Pat Flynn is a big deal in the world of online business and marketing. He often speaks about his unexpected start as an entrepreneur, a story that includes some interesting lessons about trademarks. Whether or not you’re familiar with Pat and his work, I hope his story will be useful.
A few things I’d like to get out of the way before we start:
- I’m a fan of Pat’s work. I read his blog over at smartpassiveincome.com and listen to his podcasts Smart Passive Income, Ask Pat, and 1 Day Business Breakthrough. Check out his stuff, you’ll be happy you did.
- Although we both live in San Diego, I’ve never met Pat. However, because I’ve read his words and heard his voice so often, and because he just comes off like a friendly guy, I feel comfortable calling him “Pat.” I thought about using “Mr. Flynn” for this blog post, but that seems too formal. So “Pat” it is. I trust my readers will forgive these occasional stylistic liberties.
Back in 2007, Pat was working for an architecture firm. To advance his career, he decided to take the exam to become a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Accredited Professional. It’s a notoriously tough exam, so he created a blog, in his words, “to help me keep track of my notes and to hold me accountable.”
Pat passed the test, got certified, and within a few months, the 2008 recession hit and he was laid off.
While trying to figure out what to do next, he noticed that his LEED study blog was still getting a lot of traffic. Lots of other folks were looking for this information. He decided to see if he could turn this blog into a successful online business.
Pat started by putting some ads up on the site, which created a trickle of income. He then put his head down and created a LEED exam study guide ebook, which generated almost $8000 in sales the month it was launched*. He hasn’t looked back since.
For more detail on this story, check out his 2012 blog post The History of My First Online Business.
That’s Great, But Wasn’t There Supposed to be a Trademark Issue in this Case Study?
Yup. Pat’s blog was hosted at the domain name intheleed.com. It turns out that the term LEED is a registered trademark owned by the U.S. Green Building Council.
Shortly after launching his business, Pat received a cease and desist letter from U.S. Green Building Council’s attorneys demanding that he take down his site intheleed.com within a week.
Pat didn’t intend to infringe on anybody’s trademark. He’d only just started his online business. I’m willing to bet that, like most normal, well-adjusted people, he’d hardly given much thought to trademarks before he received this letter.
I Have to Cease AND Desist?
Pat hired a lawyer that very day to talk through his options. From his 2012 blog post If I Had to Start Over…This Is What I’d Do Differently:
I was basically told that I did have a slim chance of keeping the domain name if I wanted to fight for it – but it wasn’t worth the stress, price and hassle, so I was (er, my lawyer was) able to negotiate that I simply change the domain name – since the mark was the real issue.
So what did Pat do? Did he panic (well, maybe, but not for long)? Did he give up? No, he pivoted, bought a new domain name, GreenExamAcademy.com, and redirected visitors from intheleed.com to the new domain.
All good, right? Not so fast…from the same blog post:
All seemed well, until I was contacted AGAIN with another letter saying that even the redirect was technically still a use of the trademark, so I had to get rid of the 301 redirect and close the domain.
Luckily, enough time went by that Google picked up on the new site so I maintained MOST of my rankings and traffic.
Definitely a learning experience…
Living Happily Ever After
It all worked out for Pat in the long run. GreenExamAcademy.com is still going strong and bringing in thousands of dollars a month in passive income.
And he was able to parlay this experience into success in a variety of other online ventures. Including, of course, Smart Passive Income, which is a registered trademark owned by his company Flynndustries, LLC. SMART PASSIVE INCOME is registered in class 041 for “On-line journals, namely, blogs featuring online business and marketing advice.”
Pat’s story provides us with two main lessons:
- Online entrepreneurs would be wise to educate themselves about the basics of trademark law.
- If it turns out you can’t use your preferred domain name or brand name because of a trademark conflict, your dreams of business success are still alive; there’s always another option out there.
I’ll wrap it up in Pat’s own words, as I couldn’t have written it better myself:
Don’t use a trademark in a domain name unless you have the rights or license to do so.
* This is all public info; like some other online business types, Pat publishes a monthly income report on his website.