Preparing For The Worst: How To Deal With Business Copycats

There’s an episode on British TV series Mr. Selfridge in which Harry Selfridge’s childhood friend, Frank Winfield Woolworth, pays him a visit. Woolworth intends to tell him that he’s also entering the mall business in London.

Woolworth plans to put up a “pile’em high, sell ’em cheap” mall that could steal Selfridge’s customers. Selfridge feels threatened by the announcement.

Granted, Woolworth’s five-and-dime is not in the same league as Selfridge’s luxury department store; but it is a time of frugality in Britain, which makes Woolworth’s new retail chain potentially attractive to the public. 

Selfridge makes frantic efforts to block the successful promotion of the mall chain with a mid-season sale. But Woolworth was having some bigger problems at home and the store opening didn’t push through. Selfridge couldn’t be happier.

Why Selfridge has a love-hate relationship with his friend, bordering on downright nasty, could be beyond you. But are his feelings valid at all? 

When competitors and copycats come a-knockin’

Running a business is tough. You register it, undergo some kind of investigation and compliance checks, and worse, pay the government taxes. Then you have to market it to get clients.

If you have a physical office, its safety is another thing to worry about. You have to make sure that it doesn’t burn down (or pray the neighboring office doesn’t burn down).

Add getting robbed to your list, too. And your competitors.

But the most common risk that you’d probably encounter in business is the existence of copycats.

The most common risk that you'd probably encounter in business is the existence of copycats.Click To TweetRemember what they say about imitation being the highest form of flattery? Well, no, it’s not flattering at all.

It’s annoying as hell when you got there first then someone else rides on the coattails of your success, let alone imitate you.

You probably had to undergo years of training to master whatever service it is that you’re offering. Maybe you went to business school, or had to slave away for years in the corporate world before gaining the chutzpah to venture out on your own.

Somebody finally said it. (via GIPHY)

Then again, everyone has a right to do their own thing, right? And how dare you try to stop a competitor from making a name for himself, too?

Conflicted about your feelings? You’re not alone.

What makes entrepreneurs everywhere like you tick is that your livelihood is very personal to you (it feeds your family after all and allows you to pursue your own interests), something that your copycat cannot possibly fathom.

Thus, if someone blatantly shadows you for everything you’ve worked hard for, then it’s hard not to take it personal. It’s part of being human.

Why copycats are really bad for you

Copycats are actually bad because they affect your business’ perceived value. They’re what marketing experts refer to as doppelganger brands.

Copycats are bad because they affect your business’ perceived value. They're what experts call 'doppelganger brands.'Click To Tweet

In an online lecture, Dr. Aric Rindfleisch, a professor of Marketing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, defines doppelganger brands as brands that usually share the same characteristics as your brand or hail from the same niche.

Relax, we’re just twinning! (via GIPHY)

In most cases, they offer exactly the same services as you. This means they target the same clientele that could have gone to you.

Rindfleisch noted that doppelganger brands also consist of spoofs done by disgruntled customers on brands resembling yours (or your brand). If they’re a joke, then people might get the wrong impression that you are a joke, too.

What business owners say about dealing with copycats

One only needs to recall the famous meeting between Steve Jobs and Microsoft founder Bill Gates to understand how it feels to get ripped off.

Eons ago, Jobs commissioned Gates to build Macintosh a graphical interface, like what we have on our Windows PCs or Macbooks. Gates developed a similar program on the side for Microsoft, which culminated in the launch of the first ever Windows in 1985.

Jobs flew in Gates to his office in Cupertino and spent an entire hour shouting at the Microsoft bigwig. Gates calmly told him off that they both stole the idea from Xerox PARC labs, an idea incubator which they were both part of. Touché.

(via GIPHY)

Of course, you don’t have to yell just to prove a point. Here’s what experts believe  you should do to cover your bases.

Use your energy wisely.

Catriona Pollard, author of From Unknown To Expert and director CP Communications, advises business owners to conserve their energy. She says that our knee-jerk reaction may be to approach our copycat for an explanation, but it doesn’t have to be the case.

“It’s better to hold back as it could potentially lead to an angry interaction. If they are a copycat, it will be pretty hard to appeal to their good nature! So pick your battles,” she writes in her column on The Huffington Post.

Think twice. (via GIPHY)

Calling out your copycat may not always be the best route. Sure, there are nice ways to do so, but you may end up wasting precious time. 

“Build yourself a moat.”

Set yourself apart with a truly, groundbreaking concept that’s difficult to replicate. Nathalie Lussier, a software programmer and the founder of Ambitionally, advises business owners to “build themselves a moat,” i.e. develop a product that’s copycat-proof.

Ambitionally, for instance, develops WordPress plugins that help businesses grow their community and generate leads. The landing pages for the company’s products are complete with a quick video showing how easy to use and effective the plugins are, and some more details.

However, Lussier maintains that she isn’t threatened that copycats will have the ability to do the same. As she writes on her blog, “Other digital strategists and techies can copy my tutorials but they don’t have the same capabilities that we have to create and market new tools.”

This idea is what tech folks dub as “high barrier to entry.” Lussier has already carved herself a niche by creating non-intrusive pop-ups for businesses, and have used gamification to develop a plugin for the edu-tech niche; and while likeminded people can form an opinion of what she does, her products are still her own. Her branding is also quite strong and unique.

Bring it on. (via GIPHY)

Plus, a look around her website can tell you that she and her business is dynamic and continuously evolving, which, brings us to our next point.


“Competition fuels us to think faster, act more intelligently and challenge our ideas on the fly. It makes us smarter, fiercer and more successful,” says Hustle & Grind founder and keynote speaker Ross Simmonds on his blog. We couldn’t agree more.  

Instead of being pissed, reexamine your business model, and spot areas for improvement. Perhaps you can do away with a particular product, and re-focus your efforts into something else.  

Or, you can simply focus on adding more to what you started, as Simmonds explains. Continue building great things for your audience, and don’t dwell on your bitterness, he says.

Shut the f*ck up about your ideas.

We all love talking about our ideas. It is our way to show our individuality, and also share how excited we are that new things are taking place in our lives. It reflects that we are productive and imaginative. Yet despite our good intentions, it can do us more harm than good.

Thus, it’s best to just keep your ideas to yourself. Remember that time when someone put a new spin on your work or took credit for it? That should be reason enough for you to stop broadcasting your plans.

You got that right, genius. (via GIPHY)

The fact of the matter is, as a business owner, you will always be susceptible to copycats. Your brilliant and creative mind will always draw “wannabes” to you.

Yes, you can choose to ignore them and go on with your life, but remember that we’re talking business here. Protect yourself at all costs, and be proactive in shutting your idea thieves down.

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