Starting Your Consulting Business Off Right

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A friend of mine is a master coder who used to build Web sites for most of the Fortune 50. A few years ago, he broke away from the design group where he’d worked since college to hang out his own shingle, deciding to call his new business #!. You read that right. Just #! and nothing more because, in his words, those are the most common symbols in computer programming.

“Programmers will get this immediately,” he said.

“But your clients aren’t coders. They’re executives. They won’t know a line of code from a line drive,” I responded.

If this whole scenario reminds you of the artist formerly known as Prince, you’ll understand how easy it is to mistake your own idea for the right idea. When it comes to naming a business, that can be the first and last mistake you’ll make.

“What’s in a name?” asked the Bard. The answer is, “Just about everything.” It’s the first thing your clients will hear, and if it doesn’t hook them in less than two seconds, you’ve shot yourself in the foot. So how do you come up with a killer name for your consulting shop? As with most things in life, you follow the rules.

Be Creative

Let’s say you’re the maven-in-chief of a new network support group. You could name yourself The Network Support Group Inc. and call it a day. Or, you could throw on a pocket protector, a white shirt, a thin black tie and clunky shoes and call yourself The Geek Squad. That’s what a group of Minneapolis techies did to differentiate themselves from their competition (www.geeksquad.com). Did it work? You bet it did. Their sense of humor helped them gain a client base (how many support agents do you know who can make you laugh?) and helped them expand to Los Angeles, San Francisco and beyond.

Be Obvious

Just be careful that you’re not too creative. #! is a good example of an idea that went too far. The simple fact is that you can’t be too obvious in this line of work, especially if you’re a specialist in something esoteric like Domino infrastructure—something, that is, that most people don’t understand.

Your clients should know what you do the moment they hear your name. If they have to guess–clients hate to be kept guessing–you’ll be the one who pays for it.

Stay Away from Trends

Imagine where you’d be if you had a “.com” in your name today. Only four years ago it was the hottest name on the market; now it’s an albatross.

It’s a proven fact that trends die, and if you hitch your company’s star to a trendy name and see results for a year or two, brace yourself for the day your name falls out of favor. Let me put this another way: A good name should be eternal. It should endure through trends and fads, just like your business.

Learn the AAA Rule

Go to the phone book, look under “plumbers” and see what you find: AAA Plumbers; A Plumber’s Best Friend; Advanced Plumbing. Do you see a pattern?

In the IT business, some of us work solely by word of mouth (including me). We rely on referrals from clients who love us. But others rely on the phone book for most of their business, and if you’re a consultant who lives and dies by the Yellow Pages, you need to make sure you’re not last on the list. Rarely does a client have the patience–or the stamina–to call everyone who’s listed from A to Z. Isn’t it better if they call you first?

Check the Domain Name

Hop on the Web, grit your teeth and point your browser to the VeriSign Web site (www.verisign.com). I say “grit your teeth” because you’re in for a good deal of frustration: The vast majority of the world’s domains are already taken. One of the hardest jobs in naming your new business will be finding a name whose URL is still open.

The right domain name is crucial. Consider this scenario: You just met a hot prospect at lunch and gave him your business card over dessert. He gets back to the office and decides to learn more about you. Of course, your business card is lying on the seat of his car, right where he left it. So he hops on the Web and types in the domain he thinks will be yours. Then he pulls up your competition’s Web site. Congratulations. You’ve just scored a touchdown for the opposing team.

Luckly, VeriSign and Register.com have wizards that spit out dozens of alternatives to a domain name that’s already taken. Most of them are useless, but every so often they give you an idea you that haven’t thought of before.

Grab as Many Domains as You Can Afford

Once you’ve found a name you can register, grab every possible variation you can. Why? Because you want to lock out the competition. And to be frank, people don’t know how to type: If your domain is TechHeads.com, you should consider TechHead.com (more than a few people will leave off the “s”). Don’t forget TechHed.com and TecHead.com as well. We all make typos.

In recent years the price of a domain has dropped by more than half. That’s a small price to pay for knowing you have a bit of virtual real estate all to yourself.

Check the Copyright

It’s illegal to use a name that someone else owns. Keep this in mind before you name your business—it’s expensive to reprint your letterhead, business cards and the like. It’s even more expensive to get sued. And if there’s anything that people get touchy about, it’s their name.

So how do you make sure you’re in the clear before you go with a name for your new business? Check with the USPTO–that’s United States Patent & Trademark Office–at www.uspto.gov. You can run an online search in less than a minute.

If the whole notion of patents, trademarks and copyrights leaves your head spinning, try using an expert. You can find good, cheap advice from any one of a dozen vendors on the Web, or you can go to a local lawyer. That’s a more expensive option, but you’ll have the luxury of knowing you’re dealing with a licensed expert.

Brand Yourself

Don’t be afraid to use your own name as your business name. We live in the age of Oprah, Rosie, Martha Stewart, Michael Jordan—or in our field, Norton, Dvorak, Gates and others whose names are princely business assets.

If you’re a one-man show, or if your clients rely on you for your special touch, consider a letterhead that reads, “Allen Baker & Associates.” Or just “Lilly Aimes Inc.” The message of this simple, powerful approach is that you’re the product. You’re a unique talent that can’t be found down the street at the competition’s office. And, extrapolating, you’re worth the price.

Don’t Forget Spanish

Or French. Or Finnish. Or any language you do business in. (For those of you who see your business as more parochial and assume this rule won’t apply to you, bear in mind that we live in an Internet world and anyone, anywhere can find your Web site.)

Does your name work in the target language? The infamous Chevy Nova is just one of a dozen examples of how corporations fail to localize their products: In Spanish, “no va” means “it won’t start” or “it won’t go”—not an ideal name for a car.

Another example comes from Kentucky Fried Chicken, which now operates more than 500 restaurants in China. According to the United Nations, KFC’s famous slogan, “Finger Lickin’ Good” comes out as “Eat Your Fingers Off” when translated into Chinese. I’m sure customers were flocking to the doors to lose their digits eating that secret-recipe chicken!

Test, Test and Test Again

There’s no reason not to test your name on everyone you know. Don’t make the mistake–all too common–of thinking your name is perfect because you were the one who chose it.

Call up your friends and see what they think. If they like it, they’ll know it immediately. If there’s so much as a second’s pause after you say the name and they give you their verdict, even if it’s a good one, try something else. A good name is like good music: You like it the instant you hear it.

 

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