This is an opinion piece drafted by a third party on behalf of Barclays Eagle Labs. Any opinions expressed are those of the third party and not those of Barclays.
After copycats ripped off her product and packaging, Rachel Jones founded SnapDragon to help other entrepreneurs protect their brands and intellectual property.
It’s the moment every founder or small business owner dreads – discovering that a counterfeiter has copied your product, tarnishing your reputation and costing you sales. When Rachel Jones’s travel highchair Totseat was illegally copied, she not only fought off the fakers but went on to launch SnapDragon, a brand and intellectual property (IP) protection service, to help fellow founders who find themselves in the same boat. We caught up with Rachel to learn more about this disturbing experience and hear how other startups can learn from it.
How did you spot that your travel highchair was being copied?
The first I knew about it was when someone phoned to complain that her Totseat had stained her mother’s white leather chair. I knew my fabric would never leave a stain. Literally the next day, we had a call from Customs in Southampton, who said they’d seized a box of suspect Totseats.
What happened next?
My blood ran cold. I felt sick. They couriered one of the fakes up to me in Edinburgh and I confirmed it was a counterfeit – they’d ripped off the brand, the packaging and the design. Even our board couldn’t tell the difference between the genuine and the fake when it was in its packaging. Often, it’s almost impossible to tell fakes from genuine products online, especially when genuine photos are used – which is why folks get sucked into buying fakes.
Why did Customs suspect they were fakes?
The only reason Customs contacted me was because I’d filled in an Application for Action (AFA) form, which gives them details about how to spot a genuine product if they search a shipment. Any producer with registered intellectual property can fill in that form and it helps the Border Force to look out for fakes. That was the beginning of the hell that we went through.
What steps did you take to defend your IP and how did that lead onto setting up SnapDragon?
I got Trading Standards involved and they rushed after the fake Totseats and the person importing them. I employed two Chinese graduate students and they helped me identify fake Totseats online in China. We used our trade marks to get fakes removed online. Eventually, Alibaba agreed we could use UK, American or European IP instead of just Chinese IP to get fakes taken off their website and that was a game changer. When we got back to the UK, we realised other SMEs needed an affordable service to get fakes taken down off foreign websites, so we founded SnapDragon, which is now a much bigger business than the one that spurred its creation.
How has lockdown affected your IP-protection business?
Astonishingly, we’re now almost as busy as before it started. More people are shopping online, so there are infinitely more opportunities to buy and sell fake products. I’ve always said that SMEs are horribly hit by fakes, which you don’t know unless you’re an SME and it happens to you – that’s why I started out on this exercise. Smaller brands are finding themselves in a difficult position and have had to act to keep their businesses and customers safe.
How can businesses find out if their product has been copied?
My favourite expression is “Don’t just dream in English” – after you take a product to market, every now and again you need to pop the name and descriptions of your product into Google Translate for every language you can think of. Then search for those terms. When you start looking, especially if you’ve got a wide distribution network, you may find rip-offs in the most unlikely of places.
Are there any markets where counterfeiting is a particular problem?
Looking on Chinese and East Asian platforms is important. Not all, but a high proportion of fakes often come from China.
What are some of the warning signs that your IP has been infringed?
A drop in sales is one reason why you might spot something. If you’re using distributors, then you might notice them buying less. Unfortunately, one of the most common ways people find out that they’ve been copied is when customers complain and return products. Often, it’s the finance department that notices this first because they’re the ones issuing refunds. When someone inspects the box of returns, then they realise they’re not genuine products.
How important is it for SMEs to register their IP in the first place?
If people are thinking about taking a product to market, then the more IP they can register, the better. Even if you just start with registering a trademark in your own territory – which is about £200 in the UK – then that’s a good start. Design rights are a quick and cheap way of getting protection too. And if you’re thinking about licensing your product, then you may need to get a patent. Spending £1,000 to register your trademark and design rights is a lot of money for a startup, but it’ll be worth its weight in gold if it’s copied and you want to defend yourself.
What happens if a business doesn’t register its IP?
It would be left with just copyright to try to defend the product. Copyright is an unregistered right that covers words and images – so if a fake is using your description and/or pictures on a website, then you can use copyright to get it taken down. But if someone rips off your product, uses their own images and describes it in a different way to the original, then you’re often stymied if you don’t have any registered IP.