Dumplings, Databases and Corporate Espionage

This blog post takes a tangent from my usual technology-specific ramblings, but I’ll make the connection eventually. Just bear with me.


Dan dan mien, mango bubble tea, and petite chicken dumplings in Sichuan sauce
Dan dan mien, mango bubble tea, and petite chicken dumplings in Sichuan sauce

Today, I was craving some mapo tofu, so I went to one of my favorite lunch joints, Dumpling Daughter (website|twitter). As I walked in, I realized there was a news crew filming. When I asked Nadia, the owner, about her visitors, she asked if I’d seen the Boston Globe yet–and told me to check it out. I hadn’t, so I ordered my mapo tofu, and scurried off to look up the Globe story which was easy to find because it was on the main page, above the fold.

The short version of the story is that two former employees of Dumpling Daughter left earlier this year, then opened a restaurant with an identical concept, near-identical name, and near-identical menu (the pork ramen is identical but “with one less exclamation mark and one less comma”). The former employees incorporated their new business within days of leaving Dumpling Daughter. Earlier this week, Dumpling Daughter filed a lawsuit, thus attracting news crews.

All signs point to a blatant rip-off.

I eat at Dumpling Daughter once or twice every week. I’ve gotten to know Nadia and her family. Nadia is a second-generation restaurateur, having learned both the business and recipes from her mother. I see the passion they have for their food and their business. I know that they carefully source their ingredients and obsess over quality. They’ve worked incredibly hard to build a unique concept and a great business. As a customer, I’m upset someone would steal their recipe for success–I can’t imagine how upset Nadia and her family must be.

Databases and Corporate Espionage

I told you I’d get back to databases & technology!

The restaurant biz and the technology biz are both trades. Successful tradesmen work hard at building their specialty. In order to be successful and build their vision, they must share their secrets and train others to help execute their vision. Employees don’t stay forever–they move on and use what they learned as your apprentice to be successful in their new position. That’s OK!

In fact, employers and managers should be proud when their apprentice goes on to do great things. The accomplishments of your apprentice are a reflection of your own accomplishments. Your apprentice’s ongoing success proves that you not only trained them to execute their vision, but you also trained them to build their own vision.

Their own vision. That’s the key.

Inspiration vs Corporate espionage

There’s a line between using a learned craft or special technique, and blatantly stealing a product. On one side of that line is inspiration; on the other is corporate espionage.

In the database world, imagine if someone took a copy of Adam Machanic’s (blog|twitter) sp_WhoIsActive, changing a few things and then selling it as their own. (Oh, wait…that actually happened, didn’t it?)

In the software world, imagine taking your former employer’s source code and recompiling it with just a new name and logo.

In the restaurant world, it’s pretty apparent that Dumpling Daughter had their entire product stolen and reused in an unauthorized way. The impostor restaurant looks more like a franchise than an independent venture.

It Depends™

There is some fuzzy grey area between drawing inspiration and theft of intellectual property. What if your former boss’s signature donut was your creation? There are plenty of cases when the two sides don’t see eye-to-eye on which side of the fence that case is. In these cases, there’s no easy answer. I could wax poetic about it being the cost of doing business or something–but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. …Wait, was I trying to make a point? Oh yea…

Don’t be a d**k

This is another case where Wheaton’s Law gives us pretty good guidance. Don’t steal. Stealing is a d**k move. Whether you’re stealing intellectual property or physical property, you’re still stealing. If you are truly drawing inspiration from someone else, you will feel comfortable in being open, honest, and public with that inspiration. If you ever feel the need to deny your inspiration, or you feel like you’ve employed cloak-and-dagger tactics, then maybe you’ve crossed the line.

Work hard. Be yourself. Be original. Be successful.


…And if you’re in the Boston area, check out Dumpling Daughter.