Entrepreneur Finds Customer Loyalty More Valuable Than Patent Protection

By Laura McCamy

3 min read

“It started out as a bad haircut,” says Effortless Extensions CEO and inventor Michelle Elizabeth. When her hairdresser recommended a severe cut to repair the damage from overprocessing eleven years ago, Elizabeth started looking for a way to get her long hair back. She tried clip-in hair extensions, but found they caused even more damage — and “I ended up looking like Albert Einstein,” she recalls. So she created her own hair extensions.

The system she invented became the basis for her company. “[The extensions] don’t connect to the hair at all,” says Elizabeth. Instead, they attach to monofilaments that lie under the hair and stay in place by gravity.

The Patent Process

“I filed for our very first patent on January 31, 2005,” Elizabeth says. It took over six years for the U.S. Patent Office to grant that first patent. “We spent close to half a million dollars,” she says, on multiple patents in the United States and countries in which the company manufactures and sells its products.

“We then had people coming out of the woodwork” copying the idea, says Elizabeth. She was able to enforce her patents and stop some of the knockoffs, but she and her financial backer had spent most of their startup resources obtaining the patents in the first place and getting manufacturing off the ground. There wasn’t enough left over for expensive patent litigation, especially against the deep pockets of a corporation that came out with a product based on her concept.

Before she took her innovation to market, Elizabeth had shown it to several major players in the hair industry. “We did get NDAs [nondisclosure agreements], and we did have companies that honored them,” she says. But it was not enough to protect her when an executive at one of the companies switched jobs and took her idea with him. 

First to Market

“Consumers don’t care whether you have a patent or not,” says Elizabeth, noting that, if she had it to do over again, she would prioritize marketing over patent filing.

“It’s first to market. It’s getting the brand established,” she says. “Because, inevitably, you’re going to have somebody come out there and take your product and run with it.” 

“When somebody buys the cheaper quality [imitator], it actually hurts your brand,” Elizabeth says, since consumers may not know the difference and may associate your product with a bad experience they had with someone else’s.

Her company has fought back by putting the extensions in the hands of bloggers and YouTubers — “as many media outlets as possible,” Elizabeth says, “to let people understand that this is a high-quality product.” 

A Cautionary Word to Fellow Innovators

“I was just an average mom who had a bad hair day and came up with an idea,” Elizabeth says. “Now, I’m trying to be the voice for any other mom, or college student, or guy sitting in his garage who has come up with the next really great idea and wants to get it out there and start a business.”

If a company with more resources copies your idea, it “pretty much puts you out of business before you ever had a chance to start.” Elizabeth doesn’t want this to happen to others. “Small companies are the legs that this country stands on,” she says. When large companies stand on top of smaller ones, she adds, “those legs begin to wobble.”

“When you launch, do it big,” says Elizabeth, and “make sure you do it in such a way that … people will remember your name.” That way, the big companies will be playing catch-up with you, not the other way around.

Photo of Michelle Elizabeth courtesy of Effortless Extensions

Information may be abridged and therefore incomplete. This document/information does not constitute, and should not be considered a substitute for, legal or financial advice. Each financial situation is different, the advice provided is intended to be general. Please contact your financial or legal advisors for information specific to your situation.

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