Does your business name matter?

'Your name here' etched onto three wooden blocks on an unfocused background

Remember when Royal Mail spent £2 million to change its business name to ‘Consignia’, changing its mind 16 months later because no-one – absolutely no-one at all, ever – found themselves saying, “Can you just pop down to Consignia with this birthday card for Auntie Doris?”

(Perhaps in the light of the Horizon scandal, now is a good time to revisit that decision.)

What you call a business matters, even if you’re a one-person set-up like me. A lot of freelancers and service-based solopreneurs start their business using their own name, especially if they never intend to become an employer. After all, people buy from people, and if you are your business, why not name it after yourself?

I chose the other route for two reasons:

  1. I thought ‘Word Service’ sounded cool when it drifted across my mind as a 21 year old student. I knew I’d probably write for a career but had no idea that I’d ever be a business owner.
  2. I married at 28 and took my husband’s last name, becoming Mary Whitehouse. Now I was forever associated by most Brits over 40 with a humourless old battleaxe who spent most of the 1970s and 1980s campaigning against swearing and nudity on TV. When I started my business seven years later, I concluded it would be hard to be the real me on Google with a name like that.

Interestingly, I may have made the right decision to avoid using a personal brand. Research in the Harvard Business Review exploring how female freelancers grow their businesses and careers when they’re already the boss identified a ‘glass wall’ where they are seen as less competent and committed than their male counterparts making equivalent horizontal growth decisions.

One of the HBR’s suggestions was to obscure your gender with a business name rather than using your own name. I’m not sure that’s the best reason for a non-personal business name, but it’s worth considering if you’re a woman.

I asked some other freelancers for their thoughts on the personal/business name conundrum.

You are who you are

If your business is basically you and always will be, why not make that clear? As copywriter Lizzie Davidson says, “I started out with a business name and reverse engineered my way back to just using my own name. As I got clarity on my proposition I realised that I never wanted to employ a team and that the main reason people worked with me was because they wanted to work with me, so why obscure that behind a brand.”

Fantasy Author Fi Phillips agrees. “My business is my name because there’s only me,” she explains. “I’m unlikely to ever hire staff and I want my customers to know who they’re dealing with.”

Cat Roberts-Young (Cat Copy Creative) highlights the downside. “I’ve often wished mine wasn’t linked to my name just so I sound a bit of a bigger outfit and can also dodge the sales calls… but on the whole I’m happy.”

Get creative

If you have a suitable name, you can adapt it as a clever business name. Juliet Betterton is founder of betterpr and says, “My business name was a no brainer! Luckily I was able to make it a play on my surname and it’s served me very well for many years.”

Copywriter Andy Robinson had the opposite experience. “I went for Helios Copywriting because I have a really boring name,” he says. “If my name was Xander Flame or Max Thrust, I wouldn’t have bothered.”

And some set little tests with their business name, like marketer Brad Marley. “My company name – Yelram – is my last name backwards because I didn’t want to spend too much time thinking about it,” he says. “I wanted to get to work, but I wanted something that also got people thinking about what it meant.”

Copywriter and trainer Catherine Every has been self employed for several years, initially as Pippin Copywriting. “I opted for a business name partly to give myself a sense of confidence.” she says. “But I also wanted to leave open the possibility of being able to have a team at some point in the future if I wanted without having a business name that was too connected to me.” 

More recently, she’s chosen to play on her name and rebranded as Every Word, which is such an obviously excellent name for her business. 

What’s not in a name?

Confidence seems to be a big driver of non-personal company names. Helen Hill is a writer, designer, illustrator and soi-disant mermaid (yes) with several interconnected business personalities and says, “I think when I first started out freelancing on the side I was so chronically lacking confidence that I wanted something to hide behind – hence the ‘Unlikely Genius’ business name.” (Which sounds pretty confident to me!)

Unusual personal names can be memorable or completely un-memorable, as Context Communications principal Lorne Evje reflects: “Evje is almost impossible to pronounce for anyone lacking Norwegian roots… so the decision to leave it out of the company name was easy.”

As an afterthought, he adds: “No need to mention my/our name in your article. After all, no one can pronounce it.” (Sorry!)

Searchability can be a big factor. “Because I started my career as an SEO copywriter (before I really knew what that was!), I quickly became ‘Chichester Copywriter’ purely for SEO reasons,” says Katy Lasseter. “Most of my client base is local and it doesn’t do me any harm to rank well when people search for ‘copywriter in Chichester’.”

Big yourself up

Just as there are good reasons to use your name, there are equally important reasons not to.

“When I started out in business, landline phone calls were the main method of communication and you often had to go via admin staff to get to the person you wanted to speak to,” says conversion copywriter Liz Painter of Comma Comma. “Saying you weren’t ‘from’ a particular company would derail what would otherwise be a short, sweet conversation before you got put through. So I gave my business a name. That wasn’t the only reason, but it was definitely a factor.”

Elizabeth Stafford runs Music Education Solutions Ltd and says, “The advice I was given many years ago when it was just me in the business was that the whole point of incorporating as a limited company is to indemnify yourself if things go wrong. If you use your own name, whilst you can still walk away free and clear in a legal sense, the reputational mud will always be stuck to your own personal name and follow you around in the future.

“I also find it extremely helpful when dealing with public sector bodies who are worried about IR35, as it makes it clearer from the outset that you’re not a personal services company, and contracting you is not going to land them on the wrong side of an HMRC investigation.

“The other major benefit of course is that it makes you look like a bigger concern and gives you room to grow without necessitating an expensive rebrand.”

Mark Grainger (Blossom Tree Copy Agency) concurs with this last point. “I swapped over when I went Ltd. I’d been feeling that people hadn’t been taking me seriously enough when the company was just my name. I felt I wanted to have a symbol, something to build a brand around, and something that sounded bigger than me. I think it worked.”

Singing teacher Abigail Mann Daraz sums it up. She’s transitioning from a personal to a business name and says, “My personal view is that it is dependent on many variables, including the stage of experience you are at, the development point of your business, your client base and the direction you wish to travel.”

And for me, that’s the great thing about freelancing: you can do what works best for you.

Looking to make a name for yourself and your business? Get in touch to see if I can help.