Imitation: Flattery or Theft?

2009 | Feb 12 in Business Development , Home Page News , Systems , Management , Leadership

By Wendy Vinson, Senior Program Advisor

The other day I had a lengthy conversation with a client named Tom.  He expressed a very real fear that I've heard often in the small business community. Tom was concerned that if he took the time to invest in creating systems, and taught others to do what he does, that he would only be creating competition for himself. He worried that those trained employees would eventually leave his business and start a business of their own using his proprietary operating systems. In a nutshell, he was worried about others stealing his business.

Despite the attractiveness of creating a systems-dependent business, of being able to delegate and expand his capabilities by training others to produce results and create a turn-key business, and despite his desire to create an E-Myth'd business that provides high equity return; Tom was allowing his fear to get in the way of action. His fear was justifying procrastination.

How about you? Does this sound familiar?

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

Okay. It happens. Your fears are not entirely irrational. People leave. Once in awhile an employee has an 'entrepreneurial seizure' of their own and they may start a competing business. Others (whether they ever worked for you or not) will admire what you do and copy you — some may flat out steal from you.

Certainly, we can relate. Remember, E-Myth is a small business too. We have many admirers, many advocates and yes, some who claim to do what we do. There are consultants and "coaches" out there that claim to use our methods or attempt to use a distant association with us as credibility to deliver their own programs.

When confronted with this situation, it's easy to get frustrated. It can make you feel that you need to keep everything you do under lock and key so that nobody can take it from you. And it's natural to feel bitter. Some say it's just business...its just people being opportunistic, maybe even entrepreneurial. Yet, it feels so personal.

Rise to the Challenge

I expressed all this to Tom, letting him know that we truly understand and relate to his fear. But as with so many situations: you mustn't let fear paralyze you. By not addressing his fear, by not moving forward doing what needs to be done to make his business thrive and grow, Tom was in fact locking his door and trapping himself inside the business with no way out. Without action, he's condemned himself to the role of a Technician: working and working until the day he can't work anymore. The ironic thing is that he has the key; he just has to choose to use it.

The key for Tom is to reconnect to the passion that drove him to start his business in the first place. A true entrepreneur, through vision and clarity of purpose, won't allow fear to get in the way.

If you've stumbled a bit on your path toward realizing your entrepreneurial vision, if fear is creeping in, here are some things you can do to refocus your energy.

  • Don't abandon systems. Make sure you have systems (IP) that stay with you even if employees leave (even if they attempt to take that system with them!). And no, it isn't enough to simply teach one other trusted person to do the job. Remember, the business should not rely on the owner or any person...you want a systems-dependent, not people-dependent, business.
  • Secure your assets. There are legal means by which you can protect yourself and your business and we encourage you to speak with your attorney to make sure that you're doing all you can to protect what's yours. The list is long, but consider areas like employment agreements, patents and trademark protection. 
  • Innovate. This is one that really hits home for me. There are people out there who claim to use E-Myth's methods, but because they're basing their "methods" on out-of-date material, what they end up delivering hardly resembles what we actually do. Our programs and methods are constantly evolving based on our real-world, real-time experience working with small business owners. The best way to rise above the competition is to constantly innovate and improve to better meet the needs of your customers. 
  • Connect with your target market. If somebody can create a business that looks like yours on the outside, than you have to be crystal clear about communicating and delivering that which makes you the best. It's critical that you connect with your target market in everything that you do. You want to make sure their experience with you is so great, they won't even consider doing business with anyone else. 
  • Stay focused. Don't just react, be proactive. This is the time to innovate and ask: what is really working in my business? What isn't working? Find ways to enhance your current systems and change the ones that are not serving your clients' needs and business goals. Put your energy toward evaluating, expanding, creating and innovating.

Learn from Tom

I reminded Tom that the more successful he is, the more likely it is that people will want to follow his lead. Some will do it with class, and some won't. But if Tom keeps doing what he does with excellence and constant innovation, he'll find these distractions are merely opportunities to keep him from becoming complacent; they'll keep him at the top of his game.

Remember, an entrepreneur doesn't waste time with the fear of what might be. Instead keep your focus on making your vision a reality. Transform your business into something amazing, an organization that stands out head and shoulders above the rest. For Tom, that means creating an E-Myth'd business. How about you?

Share Your Story

What fears have you overcome in the creation of your business? Post a comment and share your story or advice with the E-Myth community.


  1. .Louise K. says:

    Mimicry is superfical as it lacks the supporting knowledge that developed the system and therefore mimics struggle to innovate. They can cause a distraction for a while, but they need to go through the same learning curve to keep it up. Remember all those painful mistakes? Mimics don't have the benefit of your wisdom

    Submitted Feb 12, 2009 1:27 PM

  2. .Tracey M. says:

    I have had employees who left and who thought they could do what we did but better. Even though we didn't have all our systems documented they were people who had the knowledge to copy us. What they lacked was the passion and drive to succeed. They start believing they are better than us but soon learn that it's very different when they are expected to be the entrepreneur, the manager and the technician. An employee who is capable of stealing your systems and doing it well should be made part of your team given the oppoortunity to succeed with you.

    Submitted Feb 12, 2009 1:55 PM

  3. .Gary L. H. says:

    I am going through the same issues right now. I spent the time, money, and effort to create an easy to use document filing system, and I trained someone how to maintain the files. Everything was going fine until one disgruntled independent contractor lured my assistant to her new company. As a small business owner, I didn't have the resources to have a non-compete, nor the ability to enforce such an agreement. I enjoy having systems in my business because it helps to create habits so nothing gets over-looked, and I need help to grow in my new role. I am looking for a way to partition the system into parts so I don't give away the whole system again.

    Submitted Feb 12, 2009 2:00 PM

  4. .Sheri A. says:

    Even if u don't have everything documented people who are with u for a long time can learn to think and do things the way that you would. My ex-boyfriend was with me for three years and "helped" me through year 3 to 5 of my business venture. He fell in love with the concept and left his own job. After we split he started the same business concept having poached three of my key employees. The 3 employees were easily replaced as I had had enough of them already and was in the process of training up other people. Also he is using the concept as I did 3 years ago and not how I am doing it now. I am documenting and creating system, I have hired a personal assistant who is paid to do a support job - so no future personal relationship "partner" needs to provide that support. The systems are being documented so that I can rely on things to be done the right way whilst I am at networking and public relations activities. Also my business has expanded because I am being proactive and creating hundreds of reasons why my company will always be the best at what we do!

    Submitted Feb 12, 2009 2:45 PM

  5. .Lowell A. says:

    Part of your hiring process should include identifying people who are highly likely to go into business for themselves.  Eliminate them and hire people who want to work for you and with you.  There are plenty of really good people out there that have no interest in starting their own business.  Pay them with an honest wage, and treat them like YOU would like to be treated.  Develop them for positions of higher responsibility as your business grows.  Very few will leave you to work for your competition or to become your competition.  As long as you are actively managing your business and personnel you will rarely have an employee that thinks they are doing ALL of the work and you are getting ALL of the rewards.  That's when you are at risk.  It costs virtually nothing to have a non-compete agreement so that should also be part of your hiring package if you feel it is necessary.  And finally, don't hire a brain surgeon to change bed pans.  Hire the right person for the job today and for the job you see them possibly filling in 3 years.  

    Submitted Feb 12, 2009 2:55 PM

  6. .Christopher F. says:

    I was very paranoid in the early years of my business but one thing that I've come to realize is this:  Although all employees have the potential to steal your knowledge, systems, customers, etc., not all of them are capable of starting and sustaining a business.

    Most employees are happy to work for an owner who takes all the risk.  A smaller portion of them see your success and want to start a business for all the wrong reasons.  They are destined to fail in my opinion.  That leaves a very small percentage of entrepreneurs that leave a company and successfully start a competing business.  I am willing to bet that most of these successful entrepreneurs have spun off from much larger companies.  That's how I started. So I feel secure until my company is no longer a small business.

    Submitted Feb 12, 2009 3:02 PM

  7. .E-Myth Business Coach says:

    I am in admiration of everyone who has spoken up on this matter and it is especially inspiring to see the people who have had this situation happen to them and what they did to overcome it. No one will ever be able to steal your dream, your passion and your desire to rise to the top;  all of which influences your systems and strategy.  They may try, but will never be able to figure out exactly how you do it, because they can't steal you!! 

    Submitted Feb 12, 2009 3:45 PM

  8. .Chris G. says:

    I have felt the same concerns over my business and keeping employees boxed in with their knowledge of the company inner workings.  But I realized that I need to empower them and teach them enough to make all but the toughest decisions.  I still only make them an expert on their part of the whole, so they can be replaced if needed, but they have much greater autonomy within their defined dept. and in turn they are happier and give a better effort.  I find that making them responsible for their dept. helps to keep their efforts in line with mine, being a great company and providing great services.

    Submitted Feb 12, 2009 4:37 PM

  9. .Dave A. says:

    Twice I have had someone take my concept and try to implement it, and both times they failed, mainly because they thought it was an easy way to success, not realizing that each step requires passion and purpose AND the ability to see the whole pie.

    What I have learned is that there are few people who want to see the whole picture and I am honoured to be among those that do.

    Dave Allen - Just Business Magazine - 604-740-2510

    Submitted Feb 12, 2009 7:45 PM

  10. .nkasi O. says:

    havent you learnt that people who are trained to obey a system will not replicate or obey the same system if on their own.

    the reason is complacency, they would think they know everything, its easy, and its stupid until they fail.

    However anyone who has the discipline to copy to the letter should succeed since he has earned it.

    Submitted Feb 12, 2009 11:04 PM

  11. .Al S. says:

    Our business hasn't so much created the systems and processes yet as we have defined our philosophies and vision. At first I didn't want to advertise what we were doing or what we believed was right for our clients. And then one day it dawned on me that every one of our competitors believe in their own businesses and think their way is the best way. I know for a fact that some of them look at what we want to do and say "pffft, they're  living in a dream world --- they'll never be successful." Now we advertise how we are different on our website, and if anyone wants to copy it, at least it will be for the greater good of our industry. When we do get around to designing our systems and processes, I will take the same approach.

    Submitted Feb 12, 2009 11:59 PM

  12. .Floyd B. says:

    Disney is reputed to have said the following in response to a question about whether he worried about people copying his ideas:

    "I can create faster than they can copy..."

    Not a bad position to adopt, huh?

    Submitted Feb 13, 2009 4:14 AM

  13. .Vi W. says:

    This is an excellent article, and I have really enjoyed reading the comments as well.

    As a small business owner for the last 12 years, I have had more than one employee leave and I have had a couple who are in business for themselves. One in particular has tried feverishly to copy my business and follow my business plan exactly as it was when he left my business. Like Sheri, I am thankful that we have kept moving forward, and I am constantly honing and improving our strategy, tactics and systems.

    I am blessed with a great staff right now, and know that it is deadly to drive a business using fear. Having a systematic approach to business is the only way to move from being the technician to the entrepreneur.

    Keep up the good fight!

    Vi Wickam
    Principal Web Solutions

    Submitted Feb 13, 2009 4:33 AM

  14. .Joel M. says:

    The fear of having your turn key system borrowed is real and a real problem which can not be overlooked.  In addition to employment agreements we compartmentalize the system.  I own an orthopaedic practice and no one knows the whole system except the owners.  The medical assistant do not need access to the billing and coding manuals and the billing and coding folks don't need access to the practice administrators manual.  No one is kept from information or processes that they need but no one is privy to the intricate details and processes that they don't need.  Our turn key works based on the sum of the parts.  If an employee steals their manual the effect is blunted without all the other critical innovations that we use in other areas of the practice.  I dare say that each piece by itself would not function very well in an "ordinary" medical practice and might even be detrimental.

    Submitted Feb 13, 2009 8:57 AM

  15. .E-Myth Business Coach says:

    What a wonderful article, full of insight, and so very timely considering the various aspects of FEAR that could plague business owners around the world in these times of global economic crisis. Fear, particularly fear of competition, has no place in a turn-key business or the entrepreneurial mindset of a business owner.

    I am reminded of what Michael Gerber points out in The E-Myth Revisited when he discusses creating a "game worth playing" and writes:

    If you can't think of a game, steal one. Anyone's ideas are as good as your own. But once you steal somebody else's game, learn it by heart. There is nothing worse than pretending to play a game (pg. 206).

    It seems to me that there are two things that can happen when people try to imitate or steal your game: they either do it with class and create their own game out of it, which ultimately ends up as a differentiated business in its own right, or they do it tactlessly and end up pretending to play their own game, which ultimately ends up as a second rate business; either way, your business can actually benefit so long as you continue to play your game-a game worth playing because of the vision, action and spirit you bring to it! If you create that game worth playing, you'll benefit from the healthy competition by staying on your toes, and you'll benefit from the pretenders by being the genuine article.

    Submitted Feb 13, 2009 9:02 AM

  16. .Sammy G. says:

    This has certainly happened (copying my business model) to me...yet it was enjoyable watching them go "belly up."  Your entagibles (service/people etc...) must be a major part of your systems.  The culture and heart of your organization must be pure and cultivate success. And remember...never get in a _issing match with a skunk.

    Submitted Feb 13, 2009 10:55 AM

  17. .Leonard N. says:

    There is an old discussion in sports that states: Just because you see Nolan Ryan throw 98 mph,doesn't mean you can do it. There is so much more to the successful execution of a business than just having the idea of the system.

    Submitted Feb 13, 2009 1:24 PM

  18. .Sheri A. says:

    I have found all these coments very inspiring. It makes me get up in the morning full of drive and energy to keep myself the best in my business. Don't look over your shoulder. Paranoia is not good. An intelligent person needs to be aware of unfair competition in the game of stealing ideas but it's better to be innovating instead of wasting time worrying about what others are copying.

    Submitted Feb 16, 2009 4:10 PM

  19. .Caroline M. says:

    We have many people try and steal our marketing system by signing up for our newsletters.  I'm actually very open about how we market our service, because a lot of it relies on hard work and being persistent, not some magic formula!  It's also very unlikely to work for the imitators, as they simply aren't the same as us. 

    It's a shame these competitors try to steal the information,if they'd simply asked me, I would have told them.  I run an industry organisation where I readily share this knowledge, but anyone signing up and pretending to be a client automatically gets blocked from joining.

    Submitted Jun 23, 2009 7:22 AM

  20. .Denise K. says:

    Simply said I am the unique product of my company.  I am not building Success Equation 5 on the commodity of coaching, I am building it on the Product.  The care that is delivered to my clients because of the care I deliver to my staff.  I am happy to provide support when ever I can because I believe in abundance and not scarcity.  When I look around I can only hope that more leaders will emerge and take on the challenge of business the way I do.  Product First...Unfortunately the facts clearly show that I am in no fear of losing my client base so long as I continue to refine my product and provide a commodity of excellence.  The fear is an indicator of what is to come....carefully guard your thoughts they do produce results...I am the example of what is possible and I am happy to support anyone that truly hopes to create a company based on deliverying a product that raises the bar for me.  Capitalism is a beautiful thing....

    Submitted Dec 27, 2009 11:33 AM

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