The first time it happened, my business was barely a business yet. Friends were still encouraging me to make more of my adorable hobby, and I tossed an Etsy shop up just for funsies. I had no Instagram account dedicated to my budding brand yet. Instead I posted photos on my personal account from time to time. But, oh yeah -- The thing about THAT... Since 2012, when I was a part of the cast of a television series, my personal social media accounts gained lotsa-lotsa followers consisting of people whom I do not personally know. I'd always been surprised + humbled that perfect strangers want to see and possibly double-tap my selfies, so I thought nothing of sharing my baby booties as the newest topic of things I was interested in. That's what Instagram is for, yes?
I received a direct message from a college buddy: "Is this your photo? Do you know this person?" To my extreme shock, I saw one of the very first beautiful images I captured of my handmade product, perched perfectly on my dining room table in Los Angeles next to my beloved rubber duckies, stolen and reposted on a stranger's Instagram feed. The caption made mention that the product photographed was hers, and was for sale in her own shop. As I scanned the rest of her images, I saw poor reproductions of all my first-generation colorways. I felt sick to my stomach. Of course, I immediately contacted the Copycat via email demanding that she cease and desist the use of my images, and reported the copyright violation to Instagram. In the end, she removed all instances of images that belonged to me, but did not stop attempting to fashion her brand after mine. Each time a new collection or colorway would drop from my brand, a same-similar style would become available from her. Her product never looked quality, her photography never professional. So I swallowed my annoyance and ignored her, confident in knowing that based on her level of operations: We were not in competition.
The second time it happened, my Copycat was first a customer. She ordered from my shop several times, gave glowing reviews, then decided to open her own with similar product. Though her original styles and colorways began as reproductions of my own, she eventually found her own creative lane, in which she still drives. Safe travels, young lady!
The third time it happened, the Copycat Culprit was someone I'd known for many, many years. Though we had not stayed in touch over time, she was once someone I respected very much. I noticed her following my brand's Facebook page, and after a couple clicks I stumbled into HER baby shoe effort, replete with a name identically fashioned after mine. A few more clicks, and I saw reproductions of many of my styles and colorways, efforts to replicate my photography styling, my hashtag, and even a shop policy that was a literal cut & paste of my own personally written policy. **sigh**
So, what's a creative entrepreneur to do? Is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery? Because truthfully, it doesn't feel like it. It instead mostly feels like theft of countless hours of hard work to build a brand and a business that reflects my entrepreneurship and my individual creativity. While I certainly believe there is lots of room in the market for different people and companies that sell product in the same category, it's frustrating to know that there are buzzards circling me, waiting to pounce on my latest cute idea for their own benefit.
This experience has taught me a couple things:
There are two types of people: Shortcut Takers, and Wind-y Road Wanderers. I've never been a Shortcut Taker, even when it would have been easier, faster, cheaper, or less stressful. I've found that the sense of accomplishment and arrival at the end of a long, twisty road is much more rewarding -- and I love that feeling! Sure, I've toyed with shortcuts before, but they've always made me feel an uncomfortable, inauthentic way inside. I tend not to repeat actions or behaviors that hurt me or others. That's how I'm built!
No one is you, and THAT is your power! As I scroll through galleries of poorly executed versions of my business, I remind myself that it matters not how many times my original ideas are reproduced, because they're REPRODUCTIONS, which by definition are never as clean, as clear, as pure as the original. I'm not the first person to sew & sell baby shoes. I certainly won't be the last. So my intention is always to be the very best I can be, because I'm the only person whose destiny is within my own control.
Copycats and competition are a challenge for all small shop owners, particularly when it's clear that your own original ideas and expressions of creativity are directly responsible for the manifestation of someone else's output. The small shop community collectively rose to anger when Sandilake Clothing had her "#MERICA" design ripped off and sold at Target. But what's an entrepreneur to do when it isn't a mega-corporation doing the stealing? When television interviews aren't available to publicize the misdoing? When a copied brand's social media reach isn't large enough to shame or pressure the Copycat into modified behavior? Or when the potential lost business is just a handful of customers or sales -- not tens of thousands?
My shop pal Little Dude N Dudette recently posted this image and caption on Instagram, expressing her thoughts on those careless and disrespectful people who attempt to recreate the work of small business owners who have poured their energy into growing their brands. Are you a Maker or Small Shop owner? What are some of the ways you combat theft of your original ideas and hard work? How do you stay focused and positive through the distress of being copied?
Will the Copycats get the message and amend their ways? I won't hold my breath. But should you happen to stumble upon a product that looks like it may be an arts & crafts version of my own, pretty please make your way back to me so that I may have the opportunity to earn your business and your loyalty with my beautiful handmade goods! Xo xo :-)
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