How does an entrepreneur deal with imitators of his or her own creative ideas? Let’s say that you have come up with some dandy innovations and you are fearful that a competitor will come along and, noticing just how unique and useful your ideas are, will steal them? Since our system in this country is based on free enterprise, you’ll never eliminate such a possibility completely. In fact, most of us wouldn’t want to, for the result would be a system that few entrepreneurs would find desirable. But, since you have an equal right to compete, you should do whatever possible to continue in the game—especially if your company came up with an idea that gave you an edge. That is your right.
Here are a few strategies that can help stifle imitators of your business ideas:
1. Develop (or continue to develop) a uniqueness in reputation. Although a competitor could feasibly imitate a process, product, or service that your company has created, the competitor will have a much rougher time imitating your overall reputation. In other words, you can stifle imitation of the “what” by emphasizing the “how.” Almost inevitably, that “how” will involve building customer loyalty. It will include unique ways of making your customers into “raving fans.” A consistently positive reputation is a difficult thing to imitate.
2. Keep constantly innovating. As W. Edwards Deming, the guru of Total Quality, puts it, “continue constantly to work on improving processes.” If your company is always one or two innovations ahead of your imitators, you will have a good chance at maintaining your edge.
3. Avoid becoming smug. Don’t underestimate your competitors’ capabilities or their ability to steal customers along with innovations. If you rest on your laurels, you make a huge mistake. Use your energy working on your business rather than just in your business, as Michael Gerber puts it. Correctly working on a business includes environmental scanning—staying aware of imitators as well as other types of competition.
4. Make your business unique legally. Copyrights and patents are two examples of this approach. You might be surprised how many unique processes, products, and even service ideas can be protected legally from imitators—at least for a period of time.
5. “Spoil” your regular customers. Treat your repeat customers so well that it would be inconvenient, painful, or both to change from doing business with you. In most businesses, repeat customers are the lifeblood of your profit potential. Make dealing with your company so convenient, so comfortable, and so hard to imitate completely that customers would associate changing with pain, regardless of some imitator who should happen by with a “better deal.”
6. Establish a “corner” on essential resources. Whatever your industry, work hard on finding suppliers and other resources that are not as readily available to your would-be imitators. This requires skill and planning, but in most areas of business it can be done.
7. When possible, keep your secrets private. If your innovation is one that doesn’t readily show itself to customers and competitors, keep it to yourself. When you’ve come up with a great, winning innovation, you can be easily tempted to do a little bragging. Stifle the urge. Even when the innovation is an obvious one—such as cutting turnaround time in half—it will still likely contain unknown elements. Keep them under wraps.
Most major businesses have their imitators. The existence of these imitators has kept many companies from becoming smug and complacent. Imitators have their place in the scheme of free enterprise. Your role as an entrepreneur is to keep them from pulling you down and robbing you of your customer base. These seven points can help you in that process.
Lowell H. Lamberton is Professor of Business at Central Oregon Community College. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 383-7714.