Saturday, May 14, 2011

Being Inspired vs. Being A Copy Cat

Where do ideas come from, and if we think of them, do they belong to us?

I make lots of different things to sell and I use Etsy and Artfire to see what the public likes and wants to buy. I develop lots of different versions of my products to see what survives and becomes successful in my shops.

It takes a lot of ideas, trial and error, research, time and money to get a whole bunch of ideas turned into one successful product. Sometimes I see somebody else's products and I think it is a great idea, and I get inspired to do something similar with my spin on it. That is natural competition. I am aware that when I put something up for sale on the internet, there will be other creative people like me who might save the photos, or even order my products as part of their research process to develop a similar product using their own style or spin on things.

I am interested in what boundaries there are around when your inspiration comes from someone you know. I have a lot of creative friends who make things and we each have our own style.

A few examples:

1. I have a friend who designs beautiful jewelry. I make jewelry. But when I started making jewelry, I knew I wasn't competing with her for customers because I deliberately stayed away from anything similar to her style and I make jewelry in a different price range. My friend is ok with me making and selling jewelry because we communicated about it so that there was no mis-understanding.

2. Many years ago I started a company selling Bath and Body products, including candles. As my interests and style evolved, I realized I wanted to evolve my business so that I was not limited to bath and body since I also knit, sew, garden, cook and so on.

As I moved on to my new venture (M Design Boutique as you see it today) I got a call from a friend of mine. She is also a creative person who makes bath and body products and candles for her family and friends at the holidays. She called to ask me if I would be upset if she turned her hobby into a business selling bath and body products. Not only was I happy to give her my blessing, I respected her for checking with me to see if I would mind. If she had not done so, I believe I would have felt hurt, even if her products were different enough that she would not be my direct competition. I will always support and love her for that. Not to mention her products and packaging are so awesome I use them every day. She did not use the same ideas for her marketing or product line. She did not take my developed idea and profit from it. She developed her own line, marketing, branding and style. Her business, by the way is Mystic Bliss Creations -- check it out!

3. I recently decided to look into getting M Design Boutique T-shirts made for myself, my husband and a few other members of my family who might wear them in support of my business. I thought it would also be a good "give-away" prize for one of the many blogs that invites me to be part of a give away. The problem was that online printers want a huge order minimum or charge a ton for just a few shirts, and then you can't combine sizes. I have a good friend who makes amazing hand-screened and digitally screened clothing and sells it in her Etsy shop and in stores locally in New York. So I approached her to see if she would take on my "job" of getting a hand-ful of shirts made. She gave me direct contact information to her digital printer. This is because I explained what my need was and she was comfortable giving me her resource, knowing I would not use it to compete with her business.

There are a lot of situations where creative people intersect. I believe that being honest, straight forward and sensitive to those who inspire you makes these potentially sensitive situations become a mutually supportive network. I think it is a difficult thing to put into words, but there are boundaries. We should respect that if someone we know has found success at something we could go mimic and find the same may not be the right thing to do. It is awkward to directly compete for business in the same market using information given to you in trust.

My policy is very strict. I don't share my vendors. I don't share my numbers. I share my encouragement. I share advice. I hope that I do inspire the people around me to go find what it is they do...and do the work. Do the research. Invest your time and money in finding something unique that expresses your own style. And in as many situations as possible, learn about what you can to do be sensitive to people you know when and if you may be entering the marketplace with an item similar to theirs, if you even think it is appropriate to do so. Trying to copy somebody else and compete with them won't work anyway. You have to learn for yourself, which may include being inspired by and learning from how they find success.

What do my readers think? What are your policies about sharing?

This is probably different for everyone, and I am very interested in how individual business owners feel about inspiration vs. being a copy cat. I can't pretend that I am sure I am right to guard my vendors so closely. But it is right for me at the moment.


  1. I have been terrified to venture into marketing the things I make, as admittedly I use others patterns tweaked to suit my own needs. I would hate to offend someone else by taking credit for something they really came up with and I altered just slightly. I became hypersensitive to the issue when we lived in Salt Lake and I helped out a ton in a local quilt shop. Another woman who helped in the shop owns a popular pattern/bag company. I recall her coming in often complaining of finding her patterns duplicated and for sale on etsy. I think in the case of candles and stuff it happens naturally to build on someone's ideas as they are products that don't have a whole lot of variation beyond colors and scents, but in knitting or quilting it is much easier to catch someone who has outright stolen an idea.

  2. Great post! I found you through your comment on the Handmadeology blog article about copying. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you wrote. As a handbag/purse designer I have been out and out copied, like you said inspiration and copying are two totally different things! On the other hand I have met several wonderful designers on Etsy, and we often discuss purse design, but in our little "group" not one of us has copied another. The boundaries are clear, but I have had the strange convoy from people fishing.

  3. Great blog, Melissa. Well said on an often uncomfortable subject.

  4. Thanks ladies...I find this issue to be one that can turn my stomach, as I realize I owe so much to those who inspire me. So hard to know where to land on this topic.

  5. I agree with you. I spend a lot of time researching my herbs and their actions and interactions. I am not at all upset with people that base a tea on mine, but to try to recreate my exact tea, rude and I think, lazy. Do your own work and the results will be so much better. I don't share my vendors either with one exception. Mountain Rose Herbs. But they are a huge company and I would really prefer that if someone is going to peddle herb products they use quality herbs... Good blog. I am going to follow you. :-)

  6. I am a huge fan of mountain rose herbs! Thanks for the follow Heather! Just saw this post from you...sorry for the delayed response!

  7. Love the post. You might be interested in the Design Respect initiative: It's one thing to be inspired by someone, it's another to rip them off. There's a big difference.