If your business is relatively new, the fact that things have gone well so far is no guarantee of long-term success.

To solidify your place in your industry and continue to grow, you must have a strong competitive edge--something that truly sets you apart from others in your field.

A competitive edge may take any of several forms--and it certainly helps to hold several of them. Examples include:

  • having superior knowledge or expertise about a product or service in your field and being well- known for it;
  • offering a product or service that others can't easily duplicate or imitate;
  • delivering your product or service more quickly and efficiently than others;
  • having a superior location, one more convenient to your customer base or better able to attract and serve customers; and
  • offering superior customer service and gaining a reputation for doing so.

Does your company have a competitive edge? That's step one, of course. But having that edge isn't enough. The key is to hold that edge--because someone is certainly trying to take it from you.

One way you can maintain your competitive edge is to carefully safeguard your trade secrets. It might be the idea that gave your business a start, technical information on how something works, or even be information about what not to do.

Trade secrets include:

  • customer lists
  • marketing strategies
  • manufacturing techniques
  • cost and pricing information
  • computer algorithms
  • new inventions for which patent applications haven't yet been filed
  • recipes
  • survey methods

Unlike patents, trademarks and copyrights, trade secrets aren't registered with the government. That means there are legitimate ways for them to become known. For example, someone could "reverse engineer" your formula or process to find out what ingredients your product contains and in what amounts. Once your trade secret becomes public, protection is gone.

That's why you must do your best to safeguard your secrets. Here are four basic steps you can take:

  • Label sensitive documents as "Confidential."
  • Use secure passwords that change frequently and require two-step verification, plus encryption to protect data in your computers.
  • Limit those in your organization who have access to your information, and require that all employees who have access sign nondisclosure and non-compete agreements.

Should you lose your competitive edge, act quickly to regain it. Change your location, introduce new products or services, find a better way to distribute them, or alter your pricing. Recovery can be costly and inconvenient, but they're necessary if your company is to regain its standing.