Starting a new business is a daunting task under the best of conditions. There are finances to figure out, property to buy, and marketing to consider. And before you can even get off the ground, you need to have a name.
This sounds like a trivial concern until you consider the costs of getting things wrong. In the US, there are over 3,000 trademark infringement lawsuits annually, and US companies pay over $250 billion annually in damages.
If you don’t want to become a statistic, you need to make sure your business name isn’t already taken. Not only can you avoid a potential lawsuit, you’ll avoid the headache of changing all your promotional material later on.
Here’s a quick guide on how to search for a business.
Why Search a Business?
We’ve already touched on why you might want to see if a business name is available, but there are other reasons you might want to search for a business. Here are just a few:
- You’re thinking about buying from the company. Looking them up online is a good way to find out more about them.
- You’re thinking about buying the company itself. In this case, a search can help you get the information you need to make more in-depth inquiries.
- You’re filing a lawsuit. Publicly-available information can oftentimes help you with your case. For instance, if you find out the owner has been sued for similar reasons in the past, a judge is likely to look more favorably on you.
What Can You Learn With a Business Search?
With a business search, you can learn any kind of information that’s publicly-available. Basic information, such as the company name, the owner, and their employer identification number (EIN) are all matters of public record. In addition, other types of information can be available depending on the type of business and the state you’re in.
For example, different state and local governments will keep records on properties the business owns, the number of employees, and other useful metrics. For publicly-traded companies, tax records and financial statements are published annually. For private companies and LLC, this information will typically be private.
Different governments will also provide money in different forms. Federal records, for instance, are all digitized, as are most state records. County and local records, however, are spotty at best. To get some information, you might have to physically visit your county clerk’s office, or call them on the phone to make a request. There are so many counties and so many ways of doing things that it’s impossible to provide a one-size-fits-all rule.
Additional information can be available for a fee from private companies. For instance, you can subscribe to a credit bureau and get information on a company’s credit history. This is essential if you’re considering investing in a business, and even if you’re planning on hiring them for a long-term contract. After all, you want to make sure they’re going to be in operation long enough to finish the project.
A business search can be equally useful if you’re a business owner. For example, suppose you’re entering bids for a local government contract. In that case, it could be useful to see what other companies are being paid for other, similar jobs. On the same note, it’s a good idea to look for legal records and lawsuits. This way, you’ll always be aware of legal decisions that could affect your own business.
It’s important to remember that some information is not available to the public. For instance, the results of out-of-court settlements are oftentimes kept secret, or only partially disclosed. It’s common to see an announcement that a business settled a lawsuit “for an undisclosed amount.”
Another type of information that’s not publicly-available is any ongoing bidding or prospective business. If you’re bidding on a public contract, there’s no record you can search to see what your competitors have bid. You have to bid blindly, and hope you get the contract. Similarly, trade secrets are not publicly available. Even if you’re a multi-billionaire investor, the only way you’re finding out the formula to the original Coke is to buy the company first.
How to Search for a Business
A sole proprietorship is another type of business model designed to benefit single commercial entrepreneurs or single business owners. Also called "sole traders" or "proprietorships", sole proprietorships are unincorporated businesses with one owner alone who is responsible for paying any income tax on profits made from business activities.
Information Required to Search for a Company
Before you search for a business, you’ll need to know at least some basic information:
- The business name is usually the easiest way to search. Not only is it the most relevant information for most people, it’s also going to be on any record about the company.
- If you’re looking for a DBA or LLC, it can sometimes be helpful to search by the owner’s name instead.
- The employer identification number can be helpful in some cases, particularly if you’re looking for tax records.
Where to Search for a Business
There are several places to search for a business, but the fastest and easiest is Google. No, you’re not going to get all kinds of in-depth information on most companies, but it’s a quick and dirty way to eliminate names that are already taken. Search for similar websites, social media profiles, or anything else that could potentially conflict with your brand.
You can also check with the US Patent and Trademark Office online. This will let you know if there are any federally-registered businesses with your name. The same goes for potential logos, branding, slogans, and other marketing material. If you’re going to use anything to promote your business, run a quick trademark search here first.
Of course, not all small businesses register their name with the US Patent and Trademark Office. It’s a good bet that most of them don’t, but that doesn’t mean you’re legally off the hook. To make sure, check with your county clerk’s office to search for business names. In some states, this can be done digitally via a statewide database, typically via the Department of State or the Department of Commerce. In others, you need to go to the county clerk and have them search through paper records.