How My Alma Mater Is Killing My Start-up
Two years ago, I had a million-dollar idea. Or at least, a couple-hundred-thousand-dollar idea.
After 22 years of daydreaming about ways to conquer the world, one of my daily brainstorming sessions with two friends over a bottle of wine on my couch yielded gold.
"What about stupid T-shirt ideas, like that guy who made the yellow smiley faces? He's got to have multi-millions," I said.
"What about something for 'Cuse? [my Alma mater] Like syra...juice?" The pondering continued. "Syracuse...syracute...syracutie?"
There was a pause, and then all three of us erupted in laughter. "Oh my gosh, SyraCUTIE—that could actually work!" I was triumphant.
"Yah, but what about for guys?" My friend Tyler interjected. "Syrabooty?"
That night, I mulled over our conversation. Syracutie really could be something. After some market research and trademark investigating, I decided to create my first company.
Everything was going perfectly with my trademark application until I called Syracuse University. "Hello," I greeted the woman on the other line at the campus bookstore. "I have an idea for a t-shirt that I would like to sell to students. Can you tell me the process of getting my idea reviewed?"
The bookstore lady patched me through to Dan*, the university's trademark and licensing director. "So what is this idea you have, Alyson? We have to make sure it doesn't infringe our current trademarks."
"I am in the process of trademarking the word "Syracutie," I confidently reported, "and I was hoping to sell it in SU's bookstore."
To my surprise, Dan was supportive. "That's a great idea, Alyson. I'm an SU grad myself, and I've been working at the university for a long time. I am surprised that hasn't been done before. Your trademark should be safe, I don't think it's an infringement on the university. Let me give you the contacts of all the distributors we use for the campus bookstore.
"There are the big guys like Nike, but we use some local partners," he said. "Contact Dave at Shirtworld, John at Holyshirt, and the owner of Charney's. If any of them are interested in printing Syracutie, they can help you get into the bookstore."
"Be careful," Dan warned. "Some of the vendors are dog-eat-dog, so make sure they know you own the mark. But I think it's a great idea," he continued. "Maybe someday I'll say, 'I remember Alyson,' when you have a line of t-shirts on multiple campuses and make a lot of money."
After a very supportive hour-long call, I was oozing with excitement. Now that I had the school's blessing, Syracutie would undoubtedly work.
The phone call was too good to be true. It was July when I next heard from Dan, and that conversation left me in an entirely different emotional state.
There was only one day to go before Syracutie was legally mine and that's when my cell rang. Noting the 315 number on my phone, I slipped away from my cubicle to take the call.
"Hey Alyson, I have a bit of bad news," Dan said. "We're being advised by our lawyers to oppose your trademark application. They think it's too close to the university's name."
I stood in the hallway, shell-shocked. "But I don't understand, last time we spoke you were so supportive. You even told me that you didn't think Syracutie was an infringement..."
"I know, but I'm afraid our lawyers think otherwise. Normally we wouldn't even call the person to give them a heads up about an opposition, but since you and I talked before, I wanted to give you the courtesy."
"If I'm being granted this trademark though," I protested, "then USPTO doesn't 'think Syracutie is an infringement. And Syracutie doesn't need to have any campus relevance, although I'd like to sell it to students. It's really based on the name of a town, which preceded the university."
Ignoring my reasoning, Dan marched on. "Our lawyers are recommending that you assign the trademark to us."
"Would I be compensated?"
"No, I don't believe you would be."
A multitude of emotion washed over me, from confusion, to hurt, to rage. "I just don't understand why you have to do this, and why I should be expected to cough up my idea for free. I was really excited to work with you and bring my brand to SU. I though I had your support..."
"Again, I'm sorry, Alyson. We're just trying to protect the school. Unfortunately, you'll need to let us know your decision by tomorrow, otherwise we'll have to file the opposition."
The conversation ended, and I was left clutching my phone to my chest, completely crushed.
Unsure how to handle the sour situation, I turned to friends and advisers for help. "SU alumni needs your help by EOD tomorrow! Trademark issue," I titled my email and marked it urgent. "I've purchased the trademark for the word Syracutie. Tomorrow, the school is going to oppose my application if I don't agree to hand over the rights to the mark. They are not willing to pay me for it. My question is this: do you think they legally have the right to my trademark based on their current portfolio of brands? Would they win an opposition, and should I just give in? I'm only 23, and I don't know enough about law to determine what move I should make. Any advice you could offer would be greatly appreciated."
The response I had was tremendous. Advisers forwarded my plea on and rounded up a dozen opinions. Some were passionate; others were factual. All of them had a common conclusion: "Don't give up! Syracutie is a reference to the town, and the school doesn't own that."
With that, I decided to hold strong and let the school file the opposition. It wouldn't cost me money, at least not at first. For all intents and purposes, the mark was mine to use in the meantime. The next day, I sent the most lawyery-sounding email I could muster and declined the school's offer.
SU filed for an opposition and was granted 3 months to state their case. The first two months passed without a peep from the school. They filed no paperwork and did not contact me. Caught in a limbo of uncertainty, I finally broke down and emailed Dan on Labor Day weekend.
"Hi Dan," I kept the email cheery. "I hope you've been well! I wanted to know if you had a chance to discuss with your lawyers anything about the opposition, or if you'd be willing to work out an agreement. I would still very much like to work together with the school. Please let me know where things stand when you get a moment."
A few days later I received a brief response. "Hi Alyson, yes, we'd like to work out an agreement. I'll have our legal counsel follow up with you."
After that, I literally did not hear anything from the university. November 15 came and went and the chance to oppose had come and gone. "Syracutie is mine!!" I triumphantly bragged on my Facebook status. In January, I received my official trademark notification.
With new found confidence, I planned a trip to campus to meet with the Syracuse lawyer. He handed me paperwork to sign that suggested a very strict, non-flexible plan: I could be the exclusive licensor of Syracutie, (which would mean no one could use that word without my consent, even the university). In exchange, I'd have to hand over my trademark for free. So no money upfront, possibly a lot of money with a lot of work down the road, but no opportunity to sell my mark or license it out.
When I asked him what would happen if I didn't agree, he said the school could sue me, or at the very least cancel the trademark. Now I may not know a lot about law, but I know doing either of those things would be much more expensive than simply buying me out.
For months, I've weighed the pros and cons of SU's offer. If I take SU's deal, I'll have to turn myself into a full-blown distributor, without being able to reap the easy benefits of licensing my mark, which was my plan all along.
Since New York City is a four hour drive from campus, a licensing deal is the easiest way for me to profit and move the business along. Keep in mind, I have a full-time job, and this was always meant to be a side business; an initial entrepreneurship endeavor.
After all, if I can't master a T-shirt company, what on earth can I possibly accomplish as an entrepreneur? My thinking is not much, which is downright depressing.
While I debate the school's less-than-compelling offer, I've been selling women's and children's clothing online and getting a few sales per month. Still, it's not as many as I could be selling if I could work with the university. Plus, without an agreement from the school, I'm afraid to use the colors blue and orange, which would sell the shirts 100 times better (see LSU vs. Smack Apparel; it ruled colors in the school's favor).
I know getting the shirts in the bookstore is the key. And I know there's interest. The bookstore buyer told me she wants to carry Syracutie clothes, but I have to work out a deal with the university first.
And it's not budging.
I've tried local, non-university affiliated stores too, but they're all scared of the university. If they enrage SU, their profits will all but vanish. In the town of Syracuse, the school wields all the power.
Until I agree to cave to the university, I am being silenced to death. I've sent at least a dozen emails and made numerous phone calls, all of which have been ignored by the school's lawyer. When I reach out to Dan now, he says he's unable to speak with me for legal reasons.
Another opportunity has presented itself, though. I've received a verbal offer outside of the university for my trademark. We've discussed a flat cost, plus a small life-time royalties percentage. This certainly would be the easiest route to take, but then I would feel like I hadn't done any work, and hadn't really grown a business myself.
By now, I've received my beautiful, official, trademark certificate in the mail. But it doesn't make me as happy as I thought it would because I am truly stumped about the future of my business.
Do I sell my company in its very early state and, in a sense, admit defeat? Do I give the university my trademark and become the sole licensor? Or do I hold strong and keep trying to sell Syracutie myself?
At this point I'm feeling pretty defeated.
*Names have been changed.
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