Help zenbilling find a new name - backstabbed by $85M-in-VC-funding zendesk friends
I just got a letter from my lawyer that zendesk is opposing my trademark application for zenbilling.
In and of itself, it's an annoyance, but it's not something to get worked up about. In the words of Steve Jobs (who was man enough to own his actions), It's not that big of a deal. So I'll change the name. It'll be annoying for a while, not least for my customers, but such is life. You absorb the setbacks and move on.
But I do have a problem with the cowardly way in which zendesk have gone about it - ignoring my multiple attempts at resolving this through common-sense dialog - despite the fact that we've known each other personally for 12 years, despite never having mentioned anything about my business name ever, despite me being a long-time customer, advocate, and despite me helping them land e-commerce juggernaut Gilt Groupe as a client.
Seriously, is this how you conduct business?
Keep in mind that we're not competitors.
Yes, we both use the "zen" moniker as part of our names, yes both are SaaS. But we're not targeting the same customers or solving the same problem.
On the contrary: Both I and many of my customers use zendesk alongside zenbilling. zendesk is helpdesk/support software, which is a very broad market - every company needs customer support. zenbilling is very niche-focused, very targeted, towards info-marketers - people selling online (and offline) courses, e-books, seminars, coaching, and so on. Two completely different markets and problems.
As for imagery, they're using a chinese laughing Buddha (Budai) as an icon (though not their logo). I'm using a maroon-robed Tibetan zen monk (of which I've seen many here in India).
In terms of resources, zenbilling is funded through grit, sweat equity, and profits from both zenbilling itself, personal debt, company debt, family debt, and from the courses, freelance work, and other products I've done over the years. 100% self-funded - 98% of the code base remains written by me, personally.
In contrast, zendesk has received $85M in funding to date, in addition to revenue from tens of thousands of customers. They clearly have the resources on their side.
Again: It's not the trademark dispute I have a problem with. That's just business. They have investors and a board calling the shots, they probably had to do something.
My problem is with their cowardice and their lack of integrity and decency.
Here's the play-by-play:
In 2008 I created an online information product called "Computerzen" (domain name computer-zen.dk (who-is), I later managed to get computerzen.dk, without the hyphen). It taught people how to set up a mailing list using CampaignMonitor, create a digital "freebie" to incentivize people to sign up, create a simple digital product, and sell it using Shopify.
One thing that process taught me was how complicated that all was, both for me selling Computerzen, and for my customers whom I was teaching.
So during that process, the idea of creating my own software to make it all easier was birthed, and in April 2009 the new software took its first orders. Since I'd started with Computerzen, it was natural for me to expand on the "zen" theme and name the software zenbilling, as that was the first part.
Today zenbilling handles three main areas:
- the mailing list of people interested in what you have to offer
- everything related to charging, invoicing, crediting, including super-fance payment schedules
- everything around delivery of digital content, whether one-time or complicated online password-protected sites with discussion forums and stuff.
But it all started with just the billing part - hence the name.
As I added the membership site feature, I also added the name "zenlearn" for those membership sites (spaces).
At some point in 2010, I considered changing the name because I didn't feel like it had the right kind of zing to it, and I felt like the "billing" part was too narrow in focus. But I asked my customers, and they loved the name, so I stuck with it.
Meanwhlie, some of my Danish friends had also created a company, which was also named something with "zen", namely zendesk.
zendesk was founded in October 2007 by CEO Mikkel Svane, CTO Morten Primdahl, and designer Alexander Aghassipour.
I knew Mikkel from back in 2001, where he was CEO of a company called Caput, which, incidentally employed Rails creator David Heinemeier Hansson back in the day. According to David, that company was so awfully run that he learned everything NOT to do from working there.
In 1999-2001 I was living in New York, working for Boston-based ArsDigita. Caput was doing something very similar to what ArsDigita was doing, and so he invited me in for a chat, and we actually became friends, or at least friendly. We had a very wet easter lunch, and Mikkel got seriously drunk in my kitchen at a party once. Good times were had. That was years before Rails or zendesk existed. I met Morten Primdahl at a conference in Berlin, where we naturally bonded as fellow Rails developers.
Fast-forward to 2011. I was starting to get a little bit of traction with zenbilling (total 2011 revenue: $63,649). I divorced my wife of 7 years and left for San Francisco, where I thought I'd live from then on. Morten Primdahl invited me to stay in his apartment, my new girlfriend and I had dinner with Morten and his girlfriend, we hung out. I also had lunch with Mikkel to chat about old times and say hello. All is well.
I even helped Mikkel land Gilt Groupe, the giant e-commerce behemoth, as a major client in 2011. I'm friends with 3 out of 5 members of the original team of Gilt, including the CTO, I made an intro and put in the best word I could (including teaching Mikkel that their name is "Gilt Groupe", not "Gilt Group" - always helps to know the name of the customer you're trying to woo).
Last year I applied for a trademark for the zenbilling name. I was trying to get a visa to the US in 2011, and my strategy was the E-2 treaty investor visa. The main requirement is that you invest between around $60-100,000 in the US business. I was hard-pressed to come up with meaningful things to invest in, but one of the things I did come up with was pre-paying $1200 for a trademark application. We debated what to trademark, but as the deadline was running out (it had to be used within 12 months), I decided to trademark the name of my software, "zenbilling". We filed the application in September 2012.
Then on April 18 of this year, I got word from my lawyer that zendesk had asked for an extension to file a complaint.
Same day I fire off an email to Mikkel, the CEO of zendesk, saying (loosely translated from Danish):
Hey buddy,I hope the shop is still going well - I'm sure it is.I don't know if Morten told you I changed my name, or you've discovered it on your own. I'm the former Lars Pind … read the whole story here: http://bit.ly/NcjcnZAnyway, I see that you have a problem with my trademark application for zenbilling.Is this something we need to talk about?Is your thinking that you own anything with "zen" that's a web-app?Sincerely,-Calvin
Hey MikkelDid you get this email?-Calvin
Yes hello Calvin. Unfortunately, it's a bit complicated. But there will be news from the lawyers shortly.
I guess this should've been a red flag. Hiding behind "the lawyers". Dude, who's the CEO here? "The lawyers"?
I immediately respond:
Hi MikkelGood to hear that we have the connection open.Let's keep the dialog going and see if we can't find a solution.Sincerely,-Calvin
A month later, on May 27, I write:
Hi MikkelAny news in this case?Sincerely,-Calvin
Then again June 12:
Any news, friend?
Still no response.
Then yesterday, June 20th, I get an email from my lawyer that they've filed an official opposition to my trademark.
To say that I'm furious and disappointed is an understatement.
Is this the way you thank people for helping you land big-name clients? Is this how you treat friends?
We've known each other for 12 years. There's no doubt who's the "David" and who's the "Goliath" here. If zendesk chooses to fight this, I'm going to roll over and give up. They have $85M in funding and probably millions in revenue. My revenue in 2012 was only $105,000. I have better things to spend my time and money on than legal fees.
But this just seems completely boneheaded and wrong to me.
I made a friendly approach to Mikkel right away, because I was more than willing to find an amicable solution. And I find Mikkel's non-response cowardly. Heck, even if we weren't friends, the non-response would be an insult.
I was probably prepared to give up the name for a clear and honest explanation and the promise of a glass of Pinot next time I'm in town. But Mikkel wasn't even man enough to answer my emails.
I'll find a new name for zenbilling. It's not the end of the world. I'm definitely NOT going to fight them with their $85M in venture money.
But, geez. Be a decent human being, and treat other people with a little respect, would you?
I've certainly lost all respect for zendesk after this. And clearly won't remain a customer for long.
Here are the documents I've received.