If you’ve ever bought from Amazon.com — and chances are, if you live in the U.S., you have — you’ve probably at some point inadvertently purchased a cheap knock-off that malfunctioned, broke apart or (perhaps in a worst-case scenario) caught on fire

While consumers have been disappointed by fake products, small innovators whose ideas have been stolen have been crushed. 

Take Bonnie Tyler of Southerport, Connecticut, who has experienced both the thrill of skyrocketing sales and the agony of rampant counterfeiting via Amazon and other online platforms. But the 71-year-old is fighting back and jokes that she plans to add “granny thug” to her title. 

How She Started 

A few years back, Tyler was making deviled eggs (here’s her recipe) when she decided there had to be a more efficient way to peel hard-boiled eggs.

Not your typical grandmother, Tyler worked in web development and designed a hand-held egg-peeling device using CAD software. She then took a course at her local library to learn how to print her prototype on a three-dimensional printer. “My instructor was 11,” she says with a laugh. 

[Related: Share Your Startup Story With Us]

She and a colleague, Sheila Torgan, tried about 7 renderings before they had a proof of concept. “It really works,” says Tyler of the device, a clear plastic cylinder that one shakes after the egg (and a little water) are added. 

Bonnie Tyler (seated) with Negg co-founder Sheila Torgan. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Negg
Bonnie Tyler (seated) with Negg co-founder Sheila Torgan. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Negg)

The two decided the world needed the innovation — dubbed the Negg — and ran two Kickstarter campaigns to raise about $33,000 to manufacture 5,000 peelers at a U.S. factory in December 2016. The run actually cost $60,000, so Tyler was forced to dipped into savings to pay for it. When the first Negg popped out of the equipment at the factory, “I just burst into tears,” Tyler recalls — happy tears, of course. To see her idea come to life was “mind-blowing.” 

A Lucky Break 

Getting the word out about the product was the next challenge. “I was looking at 5,000 Neggs in my business partner’s garage,” Tyler says. “I would go over every once and a while and look at them and think, have I lost my mind?” 

A lucky break came when The Grommet, an online marketplace for makers, spotted the Negg on Kickstarter — and placed a purchase order for 4,000 to launch on its platform (retail price: $14.95 each) in April 2017. The product was a hit. “It was really flying out the door,” Tyler says. 

And then, more good fortune: HSN, the home shopping network, discovered the Negg when Tyler attended the International Housewares trade show and invited her to pitch the peeler on the channel. A camera-shy Tyler felt like she died “a thousand deaths” but “I got through it and everything peeled really well and it all sold out and it was like a miracle.”

After that exposure, sales on Amazon took off. “We had about a year of clear sailing, and we were going up the hockey stick,” Tyler recalls. And then, in February 2018, the last thing Tyler or Torgan expected happened. “I got a call from a customer, ‘the Neggs are being sold all over Amazon,'” says Torgan. “I go fly into my office at home and I see…gobs of them all over. They’re like locusts.”

Counterfeiters, according to Tyler and Torgan, had seen the popularity of the Negg and reverse-engineered the device to figure out the design, and then cheaply manufactured it. “These guys had jumped online and had loaded the Internet with our product at a fraction of the price,” Tyler says. “It was not good quality and it leaked. It was just a nightmare.”

An authentic Negg, a device that peels hard-boiled eggs. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Negg)
An authentic Negg, a device that peels hard-boiled eggs. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Negg)

Counterfeiters had even stolen the Negg’s photos and videos to promote the fakes, much to Tyler’s dismay. “It was very difficult for me to go online and see these people taking money right out from under us,” she says. “In my old-fashioned way, it hurt my feelings that anybody would want to do that to me.”

Dealing With Fakes 

The situation is far from unusual. Amazon, the dominant player in e-commerce, has been besieged by counterfeiters in recent years. Amid criticism from the government, consumers and sellers, the site has stepped up efforts to try to combat fakes. In July, the company announced its new Counterfeit Crimes Unit. “We are working hard to disrupt and dismantle these criminal networks,” said Dharmesh Mehta, Amazon’s vice president of customer trust.

Tyler, however, found that Amazon and other e-commerce sites weren’t doing neary enough to help her small company’s dire situation. While she reported the counterfeits, “the big players — Amazon, Ebay, Alibaba —wouldn’t listen to us,” she says.  “It quickly became apparent that if we didn’t get a lawyer we were going to be out of business.”

With the help of a legal team who agreed to work on a contingency basis, the Negg inventors took action…over and over again. While many counterfeiters are based overseas — fake Neggs often ship from the port city of Ningbo, in east China — their use of U.S. based e-commerce sites give sellers some recourse. Tyler and Torgan began taking counterfeiters to court on a regular basis, winning court orders to protect the Negg’s trademark, copyright and patent.

[Related: What Are Copyrights and Trademarks?]

“The courts have been very supportive of us,” Tyler says. “Once you get the court order, Amazon is obliged to shut them down.” As for any support they’ve received from Amazon, Tyler chooses her words carefully: “When we got the lawyer involved, they got more helpful.” 

Amazon did not return a request for comment on Tyler’s experience.

Trolling for Fraudsters

Over two years since that initial discovery of fakes, Tyler estimates that the Negg’s legal team has taken down about 800 counterfeit sellers. “Everyday when I go into the office, I spend the first half hour scouring the Internet trying to find these guys,” she says. “It’s a piece of the operation that I absolutely hate and abhor doing.” 

The Negg has also received judgments totalling over $200 million in damages, although the co-founders don’t expect to recover any of that because most defendants are based overseas. “There’s no address attached to these people so you can’t actually go find them,” Tyler says. 

Based on her experience with the Negg, Tyler recommends that merchants with novel new products protect their intellectual property before launching. More information can be found on the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office’s site. “I would immediately get your trademark,” she advises, which is generally faster and cheaper to obtain than a patent. In her case, counterfeiters stole her brand name — they even put “Negg” in their URL — so having a trademark helped her take legal action. “Tech has made it so that you need to [get IP protection],” she says.

[Related: How Do I Run a Name Search?]

Her business partner wants to see more laws put in place that protect innovators from high-speed Internet thieves. “We need to legislate this, and pass laws that bring fair-trade practices into the 21st century,” Torgan says. Current laws “still don’t account for the Internet.”

While the fakes have taken a serious toll on the business, Tyler and Torgan have sold about 600,000 Neggs to date, and they’re debuting a new seasoning mix for deviled eggs. Sales have started to come back, but faith in humanity might take longer. “This has shaken mine completely,” Tyler says. “It hurts all the little guys on Main Street.” ◼

Read Full Transcript

Bonnie: Well, the only way you can describe it is, it peels a hard boiled egg. I mean, that's about it!

Bonnie: I was invited to a cocktail party and said, “I'll bring deviled eggs.” And of course the eggs wouldn't peel, I couldn't make anything happen. I think I took a bag of potato chips that might've even been opened, I’m not really sure.

TEXT: Bonnie Tyler – CEO + Co-founder – The NEGG, Connecticut, USA

Bonnie: The Negg is the accidental company that was started because I hated peeling hard boiled eggs. So, we solved that problem, and it sent me on a lifetime's adventure, I’ll tell you.

TEXT: For years Bonnie dabbled in different businesses from home.

TEXT: She was building websites in 2015 when she tried to make the deviled eggs.

Bonnie: The next morning, I thought, “I'm going to order an egg peeler,” because somebody has to have figured this out, this simple task. I just couldn't believe nobody had solved it yet.

TEXT: Bonnie and her business partner, Sheila Torgan, spent a year designing a small egg peeler.

TEXT: They found a local factory to produce it.

Bonnie: I wanted to keep an eye on this thing. It meant a lot to me to go to the factory. We were able to be sure of the quality, which was extremely important to us.

TEXT: The first production run in December 2016 cost $60,000.

TEXT: Bonnie used her savings and Kickstarter funds to pay for it.

Bonnie: The run was 10,000 Neggs, and these machines are huge. And they open the jaws of this thing and out pops a Negg. And I just burst into tears.

TEXT: Barely 3 months later, the Home Shopping Network discovered Bonnie and Sheila at a trade show.

Bonnie: I had never thought about being on television.

SOT: I’m beside myself at this product because I’ve—for years I would make eggs and boil eggs, and I couldn’t get the peel off the egg.

Bonnie: And all of a sudden we find they’ve picked us up, and I’m going to be on the Monday night show. And, I’m telling you, 1,000 deaths.

Bonnie SOT: All I did was put an egg in here with a little bit of water...

Bonnie: But something happened when the cameras went on, and I got through it, and everything peeled really well, and it was like a miracle.

TEXT: For nearly a year, sales rose fast—especially on Amazon.

Bonnie: Our business on the internet—basically we were just—it was what they call a hockey stick. We were shooting to the moon, and all of a sudden we went to bed on Friday and put the business to bed for the weekend. And we get up on a Monday and our sales are gone. There was nothing. And what had happened is the fakes had come on board, they had cut our price by half, and they had wiped us out for the most part.

TEXT: Most counterfeit Neggs are made in China and Vietnam.

Bonnie: It was very difficult for me to go online, see these people online selling our product and taking money right out from under us and just stealing it.

Bonnie: One of these is a counterfeit and one isn't. Number one, it doesn't have our egg peeler instructions in there. Number two, we have the words, “The Negg,” embossed on both caps, this has nothing. And if I were to open this up, this will leak, because they haven't paid attention to how we did the mold. And ours will not.

Bonnie: They took everything. They took our pictures, they take our videos. Come on. We have taken down over 800 counterfeit sellers, if you can believe it. Every day when I go into the office, I spend the first half hour scouring the internet trying to find these guys and getting them off.

TEXT: Amid criticism, Amazon has increased efforts to combat fraud, but counterfeits remain rampant.

TEXT: U.S. courts can seize a seller’s PayPal account but the process is long and expensive.

Bonnie: Wow. Here's one that I—I just am always stunned by this. They're terrible reviews, so obviously it probably is one of the leaking ones. And it's sold by B-Y-R-X-K-J.

Bonnie: There's no address attached to these people so you can't actually go find them. So you really don't know where they are.

Bonnie: That's crazy, $6.19. They've got three reviews.

TEXT: Bonnie has won court orders that enforce the Negg’s patent.

TEXT: But there is no way to collect damages. She estimates they have lost millions of sales.

Bonnie: And you can see how they’ve Photoshopped this edge. See here?

Bonnie: What occurs to me on a regular basis is, this is just an egg peeler, okay, I am well aware of that. But when you get into drugs and you get into some of the important things that we are importing, that are being copied, and not copied well—we have to be careful. When I ordered something from Amazon, I assumed that they had vetted it, but it's not necessarily so.

Bonnie: We have to be a little more careful in this country that we guard that. It's important, it really is.

TEXT: In spite of all the counterfeits, the company has sold over 600,000 authentic Neggs.

Bonnie: I’m back. I’m making a salad. I have a few friends coming over for lunch. Obviously, the eggs have been prepared with the help of the Negg.