'Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery - it's the sincerest form of learning.' - George Bernard Shaw
We have all been there at some stage of our business lives, whether it is with an idea or a product. One day we are the only one in town with this 'unique selling point'; the next, there are three people at our heels with a concept that feels horribly familiar. That's OK, we say to ourselves comfortably, there's always room in the market for competition - and besides, the original is always the best, right?
But what happens when business becomes personal, and what we have perceived as flattery - someone we trust showing an interest and excitement about what we do - turns into imitation?
How are we supposed to feel when an open and collaborative approach to business backfires, and suddenly a protegée becomes a rival for market share?
This can be one of the hardest situations one can possibly face as an entrepreneur in particular, but also in corporate, particularly at a senior level. When you are determining the direction of your business on a daily basis, and working innovatively, bringing new ideas to your industry, to your sphere of operations, to watch as someone seems to piggyback from your learnings and talent can be devastating, if you allow it to be.
This is the key; if you allow it to be.
In whatever you do, there is always going to be a limited amount of time where you are the only player in the market. If you have a great idea, it is inevitable that others are going to see its inherent value, and either (in the worst scenario) directly copy it, or in some cases, improve on it. What happens to your business will be directly dependent on your attitude to those who follow in your footsteps.
If you believe in working openly and honestly, and yes, collaboratively, your intellectual property is going to be available to others. What is integral to you staying true to yourself is your ability to cope when someone chooses to (and I do put this term in quotation marks for a reason), 'abuse' their knowledge of your vision. You have a product; they use what they have learned from you to make product Mk II. Whether it is a success or not is dependent on how they execute their idea, but do not forget that the reason the Mk II has appeared is because your product is a success. After having a quiet scream, my advice to you is this:
- Do see it as flattery. If you weren't doing something amazing, they wouldn't be trying to do it too.
- Make sure that your core business ideas ARE protected - the onus is on you to insure your intellectual property.
- Remember that business is business, and lines will be crossed; sometimes the personal will be blurred - it isn't nice, but it is human nature.
- Be restless to stay ahead of the game - at all times have a number of "new ideas" bubbling and in development.
- DON'T retreat into secret squirrel mode, but rather think long and hard about what you can do better, and ask for feedback from your closest supporters. Find your voice, and stand even more in your own spotlight.
You may find that the relationship can't be resurrected, because the trust has gone from your perspective - and this is OK. But don't turn into the 'they stole my idea' person. You are better than that.
After all, that's why your new competition looked to you in the first place, right?
Because you're the best.
Stay that way.