How to Legally Establish the Name of a Small Business

Usually, this is something you can do on your own

More women entrepreneurs own sole proprietorships than any other form of business. Although a sole proprietorship isn't subject to the same name availability rules as other business structures, you must still register the name of your business in most cases. Partnerships and corporations have slightly different requirements, but registering the name is usually something you can do on your own.

Your state's website should offer a vast array of tools to help you accomplish these steps. Legal assistance isn't usually necessary, but you can always ​touch base with an attorney if you're unsure about anything. Business attorneys often offer hourly rates just to sit with you for a short while and answer your questions. If you let an attorney handle the registration for you, they will make sure all the paperwork goes to them in the future for annual renewals, which takes that off your plate, too. However, they will charge you for this service.

Decide on a Name for Your Business

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Come up with a name. This isn't always as easy to do as it might sound because you'll want one that will tell your clients and customers as much about your business as possible — and in the greatest possible terms. Create a list of things you want them to know. What do you consider to be the best things about your business? What sets it apart and makes it unique? Do you want to include your name or some portion of it? Now play around with the phrases on your list and see what you come up with.  

Some businesses have two names: the name of the business is legally registered as and another that's used for actually doing business. This is perfectly legal in most states. 

Check the Availability of the Name You Choose

It's a good idea to check to see if anyone else is already using the name you've selected or even one that's similar to it. If so, this can easily cost you customers or clients, particularly when you're just starting out. Maybe you've settled on something like Sure Clerical Services. There's already a company out there named Shore Clerical Services. You give a potential client your business card, but he loses it. He remembers your business name, however, so he looks up your contact information — only to end up going to Shore Clerical Services instead. This can also happen with word-of-mouth advertising as someone passes along mention of your stellar service. 

You must do a name availability search before you can register your business for some forms of business structures, but it's always a good idea to do it regardless. Most states offer interactive search tools. 

Using a Fictitious Business Name

You may have to file a fictitious business name statement if you decide to use one. This statement is also known as a “Doing Business As” or "DBA" statement. State laws vary on how to do this. Sometimes all you have to do is register with the county clerk, but some states require that you place an ad in the newspaper as well. 

You usually don't have to file a fictitious name statement if you're incorporating your business unless you use a name that's different from the one you plan to use to register the corporation. 

Registering Your Business Name as a Trademark

This step is not required by law, so consider it an optional expense. Registering the name of your business as a trademark can help protect your rights if someone else tries to use your name or one very similar to it. The same lost business can result as might occur if you inadvertently select a name that someone else is already using. 

It's a particularly good idea to consider trademarking your business name if you plan to offer multiple products or conduct business nationally or globally.