How to avoid pirates when looking for a vendor or partner

Pirates are everywhere.

No, not the Johnny Depp kind of pirates. These seafaring folk with ill intent will copy literally anything, if you set it down and look away for a minute.

Fashion, electronics, artwork and, of course, business services. Unable to compete on quality, they offer something they tout as being “close” or even “equal” to the main player in the category and they dangle a low price in front of the prospect’s eyes hoping that will get the target to say, “This is close enough.”

How much of a problem is this kind of piracy?

The February 27, 2017 issue of INC. reported that The Commission on the Theft of Intellectual Property estimates the losses range from $225 to $600 billion a year. Losses on trade secrets alone range from $180 to $540 billion. That’s “billion.” With a “b.”

And that was 2017. It’s likely much worse here in 2020.

It happens in our business, too. As the leader in public school stakeholder research, Patron Insight always has a target on its back. In a way, that’s OK. It forces us to keep innovating. To keep staying close to client needs. To regularly evaluate what’s working and what could be better.

But, like in your business, it can be frustrating at times. You know where you lead the marketplace and you cringe at the thought of someone claiming that position – particularly if the only thing they have to offer is a modestly lower fee for what they call “the same product.”

We live in caveat emptor (“Buyer beware”) times, now more than ever. Before you make a major buying decision regarding a vendor, consider the following:

  • Are their claims provable? It’s easy to say that the company has X level of experience in what you need, if they just get a little squishy with the numbers. There’s nothing wrong with asking them for references from A, B, and C companies on the list of clients they provide. If they can’t produce a list or hedge when you ask, be suspicious.
  • Who from the company has the expertise you need and will they, personally, be working on your project?Farming out pieces of a project is a great way for small businesses to focus. But if they take the attitude of, “Sell it, and we’ll find someone who can do it.” you should run the other way. You want to work with someone who understands you needs, because he or she has handled similar needs for other clients and done so successfully.
  • Are they talked about in your circles? In the research work we do for school districts, “Friends and neighbors” or “Word of mouth” is almost always the number one source of information about a district. If nobody you know is talking about the company trying to win your business, beware.
  • Do the principals share their knowledge? More than just a LinkedIn post – like this one! – do they speak at conferences, attend community meetings and generally lend their expertise where and when they can? Doing so is part of good corporate citizenship and, for them, a valuable business building tool. For example, our Small School District Initiative will to be providing no-fee research this fall to 14 school districts who each have fewer than 5,000 students – meaning they likely couldn’t afford to do research with their community otherwise.
  • Do their services produce results? At Patron Insight, we do a lot of pre-election research, helping school districts plan for ballot issues that may include a tax increase. We measure our success on the accuracy of our research – from the point of the survey to election day – which is 97% — and on the new tax revenue districts were able to generate from these elections, which stands at $7.2 billion (again, with a “b”). If a company says they produced X results, ask them under what circumstances? Who was involved? Was it here, at the current company, or at a previous employer?

Again, you can probably tell a fake Kate Spade handbag from a real one. (OK, some people might be able to, but not me.) But it’s a little more difficult to find the pirates in your business dealings. Asking these questions should help you stay safer in the choppy waters of commerce.