Small Business can take a lesson from grass roots political operatives in 2012 and take steps to limit the risk that competitors will be eating their lunch by mid-year by literally stealing their lunch. So how do you stop competitors from copying your good practices and ideas or co-opting them for their own, engaging in corporate theft? You need to grease the signs.
Presidential Politics 101
The political season is heating up, and with 2012 an election year in the United States, get ready for more underhanded, dirty tricks than you ever thought you’d see. Candidates will work years to establish the one thing they can run on–their reputation–only to see it destroyed by discovery the skeletons in their closets, or, if those closets happen to be empty, a heinous accusation that sticks regardless of its accuracy.
Usually politically dormant, the state of the nation is concerning me and I found myself recently at a the home of a local businessman for a political meeting, and met a guy named David from a national organization called Freedomworks, and his job was to help that groups chosen candidates to get elected. His politics for this example are unimportant. What stuck with me was one of the tactics he said they commonly used to minimize dishonest politicking (stop laughing, really!). Once they’ve chosen to get behind a candidate in a local race, they print up signs and pick spots to legally put them in the ground 30 days before the election day (apparently to do so earlier than 30 days is illegal in my state).
David told us that in many cases, within 4-5 hours after they put down a massive collection of political signs, they watch the other side come by in a van and selectively pull them up, leaving of course the signs for their candidate. Dirty tricks indeed. What David told us next made me laugh and form the idea for this post. He said that they spray Pam (cooking antistick) or rub Vaseline petroleum jelly on the surface of the signs so that when the bad guys try to pull them up, it makes it difficult. When your stealing signs at a busy intersection, I learned that speed and discretion are key, and if you have to wrestle with it, the target sign will often stay put.
How to Protect Your Business
So how do you prevent the bad guys from messing with your business and practicing corporate espionage? Here are some of the most effective ways to prevent competitors from ripping you off:
This is the most obvious one, people. For anything that constitutes intellectual property that you really care about, protect it with a patent, copyright (©), trademark (TM or ®), or a patent pending application. Patents usually apply to things that do stuff for us, otherwise known as inventions, or things that may one day do something for us. Copyrights are used to safeguard the originality of a work of art like a book or a song. Trademarks can be filed for phrases, names, symbols or devices associated with trade and to distinguish those goods from the goods of others. A Servicemark (SM) is akin to a trademark for unique services. Donald Trump unsuccessfully tried to trademark his Apprentice catch-phrase, “Your fired”, but came up short, not because he couldn’t do it, but because another existing business that made pottery beat him to it.
Control Your Reputation
Sometimes the bad guys simply try to steal your reputation. This has gotten easier with the coming of Google, Twitter and various other forms of online communication. Since most open-forum websites do not fact check before publishing, it isn’t hard for someone to seed the Internet with fictitious disgruntled customers complaining about your business on RipOffReport.com or a similar venue. I once had a customer asking for help because someone with an axe to grind literally took the time to make complaint videos and put them on Youtube.
The problem here is that, in an effort to get as much honest, social information about stuff on the internet in people’s hands, most search engines give a nice high rank to anything that smacks of a review, comparison, or personal experience about a product or company. That means that a few unhappy customers or dishonest competitors can litter up Google p.1 about your company and be hard to get off.
What do you do? Take control to the extent you can.
- First find out what is being said about you by monitoring your online reputation.
- Put as much positive press and information about your company out there as possible in the form of press releases, awards, articles, testimonials and case studies. False accusations on the web work best in a vacuum. If you seed cyberspace with good, honest and fresh content about your business and do it consistently, it becomes much harder for the enemy to make inroads. This is SEO chapter 1.
- Address the issue head on. Contact the poster and, if it really is an unhappy customer, see if you can resolve the situation and get a correction. Even if that is impossible, most of these forums provide an opportunity to at least counter the complaint. If the bad press is from a competitor trying to kill your reputation, he’ll usually run like a cockroach when you turn the lights on when he knows you’re on to him.
- Hire a company to do #1 and 2 for you if you don’t have the time and resources to do it yourself. Smart Company Growth does this as an unadvertised service. Just call us at 410-914-7694 or use the contact form. There are other services out there as well you can find by Googling.
Keep Ahead of the Pack
There are some things that are hard to protect legally from the copycat syndrome. Software functionality is a prime example, where you actually have to prove someone ripped off your code. It might be more expensive to protect, if you can get a patent, than the sales lost to the clone. Instead, create a company culture of continual reinvention or product development. 3M turns over a large portion of their product line every few years on purpose for this reason. It takes time to reverse engineer your stuff. By the time the competitors have their lower-priced knock off on the market, you’ve come out with the next best thing. We see this with companies like Apple every day.
This tactic is not easy but I can tell you usually turns out to be more rewarding, provided you have a well-tuned process for creating new material, products and services that doesn’t take years to amortize the development costs for. To the victor go the spoils, and generally speaking the business that gets their first takes the lion’s share of the loot.
Note: This is certainly debatable, as I found out when I released this Competitive Advantage post months ago.
This doesn’t just apply to inventions and copyrights. What about new, cool ways to promote yourself. I tell my clients, take attorneys for instance, it’s great that you’re the first lawyer in your town to have a video interview on your site. Bravo! What are you going to do when everyone else catches on? That’s where the better mousetrap ideas start to flourish: a Vlog series every month, and interactive community, etc.
So the next time you think that all politics is useless, filled with a bunch of crooks who care more about power and greed than they do their constituents (and in most cases you would be right), remember back to this piece and learn from the simple yet effective little in-the-trenches tactics used to grease the signs for your business.