By Ron Alvarez
Katherine couldn’t fall back to sleep. She rose out of bed slowly, careful not to wake her husband and four-month old baby boy. She put on her slippers, and eased her way through the narrow hallway of their tiny apartment to the living room, softly stepped over the area rug, into the humid kitchen, opened the refrigerator, grabbed a re-filled bottle of Poland Spring, walked back over the living room rug, eased into her desk chair, woke-up her sleeping Mac, screwed off the cap from the bottle and took a long pull. She then focused on that unspeakable sight again. She still couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing.
Hundreds of email messages were on her brand website with complaints from customers who thought they’d purchased her beautifully designed pillows. Customers whose comfort had been severely affected by whatever substandard assortment of materials the counterfeiters used to manufacture fake pillows. And when she visited a few of the websites the customers had purchased the pillows from, she was horrified to see that her website had been effectively impersonated. Over the span of eight months, thousands of counterfeit pillows had been sold to customers in locations all over the world through social media and e-commerce.
She’d designed and manufactured the pillows to be hypoallergenic. This was important to her. Her husband was asthmatic, and allergy-sensitive, and she knew from first-hand experience what it meant to her husband and others. She shook her head, rested it on the desk for moment, and then looked back up at the screen still in disbelief.
She thought about her diverted customers and the distress it caused them; she thought about all the lost opportunities to provide them with a product that she knew was safe and comforting. Now, she couldn’t blame any customer for staying away from her website and pillows. With so many other e-commerce choices and websites for customers to purchase from, why would they give their hard earned money to any brand that appears to have a troubled history? Her start-up relied on faith and trust in her product and brand, and that was gone. How could she ever make this right?
She thought about how she’d used the family savings to start the company eighteen months earlier, and how quickly it had grown. How she’d started making the pillows in their tiny apartment, but was soon forced to take a small office to keep up with the volume of orders, then to still a bigger office, and eventually to a renovated loft with twenty-three employees to meet the rapidly escalating demand for her pillows.
“How could I have missed this?” She whispered, and shook her head.
When Katherine started her tiny company it was beyond her grasp that her product would become so popular that criminals would take interest in it; that they would pilfer it, and put others at risk with their counterfeits. It just never entered her mind.
“Who would waste time doing such a thing,” she remembered thinking a year earlier.
She’d taken the steps to retain an IP attorney to trademark her word mark, logo, and brand name with the USPTO; she’d even taken the steps of registering the design of her pillows. Something she knew so many other brand owners often failed to do. But it never occurred to her that she would have to come up with a plan to monitor other web and social media sites for indicators of her brand, and website being impersonated, and counterfeits being sold.
She never imagined that she would need to carefully monitor the Internet presence of her company. And it’s not as if it hadn’t been mentioned. A friend of hers from college had read about the need to consider an Internet monitoring service that would pull data related to her business, analyze it, and provide it to her for follow-up.
And Katherine knew from her own reading that major e-commerce companies like Alibaba and eBay were making it more and more user-friendly for brand owners to have unauthorized sites that purported to be selling authorized products through impersonation taken down promptly, but it never seemed necessary. She recalled her friend telling her that the article emphasized the importance of, “knowing your brand’s Internet presence.”
It was even suggested that she register her brand on as many social media and e-commerce sites as possible, including the new ones, even if she had no intention of using that website to market and sell her pillows. The IP protection premise was that if her brand was registered, whenever a criminal attempted to impersonate her brand on that website, the website administrator could contact her for authorization before it was launched. But that didn’t seem necessary either.
Katherine would have to let her employees go; the house they hoped to buy one day and raise their son would have to wait; her husband would need to go back to his electrician job, instead of helping to manage the growing business. Several venture capitalists had taken an interest in the rapid growth of her company, and had financed what she needed to keep up with the ever-increasing volume of purchase orders.
“We will have to go bankrupt,” she whispered.
The beautiful, creative, promising venture—for all intents and purposes—was over. The Internet presence of her brand had been shattered.