“Friends”, Business, and the Art of the Swipe

In the world of business, there is (almost) no such thing as a coincidence. Think it’s just a fluke that the same type of toy is coming out this season from two different manufacturers, or that several different networks seem to have the same show coming out this season? Think again. Chances are, there’s a thief somewhere in the fold. When business theft involves friends, the thought is especially stomach-churning and sad.

Last fall, I posted a personal blog about a certain friendship falling by the wayside, rather mysteriously. To put it briefly, I got a call one day from a “friend” stating that he and his wife were no longer interested in having any sort of relationship with us. After a long conversation wherein I tried to elicit some type of concrete reasons, I could get no further other than some vague words like “You should know, and if you don’t, then that says a lot about you”, and only a bit more revealing, “You do seem to act superior sometimes when it comes to your parenting style.” Superior. Huh. This, coming from a couple who once used the words “parenting gurus” to describe us, and gushed on and on about how we were obviously doing something right with our kids, because they looked up to us and wanted to emulate us as parents. Etc.. Well, this all happened around mid-October. Fast-forward to now, when it suddenly came to my attention that the wife in that couple had stolen a business idea of mine and developed it further, so that everything was in place for her to run it . . . exactly two weeks prior to that phone call.

Let’s back up a bit, and I’ll explain. In November of 2007 (and it pains me to even open up the Word document to confirm the date), I had discussed briefly with her, via phone and e-mail exchanges, the idea of setting up a series of parenting workshops, called “The Natural Parenting Workshops”. The goal was to run a series of classes or talks wherein I could share with new parents, in a circle discussion format, my knowledge of all things to do with natural and attachment parenting. I had already been giving workshops on babywearing, and friends and acquaintances would often ask me, “And what do you think about cloth diapering? Or extended breastfeeding? Or bedsharing? And how about homeschooling? . . . ” So it had seemed natural to me to expand what I was already doing in one area, to include a far-ranging number of related topics, to share with parents who are like-minded. As far as I could tell, I told her (and later, she informed him so that he could be in on the loop) that there was nothing like it out there currently.

 

Initially, I had mentioned all of this to her only because I had wanted to include her as a guest speaker on one topic—not on parenting, but on general healthy healing issues—in which she was taking a class. She being a new parent of a 5-month-old at the time, and still asking me a lot of questions, I felt that the vast contribution of knowledge would come from me, the parent of two children who had done more research. As our discussion went on, she approached me with the idea of giving the talks as “equal” partners (though she suggested in later e-mails that she wouldn’t have time to do much research on her own to add to the partnership, but could “look over” my Word documents and “help edit” what I already had). And I agreed (a bit reluctantly, though I didn’t tell her at the time) to let her in on it equally, because I knew that they were having financial difficulties, and that perhaps this business venture, with little to no investment required on her part, might help get them on their feet.

And here it was, a year later, and she was pulling the rug out from under my feet. Changing the name of the series of workshops, and now positioning herself as some kind of “wise” woman, she was going to run the whole show herself, with nary a mention to (or of) me. Even the space where she was holding it was my idea (initially when we had discussed the possibility of holding some classes in Toronto to be near her, and some classes near me, I had suggested renting this particular Toronto space owned by a friend of hers, and her response was, “Oh yeah, I’m sure that M. would let you. That’s totally the type of thing that she’d be into.”)

So all of a sudden now, it made sense to me. At the back of her (or their mind, collectively), she (they) had already been fermenting this idea of going out on her (their) own and stealing my idea all for herself (themselves). The only step left, in order to clear her (their) conscience—if that was possible—was to make a clean break of the friendship, and hope that I would never find out. Perhaps she (they) had felt justified in doing that because she (they) might have thought, “We’re in dire financial straits, and we need this more than they do.” Perhaps she (they) had thought that since I was advancing so slowly with the idea, that it was now up for grabs to whoever wanted it more and could get it to market more quickly.

 

Perhaps she (they) just hadn’t given a @#*! about the friendship at all in the first place, and was only ever in it to gain as much as she (they) could. After all, as he had put it in that friendship-ending conversation, as if to explain everything, “Well, we weren’t really friends. We just happened to know each other, and then started hanging out together.” This, from a couple who, as mentioned above, called us their “parenting gurus” and picked our brains through every parenting (and sometimes even relationship) trial and tribulation; a couple who registered as a baby shower gift, a baby sling, and when I offered them one simply as a gift, they then asked for two; a couple who subsequently received many more slings, gifts and hand-me-downs from us because we had felt sorry for them and their financial situation, and then proceeded to brag about how much “swag” they received from me. All this, but still, they “weren’t really friends”. Huh.

The funny thing is, the friendship need not have ended over that, if that was what she (they) had felt was the only option. If she had said to me, “I would like to do this on my own because frankly, we need the money more than you do,” I might very well have told them to go forth with my blessing, and with no hard feelings (okay, maybe not, but I like to think that I’m a more generous person than she is). But they hadn’t gone this route. In their mind, the only option was to steal the idea outright, end the friendship, and hope that either I’d never find out, or wouldn’t care, since there was no more friendship to speak of. And the even funnier thing is, although initially I sounded bitter over that loss, I’m so much lighter and happier now that the friendship is over. No, it’s not a sour-grapes attitude; when you have one of those relationships with people who seem to have mood uncertainties (I won’t call them “mood swings” because that sounds so PMS-ish), where one of them often is “in a funk”, so much so that you dread being around them at the wrong time, or saying the wrong thing, it’s better to end it all. A friendship where you have to literally tiptoe around someone, and in the end, it doesn’t even matter because they cut you off at the knees, just isn’t worth having. It took them taking my  idea. to let me finally see the relationship for what it really was.
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The terrible thing is, this isn’t the first time that this type of entrepreneurial backstabbing has happened to me. I once had a business associate from B.C., whom I had met when she was here in Ontario on business, contact me about wholesaling my product. She loved my sling so much, that she thought she could distribute them out there along with her own product, but only if the price were right. When informed about the pricing, she asked me if I could go lower than that, thinking that as a business associate/friend, she could get better pricing. I told her that that was the lowest that I could go, to still comfortably make a profit (after all, feeding my family is more important than pricing to satisfy new “friends”).

 

She then told me to forget it, as she was out in B.C. where there were plenty of “Chinese seamstresses” who could rip my design apart, look at it, and make it for half the price that I was offering. (In the end, she never did that, and went out of business.) I held on to that e-mail for the longest time, in utter disbelief that someone would be so bold as to say to my face that she could steal my idea and re-produce them so cheaply, and that I was no longer needed in the equation.

 

So to be robbed of my idea has happened to me before. But the only difference between then and now, is that then, I saw the knife coming. With friends, you don’t see it. Back then, when I told another friend of mine, another woman in business, she and her husband expressed disbelief as well. As her husband put it so succinctly, “You’d think that being a mom, especially a so-called ‘natural-parenting’ type, she’d have a set of values and ethics that she’d want to pass on to her children.” But not so.

 

Perhaps my parenting-workshop-idea-stealing friend can look at her daughter in the eyes one day when she’s older, and tell her with no shame what she did. Tell her with no shame that this is how you get ahead in the world. Maybe “no ethics” is her new parenting style. The hard lesson, boys and girls, is that in business, ethics fly out the window, even (or especially?) if you’re a mom who has hungry mouths to feed.

 

Years ago, I bought for myself a notepad with the image below as the cover. (Those who know me well, and have seen my notepad, know that it’s totally me: most of the time caring and maternal, but at times, irreverent.) I loved it because to me, it meant, “Just because I’m a mom doesn’t mean that I have to listen to your adult whining and care about you.” I.e. my maternal love and attention doesn’t necessarily have to extend to my adult friends, who can take care of themselves. But now, the word “mom” and the one-finger salute has a whole new meaning to me, in light of how I see moms in business.

just-because-im-a-mom

I haven’t totally given up my idea of the Natural Parenting Workshops. I may get around to it again one day, even if she got out of the gate before I did. The fact that she did this to me pushes me even more to do better. My only consolation in this whole messy affair is that the type of people who steal other people’s ideas don’t get far in life. When you’re short on ideas and skills, you can only get as far as the next stolen idea. Without your own intelligence and ability to rely upon, success is limited.
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As usual, I’m closing comments to this posting, but I’d love to hear anyone’s views on this. (You can e-mail me privately.) Maybe you think that I’m overreacting, and that it truly was after all, just a coincidence. Maybe you think, like me, that mompreneurs can at times be an unethical bunch. Maybe you agree that when it comes to business, there’s no such thing as a “friend”.

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