Yesterday I chose to go public with a story about a trademark dispute between zendesk and my company, zenbilling.
It was a difficult decision to make, so I thought I’d share what went on before and after here.
Apart from the trademark dispute, which is what it is, what upset me is process. I feel like we should be able to just talk about this directly. zendesk apparently prefers to let lawyers do the talking.
In my experience, lawyers rarely add anything productive. They’re necessary, but most lawyers are trained to look for all the reasons not to get things done, all the things that can go wrong. They also know which side their bread is buttered on, so will usually do what they can to drag things out as long as possible by, among other things, producing as much paperwork as possible.
Also, I’ve always admired business people who don’t hide behind lawyers, legalese, obtuse language, and other forms of obfuscation.
Steve Jobs’ candidness, both on stage and in interviews, and his late-night emails – were so refreshing. Just because we put on a suit (or not) and put ourselves inside the legal structure that is a corporation doesn’t mean we should stop talking plainly. Nothing is so complicated it can’t be clearly explained. If you can’t articulate it clearly, it’s because you’re either hiding something or you don’t understand it properly.
Same goes for Larry Ellison and his company, Oracle. Time and again they put out press releases that are actually clear, plain-spoken, honest, courageous, and frequently even funny. I love that. Makes the other people (I’m looking at you, HP!) look like fools in comparison (which they generally are).
It takes guts to talk like that. It’s so much easier to hide behind layers of obfuscating words. There are so many stakeholders, there are things you cannot reveal because of contractual or verbal agreements. How do you respect that and still talk in plain language? It’s not easy. But life wasn’t supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to make us stretch and reach and grow.
I also believe that everything that happens is a reflection of me somehow. It’s something I created, and must take responsibility for.
Isn’t it curious that this isn’t the first time I’ve unknowingly stepped on someone’s trademark? In 2011 when I created my LLC, it was called Fearless Entrepreneurs. Turned out someone had the trademark on “Fearless Entrepreneur” (singular), and asked me to change the name. We were even sharing the same co-working space, “The Hub” on Mission St. in San Francisco!
They sent me a friendly email pointing out the problem. I replied back immediately, apologizing and saying that of course I’d change the name. Can I get a few weeks to come up with a new name and get everything straightened out, please? They were totally cool and friendly about it, I changed the name I used for my blog to Conscious Startups, and that was the end of that.
As for the LLC, it took me a bit longer. I wanted it to be TrueCorp, but you can’t use “corp” in the name of an LLC, even when it’s not a word by itself. I wasted a bunch of time trying to get that through. (I know have TrueCorp, Inc.)
In the meantime, I’d shifted to focus more on the software over the teaching, and since the software was named zenbilling, it seemed safer and more logical to name the company zenbilling LLC.
And now that apparently has trademark issues as well. Bugger!
So an obvious question is, how come I’m attracting trademark problems twice in a row for this particular LLC?
The first time, I wasn’t aware that that was something to worry about. The second time I was obviously aware of zendesk, but given how common “zen” is, and given there wasn’t any plagiarism going on, I didn’t think it was going to be a problem.
A big concern about going public with the story was my emotions around it.
When I got word through my lawyer rather than direct from CEO Mikkel, even though we’d been friends, and been in contact about the issue, I got angry. I felt betrayed. I felt disrespected. I felt like talking to a pillow. You think you can talk to a real human being and sort things out, but the other person is hiding, avoiding your gaze. That’s a feeling I know very well growing up. I felt that way often, both with my parents, with teachers, and with classmates.
So the thought came up … okay, I clearly have a reaction here. So does that mean it’s all a projection? Does it mean I should just chill, heal/feel my emotions and let it go?
What I concluded was that, yes, allowing myself to fully feel those emotions is always a good idea. And “letting it go” in the sense of not being attached to my anger, my feeling of betrayal, my feeling of helplessness, my feeling of being unfairly treated, is clearly a good idea.
But that doesn’t imply that I shouldn’t speak up. It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t say things the way I see them. If having feelings meant you cannot speak up, we’d not have anyone to speak up against anything. We need people to speak up.
It could also be a way to generate some PR. Then again, it probably wouldn’t attract the kind of audience that I’m looking for, and is this the kind of thing I want to be known for? Probably not.
I also felt fear. Could they retaliate? They have a truckload of resources, I have very few. Could they somehow make me pay, bankrupt me, make me lose my company, my business, my product? I don’t understand law well enough to know whether they could or not. I suspect they could if they wanted to. They could always set aside a mere million to throw some frivolous lawsuit after me, and I wouldn’t have the resources to defend myself and so would end up bankrupt or having to settle on whatever terms they offered.
And, hey, I could be wrong about the whole issue. Maybe I simply don’t “get” how business is done. Of course two CEO’s can’t talk about things directly. I think that’s a ridiculous idea, but the thought came up.
So yes, I could come up with plenty of reasons to “suck it up” and be quiet about the whole thing. Or just sulk and be angry and take it out on my spouse or kids or some local Indian rickshaw driver, perhaps. That clearly doesn’t sound like a great strategy. :)
In the end, I decided this was about speaking my truth, plain and simple. This is how I see things. Let me put it out there for people to agree or disagree with.
It was a tough choice. I’m afraid of a backlash. I’m afraid there’s some angle I’ve overlooked. I’m afraid it’s going to turn out that it’s just me being silly, overreacting, childish. Maybe I’m going to end up deeply regretting this.
After posting, I’ve had huge “transparency hangovers”, something that’s given me ample opportunity to feel a bunch of old feelings.
So many things in our lives we don’t do because we’re afraid of feeling certain feelings. This has certainly allowed me to feel a lot of feelings I didn’t want to feel :)
Feelings such as embarrassment, feeling stupid for overreacting, sadness, fear, aloneness. But also love and aliveness. It feels like there are areas in my body that have been dead for a while haven have now gotten a bit of life kicked into them again, and the experience isn’t all pleasurable, but not all bad either.
I can feel the source of the tug-of-war within me to on the one hand post this, and on the other hand convince myself not to post it. These are some interesting feelings!
It all reminds me of a recent conversation I had with Gay. I shared that I was afraid that I was just a cliché – having left my wife and children and moved to India with a new young wife, bought a motorcycle, a sports car, at the tail end of my 30s … such a cliché. To which he responded: “Yes, and so take a moment to embrace the fact that you’re one big cliché, and love yourself right through it.” It took the sting out of being a cliché. So i’m a cliché, so what? There’s a reason a cliché becomes a cliché … because it has truth.
I’m thinking of that feeling as I’m experiencing these feelings right now. So yes, I’m wounded and hurt and scared shitless, I feel betrayed, I clearly overreacted and crossed some form of line when I chose to take this dispute public. And I’m working on loving myself right through all of that. So I overreact sometimes. So what? I can still love myself. (And, by the way, who gets to define what’s the appropriate reaction? Who has that authority? I do. For me. And you do. For you. That’s who.)
If we can’t ever allow ourselves to overreact, then we’re not free to react appropriately and authentically, because we have to ensure we always stay well within the line.
Life’s challenging and exhilarating. Enjoy!