Brand or Bust? Why Branding Is Essential to the Longevity of Your Business

A strong, identifiable brand is an invaluable asset to any company. Many businesses can reap major rewards by building a brand image that accurately reflects the strength of the company. And in today’s business world, branding is necessary for businesses looking for longevity and growth.

So, what do small businesses need to know about branding in the business world? Branding might seem like just another marketing buzzword, but it is a simple, yet powerful tool. A brand is essentially an image that communicates important messages about the value of your company to the public. A logo can provide an easily recognizable image of your brand, but that logo—and everything you put it on—needs to send a consistent message. Consistency is the key to effective branding for longevity because it creates memories through repetition, and those memories can have a positive impact on the loyalty of your customer base.

Your brand should accurately reflect your business and the traits that set you apart. You need first to identify your message and develop a strategic plan for communicating it. Your logo is just a start. Develop your company’s “voice” and ensure it is used consistently in all written communications. This includes your website, any promotional materials, email marketing campaigns, ads, and social media posts. Just like your logo, all communications with prospective clients should be consistent across all channels. Consider taglines, tunes, and avatars. Your brand can communicate anything you want. But, by default, it can also communicate things you don’t want. A well planned brand strategy will ensure you are sending the right message across the right channels. A consistent and effective brand creates loyal followers, and those followers can help your business withstand the test of trends and time.

If you have a consistent message and express it effectively through a diverse marketing strategy, you’re off to a good start to building lasting brand equity. A strong brand image can add value to your business, your products, or services.

Brand equity has immense value, especially to your competitors. Thus, no brand strategy is worth the effort unless you take steps to protect it. Components of your brand—such as your logo and brand voice—need protection. As a piece of intellectual property, your brand is an asset that, if compromised, can negatively affect your business’s future.

To keep your brand is protected, you need to start by ensuring your brand does not violate any other company’s intellectual property protections. Run a trademark search and check state registration databases. Building a brand is an investment of both time and money, so you don’t want to have to start over and risk confusing or losing your followers. Part of this step is making sure your brand is clearly distinct from that of your competitors. The likelihood of confusion is the legal standard by which your brand will be held, so make sure your brand is clearly original.

Next, file for a copyright of your brand image. It’s easy and affordable to file a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, but specificity is the key here. A copyright prohibits copying a piece of writing, a software code, a design, or similar assets. Certain companies should consider patents too, so always consult with a lawyer for guidance on protecting your brand.

When it comes to branding, it is wise to protect the valuable image your business has created. Work with a lawyer to ensure your brand and all your intellectual property is protected. If you want to protect the brand you build, begin by sitting down with us. As your Creative Business Lawyer®, we can help you protect your brand and all your intellectual property. We can also help you put valuable legal and financial protections in place to ensure your company is protected, so you can focus on growth, potential, and all the reasons why you love doing business.

This article is a service of Gratia P. Schoemakers, Creative Business Lawyer®. We offer a complete spectrum of legal services for businesses and can help you make the wisest choices on how to deal with your business throughout life and in the event of your death. We also offer a LIFT Start-Up Session™ or a LIFT Audit for an ongoing business, which includes a review of all the legal, insurance, financial, and tax systems you need for your business. Call us today to schedule.

Departing Employees and Trade Secrets: Minimizing the Risk

You’ve worked hard to build your business. You’ve developed products or services and the processes, policies, and strategies which drive them. So what do you do when a key employee tells you he/she will be leaving? How do you protect the business systems you’ve worked so hard to develop?

Hopefully, you had your key employee execute a confidentiality clause when you hired them. A confidentiality clause (or agreement) requires the person signing it to keep certain information strictly confidential. Ideally, it sets forth the type of information you consider to be a trade secret. You may later use this agreement to protect against competition or disclosure of your trade secrets in the future.

If your key employee is planning to start a business to compete with you or to go to work for a competitor, a noncompetition clause will put you in a position of strength. You can even base a lawsuit on a non-compete clause, although usually only within a limited geographic area and for a limited time period.

To further strengthen your position, before the employee leaves, do the following:

  • Determine whether you want to keep the employee. If you do, find out why he/she wants to leave and address those issues.
  • Review any applicable agreements with the employee and clearly set forth your expectation that they will comply.
  • Determine where the employee is going. If they are accepting new employment with a competitor, put the competitor on notice of your areas of concern and your intent to hold the employee to any applicable agreements that relate to your trade secrets.

If these measures do not work, you may need to bring a lawsuit to protect your trade secrets. To be successful, you must be able to show that you took reasonable measures to protect your trade secrets. Our focus is keeping you out of court and out of conflict. Preparing ahead with well-drafted agreements is a significant part of how we do that. Contact us for a LIFT Audit of your legal, insurance, financial and tax systems today.

This article is a service of Gratia P. Schoemakers, Creative Business Lawyer®. We can help you protect the business you’ve worked so hard to build. We’ll work with you to craft the agreements you need to protect your valuable trade secrets from the outset. Contact us when you are ready for more creative support to grow your business.

Could This Happen to You or Your Loved One? Town Demolishes House While Owner Is in Hospital

Imagine this: your elderly uncle with no family near his home travels South to Florida for surgery and has to stay there unexpectedly for a number of months. While he is away, his home is demolished by the city, including all of his possessions.

This just happened to a 69 year-old veteran and home owner in West Hemstead, New York. Due to medical complications with his surgery, he was unexpectedly gone for a number of months.

When he returned home, he found that his home had been torn down by the city. He had lived in the house since infancy and all of his possessions had become part of the rubble. Neighbors had complained about the condition of the house and claimed they thought that no one lived there.

Owners of homes or other structures that have become dilapidated need to be aware of laws that permit municipalities to take action against them. Typically, towns and cities have building codes and standards which must be met, and they have inspectors with the authority to declare properties unfit for use.

These cases start when the city declares an abandoned house or building structurally unsound and orders that it be demolished. The city will first look to the property owner to carry out the demolition, but if that does not happen, the city undertakes the task itself and then demands payment of demolition costs from the owner.

While avoiding the destruction of someone’s home should be a goal of government officials charged with enforcement of building codes or urban renewal programs, that is obviously not always the case. It is up to each of us to care for our family members, especially those who are elderly and do not have close family nearby. One of the best ways you can do that is to ensure all of your senior family members have a relationship with a trusted advisor, such as a personal lawyer, to ensure that all of their assets are protected in the event of a long-term  incapacity or illness.

We often become surrogate “members of the family” for our clients who do not have loved ones nearby. Please call us if we can support your family in this way and save you and your loved one’s the heartache of losing a home or other assets in this way.

This article is a service of Gratia P. Schoemakers, Personal Family Lawyer®.  We believe in developing trusting relationships with families for life. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session,™ where we can help identify the best legal, insurance, financial tax and asset protection strategies for you and your family. Call our office today to schedule a time for us to sit down and talk because this planning is so important.

 

 

 

 

How Can I Avoid Business Identity Theft?

It seems like major retailers report breaches of their customer’s private data almost weekly. But businesses themselves are also subject to identity theft, and unfortunately, they are more apt to not discover the theft until much later in the game, after significant damage has been done.

Businesses identities can be stolen in various ways. Often, bank account information is accessed through cyber attacks, and then purchases are made or money withdrawn. Sometimes, thieves will make such a big splash that the theft is immediately noticed, but many thieves are more gradual, and purchases or withdrawals are made over a period of time, often going unnoticed.

Thieves may also obtain identifying information with which to open new accounts that are unknown to the company. Detection may not occur until the business experiences a credit problem or receives a communication regarding an account of which it has no knowledge. Again, this can go on for an extended period of time.

Businesses must be vigilant to prevent such thefts. Protecting business records and information is one means of protecting your business. There are two main ways information falls into the hands of thieves: 1) electronically and 2) via paper. Proper security on company computer networks is essential to preventing cyber attacks. Software with a proven track record should be purchased, or an information technology consultant should be hired to provide such a service.

With paper, it can be as simple as preventing “dumpster diving.” This means making sure that your paper waste is disposed of in a way that prohibits sensitive information from being accessed after it leaves the business premises. Use of shredders or a shredding service is the easiest way to accomplish this task.

While prevention is the first line of defense, detection is the second (and early detection is critical). Businesses should regularly access their credit profiles with Dun & Bradstreet, Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion to determine if there has been any activity not authorized. Bookkeeping should be kept up to date, particularly accounts payable.

Similarly, the state office (typically the secretary of state) which registers businesses should be contacted to verify that the information they have on file is correct. In some cases, a thief will make changes to business registration information in order to pose as an authorized representative of the company and steal from its accounts, access lines of credit, or establish completely new accounts. You can reduce the likelihood that this will happen to your business by regularly verifying that the proper information is on file.

Focusing on these “paperwork” parts of business can be the least enjoyable for business owners and sometimes end up not getting done. If that’s the case for you, give us a call for a LIFT Audit of your legal, insurance, financial and tax systems so we can identify any holes, and devise a plan with you to fill them.

This article is a service of Gratia P. Schoemakers, Creative Business Lawyer®.  We are well-versed in the federal and state laws that apply to businesses. Make an appointment today to discuss any questions you have about business identity theft, or schedule a LIFT Start-Up Session™ or LIFT Audit™ if your company is established, both of which include employment structuring, financial, and tax systems you need for your business.

Protecting Trade Secrets with Non-Disclosure Agreements

One of the most valuable assets owned by a business is the concept or idea that sets them apart from their competitors. Whether it is a new product or a unique service, it can be worth a small fortune, especially if it meets a need that is not being met by anyone else. Thus, it is imperative that your business takes the steps necessary to protect this type of trade secret.

A simple and effective way to safeguard your company’s private information is to require all employees, independent contractors, vendors and other third-parties that have access to your trade secrets to execute a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

This type of contract is also commonly referred to as a “confidentiality agreement,” and it legally prevents the other party from improperly disclosing the confidential or non-public information protected by it. The NDA provides that if the party breaches the agreement, your business is entitled to recoup its damages as well as other remedies available under the law.

This confidentiality provision can be built into other agreements your employees, vendors or other third-parties are signing in the course of doing business with you, and does not need to be a stand-alone document.

Each NDA should be drafted to address the unique needs of your business and the applicable industry, but below are a few general provisions that should be included to protect your confidential information:

  • You should clearly outline and identify the specific trade secrets that are protected by the NDA. It is important that there is no confusion regarding what types of information or data is considered private and protected from being disclosed.
  • All circumstances where disclosures are allowed should be identified. You should also identify the parties with whom such disclosures are allowed. For example, permitted disclosures often include the sharing of protected information with attorneys, accountants, insurance agents and other similar professionals.
  • The NDA should outline the remedies that will be available to your business if a breach of the contract occurs.
  • Since the NDA is a contract, it should contain some of the general clauses that other contracts include. For example, you should include provisions that identify what state law will govern the contract, how disputes will be handled (including whether mediation or arbitration is required), and other similar types of clauses.

Having third parties sign a non-disclosure agreement is an effective way to safeguard your business and its trade secrets. Without this type of contract, your company is in jeopardy of having one of its most valuable assets made public and accessible to your competitors.

Your business ideas and brand are important property worth protecting.  If you are interested in learning more about intellectual property protection strategies, call us today to schedule your comprehensive LIFT™ (legal, insurance, financial and tax) Foundation Audit.

8 Asset Protection Strategies for Business Owners

One of the biggest risks small business owners take is not properly protecting their personal assets from business liabilities or judgments.  In a recent Entrepreneur.com article, Mark Kohler, author of The Tax & Legal Playbook, offered these 8 asset protection strategies for business owners:

Choose the right business structure.  Operating as a sole proprietorship offers zero asset protection.  Consider choosing a business entity that is a limited liability company (LLC) or a corporation to shield your personal assets from business lawsuits.

Keep your entity in good standing.  If you have set up an LLC or corporation, there are certain rules that must be followed to maintain the limited liability protection of that entity.

Use contracts and agreements.  If you are negligent or act fraudulently in conducting business, this opens your personal assets up for attack from creditors.  Always use the proper contracts and agreements for business transactions.

Buy insurance.  Be sure to purchase business insurance to cover any potential incident, so potential plaintiffs have another target rather than coming after you.

Have umbrella insurance.  For a relatively low cost ($300-$500/year), you can get $1-$2 million in umbrella coverage above and beyond what you are covered for by your personal or business insurance policy.

Put assets in spouse’s name.  When one spouse is engaged in a riskier occupation, it can be advantageous to put personal assets in the name of the other spouse.  However, this should not be done without consulting first with a Creative Business Lawyer®.

Use the homestead exemption.  Most states offer a homestead exemption on a primary residence that protects a certain amount of your home’s value from creditors or bankruptcy.

Consider tenancy by the entirety.  If allowed in your state, you can title your personal residence as “tenancy by the entirety,” which means that if one spouse is sued, the home cannot be attached to a legal judgment.

Use sophisticated trust planning.  Going beyond the entrepreneur.com article, we also recommend trust planning as the most airtight form of asset protection.  Trust planning works best when it is considered before you have even started a new company and we use strategies that are little known by most professionals, so contact us early on in your planning process if you would like to consider using trusts in your asset protection plans.

One of our primary services is a LIFT Start-Up Session, in which we guide you through the right choice of business entity, location of business entity, start up agreements, intellectual property protection, employment structuring, insurance, financial and tax systems you need to start your next business and succeed right out of the gate.  This session is normally $5,000, but if you are one of the first three people to mention this post and you schedule this month, we will take you through the entire LIFT Start-Up process for half that investment.

How to Divorce-Proof Your Business

Whether it is due to the high unemployment rates that hit several years ago or the entrepreneurial itch Baby Boomers are now scratching instead of retiring, many married people have started their own businesses. Moreover, these businesses could be put in jeopardy if the owners divorce.

If you own a business, it is probably your largest single financial asset.  If you divorce, your ex may be entitled to half of your business.  If you started the business during the marriage, it could be considered marital property that is fair game in a divorce.

Here are some ways you can divorce-proof your business:

Prenuptial agreement – One of the best ways to protect your business from divorce is to start before the marriage takes place.  In executing a prenuptial agreement, you and your soon-to-be-spouse should be represented by separate attorneys.  Then you both decide what property should be treated as separate, what property will qualify as marital property and how the marital property will be divided in case of divorce.

Buy-sell agreement – Married couples who jointly own a business can execute a buy-sell agreement that outlines what happens to the business should a divorce or death of one spouse occur.  A well-crafted buy-sell agreement will determine how ownership interests are to be transferred, a way to determine the price for the sale or ownership transfer and a way to pay for the purchase of an ex’s ownership interests (i.e., life insurance, cash, loan, etc.).

Trust – There are several trust instruments available to shield a company from the potential adverse effects of a divorce.  If you wish to protect your business interests from a potential divorce and pass those along to your children, you can have your business established right from the beginning in an irrevocable trust that shields your business assets from your divorce as well as your children’s potential future divorce.  Since the business assets are placed in a trust governed by a trustee, they are no longer considered yours — and therefore protected from an ex-spouse or any other creditor.

If you are interested in learning more about legal protection strategies for your business and how we work with you as a partner in protecting your company, call us today to schedule your LIFT™ (legal, insurance, financial and tax) Foundation Audit.

Know the Difference Between a Name and a Trademark

Business owners should be aware of the difference between choosing a name for a new company and registering a trademark for your business and/or product. 

The process of choosing a name for a company is necessary when creating a corporation or LLC (limited liability company). Once you have chosen a name, you should check your state’s Secretary of State website since many have searchable databases you can use to determine if the name is already in use.  If the name is clear, the new company can reserve and use the name.

This name should be used on (1) the official documents creating the corporation; (2) filing regular tax returns on the local, state and federal levels; (3) any contracts, lease agreements or agreements to buy property entered into by the company; and (4) any stock offerings.

Although a company is not required to operate under the state registered name, most do. In any case, the name should be protected through trademark registration.

It is possible to secure registration of a trademark on either the state or federal level. If you secure a state trademark registration, other people or entities in your state cannot use the trademarked name without violating your company’s trademark. If you have a federal trademark, this protection exists with respect to any person or entity throughout the U.S.

Trademarks are used to protect a brand name and also apply for any logo associated with the company. Both names and associated logos can be trademarked and often one company will get multiple trademarks on the federal level to protect the name, the logo and combination of both. Violating someone’s trademark can expose you to legal liability.

If you try to use a name already reserved by a corporation or LLC, your Secretary of State’s office will inform you it is necessary to choose a different name. Once you reserve a name, it belongs to your LLC or corporation for the balance of the entity’s life.  A state trademark expires after five years, although it can be renewed for five years at the end of each term.  Federal trademarks expire in 10 years after the registration date unless they are renewed within one year prior to the date of expiration.

Your business name and products are important assets worth protecting.  If you are interested in learning more about intellectual property protection strategies, call us today to schedule your comprehensive LIFT™ (legal, insurance, financial and tax) Foundation Audit.

 

Protecting Your New Business From Trademark Infringement Liability Exposure

Choosing a name for your new business is an important decision that could have a major impact on your company’s profitability. Before choosing a name for your business (not necessarily your corporate name, the name of your limited liability company or partnership because those could be different), it is important to take these important first steps:

  1. Perform a federal trademark search to ensure your business name is not already being used. You can conduct this search on the S. Patent and Trademarks website.
  2. Perform a state trademark search to ensure your business name is not already being used. While different states have different laws concerning the duration of trademarks, some trademarks may expire or may have already expired by the time you start your business. The owners of those marks may still have the right to use the name if their trademark has expired so be sure to consult with legal counsel before proceeding.
  3. Make sure any domain name used for your company’s website is not similar enough to a famous company’s domain name so as to expose yourself to a claim of cybersquatting, or using a well-known name within the body of a domain name that causes confusion about whether the website represents your company or some other company.
  4. Be careful crafting a logo as a symbol for your company; logos are also routinely trademarked as well. In January, the City of Portland announced that it planned to sue Pabst Blue Ribbon for that company’s use of an iconic downtown Portland sign in a promotional event logo.

Being found liable for federal trademark violations under the Lanham Act can be very costly. Courts can and sometimes do assess damages equivalent of triple the amount of profits a company garners during the period of the infringement. Better to take precautions up front rather than pay a big price later.

Your business ideas are important property worth protecting.  If you are interested in learning more about intellectual property protection strategies, call us today to schedule your comprehensive LIFT™ (legal, insurance, financial and tax) Foundation Audit.

 

Asset Protection Strategies for Female Business Owners

Female-owned businesses are one of the fastest growing sectors of the U.S. economy, with the number of women-owned businesses doubling over the past 17 years, according to a recent Forbes article.

Many women who run their own companies often do double-duty as CEOs of their families as well. The tendency for many is to leave important issues like asset protection planning for another day, but doing so can have a negative impact on both business and family.

Female business owners can get a head start on protecting business and personal assets by:

Creating a succession plan for the business. Female business owners with partners should execute a buy-sell agreement to protect each other’s business interests; without one, the ownership of the business could pass to a partner’s spouse or children. Business partners should also consider purchasing life insurance for each other to ensure there will be cash on hand to buy shares back from a deceased partner’s estate.

Gathering trusted advisers. An advisory team for female entrepreneurs should include a business attorney, a financial planner and a CPA at the least. By having a team already in place, you can avoid any missteps when making difficult decisions.

Protecting personal assets. Choosing the right business structure is critical to asset protection. Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) and corporations provide business liability protection for personal assets that sole proprietorships and partnerships do not. In addition, establishing trusts to protect assets from potential creditors or divorce is critical for any business owner.

We can help female business owners understand all their options for asset protection and wealth management. To learn more about our personal approach to business planning, call us today to schedule your comprehensive LIFT™ (legal, insurance, financial and tax) Foundation Audit.