Why copy-cat competitors are not your worst nightmare

What if you come up with a great idea, launch a business (or a new product or service within your existing business) then someone copies it and takes all your clients?

That fear holds many people back from starting something new, from a new business to a new product. But here’s what I think. Copy cat services, copy cat products, copy cat people are like a photograph versus a real person.

They are only going to be a 2-dimensional version of you.

Whatever thought process you went through to create your offering is something they never experienced. You know why you used those words in that way in your marketing. You know why you choose to do things at a particular time and in a particular way. You know what is really behind every element of what you do. In fact you don’t even have to think about it, because it came from you.

The copy cats? They think what you created is gospel. They think you are providing the template to ‘how things should be’ in your field.

Suddenly, in their eyes, you have become the point by which what they do is defined.

Feeling sorry for them yet? You should be. Aside from not engaging their imagination, copying you (to such an extent that you notice!) means that whatever they do is static. They may make changes but they will never get the heart of it.

Of the two of you, who is in the better position to tweak what you do and communicate with you market? Who is better placed to make changes as markets move?

You are. Every time.

The copy cats will give it a go but it will usually just stay lukewarm. Without your input they will never work out why it doesn’t work for them.

And if it does work for them, if they do start taking clients from you, then you know what? It’s down to you to fix it.

View the opportunity to review what you do and how you present it as an opportunity – without copy cats poking at you, you might well end up stagnant through inertia (and that’s not good for anyone!).

I’m not just saying this, I’ve been there. Free Range Humans is copied all the time. I have my words, my ideas and my favourite product all lifted in various places. In fact look out of a spate of copy-cat group coaching courses in the UK using slight variations of my timeframe, my pricepoint, my structure and my description (might launch a spot-the-copy game soon!).

Funnily enough, it hasn’t impacted on my business. It makes me sharper and continually focusing on communicating the essence of what I do, which is a good thing. In fact, I’m so confident that what I do stands on its own feet that I actually joined forces with others and CREATED my own biggest competitor product under a different brand! I figured others were doing it so I’d go in big time (with the advantage this time of it being created with all my inside knowledge J )

That is how much I believe that – so long as you are always on it, with a clear brave message, speaking the words that resonate so strongly in people’s heads that they think you are psychic – people will come to you.

I’m not naiive about this, I know that there’s a chance things will change and real competition will emerge. But if things start going down will I blame the market, the economy or copy cats? No, I’ll blame myself for not communicating effectively enough.

At that point, I will make changes. And that is something that the copy cats will always have trouble achieving.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Have you been held back by fear of copy cats?

Picture by Zeppelie79

  • Flyer

    Hi Marianne,

    In a previous career flying fighter aircraft, I used to love it if I was up against a copy-cat. Why? Because their tactics and next move was predictable, it was what I'd just done, yet my next move was known only to me. This really gives you an edge and an element of surprise. Also, it's possible to subtly send copycats looking in the wrong direction, which leaves them floundering when you launch your next dynamic move.

    Keep up the good work, I've started to play, but not yet made the big leap.



  • Great!

    Radiohead (and particularly their album The Bends) inspired the success of a whole slew of mellow, downbeat rock bands like Coldplay. Radiohead were asked about this in a BBC interview – “What do you say to the bands who follow in your wake with a similar style?”…
    the band members all laughed and simultaneously gave the same answer: “Good luck with 'Kid A'!!” – referring to their far more experimental album that came after The Bends. Because of course the copycat bands have just stayed the same and never dared to experiment and evolve as Radiohead have done.

  • JenJam

    Very good point John. Radiohead I like, but when it comes to Coldplay and the like I'd rather listen to nails on a blackboard. They just don't have ingredient X that Radiohead have.

  • Ann Hawkins

    Copy cats don't hold me back and I certainly don't fear them but I do get annoyed with them, mostly because if they had the balls to say, “I like what you do and I'd like to do my version, would you mind?” I'd say “No, of course not, go ahead” and probably offer to help. Instead of that I get people looking furtive and not wanting to meet my eye in case I challenge them. Its such a waste. I run a business and a family and I'm really, really busy and yet I come up with original ideas – why can't they?

  • I love this post. My business stance,blog and ideas get copied all the time by those who pretend to be my friend online. I know its my reputation they are really after, as their own is less than white.
    John, great comment about RadioHead. So true. If Im so good they have to copy my ideas, or suck up to me all the time then I will ALWAYS be ahead of them. Job done 😉

  • That's a great story, thanks Flyer! Nice blog start too.

  • Ann, I agree. It is frustrating. However more and more I am starting to laugh at how protective copy cats are of their 'ideas' and how scared they are of competition. My theory is that because they can't generate loads of original ideas they are afraid that if anyone threatens what they have they won't be able to come up with something new… unlike you! It is such a waste though I agree with that.

  • Thank you Roberta! You can't copy a reputation though can you? 🙂

  • Sferro

    Agree…it still is not flattering to me. I will never understand someone that cannot be original. It's a sad thing on what they truly are missing.

  • Sferro

    Agree…it still is not flattering to me. I will never understand someone that cannot be original. It's a sad thing on what they truly are missing

  • Great article and superbly written. I don’t fear copycats because my photography is my own work and my own unique passion. I have had people copy ideas before but to be honest, it doesn’t bother me because as you say, I know how I felt creating that image and what inspired me in the first place. Don’t let anyone stop you creating art, enjoy your passion it’s yours – no one else’s. 

  • sw

    Love this article! I realized this the hard way. Wish I ran into your article a while ago! I ran into the similar situation for months with another local who used to copy my designs, and after she was called out on it it stopped.. at least nobody has brought her to my attention in a while – so I think it stopped. I make a point NOT to check her site, blog or page, because it just frusterated me – Now I don’t know what shes doing, or what her works looks like, but I can guarantee she still checks mine on a daily basis. The odd time friends and fans message me and tell me about a new post, but I’m not interested. Its mostly over exposed and our work has no comparison. Twice she waited until I ran a special and a week later it was duplicated, but slightly cheaper. Surprise surprise! She even went as far to make up fake email addresses and contact me. She didn’t realize how traceable things are in this day and age. None the less, I enjoyed reading this. I am booked thru until June with only a few spots left, and love what I do – Nobody can take that away. My clients are repeaters and they refer soo many people that I can barely keep up.

  • Everyone wants to believe that their work is original and when other people do what they do, they are called copy cats.  But really, there is nothing new under the sun.  Everything is inspired by something else.  The person who things their work is original has simply come up with a fresh way of combining inspiration they have gotten from other places.

  • Torresalex1423

    I think its annoying that a lot of big photographers like meg boarder , skye hardwick , crave , florabella are yelling out copy cats … there is no such thing in photography ! Their recent rants have led me to just unlike all their fan pages to prevent from saying something to rude to them . as a matter of fact EVERYTHING in life basically has been done before . What works my nerves is the same people crying out copy cats are people that sale things like actions and posing guides like come on ! Im just over the whole topic , they clearly are spending too much time on facebook and not enough time behind the camera … 

  • Thanks Gina! Glad you’re keeping at it 🙂

  • Good point there – sometimes it’s better just not to have it in your face if the reality is there’s not much impact (aside from frustration!). And you’re not the first this has happened to. Trust me, one day she will run out of steam (it must be sad always being on the backfoot following someone else!). Hugs, Marianne x

  • Good point there – a lot of the time a perception of a copycat situation is just a zeitgeist at play. But there is a lot of real copy catting too.

    For example I know someone who had an idea for a newsletter name in their head for a few years. Last year she launched that newsletter with that name… and within months two others with the same name cropped up. In the same field. No one had ever used that name before… and it was a name personal to the original author so unlikely someone would just have thought of it through random inspiration! 

    That’s not a zeitgeist situation, that’s a copy cat. And a silly one too cause copying another name always leaves you running along trying to be someone you’re not. But yes I agree often it is assumed copying happens when actually it’s just inspiration coming together.

  • Hey Torresalex! Now I didn’t write this about photography exclusively (though clearly someone has posted this in some sort of a photography Facebook group based on the comments below. Welcome photographers!). 

    However I do recognise what you say – there’s that borderline between inspiration and copying. In writing (my field) the question is how much do you attribute when actually you might have seen a concept ages ago internalised it, forgotten you heard it elsewhere and made it your own? In the creative fields there is so much ebb and flow of information and inspiration that it is a fine line. The post above was really written about people who copy knowingly. Like my comment to the poster below, I’ve seen copied products, launches, pricing and almost word for word posts. It is frustrating but as I said above in the end those copy catters tend to be secondary to the person they copy, and also to have a shelf life anyway. Not to say it doesn’t suck, but you know, imitation is flattery and all that. So I do agree that the point is: get back behind the camera (or with a pen or whatever your medium) because if you’re good enough to be copied that means you have something good enough to keep on sharing!

  • Yup I get it too! It’s a bit nutty to me too (especially when I come across someone who takes, say, my signature line and passes it off as her own. Random true example). All I can say is – even if you’re not flattered, don’t let it put you off doing what you do 🙂

  • Learningstreet

    I have some patterns that I have come up with on my own. I have been held back from printing and selling them because I feared that they would be very easy to copy. This post has helped me to gain a better perspective. Thank you!

  • Learningstreet

    Also, I realize that when I have the attitude of ‘giving and sharing,’ my energies are better directed and I feel better for it!

  • Spirit

    I’m in ecommerce and one of my competitors is constantly copying my marketing, brands, presentation, design…what really hurts is that they’re the more established business with more customers and more capital so their audience doesn’t realize they’re getting it all from me – the new kid. It hurts so much to be exploited and copied sometimes that I have wanted to just close up shop. I feel sometimes like “what’s the point of putting my creative blood, sweat and tears into something if someone else  is just going to copy it for their own benefit?” I came to this article from a google search trying to get out of the rut they recently put me in      . I hope what you say is true. I hope the customer recognizes and appreciates the original and not the copy. But in business, some of the biggest and most successful brands are made by copying or being “inspired by” smaller brands and it makes me not want to put anything out there!

  • Hi Spirit,

    That sucks! Even though in most cases copycats dry up pretty fast, there are cases where it is pretty invasive. If it continues (and you are 100% sure this is a copy, not just a zeitgeist thing with same ideas floating around…) then you may want to talk to them. In a few bad cases I’ve made it clear to copycats that I’m aware of their presence – just knowing you’re watching can embarrass people into stopping. If that isn’t enough, you may want to talk to them directly (you can do this without confrontation, simply explaining that you put time and energy into this work and that copies have an impact on you). Try these subtle approaches first before anything else: when I’ve felt my copies were a step too far these have been enough so I hope they will be for you too!
    And above all keep your eye on what is important: odds are it is not as important to tell them off (though they probably deserve it!) as to just be able to do your thing and build the business without interference.

  • Red Hook

    Awesome blog, Marianne. Well done!

    What if your copy cat is well established and well capitalized, and you’re just starting? Wouldn’t they then just wipe you out? Thanks.

  • Nathan Mirolo

    Though I have not read through the entire stream of comments your initial post is refreshing. I have recently taken a position as a Marketing and Communications Specialist at a rapidly growing startup and one of my biggest competitors is copying everything I create. Right down to the type of booth, emails, cut sheets etc.. At first I was extremely frustrated and quite frankly angry. That was until our office manager pointed out to me that it’s flattery. Then as I started to think about the matter it dawned on me that my marketing and communications are better than a company that is over 10 years old and has experts working for them. What does that say about them if a 20 something straight out of college is out maneuvering them?

  • farmgirl

    I just came across this article, and I absolutely love it. Facebook has made it easier for competitors to copy your every move. It is a tough position to be in, because you want to spread the word of your business, but you don’t want to provide a playbook for your competition. This article has helped us understand that our Facebook photos are real, whereas the competitor copying us, is pulling images from random places on the internet to copy our ideas. Thank you for helping me gain my confidence back. It is sad that someone would stoop to copying our every move.

  • L

    Great blog! I can see the pros and cons of what you said. I had two copy cats who wound up stealing and killing a very lucrative idea — as it stood to generate LOTS of money and attention for whoever came forward with it. Not only did they steal, but they sabotaged….True what you said…their versions were so two-dimensional and such an obvious knock off that it was embarrassing for them and I am recognized as the expert, even though sadly I was not able to cash in on my own idea which they rushed to market ahead of me.

    Once again copying is happening. This time I am in an office and have managed to secure accounts through creative advertising and approaches. I know the thought process that went into approaching clients which resulted in incredible wins for me. My success circulated around the office and my boss instructed me to “share” my strategies and marketing materials (!!!) so that others could learn from my success. In the interests of being a team player, I did so. The next time I came to the office, all of my co-workers were approaching the same types of clients through which I had realized success and were using virtual templates of my marketing materials…which made me incredibly resentful….

    None of them had ever offered to help me, nor would they when I asked….Yet here they were trying to copy me to the nth degree to cut into my market….while using my ideas to do it…What this did is make me more competitive to the point in which I am refining my techniques…and materials and becoming more determined to keep a few steps ahead….

    As the OP said, none of them bothered to concern themselves with the “thought process” that went into my approach and success…They just wanted an easy win — the material and clients– as if to apply my template all the way to the bank. I have yet to see what succes they reap….but I know their work are a shadow version of mine….I also inspire trust among my clients as I have their best interests at heart, am looking for opportunities to help their businesses, and take the time to understand their needs and how I can fulfill them. In contrast, my clients are looking for money and have the attitude that people don’t want our products and that they have to be forced or somehow tricked into buying them through aggressive marketing and pressure…and have been surprised to learn that clients perceive this attitude and turn them away…..They are successful, but their succes is limited….Their copying keeps me on top of my game….I know they will never be able to duplicate my thought process or approach even if they manage to copy my ideas and templates….They were not the originator of those ideas or strategies and still do not have my client-centered approach…They are mere imitators…

    I still find them annoying, though….

  • alia_999

    Hi spirit, I’m not sure what line you are in but I hear you. This happened to me when I ran a creative business, I saw major players picking up trends from my newly launched brand and wow. What can you do. What I did learn, is that while they may be copying your stuff. they will never be you. They are HUGE. and not everyone can afford them, but there are customers out there, who like your personality, like the way you do things. they will come to you. hang in there ! Make your service unbeatable.

  • alia_999

    So i’m ready to launch my new venture, and yikes copycats are scaring me to death. But, as I posted down before, I realize, especially the field I am in, personality, and authenticity are huge. And do one can take that away from me. Thank you love, I’m gonna get cracking on putting my stuff out there asap. !

  • Maillard

    I think its annoying that a lot of big photographers like meg boarder , skye hardwick , crave , florabella are yelling out copy cats … there is no such thing in photography ! Their recent rants have led me to just unlike all their fan pages to prevent from saying something to rude to them . as a matter of fact EVERYTHING in life basically has been done before . What works my nerves is the same people crying out copy cats are people that sale things like actions and posing guides like come on ! Im just over the whole topic , they clearly are spending too much time on facebook and not enough time behind the camera … This is an original comment

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