When Your Business Gets Cloned

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This week, I ran into a Tweet by Mike Rubini, who had found that not only his product Groouply had been cloned, but the person behind copying his Facebook group monitoring tool had put up a comparison page, trashing Mike’s product. That made Mike wonder if he should stop building in public.

It’s an alluring thought. If we hide away what we do, if only we can keep it a secret, then nothing can harm us. When we build in public, we feel exposed. We get noticed, people want to have what we have, and we feel like we’re sharing too much.

I get it. It’s scary to perform things we’d usually do in complete anonymity on a public stage.

I had seen Tweets like Mike’s before. Founders who encounter real-world implications of building in public, wondering if they shouldn’t just pull the plug. But at one point, reading the kind, supportive, and encouraging replies to Mike’s tweet, I noticed one thing.

Everyone was talking about Mike. Nobody even cared about the name of the person who cloned Mike’s business. Even at this inflection point, wondering if it’s all worth it, all eyes were on Mike.

This attention is what building in public creates. No amount of secluded work in the safe obscurity of anonymity could ever provide it in this raw and relatable form. Even in this moment of somber reflection, Mike is actively building a brand as an entrepreneur. He shares his thoughts, his fears, his uncertainty. In that moment, he becomes one of us: a fellow traveler on the entrepreneurial path, a learner, a human who tries his hardest to make the right choices.

It’s in our nature to seek safety and comfort. Usually, that’s a good idea, as it allows us to recuperate and take the time to reflect on the best path forward. For entrepreneurs — and anyone else doing hard things that have never been done before in that particular way — retreating like this is a risky move. In our solitude, the fears that are ever-present in the back of our minds have a much easier time to take over. Without input from a supportive community, we create our own mental vicious circles and allow our negative emotions to form echo chambers.

What Mike did was a courageous act: he took his fear, and he laid it bare in front of his fellow founders. It takes guts to be vulnerable on purpose. It’s so much easier to act like everything is fine. But that is counter-productive behavior. We know that the reality we see is different from how we act towards others. Those are the little cracks on our armor through which our fears and anxieties can attack: the stories that our mind tells itself. If we don’t find an outside perspective, those fear-driven narratives become our reality. So the best thing we can do is reach out.

And that’s what Mike did. It didn’t take long for the first replies to come in, reminding Mike how well he is doing, and I want to share a few interesting thoughts I observed in those conversations.

When you build in public, you are building trust at scale. Your fellow entrepreneurs and your prospective customers get to see the journey, not just the milestones. You, as a person, become intertwined with the brand. When people use your product, they understand who built this for them and how committed you are to making their lives easier. This forms a bond between customer and entrepreneur that is much stronger than what most relationships between business and user usually are. Consequently, little issues are tolerated much more, and customer support conversations happen from a mutual place of benevolence, not as an angry customer yelling at a faceless customer service representative. Building in public is building trust.

Don’t underestimate your endurance. Copycats eventually throw in the towel when they have exhausted their resources. And those are very limited. Other than copying your product, what do they have? If making a profit is their only motivation, how quickly will that vanish when they recognize how hard it is to build an actual business? It’s a common sign of grasping at the last straw when destructive methods like badmouthing are employed. Look at Mike’s clone competitor: he’s frightened enough of Groouply’s potential that he took the time to write up a fictional story about how you can’t trust it. Is that the growth mindset of an entrepreneur with a vision? I think not. If you build in public, you commit to a path of honest work based on integrity. You show up every day, and people can see that process unfolding regularly. This makes you stronger and will allow you to outlast those who copy your work.

Badmouthing attracts people you might not want as your customers anyway. If I read your destructive hit job of a comparison page that makes your competitor out to be a bastion of incompetence, I wonder who you think would agree with you. Any self-respecting customer will read that page once and never interact with your product again. Even worse, this approach is self-defeating, as it gives the copied business even more attention. It’s fine to build a comparison page based on features and how well it works for particular use cases. But if I end up being curious about the competitor because you’re spending so much time trying to make them seem bad, you just did them a marketing favor.

It boils down to this: they can’t copy you, just your work.

The product might be cloned, but not your vision, not your spirit, not your understanding of your customers and their problems. The founder and everything you stand for is something that can not be cloned. For that reason, building a personal brand as a reputable entrepreneur with domain expertise in their space is such an advantage: it takes a long time to build trust. It takes an afternoon to (badly) clone an existing business.

And even if, for some miraculous reason, someone were to clone your business and become successful, you’d still be a valuable and reputable entrepreneur, known by many for their transparent approach to business and impeccable work ethic. Even in this worst possible outcome, you are still nestled securely in the supportive and opportunity-generating company of other founders. This is the secret to building in public: if you are willing to be an honest person sharing your learnings, your struggles, and your successes, you build a legacy beyond the business that you’re currently working on.

That’s something that no one can clone or ever take away from you.

After a few hours of people pouring out their support for Mike, he came to a final conclusion: “You guys are right, I’ll keep doing what I do.”

Best of luck, Mike. You’re doing great.

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