Choosing the right name for your business is a matter of law as well as branding. In California, you have the legal right to use your own name for your business. If you name your business anything else, you have to register the business name in California.

Why Make Up a Name?

A fictitious business name, also known as an FBN, or a doing business as name, also known as a DBA, isn't mandatory. Partnerships, sole proprietorships and other businesses can always operate under their real names, such as Blackwell & Smith, Architects or Jack Jones Plumbing. Corporations can too, using the name they filed with their articles of incorporation.

Your real name, however, may not be the best choice for marketing your business. If, say, Fred Smith sells bulletproof formal wear, Bulletproof Tuxedos grabs potential customers' attention better than Smith's own name will. Corporations sometimes choose new names to market a new line of goods or to start a business outside their usual wheelhouse.

A DBA in California

Different states define DBAs and FBNs differently. In California, the key question is whether you use your last name as part of the business name.

  • A sole proprietor who calls her business, say, Sue Smith Landscaping doesn't need a DBA in California. If Smith calls her company Sue's Landscaping or Wonderful Landscaping, she has to register a business name in California.

  • Partnerships need a DBA in California if the business name doesn't include any partner's surname.

  • If partnerships or sole proprietorships use a name that implies there are added business owners, they have to file for an FBN.

  • Corporations must register a business name in California if the name they want isn't in the articles of incorporation.

Choosing Your Name

If you're not a marketing pro, coming up with a name can be a challenge. There are four options for most businesses:

  • Descriptive names such as June's Personal Shopping Service.

  • Experiential names that are descriptive but emphasize the benefits you offer, such as 24-Hour Personal Shopping.

  • A made-up name. This is harder to come up with, but they're usually catchier and more memorable.

  • A positioning name that captures your brand, philosophy or market position.

If you want to trademark your name, research whether that's possible. It's legal to choose a generic FBN, such as Best Pizza, but generic names are hard to trademark.

Don't Duplicate Names

The laws of some states allow you to pick a name even if it's already in use. A DBA in California has to be unique, at least as far as the county in which you're operating. Rather than doing a California business name search, you search the county DBA registry whether you're operating in Los Angeles, Orange County or San Francisco.

Suppose you're based in San Francisco, and you've picked Tremendously Tasty Taffy for your business name. You go to the county's business portal, put in the name and check the results. If there's already a Tremendously Tasty Taffy in town, you won't be able to reserve the business name you wanted.

Also, check the federal trademark database. Suppose you've decided that Centipede Running Shoes is the right name, and nobody has filed to reserve the business name in your county. If the name exists as a trademark, you can't trademark it yourself, and you might be infringing on the trademark's owner.

Register the Name

To register a business name in California, visit your county's website for instructions on submitting a fictitious business name statement. Some counties let you submit online, while others require hard copy.

You'll have to provide the county with your DBA of choice and the names and addresses of yourself and any partners you have. Fill out the form, submit it with the fee and if you haven't overlooked a matching FBN already in use, you should be fine.

State law requires that you publish a statement in one of the county's general circulation newspapers announcing that you've adopted the name. You have to publish it once a week for four weeks.