Man with a Van co-founder Tim Bishop says he can understand why every internet startup these days chooses a nonsensical or misspelt business name.
Bishop, who told SmartCompany he is now hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket from fighting trademark battles with companies with similar monikers, says he may have thought twice about naming the business so generically if he knew what was to come.
“The name has been a double-edged sword,” Bishop told SmartCompany.
“On one hand it’s easy to remember. On the other hand, its generic nature makes it too easy to steal and rip-off.”
Bishop says he thought of the name after reading The E Myth by Michael E. Gerber, with the idea in mind to keep things simple and “do one thing and do it well”.
With a simple expression, combined with a rhyming couplet, Bishop thought he was on to a winner.
“You pull up to the lights in the van and you always see children reading – it’s almost pleasurable to say,” he says.
But Bishop says as soon as Man with a Van, a company that now turns over more than $7.5 million annually, started to gain momentum “inferior” copycat companies were quick to rip-off the name and branding.
“They saw our vans multiply and lots of different people jumped on the bandwagon,” he says.
Enter the internet
Bishop says the issue worsened with the rising prominence of Google AdWords, making it easier for other brands to add the words ‘man with a van’ into their website descriptions to confuse one business with another.
“Once upon a time it didn’t matter… But now with the internet – if you’re searching for one, you’ll find the other,” he says.
“They’d use different plays on words, to try and get as close they could in the title – ‘we have a man and van’, ‘there are two men with vans’.”
Currently, searching in Google for the words ‘Man with a Van’ returns at least five different businesses on the first page of results alone.
“We got lawyers on board, but people realised pretty quickly they could just use ‘man with a van’ on their website and Google would pick it up. They didn’t need to use our name in the title, they could just use it in their keywords,” Bishop says.
At first, Bishop says Man with a Van started to post its own Google AdWords, so the business would sit up the top of the results page next to their competitors, alongside a warning to customers: “We’re the original, beware of imitators.”
“We did for a while, but we got tired of giving money to Google when they wouldn’t help protect our trademark,” says Bishop.
“We just started focusing on our SEO.”
Too many men with vans
But trying to negotiate with Google was just the tip of the iceberg, with Bishop revealing he’s entered into legal disputes with a number of other small removalist businesses.
Bishop says he exchanged legal letters with who he believes is the worst offender, That Van Dude.
“That guy was the most blatant,” Bishop says.
“People have said they’ve been ‘inspired’ by us, but he ripped us off completely – the website, the copy, the logo. It was blatant.”
That Van Dude eventually changed its branding, according to Bishop, and subsequently sold the business. The new owners did not return SmartCompany’s requests for comment.
But to complicate matters further, Bishop admits Man with a Van was not the first to coin the phrase.
In fact, Michael Cummins, who owns and operates Man and His Van in Sydney, had registered the trademark for his business in 1993.
“Man and his Van has existed longer than us, but we didn’t know about them when we started,” Bishop says.
“We found out when we were trying to register the trademark nationally.”
The two businesses have since reached an understanding, with Cummins owning the trademark to ‘Man and His Van’ nationally, and Bishop owning ‘Man with a Van’ in Victoria. SmartCompany contacted Cummins but he declined to comment further on the matter.
But Bishop says limiting the trademark for Man with a Van to Victoria has put a limit on his company’s growth.
The impact on business
Bishop estimates Man with a Van has lost “countless jobs” to competitors through customers searching for his business and landing upon another.
“We’ve definitely lost credibility too,” he says.
“It’s frustrating when we get a call from an upset customer because they think we haven’t turned up to their move or they’ve had a bad experience, and they’ve assumed it’s us.”
And aside from the financial factor, Bishop says fighting copycats also takes an emotional toll.
“A lot of your identity becomes tied up in your business, so it’s a bit like having an identity crisis when you see other people pretending to be you, it’s like seeing an imposter,” he says.
Bishop says the issue has now gone global, with a ‘Man with a Van’ business operating in South Africa.
A Google search also throws up prominent results for ‘Man with a Van’ businesses across the USA.
“We’re also regularly pulling down our logo on gumtree ads in Ireland too,” he says.
Bishop’s advice for other entrepreneurs
Bishop’s advice to any business that is the victim of copycat businesses is to seek advice about intellectual property as early as possible.
“Also, try to nail down all of your intellectual collateral as quickly as possible, your Facebook and Twitter,” he says.
And while he says he’s spent hundreds of thousands on seeking professional legal advice, Bishop believes the best counsel he received was for free from IP Australia.
“Leverage the free resources available at IP Australia – they are very helpful,” he says.
“We’ve spent countless dollars on all sorts of legal firms but the best advice was from IP Australia for free.”