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The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers. -- Marshall McLuhan

When I first went to the Virginia School of Law in 1990 -– incredibly, sixteen years ago, he says in amazement –- the law and business schools shared a single courtyard. The business school was on the south side of a lovely tree garden, complete with walking paths and honorary plaques commemorating cherished professors and alumni. The law school stood on the north side.

The business school, flush with contributions from rich alumni and their corporate masters, was a much nicer building, housing lecture halls with wonderfully padded chairs and student lounges you actually wanted to sit down in. Most importantly, the business school also had a series of private study rooms, complete with blackboards to help any industrious student who needed peace and quiet to get their work done.

The law school, funded by donations from greedy lawyers, had none of these.

What the law school did have was an overcrowded library filled with pampered law students, most of whom were more interested in socializing than in becoming the “eager young minds of tomorrow.” Now, I hate to admit this, but I was pretty serious about my studies for my first two years of law school. Kind of a nerd, actually. I wanted a good job, and since I had no family connections in the law, I knew that good grades were my only ticket into the law firm door.

Since then, I’ve been through the law firm door –- and the one after that labeled “partner” –- and have seen the game for what it truly is. A game. But back then, I was a young man desperately in need of a place to study. So I found my way across the courtyard to the business school, and its rows of immaculate study rooms.

During study breaks, I would find myself wandering the business school halls, catching bits and pieces of conversations. From what I could tell, business school teaching revolved around exercises designed to give the students –- usually working in small study groups –- real-world experience in certain areas of business management. These exercises had titles like "Dilemmas in Exercise Decisions for Real Options on Core Competencies," "Consumer Behavior Exercises (A) - (F)," and "Methods of Calculating Net Present Value and Internal Rate of Return, Programmed Exercises." Certainly nothing to give me a desire to learn more.

But there was one lesson plan I found quite interesting. It was written on a blackboard in one of the study rooms, and it was titled “The Top Ten Characteristics of Good Names.” As the title suggests, it focused on the principles business managers and owners should follow when creating a corporate name. It wasn’t technical or narrow-minded. Rather, it relied on general principles about communicating ideas to the public that plainly had application far outside the world of business.

In fact, I liked the list so much I actually wrote it down in my notebook. I figured it would be good for my Corporations class, at the very least. And since I always typed up my notes into a full-blown course outline -– “Yes, my name is Kaj, and I was a nerdy law student” -– the list has stayed with me until the present.

It resurfaced recently because of a Google search that turned up an unexpected result; a Web article titled “The Ten Commandments of a Great Business Name.” Now, I don’t remember what I was looking for on Google. It certainly wasn’t anything about business names. But when I saw that article pop up, it triggered my old memory from law school, and I just had to check it out.

It turns out that the two lists, while not identical, were remarkably similar. Despite the fact that the first list was written before the web, before the “Information Age,” before the boom-and-bust of the dot-com era. It seems that good communication skills –- and the use of those skills to choose an effective name -– are an art that transcends time and circumstance, to become universal in their application.

So, without further ado, here is the combined list of characteristics of a good name.

  1. It will be short, sweet, and easily pronounced. To cut through the clutter and noise of competing names, you need a strong, easily pronounced, and easily remembered name. Two or three syllables will be your upper limit. One is best, if it can be made to fit the situation. The spelling should be simple, too. A potential customer might be expected to ask how to spell your name once, but only once. Any more than that, and you’re asking too much. Using one of the sticky consonants (k, q, x, z) can help with customer recall.

The name will also be focused. You can use the “global” tag when you’ve actually made something of yourself. Until then, stick with what you know. Small businesses are specialists, and that’s the reason your customers are coming to you in the first place. Having said that, you should also avoid a name that is too geographically specific. Better to simply say “Company X, proudly serving the Springfield community and beyond,” or some such nonsense.< /li>

  • It will be unique within its industry. While you don’t want your name to be off-the-charts weird, you also don’t want it to look just like every other name in the industry. In the old days, that meant choosing a name like Kinko’s instead of Copyland. Today, it means choosing a name like Monster.com instead of JobHunter.com. The names aren’t as descriptive of the business, but that’s why they stand out. It can also help in avoiding a “generic” finding by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (see below). < /li>
  • It will be legally available and defensible. Even the cutest, cleverest name will do you no good if you wind up with a cease-and-desist letter two months down the road, telling you that your newly chosen name is infringing on a well-established, registered trademark. Yes, lawyers are expensive, but a few thousand dollars spent to do a complete trademark search at the beginning may save you hundreds of thousands of dollars in an infringement action later on.
  • Your best insurance is to submit the name to the PTO for registration beforehand. Once the PTO has completed its investigation, it will issue a determination with one of three results. One, your registration is awarded. Congratulations! Two, your registration is denied because the name is too “generic,” meaning it simply describes some general aspect of the company’s business. A paper company trying to register the name “Paper” would be a good example. This tells you to try again. Third, your registration is denied because the name is already trademarked and in use. Paradoxically, congratulations are in order again, because you just dodged a bullet. You don’t have to pay some shyster lawyer like me to defend you in an infringement lawsuit.< /li>

  • It shall not be ME, Inc. If you’re the founder and driving force behind your small business, the temptation to name the project after yourself can be overwhelming. The problem comes when, after you’ve made your dream into a reality, you decide to cash out by selling your company. If you do, the use of your own name as the company’s moniker is like a ball and chain on the sales price, making the company less open for expansion and thus less attractive. Swallow your pride. Go for the money instead.< /li>
  • It will not lend itself well to abbreviations. Sure, abbreviations worked for IBM, CBS, and AT&T. But do you have the kind of money necessary to separate your three or four letters from the alphabet soup of competitor names that is out there? Probably not. So don’t become a YASI (Yet Another Set of Initials). Make certain that at least the trademark part of your name is a word, and not initials. < /li>
  • It will be linguistically clean. Are you old enough to remember when Exxon was Esso? I am, and I also remember my mother telling me that the company had to change its name because “Esso” meant something bad in Brazil or something. Now, I don’t know if this story is true or not, but the principle remains a sound one: your name should be pronouncable, and repeatable in polite company, in a number of different languages, including Spanish, Russian, French, and Japanese. You may not be doing business there yet, but why invite trouble? If you know your name is good around the world, that’s just one less thing to worry about.< /li>
  • It will not age quickly. You want a name that’s up-to-date, but not one that’s so trendy it will be passé tomorrow. So be very careful of “in” words or expressions. They will lose their luster sooner rather than later, and they may not play well in some demographics at all.< /li>
  • It will embrace your company’s personality. A name does more than simply identify your company. It describes it, as well, and with it the personality of you and your team. The name should be one that reflects your values and ideals. You need to be comfortable with it. Any ad agency can suggest a name or slogan for your company. Only you can decide if it really fits. < /li>
  • It will fit with your brand portfolio. Unless your company is purely a service company, you will be offering products –- named products –- to the consumer. You will want to choose a company name that can expand and fit within the names of your company’s products in the years to come. < /li>
  • It will be media friendly. In the old days, that meant that you could use the name to support well-placed and designed graphics and advertisements. Now, it means that you’ve chosen a name that matches your Web presence. Your Web address must match your name, with no hyphens or spaces to confuse the potential customer. Pave the electronic road to you door, and they will come. < /li>
  • In reviewing these simple rules, it struck me how they applied not only to company names, but to names of nodes on e2, as well. Keep it short and simple. Make certain the name, or something very near it, is not already in use. Make certain the name conveys the essence of the node within. Try to stay away from trendy or clever names. It seems the art of naming really is universal in its application.

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