because some counties require registration of these business entities.
Several states also require DBAs to register, so if you are in a state with that requirement, you can check the DBA registrations to determine whether or not your proposed business name is already in use. Otherwise, you should rely on internet and social media searches to avoid repeating the names of established DBAs.
Do my business and my LLC need to have the same name?
Any limited liability company (LLC) must have its own unique name for filing legal documents. That being said, LLCs may have several DBAs operating at the same time. For example, you could have two businesses as part of one LLC. These businesses may have their own DBA names on marketing materials. The rules for LLC name availability, however, are the same for any other business: They must be distinguishable and not previously trademarked. So if you are looking to register John Smith LLC but that name is already taken, you will have to choose another name.
Another vital business name search is the federal database of trademarks. Businesses can trademark their names nationwide if they register the name with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
Aliza Naiman, marketing manager of Olgam Life, a New York City-based plasma donation service, says using the USPTO trademark database is essential for avoiding business name issues. "You can search for anything that appears to be similar to the name you have in mind," Naiman says. Additionally, Naiman suggests business owners "search for word marks that are similar to trade name, utilized for related products, and indicated as live by just tapping the search button." Naiman advises business owners to register their chosen name as a trading name with the USPTO "as soon as it is free of any pending trademark infringement allegations."
How to choose a business name
Choosing your business name is a tricky prospect: You want to have something memorable, cool, and descriptive, all while not repeating a business name that someone else has already picked. The goal of your business name is to have potential customers remember your business and remember what your business is, so make sure you choose a name relevant to your specific industry.
Avoid choosing names, including intentionally misspelled words or obscure references. Instead, brainstorm unique and memorable names and ask for input from friends and family. Crowdsourcing reactions will help you narrow down your choices.
Be aware that words are often legally prohibited from use in business names. While some of those are simply words considered inappropriate in polite company, the words that are usually restricted or prohibited are those that might be misleading or give false assurances. For example, you wouldn't be allowed to register your business as law enforcement since this fictitious name would give the public the impression that you were somehow involved in police work.
Reserve your name if it's available
When you are fortunate enough to find a memorable business name, represents your products/services, and is available, take steps to protect that name from other business owners snatching it up before you do. Register your business name or reserve it if you're not ready to register as a business just yet. Most states offer business name reservations for a period ranging from 60-120 days, and during the time in which that name is reserved, no other businesses can claim it as their own.
Additionally, if you plan to expand into other states, check their laws on name registration for those residing in other states. While not all states offer name reservations, several do, and you can preserve your business name in those states for a period of one year with the option to renew each subsequent year.
Tips for choosing your own domain name
Online presence is essential for success in today's market. When choosing your domain name, or web address, you'll want to select something relevant to your business name. It may not be possible to pick the exact same name as that domain may be previously registered, but after doing a domain search as well as the other aforementioned searches while choosing your business name, craft a domain name that reflects your business name and will be easy for potential customers to remember.
Making sure your desired business name is available is an essential first step to success. Starting your own business comes with so many unique challenges that you'll want to avoid the pitfalls of choosing a business name without proper vetting. Save yourself the headache of starting from scratch at the very least and legal action at worst by making sure your chosen business name is not only unique and practical but also free and clear for your use.
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