How to Protect Yourself as a Small Company: Lessons learned from a designer/entrepreneur

Guest blog by Matthew McCormick, Principal & Owner, Matthew McCormick Studio

As a young designer starting out and building my company, I’d say that I ventured into manufacturing without a great deal of knowledge. In hindsight, it was perhaps with a very naive approach that has since turned into one of the most valuable learning experiences in my career to date.

From knockoffs to patents, from manufacturing to marketing, there is a lot that young designers have to learn. So how to successfully navigate these industry challenges? Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

1. Protect yourself from copycats

After we had what I thought was a solid  agreement, one of the first fabricators I used out of Vancouver eventually claimed that the products I designed belonged to them, took much of my original ideas, and attempted to pass them off as their own. It quickly became clear that business relationships require legal protection. The experience not only tarnished the partnership, but also catapulted me into learning how protecting your ideas — the crux of all good design — is the most important part of being a successful designer and business.

In the world of design, we know that imitation can be commonplace, especially as notoriety grows. It can also be difficult for small companies and independent designers to legally challenge cases of infringement. Therefore, my philosophy has somewhat evolved: when you don’t have time to compete with the knockoffs, fine tune who you are selling to and refine the product to where it simply can’t be beat in quality, craftsmanship and marketability.

2. Register your intellectual property

From a technical perspective, it’s also critical to protect yourself right from the beginning by registering your design*. In addition, make sure you have Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) in a situation where you’re collaborating with others. That way, you’ve created a legal obligation to privacy between all parties involved; it’s protection that should be standard fare in your business process. You probably also want to become well-versed in your intellectual property (IP) rights: sometimes, investing a bit of money into hiring an IP lawyer will help get you educated on the topic, thus preventing headaches in the long run.

3. Make the industry aware

In addition, become active in any other strategies available to protect you, especially once your product becomes widely available in the marketplace. Raise awareness around the importance of original design, becoming part of organizations like Be Original Americas — a proactive way to publicly name those who copy your design. You may also want to elevate your branding or invest in marketing and public relations which all use the power of endorsement. Don’t be shy: share your products with the world.

4. Build a strong team

Aside from the technical stuff and learning how to listen to your gut instinct (which, I’ve learned, is the most telling), I leave you with what I feel is most important advice as an entrepreneur: surround yourself with good people. You won’t have time to question the integrity of your manufacturers, employees and consultants when you’re in the thick of growing your company. Today, I am proud to say that I work with a team of professionals that truly support each other, recognizing the unique roles we each play. With these like-minded folks on my side, I know we will continue to bring life to original ideas that turn into tangible products, levelled by a layer of trust that is the fabric of our partnership.

Got more advice for young or new business owners in the design industry? Share in the comments!

*How to register your design

To protect your designs or products, you’re more likely to need what’s known as “design registration” or “design patent”. This mainly covers the look and aesthetics of your design like its shape, contour, lines, color, texture, etc. Its coverage varies depending on the country of registration. In Europe, for instance, design registration lasts for 25 years, but Canada protects you for 10 years, and the U.S. for 14 years.

When registering your product in Canada, it’s important to make sure that you file for registration within 12 months of going public. However, you can apply to register your industrial design at any time as long as your design has never been published before (i.e. you have never made it available to the public). Sign and date all your work as it will help with the registration process later.

To register your product in Canada:

Canada Intellectual Property Office

U.S. registration:

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Matthew McCormick Studio is a lighting design company based in Vancouver, Canada and a proud member of Be Original Americas. Inspired by shape and form, each of their creations comes from a well-informed vision, technical understanding, and a passion for the design process. Find out more about the studio here.


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