When Is It Theft? Breaking Down the Eco Versus Pebble Startup Copycat Incident


If you didn’t read Eco founder Andy Bromberg’s Twitter thread last week accusing Pebble’s cofounding team of the plagiarism of both Eco’s marketing messaging and business model, along with a blow-by-blow accounting of what he called “lying and espionage” in attempts to surface Eco’s intellectual property, you’d be forgiven – because it turned into a non-story.  

What Bromberg alleges is shocking in almost every aspect, but the thread ends with a whimper, an “agree-to-disagree,” with no further action to follow. 

What isn’t shocking is the fact that the kind of fudgery alleged by Bromberg isn’t new or particularly unique. I’m more than a little disappointed that nothing may come of it, because when no action is taken, it’s a clear signal that it’s cool, bro. No harm, no foul. 

Get outta here with that. Your intellectual property is the most valuable thing your startup owns, so you need to cover your assets.

They Will Steal First and Refuse To Apologize Later

Whether some old-fashioned startup thievery was committed is left up for debate. However, a lapse of ethics is most certainly at play.

If the Pebble team did what was alleged, that was straight-up wrong. And successful startups have often found themselves the victim of some level of intellectual theft in the name of all being fair in love and business. Companies copy each other all the time, right? It’s almost a form of flattery.

Until it happens to you. 

The Bad Actors Are Everywhere

Once your startup makes some successful public noise, the copycats will come out of the woodwork. 

It doesn’t even have to be an external actor. As an example, last week I got a question from an entrepreneur who has repeatedly been burned by trusted employees leaving his company to start their own ventures, with a business model and marketing plan based on what they learned while working for him. 

While that’s not as broad a threat, my general experience is that it happens for the same reasons that the external copycats start doing their thing. 

I’ve been hit by copycats, including a couple that lifted every pixel of our website (except our name, of course), and even one that listed me as their CEO. I never would have found out about any of these incidents had not a few good Samaritans who knew what they were looking at given me a heads up. 

I’ve nearly been the victim of intellectual espionage a few times as well – with the actors posing as customers, investors, even one who tried to get me to drop trade secrets during an “interview” for an “overseas tech magazine.” And yes, one of my startups got hit by a patent troll with frustratingly little we could do about it.

The skulduggery and shenanigans happen at all levels. I’d say I get at least one question a month from entrepreneurs about how to counter the copycats they’ve already found. And usually by the time they reach out to me, most of the non-aggressive, non-litigious options are off the table. 

Furthermore, you’re often dealing with an actor that’s either hard to source or has no rule or authority over them that you can lean on. You only have to look at NFTs and crypto to see how easy it is to steal from the shadows.

It’s an undeniable truth: Once you discover a copycat, you’re already way late in the game.

Responding to a copycat takes time, aggravation, stress, and in a lot of cases, money. Furthermore, it can slow your momentum while your team spends time protecting their interests instead of growing them

After all the headache and heartburn and learning the hard way, I’ve narrowed down a few proven ways to proactively protect your ideas and IP, in order from least effective to most.

Method 1: Patents

Patents are a necessary evil. And I would emphasize the words necessary and evil. Patents and other legal claims of intellectual property ownership don’t instantly protect your IP, they only give you the right to fight a battle like the one Bromberg is hesitant to jump into. 

Method 2: Build rapid massive market share

While this seems the easiest method on paper, it’s actually the hardest to pull off and can be the most expensive. As an example, there is almost no competitive difference between Uber, Lyft, and all their micro-competitors, other than brand name. While that kind of competitive protection has the potential to win the battle, you might never win the war, and you’ll just keep spending money to gain more market share at a loss.

Method 3: Perpetual improvement in execution

This is primarily how Amazon does it. They build protection by being consistently better, cheaper, and more forward-thinking in everything they do – protected IP executed to perfection. This is the most exhausting method — physically, mentally, and financially. It’s also the riskiest, because delighting the customer is a much more difficult and complex proposition than just satisfying the customer.

Method 4: Innovation

And this is probably what Bromberg is leaning on – well, that and his $90 million funding lead. 

The most guaranteed way to stay ahead of the competition is to perpetually make your solution better, cheaper, more efficient, simpler, and broader. It’s not just about the latest technology, it’s about applying and translating new technology into the product. That’s the trick that most copycats can’t pull off. They may be technologists, but customers don’t buy technology, they buy the results of that technology. Create results, and the copy becomes pale.

The sooner you employ any of these strategies, the more effective they are. It’s the classic ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure. And in any case, these methods are much less expensive and less of a hassle than paying an attorney to fire up a cease and desist and any legal action that may follow. 

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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