Competitive Advantage: Keeping What’s YoursFebruary 6, 2013 | By: Sean Murray
The most effective competitive advantages are the ones you’re able to keep. And one of the most important of your competitive advantages can be your team. When a close partner, associate, consultant, or key employee leaves your organization there can be a really good chance of losing more than the individual qualities, skills, or experience that made that particular person such an asset. In fact, they just might take off ready, willing, and able to share with your competition what it is that makes your company, products, and/or services unique.
It’s clear that making sure the only thing an employee leaves with when they empty their desk is a few free office supplies is certainly in the best interests of your small business. This is definitely a case where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. There are three common means small business owners can put into place to help protect themselves:
- An NDA, or Non-Disclosure Agreement
- A Non-Compete Agreement
- A Non-Solicitation Agreement
Each one of these legal documents shares the goal of protecting the competitive advantages of your small business, but they are different from each other. For instance, a Non-Disclosure Agreement is commonly used when bringing in a consultant. A Non-Compete Agreement is commonly used when a major goal is to prohibit a former employee from working for a competitor within a specific geographical area for a specific period of time. A Non-Solicitation Agreement keeps a former partner or employee from leaving one business and then soliciting other employees to come and work for them.
I’m Just a Small Business – Is this REALLY Something I Need to Concern Myself With?
Certainly not all small business owners need to be concerned about NDA’s, Non-Competes, or Non-Solicitation agreements. However, although you might think of yourself as “just another small business” your business may actually require some of the protections these documents offer. It can be helpful to conduct a “confidentiality audit” to help you determine whether or not to make an appointment with an attorney. For example, here are a few things that warrant protection:
- Trade secrets such as inventions, formulas, or scientific discoveries
- Specialized methods or processes
- Specific Data
- Client and/or Customer Information
Again, you may not think of your business as needing protection. However, it is common for small businesses to fit into categories that may indeed fall prey to damage inflicted by former employees absconding with sensitive and/or valuable information.
Most small businesses are going to have employees who come into regular, consistent contact with clients and customers. What may not be obvious is that, in the course of that contact, those employees develop valuable relationships with those clients. Should such an employee leave your small business, unless you are protected, there is nothing keeping that employee from taking those customers and/or clients (and their business) with them. Your customer base should be protected as it is essentially your most valuable asset.
Advances in technology have also created situations where small business owners will want to protect themselves. Certainly if your small business conducts research and/or develops products it only makes sense to legally protect proprietary and intellectual property. For example, you will want to be sure that you retain the rights to new designs (including the right to obtain a patent) created by an employee. However, proprietary and intellectual property may not be limited to “new” products. For instance, your small business may develop an innovative application for existing technology.
If you are still on the fence regarding whether or not you should contact an expert for advice as to whether or not you might need a Non-Compete, Non-Solicitation, and/or Non-Disclosure Agreement take a moment to answer a couple simple questions:
- Do my partners, associates, consultants, or employees have on-going contact and/or access to sensitive client information and lists that would be of benefit to a competitor?
- Do my partners, associates, consultants, or employees have access to anything that is best kept “secret” from my competitors or that would place my business at risk if the information was made public? (We’re not talking about illegal activity, more along the lines of a “secret recipe” or special way of doing things.)
If you answered yes (or even “maybe”) to one or both of these questions it is better to be “safe than sorry” and make an appointment to receive expert advice from an attorney or other subject matter expert.February 6, 2013