Naming your practice is like getting a tattoo. It’s fun, and exciting, but it’s also painful. And, excepting expensive surgery, it’s something you’ll have for life. In this column, I’ll share some experiences I’ve had (and provide some pointers I’ve learned) over the years about picking a good name for your counseling practice.

1. Enjoy (don’t rush) the process

Recently, my wife and I built a house. Out of our depth, we asked anyone we knew with experience for advice. The best guidance I heard was this: Picking out the finishes—cabinets, countertops, lighting, appliances, fixtures—while time consuming, it’s the fun part, and to remember to enjoy the process. Finding the right name for your practice is like choosing the finishes for your house. It’s not drywall. It’s not a business license, liability insurance, medical credentialing—it’s the fun bit! Resist the temptation to categorize it as a banal to-do, or to rush into a name you might later regret. When choosing a name for my practice, I spent months scribbling possibilities in the margins of books I was reading, or on the napkins at bars where I was drinking (name qualities changed after a couple drinks). There were long enjoyable nights tossing back and forth potential names with friends and confidants.

2. You don’t need a name to open shop

You don’t need a name to open your practice. In fact, some practices exist for years with no name. When my practice first opened, like so many others, people just referred to it generically (i.e., “Anthony Centore’s office”). If you’re creating a corporation or LLC (limited liability company), you’ll technically need to file a name. However, your legal name need not be your DBA (doing business as) name. For example, Subway’s (sandwiches) legal name is Doctor’s Associates Inc. Similarly, a counselor can file as “Eric Smith Counseling LLC” and later use the DBA name “Aspire Counseling.”

3. Make sure your name isn’t taken

Before deciding on a name, you’ll want to check if the name, or similar one, is already in use by another practice in your area. Moreover, it’s wise to check whether someone has registered your potential name as a trademark with the US Patent and Trademark Office. To do this, you can hire a law firm for around $500 to do an “exhaustive search” or just do a “basic search” for free at USPTO.gov.

A word of caution: If you choose a name that infringes on someone else’s trademark, you might get a “cease and desist” letter from their legal counsel and be forced to change your name. On that note, once you select a name for your practice, consider protecting it by applying for a trademark yourself. This will cost you up to a thousand dollars in legal and filing fees, which is nominal compared to the expense of rebranding your practice later. Want to take protecting your name a step further? Once you’re awarded your trademark, for an additional few hundred dollars a year, you can hire a “trademark monitoring service” that will alert you whenever someone applies for a trademark with a name similar to your own.

When I first named my practice, “Thrive Counseling” was available to register as an LLC in Massachusetts, which meant nobody in the state was using the name. However, I didn’t check USPTO.gov. A couple years later when I went to file a trademark, I learned that a small California-based company known as Keiser Permanente had already registered “Thrive” under the broad category “healthcare services”! Where did this leave me? You guessed it, back to scrawling on napkins. If I wanted my brand to have any legal protection, I needed to find another name!

4. Consider your Domain Name

For the last 20+ years, “.com” has been the domain suffix of choice. Having a .com website that correlates with your brand is highly desirable. For example, if you’re considering the name “Aspire” for your practice, you’ll ideally register “aspire.com.” Unfortunately, such a one-word .com would cost a couple hundred grand (or more). That’s okay! Instead, you could register “aspirecounseling.com,” “aspiretherapy.com,” or a variant like “aspirenow.com.” Also, while the .com is still king, there is an ever-growing library of “vanity” suffixes. Instead of having your brand in your domain name, you could choose a clever domain name like Counseling.ninja, mentalhealth.now or findacounselor.today. Vanity domain suffixes include .club, .life, .rocks, .solutions, .live, .shop, .doctor, . beauty, .cafe, .clinic, and there are hundreds more.

When I chose the brand “Thriveworks,” the domain name Thriveworks.com was already registered by a graphic design firm. I paid them several thousand dollars for the rights to the domain name, which was well worth the investment.

5. Choose a name that will work long term

I run across too many “Bayside Counseling Centers” that are no longer near a bay, “Amherst Counseling Centers” with a second location outside Amherst, and practices called “ChildTherapyAssociates” that at some point expanded to serve adults. There are also names that go out of fashion. For example, the name Lamps-a-Rama probably sounded really hip when it came out, as did every computer store with the prefix “micro-” or “digi-.” Today, they all just sound dated. Before choosing a name, ask yourself, “Will this name work today, tomorrow, and 20 years from now?”

6. Avoid your personal name

Once upon a time, psychologist Dr. Wagner purchased a psychological testing practice called “Powell Associates” from a Dr. Powell. Dr. Wagner added his name, changing the business to “Powell and Wagner Associates.” Today, if the practice is resold, what happens? Will it become “Powell, Wagner, and Smith Associates” even though Dr. Powell hasn’t been with the company for over 20 years?

This is opinion, but I find that businesses named after the founder are limiting. A personal brand runs the risk of communicating to customers that the value of a company resides in one person—not the business’ mission, product, service, or team. However, this seems to become less the case the larger and older a business is. For instance, no one walks into a Walgreen’s and demands to speak with Mr. Walgreen. No one goes to Ruth’s Chris and expects their steak to be grilled by Chris, or Ruth (by the way, the restaurant got its name when Ruth Fertel bought Chris Steak House). As for Dr. Wagner, he explains, “Someone might call and say ‘My Grandfather used to see Dr. Powell.’ They don’t expect him to be here, but they still trust the brand.”

7. Your name should be poetry

A great brand name looks good from all angles. When Lexicon Branding was hired to come up with a name for a communications device, the team steered away from names related to the word “e-mail,” since research showed that the word increased customers’ blood pressure. Instead, the team searched for something “more joyful.” When someone pointed out that the buttons on RIM’s device looked like seeds, they began exploring fruity names: strawberry, melon, etc. They finally landed on “Blackberry.” Says David Placek, of Lexicon, “BlackBerry sticks better than something like ProMail or MegaMail.” Blackberry is a great name. It’s enjoyable, and “black” as a color is often associated with premium quality. The one limitation with “Blackberry” is that object is isn’t immediately obvious by the name.

Then Tony Hsieh invested in “shoesite.com,” he knew the name was too limiting. He changed the name to “Zappos” which, as a derivative of the Spanish word “zapatos”, relates subtly to their focus on shoes. Also, the “Zap” in the name communicates speed and performance. Need something? Zap! Here it is!

What does a bad name look like? They’re everywhere. We have a neighbor with the name ConTemporary Nurses (capitalization provided by them). They’re using a play on words, “contemporary” to signify that their nurses understand current medical practices, and “Temporary” to signify that they specialize in temporary placement. However, the word “Con” is front and center—which doesn’t signify anything good. The name doesn’t work from all angles.

8. Consider hiring a professional

Many good names have come from naming services. Blackberry, mentioned above, is one example. Another is Chuck-e-cheese, which was designed to make people smile every time they said it. Third, when Alex Bloomberg was searching for a name for his successful podcasting company, the best he could come up with was APC “American Podcasting Corporation.” Thankfully, he hired a firm that came up with a fun and modern name: “Gimlet Media.”

9. A Name isn’t everything

When you start a practice, you’re striving to create something that the public will like. A good name can help. That said, there’s no shortage of companies that have bad names, but are still great companies. Aflac is a horrible name, but they’ve make it work with that stupid quacking duck. Smucker’s is also pretty bad, but they’ve leaned into it with the slogan “with a name like Smucker’s, it has to be good.” A name isn’t everything. It’s a small piece of a much larger undertaking of building a great company.

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