OtterBox's CEO talks about a lesson he learned the hard way after expanding his business overseas.
Ideally, the first steps to becoming a global brand start well before product or people are in-market. But protecting innovations across the globe is tricky and expensive, so it often does not become priority until it's too late.
OtterBox is all about protection--that's what we do. When it came to going global, however, we weren't as diligent in protecting our brand as we were in protecting mobile technology. We are well covered today, but that is because of a lot of hard work, long hours, and not insignificant expense.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have invested earlier in filing for trademarks and patents in all regions we operated. With different rules, regulations, and processes in nearly every country, the complexity and expense of protecting intellectual property globally can be paralyzing to a young, growth-stage company, but the potential harm is much more costly.
Trademark protections should be filed as soon as possible. Apple suffered from a trademark loophole with the iPad recently. Earlier this year, the company shelled out $60 million to settle a dispute with Shenzhen Proview Technology over who owned the iPad name. Apparently, Apple thought it had purchased the rights through a U.K.–based subsidiary of Proview, but Proview argued the sale was not authorized. This example illustrates just how choppy the waters of global brand protection can get.
In retrospect, OtterBox could have been more proactive in registering our trademarks outside of the United States. Trademark and patent protections should be set up in any country in which a product is being sold and manufactured. There is some relief, though; a single process for trademark registration in Europe will cover you in about 25 countries (Norway and Switzerland, for some reason, do not participate in this program).
The latter is especially true for China, where the boom in manufacturing significantly outpaced regulations to protect intellectual property, resulting in a booming counterfeit and infringement industry. If you haven't already, file for protections in China. Given that it is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, you'll probably be there in some fashion at some point in the future.
Another area that doesn't fall into IP but is related to brand protection is domain names. It is relatively inexpensive and easy to secure domain names for your brand--otterbox.ie, for example. It's so simple to do that some people have made a business out of grabbing domains and selling them to brands.
Filing for trademarks and patents is only a part of the battle; enforcement is an entirely different story. However, the process of making your company as strong globally as it is at home starts with what you most want to maintain and protect--the brand.
OtterBox founder and CEO CURT RICHARDSON created the first prototype of a waterproof case in his garage in the early '90s. OtterBox evolved into a leader in protective cases for mobile technology. @OtterBox