1. Hi Hannah, please introduce yourself to our simplyBrand readers:
I’m Hannah Park, founder of Freedom Closet and creator of the popular Amazon product, FreeBelts.
2. Your company, FreeBelts, was a pioneer in the belt industry. Can you tell us more about your company?
FreeBelts is a new type of belt you clip on belt loops, leaving the front area of pants uncovered. With FreeBelts, you never have to deal with the buckle again every time you use the bathroom, or take off your pants after a long day. Also, there’s no buckle digging into your stomach, so you don’t feel that discomfort when you sit at your desk all day, or drive for hours. It’s just like adding an elastic band to the pants, instead of a stiff and uncomfortable conventional belt.
It is perfect for lazy people like me, or anyone who likes to be comfortable. One of the most exciting things was when we received great responses from the special needs community! It can be a great dressing aid for people with limited dexterity, such as people with special needs, arthritis, seniors, and so on.
Lastly, our kids’ line is a very practical wardrobe addition for children, from potty-training toddlers to school-aged kids. It helps children to be more independent with dressing and bathroom needs, and also boosts their self-esteem.
3. What were some initial successes FreeBelts had?
I created an Indiegogo page with a homemade, DYI prototype. I was really just aiming to raise the absolute minimum amount. It was doing just reasonably well, and then it was featured on the Indiegogo newsletter. That was when it exploded. It turned out there were many people who hated buckles.
After successfully launching with Indiegogo, we went to Amazon and quickly became a popular product. We were rising through the rankings. We even got featured on BuzzFeed many times! These initial successes drove a lot of traction, and made FreeBelts a really visible and recognized brand.
4. FreeBelts was targeted by counterfeiters, who copied your original designs and marketed them as their own. How did you first find out that there were fake FreeBelts being sold, and what was your initial reaction?
As soon as FreeBelts became a popular product on Amazon, all of a sudden, copycats sprung up all over Amazon, using names like, “Free Belt,” “FreeBelt,” or “Free Belts.”
We already filed for a trademark and a patent, but it takes a long time until they are published — that is if the application is even approved in the end. So as disturbing as it was, at first we had to just watch them selling the counterfeit products.
When the trademark was finally approved to be registered, we messaged the counterfeit sellers not to use our brand name, and also notified Amazon. They took down the name or slightly changed it, but were still selling the same design products. I guess since we haven’t been granted the patent yet, we can’t completely stop it.
5. How has counterfeiting negatively impacted your business?
The sales drop was immediate. At some point, we saw a 70–80% drop compared to the previous year. We could see the counterfeit sellers gaining more and more sales, reviews, and going up in ranking.
Moreover, many customers confused our brand FreeBelts with cheap knockoffs, and started commenting on social media. We could see it wasn’t about our product as they were referring to colors or other elements FreeBelts don’t have. It hurt the brand image severely.
6. Many businesses, particularly SMBs, don’t know the best course of action to take when they are the target of counterfeiting. What steps, if any, did you take to try to halt the problem?
We applied for patents and trademarks, and registered our brand on Amazon (Amazon recognizes us as the brand owner of FreeBelts). But these all cost a lot of money to really pursue, and they still couldn’t halt the problem very effectively.
7. If you could do anything differently about how you approached the problem, what would you do?
I wish I knew about the problem earlier, so I could register the trademark and design patent earlier. And instead of contacting the counterfeit sellers and telling them to stop using the brand name (which only helped them to go around it by using a slightly different names like “Free Belts”), I wish I had reported them to Amazon so they could take down the listings.
I really wish there was a way for customers to know that FreeBelts is the original brand and all of the others are copycats. Some people will still go for the cheap copycats, but it is really sad to see a lot of people don’t even know we were the original creator of this novel product.
8. What would you say to anyone considering buying a fake FreeBelt?
It may look similar, but we invested a lot to come up with the perfect material, mold, design, and structure. The cheap copycat products really can’t live up to that. You get what you pay for.
Also, and maybe more importantly, don’t support the counterfeiters. We created something innovative, crowdfunded the product, and made it a hit product. It started as a one woman company, all with the help of grassroots support (crowdfunding), from the bottom up. You want to support that kind of company, NOT the counterfeiters profiting off honest companies like us!
9. You have also established a new company, Freedom Closet. Based on your experience with FreeBelt, what measures will you take to protect your new brand from counterfeiting?
Trademark way before the launch! Getting a patent is a little tricky with this brand’s products, so we will just try to build a really strong brand awareness.
10. simplyBrand wants to help stop brands like yours from being counterfeited by using a combination of blockchain technology, AI, and crowdsourcing to identify incidents of counterfeiting. Do you think that simplyBrand’s solution to counterfeiting will be able to help halt the proliferation of counterfeit goods?
First of all, I love what simplyBrand is doing. Blockchain + crowdsourcing — it’s quintessential decentralization. Very democratic and very accordant with the direction we should go in the future.
With the help of technologies like blockchain and AI, simplyBrand’s solution will speed up the data collection and verification process exponentially! Dealing with it one-one-one by messaging the selling platforms like Amazon took such a long time, during which counterfeiters were selling the fake products all they wanted.
Waiting for the IP to be granted is also inefficient from a business perspective as it is time-consuming with all the bureaucracy involved and also very costly. When an SMB company creates something new and cool, it is very hard to protect the business in a way large corporations do, such as the conventional IP route.
It will definitely have a positive impact if there’s a way to help establish the brand and distinguish from the low-quality copycats efficiently.
Thank you so much for your time, Hannah!
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