MyCorporation has always reminded me of a Russian nesting doll — it is a business that helps other business owners start their business. Along with being a tad complicated to explain, this puts me in a unique position as its CEO. I have to be an expert in starting a business, which is an inherently risky venture. I’ve seen great ideas crumble and silly concepts flourish.
I’ve seen the most dedicated become beaten down and weary after only a few days while those who were at first noncommittal to the whole “running a business thing” grasp and cling to their company through every hurdle and hardship.
So when people ask me for my No. 1 piece of advice, all I can say is “protect yourself.” You may be able to influence sales, marketing, reviews and customer satisfaction, but you cannot control them. The amount of protection you give yourself and your business is something you can control. So why would you skimp on something as rudimentary as protecting your intellectual property?
Of course I know exactly why so many people skip filing trademarks and copyrights. It costs money and can be a bit complicated. New business owners keep track of every single cent that they spend — I know I did. You don’t know if you’ll even be able to break even when you first start out, so why would you want to send a fat check to the United States Patent and Trademark Office so early on?
Well, you should. I’ve had plenty of clients who have failed to protect the trademark or brand they spent so much time building. They always say the same thing — that once they are making more money, they’ll think about filling out the paperwork. Then, out of the blue, a competitor is using their intellectual property. And that same competitor has filled out paperwork with the USPTO.
It may sound like a campfire story, but it really does happen. We aren’t talking about million-dollar corporate behemoths here. This kind of thing happens between the smaller guys whether it’s two tow-truck drivers in the same town, a couple of restaurant chains or a pair of small Internet start-ups.
Typically, no one involved has the money to bring an infringer to court and prove that they were the first ones to use that particular image or name. So the infringer gets the trademark protection and the infringed has to start from scratch. It’s annoying, and a bit underhanded, but it happens.
Trademarks and copyrights are a lot like insurance — everything is fine until you need it. Then, if you don’t have it, the costs are astronomically higher than what you would have spent on the policy in the first place. “But it won’t happen to me,” you may say, scoffing at the prospect of filing protection for your little brand.
Maybe it won’t, but what if it did? Would you be willing to put as much blood, sweat and tears into building the same level of respect and trust for your new brand? It might not even be a question of would you — it might be one of could you.
We sometimes forget, or choose to block out, how much effort it took to really get our businesses started. It takes a lot out of a person, and I’m not sure if I’d be able to devote that much of my focus and energy again if the original object of my efforts was stolen.
So here is my mantra, repeated to every new business owner seeking my sage wisdom: Protect yourself early and thoroughly. Don’t wait until it is too late, or you have a bit more money or whatever other excuses you might have come up with.
Protect your business, your intellectual property and your future sanity now.
Deborah Sweeney is the CEO of MyCorporation, an online filing services company that specializes in incorporations and LLCs. Find her online at mycorporation.com and on Twitter @deborahsweeney and @mycorporation.