For the sake of namesakes: Self-titling your business

Self-titling your business often seems like the simplest way to intertwine your products with your own identity. But is it still this simple after your business grows and takes on its own meaning? Courtney Devereux finds out what having to uphold the reputation of a brand 24/7 really means.

It’s only natural that when choosing a business name, you feel pulled towards your own moniker. There are over 528,000 registered enterprises in New Zealand, with SMEs accounting for 97 percent of those, and we can assume a percentage will be named after a founder or current owner.

According to the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment (MBIE) in New Zealand there are over 1,212 registered companies that have a name followed by ‘and sons’ as the business title.

A loose search using the five most common last names in New Zealand – Smith, Wilson, Williams, Anderson and Thompson – shows there are 1,006, 926, 781, 390 and 356 business registered under those names, respectively.

It is uncertain whether self-titled businesses mean those names and their reputation stick easier in consumers’ minds, but it can mean any downfalls will immediately be associated with the owner of the brand.

Take for example Andrea Moore. The successful fashion brand had been part of New Zealand’s landscape for 20 years, with seven stores, regular runway shows at New Zealand Fashion Week and even a diffusion line distributed through Farmers. The brand was put into liquidation owing over $2 million in January 2018, with liquidators citing “highly damaging” late deliveries, “crippling” creditor payment defaults and extensive roadworks outside multiple stores for its downfall.

Andrea Moore, the company founder, was bankrupted in October 2017 after a debtor’s application was successful. She was targeted as an individual in media headlines for months, but with her recognisable name, Moore was able to move from her shuttered brand to become a real estate agent for Sotheby’s International Realty. Her visibility means she can access opportunities, but it’s also difficult to escape links to any failures.

Moore was approached for comment but failed to reply before this article went to print.

Reputation on your shoulders

By using your name for your business, you attach yourself as a figurehead to your brand, as well as boosting your personal profile. However, your business will be adversely affected if you act out as an individual. For example, US homewares mogul Martha Stewart built a lifestyle brand around her aesthetic and picture-perfect choices before going to prison in 2004 on felony charges relating to her conduct surrounding the sale of ImClone Systems shares in 2001.

Tim Webber, founder of furniture company Tim Webber Design, says he didn’t have specific ideas about naming his company but was encouraged by other designers and architects alike to keep the company under his name.

“They encouraged me to continue with a self-named brand. I’m glad I decided to self-name the company as I think it helps people to relate to the brand when they can directly see the person and story behind it.”

Tim Webber

Designers often put an extension of themselves into their work, more so than namesake law firms or retail stores may. It isn’t uncommon for standard retail stores to be self-titled, yet it’s unlikely the owners will have the same recognition that comes from stocking the products rather than creating them. Webber confirms that the pieces he creates come from his own individualism, so having that reflected in a brand name made sense.

“I see every piece of furniture I design as an extension of myself in one way or another. They’re naturally created from my experiences and curiosities mixed with my overall design ethos. I think having my own name on the product also pushes me to strive even harder to design and produce the highest quality products we possibly can.”

Yet any given business is not just a product and not just its name. As a business grows past the point of reflecting a single individual, it has to reflect all moving parts as well as the brand’s core values. As smaller namesake retailers grow, as most do, they also have to include staff into the equation of protecting their reputation, meaning owners will have to count on those working in the business to uphold values.

“In the early days, I wore all the hats in the business, plus had my name on the door, so the business naturally took on my personal values and design ethos,” Webber says. “I think especially when using your personal name as a company name it’s important that the business whole-heartedly aligns with your values, as it truly does become an extension of yourself.”

As a business grows, me becomes we, and it can be hard to see where a business will go when in the beginning stages. Webber says that he had zero regrets using his namesake for the business, as he liked products being immediately associated with himself. But he also credits that having a good team helped the business “take on a brand status rather than just my name.”

Webber says that as the brand grew in recognition it was required of him to represent it even in his downtime, yet for Webber, it was an easy task. Any business owner will have a level of expectation that they will represent the business, but it’s easier for those who are experienced and understand what they’re getting into.

“I am always very conscious of upholding my personal life to a certain standard that represents the company well,” Webber says.

Rachel Mills, founder of her namesake clothing brand, agrees with Webber that having the reputation of your business means people expect you to be that brand. She adds that consumers shopping with a SME business will expect to be connected with the owner in some way, as at the start, a lot of business relies on personal relationships and word of mouth recommendations. Strangers will always have assumptions about who you are and what you’re like as a person based on your work, no matter what your company is called, she says, but if it’s your name, it’s an added layer of pressure to “live up to the brand.”

“There is definitely an expectation to represent the brand 24/7,” Mills says. “I think in terms of being active on social media there is probably a big expectation there. Sometimes I do sort of shy away from it. The expectation for you to be your brand will always be there as long as it has your title.”

Mills says the decision to self-title the business wasn’t instant, yet, like Webber, she had friends within the industry who encouraged the choice.

“I was still a bit uncertain. Once you do it you really have to commit to it. But then for me, I think to have to fully commit turned into a positive aspect of it. I ended up deciding to call it after myself because it meant I had to go all in. it did feel a bit weird creating a whole brand around myself, but do you get used to it after a while.”

What’s in a name?

Mills, whose brand had been growing steadily over the past few years, and now has been included in New Zealand Fashion Week as well as mentioned in titles such as Vogue Australia, says seeing her name printed and recognised “was a really nice moment to see come to life.”

Brands within the fashion industry are often self-titled. Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, Versace, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, Alexander Wang and Vivienne Westwood, to name a few, are examples of traditional fashion powerhouses named after founders, which could have contributed to the self-naming trend in fashion. And even now that most those houses have different leaders at the helm, the reputation the founders created has stayed strong over the decades.

Mills says that self-titles are almost status quo in fashion, but things have been changing in recent years now that the younger wave of designers are coming through.

Rachel Mills

“I guess it was a big thing back when Karen Walker and all those big names came to light, but nowadays we’re seeing a lot fewer businesses with self-titled, or more with aliases or alter ego names instead. But I don’t see it as a problem.”

Aliases as self-titled businesses are common in New Zealand, as it can present the same opportunity to be recognised by consumers, as well as allowing the individual a level of anonymity. Aliases are also common in professions such as authors, musicians and actors, all with the same goal to provide a level of privacy they may not get by having their real name connected to everything.

“I think it’s a bigger thing overseas to name something after yourself than it is here,” says Mills. “It is definitely a Kiwi thing to be a bit humbler.”

Mills’ brand is now going through the same struggles as many self-titled brands before hers have experienced. As with Trelise Cooper’s spin-off brands Cooper or Coop, and Karen Walker’s Hi There diffusion line, Mills’ other projects also demand her time, and knowing whether to include them as part of her label is tough.

“I think the thing I found difficult is that I’m not just doing my brand. There are other bits and pieces that I do that at the moment are kind of fitting under the same business and I’m at a point where I’m thinking I should start to differentiate between these different parts of the business or is it okay if it’s all just included in one thing?”

“I’ve got my own brand, but then I teach workshops as well, and then we contract pattern making. So, it has been about taking those three aspects and seeing if they fit together.”

Mills will have to decide if her extra-brand endeavours are able to grow harmoniously under her namesake brand, or if she will have to create an umbrella brand as her side businesses grow past her initial design label. 

These complications are why well-known fashion designer Kate Spade adopted the name Frances Valentine for her shoe and handbag business after she sold Kate Spade & Company. On the opposite side, the complications of international corporate self-naming also gave us this much-memed gem: ‘Jacobs by Marc Jacobs for Marc by Marc Jacobs in collaboration with Marc Jacobs for Marc by Marc Jacobs.’ 

Passed on and passed down

Mills agrees self-titled businesses tend to take on a closer extension of oneself, and that if it ever came around to selling the business that “it would really be a big matter of finding the right person to take over. I know it is a lot harder to sell a business when you’ve named it after yourself.”

Selling the business, or passing it on, is always a matter of conversation for business owners. And it can be difficult if the namesake moves on from the business. However, Wellington independent speciality grocer Moore Wilson’s proves that a business can run for a whole century, passed down through generations, all while continuing on the historic name – with or without a namesake.

Julie Moore, managing director of Moore Wilson’s and the latest of the family line to pick up the role, says self-titling means your brand will always be associated with you personally, yet this can be positive for a historical brand that has a solid reputation, rather than a new brand finding its feet.

“When your name is on the door you are always representing the brand and the business 24/7, this I enjoy as I am very proud of the history and the business.”

Moore Wilson’s was created in 1918 by Julie’s great-grandfather Frederick Moore and an associate now known only as ‘Wilson’. Wilson left the business a year into trading, but despite their name gracing Moore Wilson’s signage for 100 years, Moore says there has never been any talk about changing it.

“I can’t really talk for Frederick Moore back in late 1918 when Wilson left the company. But in my lifetime, there has been no discussion of dropping the name ‘Wilson’ from our company name even though the business has always been run by the Moore family.”

Who the co-founder ‘Wilson’ was, and why he or she left the company, is now a mystery. “There was a Wilson, but pretty much only in the first year,” says Moore. “The name just stuck.”

Julie Moore

The business is now often conveniently shortened to ‘Moore’s’ by its many loyal customers. Moore says no matter what a business is titled, its success will always come down to the effort put into the brand and how well it connects with the customer. Connection is important in both cases of the customer and also inner relationships, Julie says the family has a relaxed style of management, as each member has a different skill set that complements each other.

“The key to staying relevant to your customers, I think, is in the standards you set and the work you put into your business. Moore Wilson’s is a brand that our customers associate with quality, value, old fashioned personal service, and innovation.”

Moore is proud of the heritage that Moore Wilson’s offers, and it is a namesake that she is hoping to continue into the future. Her younger brother Nick, 43, also manages the flagship branch. Julie and her father Graeme, who held her position before her, say they never had a plan for succession, but realise how unusual it is to have a fourth-generation family run business. 

“I certainly would like to continue to run the business as well as the three Moores before me. It certainly is unique for a 100-year-old company to have been owned and run by one family, and only having three managing directors before myself.”

The passing of a family titled business on to younger members is often expected, yet Jonathan Yates, owner of Nick and Sons Hardware in Invercargill says the expectations can sometimes be hard to move past, even if he was reluctant to continue on the family-named business in the first place.  

“I didn’t ever see myself running the store, yet as dad got older and so did I it seemed like a viable option. It had been passed down to him and it just didn’t feel right selling it on just yet while I still had the capacity to run it.”

Yates’ grandfather Nick Yates opened the store in 1950, and since then has been owned by himself, and his father before him who passed in 2015.

“If I had been younger when dad passed, I probably would have sold the business… But having a bit freer time in early retirement there didn’t seem any rush to sell. Being the sole owner was never my intention, but sometimes that is just how things work out.”

Yates acknowledges that some customers did express disappointment when he announced potential plans to sell the store. As a large portion of their customer base is old family friends and loyal regulars, Yates says keeping those relationships going is what has kept the store going.

“I remember I had this one guy say, ‘It’s Nick and Sons, not Nick and someone’s.’ And that really struck a chord despite being very cheesy. I had worked in this store almost every weekend growing up and I didn’t want my grandfather’s name run into the ground if the new owners failed to keep it going.

Yates confirms that the self-titling of the store makes the legacy of his family seem stronger than if it had a generic name. But also makes it harder to let go. However, he acknowledges that the family name won’t be the hard part about selling the business when the time comes, but more so his reluctance to create an ecommerce site or advertise past word of mouth.

“I will be selling the business soon, I’m getting older and with no kids to pick up where I left off, it will just come to a natural end… It is a worry every day what the new owners will be like… It definitely will come down to finding the right person.”

Despite his worries, Yates has kept an optimistic outlook, expressing that the heritage will always be there even if the name is not. He says it’s important to keep old relationships going, even if new owners have a different way of doing things.

“It may even be better if the new owners renamed it, maybe it needs a fresh start… But for many decades now we’ve had a loyal customer base, and as long as the buyers build on those relationships and respect the heritage, they will be fine… I’m really looking forward to retiring with a bit more peace of mind that the store will be okay in different hands.”

With a namesake business, problems arise with success and failure. If the company is successful, selling it with your name on it can be difficult — and changing the name can create problems with how consumers identify with the brand.

Rachel Mills admits she is lucky as she has “zero plans to sell the business.” Tim Webber, on the other foot, says as a furniture brand his options are a bit more open if he decides to step out of the business.

“If I ever came to the point of selling TWD, I would very carefully consider who would be taking over ownership of the brand and would ensure that my reputation was consistently upheld. There is always the option for a rebrand, which I’ve seen successfully work with a number of overseas furniture brands.”

With self-titled business, all the great things a retailer has done to grow that business remain with them, however humans make mistakes, and slip-ups in business can also remain connected to the owner’s name. Like most things in business, nothing comes without risk.

Naming your business after yourself can seem like the easiest way to go. It’s simple, its honest, and it connects the founder closely to what they want to see flourish. It can be a logical choice, but in all honesty, there is no right or wrong answer to self-titling a business. Owning a store, or a brand, weather self-titled or not, it comes down to creating something that consumers find compelling, and something that your customers can connect with past just the individual.

This story was inspired by Hemma Vara’s article on The Register, ‘Self-titled: Naming your shop after yourself.’

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