I've been in business long enough to have made just about every mistake at least once. I made my first right at the beginning. It was in 1979, and I had left my previous employer to start my own messenger business, and I needed a name--the right name. I thought it was critical to come up with one that projected the image I wanted for my business. First impressions are important, after all, and our name would be the first impression that most prospective customers would get. I wanted the name to convey reliability, expertise, and service. So I sat down with my wife and the four or five people I had hired to work with me, and we brainstormed.
I no longer remember most of the names we came up with. I think we wound up submitting nine to the New York secretary of state's office. One was Premier Courier. Another was Ideal Courier. I forget the rest, but I do recall the time and effort we put into the process--and the frustration we felt when our lawyer would come back and tell us that we had to keep brainstorming because the name we wanted was already taken. This went on for days and days. In retrospect, I probably spent more time searching for a name than I did planning how to get the business off the ground. By the end of the second week, I was at my wit's end. We were losing precious time and frittering away our start-up capital, and we still didn't have a name.
I guess our lawyer was growing impatient as well, because he decided on his own to submit a name that we hadn't considered: Perfect Courier. I can't say I was thrilled when he told me it was available. To suggest we were "perfect" struck me as an invitation to trouble. I could just imagine what customers would say when we made a mistake, as was bound to happen from time to time. But I didn't have any better ideas, and I was eager to move on. The lawyer said I had a choice about what to put at the end of the name: Inc., Corp., or Ltd. I chose Ltd. because I thought it gave us an international flavor. Thus did our labors finally produce what we needed to get started, namely, a name: Perfect Courier Ltd. Only much later did I come to realize that the whole exercise had been a waste of time.
I wasn't the first entrepreneur to make that mistake, of course, and I wouldn't be the last. I'm sure that almost everybody who starts a company falls into the same trap. You're particularly susceptible when it's your first business venture. You sit there knowing that you have to come up with something and that, whatever it is, you're going to be stuck with it for a long time. It's natural to conclude that choosing a name is a big deal. But it's not. If I were to make a list of the 10 most important things to do when you launch a business, selecting the right name wouldn't even be on it. Why? Because your company's name plays little, if any, role in determining your success.
Now I know some people will disagree with me about this. No doubt, they're many of the same people who took exception to last month's column about the money wasted on marketing. They'd argue that to build a powerful brand you need to give your company a memorable name. And I admit that some company names are more memorable than others. I'll never forget Tex's Chain Saw Manicure, which this magazine wrote about many years ago. Hernia Movers in Milwaukee also has a name that's easy to remember, as does the Amigone Funeral Home in Cheektowaga, N.Y., among other places, and the Atlasta Motel in Boonville, Mo. Then there's the Curl Up N Dye Hair Salon in Las Vegas. But I've long believed that Thomas S. Kavanagh had the right idea in 1975 when he started a company in Boulder, Colo., to sell office automation products and named it NBI, which stood for "nothing but initials."
Having a memorable name is no guarantee of success, and it plays no role in building a strong brand. If it did, we would never have heard of General Motors, IBM, or Oreo cookies. The strength of your brand reflects not your name but what you do and how you do it. You build a great brand by putting out great products, by providing great service, by creating a great work environment for your employees, by competing hard but fairly, and by being a great corporate citizen. If you think that sounds a lot like developing a great reputation, you're right. For most businesses, brand and reputation are indistinguishable--and would anyone seriously argue that a company's reputation depends on having a memorable name? The idea that it matters at all is a hangover from the Internet bubble years, when we heard so much about the importance of being "the first mover" and other craziness. May those concepts rest in peace.
To be sure, start-ups are hardly the worst offenders in the name game. That distinction belongs to the giant companies that spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to come up with names most people can't pronounce or spell, let alone remember--names like Avaya, Diageo, and Accenture. I sometimes think the goal of these corporate renaming exercises is to find the most forgettable name possible. That surely must have been what the Philip Morris executives had in mind when they changed their company's name to Altria.
There is one set of circumstances under which I believe a company's name can be important--when someone has the wrong idea about his or her business.
But there is one set of circumstances under which I believe a company's name can be important. It matters when someone has the wrong idea about his or her business, thinks the name is critical, and chooses one that reflects the flawed concept. At that point, the name becomes an obstacle. Unless you change it, you'll have a hard time getting on the right track.
That was the problem Melissa Rivas had when she came to me recently. She had heard me speak at a networking meeting and asked me to advise her about her company, MyEAssistant.com. It didn't take me long to figure out why the company was struggling. Even after reading her brochure and looking at her business card, I couldn't figure out what she did--or what she didn't do. She was offering to do anything for anybody and everything for everybody. She'd create your business cards. She'd make your travel arrangements. She'd walk your cat. She'd water your flowers. She'd take out your dry cleaning. You name it, she'd do it.
In fact, nobody had ever hired her to do any of those things--but she had done reasonably well finding customers who needed someone to produce online newsletters. "This is real easy," I said. "You're trying to sell yourself as a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. In business, that's almost always a losing proposition. Who would hire somebody who doesn't do anything well? People want to hire specialists who are great at what they do. So what are you a master of? You help companies get more sales by using online newsletters. Focus on that and forget the other stuff. And give your company a name that fits what you do."
Understand, I thought Melissa should come up with a new name for her own sake--to help her get away from thinking she did all things for all people. If she stayed with MyEAssistant.com, it would be a constant struggle to maintain focus. Whenever someone asked what the company did, she'd be tempted to go into a laundry list of services that she was willing to provide. I wanted to change her mindset, and a new name would help.
Melissa took my advice to heart. When I next met with her--about two months later--her business had become Visage Connections, and her slogan was, "We keep you in touch." She had a new elevator speech as well. Her specialty, she said, was "keeping your name, your repertoire, and your business services front and center in your clients' minds by continuous contact." In a minute or two, she could run down the targeted e-mail campaigns she'd done for other companies and explain how they used the online newsletters she created to increase their business. Since making the changes, her sales had risen more than 15%, and she was just getting started.
Does that prove that having the right name is really important after all? I don't think so. It proves that being focused is really important. Melissa could have named her company Rivas Communications, or Melissa's Company, or--who knows?--maybe even something like Altria, and I'm sure she would be doing just as well. And that's the point. You can build a great company no matter what you call it. Just remember that in business, as in other competitive activities, keeping your eye on the ball is the name of the game.
Norm Brodsky (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a veteran entrepreneur whose six businesses include a three-time Inc. 500 company. His co-author is editor-at-large Bo Burlingham.