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Start early to safeguard intellectual property, advise Living Large subjects


Some advice received in the early years of launching her business has proved invaluable for Lani Dolifka, as she’s grown the drive-up drinking water kiosk and ice franchise founded with husband Don in 1984 to nearly 1,000 company and 310 franchise locations.

“Back then, when we were literally in our garage, we got good advice from an attorney who said even if you’re small you want to get protections for your brand,” says Dolifka, CEO of Colorado-based Watermill Express. Those early protections included federal trademark registration (Dolifka has since added international protection) and patents for Watermill’s proprietary purification system and other technologies.

With so many unique components to that purification system, Dolifka was selective in choosing the items for which to apply for a patent, opting for those that differentiate Watermill Express from other self-serve water refill stations.

Lani Dolifka

“From a consumer perspective, when they know something’s been patented, they know
it has value.” — Lani Dolifka, Watermill Express

For example, she says, “we have a patent on our self-cleaning dispenser, which is what ensures when a customer gets water, they’re getting it from a sterilized component.” While the patent process is expensive and involves paying attorney fees in addition to the cost of the various filings, it’s well worth the price tag not only to prevent copycats but also to aid in establishing a strong reputation among consumers and back up brand standards for franchisees.

“From a consumer perspective, when they know something’s been patented, they know it has value,” says Dolifka. “We make a point to explain that to our customers and use it in our marketing and they appreciate that as a differentiator.” For franchisees, she continues, it’s important they know they’re buying into a strong brand with secured protections for its intellectual property.  

Those protections also come into play when issues of infringement arise, an area where it’s important not to be timid.

“We addressed potential infringement on our marks from day one,” Dolifka says. “So even if you’re small, don’t be afraid to get those protections.”

Naming rights

What’s in a name? Just about everything, it turns out. For emerging low-cost gym brand Blink Fitness, executives wanted something that wasn’t associated with the muscle-bound bodybuilders evoked by some concepts and yet conveyed a sense of ease and accomplishment.

They went through several iterations and trademark checks, discovering quickly, as President Todd Magazine says, “that just because you have a good idea doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.”

“You obviously want a name to stand for something and that people associate with whatever it is you’re offering,” he continues, but that’s easier said than done, making it that much more important to file the appropriate trademarks when you’ve found a brand name that works.

Todd Magazine

“When you’re creating a brand and you believe it’s got tremendous growth potential, you should be very aggressive about that trademark and protecting it globally.” — Todd Magazine, Blink Fitness

Of finally deciding on the combination of the words “Blink” and “Fitness,” Magazine says: “Our philosophy is different in that we’re not catering to the people who only want to build big muscles and six-pack abs. Blink signifies fast and quick and easy. You blink a thousand times a day and you don’t really have to think about it.” And since securing its trademarks, Blink’s been active in protecting those assets, using both its own general counsel and third-party attorneys to pursue cases of infringement.

“When you’re creating a brand and you believe it’s got tremendous growth potential, you should be very aggressive about that trademark and protecting it globally,” says Magazine.

In addition to its name, Blink also has trademarks on its taglines, “Mood above muscle,” and “Every body happy,” its logo, and even papaya and wave, the colors of the two dots in the logo. And Blink has its top executives sign non-disclosure and non-compete contracts as another way to protect confidential information.

While to young and emerging brands it may at first seem unnecessary—and too expensive—to obtain an array of intellectual property protections, doing so early on is vital to future growth. Working backward is inefficient and even more costly, Magazine notes.

“When you’re building on equity in a brand you’re also building good will, and hopefully you can put that to work and monetize it in the future,” he says.

Blink Fitness has 59 open corporate locations and 24 franchises sold, in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Virginia.

Act big

From the time he founded exterior painting franchise Spray-Net in 2013, Carmelo Marsala has worked to instill a culture that values ideas and encourages thinking long term. In the area of intellectual property, that’s meant trademarking just about everything, even terms and brand phrases the company doesn’t use—yet.

Carmelo Marsala

“I always tell people,
if we want to be a huge company, we’ve gotta act like it.
…The second we create something we want it protected.” — Carmelo Marsala, Spray-Net

“I always tell people, if we want to be a huge company, we’ve gotta act like it,” says Marsala, the CEO. “So whenever we coin terms, we trademark them, and all of our paints, we’ve trademarked a whole bunch of names. The second we create something we want it protected.”

Some trademarked phrases, such as “formulation to application,” are put to use in marketing materials aimed at both consumers and potential franchisees to describe Spray-Net’s process of using uniquely formulated paints, proprietary software and specialized spraying equipment. Patents then cover “The Spray-Network,” a combination of software and chemistry that adjusts paint formulations on-site, depending on weather conditions. “And we did our patents in a specific way where we’re not divulging the secret sauce” of the paint’s elements, Marsala says. Those formulations stay under lock and key, he continues, and Spray-Net’s chemists and other executives sign non-disclosure agreements.

Based in Canada, Marsala also has these protections in place in the United States so Spray-Net is ready to go when it looks to renew its push into the U.S. in 2018.

Spray-Net has three corporate locations and 48 franchises. It halted its expansion into the United State in the spring in order to solidify systems.

Living Large follows three emerging franchisors through a year’s worth of challenges. Send comments to Laura Michaels, lmichaels@franchisetimes.com.

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