While picking a company name might take just a few moments, “officially” claiming the name requires a few checks and steps. Here’s Startomatic’s full guide on how to legally claim your business name.
Before Getting Started: Understanding Trade Names vs. Legal Names
Every company must have a legal name.
The legal name is formally registered with the Secretary of State of the State where the business is formed. On the other hand, a business’s “trade name” can be different from its legal name. Trade names are sometimes called a DBA (“doing business as”) or T/A (“trading as”) name. For simplicity, we recommend your small business use the same name as its legal and publicly-facing trade name. However, this could be difficult in some cases due to trademark law and local competition. You can find more guidance and information about trade names vs. legal names here
Step 1: Don’t Sweat The Name
It can be easy to overthink your business’s new name. Some people agonize over it, spending weeks or months on this one decision. But we strongly recommend you pick one or a couple of names you like, and move on to be sure they don’t conflict with another business’s name (more on that below).
Business names just don’t matter as much as you might think they do. You can always change the name down the road—or even adopt multiple names.
There’s no need to let finding the “perfect” name slow you down as you start your business.
Step 2: Gather a Few Options
Claiming your business name involves a few steps to ensure you don’t run into any trademark or other conflicts. Before diving in, it is helpful to gather a few different business name options. This way, if you do find conflicts, you won’t need to start over at square one. If you need some help pulling together a list, this Company Name Generator tool
Step 3: Put Google to Work
Next, you’ll want to do a general Google search of your prospective names. If you read our Starter Law 101 post on Trademark Basics
, you already know that you can usually use the same name as another business, unless that business is in the same industry as yours. A quick Google search should tell you if there are any businesses - in the same industry as yours, and in any location - that are using any of the names you’re considering. If there are, cross that name off your list.
Pro tip: keep an eye out for names with searches that come back with negative connotations. For example, say a business in another state made the news for legal trouble or sanitary violations. While there may be no trademark conflict, you probably don’t want those news articles popping up every time a potential customer searches for your business.
Want to keep your internet searches organized? A tool like this Google Name Search
Step 4: U.S. Trademark Search
You may already know that the main place to find trademarked names is through the USPTO (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office) directory. Searching the USPTO’s database will show you registered, live, or pending trademarks for your potential business names, including the industry in which the trademarks are registered.
Remember: Trademarks are industry-specific. You can use the same name as an existing trademark, as long as your product or service is in a different industry.
What’s the easiest way to search the more than 8 million USPTO trademark registration records? Glad you asked! It’s Startomatic’s Trademark Search Tool
Step 5: Regional Name Search
The region you live in plays an important role in the name you choose. This is because registering with the USPTO is not the only way to get a trademark - there is a type of trademark called a “common law” trademark. A common law mark is created as soon as a business starts using a name or symbol in business.
Pro tip: There’s no registration system for common law trademarks, so no governmental database to search to find them. Just use Google (or your search engine of choice).
Why does the geographic region matter? Because common law trademarks only protect the user in the area where they’re doing business. So for example, if you want to open a “Jasper’s Crab Shack” in the Chesapeake Bay area, and there’s already a Jasper’s Crab Shack in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, you’re still ok to use the name because the other Jasper’s is geographically distinct from your Jasper’s.
Step 6: Secretary of State Search
As we said, every business has to register its legal name in the state where it is legally formed. The Secretary of State in each state keeps a list of all registered business names in their particular state.
If you find another business has registered a legal name that’s the same as the one you’re considering, in the same state you’re planning to form in, we recommend you just go ahead and pick a different name. There are just too many available names to risk causing yourself a problem down the road.
If you plan to operate your business in several different states, it’s also a good idea to check those other states for conflicting registered business names. This Secretary of State Name Search tool
can help guide your state-specific searches in all 50 states.
Step 7: Nail Down a Domain Name
Your business needs a website - that’s pretty much a given today. So before you settle on a name, you need to be sure you can get a domain name (the “www.yourcompany.com” internet address) that goes well with your business name.
This isn’t to say that the domain has to be exactly the same as your business’s legal and trade name. For example, Jasper’s Crab Shack LLC might use “www.JaspersCrabs.com
” or “www.CrabsByJasper.com
”. (Both currently available, by the way… in case you’re going into the crab business. ...and your name is Jasper.)
What’s the easiest way to see if there are good domains available that match or are similar to your company name? You guessed it, Startomatic has a great Domain Name Finder
to check for available domains.
Step 8: Claim Your Social Media Handles
In step with the tech age, your new business name might not feel “official” until it is on social media. Your next step should be to claim your Twitter handle
and your Instagram handle
. This will help you start building your community online while ensuring that no one else grabs the handle for your business name. Once you are ready, you can also officially set up or claim your Google My Business page
Step 9: Get Your “Common Law” Trademark - it’s Easy!
After finally landing on your “official” business name, you may be eager to protect it with a trademark. So how do you trademark your business name? You actually earn some protection as soon as you start using the name in public. It is that simple. This is the “common law” (sometimes called “unregistered”) trademark we discussed earlier. While its protections are somewhat limited, using a common law trademark will restrict other businesses in your area and in your same industry from using your name.
For more comprehensive protection, you can apply for a registered trademark. This trademark is filed through the USPTO and provides a more comprehensive set of nationwide protections. As your business and brand grow, you may consider registering your trademark. For a lot of new businesses, a common law trademark should do the trick. Interested in learning more? You can read up on trademarks in our Starter Law 101: Trademark Basics
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