From selling fake designer bags to using nearly identical website colour schemes and company names, people stealing other people’s business ideas is nothing new. That’s not a comforting thing for business owners to read, but it’s reality.
However, someone stealing your idea does not mean you’re down and out. In fact, it could end up being the best thing to ever happen to your business (bear with me, here!).
If you’re working away on your business –– either as just an idea or with real customers ––and someone steals your idea, here’s what you can do to come out on top.
Assess exactly what’s happening
If you uncover what you believe to be someone stealing your business idea, you need to clarify two things before moving forward.
- Identify what exactly was stolen
Businesses are usually comprised of:
- Services and products.
- Intellectual property (including messaging, materials, brand, etc.).
What did this potential thief actually steal from you? Is it a direct copy of your brand? Offering a nearly identical product or service? Trying to get a vendor to service them instead of you on an exclusive basis? Unfairly poaching employees?
Make sure you write down exactly what was stolen from you. And as difficult as this part can be, you also have to be honest about what was not stolen. For instance: if they are trying to unfairly poach an employee, you can’t also say they took your brand.
- Decide if what was stolen really matters
In some cases, a “stolen” idea is not actually stolen. In a free country with a market economy, ideas are a dime a dozen.
- Not technically stealing: You wanted to open a donut shop and someone else opened their own donut shop in the same area.
- Probably stealing: You told your friend the name of your forthcoming donut shop and its opening date; then they opened their own donut shop with the exact same name a week before you.
Next, identify if the stolen thing really matters. If it’s intellectual property that could cripple your business, then it definitely matters. But if it’s someone else in a totally non-competitive business, it could be considered inspiration more than stealing.
A good rule of thumb to assess the situation is whether it will cause economic harm to you or someone else (lost customers, lost opportunities, etc.). Of course, if you’re concerned, it’s always best to check with a lawyer or other competent professional.
Plan your way to move forward
Alrighty, so you know something valuable was stolen from you. Now what? Assuming it’s a theft you need to act on in order to save your business, you have a few different options.
1. An honest conversation with a clear ask
Reach out to the person and calmly explain that their action certainly appears to be a theft of your idea. Include some proof that this was your protected idea beforehand––for example, buying a domain, or trademark, or reminding them of a conversation where you shared the information (in the case of a friend, employee, or business associate stealing your ideas).
From here, make a very clear ask. If you want them to stop, change, acknowledge you, etc… say so.
The worst thing you can do in this step is to send a random “hey, I think you stole this” message with no ask, then get upset if they don’t do what you want.
2. Trademarks and legal pathways
If you believe someone directly infringed on your intellectual property, you can send a more formal letter that notes the issue and demands the person stop immediately. You can do this on your own or engage a lawyer.
A letter like this, often referred to as a cease and desist, usually has three key elements:
- A clear statement of what was stolen.
- A clear indication or proof that the stolen item is your intellectual property.
- A clear statement that they must stop immediately or you will seek further (usually) legal steps.
Be aware that this path can get sticky and expensive quickly. If you end up starting a lawsuit, it can be incredibly difficult (or impossible) to stop once you’ve started. So make sure you’re ready for that possibility. One quick note: This blog is not legal advice, so make sure to check with your lawyer or other competent professional before starting any legal proceedings.
3. Focus on your brand experience
Let’s say someone did genuinely steal from you, they won’t stop, and you can’t afford a lawsuit.
One path forward is to focus on your brand experience to differentiate yourself. Someone might try to copy a single piece of your intellectual property, but they don’t have your expertise, experience, or brand.
If you go down this route, focus on:
- Your brand story: Your origin story and explaining why you do things the way you do.
- Your customer experience: Copycats won’t be able to match you because they don’t have original ideas.
- Your brand evolution: Your brand will naturally evolve as you get more customers. Copycats only have a moment in time and, if they keep copying you, they will always be one step behind.
4. Let your copycats do your marketing for you
If you’re in a product business, copycats might actually increase your brand value.
In this case, you can take inspiration from designer handbag labels, such as Louis Vuitton or Gucci. When fake bags flooded the market, it rapidly increased their brand awareness, but many were concerned it would ruin the value of the real bags. This is where designers began to innovate, creating clear ways to tell if a bag is real or fake. This included things like unique stitching all the way to microchips to verify authenticity, so that people could always tell a fake (even if the bag itself looked nice). Now, these brands’ authentic products are more profitable and desirable than ever.
If someone copies you and won’t stop, see if you can let them do your marketing for you. All the while, invest your energy into creating a clear way the market can tell the real (you) from the fake (them).
Out-execute your copycats
Every path takes effort, time, and often money. You will have to analyze if taking any of these paths is worth it for you once you send the first official note acknowledging that they stole something and formally ask them to stop or change. Beyond that, if the other options are not feasible, out-executing becomes your only option.
The good thing is that copycats have no creativity. They will always be one step behind you and will eventually fall by the wayside as you evolve, until they have no more market left to steal.
So while these pathways could give you the gratification of taking down a thief and getting your stolen property back, you also need to balance focusing on your business, your growth, and your peace of mind.
Copycats and thieves are out there and you can’t beat them all. That certainly doesn’t mean you join them, it just means you need to focus on what your business needs. Sometimes that’s fighting back, other times it’s ignoring the world and focusing on execution.
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This article offers general information only, is current as of the date of publication, and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by RBC Ventures Inc. or its affiliates.