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What to Do When You Attract a Herd of Copycats: Dealing with Imitation & Theft

You know that good ole phrase? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery? It doesn’t stop it from being downright annoying, does it?

One of the most common issues that crop up in the maker world is people biting on each other’s ideas and designs. Today, we’re diving into a topic I’m pretty passionate about: dealing with copycats, imitation, & theft while building your biz (and not letting it get you down!)

Dealing with Copycats, Imitation, & Theft

During my time at the helm of both of my handmade soap companies, plenty of other companies cropped up with similar products, branding, or marketing. Sometimes, it was a soap design and name down to the combination of every swirl placement, methodically created color, delightful fragrance blend, and decadent additive.

Other times, it was direct imitation of full-on product packaging, label design, or product descriptions. (Oh, those were always so obvious!) Worse yet were those unscrupulous folks who used my actual product photographs to sell their own products on a website, Etsy, or other venue! (What, what?!)

I’d love to say that it stops when you get out of the biz of making tangible products like soap and such, but I can’t say that at all… I still deal with it today even though I produce digital content.

When it comes down to it, I two-thousand-freakin-percent feel for you when I say imitation, copycats, and thieves royally suck. While absolutely infuriating (utterances of “get some damn originality” and “please, learn how to be your *expletive* self” come to mind), you can’t let imitation and copycats sidestep your passion and biz.

Are you dealing with a major monkey of the copycat kingdom on your back right now? Here’s what I’ve learned:

Understand that Imitation is Inevitable

There you are, going about your business, trudging through sweat, tears, and hard won battles of entrepreneurship. And next thing you know, you have an anklebiter trying to follow along. I know it’s not much comfort, but know that nothing attracts copycats more than the sweat and tears rolling off your back.

Try to remember that imitation and copycats are a form of validation: they prove that you are doing something right! Someone else is seeing how awesomesauce you are and are trying to get in on the action (albeit not in a pleasant way).

I’ve had soapmakers reach out to me about so and so is copying my content, ebooks, or talks and it caused them a little confusion. Whether it’s an email in my inbox about ebooks that are ridiculously similar to my own longstanding releases or blog posts that are more than inspired, the first thing I remember is that it comes with the territory.

(And secondly, that while sometimes it seems a little suspicious, most of the time, it’s just someone putting their own spin on something, & that’s pretty impressive! Perspective, folks!)

While it truly sucks to have your business hacked to pieces by someone who just can’t do it justice, imitation is a part of business. All it takes is a quick look at any store brand in the home cleaning or personal care aisles of your local grocery or convenience pharmacy store (think Walmart, Target, CVS, Walgreens!) to see that it’s everywhere.

If someone thinks what you’re doing is wonderful enough to follow your footsteps, know that you are on the right track.

Mark Your Territory

Yes, by all means, protect your originality with trademarks. Chase tail on copyright infringement when it has the potential to seriously damage business. If someone is stealing your intellectual property, unleash the beast (i.e. an intellectual property lawyer.)

Of course, I’ve had to file my own fair share of DMCA notices and send handfuls of C&D letters for directly stolen photographs, articles, ebooks, and such. (More information about how to handle DMCA notices here!) But 99% of the time, it’s not worth my time or energy to chase the copycat down and teach them a lesson or two.

If someone is imitating your product designs or content ideas without directly infringing, it probably isn’t worth the fight. (And to be honest, sometimes, what we perceive to be a copy isn’t necessarily so. Clara of Auntie Clara’s wrote a fabulous piece on inspiration vs. reproduction in soapmaking, and it’s pretty amazing.) Just like in other areas of your business, you’ve gotta pick and choose your battles. Consider if it’s better to turn the other cheek and continue on your merry way.

Realize that Copycats Can’t Keep Up

You know what quote I think is better than the whole “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” nonsense?

I believe that love–not imitation–is the sincerest form of flattery. Your imitator thinks that you can be duplicated; your lover knows you can’t. – Marilyn Vos Savant

The next thing I always remember is that people can copy all they want: it’s not going to do them any favors in the long run. Imitators fail to realize that they can’t be you. Without your originality, creativity, talent, spark, personality, and passion, any imitation will fall short and flat.

If you dig deep into who you are, and follow your own path, no one is going to be able to take that from you. No two people are exactly alike, so it really doesn’t matter how much someone tries to steal your ideas – they can’t execute like you do. No one else can!

I know, I know, it’s SO HARD. When dealing with copycats, I highly advise eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and be a grumpypants over it for a day. (I highly recommend Phish Food or Karamel Sutra.) But what’s important is that you let it go, and get on with your stunning self.

Just Keep Swimming Creating

[bctt tweet=”If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished? — RUMI” username=”modernsoapmakin”]

After getting in a little mourning over the invasion of your hard work, turn on your blind spot. Stop paying attention to the train wreck. Everytime I see a soapmaker dealing with copycats by stalking their every move, I worry about how all that negativity is going to affect their ability to move forward.

Instead, use your disappointment to push your own momentum. Feed that energy into doing something even bigger and better. Fuel your upwards trajectory with the tears of your completely unoriginal and pathetic competitor. (Bonus: nothing feels better than hurdle jumping up ten steps in your path to success!)

Move onwards and upwards, fly so fast that they can’t keep up. It’s in you, otherwise, you wouldn’t have a herd of copycats pissing on your business.

Know that other people can’t copy you forever – it must take an obscene amount of energy and time to follow someone’s every move, eventually, they’ve gotta burn out! Losing sleep over copycats stealing your business and making reactive decisions to squash them lets them win. Worse, it taxes you (& your team, if you have one) in their efforts to make something truly great.

In the end, when you are dealing with copycats, imitation, and theft, be the strong arm. Show how much you can raise the bar. Literally.

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21 Responses

      1. This is true… I have learned, that they will move on to the next person to imitate, once they lose steam with you..

  1. This is awesome, Kenna. I found your thoughts on letting it go especially inspiring. Many times we waste too much emotional and physical energy on such things. Thank you! <3

    1. Yes, Janie! Small business owners have a hard time letting go of the little things, and it can really hold you back in business. 🙂 You’re very welcome!

  2. So very timely Kenna, I’m a little weirded out over it. My mama always said “Be like a duck, just let that water (sh*t) run right off your back.” I like your quote a little better…

    ” I believe that love–not imitation–is the sincerest form of flattery. Your imitator thinks that you can be duplicated; your lover knows you can’t.” – Marilyn Vos Savant

    1. Haha, I’ve always loved the saying about being a duck. 😉 People forget that this happens *so often* – MOST soapmakers will deal with it at one point or another. Like I said, it’s part of business – especially a creative business.

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’ve dealt with this for years as a stock photographer. It can be discouraging, but quite often it’s just chasing your own tail to get upset about it. Picking and choosing your battles can be liberating.

  4. Thanks for sharing. As a newbie, I had never thought of this as a problem, so it helps put things in perspective. More and more, I realize people are looking for your own unique style and that’s actually what draws folk to your product. I really appreciate yours and others in the hand-crafting world that have helped me gain the confidence I needed to branch out and make my goods for others.

  5. Thank you, Kenna. I struggle on both sides of this issue. I need little inspiration for the creation of my “too pretty to use” soaps, but I’m seriously lacking on the photography end. I’m targeting the more upscale market because my soaps are fairly fancy and take a lot of time and effort. I hired a professional photographer to take photos for my website, but it’s impractical to outsource photography when the very nature of our business is a rapid turnover of items. So I need to have full creative proficiency in every aspect. But where to start? I bought a camera and found three or four soaper sites where the photos draw me in, speak to me and are exactly what I envision for my business. But they’re very distinctive and seriously above the pack. Auntie Clara is one. My soaps are the “same kind of different” than hers, and because of her generosity in sharing nearly every single detail of how she does what she does – even down to the type of lens, aperture, and brightness setting for each picture – she’s practically begging me to (and giving me permission to) copy her! And there really are just so many ways to swirl, stack and arrange soaps. So while I may use hers and others’ ideas as a starting point, I’m expecting to go beyond that and find my own style. I appreciate the generosity of our community, and I’ve always felt that if you post your things on Pinterest or Facebook, you shouldn’t be terribly surprised that someone will “flatter” you by giving it a go for themselves. I love reading your blogs. Thank you for keeping us honest!

  6. How very rude! People wouldn’t do it to Coca Cola or MacDonalds – of course not, but they do it to one of small business operators probably thinking – ooh they don’t have the money to sue me. It’s arrogant, condescending and downright ill mannered. The cheek of it! Imitation may be the best form of flattery, but not in business. Inspiration is one thing, but copy and paste – oi voi. Wrong Town!!

  7. I am getting ready to open my first shop online. Two years of research and development. A year and a half of toil toil toil and bubbles. These soaps are like my babies. Every one so thoughtful and lovely. I am scared to death sometimes about unleashing all I have done. I have already watched as ideas I thought I may have been doing exclusively crept into my feeds. I feel so much better now. Thank you so much for putting it all into perspective. I am so excited again. 😀 You are beyond awesome.

  8. Thank you for this Kenna. I needed to hear it. I am just starting to feel the ankle biters and wasn’t sure how to handle it. This article has given me the correct perspective. ? I love your stuff!

  9. Thank you Kenna. Your generosity will be rewarded. You have demonstrated graciousness, integrity and dignity. I am grateful for all of your advice. I understand the tremendous amount of time and effort you have put into this industry. You are a Lady, a strong business woman and a wonderful teacher. Be blessed.

  10. Thanks for this and your perspective. I’m a new soap maker who has accumulated about 400 soaps in my spare bedroom. Have decided to make it a business – mostly just to clear some space. If I could afford it, I would just give them all away.

    I’ve “copied” (or tried to) just about everything I’ve read about on the internet. It’s how I learn. None of my patterns come out remotely like anyone else’s – inexperience? different color and fragrance preferences? Anyway, one of my thoughts is that I want to sell my soaps locally and I’m fighting with the idea that I should sell online or by mail. To me, supporting local business is important and even though I have virtually no sales, I often end my blog posts with the statement, “Support your local soap makers!”

    I’m learning techniques by watching videos but my own designs come out very different than a soaping friend’s do with the same information. Plus, if I make a lemon cupcake soap, for example, I don’t really care if someone else does it if someone buys theirs locally instead of mine and I would hope that someone local would buy mine rather than go online. Just my two cents.

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