Best way to deal with copycats? Don't

By Erin Griffith , written on August 30, 2013

From The News Desk

Warby Parker has worked really hard to build up its brand. Like, really, really hard. A-B testing the difference between "collegiate" and "preppy" hard.

It has paid off -- Warby Parker has a strong brand, and naturally, others in the world want to capitalize on it. The company has dealt numerous copycats as it has grown from a tiny e-commerce operation out of Blumenthal's apartment to a company with 16 physical retail stores locations and 150 employees. At one point, Bluefly launched an eyewear vertical which even stole images of Warby Parker's products.

"Copycats suck," co-CEO Neil Blumental said at PandoMonthly New York last night. He couldn't help from ranting about the most notorious copycatters, the Samwer brothers, and their cloning vehicle, Rocket Internet.

"I hate Rocket, I hate the Samwer brothers, I hope they die, but I, right now, I want to stay, like, super quiet so they don't come after me," Blumenthal said.

He described the feeling of encountering a clone of your business. "Once you see them you get this terrible pit in your stomach, and you feel like crap, and you feel like somebody stole from you.

"Your team is demoralized. They see what is months of work that somebody else probably just spent a couple of days building or ripping off. As their leader, they're looking at you to have a pretty strong response," he said.

When Warby Parker was smaller, the company would sometimes to discredit the copycat through a press article.

But a turning point happened in 2012. By then, Warby Parker had become high-profile enough that the company's retaliation made it look like a bully. Classic Specs, a Brooklyn-based startup that clearly borrowed a lot of Warby Parker's text, design, and branding, launched an attack on the company. Classic Specs accused Warby Parker of spreading negative rumors about the company. It escalated into a public back-and-forth between the two companies that made both parties look bad.

After that, Warby Parker the company evaluated whether copycats were actually impacting their sales and concluded that they weren't. The company's response to copycats now is it just ignore it, or maybe contact the company if they're illegally using the Warby brand or intellectual property. "By overreacting, we potentially raise more awareness and invite perhaps an overreaction from the press saying were being defensive," he said.

"The bigger you get, your abilities to respond get a bit less," he added. It's a bit ironic, considering that bigger companies finally have the capital to fight legal battles. He has to emphasize to his team that it's difficult for copycats to get traction and they have to ignore their initial emotional reaction.

"Our business is much harder to copy because its not a platform business where first mover advantage is so important. It's about building a brand, and building a brand is so much about authenticity," he said.

"The Samwer brothers, their M.O. is to try and hire former management consultants and MBAs, and, as much as  love my brethren the vast majority of those don't know how to build a brand," he added.

Blumenthal admitted that there will be come battles as Warby expands into other markets where copycats are already operating. The company has filed trademarks and intends to go after companies that have egregiously copied it's company. This time around, though, Warby Parker might skip the part where they tell the press.

[Image via Shutterstock]