From the June 2002 issue of Startups

(YoungBiz.com) - Naming your new business is one of the most exciting steps you'll take as a teen entrepreneur. It can also be one of the most challenging steps. Just ask Tim Thorpe.

Thorpe, a 'trep from LaFayette, New York, decided on the name Tim's Pumpkin Patch from the get-go when he started his business at age 16. Using his own name seemed to be the most appropriate way to identify his pumpkin patch. Turns out, someone else named Tim--who also just happened to have a pumpkin patch--had the same idea.

The other farmer named Tim--who had obtained a business registration certificate and filed for a trademark on the name--challenged Thorpe's right to use the name. Since Thorpe hadn't taken either of those steps, and because he feared legal troubles, he was forced to take down all his signs and change his business name. However, he learned a lot from this experience. "If I had it to do over again, I would have applied for my business registration when I first started the farm," says Thorpe, now 18.

Before you visualize your new business name in lights, it's important to make sure someone else didn't stake a claim on the name first. Once you decide on your business name, taking the following steps will help to ensure that it's yours for keeps.

1. Brainstorm. There are lots of businesses out there, and the chance that someone else may already be using your clever business name isn't so far-fetched. Brainstorming four or five possible names for your company will give you some alternates if you find that your top choice is already spoken for. Before you go any further, take a preliminary look through the phonebook to see if any other company is already advertising a similar name.

2. Check your state's guidelines. If the preliminary check of the phonebook shows that your business name may still be available, you're ready to take the next step. Registering your business name is a fairly easy and low-cost process, and it will help you to avoid the problems Thorpe faced.

3. Decide on your business structure. If you're going to operate your business as a sole proprietor or partnership, you will likely be required to register your business name as an assumed or fictitious name, also referred to as a "doing business as," or dba. Procedures for corporations are slightly different because their business names are registered when they file their articles of incorporation.

4. Go to the SBA. Every state has its own rules and regulations about business name registration. But there is a central place to start: the Small Business Administration. You can call the SBA answer desk at (800) 827-5722, or visit the SBA Web site. There, you'll find helpful tips on selecting a name for your business as well as links to your state's Web site, which will outline your state's procedures.

5. Register your business name. If your business name is available, take the next step and register it. In most states, business name registration is done at the county level by filling out a short form and paying a small fee. You will need to list the owners of the business as well as the address of the business on the registration form. Some states also require you to run a public notice in the newspaper to announce your fictitious business name.

6. Consider seeking additional protection. While registering your business name offers your business a unique identity within your county and/or state, it doesn't necessarily protect your name against someone else using the same name in another state. State and federal trademark laws offer wider protection for your business name. The best place to find out about trademarks is at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Web site.

7. Keep your registration up-to-date. Business name registrations and trademarks don't last forever. To maintain ownership of your business name, you will need to renew your name registration with your county and/or state every few years. Though the renewal period varies from state to state, typically, you are only required to re-register once every five to 10 years. Be sure to acquaint yourself with your state's individual requirements.

Choosing your company's name--and protecting it--is one of the most important first steps you can take as a new business owner. You will have to come up with a name that's not only memorable, but available, too. And you'll have to follow your state's guidelines, to boot. But, as the two Tims in this story found out, a little research at the start saves a lot of trouble later.

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