Anyone that's started a small business or is in the throes of starting a small business knows how overwhelming it can be just to get to opening day. You've got licenses & permits to think about, what sort of business entity structure is right, where the money is going to come from, and on and on. Phew! While it can almost be too overwhelming, your entrepreneurial drive and your passion for your business will get you through it.
Now when it comes to your business name, we can all agree that that's an important, if not the most important feature of your business. Your small business name is the face, if you will, of your products and/or services. It's how your customers will come to know you, how they'll get back to you and how they'll refer you to new customers.
Let's say you found the perfect name for your small business. What a lot of folks do at this point is usually a misstep – filing for a business entity under it, printing business cards, launching a web site, etc. There really is no point in investing in a business name until you know that the name is legally available.
If you had to change the business name AFTER you've done those things, you're losing on precious resources, such as time, money & effort.
So your first step after you've decided on your small business name is to research it to ensure that no one else had the same bright idea before you did. There's some preliminary research you should do; check this article for further details. Once it clears the preliminary stage, look into getting a comprehensive trademark search.
Now let's say your small business name has cleared the comprehensive search stage (yay!). Does your small business name need a trademark? Now being in the trademark business, you'd think our position would be why yes of course! However, filing for a trademark is not necessarily going to be the right fit for your business or plans. You'll have to decide that.
As long as no one has prior trademark or common-law rights to the name, you can operate with your common-law rights – thousands upon thousands of small businesses do this very thing.
One point to keep in mind is the importance of your name to your business identity. Let's look at some examples to illustrate further when a trademark is appropriate:
You're designing a clothing line and your logo/name combination is an integral part of your advertising campaign as well as appearing on all the tags and labels on the garments – your brand identity is important to your business so seriously consider filing for a Federal trademark.
You're opening a local tax preparation company and want to use a name that's somewhat generic, such as Tax Solutions -- since your use is local, a Federal trademark would not apply but a State trademark would. Also the name is pretty generic so trying to obtain exclusive rights to the name may not be possible.
Read more about the advantages to having a Federal trademark here.
Even if you decide that a trademark isn't for you, don't forget you still need a comprehensive search on the name.