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.

What to do When Your Business is Out of Bounds and Work Starts to Take Over Your Personal Life

In the digital era when you can be reached 24/7 through smartphones and social media, it can be more difficult to set firm boundaries that support your wellbeing and the productivity of your business. When you find yourself frustrated, resentful, or feeling obligated to respond to tweets, FB messages and emails at all hours of the day and night because you “have to”, it’s time to reassess and redefine your business boundaries.

The first step is to get clear about the difference between “have to” and “want to”, considering the possibility that a lot of the time you are spending responding to emails, tweets and Facebook messages during “off” hours are happening because you are choosing to do so, not because you have to do so. So, first and foremost, get clear on your motivations.

Are you responding to clients after hours because you are avoiding something in your personal life? Or, are you addicted to the high of being needed? Or maybe you just like it and it’s not something you have to do at all, but you really do want to be that available.

Next, if you really do want to create more boundaries between your work life and your personal life, it can be as simple as making the choice.

Decide to limit the hours when you respond to emails, calls, messages, and social media posts. Being connected via smartphone all day doesn’t mean you have to maintain a consistent level of responsiveness.

Set up regular business hours in which you will respond to messages, and stick to it. Enforce those hours by including them in business contracts, too. Communication is the key. When you communicate your boundaries to clients and team members, you’ll find that people are happy to respect your boundaries.

Along those lines, don’t make yourself fully available all day long. Don’t use your personal cell phone for business, and always keep your business lines and accounts separate from your personal ones. Take responsibility for when people can contact you, and send business calls to voicemail after hours. Better yet, get an assistant who can handle your phones and accounts so you can focus on running your business, not responding to messages.

And, lastly, make sure you respect the value of your time. Giving away services, indulging prospects in long consultations, and handing out free and discounted services to personal contacts all discount your value. Not only can this leave you feeling unappreciated at the end of the day, but it also sets up the expectation that you are overly generous with your time.

Time is money, as any business owner will tell you, so make sure you are being compensated fairly for your time. Again, skillfully crafted contracts can help you communicate enforce this particular boundary.

If you are unclear about the value of your time, and how to create boundaries around your time, ask us about our Money Map Life and Income planning process so we can help you with this. Protecting your time and value as an entrepreneur is important. Setting clear boundaries and knowing when to enforce them can help you keep your sanity while running a business. But to do this, you need to have measures in place to ensure those who do business with you have clear and reasonable expectations. If you want to take that step toward setting clear business boundaries, start by sitting down with us.

As your Creative Business Lawyer®, we can guide you in making the difficult decisions you face everyday as a leader in business, including when and how to set boundaries. We can look out for your business’s future, so you have time and energy to focus on growth and expansion.

This article is a service of Gratia P. Schoemkaers, 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 today!

What Happens to Your Business Facebook Page if You Die?

If your business is on Facebook, you may wonder what happens to your Facebook page in the event of your death. To ensure someone you choose can take it over, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got your legacy contact set up for your personal page and another administraor set up for your business fan page.

Legacy contacts allow people with personal Facebook accounts to designate someone they choose to manage their account after they pass away. But Facebook also offers business fan pages. So what happens to those pages if you pass away? You probably don’t want your business page to expire with you.

Let’s start with the basics. How did you initially set up your account? In all likelihood, you simply connected your business fan page to your personal page. Facebook has a strong preference for connecting business pages to personal pages, even though the two appear as separate on Facebook. But if you don’t have a personal account, Facebook allows you to create a free standing business page (although not optimal due to limitation discussed below).

Personal Facebook accounts holders can decide how they want their pages to be handled when they die from among three options: memorialized accounts, adding legacy contacts, and account deletion. Memorialized accounts place the word “remembering” next to the person’s name on their profile page. This allows friends and family to continue to share memories, and the page remains visible to its audience.

A memorialized account may be used alone or may be combined with a legacy contact. The legacy contact must be named by the account holder before death. The account holder sets the legacy contact’s authority, including things such as dealing with and making posts, reading messages, and responding to friend requests. The third option is account deletion. Again, this option must be chosen by the account holder prior to death.

If you also set up a business/fan page from your personal account, then you can and should designate another account administrator that has the same rights as you to the business/fan page so that it can be continued. They would sign in through their Facebook account to manage it allowing it to continue after your passing. Be careful, however, to only add people you trust as admins as any admin can remove any other admin, even you as the owner of the page.

If, on the other hand, you didn’t have a personal Facebook account and instead created a freestanding business page, you were initially prompted to choose additional account administrators who would also have right’s to handle that account. However, most people do not use freestanding business pages for two big reasons. First, Facebook does not allow someone with a personal account to create a freestanding business account. And second, freestanding business accounts are much more limited in their customizability of pages.
Even if you have dealt with your personal estate planning, it’s critical – if you are a business owner – to also make plans for your business.

Facebook is just one of the many things to plan for, and if you have not considered comprehensive business succession planning, contact us, we can help.

To continue to serve your customers (or to notify them properly in the event of your death) could make or break your company’s goodwill with your customer base and mean the difference between continued income or a huge liability for your loved ones.

This article is a service of Gratia P. Schoemakers, Family & 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, 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.

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.

What Happens When a Goliath Takes Your Trademark

Terri Kelly, a mother of six who started her “second life” as an entrepreneur designing comfortable flip-flops, did everything right when she launched her company.  First, she designed a great product that addressed a market need.  She worked tirelessly to get her product into shops, boutiques and local stores.  And she trademarked her unique branding statement:  “Yoga Pants for Your Feet®”.

So imagine her dismay when she learned that billion-dollar shoemaker Skechers was using her trademarked term to market their Stretch Fit sneakers nationally.

Terri’s story, which appeared recently on Savor Magazine’s Savor the Success blog, is an entrepreneur’s nightmare, a real David vs. Goliath conundrum.  Billion-dollar companies have lots of financial resources to wage a legal battle, while entrepreneurs like Terri do not.  Still, Terri knew in her gut that the right thing to do was fight back.

She started by having her attorney draft a cease-and-desist letter.  Unfortunately, it was ignored and Skechers continues to use her trademark, according to the blog.

Terri then turned to her mentor, Savor Magazine editor-in-chief Angela Jia Kim, for advice and this is what Kim told her:

“Terri, what would you advise your daughter? What would you tell her to do if a billion-dollar company used her trademark that she fought for? This is bigger than you, Terri. You will be fighting for so much more than you. This may be your life’s calling. How many of us entrepreneurs back down from bigger companies, more powerful businesses because we don’t have the resources, the energy, or the money to fight them? I’ve been there. So many entrepreneurs have been there. And now you are HERE. You are leading the torch for small companies to stand up for themselves, because having someone else use your Trademark is not fair.”

On May 13, 2015, Terri filed suit against Skechers to protect her trademark.  According to the blog, Skechers said,

“While we ordinarily do not comment on pending litigation, this warrants a response. Skechers categorically denies the allegations, and believes this case is nothing more than an attempt to trade on Skechers’ long track record of success. We look forward to vindicating our position in court.”

Terri Kelly did many things right to protect her intellectual property.  First, she protected her brand by registering for a trademark.  When she learned of the infringement, she took immediate action with a cease-and-desist request.  When that didn’t work, she mustered up her courage and filed a lawsuit to protect her fledgling company.

Terri is also harnessing the power of social media for her cause.  On her blog, she wrote:

“My wallet is very small. But my will is very large. That is my trademark and I am going to fight for it. Please support me by using the hashtags #defendourtrademarks #skechers and send a message to Skecher’s that just because they are big does not mean they have the right to grow their company by using someone else’s idea, which happens to be protected.”

As a result, people have begun boycotting Skechers and even returning products they bought there.  We’ll keep you posted on what happens with this case. In the meantime …

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.

 

 

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.

 

How to Create a Bulletproof Independent Contractor Agreement

One of the most common issues facing small businesses is how to govern relationships with independent contractors (ICs). Which is not really surprising, since many small businesses use ICs to perform critical work functions like website development, marketing, bookkeeping and other important functions that keep your business functioning and growing.

To protect your company’s future, you must have written agreements in place with each IC you hire – yes, even if it is your best buddy from college performing the work. Here are the key terms you want in your IC agreement:

  • Full description of the services being provided by the IC
  • Description of payment terms, including fixed fee or hourly, how and when payment is rendered
  • Description of how out-of-pocket expenses will be handled
  • Detail of what materials or equipment will be furnished by the company vs. what the IC will supply, including office space
  • Statement that agreement constitutes an IC relationship
  • Statement that the IC has the proper licenses and permits to perform the work you are contracting for
  • Statement that IC is responsible for paying their own state and federal income taxes
  • Statement that IC will not receive any benefits you provide employees
  • Statement that IC carries the necessary liability insurance
  • Set terms of the agreement
  • The terms by which the agreement can be terminated by you or the IC
  • The terms by which you and the IC will settle any disputes
  • If applicable, an ownership of intellectual property clause that the work or product you are contracting for belongs to you
  • Indemnification clause that states the IC indemnifies you for any violation of patent, trademark or intellectual property infringement by the IC

We can help you develop a written independent contractor agreement as well as other written agreements you should have in place that govern your relationships with employees, vendors and customers.

Call our office to schedule your comprehensive LIFT™ (legal, insurance, financial and tax) Foundation Audit, so we can advise you on the proper use of written agreements to keep your company protected through effective risk management.

How to Keep Suppliers From Putting Your Business at Risk for a Data Breach

Two major retailers that suffered a major data breach affecting millions of customers – and their bottom lines – have one thing in common: both got hacked through their vendors.

Home Depot’s security system was breached by a hacker that stole credit card details and emails for over 56 million customers. The hacker gained access by using password information belonging to a Home Depot vendor. Target had credit card and personal data belonging to more than 70 million customers stolen after a hacker used the company’s heating and cooling vendor to access Target’s system.

A recent case study by compliance program provider The Red Flag Group in Compliance Insider laid out a six-step process to help companies manage supply chain risk:

  1. Collect data on suppliers. Review and assess each vendor as to performance and business necessity.
  2. Validate your data. Check records and references provided by vendors and interview their staff. Review each vendor’s processes for protecting client data, then assign a risk score based on the data you collected on each vendor.
  3. Rank the risk. Take the knowledge you have gathered and compare the risks against industry data, then rank each vendor as to risk accordingly.
  4. Apply risk management controls. Implement internal and external risk management procedures and policies to ensure ongoing compliance.
  5. Manage the relationship. Create training programs for vendors based on your own compliance program and monitor your transactions with each vendor.
  6. Continuous reporting and monitoring. Document all the information you have obtained in a dedicated “virtual data room” for all suppliers. Build continuous monitoring, review and reporting into your compliance process.

We can help you keep your company in compliance through effective risk management. Call our office to schedule your comprehensive LIFT™ (legal, insurance, financial and tax) Foundation Audit.