How to Deal with Knockoffs: Flattery or Flat-out Theft?

Rolex watches and Kate Spade handbags are sold from car trunks

Rosie Herman was more than $75,000 in debt when she started her company. She’d maxxed out her credit cards on in vitro fertilization to have her twin daughters.

Wanting to earn some extra money, the former manicurist created a salt scrub. She started by selling it to friends and neighbors; soon she was selling it at craft fairs and in select salons. When she launched One Minute Manicure nationally, someone came out with a knockoff – 60 Second Manicure.

“You’re like, ‘Oh, I guess I have something good that somebody wants to copy – that’s a good thing,'” Herman says. “Then you get mad in the next breath, because you have to work harder and explain that that’s not your product.”

Bad First Impression

Big companies like Gucci and Louis Vuitton live with knockoffs sold on the streets. But for a startup entrepreneur like Herman, who didn’t have a 100-person legal team, a knockoff can be a nightmare.

“They will steal a part of your business,” she says. Making things worse, if customers try the knockoff and don’t like it, they may confuse it with yours. “If they get a bad first impression, it’s a harder sell to say that yours is better. You just have to work harder to get your name out there first.”

Jewelry designer Marnie Greenwood says original pieces she displays and sells on her website, Marnie Rocks, are knocked off as often as the latest Kate Spade bag.

“I’ll come out with a design and within six weeks something identical will pop up at a little boutique,” Greenwood says. She and her staff have called the offenders and asked if they carry a specific Marnie Greenwood item. No, they were told, it isn’t Marnie Rocks, but it looks exactly like it.

Stealing More than your Brand

Her most knocked-off item is a heart pendant she made and sells, with profits donated to a foundation that helps young breast cancer survivors.

“It really upsets me when I design something for charity and I’m selling and donating it for charity and people knock it off to make money,” Greenwood says. “It was sad to see. I didn’t really think of it as stealing from me, as much as I felt like they were stealing from the charity.”

Herman says that when her business started booming she found about a dozen knockoffs. Her advice is to other entrepreneurs is to focus on advertising and improving your own product. While doing that, Herman says, all of her imitators disappeared.

Greenwood also ignores the people who rip her off.

“My designs change so frequently, that by the time they’re starting to knock me off, I’m on to the next thing,” she says. “The only healthy way to look at people knocking you off is as a compliment.

“If you get caught up reacting to everybody who’s knocking you off, you’ll never move forward to the next design that they’re going to knock off.”

More tips for dealing with copycats:

  • Apply for a patent, copyright or trademark.
  • Safeguard your product ingredients.
  • When someone knocks off your product, send a letter asking them to stop, and keep a record of it for any possible legal action.For the same reason, document any instances when buyers confuse the knockoff with your product to make the case that they would not have bought it if they didn’t think it was yours.
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