Deal­ing with im­i­ta­tors

Af­ter ex­plor­ing le­gal av­enues, ed­u­ca­tional con­sul­tant in­no­vates and ex­pands to keep ball rolling

Vancouver Sun - - BUSINESS BC - BY JENNY LEE jen­nylee@ van­cou­ver­sun. com Blog: van­cou­ver­sun. com/ small­busi­ness

Im­i­ta­tion may be the sin­cer­est form of flat­tery, but ed­u­ca­tional con­sul­tant Melinda Gi­ampi­etro dis­cov­ered some­times it is just copy­ing. She’s learned to deal with the chal­lenges.

You know you’re onto a good thing when copy­cat busi­nesses start up in your mar­ket.

But that im­i­ta­tion feels a whole lot less like flat­tery when four copy­cats ap­pear in just one busi­ness quar­ter, and when for­mer em­ploy­ees start up shop next door.

“It’s a real bummer,” Van­cou­ver ed­u­ca­tional con­sul­tant Melinda Gi­ampi­etro said. “Peo­ple bla­tantly have stolen word for word off our web­site.”

Gi­ampi­etro started Op­tions So­lu­tions In­de­pen­dent Ed­u­ca­tional Con­sul­tants in 2003 when she saw that high school coun­sel­lors were hav­ing to spend more and more time on so­cial and men­tal health is­sues and sharply less on ca­reer coun­selling. As a for­mer high school prin­ci­pal, school coun­sel­lor and teacher, Gi­ampi­etro saw an op­por­tu­nity to pri­vately of­fer one- on- one, post- sec­ondary coun­selling. She’d pro­vide deeper ser­vice than tu­tors of­fer­ing ap­pli­ca­tion help, and agents paid by uni­ver­si­ties to place stu­dents.

The idea worked. Then in the last two years, oth­ers dis­cov­ered her niche. Per­haps they noted the tough econ­omy, the in­flux of in­ter­na­tional stu­dents, ris­ing ad­mis­sions re­quire­ments, or Gi­ampi­etro’s heav­ily booked sched­ule; what­ever the cause, Gi­ampi­etro sud­denly faced a wall of com­pe­ti­tion, and some of it was un­fair.

Gi­ampi­etro saw her own web ma­te­rial on other busi­ness’ sites, her hand­outs ap­peared with oth­ers’ lo­gos on them, and a for­mer em­ployee vi­o­lated a non- com­pete clause. When Gi­ampi­etro con­sulted a lawyer on the lat­ter, she learned she was in the right, but a bat­tle would be finicky and if she lost, she might be li­able for her op­po­nent’s lost in­come and le­gal costs.

“I spent $ 6,000 and three and a half months just to make the decision ‘ Do we move for­ward [ legally] or not?’ ” she said.

A busi­ness’ brochures, con­tracts, soft­ware, web­site ma­te­rial and logo are pro­tected by copy­right from the mo­ment the work was cre­ated, whether copy­right was reg­is­tered or not, said lawyer Bradley Freed­man, a part­ner at Bor­den Lad­ner Ger­vais in Van­cou­ver ( who did not work with Gi­ampi­etro). Copy­right pro­tects ex­pres­sion. Note how­ever, if you hire an in­de­pen­dent contractor to cre­ate a logo or a web­site for in­stance, copy­right rests with the contractor un­less oth­er­wise as­signed in writ­ing. Ask an em­ployee to cre­ate work and you own it.

Trade­marks pro­tect brands. If some­one uses a brand con­fus­ingly sim­i­lar to yours, you have some pro­tec­tion in your ge­o­graphic busi­ness area, even if you haven’t reg­is­tered the brand. That pro­tec­tion be­comes na­tional if you do reg­is­ter the trade­mark.

But all this pro­tec­tion costs money, as does fight­ing un­fair com­pe­ti­tion. In prac­ti­cal terms, the best, pru­dent decision might be to com­pete in the mar­ket­place rather than in the courts, Freed­man said. “Some­times, a busi­ness per­ceives that what they have is se­cret sauce and it re­ally isn’t,” Freed­man said. “That doesn’t mean the busi­ness isn’t spe­cial. So many times, it’s not the process or the for­mula, it’s the ex­e­cu­tion, the mo­ti­va­tion, the ser­vice ori­en­ta­tion that brings suc­cess to a busi­ness.”

In court you will need to not only prove mis­con­duct, but es­tab­lish your loss, Freed­man said. A full- fledged in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty law­suit can cost $ 100,000 or more. If your ob­jec­tive is sim­ply to stop some­one’s mis­con­duct, small claims court might be a vi­able op­tion, he said.

Gi­ampi­etro chose to spend her time and money out­side court. “I think in­tegrity wins and so does karma,” she said. “If some­one is go­ing to act that un­eth­i­cally, they are also go­ing to be un­eth­i­cal in their busi­ness prac­tices and it’s go­ing to come around.”

She de­cided her best strat­egy was to up the ante. “You just get bet­ter at what you do,” she said. “You in­no­vate.”

Gi­ampi­etro said she forced her­self to not change or ques­tion her di­rec­tion, but to seek to do a bet­ter job.

She ex­panded her ser­vices to grow with her clients. About 15 per cent of clients are now re­turn­ing for help with sec­ond de­grees such as law school and med­i­cal school. Since 40 per cent of stu­dents who start univer­sity don’t fin­ish, she’s now of­fer­ing sur­vival skills such as es­say writ­ing, study skills and goal set­ting. She’s in­tro­duc­ing a par­ent work­shop to dis­cuss top­ics such as fi­nances, get­ting kids up in the morn­ing with­out help, re­mov­ing cur­fews so kids learn to self- reg­u­late and over­see­ing the ap­pli­ca­tion process.

She’s in­creased pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment for her seven em­ploy­ees, upped her net­work­ing with univer­sity ad­mis­sions of­fi­cers, and ex­panded com­mu­nity out­reach.

And she’s ex­panded ser­vice op­tions. Stu­dents need­ing help with an ap­pli­ca­tion can meet a one- on- one con­sul­tant, work with a writ­ing coach, at­tend a writ­ing work­shop or email drafts to a “writ­ing drop­box” for “track changes” sug­ges­tions and com­ments by re­turn mail. The re­sult of all this in­tense ef­fort? Op­tions hasn’t lost any busi­ness. “We’re busier than we’ve ever been,” she said.

RIC ERNST/ PNG

Alexan­dra Dean ( left), Anna Wyn­ick and Macken­zie Ste­wart chat at Op­tions So­lu­tions In­de­pen­dent Ed­u­ca­tional Con­sul­tants in West Van­cou­ver.

Melinda Gi­ampi­etro’s ser­vice helps stu­dents ex­plore ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ties.

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