Dealing with a copycat is never fun. I’ve dealt with it many times throughout my entrepreneurial career, and continue to.
I remember the first time it happened in my handmade business.
I started sewing mittens using the fabric leftover from the handbags I made.
At the time, I had been in the local craft show circuit long enough to know no one else was selling mittens sewn from fabric. Knitted mittens? Sure. But sewn? No.
I didn’t reinvent the wheel, but my mittens were a unique product at local craft shows, and they were a big hit.
I had them at one craft show when a fellow vendor approached my table to chat. We had been at several events together in the past few months and she had even commented on how great she thought my mittens were.
At this event, she pointed to my mittens and casually mentioned she also started sewing them.
When I visited her table later in the day, I couldn’t believe how similar her mittens were to mine.
I was gutted.
However, she didn’t have my “secret sauce” when it came to making mittens.
My mittens look great from the outside, but that’s not where the best stuff is.
What makes them amazing are:
- The way the fringe along the cuff hangs when the mittens are being worn; something customers don’t notice at first but do when they wear them.
- The incredibly soft fleece I sourced for the lining.
- The hidden elastic in the cuff of the lining that keeps the cold air out, but leaves the outside of the mitten looking sleek.
- The thoughtfully placed seams that make them comfortable to wear (I went through dozens of pattern designs to find one that was easy for me to sew, looked great, and felt comfortable).
- The durable fabric that’s also washable.
All these details and more are what create my “secret sauce”.
And they’re details that aren’t out in the open for copycats to discover; they’re hidden in the layers of my business.
Of course, a competitor could uncover many of my “secret” details, but they’d have to become a paying customer 🙂
Most copycats aren’t willing to do that.
This article will share some tips on how to come up with a recipe for your secret sauce and where you can hide that secret sauce so your business becomes copycat-proof.
Why a secret sauce is important
Let’s be honest. Most of us aren’t reinventing the wheel with our handmade business. We’re selling a product that thousands, if not millions, of others are selling. Most businesses operate this way.
But what makes a new business worthy of customers’ money is the way they sell those products.
Look at how many restaurants there are in your city selling the same product: burgers and fries.
The burger restaurants that have stood the test of time have found a slightly different way of selling the same product as their competitors.
And that way is considered “better” to a select group of people.
(*Remember, you need to know your target market before anything else, that’s the only way you’ll know how to best serve them. Here’s how).
When McDonald’s first hit the scene, they were just another drive-in restaurant.
The people craving a burger and fries had dozens of choices. McDonald’s knew they had to appeal to a specific “want”.
And that was people who wanted a burger and fries fast and cheap.
Just one change set McDonald’s apart and on a path to becoming a multi-billion dollar business.
Every business doesn’t need a multi-billion dollar idea.
But every business does need something that makes them special and worthy of their customers’ money.
And that something special, and the way you incorporate it into your business will make it much harder for others to replicate.
What is a secret sauce?
A secret sauce is different than your signature style; which I covered here.
A signature style is unique, but it’s more easily copied.
On the other hand, people can attempt to copy a secret sauce, but they’ll never be able to figure out the exact ingredients or recipe.
Think of each element of your products and business as an ingredient.
The way you operate your business with those ingredients is what creates your secret recipe.
McDonald’s had similar ingredients to other restaurants:
But they tweaked each one to create a unique recipe:
- Menu – they only offered burgers, fries, soda, and pie to streamline their processes to make food fast and keep prices low.
- Kitchen – they set their kitchen up for efficiency, so they could assemble burgers quickly.
- Cooks – they made burgers ahead of time and used heat lamps to keep them warm. They weren’t trained to make the best burger, they were trained to make the quickest burger.
- Servers – they eliminated servers who delivered food to tables and instead created a self-serve checkout counter.
- Prices – their efficiency, limited menu, and lack of servers allowed them to sell higher quantities and offer lower prices.
All of these elements, and more, came together to create their secret sauce: fast, cheap food.
How to create your secret sauce
To make your business and why people buy from you hard to copy, you need to work on what’s below the surface.
Make a list of all the elements that make up your products and your business. These are your ingredients.
Think about the materials you use, the processes you apply, your labels and packaging, your pricing, etc. Everything that’s required to create a finished product.
As well as the pictures you take, descriptions you write, messages you send, the website you build, etc. Everything that’s required to present and deliver your products to consumers.
Each of these areas is an opportunity for you to apply your creativity and skills and offer something that competitors will have a hard time duplicating.
Consider how you could make each element better and/or different.
Here are a few keys:
1 – Make it Matter
There are a million and one things you could focus on or add to your business. But you should only worry about elements that matter to your target market.
McDonald’s focuses on the details that help them deliver food fast and at an affordable price. That’s their brand and it’s what their customers care about.
People who want a cheap burger and fast aren’t concerned about the way servers describe the food or if the restaurant chairs are comfortable to sit in for hours. Therefore, McDonald’s doesn’t invest much time and/or money in these areas.
>> What matters to your target market?
>> What’s important to your brand?
If your brand is focused on being eco-friendly and your target market values eco-friendly, “eco-friendly” should be at the center of all your business decisions.
Eco-friendly perks should be hidden throughout your business.
For example, let’s say I wanted to start my own fast-food restaurant. There are dozens already out there, and I’d be competing with McDonald’s, but I could create a secret sauce involving “eco-friendly” to make my restaurant different.
I would take the “ingredients” required to run a fast-food restaurant, and inject “eco-friendly” into each of them to create my own recipe.
- Menu – grass-fed beef burgers and vegan options. Ingredients are locally sourced from farms that implement sustainable farming practices.
- Kitchen – solar-powered kitchen, food packaging is biodegradable, each restaurant has a compost bin.
- Cooks – they focus on storing and preparing food in ways that reduce food waste.
- Prices – prices are higher to incorporate the cost of planting trees to offset carbon emissions.
These are all elements that matter to my target market and my brand. And they help me create my business’s secret sauce.
2 – Add Layers
If a secret sauce uses two ingredients and involves two steps, it won’t stay secret very long. The more ingredients, steps, and techniques involved in a secret sauce, the harder it is to replicate.
Your products and business need to have depth.
When you think about your favorite product, is there just one thing you like about it, or is there a list of reasons you can’t live without it?
And when you think about your favorite store to shop in, chances are, you love more about it than just the products they sell.
No detail is too small to consider.
Although McDonald’s may not offer the most comfortable seats in their restaurants, the seats weren’t an afterthought. Plastic seats are cheap, durable, and easy to clean. That leaves more money and time to put towards elements that keep their food fast and cheap.
Give your customers multiple reasons to love your business and layers to discover.
3 – Use your skills
You’re already applying your creative skills and the ones required to make your products (e.g. knitting, sewing, silversmithing, etc.).
But what other skills do you have?
You may be great at speaking, or writing, or graphic design, or organization.
These can all help you create a unique and hard-to-copy business.
>> Speaking skills can be used to create videos and promote your business on YouTube. Or perhaps you’d be comfortable being interviewed on a local TV show to promote your business. Maybe you make toxin-free bath and body products; you could start a podcast covering topics related to toxin-free beauty and clean living. Craft shows may be where you shine; getting to speak to hundreds of shoppers about your products. Or setting up meetings with local boutiques to speak to them about carrying your products.
>> Writing can help you create unique content for your website, send an interesting newsletter each month, and write compelling product descriptions. Instead of getting out there and speaking about your products, you could write blog posts, ebooks, and guest articles for your local paper covering topics closely related to your products. Send thoughtful emails to boutique owners sharing why you think your products would be perfect for their stores.
>> Graphic design skills will set you apart from competitors when it comes to your logo, website design, graphics for social media posts, product labels and tags, etc. You’ll have a leg up when it comes to developing the visual aspect of your brand, as well as creating beautiful lookbooks to send to boutique owners.
>> Organizational skills will help you run a smooth business. Customers love orders that are dispatched quickly. An efficient business is also more profitable, which will help it stand the test of time.
Think about the subjects you excelled at in school, skills you developed in other jobs or careers, and even things people compliment you on. Consider how these (perhaps forgotten) skills can be applied to the products you sell and the business you run.
Take advantage of all of your skills; they’ll help you create a business competitors can’t keep up with.
How to Hide your Secret Sauce
There’s a fine balance between hiding enough of your secret sauce that your business isn’t easily copied, but not hiding it to the point that consumers don’t realize how great your business and products are.
You shouldn’t “hide” your best work out of fear of being copied.
But there may be product details that aren’t obvious at first glance and help create that “wow” factor for paying customers.
What might your customers be delighted to discover once they receive your products in the mail or use them for the first time?
>> These earrings are so light and comfortable.
>> I didn’t realize the scarf’s fabric would be so soft.
>> This picture was so easy to hang, it came with tips and measurements for placement, and a picture hook so I didn’t have to dig in my toolbox.
These are details that only paying customers will realize, while copycats will miss them.
Also remember, customers are paying for more than just your products.
You’re creating an experience for them that makes your products seem more valuable.
Elements that surround your products are a great place to hide your secret sauce.
When you’re served a meal in a restaurant, it’s not just about the food. It’s also the sights, smells, and sounds you experience in the restaurant. The decor, the servers, their uniforms, your interaction with them, the chairs you sit in, and even the street you walk down or the parking lot you park in to get to the restaurant.
Your customers are taking in a lot more than just your products.
At a craft show, it’s your display and the atmosphere you create in your booth, the colors you use, your outfit, your energy, conversations, transactions, shopping bags, marketing material shoppers take home, etc.
These are all places to add another element to your secret sauce.
You also hold a big piece of the puzzle.
Copycats will never be able to get inside your head.
They don’t know where you draw inspiration from, which articles or books you read for business knowledge, what your setup looks like when taking photos or the editing program you use, the process you follow to streamline production, how you keep costs low, etc.
Keep learning ways to improve your secret sauce.
You’ll always stay one step ahead.
Competitors that are willing to steal your ideas are typically looking for quick wins.
They aren’t likely to invest time and/or money into researching your business (some will, but most won’t).
Reserve the best parts of your business for paying customers.
Unless your competitor is willing to email you, read your social media posts, dissect your website, and buy your products, they’ll never get to see why customers love your business.
And even if they are willing to take all those steps to copy you, they’ll never get inside your head or see how you make your products.
So they’ll always be a step behind.
You’ll find more ways to make your business stand out in this article: How To Make your Business Stand Out (in a competitive market)
With all that said, there are elements you may want to copy from your competitors. As explained in this article, they’re best business practices that are followed by many businesses and aren’t considered “secret sauce”. There’s nothing unethical about analyzing your competition.
Hey, I’m Erin 🙂 I write about small business and craft show techniques I’ve learned from being a small business owner for almost 2 decades, selling at dozens of craft shows, and earning a diploma in Visual Communication Design. I hope you find my advice helpful!