I’m currently reading Jamie Kern Lima’s Believe IT: How to Go from Underestimated to Unstoppable. I browsed through the Kindle book store the other night and decided I wanted to read something inspirational. Something that would align well with my recent journey of self-discovery and female empowerment. I didn’t know Jamie Kern Lima, and I had never heard about IT Cosmetics. If this revelation makes it sound like I live under I rock, I don’t. I live ON a rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean where there are no QVCs and Sephoras. As a female founder, I’m drawn to stories of other female founders, so with Amazon’s dangerous one-click-purchase, this book magically appeared on my Kindle.
Quick sidebar: I probably should have done some more research because I now see that this book is listed on Amazon under the category Christian Books and Bibles -> Christian Living which does explain all the God references. I have nothing against people that have faith, I even envy them of it sometimes, as long as they are not shoving it down my throat or using it to deny others of basic human rights or important healthcare. I haven’t finished the book but so far at least, the frequent references to higher powers don’t bother me or take away from the story. I reserve the right to change my mind once I finish it, though.
In one of the early chapters, Jamie shares a story of how a competitor ripped off one of her products and sold it as their own. The story serves as a reminder of how important it is to be authentic in what you do and true to your brand because despite being much larger than IT cosmetics at the time, and with better distribution channels and greater marketing power, the stolen product from the competitor never gained any traction.
I connected with this chapter because I know from my own experiences how much of yourself you put into your products as an entrepreneur. The first time someone walked out of one of my walking tours, I cried. Not after the tour, once I had said goodbye to the other guests, but in the middle of it. I had spent so much time and energy on building this product that even though I had no idea why the people left the tour (maybe one of them had diarrhea in which case I’m glad they left) it felt like a deeply personal rejection. I was quick to bounce back though and the remaining guests and I ended up laughing and making jokes about it.
When I had been doing my tours for a while, quite successfully might I add, I was approached by someone I really looked up to who asked if I wanted to grab some coffee. This person had a bit of a rock-star status in my mind so I was thrilled to get a chance to meet them and pick their brains. As it turned out, this person was starting a tour business of their own and wanted me to come and do tours for them. I politely told them that I was doing more than OK for myself on my own but showed interest in cooperating with them in other ways.
A few weeks after this meeting, I noticed that their company was advertising a walking tour that was identical to mine. Not only that, they had stolen the description word-for-word of my website. Around the same time, I noticed a strange booking come in for the walking tour that made me investigate the people who booked further. It turned out that the booking had been made with the credit card of my rock-star’s business partner. So not only were they ripping my copy off, but they were also sending people on my tour to steal its content. I told my guides to do as bad of a tour that day as they could get away with, without compromising the value delivered to the other guests, so we wouldn’t give away all our magic.
I called the falling rock-star up and told them what they were doing was not cool. They first denied it, then blamed it on a staff member that didn’t know any better, told me it was my fault because I had turned them down and finally said that was all a big misunderstanding and that I was being irrational. Gaslight much? They basically told me all is fair in business and that I should grow up.
Second sidebar: Over the years, I’ve been called emotional by men on several occasions. I can’t think of a more patriarchal douchebag comment a man can make to a woman in a business environment than calling her “too emotional”. Just because toxic masculinity has ruled the business world since the first man discovered his penis, it doesn’t make the way I express my ambition, drive and how much I care any less valid. Oh and saying something is legal even though it’s unethical doesn’t make it right!
Like with Jamie Kern Lima’s competitor, this tour never got any traction. They did many different versions of it but because it was so poorly organized (they kept leaving guests behind that we then had to help) and because unlike us, they were doing this for the profits and not the passion, it kind of fizzled. This interaction with the now-former rock-star was my first tough business lesson. Some people are nice to your face and then stab you in the back if it serves their business goals.
The more important takeaway, one that I wish I had been more aware of at the time because it would have saved me immense emotional turmoil, is that people can steal your ideas but they’re not you. They don’t know what you’ll do next, what brilliant idea you’ll come up with to improve upon the stolen product and just because something works for your brand, it won’t necessarily work for theirs.
This rhymes well with everything they teach you in business school. When discussing differentiation (like in Porter’s What is strategy? From HBR) all the experts say the same: Processes, price strategies, and organizational efficiency can be copied – company culture and DNA can’t. Or at least it’s harder to emulate. The same applies in the school environment: I gladly share my notes and hard work with other students because I am the one who did the work, made connections in my brain and took the time to understand the ideas. Notes are just notes. Not to mention the fact that it doesn’t diminish my achievements in any way if somebody else does well too. You know, just as long as they don’t steal my papers and hand them in as their own.
It’s easy to see the mistakes you made or situations you could have handled differently in retrospect. Going through them and making sense of them is an important process, though, because if you don’t learn from your mistakes you just keep on doing them over and over again. It’s tempting to feel embarrassed, angry or even disappointed in yourself in hindsight but it’s not helpful. What I try to remember instead is that if I hadn’t made the mistakes, I also wouldn’t have learned the lessons I took from them. Lessons that are important for whatever comes next.
Believing in yourself and knowing your worth is probably your strongest asset as an entrepreneur. I’m not talking about arrogance or being cocky but just the assurance that you know who you are, where you’re your going and why. Things you cannot control will happen. Dishonest people will break your trust or the competition will just outsmart you from time to time. But it will only break you if you allow it to.