By Victoria Kertz, California Business Journal.
Hollywood studios, big movies and new productions are on hold — as are the ancillary transactions with thousands of small businesses that typically rely on the media, entertainment and supporting industries for work.
While caution spills into early summer, there are still more questions than encouraging headlines, yet behind closed doors, and to quote the famous line by P.T. Barnum “the show must go on.” Or, in this case, “Business must go on.”
Actors may not be on stage, but entrepreneurs – and the recently-furloughed – are turning side hustles into burgeoning brands.
And the lawyers are as busy as ever.
One is Relani Belous, an Intellectual Property attorney, branding expert and principal of Belous Law Corporation in Los Angeles, California.
“It’s not business as usual,” she says. “It’s business as unusual. But you have to adapt.”
Belous, with previous in-house executive level legal experience at MGM and Stan Lee’s POW! Entertainment, says America’s inherent resiliency will help the nation bounce back.
When she advises clients, a mix of entertainment, tech, retail, and B2B companies, Belous emphasizes the importance of a Plan B. The prominent question still remains consistent: “Are you prepared for the worst possible thing that could happen?”
It starts, she quickly adds, with the foundation of what IP stands for: Brand Protection and Loyalty.
“It’s sometimes overlooked during the rush to market,” Belous says.
In the daunting age of pirated digital movies, counterfeit fashion goods, fake emails with questionable wire instructions and ‘click throughs’ to a rabbit hole of doomsday emails, “it’s more dangerous not to be protected.”
Consider brand impersonation.
“The last person an entrepreneur wants to call is a lawyer,” she says with a laugh. Yet, as a best practice, all new brands, joint ventures, burgeoning business or co-marketing arrangements should be legally binding in writing, with proposed marks or brand monikers filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office post haste.
“There are other things that loom in the background like employment laws, working with your friends, a list of obligations and financial liabilities” she adds.
Before she attended law school, these IP pitfalls and the protective legal standards necessary were constantly engrained in Belous’ mind while working, among other various financially related roles, as a CPA auditing “for things that no one knew were there.”
“The biggest challenge is to have clients focus on what the big picture is,” she says. “Balance, in life and mindset, is key.”
IP protection is even more important when friends or family go into business together, something Belous advises against.
“My job is to plan the divorce on the first date,” she says.
Then she quickly adds: “Well, in the most positive light.”
Belous has seen multiple implosions of one founder turning on the other with disastrous, expensive and highly-emotional consequences that often lead to what she wants her clients to avoid: Litigation – which she does not handle. “It can cost six to seven figures and sometimes the cost to be right is the same, if not more than to be wrong,” she warns, thus her insistence that co-founding partners put everything in a clear and understandable written legal format.
Big law firms are motivated and rewarded to bill the maximum hours they can. Dragging intellectual property legal battles through the courts over several years means more money in their already deep pockets which otherwise could have been used to build up a brand versus tear it down. Large, traditional law offices have a history of turning small business people away from getting legal assistance when they’re a start-up.
“The legal industry is slow to adapt,” she says, noting that many are still staffed by a group of homogenous individuals working in marble offices charging exorbitant fees to cover the “frills” and making business or brand development more complicated than necessary. That said, it’s unclear how many small business owners found it easier to go it alone rather than endure the inhuman amount of patience required whilst awaiting the return call from a major firm’s attorney, which is high on the complaint list at the State Bar.
Establishing her firm in 2019, Belous is a growing small business owner herself and delights in the opportunity to guide clients through the unfamiliar legal jargon maze. “There’s a certain level of camaraderie with those just starting out. I like to build people up. I think, ‘how can I make their lives better?’ Not only legally, but also, do I know anyone I can partner up with them? I like bringing people together.”
She tells clients, “I’ll be with you every step of the way.” She further insists that a woman-owned firm offers a different perspective and diversity. “Many clients prefer to work with like-minded small business professionals. They encourage and cheer them on. I believe in growing with them, and not at their expense.”
Belous has embarked on another unique passion project with a fellow trademark aficionado on the East Coast: A media-based manifesto known as The Trademark Channel, a consumer-focused platform dedicated to educating people about counterfeits and understanding the importance of trademarks. “Brands need to be important to consumers,” she says.
She uses beauty products – including CBD-based products as an example – because counterfeit lotions at a low price may be harmful to eager consumers. “Truly it’s impossible to know what you’re getting with an un-established or ‘imitation’ brand,” she says. Improperly formulated skin products can have dire effects, and she wants consumers to know that they’re taking a serious chance when using them.
“Established, vetted brands,” she argues, “have quality controls in place.”
The site and channel, scheduled to launch this summer, “will educate society and help individuals make better buying decisions.”
Meanwhile, Belous is like the rest of us, staying at home and doing her part until it’s safe to go physically back into the world. She continues to work, as do many of her clients, although in a variety of different ways while devising innovative production techniques for The Trademark Channel and reinforcing what makes America magnificent – small businesses, artists and entrepreneurs.
Like everyone, Belous looks forward to California’s grand reopening and the new, exciting brands and services that will hopefully emerge from the darkness of a pandemic – like the phoenix from the flame. “After all,” she says, “out of tragedy, comes opportunity.”
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