It Be Ya Own People: How Three Black Men and One Black Woman Conspired to Steal Our Original App Concept and How We’re Fighting Back

*This article is reposted from our newsletter, so references to the news letter will not be edited*

Hi. I’m Kiki. I am a designer, a children’s book author and illustrator, a podcaster, among many things. Of the things that I have done in my creative career so far, the thing that I am most proud of is this:

I am one of the Founders of The Cookout, the first-ever invitation-only social media app exclusively for members of the Black community. We are a post based app, not a voice-based platform like Clubhouse. Maybe you’ve heard of us… but not really have heard of us.

We will get back to this.

Typically for these newsletters (we haven’t had one in a while because we are focused on development), we try to stay more professional and focus on growth. This is not one of those emails, this is a more personal narrative that I feel our base deserves to be made aware of in-depth from my first-person point of view. I strongly believe that if you don’t write your own narrative, other people will write it for you. This is gonna be long, so get comfortable.

We (myself and my partners Atiyya Nadirah and Cassandra Osei) started the Cookout in Oct 2019 with just $3,000 and a vision. We have been bootstrapping it, intentionally keeping our community small and intimate and relying on organic word of mouth from real people rather than PR. Building a social media app is a monumental task; one that we do not underestimate at all. As we have been building the app and creating our policies, we’ve not promoted outside of our existing networks because we are aware that we have so much work to do to get our app where we want it to be.

To this end, we’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars on the next iteration of The Cookout App and have been developing it for the past 8 months. Since we know a major migration will be necessary to transition users to the next iteration of the app (which will have additional functionality like events and creating your own communities in addition to courses and a marketplace), we have done very little promotion, with our current community serving as a placeholder safe space for our base while we build.

Building a social media app is NOT an easy thing to do… which is why so few do it and even fewer do so successfully. Despite this, we’ve managed to amass over 7.5k users on our MVP in a year with organic, word of mouth promotion from the small community of loyal followers who enjoy the peace and values of the community we’ve built and this has resulted in hundreds of 5-star reviews on the app stores.

This is where we were prior to the events of this week, exactly where we wanted to be with a small, loyal community while we were building to handle more capacity. This is important to note because I am sure that someone will try to pretend that we are making this statement out of a place of spite or jealousy.

A little over a year ago when we started The Cookout, there was very little interest in a project like ours and many people tried to convince us to abandon our idea- claiming that Black people had no want of space away from everyone else and that invitation-only apps were not successful business models.

Nevertheless, we stayed the course and trusted in our vision, knowing that even if the idea was not ultimately profitable, it was definitely worthwhile and impactful to the people that we were building for.

We trusted in our idea, and we knew that we had to protect it at all costs.

We trademarked the first moment that we were able. We got NDAs from developers and other people attached to the project. We’ve kept as much labor as possible in house. We purchased every domain related to The Cookout App and also claimed the socials. We have a heavy presence of at least 1k followers outside of the app on every major social platform (besides Clubhouse, more on that later) and nearly 10k followers on Facebook. We are not rich. We each make good livings for ourselves, but we are not rich so this took some personal sacrifice and lots of time and strategy.

We have spent a great deal of the last year establishing a brand based on trust and our community values of Afrocentricity, Authenticity, and Accountability.

Our loyal users trust us to put them before profit because we have spent a great deal of time creating building and maintaining that trust based relationship.

As a values-based community, we are very careful about the people that we allow inside of our space. We screen using application questions for misogynoir, anti-blackness, colorism, homo/transphobia, and other adverse opinions that are counter to the values of our core user base.

We are not for everyone… and we are not trying to be.

Given this, imagine my surprise when we were tagged asking if The Breakfast Club had mentioned us on their show. The Breakfast Club, which is consistently a platform for everything that is counter to our values, is not a place that we would ever choose to promote. Their target audience is not our target audience. Many of our users are aware of this and were confused. And many people who were not our users came to our doors hoping for entry.

Turns out they were referencing an app also calling itself The Cookout, this is an app that is “borrowing” concepts from both Clubhouse and ourselves. This app is founded by two black men and one Black woman. We know nothing of one of the three- but TWO of their founders went to the same college as one of ours. We know nothing of the Black woman who is founding this venture with them and sincerly hope that she is unaware of the kind of people that she is doing business with and that she would not also knowingly conspire against other Black women. She has the benefit of our doubt at this time, but intent does not outweigh impact.

*this benefit of the doubt has been rescinded ^_^.

Remember what I said earlier about protecting ourselves?

We became aware of these trademark infringers a few months ago and I signed up for their email and when they responded, I immediately informally informed them that they were indeed infringing on our trademark and that they would need to change their name to avoid legal action. They never responded, so I was hoping that meant that cooler heads had prevailed and they would think about the possible legal ramifications of blatant infringement prior to promoting their app. Clearly, I was wrong in this assumption. When you assume you make an ass-… nevermind.

Apparently, the past few months, our infringers have been promoting themselves on Clubhouse, a platform where we are not active, and pitching themselves to investors (as if they thought of either concept) without so much as a citation.

It’s the plagiarism for me.

I am frustrated. I am frustrated because we do not understand how, even prior to us informing the infringers that they were infringing, they could NOT know about us in this lovely information age that we live in?

When they went to register thecookoutapp.com… did they not see that it was already registered? How about when they tried to make an IG with the name? Do they have access to Google? We’re RIGHT there. TWO of the “founders” (Bobby Gay and Brylan Markel) of the infringing app went to college at the same institution (The University of Kansas) as one of our Founders.. do they expect us to believe that they did not know or hear about us from the jump?

The willfulness to blatantly attempt to step over our intellectual property rights and outright STEAL from us is part of a larger pattern of disrespect for the ideas and hard work that Black women pour into literally every industry, only to have someone (usually a man) pretend that they thought of the concept the entire time. It is maddening, but thankfully- we were prepared well ahead of time for this eventuality. Sometimes, unfortunately… it be your own people.

I don’t believe in these kinds of coincidences.

More than frustrated, their antics are both diluting our brand and attracting the wrong demographic of users to our app. We do not exist for celebs and clout and fad chasers, we exist for real Black people looking to connect to real Black people and that is the way we like it.

We have a strict application process for our app and have had to reject almost 85% of the users that have come over from hearing the name on Clubhouse for believing backwards ideas like “Trump is a great president” and “colorism affects light-skinned people just as harshly” and “There is no such thing as rape culture”. Those people are NOT our target demographic so we can not even be grateful for the free publicity. It’s just creating more work for us and people we reject tend to be salty and leave bad reviews on in the app stores, diluting our hundreds of 5-star reviews from people who are actually members.

This infringement does not benefit our infringers and it does not benefit us. So.. why infringe at all?

We have a retained an IP lawyer who has managed to locate their business information (we previously requested it in that email I mentioned earlier and they did not respond to avoid being served). We are having them issued an official cease and desist, and, if they continue their disrespect and malicious infringement- we will be forced to take further legal action.

The infringers have also attempted to trademark The Cookout in the same class of goods as us, hoping that will protect them from being infringers (a move our lawyer believes is hilarious, as the USPTO will likely automatically reject it when it is evaluated). This is the equivalent of copying our homework and then putting our name on it. It will not work. Jason Gershenson, the attorney of record for their attempted trademark, follows us on Twitter and has for years AND is a member of our app. He has known about us from Black Tech Pipeline for years. And following are some screenshots that prove that their own trademark lawyer knew about us and STILL conspired to help them steal our idea. Straight up lack of ethics. This appears like a pretty BLATANT conspiracy to steal our ideas.

A post we made in 2019 referencing our app and its release.
The trademark lawyer of record for the other app liking that post.

How does one join our app in June 2020 and magically file someone else’s trademark for a similar app just a few months later? In order to file a trademark application, you have to certain agreements and disclosures. One of them is “To the best of the signatory’s knowledge and belief, no other persons, except, if applicable, concurrent users, have the right to use the mark in commerce, either in the identical form or in such near resemblance as to be likely, when used on or in connection with the goods/services of such other persons, to cause confusion or mistake, or to deceive.”

If you’re out there, and you believe that it is messed up that someone could literally be so blatant about stealing a concept that Black women have been building on for over a year- let them know that. Advise people that they are pitching to that getting into business with people that have these serious moral and ethical lapses and violate the intellectual property of others is not a good idea or business move. Your voices are important.

The sad part about all of this? Our team LOVES promoting other Black businesses, especially Black-owned tech spaces (have you heard of Voice Blasts?). We believe that there is clearly more than enough space on the internet for all of us to win and would always rather collaborate than compete. The idea of clipping another Black-owned business’s wings is not something that makes us happy, but we can not let this blatant disrespect and willful plagiarism go unanswered.

I believe that often when it comes to Black women in business, we are not expected to have the resources or option to defend ourselves. This makes people more likely to TRY to take advantage of us than other groups.

When it comes to tech and the internet, this is even more true. So many Black women’s ideas, style, concepts, and even our hair and skin are stolen daily on these wide webs, claimed by someone else, who then capitalizes without so much as a whisper of our name. As mentioned, I guessed two years ago that there would be a shift away from larger platforms. I’m fortunate that I also guessed that someone would try it and that we had the resources to protect ourselves. There are too many Black women that would have found themselves in this situation and gotten steamrolled.

This will not be our story. We will not have it.

We have worked too hard for the last year and have invested too much in what we’re building- emotionally, in terms of time, and definitely economically.

To our lovely little Day One community of over 7.5k people and the 15k people on our newsletter list who will receive this email- we love you and are so appreciative of your trust and investment in the last year of this journey. Every day we strive to prove ourselves worthy. Even when we are not active, we are ALWAYS working for you.

To the people that are only just learning about us now and are accessing this article from a link- it’s nice to meet you and we hope that you’ll join us on this journey as well if anything stated here struck a chord.

To our infringers, I hope that when this post is called to your attention (because I don’t doubt that it will be), that you consider rebranding immediately. We are prepared to take this as far as needed to get you to stop and the longer you continue the more damages will ultimately be found in our favor for any investment you DO get as a result of your infringement. It’s not a smart business move for you… or your potential investors. As it stands, your product is not even live, but even if you were to continue, you are aware that we would have the option to have your app removed from both app stores because they have trademark infringement options for apps… right? You are limiting yourself and setting yourselves up for failure… and you’ve barely even started yet.

Being original is hard… but we were here FIRST, we were already operational and successful, and we’re not going anywhere.

Because I am a creative and a benevolent goddess, here is an ORIGINAL alternative name I’ve come up with for your project so you can find your own lane and discontinue swerving in ours:

  • The Wave (rebrand to include soundwaves in your logo/marketing). Still a Black culture reference. You could incorporate this without needing to change much of your branding, as your existing logo is wavy.

**edit- after the publishing of this article, I was made aware of a Black-owned community app that is already developing an app around their community of local meetups called The Wave USA. So, don’t infringe upon them and what they’re building either.

I was unaware of this company at the time of publishing and would like to encourage ppl to follow them. Instagram here. I apologize to The Wave USA and their community for my oversight as they did not come up in my cursory search.(See how easy it is to pivot when you learn something new the FIRST time?) ❤

In closing, I end by saying the following:

Y’all (and this is a very general “y’all”) are going to learn to respect Black women. The easy way… or the hard way.

Stop pretending you are for the culture if you lack ethics in the ways that you do business.

Not All Black businesses are for Black people. Some are chasing clout and a buck and are just as exploitative as non-Black businesses.

Thank you for reading. I hope it helped those of you with questions about exactly what was happening gain clarity. After this, we will be taking a little break from letting new users join our app. It’s a lot to process that our own people could be sneaky, grimy, and manipulative.

If you feel so inspired and want to contribute to us reaching our goals faster and fighting back against this conspiracy against us and our intellectual property- You can donate to us here.

Edited to add: If you want to post about this story and follow this story on social media, use the hashtag #TheREALCookoutApp. Let’s get this trending.

Update: Since the publishing of this article, so much has happened that I feel many people who may be reading this need to be made aware of.

They posted this bs PR response:

Many people have come forward with claims that they have given money to the infringers.

  1. They have issued a crappy PR response to our article. In this response, they claimed to not have received money (we have receipts to the contrary).
  2. They claim not to have taken anyone’s ideas and concepts, yet they have been promoting on Clubhouse that their platform will be under OUR name only for Black people (our concept) and similar to Clubhouse (Clubhouses’ concept). This is clearly a blatant lie, as they’ve done both of these things.
  3. There has been absolute silence from this camp on Clubhouse since the publishing of this article (interesting since they would enter every room and promote prior to this even though they claim they have been “heads down working”, but they have been happy to sit in rooms that called us liars including one titled “There’s two Cookouts? I smell cap” where people attempted to gaslight us.

My mother raised me to be many things. None of those things was a fool.

I believe that it is interesting that after emailing them in NOVEMBER, they would not even acknowledge that we existed, despite us emailing them and letting them know in no uncertain terms that they would need to change their name.

They thought that by not responding to this email they would be able to skirt by and continue promoting.

If you think we’re angry or doing the most, consider that these people loudly infringed upon us on national radio and prior to then, we were calm, respectful, and hoped that they would do the right thing. We have every right to be as loud about their infringement as they were while infringing. If you have been quiet the last four months (They’ve been promoting since Oct 2020, it is Feb 2021), you will not die from a few weeks of us clearing this market confusion.

Great news though? Since the publishing of this article, we have secured a private investor, who is a Black woman who believes in us and our values. She is investing most of what we need to punch through and finish the next version of our app. Great things are coming from us.

Stay tuned and as always, thank you for all of your support.

Update 2: As of 3PM CST on 2/3/2021, they have removed our name from their social media and their handles. Their website is still live. We will be keeping up the pressure until the website disappears but hope to return to business as usual soon. We also plan to bill them any manhours that we have had to take dealing with the mess that they have created in addition to any stress we have as a result. Thank you to everyone for your continued support of #TheREALCookoutApp.

Update 3: The website has been taken down. The “co-founders” have begun removing any mention of The Cookout from their profiles. People, by and large (even those that originally attempted to dismiss and gaslight us), are realizing that we were very much so right.

We’ve received an outpouring of support and resources and the donations we’ve received so far completely cover our legal bill, meaning we will not have to tap into any resources for our app to take care of this issue on the legal front. We are immensely grateful for everyone who has donated and those who have simply lifted their voice in our favor. We hate that so many of you have become aware of us through this incident- but we are grateful to be tapping into people who seem to be more of our target demo compared to the people who were originally sent our way. Thank you. We can not say this enough- thank you.

Feb 4, 2021, we had the pleasure to be a part of a moderated discussion with Ernest THEE Owens who allowed us a chance to tell our story in a way that was much more organized than any platform that we’ve had previously and will be continually reaching out to media outlets until the story of our infringement has become as much national news as the promotion of our infringers. Thank you to everyone who stopped in to listen and will take everything that they learned back to their networks.

This is only the beginning for us.

Update 4: Feb 8, 2021:

We are STILL learning more information about the shady business practices of our infringers AND new information about the ways that their infringement has affected our business dealings.

For example: prior to the infringers beginning the promotion of their project, we were ALREADY in talks with two people from the entertainment industry about investing in us as early as July of last year. The communications broke down without warning in about October, the time that our infringers began their promotion on Clubhouse. Apparently, they caught wind of our infringers through others in the industry and thought that WE were the copies. They pulled out from the deal and did not tell us why… until now. We are working to mend those relationships- but we shouldn't have to. Their infringement has cost us investors and we will be billing them in damages from all that their infringement has lost us.

We are learning that they were straight-up lying to consumers and stating that they were in the process of submitting their app to app stores when they admitted in their PR statement that they do not even have a beta.

In other news, we have made some changes to help us calculate damages. One way is by changing the application for our app. Users can now indicate if they heard about our name from the infringers or someone who promoted the infringers. This information is then imported into a formula that calculates DAILY damages that the infringers have costed us, in manhours and opportunity cost.

So far, their bill is over $50,000 and it is climbing daily. It will continue to climb so long as consumers are confused and apply for our app believing that it is theirs. If you are on their ship, here is your warning that it is sinking and they will likely be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt before they ever produce an actual product. We plan to pursue damages for as long as consumers are confused. And these damages do not even begin to touch the costs of dilution.

They have tried to fuck over the right Black women… or the wrong ones. Perspective.

Update 4: Feb 8, 2021:

They seem to have deleted their Twitter entirely (possibly because they were getting so much bad response from people on Twitter and their terrible attempt at a PR response both bolstered my case against them and came up tone-deaf. Most of these responses were retweeted by ourselves, a deliberate and strategic action because we saw the “dirty delete” coming well in advance. At this time, their Instagram is still up and they still have not removed “founder of The Cookout” from all of their bios. Bobby seems to be the only one who has gotten hip, where as Brylan has only removed it from his twitter and Instagram.

They have officially received their cease and desist from our lawyers. They have until 12:00 am on February 21, 2021 to comply with our demands (I will be posting what they are/were after this date) before we pursue more legal actions including treble damages, injunctive relief, and attorneys fees and costs.

We have been overwhelmed with support, for this we are grateful and appreciative. We are also still unfortunately overwhelmed with people seeking our infringers, for this, we ask for your patience. We have had to stop approving members until that Breakfast Club interview, and the buzz around our infringers created by celebrity promoters stops. As most of these ppl are reactionaries and fad chasers, we sure that they will move on to something else soon.

As mentioned earlier in the article, we can not be thankful for the free publicity because 85% of the people who have applied for our community seeking them have been denied because they do not fit in with our values. These people who have been denied have already started harassing us on social media and leaving bad reviews of our product based on their denials (which they haven’t even experienced).

We have had to change the way that we deny people and our application process to accommodate those confused, whereas if we were never infringed and these people read our website they would understand EXACTLY who we are because the fact that we are not a community for everybody and the fact that we’re value based is clear on our promotional materials. Only ONE of our one star reviews is from a person who was actually a member of our app. The rest are from people we have rejected. This is the email people now receive when they are rejected. It is a list of resources and an invitation to educate themselves and try to join us again.

This is clear harm to us, our business, our reputation that simply would not have occurred if these people were not confused about our product and brand in the first place. We will likely have to deal with this for a VERY long time.

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

Assata Shakur

Pro black. Pro woman. Pro child. I write about and for blackness. I am periodically petty, overly opinionated, and underpaid. https://www.thecookout.club