If you’re an entrepreneur, you probably have an unstated yet pervasive fear of a competitor copying your work. I know I certainly did when I first started BodeTree. My co-founder and I chuckle now when we look back at how paranoid we were in the early days. We went so far as to request prospective venture capital firms to sign nondisclosure agreements before we agreed to talk about our product.
Eventually, and after many sobering conversations with our advisors, we came to our senses. Here’s the thing about competition: if you’re good at what you do, others are going to follow suit. Sometimes that means “borrowing” successful product features, while other times it’s out and out plagiarism. Regardless of its form and severity, intellectual property theft is deeply personal for entrepreneurs. However, that doesn’t mean you have to be paranoid. Instead, you simply need to be prepared.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
My company, BodeTree, has always marched to the beat of its own drum. We zigged when both industry incumbents and the competition zagged. As a result, we managed to carve out a sizeable niche in an incredibly difficult market. As our success grew, so did the number of firms trying to replicate our approach.
Two instances, in particular, stand out in my mind. The first was a failed startup that found a presentation I gave at Intuit’s first and only App Center day back in 2011. The team and I were launching the first iteration of the product at this event, and I gave a pitch to a panel of judges. The presentation went well, and Intuit ended hosting the video of the pitch up on its website.
Nearly two years later, I came across a new company that seemed to be a direct competitor to our platform. Imagine my surprise when I watched their intro video, only to find that they had copied my pitch verbatim. There was no room for interpretation here; they had out and out copied my presentation. My initial reaction was to get mad. After all, theft is theft. After cooling down, however, the team and I decided to have a bit of fun with them.
We took to social media and ran a campaign with a side by side comparison, poking fun at their lack of originality. We brought the entire ordeal to a close by sending them a fruit basket and a signed picture of me giving the presentation. In the end, I don’t think they ever responded. We had gotten our point across. Eventually, the video disappeared from their site, and about six months later the entire company went away.
Focus on your advantages
The second instance was far more recent. One of our closest competitors in the banking space is a well-established firm that is trying to enter the financial management platform space.
This group is, to put it delicately, set in their ways when it comes to marketing and messaging. As a result, their initial foray into this new segment of the market was very different from our own. It was little surprising then when my team checked their recently updated website and found that the copy very closely mirrored ours. Of course, we knew this was coming. Our web analytics package made it abundantly clear that they were spending an inordinate amount of time on our site.
It might not have come as a surprise, but it was still frustrating. I stewed on it for a day or so and then had an epiphany. I realized that this was a reactive move, born more out of desperation than anything malicious. In reality, we had first mover advantage and the creative talent to back it up.
Instead of fighting it (or sending a fruit basket), the team and I decided to ignore it and press forward. When any organization resorts to blatant copying, one of two things is going to happen.
In the first scenario they’re going to take the high road and admit to it, much as Kevin Systrom, CEO of Instagram, did when confronted about the similarities between Instagram Stories and Snapchat. According to Systrom, “When you are an innovator, that’s awesome. Just like Instagram deserves all the credit for bringing filters to the forefront. This isn’t about who invented something. This is about a format, and how you take it to a network and put your own spin on it.”
In the second scenario, they’re going to deny or ignore that their work was influenced by others and let the market decide. When that happens, it rarely works out well for the organization in question.
If you create something truly unique or successful, competitors are going to copy you. It’s an undeniable fact of life. What matters is how you respond to these scenarios. On one hand, you can have a bit of fun with it and call them out for their actions, much as we did when my launch pitch was copied. On the other, you have the choice to take the higher road and recognize it as a sincere form of flattery. If you do, chances are the market will take note.