What If Your Business Success and Identity Were Stolen?
Written by: Dan Smith
It’s a common American story, and maybe it’s yours: An entrepreneur with an idea strikes out, takes big risks, works endless hours, struggles, survives and then after years and years of hard work, reaches a level of success.
But then, what if someone tried to steal your hard-fought success? What if an entrepreneurial con-man used your exact website marketing copy, your track record of success, your client testimonials, your reputation, and even said he worked for you for years? Suddenly, you have a new fraudulent competitor who is a virtual mirror image of your own company. You face the prospect of competing … with yourself?
Sound far-fetched? It happened to me, and it could easily happen to you.
My book marketing agency, Smith Publicity, operates in a relatively niche market and sub-set of the publishing industry. I know most of my competitors, and most of them know of my company. I routinely monitor what my competitors are doing, their success, marketing efforts, etc., all basic, routine business intelligence and market monitoring.
Then, I encountered something I never saw coming or even ever imagined.
The standard Google news alerts we set up revealed a competitor we hadn’t heard of, a competitor who claimed to have been in business for ten years. How could we not have known about this agency in our small industry? I was perplexed.
During our typical staff review of this agency’s website, what we read sounded eerily familiar. But, it wasn’t just familiar. We were reading what was essentially our website under this agency’s name. This “agency” that purported to have worked with thousands of authors for over 10 years was using our copyrighted website marketing copy, exact service programs, testimonials, FAQ’s, company tag-lines and unique marketing terms and language we developed. Roughly 70% of his website was my agency’s website, with the name switched. Throughout our office, the anger became palpable as employees who worked so hard to make our company successful saw their own hard work and success, often described word-for-word, being used by someone else.
It gets worse. The supposed head of the agency whom we had never heard of had a LinkedIn profile which indicated he worked for my company for 10 years, and even linked back to our company website. As far as our research determined, this person had absolutely no experience in our industry. It quickly became apparent he was a fraud, and his company a sham.
I had run into a type of corporate identity theft, or perhaps more accurately, “success theft.” Someone tried to steal the success of my company to launch a phony publicity agency in an apparent effort to bilk money from unsuspecting customers. All the while, he was endangering the reputation of my business by claiming his experience came through working for me. A complete fraud, trying to lure customers in, then surely taking the money and running. All on my company’s back, with a direct line from him to me. People could get ripped off by a con-man and believe I was the one who essentially trained him. In a niche industry, this could be devastating.
A scathing e-mail and a very pointed phone call resolved some of the problem. Much, but certainly not all, of the website copy he stole came down, the testimonials were removed, and his false claim of having worked for me was removed from his social networking sites. But he is still out there, and still using some of my copyrighted website material.
The legal process to eliminate everything this imposter stole from me is underway, but it’s a slow and uncertain endeavor. Like most small businesses, I don’t have a legal department. I’m forced to measure expense versus benefit as I pursue him.
To other small business owners, I hope you can learn from my experience and although there’s no foolproof way to prevent success theft, you should minimally consider:
1. As President Reagan famously said, “Trust but verify.” Respect your competitors, but verify that no one is using your copyrighted website material.
2. Set up Google alerts for key phrases related to your business, your slogan, anything specific to your success, and review everything that turns up.
3. Conduct social media searches to verify no one is propping themselves up as legitimate by saying they work or worked for you.
4. Be mindful that success can attract the low-lives of the business world. There are more people than you realize trying to shortcut their way to success on the tails of someone else … and that someone could be you.
Maybe this cautionary tale is truly unusual. Maybe what I encountered is truly unique. Maybe I ran into a one-in-a-million con-man and success thief.
Unfortunately, I don’t think so. If it can happen to my company, it is almost certainly happening to someone else, right now.
Dan Smith is the CEO and Founder of Smith Publicity, a leading book marketing and book publicity agency that has promoted over 1500 authors since 1997. Website: www.SmithPublicity.com.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.