For many business owners it’s their worst nightmare – someone sets up in competition with you using EXACTLY your idea or name, or an idea or name that’s close enough to confuse people.
So what do you do when someone copies your idea or name? What are your rights, what’s good etiquette, and most importantly of all, how can you protect your business?
I was inspired by a friend’s experience
I was inspired to write this article by an email chat with a brilliant blogging mum I know today. She has recently started organising networking events with a twist in her home town and they’ve been really well received.
But today she emailed to say that a woman who attended one of her events has copied her idea and started running competing events in the same area – and she didn’t know how best to handle the situation.
She’s far from alone
Sadly, my friend isn’t alone. In my own town there’s a fabulous cafe that has been going several years and is incredibly popular. They have carved a niche with their creative cakes and shakes, and there’s always a queue of school children outside in the afternoons.
Around 18 months ago, however, the owners decided to sell up and do something different, so they put their business on the market. There was considerable interest, but one buyer seemed keener than most. Having looked through their books, she asked how they would have expanded the business had they kept it on. Keen to impress, they naively shared every idea they had.
Unfortunately this woman had no intention of buying their business. She simply wanted to test out the viability of running a cafe in that area, and get ideas of how to expand a business.
A few weeks later, the cafe owners discovered that this woman had taken the lease of the empty shop right next door, and sure enough, not long after she opened up an almost-identical business.
Of course, not many copycats are quite that outrageously blatant. But however obviously someone copies you, what can you do about it?
Are you sure they’ve copied you?
The first step is to get your facts straight. Unless you have evidence proving the fact, or have a business idea or name so unique it couldn’t possibly be a coincidence, how can you be absolutely certain you’ve been copied?
Few businesses or names are truly individual, and it’s quite possible that someone may have stumbled across the same brilliant idea as you entirely independently. And who knows, when they hear about your business they may think that you copied them!
Another friend of mine owns a very successful floristry business in London, with a highly unusual and very recognisable name. Last year she was approached by a competitor with a similar-sounding name and accused of copying. The competitor threatened legal action unless she changed the name of her business.
However, she was easily able to prove that in fact, her business had been around, trading under that name, for three years before the other business had even launched!
So before you go in all guns blazing, and tell everyone who will listen how you’ve been blatantly copied, make sure you are confident that’s really what happened.
What to do if someone copies your name
If you’re not completely certain a company has chosen the same or a very similar name on purpose, you may want to make contact with them.
It’s not good for a start-up to go up against an established business with a similar name (unless of course they want to deliberately leverage your name and reputation). So if it is a genuine mistake, they may be grateful for the heads-up and change or tweak their name.
If you don’t get anywhere with this, or are certain the name is a deliberate copy and are worried, you can look at your legal options. If you are both Ltd companies, there are strict rules about naming your business. (Companies House and the Intellectual Property Office offer monitoring services that alert you if the same or a similar company name or trade mark is registered.)
You can apply to a company names adjudicator to have a Ltd company name removed from the Companies House register because it’s the same name, or so similar as to mislead and confuse.
You can also take them to court for trade mark infringement or for ‘passing off’ if you haven’t trade marked your name. If you do decide to pursue a legal route, we recommend getting professional legal advice.
Let people know you’re the real deal
One of the dangers of a competitor using a similar-sounding name is that people think either they’re you, you’re the same business, or are somehow linked.
Not only do you risk people who would have been your customers accidentally going to your competitor instead, but if they don’t offer the same high standard of products or service, their poor reputation could reflect badly on you too.
(In one of the most outrageously blatant examples of this, last year Australian mum blogging site Stay at Home Mums bought a similar-sounding URL to their competitor The Organised Housewife, and directed traffic to their own site!)
So if a copycat business does emerge, make sure you let your customers know that you are not linked in any way.
You can’t always stop people copying your idea
Unfortunately business ideas aren’t as cut and dried as names, and unless you have patented or otherwise protected your idea, you can’t usually stop people copying you (and sometimes even if you have, as the inventor of the Trunki case discovered).
But just because someone steals your idea, doesn’t men they’re going to do it as well as you. As Howard Schultz, Chairman of Starbucks says:
“We have no patent on anything we do and anything we do can be copied by anyone else. But you can’t copy the heart and the soul and the conscience of the company.”
In fact, you should consider it a compliment that someone else thinks what you’re doing is brilliant enough to copy. After all, you must be doing something right!
And as Howard Schultz points out, try as they may, they’ll never be able to copy what really makes your business special – and that’s you. You came up with your idea yourself, and have used your skills, experience and passion to shape and grow it.
If someone is so lacking in original ideas and experience that they need to reproduce yours, how can they have the right talents to grow their facsimile business?
Get mad and get even
If someone does steal your business idea or copy your name you have every right to feel aggrieved and outraged. But don’t just stew or vent – put your anger to good use.
Use your rage to channel new-found energies into your business. Work twice as hard if you need to, and think more cleverly about your business strategy.
Often, competition can be healthy as it stops you falling into the complacency trap and forces you to stay sharp – building a stronger, more resilient business in the long term. It also can help to raise awareness of and grow your niche, creating more business for everyone.
But beware of being so caught up in what your competitor is up to, that you take your focus off your own business. Acknowledge they’re there, and then ignore them. Instead get even better at understanding your customers and what they need, and delivering more of that as brilliantly as you can.
So if someone does rip your business idea off, turn it into something positive, and use your indignation to fuel you into creating the best business you possibly can – and leave your copycat competitor far behind.
Wait them out
And as you are steaming ahead in growing your business, let them struggle with the realities of getting a business off the ground. Because, let’s face it, if you’re so lacking in imagination that you have to steal someone else’s idea, then you don’t deserve to be successful, and probably won’t be.
To build a successful business you have to make vital strategic decisions on a weekly, if not daily, basis. You need to think creatively about new directions, products and services. You need to spot, understand and grow new markets. You need to create and manage a professional brand. And you’ll struggle to do any of these well if you can’t even come up with your own idea for a business in the first place.
So bide your time. Make sure your business is as fantastic as it can be, and wait for the initial buzz of launch to pass for your copycat competitor. The first couple of years are a testing time for start-ups, and unless they have a true entrepreneurial streak (or are just very lucky) they may well struggle to keep going if they can’t come up with an original idea.
Who knows, in two years’ time you could be smugly watching your imitator close their copycat business down, while your own thrives.
Keep it in perspective
Yes it’s annoying and unethical if someone copies your business idea or name. But try to keep it in perspective. They can’t steal the ethos, heart and true genius of what you do, unless you let them by becoming so bitter and obsessed with their progress that you ignore your own.
Some competition is inevitable and healthy. And yes – no one should blatantly steal another business’ idea or name. But if it has happened, and you can’t appeal to your copycat’s good nature (which they probably don’t have if they’re happy to steal someone else’s idea or name in the first place!) then you need to try to let it go.
Use your justified anger wisely and focus on making your business better – and let karma deal with your business doppelganger. Because at the end of the day, the best business will probably win. And the chances are that’s you.Hannah Martin