Choosing a strong business name can be a difficult project for an up and coming entrepreneur.
You want to choose a name that matches your intended brand, but also provides adequate legal protections so you can safely grow your business in the future.
Thankfully, there are a variety of tools, tips, and tricks you can use to choose a business name that captures your unique brand and ideas.
In this article, we’ll explore a few business name basics you should keep in mind as you start planning out potential business names.
Note, however, that the topics we’ll cover below are simply general pieces of advice that are relevant to all new business owners.
If you need more specific advice for your individual case, we recommend that you talk to an attorney about the best way to gain legal protections for your brand.
- Virginia Business Name Requirements
- 4 Different Ways to Register a Business Name
- Virginia Business Name FAQs
- Key Takeaways
Virginia Business Name Requirements
As an important first step, your proposed business name must be distinguishable from (1) the names of all other active business entities in the Commonwealth, (2) any names that have been registered for use by other people, and (3) any name that has been registered by another company as a trademark.
This means that your first action should always be to search relevant databases for any names that might be confusingly similar to your proposed business name.
For businesses owners that want to register in Virginia, this means searching though registered names with the Clerk’s Information System Name Check Availability tool.
This tool will return exact matches for the entity name you put in, and acts as a good first step in determining if the name is available.
Note that the inherent specificity of this tool means means that a result of “This Name is Available” does not necessarily mean you can register the name.
It simply means that the specific name has not been registered with the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC).
How to Use the Virginia SCC’s Name Check Availability Tool
The Virginia SCC will disregard a number of name elements when determining whether or not a name is distinguishable.
Specifically, they will not consider:
- Required words and abbreviations (such as “LLC,” “Limited Liability Company,” or “Corporation”);
- Certain nondescript articles, conjunctions, and prepositions (such as “the,” “a/an,” “or,” “of,” and “for”);
- Punctuation marks such as periods, commas, semi-colons, apostrophes, parentheses, dashes, plus signs, equal signs, question marks, exclamation points, and other characters such as @, #, $, %, &, and *.
This can look a bit complicated at first, but an example should help clear things up:
Consider the proposed business name “Superior! Car Dealership of Richmond.”
When the Virginia SCC reviews this name (or you search this name in the tool linked above), they will disregard all of the elements listed above to return a “core name” for the business.
In this example, the core name for the proposed business would be: SUPERIORCARDEALERSHIPRICHMOND.
Notice how the tool has removed the punctuation and the preposition “of” from the original name? This is what we mean by the SCC (and the tool) “disregarding” these name elements.
This core name can then be compared to other core names that are already registered with the SCC to determine if the business’s name is distinguishable.
So, if another car dealership exists with the name “The Superior $$$ Car Dealer Ship for Richmond,” the proposed name would return as “not distinguishable” since the core names would match.
Put simply, you can use the Name Check Availability tool to see whether any other business in Virginia has the same core name as your proposed business name.
Note, however, that the name coming up as available in the Name Check Availability tool does not necessarily mean you can register that name.
Instead, it’s simply the first step in the process of determining whether your proposed name is distinct enough to use in commerce in the Commonwealth.
What to Do After Checking the Virginia SCC’s Name Check Availability Tool
After you confirm your proposed name is available in the Name Check Availability Tool, you should take some time to explore other databases to ensure the name is distinct enough for registration.
Often, this means searching your proposed name(s) on a search engine such as Google and then cross-referencing this information against data found in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS).
By checking all three of these locations for brands that might be confusingly similar to your own, you should be able to determine whether your proposed name is distinct enough for formal registration.
5 Quick Tips for Choosing a Strong Business Name
To expand on this topic a little more, there are several key tips you should keep in mind when it comes to choosing a legally strong business name.
We’ll outline a few of these tips below.
However, remember that choosing a strong business name can be incredibly case-specific, so it’s wise to cover all your bases before you settle on a particular name or brand.
- Choose a name that’s distinct. The most important thing to remember is that your business name must be distinguishable from all other names in your industry. This is true both for your registration with the Virginia SCC and for any future IP projects such as registering your business name as a trademark.
- Choose a name that’s easy to use. Try to keep your name short and related to your business. Short, catchy names are both easier for you to market and easier for clients to remember in the long term, so it’s wise to choose something that resonates with your client base.
- Choose a name that’s web-friendly. On a related note, try to choose a name that’s web-friendly. Remember that a large portion of your client base will search your name online before making a purchase, so it should be easy to find your website and other marketing materials online. Importantly, make sure to search your proposed name online to make sure there aren’t any pre-existing brands that might bump you off the first page of the search results.
- Choose a name that’s consistent with your brand. Try to choose a name that resonates with your brand message. If you’re going for “professional,” for example, try not to choose something that sounds silly or trendy.
- Choose multiple names and pitch them to friends and family. It’s a fact that you’re heavily invested in your business. For this reason, you may miss something in your business name that impartial friends or family members might pick up on. Two heads is always better than one, so it’s smart to ask people you know what they think of your proposed brand.
4 Different Ways to Register a Business Name
Once you settle on a particular name, you should take steps to register that name with any appropriate registrars and government agencies.
By doing so, you can effectively “reserve” this name for your exclusive use, meaning that other businesses cannot use your newly registered name in commerce.
Below, we’ll talk about the four most common ways you can register your business’s name:
- Entity name registration with the Virginia SCC.
- Doing Business As (DBA) registration with the Virginia SCC.
- Trademark registration with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
- Domain name registration with a domain name registrar.
Note, however, that these are simply the most common places to register, and your lawyer may advise additional registration depending on your particular situation.
Entity Name Registration with the Virginia SCC
As we mentioned above, your entity name is the primary name that your business will operate under in the Commonwealth.
Specifically, your entity name will be how Virginia recognizes and identifies your business on legal documents and in other official capacities.
Once you’ve chosen a specific name, registering your new entity is relatively easy.
In fact, you can do so quickly and easily online using the Virginia SCC’s Clerk’s Information System website.
DBA Registration with the Virginia SCC
Fictitious names (also know as “doing business as” names or a “DBA) are alternative legal names that your business can operate under.
Often, businesses will use fictitious names to adopt a more presentable and “marketable” name that is separate from their formal entity name.
For example, if a woman named Katherine wants to start an art business in her hometown, she might formally register her entity name as “Katherine’s Art Business, LLC.”
Then, she could register a number of different DBA names to market her business under, such as “Landscapes by Katy,” “Katherine’s Portrait Studio,” or even a suggestive name like “Cloudpaints.”
Notice how the DBA drops the “LLC” requirement for formal entity names and allows a single business to operate under multiple fictitious names (a common scenario for businesses that target different markets or audiences).
Put simply, fictitious names offer a number of benefits over formal entity names. Best of all, registering a fictitious name is relatively simple in Virginia.
In fact, you can register this new name in the same way you registered your entity name: on the Virginia SCC’s Clerk’s Information System website.
Trademark Registration with the USPTO
A business’s most valuable asset is often its intellectual property, as all of the goodwill, reviews, and other important social capital your business has built up (or will build up) over the years is tied to your brand.
For this reason, it’s smart to register your business’s name as a trademark as soon as your business begins to take off.
A registered trademark can protect the name of your business, your goods and services, and anything else related to your brand at the national level (and, importantly, online).
Specifically, registering a trademark for your business name or core product will prevent other businesses from selling “confusingly similar” products or services that might harm your reputation or confuse your customers.
For this reason, many businesses choose to register their business name with the USPTO to gain legal protections across the United States.
Much like with registering your entity and DBA names with the Virginia SCC, registering a new trademark with the USPTO is actually quite easy, and you can finish the entire process in as little as a few minutes if you’re sure your name is distinctive enough.
Note, however, that it’s still wise to speak to an attorney before you begin the trademark registration process.
Mistakes can be costly, and an attorney who has reviewed your case can tell you if the name you’ve chosen and the trademark classes you’ve filed under will give your brand the protection it needs.
Domain Name Registration with a Domain Registrar
If you want to build an online presence for your business, you’ll have to register a domain name that matches your brand.
Often, this means converting your business name into a domain name and hoping that it’s available for purchase.
For example, if we use our “Katherine’s Art Business, LLC” example from earlier, a few valid domain name choices would include:
In order to register your domain name, you must first make sure the name is available and not already owned by another person or entity.
Once you’re sure the name is free, you can go to a reputable domain registrar and purchase the name.
We currently recommend Google Domains for domain registration.
Virginia Business Name FAQs
What letters, marks, and other characters can I include in my entity name?
In Virginia, your entity name must be written in English letters and Arabic (“123”) or Roman (“MMXXII”) numbers.
It may also include certain common characters such as periods, commas, colons, apostrophes, parentheses, dashes, question marks, exclamation points, and certain other characters such as @, #, $, %, &, and *.
For a full list of acceptable letters, please see the Virginia SCC’s Business Entity Names FAQ page.
Are any words or abbreviations required for my entity name?
Yes. Generally, these required words or abbreviations serve to denote your business’s entity type.
For example, LLCs registered in Virginia must include the words “limited company,” “limited liability company,” or some abbreviation of these words such as “LC” or “LLC.”
Similarly, corporations must include the words “corporation,” “incorporated,” “Inc.,” “Corp.,” or some other accepted denotation that the entity is a corporation.
Note that certain professional businesses (such as law firms or CPAs) are required to denote their professional status in their entity name as well.
For example, as a law firm, our official entity name is “Tingen Law, PLLC” which denotes our “professional limited liability company” designation.
What is a fictitious name?
A fictitious name is an assumed name that your business can legally operate under instead of their formal entity name.
Specifically, you can perform most of the actions you would normally do with your formal entity name with a fictitious name instead, such as drafting and signing contracts, opening bank accounts, etc.
Are there any restrictions on words that can be included in my entity name?
Yes. There are a number of restrictions on the words you can use in your entity name.
As a few of the most common:
- You cannot include words that state or imply your business uses a different legal structure (e.g. a LLC cannot use the word “incorporated” in its name).
- You cannot include words that imply you will be conducting business as a bank, trust company, insurance company, or other restricted company unless you will actually be engaged in (and regulated by) business of that nature.
- You cannot use words such as “United States,” “national,” “Federal,” or “reserve” in your business’s name if your business is in any way related to financial products or services.
Finally, while not a restriction placed by the government, it’s generally not wise to include the name of another business or entity in your business name due to the numerous legal complications this can cause.
As a common example, imagine for a moment that you open a bookstore next to a college, such as the University of Virginia.
In this example, it’s not a good idea to name your business entity “The University of Virginia Bookstore” because (1) this would infringe on the intellectual property rights of the University and they would likely sue you, and (2) the name is not distinct enough to gain any legal protections should you even successfully register it in the first place.
While it may sound silly at first, this is a surprisingly common problem for “derivative” brands that provide goods or services targeted at another brand’s customers or audience.
Registering a business name with the Virginia SCC is a surprisingly easy process. In fact, all you have to do is go to the Clerk’s Information System website and fill out a quick form.
Choosing a legally strong business name, however, can be significantly harder.
Importantly, it’s highly recommended that you choose a business name that strikes a balance between your marketing and branding goals and the legal protections you’ll need in the long-run to safely grow your business.
Often, the solution to this problem is to register a legally strong formal entity name with the Virginia SCC and then to choose a fictitious name (or DBA) to market your brand under.
Regardless of the strategy you choose, it’s important to speak with an attorney about your case before you make any lasting decisions about your business.
Only an attorney experienced in your local jurisdiction can give you the advice and guidance you need to safely and quickly grow your business into a profitable and long-lasting entity.